Considering Cults and the Need for Meaning

| February 27, 2013 | 10 Replies

Recently, I finished reading Lawrence Wright’s new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollwood, & the Prison of Belief, about Scientology.  It’s a lucid history and examination of the movement.  I wrote a review of the book over at the Proximal Eye, here.  In that review, I touched on a few of the concerns I harbor in regards to religious movements, Scientology in particular, but all of them in general.

The central question in Wright’s book—and indeed in others, for instance Jon Krakauer’s Under The Banner Of Heaven about Mormonism—is the question of volitional surrender.  Why do people hand over the keys to their being to institutions and ideologies that are often based on dubious claims, led by people with clearly autocratic tendencies, to live lives of functional servitude, if not physically certainly intellectually?

There are separate questions here, concerning different stages.  For those born into a group, being raised within its codes and customs, the Outside is by definition alien and the individual is required to do exactly the reverse of the adult who comes into that group from the Outside.  The same question can apply to the apostate who has grown up knowing nothing else—why would you throw over all that you know to embrace this Other Thing?  (The Amish offer an excellent example of the problem, with their practice of rumspringa, a kind of wanderjahr for the youth to go see the outside world and decide for themselves whether to stay or leave the community.  It would seem to be a fair practice, offering freedom of choice, but how fair can it be?  One can read a book about another culture, “know” it intellectually, but that’s a far cry from being able to operate within it, or understand it on any visceral level.  Instead, it’s a kind of wilderness test, which more than likely causes sufficient anxiety that a return to what one has known one’s entire life is virtually guaranteed except for the most adventurous—which may serve the community by culling out those so independent-minded who may cause problems later by nonconformity.)

It would be easy to dismiss certain problems with cultism by seeing past eras as offering essentially little to counter the claims of a charismatic proselyte offering a path to transcendence, but the fact is most of these movements seem immune to any kind of counterargument for those who seem determined to join something that offers them such a path.  For the first generation of Mormons, it didn’t matter that Joseph Smith was obviously coming up with his revelations out of his own head.  When his wife called his bluff on polygamy, all she managed to do was sheer off a splinter group and increase the resolve of the core followers.  What was happening was a sophisticated con, but it didn’t matter, not to those surrounding Smith and later Brigham Young.  It was at that point no longer Smith’s revelation but theirs.  He couldn’t have stopped if he had wished to.  The intricate and alchemical brew of group coherence had happened and it had become Another Thing, an Experience that was true as an experience, regardless of the facts or the motives behind its inception.  The followers had created it and made it its own entity.

Which would suggest that the thing being believed in is less important than the clear need on the part of the acolyte to believe.

Image by hanhanpeggy at Dreamstime.com

Subsequently, this creates a hermetic seal around the object of belief, because belief is not real unless it is absolute.  Criticism of the tenets of faith are not so much attacks on details as on the act of believing.  The whole being of the believer becomes so intertwined with the thing believed as to be one and the same, inseparable.  Personal.  And yet, curiously dispassionate.  It’s not so much a choice as an inevitability, a recognition, an “of course” moment, a “how could I have been so blind?” revelation…

…which automatically renders any question of “how can I be so blind?” inadmissible, unhearable, unsupportable.

It has nothing to do with intelligence.  It’s all about meaning.

The central question of all philosophy is simple: Why am I here?  Even philosophies that seem to render this as an unanswerable—and therefore purely academic question—start from there.  It’s a good question.  What is my purpose in this life?  Religion supplants the inward-directedness of this by offering more cosmic possibilities, often of an unknowable nature, which require belief.  Faith.  No matter what, there is a purpose, a point, and even if I can’t see it, it is at least there.  Meanwhile, here are some guideposts, some rules, some practices that will keep me on a path more or less in sympathy with this higher purpose.  By serving this belief in a telec universe, our own sense of purpose can be, if not answered, at least validated, even if the cause is abstruse or abstract.

