One of the most deadly things that a cult or mass movement does is convince its members to self-censor their thoughts and information. By this I mean they get an individual into a frame of mind where they feel that certain information is somehow dangerous to them. They must not think outside the box, so to speak.
From the outside, we can identify many problems with someone who is in this frame of mind, such as thinking that they must be insecure in their beliefs or live a life of fearful doubt, not wanting any small sliver of truth to wedge its way into their foundation of carefully constructed, cherry picked ideas which create their world view. While such value judgments may or may not be true, they don’t particularly help in dealing with such a person, since unfortunately they are the last ones who are going to listen to such judgments.
No, they know they are right, and there is no certainty like the certainty of the fundamentalist.
Last year, after I had quit Scientology’s Sea Organization, I was alarmed to start discovering on the internet the sorts of covert operations and stalking that this group routinely engages in against its ex-members and critics. But what I really should have recognized as the red alert danger signal was my fiancé’s fear of what I was doing: reading anti-Scientology materials on the internet.
She is a Scientologist. It wasn’t the truth of the information that she had a problem with. One could hardly argue with a news story which featured the mug shot of the Scientology leader David Miscavige’s twin sister having been incarcerated on drug charges. Or deny the church’s finger prints when confronted with video coverage of Scientologist “Squirrel Busters” outright harassing critics and former members on their front porch.
While this was disturbing, the real conflict for my fiancé was that I was looking at any of this in the first place. Couldn’t I just leave well enough alone? Why did I have to be looking at this bad news – what Scientology calls “entheta”? This entered a bit of a wedge in our relationship and I didn’t deal with it as I should have: by being open and honest about what I was seeing and getting her involved in what I was doing. I was still in the Scientology mindset of “hide hide hide lest ye be found out” and that was definitely not healthy.
A few months later, she was handled by Scientology’s “ethics officers” to disconnect from me and my suppressive ways. She didn’t even tell me in person – she wrote me a letter. This was a woman who had agreed to marry me, we were talking about children and were already planning when and how the marriage would take place.
But when it comes to Scientology, none of those things matter. It’s all or nothing with them. I had decided to choose to believe what I wanted to believe, and to think for myself. To question or criticize Hubbard or Miscavige was to court disaster. And I paid the price for my decision. Because as much as she may have loved me, the threat of disconnection from all of her family and all of her friends made her decision to keep her head in the sand very understandable.
This all-or-nothing approach to thinking is described in abundant detail in a number of references on logic. It’s called black and white thinking and it’s detrimental to reason. But it gets worse because unfortunately, a direct effect of black and white thinking is to then develop the us vs. them mentality.
Here, the individual is convinced that if the world is black and white, then they can only be on one side or the other. Of course, everyone thinks they choose the side of “good” or “white” and that means that anyone who doesn’t agree with them completely is on the side of “evil” or “black.” There are no shades of gray, there are no gradients of logic, there are no choices. You are either all in or you are all out. And this unhealthy mindset is something that can stay with people for years, even after they get out of the cult or mass movement.
In Scientology, I was perfectly fine with accepting information from L. Ron Hubbard and I found truth in many of the things he said or wrote. I helped plenty of people using some of the principles he espoused and I myself was helped. But I also found that he had taken much of his information from others and claimed it came from him. I wasn’t so cool with that. I also found plenty that Hubbard said which was just plain wrong. But when you are in that group, such thinking is not allowed.
Someone can only agree to not think about something anymore when they feel that they have all the answers. Yet in this universe, how can one individual have all the knowledge worth knowing? How could that be possible? It’s clearly not, but that’s where rationality ends and faith begins.
Belief and faith cannot be argued with and it’s certainly not my point here to do that. I don’t care what someone believes. I do care when someone asserts that as part of their belief structure, I have to behave according to their liking or I have to curb my freedoms and rights to fit in with their world view.
You can always tell when this is going on from the thought-stopping phrases that come out of their mouths: “Everything they are saying is just lies” “The Bible is all the truth I need” “They’re just nattering because they have overts” and similar illogical rhetoric.
The effort here is to stop thinking, not encourage it. To keep the lines divided clearly between the white side and the black side. Never to give an inch. Never consider that maybe all of us have the best and the worst in us at the same time.
Cult leaders encourage thought-stopping because it helps them convince their followers of the veracity of their claims. In Scientology, you have L. Ron Hubbard offering up gems like “Freedom of speech does not mean freedom to harm by lies.” Fair enough, but how do you determine what is harm? It’s an interesting concept when you are trying to tell a Scientologist that disconnection may not be the most humane form of handling a recalcitrant family member, and they tell you that you don’t have the right to communicate such things because you are harming them. Really? I’ve found truth to be alarming, frightening, relieving and enlightening. I’ve never found truth to be something that causes harm.
It’s at times like that when you realize that you aren’t dealing with rationality. It’s like Hubbard’s ethics mantra of “do the greatest good for the greatest number”. It sounds great until you realize that it is wholly subjective. The “greatest good” can mean anything you want it to mean and depends entirely on your point of view of what is good and what isn’t.
In the Unification Church, the faithful are told that if someone strays or has doubts, they are thinking “impure thoughts” or they have been “invaded by Satan.” If they should rebel against something their leader tells them to do, the problem is never with the leader but always with the follower, who has “cained out” (as in the Cain and Abel myth).
The Book of Mormon also supports this kind of thinking in a more mainstream religion with passages like Mosiah 5:2 “And they all cried with one voice, saying: Yea, we believe all the words which thou hast spoken unto us; and also, we know of their surety and truth, because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” It’s unfortunate because people read this and are convinced that anything they do in the “name of the Lord” is inherently good, like engaging in religious conflicts, fighting against equal human rights for LGBTs, burning books and things like that.
In all of history, there is not one person who has ever put forward an idea or a truth which has not later been found to need some modification or improvement. I don’t know any single individual who has contributed more to Mankind’s understanding of the universe than Isaac Newton, a true genius in every sense of the word. Yet he made plenty of mistakes and modestly stated “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” You will look in vain to find that kind of humility in any cult leader or their followers.
Anyone is certainly free to stick their head in the sand and refuse to listen to any alternative viewpoints or ideas to their own. I just think it’s kind of lonely and dark down there. It’s much brighter up here in the light and I don’t think it’s a disservice to anyone to point that out from time to time.