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Cults, ancient and contemporary


Zoe Heller has a very interesting and disturbing essay on a question of great practical significance at the moment: What exactly is a cult, and how do you get people out of one?

Back in the late 1970s, a friend of mine joined the Unification Church – she was about 17 years old — and a few months later was kidnapped by her parents and “deprogrammed.” (As I understood it this meant she was held captive in a hotel room for three days while “experts” hired by her parents berated her until she agreed to leave the Moonies).

Every aspect of this story bothered me at the time: Given their effect on my friend’s life, I understood the Moonies were obviously a cult by any reasonable definition, but it wasn’t as if they had kidnapped her in the first instance, so . . .

Ultimately I was glad she was back among us of course, but the whole incident raised questions about what free will and genuine volition involve that I couldn’t answer satisfactorily for myself. It turns out these questions really don’t have much in the way of good answers:

Even the historian and psychiatrist Robert Lifton, whose book “Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism” (1961) provided one of the earliest and most influential accounts of coercive persuasion, has been careful to point out that brainwashing is neither “all-powerful” nor “irresistible.” In a recent volume of essays, “Losing Reality” (2019), he writes that cultic conversion generally involves an element of “voluntary self-surrender.”

If we accept that cult members have some degree of volition, the job of distinguishing cults from other belief-based organizations becomes a good deal more difficult. We may recoil from Keith Raniere’s brand of malevolent claptrap, but, if he hadn’t physically abused followers and committed crimes, would we be able to explain why NXIVM is inherently more coercive or exploitative than any of the “high demand” religions we tolerate? For this reason, many scholars choose to avoid the term “cult” altogether. Raniere may have set himself up as an unerring source of wisdom and sought to shut his minions off from outside influence, but apparently so did Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel of Luke records him saying, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” Religion, as the old joke has it, is just “a cult plus time.”

Acknowledging that joining a cult requires an element of voluntary self-surrender also obliges us to consider whether the very relinquishment of control isn’t a significant part of the appeal. In HBO’s NXIVM documentary, “The Vow,” a seemingly sadder and wiser former member says, “Nobody joins a cult. Nobody. They join a good thing, and then they realize they were fucked.” The force of this statement is somewhat undermined when you discover that the man speaking is a veteran not only of NXIVM but also of Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment, a group in the Pacific Northwest led by a woman who claims to channel the wisdom of a “Lemurian warrior” from thirty-five thousand years ago. To join one cult may be considered a misfortune; to join two looks like a predilection for the cult experience.

People always join cults for a reason or reasons, and those reasons are, given the world we live in, often very understandable, even if the solution the cult provides to the initiate’s problems is obviously bogus to outsiders:

The problem with any psychiatric or sociological explanation of belief is that it tends to have a slightly patronizing ring. People understandably grow irritated when told that their most deeply held convictions are their “opium.” (Witness the outrage that Barack Obama faced when he spoke of jobless Americans in the Rust Belt clinging “to guns or religion.”) Lauren Hough, in her collection of autobiographical essays, “Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing,” gives a persuasive account of the social and economic forces that may help to make cults alluring, while resisting the notion that cult recruits are merely defeated “surrenderers.”

Hough spent the first fifteen years of her life in the Children of God, a Christian cult in which pedophilia was understood to have divine sanction and women members were enjoined to become, as one former member recalled, “God’s whores.” Despite Hough’s enduring contempt for those who abused her, her experiences as a minimum-wage worker in mainstream America have convinced her that what the Children of God preached about the inequity of the American system was actually correct. The miseries and indignities that this country visits on its precariat class are enough, she claims, to make anyone want to join a cult. Yet people who choose to do so are not necessarily hapless creatures, buffeted into delusion by social currents they do not comprehend; they are often idealists seeking to create a better world. Of her own parents’ decision to join the Children of God, she writes, “All they saw was the misery wrought by greed—the poverty and war, the loneliness and the fucking cruelty of it all. So they joined a commune, a community where people shared what little they had, where people spoke of love and peace, a world without money, a cause. A family. Picked the wrong goddamn commune. But who didn’t.”

