As part of its mission Dialogue Ireland endeavours to add articles which help shed light on cultism. Dialogue Ireland are glad to receive suggestions from site visitors regarding additions to our archives, and welcomes any comments visitors wish to leave on the matter in forwarding this debate.
Generally Dialogue Ireland does not call any groups cults, but prefers the terms ‘cultism’ and ‘cultist’ to describe movements which are causing concern. Others feel that one should call a spade a spade – “CULT”. Dialogue Ireland sees the term as being on a continuum, and looks at attitudes and tendencies in religions, churches, movements, individuals, government, banks and corporations which are decidedly cultist. In order to get at this some use the term cultish, or cultic.
Need and Importance of Terminology
The Director of Dialogue Ireland, Mike Garde, explored the issue of using phrases such as ‘cult’ and ‘cultism’ in chapter two of his thesis. The following extract from that thesis serves as a useful basis for the present discussion:
What about Ireland? How is the terminological problem to be resolved? Louis Hughes makes an interesting suggestion. He proposes cultism as the best term to describe the cult phenomenon here in Ireland and in the English speaking world. Hughes later clarified his standpoint, since cultism is a defect that can enter into and poison the way any group – religious or non-religious – functions. Hughes shows the range his term addresses:
“The cults we hear most about are new religious movements. While these are the main focus … it should be noted that there are also psychological, political, commercial, and New Age and science fiction cults that control their members’ lives no less ruthlessly. While concerns are most often expressed in connection with new religious movements, problems can also be found within groups claiming association with mainline religions.”
For Hughes the definitional point at issue is the abuse of authority, when boundaries are not respected and control is exercised. Used in this way the term is not intended to be offensive, but descriptive of the presence of a specific mentality within a group. It identifies a flaw that can enter into and poison the way any group – religious or non-religious – functions. The issues of cultism can be found anywhere at any time, even in one’s own affiliations. Hughes uses the term cult to designate any group, religious or otherwise, which subjects its members or would-be members to a potentially harmful degree of psychological pressure, intimidation, control, or deception.
Louis Hughes’ comments are taken from his essay ‘The Issue Of Cultist Mind Control In Some New Religious Movements’. Aside from the discussion of ‘cultism’, the essay is also a valuable insight into how Dialogue Ireland historically approached the subject as one of pastoral care. Today, Dialogue Ireland considers the issue to be one of human rights rather than a religious or theological issue.
The thesis also noted the view of Michael Langone who, while acknowledging the shortfalls of the term, noted that no other term thus present captures the essence of this topic (the full essay by Langone and Rosedale is “On using the term ‘Cult’“):
In the ICSA view, because it is so embedded in popular culture, the term cult has limited utility. Nevertheless those who are professionally engaged in helping people harmed by their involvement in a group cannot avoid using it.
“Whatever the term’s limitations, it points us in a meaningful direction. And no other term relevant to group psychological manipulation (e.g., socio-psychological influence, coercive persuasion, undue influence, and exploitative manipulation) has ever been able to capture and sustain public interest, which is the sine qua non of public education. If, however, we cannot realistically avoid the term, let us at least strive to use it judiciously.“
The Psychology of Mind Control & Undue Influence
Understanding how the human condition reacts to outside stimuli is the basis for understanding how undue influence over another can be cultivated, developed and expanded into forms of mind control. The examples of psychological processes given here are by no means exhaustive, and are intended to give a glimpse into how we are all potentially vulnerable to cultic techniques.
Asch Experiment: Conformity to the Group
The Asch experiment elegantly demonstrates the power of the group in shaping the opinion and perceptions of the individual. The internal psychological need to ‘fit in’ and to conform is something we all share, but not something we are all aware of. In the following video is an example of the experiment, which shows just how easily peer and group pressure to conform can override our better judgement.
Milgram Experiment: Obedience to Authority
The power an authority figure can have over an individual is much greater than one may think. Indeed this power appears to be of sufficient strength that it can cause individuals to act against their own personal sense of morality. The Milgram experiment is quite a shocking result for those who have never seen it before.
Stanford Prison Experiment: How situational pressures can corrupt
Originally scheduled to last for two weeks this experiment was terminated after only six days. There has been much criticism over how much the results from the Stanford Prison experiment can be generalised, but there remains little doubt that this provided a shocking glimpse into situational pressure can have a deeply corrupting influence. Viewers are advised that they may find portions of the following videos disturbing.
Lucifer effect: A Modern example of the corrupting influence of situational pressures
In this video Dr. Zimbardo, who conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment, talks about the lessons he learned and how those lessons apply to the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.
Warning: The following video contains photography from Abu Ghraib prison that portrays sadistic and disturbing images. Viewers are forewarned of the extreme and graphic nature of this content.
Dr. Robert J. Lifton’s Criteria for Thought Reform
The following material is an extract from the book ‘Thought Reform And The Psychology of Totalism’. While the book was derived using evidence from the Korean War and from Chinese citizens who fled Maoist China, the book itself is not about China or Korea but rather about universal issues of mind control and psychological manipulation. As the book states, these are “eight psychological themes against which any environment may be judged. In combination, they create an atmosphere which may temporarily energize or exhilarate, but which at the same time pose the gravest of human threats.”