Trusting that purpose will be fulfilled simply through faith is not sufficient for the organizations commanding the obeisance of their membership.  If there is a purpose, then actions must be taken to fulfill it, and in lieu of any other clear program, conversion becomes their raison d’être.  They must be seen to be purposeful.  What higher purpose, then, than to change the world.  The clearest way to do that is to convert the world to their cause.  (This is functionally impossible, because there has always been and will always be competing doctrines, but it does raise an interesting question of what would they do if they achieved this end?  After the point at which everyone believed in the same thing, what next?)  And so the continual proselytization such institutions sponsor. (This has the added benefit of redirecting any kind of skepticism from the proselytes potential to ask questions of their own faith into a concern for the potential converts lack of faith.)

There are many definitions of cults, some of which contradict, but at base it is a tricky thing because a “cult” bears sufficient semblance to well-established religions that the only apparent difference is size.  If a charismatic preacher with a hundred followers claims to speak directly to god, he’s a nut.  But if the pope makes the same claim, it is accepted as a matter of faith and accorded a kind of respect the preacher cannot command.  Size.  A hundred people can be deluded, but a billion?  At that level, we tacitly acknowledge that Something Else Is Going On.

My own test has to do with permeability.  Is there egress equal to ingress?  How easily can people leave?  What restrictions are placed on individual interaction with the so-called Outside World, if any?  It’s one thing to claim that people are free to leave at any time, but if the organizational structure requires a cutting off of contact, a limitation of information from outside the group, whether physically imposed or simply a matter of conformity to the group, part of its identity, then it becomes a question meriting a closer look.  Cult? Or religion?  Or, more accurately, cult or church?  The Amish offer an apparent open door, but it’s not really.  Young Amish go out on their rumspringa utterly unprepared because all their lives up to that point have been lived in a bubble that limits information, limits experience, limits contact, and then makes it an either-or test.  (That the limits are self-imposed does not matter since they are self-imposed in  order to avoid group censure.) They are unequipped to make the kinds of judgments and choices so many of us take as a simple right to associate with whom and in what way we choose.  (The big difference regarding the Amish is they do not proselytize.  They don’t go out actively recruiting.  This, to my mind, removes them from cult status and makes them simply what might be called a Pocket Culture.)

A cult guards itself from the Outside by demanding its members shut out anything not wholly contained within the cult.  It actively discourages interface with the world at large.  Sometimes it will go so far as physically impede such contact.

But the members will accept this.  The question brought up by Wright’s book is, why?

If one genuinely believes that their salvation is at stake, that they risk losing an eternal soul should they question—if, in other words, fear is the motive for strict adherence to a set of doctrines and behavioral restrictions—then it is possible one is being abused.  We have ample evidence and example of abused children remaining intransigently loyal to their abusers.  The possibility of inhabiting another condition, whether “better” or not, is unthinkable, because they risk their identity.

Within the precincts of certain ideologies, part of the experience is literally seeing the world in a different way.  The “truth” of the doctrine is exampled in this seeing.  Things “make sense” in ways they never did before.  (It doesn’t matter here that this new way of seeing can happen with any conceptual breakthrough and that if we’re lucky it happens all the time, throughout life, as a natural part of learning.)  That apparent “clarity” can become so important that anything which endangers it must be avoided, actively shut out.  Questions about the central doctrines simply cannot be entertained when the stakes are so high.

In this way, the apparent glassy-eyed acceptance of conceptual weirdness within certain cults makes sense as the only possible path for someone who has achieved a fragile balance because of a framework of belief and is afraid of losing it by questioning the very beam on which they now stand.  The tragedy is that this balance should be theirs no matter which beam they stand on, but the institution has convinced them that it is not theirs should they question or leave.  People feel they have found a home, but a home is a place from which you can come and go as you please, bringing back what you find, enlarging it and decorating it with new things.  The door is never shut in either direction.  Wright’s subtitle posits “the prison of belief” and that pertains when the door is shut and you either don’t leave or if you do you can never come back, which turns the world to which you’ve escaped into just another prison.

