This essay is a bit crammed, trying to address such a complicated topic, but I think this may bring some fresh insight into the validity of judging extreme beliefs and those who believe them. Please forgive my omitting the many additional explanations and peripheral proofs that ought to accompany this, but instead read it with a mind to get the main points. Also, please note I am not a sociologist, but I hope that these observations and arguments will stand on their own merit.
Prejudices Against Incredulous Beliefs
A lot of people make fun of beliefs far from the mainstream, such as Scientology’s belief about humans being infested with imprisoned spirits brought to Earth from other worlds that are the source of pathology. The Church itself neither denies it nor acknowledges it, as it is considered a secret within the higher levels of the organization. I believe it is reasonable to consider this an accepted fact based on so many consistent accounts of ex-members over many years. I hear that even Tom Cruise was surprised to find this story was true, and created a temporary crisis of faith for him.
But let’s separate our prejudices from our discernment. A lot of people believe a lot of improbable things, or even things that are blatantly and factually wrong from an empirical perspective. Some create volumes and universities full of bad science to prove the earth isn’t billions of years old. Some revise their understanding of their scriptures, such as Mormonism coping with the now-verifiable genetic history of Native Americans. Others believe in channeled spirits or beings bestowing otherwise unknowns truths, with followers placing themselves in the hands of the medium, having no way to prove anything except by what some would dismiss as parlor tricks. Some chain themselves mercilessly to the written word of whatever scripture they follow, or rather the interpretations of others, even if they claim it is just what the book (God) says. Some just follow an organization or guru, allowing them to be rewired for a belief system that ironically may even claim to be a release from all belief systems. On a pessimistic level, it’s all about filling needs and placing trust in something else to avoid the responsibility of personal error. But I’m being a bit harsh, and that is not at all my point.
I myself am guilty under my own decree. I believe that God walked the earth as a man and rose from the dead. Not talking about Mithraism, silly, but Christianity. And being Roman Catholic, I share in the eating of His Body and Blood on a regular basis. And my personal belief is why I capitalized all those words in the last sentence. I also believe that Jesus was married, even though there is no real evidence either way. My beliefs are my choice, and some are based in religious experiences. (Experiences create belief and belief creates experience — it’s a two-way process. The problem occurs in how consistent our own beliefs are with the world around us and with other belief systems, including religion, psychology, science, etc., but that is not the point of this essay.)
The point is that beliefs like L. Ron Hubbard’s are off the scale on what someone would just decide one day to believe. He may have made it all up, or he may have had a psychological or religious experience – a flash of vision or an understanding that crept from the exploration of his consciousness, as if a primal memory had slowly become focused on the screen of his mind. Maybe he was visited by extra-terrestrials. (I wholeheartedly believe in the probable existence of aliens capable of visiting us, though I am suspect of anyone who claims to have had lunch with them.) But we all have our reasons.
Ideologies and Truth
So where am I going with this? I used the juicy word “Cult” in the title, right? Here’s the disappointment. Beliefs, no matter how foreign to our own view of the world, be they exceptional revelation, delusion, or downright contrived deception, do not make a belief system a cult. In fact – barring the more prejudicial connotative uses of the term these days – a belief system cannot be a cult. A cult – if there even is a qualitative or quantitative way to measure such a thing as a “yes” or “no” designation – is a sociological phenomenon. “Joe’s Cosmic Temple of the Tao” might be a cult; Taoism is not.
The word also religion causes confusion. It’s used in the formal sense of the social group, i.e. a “church” or “sect”, but also refers to the system of beliefs as a cohesive intellectual framework to deal with and understand life, along with the expressions of those beliefs, such as rituals, traditions, rules, or other processes. So to avoid confusion, I will use “belief system” for creed and “organization” for belief- defined social group instead.
Belief systems – religious, political, whatever – are called “Ideologies” when they reach a high internal consistency. They are tautologies. They are all true within themselves. They cannot be proven wrong because their premises reach their conclusions like a serpent eating its own tail. And different ideologies have different underlying assumptions that cannot be removed from the systems, so people such as atheists and theists really have nothing to say to each other. Leftist and rightists have different assumptions and fears about human nature and the place of things like business and government, and wonder why they can’t get along. And then you have the spiritual and the materialist-secular, debating into infinity whether the world ought to be measured in GNP or World Peace. But that’s an essay for another time.
Any good ideology works, even if it has hard-to-believe truths (subjective use of the term “truth” here, something I abhor, but is apropos). And if we are to judge a belief system or an individual belief, it must be in light of its benefit. Does believing in a Loving God bring me peace? Does believing in an impartial universe bring me solitude? But one more time … that’s not the point. The point is that the expression of a belief system, which includes our conduct as well as our psycho-emotional health, can be valid even if the underlying assumptions are questionable. If Noah didn’t have two of every creature on the ark, or Mary wasn’t a virgin, does my faith fall apart? Maybe for some, if you even want to call that faith. But let’s ask a more helpful question: if Jesus wasn’t God, does that really change his message of “Love one Another”, or expose that maybe we are looking for credibility on something that is true or good anyway? If you decide you don’t like the messenger, should you tear up the message?
