Wednesday, February 22, 2006

What do cults do?

This morning I happened to see a three-minute television interview with a cult counsellor. Within that format, he managed to give quite a good overview of what cults do and how they affect people.

While I was doing the dishes (one has to think about something while doing the dishes), I started trying to identify the essential points concerning how cults control people. I've certainly read plenty over the last few months about cults in general and Sūkyō Mahikari in particular, so I figured I should be able extract the essential features.

Perhaps you've already come across Lifton's 8 points for identifying cults and Steve Hassan's BITE Control Model points (which are the basis of excellent discussion here). These are very thorough and useful, but can be a bit overwhelming. I wanted something simpler to quickly convey the essence of cults.

So, my attempt at an overview, filtered as always through the lens of my experience of Sukyō Mahikari, is as follows.

1. The cult promises a benefit to the person: often an immediate this-worldy benefit, such as happiness of some sort. The first topic in primary kenshū is the promise of ken, wa, fu (health, harmony, and prosperity).

2. The cult somehow persuades the person that the doctrine of the cult is the highest and only truth, and that the person's own perceptions and logic are unreliable.

3. The cult negates outside sources of information and criticism by explaining that everyone else is ignorant of the "true path" and/or misled by evil forces.

4. The cult negates any criticism by members themselves as being evidence of the person's own failings.

5. The cult unites members in a mission (often to save the world). This appeals to their altruism, gives a sense of purpose, cultivates a sense of community, and takes up most of their spare time.

6. The cult plants fears of what will befall the person if they leave the "right" side and go over to the "wrong" side.

Very broadly speaking, the first three feature manipulation of the intellect, and the last three work on more of an emotional level. (Of course, there are elements of both in all points.)

In looking back over this list, it seems to me that the first step in becoming free of a cult is to re-engage our ability to think for ourselves. I think this starts with questioning/rejecting either the doctrines themselves or the basis of the cult's claim of infallability (which probably involves discrediting the founder or leader in some way).

We can then start to rely on our own perceptions and intellect, and use our thinking powers to work on the emotional control aspect (the hard part!). I don't claim to have all the answers, but I certainly think it helps a lot if we educate ourselves about mind control techniques, and examine our own experiences carefully to see how particular doctrines and customs within the cult played on our emotions.

It helps, too, to communicate with other former members and see that the fear of leaving is groundless. It does take time, but people do go on to lead happy productive lives....or should I say, new improved more exhilirating lives!...after leaving a cult.


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