- The most basic feature is the control of human communication within an environment
- If the control is extremely intense, it becomes internalized control — an attempt to manage an individual’s inner communication
- Control over all a person sees, hears, reads, writes (information control) creates conflicts in respect to individual autonomy
- Groups express this in several ways: Group process, isolation from other people, psychological pressure, geographical distance or unavailable transportation, sometimes physical pressure
- Often a sequence of events, such as seminars, lectures, group encounters, which become increasingly intense and increasingly isolated, making it extremely difficult– both physically and psychologically–for one to leave
- Sets up a sense of antagonism with the outside world; it’s “us against them”
- Closely connected to the process of individual change (of personality)
MYSTICAL MANIPULATION (Planned spontaneity)
- Extensive personal manipulation
- Seeks to promote specific patterns of behavior and emotion in such a way that it appears to have arisen spontaneously from within the environment, while it actually has been orchestrated
- Totalist leaders claim to be agents chosen by God, history, or some supernatural force, to carry out the mystical imperative
- The “principles” (God-centered or otherwise) can be put forcibly and claimed exclusively, so that the cult and its beliefs become the only true path to salvation (or enlightenment)
- The individual then develops the psychology of the pawn, and participates actively in the manipulation of others
- The leader who becomes the center of the mystical manipulation (or the person in whose name it is done) can be sometimes more real than an abstract god and therefore attractive to cult members
- Legitimizes the deception used to recruit new members and/or raise funds, and the deception used on the “outside world”
THE DEMAND FOR PURITY
- The world becomes sharply divided into the pure and the impure, the absolutely good (the group/ideology) and the absolutely evil (everything outside the group)
- One must continually change or conform to the group “norm”
- Tendencies towards guilt and shame are used as emotional levers for the group’s controlling and manipulative influences
- Once a person has experienced the totalist polarization of good/evil (black/white thinking), he has great difficulty in regaining a more balanced inner sensitivity to the complexities of human morality
- The radical separation of pure/impure is both within the environment (the group) and the individual
- Ties in with the process of confession — one must confess when one is not conforming
- Cultic confession is carried beyond its ordinary religious, legal and therapeutic expressions to the point of becoming a cult in itself
- Sessions in which one confesses to one’s sin are accompanied by patterns of criticism and self-criticism, generally transpiring within small groups with an active and dynamic thrust toward personal change
- Is an act of symbolic self-surrender
- Makes it virtually impossible to attain a reasonable balance between worth and humility
- A person confessing to various sins of pre-cultic existence can both believe in those sins and be covering over other ideas and feelings that s/he is either unaware of or reluctant to discuss
- Often a person will confess to lesser sins while holding on to other secrets (often criticisms/questions/doubts about the group/leaders that may cause them not to advance to a leadership position)
- “The more I accuse myself, the more I have a right to judge you”
- The totalist milieu maintains an aura of sacredness around its basic doctrine or ideology, holding it as an ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence
- Questioning or criticizing those basic assumptions is prohibited
- A reverence is demanded for the ideology/doctrine, the originators of the ideology/doctrine, the present bearers of the ideology/doctrine
- Offers considerable security to young people because it greatly simplifies the world and answers a contemporary need to combine a sacred set of dogmatic principles with a claim to a science embodying the truth about human behavior and human psychology
LOADING THE LANGUAGE
- The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliche (thought-stoppers)
- Repetitiously centered on all-encompassing jargon
- “The language of non-thought”
- Words are given new meanings — the outside world does not use the words or phrases in the same way — it becomes a “group” word or phrase
DOCTRINE OVER PERSON
- Every issue in one’s life can be reduced to a single set of principles that have an inner coherence to the point that one can claim the experience of truth and feel it
- The pattern of doctrine over person occurs when there is a conflict between what one feels oneself experiencing and what the doctrine or ideology says one should experience
- If one questions the beliefs of the group or the leaders of the group, one is made to feel that there is something inherently wrong with them to even question — it is always “turned around” on them and the questioner/criticizer is questioned rather than the questions answered directly
- The underlying assumption is that doctrine/ideology is ultimately more valid, true and real than any aspect of actual human character or human experience and one must subject one’s experience to that “truth”
- The experience of contradiction can be immediately associated with guilt
- One is made to feel that doubts are reflections of one’s own evil
- When doubt arises, conflicts become intense
DISPENSING OF EXISTENCE
- Since the group has an absolute or totalist vision of truth, those who are not in the group are bound up in evil, are not enlightened, are not saved, and do not have the right to exist
- “Being verses nothingness”
- Impediments to legitimate being must be pushed away or destroyed
- One outside the group may always receive their right of existence by joining the group
- Fear manipulation — if one leaves this group, one leaves God or loses their transformation, for something bad will happen to them
- The group is the “elite”, outsiders are “of the world”, “evil”, “unenlightened”, etc.
The topic of ‘cultism’ is highly complex, but it is Dialogue Ireland’s hope that the material on this page (and on our website at large) will help equip members of the public to better recognise cultist tendencies and attitudes. Such tendencies and attitudes can creep into any almost any group or organisation – even our own. Dialogue Ireland’s mission is one of public education, and though such education the minimisation of the occurrence of harms through such cultic tendencies.
(Dialogue Ireland wish to thank users chrisanon and Consensus of the Whyweprotest forums who first assembled the collection of videos featured in this article.)