Cults, religion, and the spectrum of social manipulation


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Last Saturday, the New York City Skeptics hosted a lecture called, Cults and Coercion: How Ordinary People are Turned into Extraordinary Fanatics at the New York Public Library, Jefferson Market Branch. The lecturer was Paul Grosswald, a former Scientologist who left the infamous cult 20 years ago.

Grosswald covered a lot of ground in the lecture, defining what the term “cult” really means, who cults target for recruitment, who joins cults, how they get you in the door, what to do if someone you love is in a destructive cult, tips to avoid being recruited into a destructive cult, as well as breaking down the 8 factors of mind control identified by Robert Jay Lifton in his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China, used almost universally in any destructive cult.

These are critical thinking tools that everyone should be taught in high school and college. But since they rarely are, everyone should take the time to learn them because ultimately, just about anyone is capable of being fooled by a cult under the right circumstances. And the only reliable weapon against cults as well as other nonsense being sold to you is knowledge:  knowledge of their deceptive tactics, of common logical fallacies, and of the human psychology that makes it easy to be manipulated. Carl Sagan called this knowledge a “baloney detection kit” in his book The Demon-Haunted World.

So what is a destructive cult? Grosswald defines it as:  “…a pyramid-shaped organization that is under the control of a charismatic, authoritarian leader, or leaders. Information in the group is tightly controlled by the leadership and generally flows from the top down. Money in the group is raised by the membership and generally flows from the bottom up. The group views the world in black and white terms, with no shades of gray. It has an “us versus them” mentality, an “ends justify the means” philosophy, and little or no regard for society’s laws, ethics or morals. A destructive cult recruits and retains its members by using deceptive practices, and a systematic form of psychological manipulation (called “mind control”). Generally, all eight of Robert Jay Lifton’s criteria for thought reform will be present in a destructive cult.”

Now Grosswald, like most figures in the cult awareness moment,  made the point to distinguish regular religions from dangerous cults, and I certainly understand why they feel it’s important to do so. Being seen as anti-religion would undermine the important work that they’re doing as many people looking for information about particularly destructive cults may be members of some more socially accepted religion. But Grosswald does say that more traditional religions do indeed at least belong on the spectrum of groups where social manipulation or pressure takes place.

However, as a religious critic myself, I tend to view more traditional religions as higher up on that spectrum than perhaps Grosswald would, depending on the individual’s required level of commitment to the authority of the church, temple, synagogue, or mosque they belong. Certainly, almost every religion has its moderates who don’t let themselves be completely controlled by their church authorities, but what of the very devout and orthodox members who belong to churches or temples that do require strict adherence to their rules? When asked what was the difference between a religion and a cult, skeptical musician and podcaster George Hrab once responded, “Time and real estate.” I think that to a certain extent, this is true. Yesterday’s cult is today’s religion and tomorrow’s mythology. It seems cults that survive the evolutionary process long enough to thrive reach a point where they graduate into religions. And once they become religions, they can continue to be authoritarian and destructive, only with the added benefit of perceived legitimacy where society will defend their more destructive actions.

Even mainstream religions can contribute to destructive cult-like behavior. For instance, the Catholic Church has actually covered up countless instances of child abuse by their own representatives spanning decades. Further, when the Pope tells AIDS-ridden Africa that not only do condoms not offer protection against HIV but they actually contribute to the problem, I’d have to say that’s pretty destructive. And as with destructive cults, Catholicism has a pyramid structure where its leader is said to be the inerrant mouthpiece for their god. The Church has lots of secret documents about their religion protected from its members stored in the Vatican under the tightest security in the world. Money in the Church is raised by the membership and generally flows from the bottom up. God and Satan as well as Heaven and Hell suggest a pretty black and white worldview. Devout Catholics have an “us versus them” mentality. And as the condom incident illustrates, the Church has little regard for societal rules when those rules conflict with their own. Catholics, like most religions, recruit their members from infancy on and except obviously in liberal households, Catholics expose their children only to Catholicism, discouraging members from listening to alternative views. And there are few things more phychological manipulating than the concept that non-believer will burn in a lake of fire for all eternity or that you’re a filthy sinner from the start who doesn’t deserve Jesus’ mercy. And like Scientology, Catholics are expected to confess their sins, though as Grosswald correctly points out, the Catholic Church doesn’t record and then later use knowledge obtained during confession to exploit and blackmail members. Additionally, many of Robert Jay Lifton’s criteria for a destructive cult can apply to Catholicism.

So is Catholicism a destructive cult? What about other Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist sects? These are not easy questions to answer. I know that when I interact with particularly devout born again Christians in Union Square Park on a Saturday afternoon, they seem to me no less brainwashed than any Scientologist. But one thing’s for sure. I’d much rather see skeptics handing out cult awareness pamphlets in Union Square Park on a Saturday.


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