In an America where approximately one third of the workforce is now made up of “gig” workers, who labor without employment benefits or even the most minimal job security, it’s not exactly a shock that a lot of people end up looking for totalizing answers to questions about why their lives are so uncertain amid unparalleled abundance:

Mike Rothschild, in his book about the QAnon phenomenon, “The Storm Is Upon Us” (Melville House), argues that contempt and mockery for QAnon beliefs have led people to radically underestimate the movement, and, even now, keep us from engaging seriously with its threat. The QAnon stereotype of a “white American conservative driven to joylessness by their sense of persecution by liberal elites” ought not to blind us to the fact that many of Q’s followers, like the members of any cult movement, are people seeking meaning and purpose. “For all of the crimes and violent ideation we’ve seen, many believers truly want to play a role in making the world a better place,” Rothschild writes.

It’s not just the political foulness of QAnon that makes us disinclined to empathize with its followers. We harbor a general sense of superiority to those who are taken in by cults. Books and documentaries routinely warn that any of us could be ensnared, that it’s merely a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, that the average cult convert is no stupider than anyone else. (Some cults, including Aum Shinrikyo, have attracted disproportionate numbers of highly educated, accomplished recruits.) Yet our sense that joining a cult requires some unusual degree of credulousness or gullibility persists. Few of us believe in our heart of hearts that Amy Carlson, the recently deceased leader of the Colorado-based Love Has Won cult, who claimed to have birthed the whole of creation and to have been, in a previous life, a daughter of Donald Trump, could put us under her spell.

Perhaps one way to attack our intellectual hubris on this matter is to remind ourselves that we all hold some beliefs for which there is no compelling evidence. The convictions that Jesus was the son of God and that “everything happens for a reason” are older and more widespread than the belief in Amy Carlson’s privileged access to the fifth dimension, but neither is, ultimately, more rational. In recent decades, scholars have grown increasingly adamant that none of our beliefs, rational or otherwise, have much to do with logical reasoning. “People do not deploy the powerful human intellect to dispassionately analyze the world,” William J. Bernstein writes, in “The Delusions of Crowds” (Atlantic Monthly). Instead, they “rationalize how the facts conform to their emotionally derived preconceptions.”

One of the great practical and intellectual difficulties of the moment is that many of the basic cultural criticisms that fuel cults like QAnon and the Trumpist/evangelical movement that has taken over the Republican party are actually valid to a significant extent: the contemporary world is to a disturbing degree dominated by self-dealing and untrustworthy elites, who enrich and empower themselves at the expense of society as a whole.

Merely repeating a few unelaborated phrases should drive this point home to any progressive audience: The Blob, Big Pharma, greenwashing, the Ivy League, Davos, Tom Friedman, the Meritocracy, Tech Bros, climate change, etc. etc., etc.

Cults are thriving in America at the moment for the same reason a lot of people joined communes in the late 1960s: because there’s a widespread sense that there’s something deeply wrong with the structure of society, and that the authorities who maintain that structure can’t be trusted.

How to get people to realize that being in a cult isn’t the answer to dealing with the anxiety those legitimate insights generate is a tricky question. Heller ends her piece, which you should read in full, with a charming example of how the simplest random facts will sometimes destabilize an entire world view:

The good news is that rational objections to flaws in cult doctrine or to hypocrisies on the part of a cult leader do have a powerful impact if and when they occur to the cult members themselves. The analytical mind may be quietened by cult-think, but it is rarely deadened altogether. Especially if cult life is proving unpleasant, the capacity for critical thought can reassert itself. Rothschild interviews several QAnon followers who became disillusioned after noticing “a dangling thread” that, once pulled, unravelled the whole tapestry of QAnon lore. It may seem unlikely that someone who has bought into the idea of Hillary Clinton drinking the blood of children can be bouleversé by, say, a trifling error in dates, but the human mind is a mysterious thing. Sometimes it is a fact remembered from grade school that unlocks the door to sanity. One of the former Scientologists interviewed in Alex Gibney’s documentary “Going Clear” reports that, after a few years in the organization, she experienced her first inklings of doubt when she read L. Ron Hubbard’s account of an intergalactic overlord exploding A-bombs in Vesuvius and Etna seventy-five million years ago. The detail that aroused her suspicions wasn’t especially outlandish. “Whoa!” she remembers thinking. “I studied geography in school! Those volcanoes didn’t exist seventy-five million years ago!”

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