Alarming rise of religious cults
"When theology erodes and organisation crumbles, when the institutional framework of religion begins to break up, the search for a direct experience which people can feel to be religious facilitates the rise of cults." - Daniel Bell
"When your own thoughts are forbidden, when your questions are not allowed and our doubts are punished, when contacts with friendships outside of the organisation are censored, we are being abused, for the ends never justify the means." - Deborah Layton, Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the People's Temple.
Working Psychology is an online site dedicated to the scientific study of persuasion, compliance and indoctrination. According to its architect, Dr Kelton Rhoads, more than 3,000 destructive cults exist in the United States (US), impacting some four million members. There are four main categories of cults, according to Rhoads: religious (members are controlled by a single individual believed to be uniquely gifted) psychological (groups that offer expensive 'enlightenment workshops'); commercial (groups that offer multi-level marketing schemes); and political (organisations that have a subversive political agenda).
To learn more about this global phenomenon, especially in the US, I reached out to Ron Burks, who has seen his fair share of wounded psyches caused by cult leaders. Burks is a clinician and the president of Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, an outpatient clinic in Ohio. "It has been over 40 years since we opened our doors, and the stream of victims has not abated," said Burks.
He confirmed that there are thousands of cults in the US, but conceded that accurate data is difficult to collate.
These groups vary in philosophy and structure. Many, he said, are Bible-based; some are syncretic, while others peddle New Age teachings. However, they all share fundamental operational methods that essentially strip members of their identity.
Burks cited the work of Robert Lipton, who devised a model to understand the dynamics of persuasion vis-a-vis prisoners of war who are denounced their country during the Korean War.
"This study on thought reform or brain washing shaped the way that we address the unique situation in which cult victims find themselves."
Burks stated that the term "cult" is ambiguously and loosely used. "Many groups can fall into that category, meaning they are not mainstream and can be viewed as high-demand organisations," he explained, citing some Catholic orders. Burks also referred to the US Marines that employ similar methods of thought reform.
"But there is one big difference. Anyone who signs up knows that he or she will emerge as a new person. These high-demand organisations do not cause psychological harm. This is a far cry from what we call cults. There is a furtive, surreptitious effort to deceive and transform an unsuspecting individual."
He clarified that Wellspring Resource Center did not tow ant-religious sentiments and is supportive of individuals seeking truth, but cautioned against losing one's ability to reason and think.
He described cult leaders as deceptive and methodical, weaving a web of lies and false hope.
"Words are twisted, taking on new meanings. Members are taken on supposedly innocuous retreats, but the aim is to slowly isolate them from family, friends and the outside world," said Burks as he added that cult members are led to believe that they uphold a sacred teaching, and to harbour doubts or to question any doctrine is deemed sacrilegious.
"All doubts must be confessed because they violate God and threaten the existence of the group or Providence. Every thought or action is performed within the context of the group, and the outside world is devalued."
Burks noted that this confession is unlike that of a penitent who has done wrong to another person. He elaborated that cults are clearly defined by their suppression of critical thinking and what he called "mystical manipulation". This, he described as using spiritual practices that "make the member feel ecstatic", thereby validating the group's uniqueness and sacredness.
"These special rituals, prayers or meditative sessions might call for members to chant for hours. Obviously, they will feel different as it alters their psych-emotional state."
Fielding a slew of phone calls weekly, Burks ably responds with his small and experienced staff. "Victims are depressed, confused, with a frayed sense of self-worth. They have been told that they are defective, even demonic when they question their leaders and decide to leave," said Burks
"After the two to four hours of debriefing, where every nuance of the ordeal is discussed, the victim signs a statement disavowing membership of their group because, 'it is no longer in my best interest to go back'," added Burks
RECOVERY AND DEPROGRAMMING
He noted that victims are made aware of the contradictions and inconsistencies of the cult.
This is an existential moment when some victims realise that they have been deceived. The debriefing process, he described as traumatic, but at this juncture, they can take the next step and go into therapy.
He called this stage "recovery", and balked at using the word, "deprogramming". It can be a long process, as victims begin using their power of critical and rational thought. Measures are taken to reintegrate them into society. The support of loved ones is vital during this period.
Burks later reiterated his support for spiritual seekers, but, tongue-in-cheek, he warned, "in the free market place of ideas, there is no free lunch. Don't be so open-minded that your brain falls out."