Hey everyone. I’m so happy to be back here in Minneapolis to talk to you again! I honestly wondered if I was ever going to get the opportunity to return to the scene of my crimes to talk about Scientology and cults in general but thanks to my friend Penny, who went way out of her way to help me out with this, here I am. I’m going to bring this talk around to Scientology but first I thought it might be good to talk about the bigger picture with cults and cultic thinking. So here we go.
I think it’s safe to say that we all want to live our lives on our own terms, according to how we feel it should be lived. We want to worship who or what we want, or not worship anything at all. We talk about ideas like “freedom” “equality” and “liberty” but often we don’t put a lot of thought into what these words mean or how they manifest in our day to day lives. As a result, these kinds of words and ideas can be used to manipulate or control us.
Simply put, a cult is a group of people, whether two or two million, who are devoted to a common individual or a cause, an object, a movement or a work such as a book or film. It has a religious context as well, of a system of religious belief or rituals. The word “cult’ itself goes back to the Latin word “cultus” which just means “cultivated or tended” and was the past participle of the word “colore” which means “to till.” It was a farming term. It was revived in the 17th century to refer to the rituals or religious practices of ancient or primitive peoples. Fast forward to the 1940s, and the word “cult” took on a negative connotation when fundamentalist Christian groups began using it to describe religious groups they felt weren’t properly interpreting the Bible such as the Mormons, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and even Catholics, as well as non-Christian religions such as Wicca, Islam, Paganism and Hinduism. Ironically, this kind of intolerant, us-vs-them thinking and bigotry is one of the indicators we use now to define a destructive cult. So where these fundamentalists sought to eradicate anyone or anything not conforming with their belief system, they ended up becoming what they were fighting. Hardly surprising given how witch hunts tend to go. It’s a constant source of wonder and amazement to me that authoritarians never seem to learn the lessons history has to offer, namely that when you start down a road of destroying evil, you must be careful you don’t become that same brand of evil. Tyrants old and new alike seem to always think the rules don’t apply to them, all the way up to the point they are being stood up against a wall and shot.
And this is just one of the lessons of cults. There are many others. When we talk about tyrants and dictators and authoritarianism, we don’t often think about how these things apply to us personally, other than maybe thinking about our government and its institutions. This is hardly surprising given that any government, no matter how kind or beneficent or good-hearted, by its nature must divide the people it rules when its dictates or laws inevitably favor one group over another or somehow oppress a minority in favor of the greater good. There is never any 100% right or good answer to any issue a government body is faced with. There will always be someone who has something to say no matter how great a new law or tax or entitlement is or how many people it will help. Let’s face it; we are a nation of complainers and we have the wonderful right in this country to voice our complaints and make our voices be heard and have a say in those decisions, even if our voices are sometimes tiny and seem to be lost in the din.
But as far as we are concerned personally, the government is usually some nameless, faceless entity that is far away from us and our immediate concerns. We can recognize authoritarianism from a distance, but where we tend to fall down is recognizing it closer to home, when it’s in our workplace, our circle of friends or worst of all, our romantic involvements.
It’s easy to point to groups with odd religious or political ideas and laugh at them and call them names. We really can’t help ourselves, it’s in our nature to be favorably biased towards our own tribe and to want to antagonize or even fight against what we perceive as our opposition. Our biases depend on so many things: our upbringing, our culture, our education, our geographic location, our social circles and much more. And the point of this is not that we are all so contentious that we can’t get along, it’s that the idea that cults are cults just because of their beliefs is not true. Beliefs are just a point of view; they’re just ideas which may or may not be substantiated by evidence or proof. Group A may believe in a Sky Daddy named Zeus and Group B may believe in a Sky Daddy named Thor. Group A will be sure that they are right and they’ll call Group B a cult. Group B will think and say the exact same thing about Group A. Now Group C may look at both of them and say they’re both wrong and they are both cults. Group D may look at them and say that Zeus and Thor are just manifestations of the same thing and that neither of them are cults. The bottom line is that we can’t get anywhere if we look at groups based on their beliefs alone and call them cults. In that place, there by dragons so let’s just skip right out of that idea and get a bit more precise.
More recent research on this subject has given us a deeper look at the psychology and sociology of groups and group dynamics and we can make much better assessments of what a cult is and what it isn’t.
Put simply, a cult is a kind of symbiotic but abusive relationship. A cult leader has to have followers and cult followers have to have a leader or leaders. One can’t exist without the other and both rely on each other. And everything I’m talking about here is applicable to every kind of cult no matter its size.