Ironically, the one in the deepest cell may be the figure at the center of the movement.  The founder.  Jim Jones, Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, all the others.  None of them could stop being who their followers thought they were.  Ultimately, it killed them all.  They had even less freedom to leave.  Their task was to design the prison and always be in it.  One wonders if they in any way fulfilled their own definition of purpose.

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Category: American Culture, Anti-science, Censorship, Civil Rights, cognitive biases, Community, Cultural Evolution, Culture, Current Events, Education, First Amendment, Fraud, Good and Evil, History, hypocrisy, ignorance, Ingroup/Outgroup, Meaning of Life, Politics, Propaganda, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science, Self Improvement, Skepticism

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (10)

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  1. NIklaus Pfirsig says:

    I think the power of cults, and any religious organization, is built on the foundation of providing answers to unanswerable questions. These answers, piled upon each other formed mythologies, and the mythologies became religions.

    Let’s say you’re a prehistoric hunter-gather on the svelte and you see motion in a distant clump of vegetation. Is it the wind? Is it an animal? If an animal, it is the kind you can eat or is it the kind that will eat you?

    Uncertainty is stressful, and not knowing in this case is very stressful. But when we fast forward several centuries to an agricultural age, with domesticated animals, rustling of a bush becomes is it the wind or is it a wolf or is it a haint?

    This is because religion has provided a framework of precepts that complete a closed system, including supernatural agents causing bad events. and opposing supernatural agents making life better.

    Historically, governments have used religion to indoctrinate, manipulate and exploit the majority of the governed. Cults have often risen as opposition to governments, offering alternate laws and reasons for following them.

    However, most Americans associate “cult” with a non mainstream church like organization determined to relieve the followers of their money, even though some high profile cults such as teh church of the Alamo, and the Unification Church employed young followers pretty much as unpaid labor forces.

  2. Richard Ramey says:

    On the part of ” belief” . Its my understanding that most atheist also believe in what is called evolution. Where there was no God in the forming and making of this planet and its contents. But most forget that evolution is still a “theory” = not proven by science. Thats why its is called , theory of evolution. But people dont want to acknowledge that part of their thinking. And evolution (theory is not scientifically proven) takes just as much faith in it as it does to believe in a God.
    Amazingly with the advancement of science in DNA and other fields more and more “evidence” points toward a creator than a evolutionary process for creation. But that information is usually smothered for fear of being proven wrong.

    • Oh, my. No no no no.

      A “theory” in common parlance means an idea that has not been borne out, but this is very different than its meaning in science. In science, A Theory is a description of the way something works, something that has been shown to be true. Hence, a Theory of Relativity. Relativity has been shown, time and again, to be a real occurrence, so why call it a theory? Because the exact way in which it works may be somewhat different from our current understanding. Hence, A Theory, in science, is not a guess, as you suggest (that is closer to what we call a hypothesis), something based on faith, but simply a description of how we think a demonstrated event occurs in nature. This is probably one of the top 3 or 4 most misunderstood things about science.

      Evolution is a proven fact. We’re still working on understanding the mechanism. There’s no faith involved. We have witnessed it in action. There are ample examples if one but looks.

      To paraphrase Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the great thing about science is that it doesn’t matter whether I believe in it or not, it’s still true.

      Just as in the misunderstanding of terms in the case of Theory, so too there is a misunderstanding of the term Belief. In this instance, there are two meanings, one of which is to simply accept something shown to be true. I believe that when I let go of a rock it will fall to the ground. This does not require faith because there’s no question about it.

      The second meaning is to invest your trust in something regardless of its demonstrability. That kind of belief is faith and in the strictest sense it must operate completely in lieu of proof.

      Stop conflating meanings, especially when you’re obviously intelligent enough to know that you’re being disingenuous about them.

      I do not “believe in” evolution. I don’t have to. I know it to be a fact. It is not conditional. I do not “believe in” science, not the way one believes in a religious concept. I don’t have to. I can expect proof or disproof from science. Nothing of the sort can be asked of religion, because doing so renders it not religion.

