Saturday, May 11, 2013

Cults: Some Theoretical and Practical Perspectives*, by Moshe Halevi Spero,

Cults: Some Theoretical and Practical Perspectives*, by Moshe Halevi Spero,
Associate Editor, Journal of Psychology and Judaism, Cleveland, Ohio
"I am your brain . . . what I wish must be your wish. Our strategy is to be unified into one with ourselves, and with that as the bullet we can smash the world. " — Sun Myung Moon
Few readers can be totally unaware of the critical social crisis facing the Jewish family that is represented by the recent cult phenome­non. While perhaps having been deeply en­trenched while fighting two major social crises, an increasing divorce rate and a bur­geoning number of intermarriages, and per­haps having been too quick to write off Key '73 as a harmless fad, many of our important educational and social service agencies have been caught with their guard down by the cult movements. The numbers, the names and other statistics are still either skimpy or un­reliable, yet the incidents, the calls for help and the inability or lack of knowledge to help are painfully evident. There are many cults, each with its unique characteristics and phil­osophy, and there are countless individual rea­sons for the attraction to and for joining a cult. Yet, some generalizations can be usefully advanced for consideration, derived at this early stage by the few interviews deprogrammers and counselors have had with individuals who have left or been brought out of cults, or by pure professional speculation.

I will analyze some of the psychosocial dynamics which conduce such a surprisingly large proportion of today's adolescents toward cults. I will discuss the means by which cults entrap and then reinforce commitment from their acolytes. This analysis will also isolate some of the weaknesses in certain types of Jewish family structure and with certain levels of religious affiliation which may encourage susceptibility to the lure of cults. Finally, some practical considerations in dealing with the potential cult candidate will be offered.

"Cult" is a popularism which includes the following of Sun Myung Moon, perhaps the most economically powerful, philosophically noxious and motivationally unscrupulous of all the "cults." Moon claims a membership between 10,000 to 30,000 with 2,000 to 10,000 full time members. Given a conservative esti­mate of about 5,000 member Moonies in the United States alone, Rabbi Maurice Davis, an expert on the Moon cult and founder of C.E.R.F. (Citizens Engaged in Reuniting Families), estimates that 12 percent of this membership is Jewish, 35 percent Catholic, 40 percent Protestant. Moon owns industries, hotels, etc., and has been documented to have a hand in sponsoring numerous public and private scientific symposia. 1 Under the rubric of cult are also included the Hare Krishna, the Jesus People and Jesus Freaks, Scientology (a pseudo-therapeutic psychological self-help group which is not officially connected with any specific "religious" affiliation),2 Maharj Ji's Divine Light Mission, and numerous others thinly styled after some of the far-Eastern esoteric religions. In North American countries in which many of our Jewish adolescents have recently tripped on drugs and radical politics, cults have apparently become a new opiate for the youth of the 70's. Indeed though adults and even second generation cult children are numbered in the gross member­ship, the central target population of cults is the adolescent — and for no accidental demo­graphic reason, as we shall see. 3 Trying to differentiate cult from legitimate religion is a difficult task, our intuitively based preconceptions notwithstanding. First, long­standing moral and legal traditions of demo­cratic countries which preserve the sanctity of free religious expression tend to encourage conservatism with regard to publically demarcating legitimate versus illegitimate belief systems. This tradition is also one of the primary obstacles against blanket criminaliza­tion of cults at this time; though specific practices such as kidnapping, when cults can be proven to have committed them, would readily be considered illegal. Proposed defini­tions, based on the criterion that true religion, in principle, does not seek to violate a person's freedom to practice the religion of one's choice, become muddled over sensitive issues such as conversion, legitimate versus illegiti­mate missionizing, etc. In fact, I have often been greatly disheartened to find that during lecture and discussion groups on cults to adolescents many delight in sophomoric de­bate over whether the Jewish community has any right to interfere with the "choice" other adolescents to affiliate with a cult. Un­fortunately, latent in this commitment to libertarianism at the expense of Jewish survival is the gapping psychosocial need for something which apparently neither society at large nor Judaism in specific is supplying. Yet, the aforementioned "philosophers" were at least of the majority of similarly poorly affiliated youth who attend lectures, classes, etc. Ob­viously, 12 percent of Moon's 5,000 American members have, for the time being, found the answer to such needs within the soft, matriarchal charisma of the cults.

I think it is amply evident that defining cults — that is, beyond the descriptive level — is difficult at best. Thus, the social service agent involved in work with parents or children on this matter may be forced to accept arbitrary or intuitive definitions. A value judgement will be unavoidable as the worker ponders whether he or she is agreeable to the notion that any movement which takes the Jewish believer away from religion, parents, peers and social milieu threatens Judaism, individually or collectively. The Free Clinic counselor, for ex­ample, who treats all "alternative life styles" as value free and equally as opportune for any individual as the religion of the latter's youth, will probably have difficulties accepting a parental claim that, say, Billy's membership in the X-cult is an injustice to Billy's Judaism (unless, of course, kidnapping was involved as the means of introduction to the cult). It is therefore incumbent upon the Jewish social service agent, working out of the school, the synagogue, the family service agency, or what­ever, to familiarize himself with both the theoretical and practical considerations which obtain with regard to cults and their victims.

Cults have been broadly characterized by Spartan living conditions — uniformity of dress, diet, style of speech, isolation from former family and friends, strict prohibitions against premarital sex or drug intake 4 — a far cry from the hostile conception about the goings on in cults harbored by many. It is the manner by which such a way of life is cultivated and reinforced, however, which brings to the fore the more disagreeable aspects of cults. In a sense, one might cite the lack of candidates' awareness of these occlusive methods of indoctrination — lack of awareness specifically promoted by cult leaders — as one characteristic which differen­tiates cult-type "religious" commitment from true religious belief. And though there are blind believers in most authentic religions, such belief is neither the most desirable level of commitment nor is it purposely reinforced.