Cult leaders are often characterized as narcissists, megalomaniacs, psychotics and even sociopaths. There are some valid reasons and arguments for and against using these terms, but I think the central concept these words are trying to describe is that a cult leader is a person who craves power or desires the ability to work his will over others regardless of the consequences. By using deceptive and manipulative language, preying on personality flaws and weaknesses and by taking advantage of people’s biases or prejudices, cult leaders gather a following and use those followers for their own advantage.
It would be inaccurate to say that cult followers are weak-minded or stupid or lack common sense. They are simply human. By that I mean that we all have our blind spots, we all have our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. There is not one perfect or flawless human being anywhere. And no matter how hard the world can be on us, we tend to be our own worst critic and judge ourselves more harshly than anyone else would. We even think we are being honest with ourselves when we do that, but most of the time we are using wholly unrealistic standards when we put ourselves down. For whatever reason, cult leaders almost instinctively understand this about our psychology and they use those self-doubts and fears to create a situation where they have an answer or solution to whatever we think is our problem. It doesn’t even have to be a personal problem. Some people who join political cults are targeting other people or groups as the source of their problems, like Neo-Nazis who blame anyone who isn’t white for their personal problems, their financial woes, or their inability to get a job. By appealing to these prejudices and offering solutions to these perceived problems, a cult leader creates followers.
What I’ve described so far is pretty much how any group is formed, though, so let’s get more specific about where the abuse comes in. According to sociologist and cult researcher Dr. Janja Lalich, there are distinct characteristics that make a group a destructive cult and perhaps the most dangerous of these is fostering black-and-white thinking in order to create an us vs them mentality. Cults are not into nuanced views or critical thinking. They are usually very binary and this is one of the easiest ways to tell if a group is engaging in cultic thinking. Cults are often focused around causes and far too often are about us being the good guys and those guys over there being the bad guys. By defeating those awful, horrible bad guys, we will solve all of our own problems, end all the suffering those bad guys are causing and maybe even save the world in the process. Where religion enters in, we also get the added benefit of spiritual salvation for us and eternal damnation for them.
On a more personal level, where a cult is a smaller group or just a couple, you have the promise of happiness and satisfaction and love. If you are unfortunate enough to be in a relationship with a narcissist, the us vs them is simple: anyone who is not the narcissist is bad and wrong and evil and will do nothing but hurt you whereas the narcissist is the only person who can truly understand you, support you and give you the love and happiness you deserve.
The cost in all cases, though, always comes down to you giving over your power of choice, your personal freedom of movement and thought and often your bank account too. In far too many cases, cult relationships have also resulted in sexual violations, physical assaults and even death.
It’s a nasty business.
So now with Scientology, the appeal is always to a person’s self doubts or personal problems. It’s a pretty universal appeal, because who doesn’t have those? Scientology’s introductory services are all designed to ferret out what those personal issues are and then convincingly promises to solve that issue with a class or with some kind of individual counseling. And to be blunt, the problems are usually pretty easy to resolve with some common sense solutions and attention, leaving the person feeling that “Scientology works” and so they then go on to do another service and another and another. Gradually, as a person becomes more and more indoctrinated in Scientology’s world view and belief system, they find themselves doing and saying things that would have been unthinkable when they first got involved. But because they are already invested, because they have already paid in thousands of dollars and because their social circle now includes many Scientologists as friends and maybe co-workers, they are hesitant to rock the boat. They learn that asking too many questions can be dangerous. They reason that the benefits they’ve received surely outweigh these trouble signs and so they put their head down and carry on. And the pressure that is put on them by their social circle and by the church staff members drives them to keep paying money and keep investing their time. It takes a real act of will to overcome this kind of peer pressure, as anyone who lived through high school knows.
There’s a lot more to know about destructive cults and how they work. There’s a ton more to know about Scientology as just one of about 5,000 of these destructive cults in the world today. In my book here, called Scientology: A to Xenu, I have broken down what Scientology is, its history and background, who L. Ron Hubbard was and why he created it in the first place and I talk about its beliefs and activities. I also break down why they are a religion, how they got tax exemption, lost it and got it back and I have three chapters at the end about recovering from a cult experience. I’m not a therapist or counselor yet, but I think that people can benefit from my experience and some of the advice I can offer. So this book is here for you guys to get after this talk and I’ll be happy to sign them.
I also wanted to put a quick plug in for Paganacon which will be here in Minneapolis this next March where I will be a special guest speaker and will talk at much more length about destructive cults, their role in society and also about critical thinking skills and how they are so important to creating safer communities and avoid getting involved in cultic thinking in the first place.
So now, I’m open to any questions you guys might have for me.