      Trying to assert that an acceptance of what science tells us about the world is in some way the same as religious conviction is the pointless gesture of those who refuse to understand the difference and would deny that difference even if they did understand. That is the aspect of belief which I, for one, find so destructive.

      But we can start by at least knowing something about our subjects, even if it is something as basic as simple meanings of terms.

    • Niklaus Pfirsig says:

      The same tired old Judo Argument against evolution rides again. This ridiculous claim that science supports creation has been debunked time after time, persists through those Christians who selectively ignore the laws of their religion to promote their beliefs. Isn’t bearing false witness (a.k.a. lying) prohibited? Perhaps that only applies when dealing with other Christians.
      After searching for definitions of Christian morality, virtues and ethics, I found no contemporary Christian sites that included honesty or integrity in descriptions of these topics.

      The basic premise of the Judo argument, ( a term coined by the late Dr Isaac Asimov, a biochemist renowned for his career as a writer of fiction and non-fiction books), is that evolution violates well established scientific principles, most notably the second law of thermodynamic, claiming that the increasing complexity of evolving life violates the second law.

      This is blatantly false on many levels. First, the laws of thermodynamics are only concerned with the movement of heat through physical systems and not the complexity of those systems.

      Second. the chemical reactions involved in organic chemistry depended on weak chemical bonding and molecules with multiple bonding sites. The heat storage and exchange are well within the boundary of the second law.

      Third, evolution does not, in any way explicitly promote higher complexity, just adaptability. In many cases, evolutionary environment pressures favor simpler species with a short life cycle over a more complex one with a longer life cycle.

  3. Mike M. says:

    Mark–Something jumped out at me while reading this post. Although the topic is clearly about cults (religions tiny to enormous), the questions and concerns you raise fit almost perfectly when you consider military service as well. Take a look at your 2nd paragraph about volitional surrender from this alternate perspective.
    Like a religious cult, military service is voluntary (usually), requires faith in a “higher purpose”*, commands absolute obedience and conformity, cuts one off from the outside (civilian) world, does not allow you to leave when you want to (without some looming threat of punishment), and is essentially a prison of the body and mind for those years of servitude. Like a cult, the military also proselytizes and actively recruits its members and, once they’re inside the system, “questions about the central doctrines simply cannot be entertained when the stakes are so high”–as you so well stated.

    *examples of this “higher purpose” would be: defending our freedom, liberating the people from oppression, stopping the spread of a Godless ideology, preventing the use of WMD’s, protecting our rights, etc. Usually it’s simply crafted bullshit and propaganda hiding the true agenda. Just like with religious cults.

    • I did notice that. The chief difference is the component of motivation, which is vitally connected to an “outside” that is considered as if not more important than the internal commitment of the unit. For the most part, military organizations do exactly the opposite of religious cults in relation to the broader world beyond their boundaries. (There are and have been exceptions.) So while the mind prep is in significant ways similar, military organization lacks the total hermetic seal of a religious group.

      To a lesser degree, you can find similar attributes at work in a lot of corporate culture, more so in the past (IBM not only had a “uniform” but had company songs and such.) Cults would not work so well if humans were not already prone to such adherence.

  4. Mike M. says:

    I wish Christianity, one of the biggest and most successful cults of all time, operated within a total hermetic seal so the “outside world” could be insulated and spared from it’s influence. Christianity’s hermetic seal was compromised a long long time ago, around the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine. Since then, it’s tentacles have infiltrated almost every sphere of secular civilization not naturally affiliated with it’s dogmas and beliefs. Christianity has direct and proven effects on our courts, laws, politics, civic rituals, and personal freedoms, and it uses these means to attempt as much control as possible over our own bodies, morals and minds. Christianity’s internal has certainly leaked into our external.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Mike: I think we might be better off dispensing the term Christianity. Instead, let’s just have everyone fill out a big computerized inventory about what they believe or not.