It should be stated at the outset that no single one or combination of mind controlling techniques is as powerful insofar as capti­vating the interest of the adolescent candidate is concerned as the very inner needs of the adolescent which the cult way of life appears to be able to satisfy in so many ways. That is, there are two levels at which to understand why cults are so attractive to certain youth: the practical level — i.e., what practices ensure candidate interest and allegiance, and the cosmic level — i.e., what existential, normal and fundamental human problems or crises are met by the cult? With some thoughtful consideration of these important questions we will hopefully be closer toward understanding the cult phenomenon.

One of the obvious characteristics of cult life is the almost constant movement in which cultees are engaged such as rapidly paced walking through streets, travel, bus rides throughout the country in search for candi­dates, etc. Other ceaseless rounds of activity include chants, prayers, discussions, calis­thenics, soliciting of funds and membership. In Moon cults, new members are constantly followed during all of this activity — even to the bathroom, and, as part of another daily ritual, must write out their thoughts of the day for peer inspection.5 As Robert J. Lifton, a noted Yale psychiatrist specializing in the tech­niques of mind control (brainwashing) used both here as well as abroad in prison camps, describes, such constant movement plays a sig­nificant role in setting the ground work, as it were, for a heightened suggestibility which, in turn, can emphasize the attractiveness of cults.6 Other possible techniques have been cited. The vegetarian diet, a staple of many cults, allegedly practiced in emulation of the religiously based vegetarianism of Eastern religions, can produce a rapid weight loss leading to a temporary state of euphoria commitment nor is it purposely reinforced.

It is also conjectured that cults somehow create a severe anxiety over death through group emphasis on the meaninglessness and futility of the candidate's former way of life. Candidates are also made to believe that escape from this ineluctable fate can only be achieved by "rebirth" through the cult.8 These anxieties and other beliefs considered important by the cult are reinforced through continuous repetition of certain phrases ("thank you, praise you"), sacred code words ("scientific truth," "inner living," "pain engrams"), ubiquitous peer approval, and the continuous states of travel mentioned earlier which all contribute towards breaking down formal patterns of thinking and empty the mind of past associations and appropriate feelings.9

Cults also rely heavily on manipulation of guilt through extreme polarization of the values of good and evil, right and wrong. Even when initially contacted on street corners, cult indoctrinators will encourage interested parties to think in black-and-white terms. For example, if an adolescent is asked, "Did you find your parents to have been sources of meaningful life understanding?"—a frequent lead-in, recruiters will insist on narrow answers in either/or categories. This tech­nique, especially successful with adolescents, seems to play on the as yet immature preambivalent stage of adolescence wherein ego development is still closely defined along the lines of all-good/all-bad object ties. Further reinforce­ment of such constricted thinking at cult education sessions, prayer, meditation, etc. also encourages the development of superstrong convictions about cult philosophies and tenets to cover for the obvious inadequacies of such thinking. It is into this state of psychic readiness that one's new and intense con­viction in the authority of the cultic leader is nurtured.

Another technique used by Krishna, Moonies and Scientology, in one form or another, is an age-old practice perfected by modern era POW camps and known to have been used by Korean captors on American prisoners of war. 10 Cult candidates are made to confess their personal immoralities and im­proprieties vis-a-vis the cult's conception of morality and propriety before a judging person of some capacity, thus further engen­dering this sense of dependence and submis­sion to the control of this allegedly all-know­ing judge (in Scientology one reviews painful past experiences—engrams—in the presence of an "auditor" 11). Ex-cultees relate that there is often an implicit belief in the power of the ingroup to dispense existence, to determine who has the right to live or die, physically or meta­phorically—such as in the extreme example of the Charles Manson group or, to a lesser degree, in Moon cults—which also enforces the exaggerated sense of power and strength.

Hypnoanalysts have also observed that one of the concomitant phenomena of the hyp­notic state is that a close relationship is fos­tered between patient and operator which has the effect of assuaging the patient's sense of helplessness. 12 it would be more than reason­able to assume that the same sort of relation­ship develops between cult members and their leaders. There is through hypnotism the fostering of an intense focus on an individual's heretofore unexperienced sense of "I." All of these new sensations—the sense of intense happiness, of one-ness with a group, of self-discovery, power and control—are pri­mary reinforcements in their own right and play a significant role in ensuring the strength of adolescent commitment.

Most important for our consideration at this point are the cosmic or existential adolescent needs which, when unanswered by standard societal or religious structures, are easily manipulated and intensified by the afore­mentioned techniques. That is to say, rather than consider youthful interest in cults as some abnormal phenomenon, it is more useful to consider such attraction as one of many pos­sible alternative solutions to the critical con­flicts inherent in adolescence and, in the case of certain of these conflicts to be dis­cussed, to mankind in general. While abnor­mality may enter the picture; i.e., concerning the extent and degree of such commitment, what a youth might be persuaded to do while under the heady influence of such commit­ment, what latent personal pathologies be­come exacerbated by extended isolation from family, etc., the basic needs or conflicts which motivate the diverting of energy toward a cult are truly developmental or normal. It is unfortunate that only when we have shaken ourselves from smug expectations of the-way things-are-supposed-to-be that we realize, insofar as this Jewish social crisis is concerned, that the very elements which cults offer

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