So let’s use Scientology as the helpfully extreme example. Should we dismiss the usefulness or wisdom of the belief system, even if Hubbard when all is said and done proves to be a delusional liar and Son of Satan? Should we cart away sincere believers as cultists because we don’t buy it?
I don’t think it’s a true or false question, but the wrong question. Sure, we could say some beliefs are dangerous or unhelpful, such as sanctions against playing the flute at one time in Ancient Rome or Rock-N-Roll music a few generations ago. Let’s not go crazy. How do we try to judge objectively what are dangerous beliefs? WE DON’T. It’s the WAY beliefs are handled that can be dangerous. The Crusades. 911. Nazism. Jim Jones. Heaven’s Gate. And all these things bring us to … drum roll please … cults.
So what’s a cult? A cult is what it does. Nah, that’s not helpful, so let’s start from the beginning. “Cult” meaning more than just “religious sect” is a relatively modern term, and is often a label slapped on any fringe group – they are small, different, and we just plain don’t lik’em. Sure most people “know one when they see one” but that’s not what I mean. Put aside the term “cult” as a rubber stamp and switch gears.
Something is cultic in as much as it can compel someone to believe something they might not otherwise, and without them realizing it. Okay, I know what you’re thinking. That’s called “advertising”. Well that’s only half the pie. The other half is the indoctrination of beliefs that completely seal in the first set of beliefs. By that I mean creating a belief within the individual that anything contradicting what they believe is to be avoided. People who do not believe what you do or accept your group are wrong, evil, deceivers and deceived, ignorant, close-minded, whatever. Once you are convinced of that, you and your views are infallible; or rather you believe you are.
This is a practical definition of the perhaps over-used term for coercion – “brainwashing”. Sure there may be physical components to reduce “resistance” and rational thinking to accept some premises unquestionably, such as sleep deprivation, low protein diet, long sessions of psychological exercises, etc., and there are social ones such as conditioning by reward and punishment (even if in the form of loving open acceptance and subtle shame), but can be as insidious as repeated suggestion and emotion-driven testimonies.
Also, like the modus operandi of a psychopathic liar, they will often test your willingness to believe by stating things that are somewhat believable and make sense (or are neutral or harmless enough not to initiate rational discernment on your part). Then they keep pushing the envelope on what you will believe because it is no longer such a stretch. I’ve lived this – it’s hard not to spot afterward either with an individual or in a group once you’ve been there.
So now you know – all organizations and people do brainwashing. Just kidding.
We do it to ourselves. Or blame the media. Or our parents. We were born with a set of arguments. Or we leaned them from our Political Science teacher, or a Jesuit, or a mentor. That’s called “learning.” But eventually we add another set of arguments that prove why criticisms of our position are wrong. And then we start to take offense when challenged, or even become offended that other people can’t see (read “accept”) our point of view. Even people in the middle are just as bad or part of the problem in our view. That’s extremism. And when our surety is complete, we can even write off OTHERS as being brainwashed. That’s brainwashing at its pinnacle. The sane are insane to the most disturbed, and can almost never be shown they are insane, any more than someone in Love can believe their beloved be cheating on them. They have to figure it out for themselves, or be “brainwashed” into some other view. Perhaps this is what “deprogramming” is about.
Cultism and Brainwashing
Now let’s go back to social groups. What I find is that there are many behaviors and thought processes that contribute to building this wall between your beliefs and the rest of the world. Many religious groups, marketing schemes, social clubs, lodges, and even companies engage in some of these things. Sometimes it’s on purpose, sometimes it’s harmless, but the danger can be measured in result, which in turn is hard to measure, so we are stuck with keeping an eye out for “red flags” and go in with our eyes open.
I intend to someday itemize, explain, and give examples of these “red flags”, but that isn’t my point here, and if you can Google through all the casual anti-cult nonsense, you’ll find some helpful lists. Most perspectives gauge destructiveness by level of control, but I’m going after the cause and not just the result – it starts with beliefs. So let’s go full circle and address those related specifically to unusual beliefs.
A strange belief may or may not have any negative impact on a person by itself. How strongly they believe it may or may not interfere with their ability to function in society. Theological beliefs such as what are “sin” and the nature of the Holy Spirit are more the framework of a belief system, and so I’m not talking about those. And many beliefs, such as my example of Jesus being married, or if Lao Tzu lived to be hundreds of years, are arbitrary and inconsequential when compared to waiting for the mothership or the rapture. So I’m talking about things that someone who doesn’t share a belief would consider not just “historically inaccurate” or “superstitious” but downright outlandish. Which brings us to Scientology’s pre-earth epic of the God Xenu and the Galactic Confederacy.