      Transubstantiation? y or n?
      Virgin birth y or n?
      Jesus was Devine? y or n?
      Miracles happened? y or n?
      Jesus said exactly what is in the King James Version of the Bible and meant it literally? y or n?

      Once all Christians fill out this inventory, we will expose that though there might be overlaps, we don’t have a prototypical “Christian.” We have tons of Catholics who don’t believe in the transubstantiation and think birth control is a great idea. We have “Christians” who have doubts about some of the things Jesus allegedly said (rich “Christians” would say he didn’t really say give away all your wealth to follow Him).

      We’ll end up with thousands of versions of Christianity. But more to your point, many of these people would latch onto the notion (I don’t know where they get it, but they do) that Christianity is incompatible with gay people having sex, or incompatible with rigorous exploration of the world by use of science. Many “Christians” disparage women. On and on, and when I think of these things, I am apt to nod approval regarding your “tentacle” comment.

      On the other hand, I know many good-hearted people, many of whom I think of as cherry-picking Christian-Lite folks, who focus mainly on a couple things that don’t disturb me (they honor the teaching to love one’s neighbor) or don’t disturb me much (they sing religious songs the words of which confuse me or annoy me, despite the beautiful music that accompanies these words. I believe (though I can’t prove this) that many of these people are extra-generous to the needy because of their faith, and they are not hurt by the anti-intellectual aspects of American Christianity because they just ignore that stuff. I could life a long happy life surrounded by people of this sort, even if they get excited about Christmas each year and even if they once in a while invite me to attend their church (without a guilt trip and without twisting my arm). Most of the Christians I know have never told me that I’m going to hell, and though this is not the foundation of a beautiful friendship, it is not incompatible with friendship.

      None of this is to deny that many people who label themselves as “Christians” are anti-intellectual, cold-hearted, power-seeking, pompous, warmongering apologists for the invasion of my civil liberties. This needs to stop, and I don’t have much of a strategy for how these virulent strains can be tamped down other than engaging with them to show them our vision of a wholesome society, showing them that we don’t eat our children and that we non-believers are not mean-spirited. Further, that we stand firm to keep them from invading our civil rights, and THAT is what we resent, perhaps that is ALL I resent about their “Christianity.”

  5. Mike M. says:

    The Christians I have known in my life, including immediate and distant family members, friends, co-workers, and others met only briefly, have all seemed to be kind and lovely people without exception. They may not be the most savvy intellectuals, nor overly cultured, nor fully aware of true world history, nor very fond of deep questions or scientific analysis or verifying their held convictions with fact, common sense, or in the crucible of direct personal experience. From what I’ve noticed, doubt seems to make them edgy and certainty seems to make them comfortable. They like answers better than questions, and appear overly enamored with tradition and popular beliefs. They prefer to be guided by someone in charge (preferably a man), be it the Pope, local priest or God. Even just a big black leather-bound book written thousands of years ago will do in a pinch. But they are, at least from my experience, quite nice in a superficial and sweet way. Somewhat like a good cotton candy.

  6. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Mike,

    “The” Muslims “I have known in my life, including” …” friends, co-workers, and others met only briefly, have all seemed to be kind and lovely people without exception. Some may not be the most savvy intellectuals, nor overly cultured, nor fully aware of true world history, nor very fond of deep questions or scientific analysis or verifying their held convictions with fact, common sense, or in the crucible of direct personal experience. ”

    The is just as true as the same statement concerning Christians. You can substitute pretty much any religious croup and it will stay true. This is because the mainstream followers of religion place pragmatics first, then fall back to religious precepts in situations where practical choices are difficult.

    The problem lies not with the mainstream, but on the fringes. The fringe minions place faith before reality, and it seems to many of us on the outside, that fundamentalist fringe believers will, when faced with a paradox between faith and reality, will assume that reality is wrong.

    Cults thrive in the fringes. For the worse, cults are political. Cults aggressively recruit new members, severely punish recidivists ( members who leave the cult ) and vilify outsiders that challenge their beliefs. They will use influential members to promote their faith in national laws.

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