Shouldn’t we just let the baby has his bottle? Yes and no. The question of cultism in this particular essay arises when you look at the MECHANISM by which people are willing to take on an incredulous belief within a group. It’s not the belief itself – the only reason I’m picking on Xenu is to explain why such beliefs CAN be a warning sign of cultic tendency or tactics. In fact, we can even assume Scientology’s tall tale is the absolute truth, and it has no effect on whether or not it has cult issues. Even very cultic groups aren’t necessarily right or wrong in their beliefs, and we shouldn’t dismiss them because of it. We should dismiss them because they are dangerous to our intellectual autonomy.
How it’s Done
So other than bringing someone up in a belief system – where nothing could ever seem strange except to outsiders – how do you get everyday people to believe something outlandish? After all, for people to accept truth that’s hard to accept, it has to be done for their own good, right? Here’s how it’s done, using the Scientology example.
Have secret beliefs. That’s pretty much half of it. You can disguise or rationalize it as protecting knowledge from people who aren’t ready, or as a trade secret process to attain enlightenment or motivational success or whatever. The problem is that when the cat is out of the bag, an organization can neither deny nor confirm them. Sucks to be them. Except that secret beliefs, techniques, and other mysteries are still cool. Learning them makes you part of something special, something elite. You are no longer a freshman, but a senior – and the principal’s pet if you are a good learner (read “model of adoring acceptance”).
The other half is slowly indoctrinating a person, not by adding beliefs, but by changing they way they look at their beliefs. So it’s not just swapping furniture, but getting your walls to move around so only their furniture fits. Don’t get me wrong – being aware of how your beliefs affect your life and being able to choose and change them and how they affect you is a big step up in personal development and provides many self-help tools. But it’s like a kid playing with matches. With long hair. And lots of flammable hair gel. You get the idea.
Another aspect of this cult tactic is the bait-and-switch. They told you it was just a personality test. They said it was just an awareness seminar. One moment they said “we’re not a religion” and the next they live up to the title “Church”. And it turned out to be all those things and more. A lot more. In fact, so much more, you’d never have started if they would have had the “other” stuff in their promo literature. They have to catch you early, and before you find out, or tell you “never mind that” if you come across warnings from other people. Knowledge and opposing views are the ultimate grounding tool, and is bad news to anyone who wants you to buy into a hard-to-believe belief system.
Anyway, the job of indoctrination is by itself is just business as usual for any system of thought. But to work toward getting someone to believe something that in casual conversation would make people avoid you, scare your family and friends, or just make people wonder, it is required to break down previous intellectual frameworks in order to build the new one. And I mean demolition of such frivolous structures as common sense, healthy doubt and suspicion, and anything else that might conflict with your new spiritual dream house, courtesy of Scientology (or another person or group). Even if you can convince yourself of many things, that sort of thing can rarely be achieved by yourself. And they’re more than willing to help.
Up the Bridge, Over the Edge
The more you are in the indoctrination process, and the more invested financially with your wallet and emotionally with your dreams and hopes, the more you come to trust your lifeline to what you question less and less as being the ultimate truth. It’s how they represent their narrow path to truth, and you grab it “willingly”. After all, you’re starting to “get it” where non-believers like yourself previously did not. They just couldn’t understand, and if only they could experience what you have, they would KNOW. I’ve heard it too many times. As a perfect analogy, all religions have miraculous healing stories, but cultic ones that use it as proof of their own righteousness deny the miracles of others or pawn them off as deceptions of demons. And they will not see it otherwise.
In all fairness, cult processes in any organization may either arise naturally or be put in place on purpose. Just having secret beliefs doesn’t require brainwashing. But it helps. The people who enforce or act out these things see themselves as doing a great good, and aren’t aware of using such tactics. And if they realize it on some level, they excuse it or deny the dangers against the free will of others, many of which are just desperate for something to believe in. They are ready to please.
And if someone past the “point of no return” read this article and start to believe it applied to them, I will probably personally be dismissed as unqualified or having an axe to grind, without addressing any of the actual concerns or arguments. They might summon emotions against my deep, dark intentions to threaten their faith, or pick apart every definition and phrase instead of taking it as someone who might really have something. Oh well. You can’t win them all. – or sadly maybe not any of them.
Forgiveness but not Tolerance
People who use cult tactics are not men in black hats or reddish imps with horns and tails, even if the person who first instituted the tactics MAY be. The next time you make fun of what many people call a cult such as “Scientology”, don’t criticize their followers for their bizarre beliefs. Criticize their organization for their tactics. We all have our personal experiences and people need to believe what they choose to. But feel free to point out the process by which everyday people would eventually believe something that otherwise they would not. To sum up my advice: Hate the cult aspects, not the belief system or people who hold it dear.