Can insights and lessons about human behavioural trends and group psychologies from cults help us understand and thereby reduce risks of terrorism today?
Written by Sarah Mills
Whether they are known as high-demand/control groups, new religious movements, or cults, their frequent association with scandals in which both physical and psychological abuse, violence, and even fatalities feature notoriously, begs the question: At what point does a religion cease to be a relatively anodyne cultural system and cross over into territory the state should not, must not, protect through religious freedom?
The argument could be made that no religion is entirely innocent; throughout history, different religions have, with the complicity of the state, not only made adherence to their precepts compulsory under pain of torture or death, but also forcefully converted nonbelievers in their imperialistic ambitions. Comedian Joe Rogan made the following joke: “The difference between a cult and religion? A cult is led by a guy who knows it’s bullshit. In a religion, that guy is dead.”
Established religions often cite deviation from the norm as a defining characteristic of cults to undermine their legitimacy. This norm, however, is a product of time. Christianity itself was once considered ‘deviant.’ So how can we determine what a cult is and why should we care? Through a consideration of the definition of the word ‘cult’ and the psychological effects of indoctrination; an examination of a sect that might better be defined as a cult and thus useful for illustrative purposes, namely Jehovah’s Witnesses; and the relationship between cult mentality and terrorism, I will argue that the study of cults holds significant potential in unlocking the bases for violent acts of devotion that seem to merit more than socio-political explanations. I will argue all of this in the hopes that legal systems might no longer overlook religious activity that infringes upon the human right to think critically and be free from coercive persuasion, which all too often leads to hate and destructive behaviour, including extremist violence.
The word ‘cult’ is no stranger to controversy owing to imprecise, conflicting definitions. What Merriam-Webster offers is limited: “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious”- often the preferred definition of established religions; and “great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work,” which elicits the idea of cultural products that are said to have ‘cult followings.’ Hardly sufficient to convey the more heinous aspects that often accompany cults or that are even intrinsic to their nature as relatively new phenomena intent on solidifying power by any means necessary. Oxford Dictionary approaches the target a little better, especially in respect to the most latter part: “A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or as imposing excessive control over members.” The layman’s mental picture can often lie on the fringe of reality that is popular conception regarding cults, shrouded in ‘strange’ ritual imagery of blood sacrifice, orgiastic rites, and wild beliefs in transcendental space creatures (though, isn’t the latter true of almost all religions?). While the most infamous cults have been known to engage in the above, abusive behaviour can unfortunately be subtler than that and therefore infinitely more difficult to detect and prosecute. It is primarily through the criteria put forth by psychologists, sociologists, and the like that we can properly begin to classify groups as cults that we might never have suspected of being such.
Mental health councillor Steven Hassan, former member of and recruiter for the Unification Church, has written extensively on cults. He uses a method he developed called the BITE model to describe four characteristics that are common to cults guilty of coercive persuasion: Behaviour, Information, Thought, and Emotional control. After the Boston marathon bombings, he was consulted regarding his views on the perpetrators’ state of mind. In formulating his theories on mind control, Hassan was heavily influenced by psychiatrist Robert Lifton.
Criteria for thought reform:
Robert J. Lifton, a psychiatrist known principally for his theory of thought reform and his studies on war, terrorism and their relationship to psychology, coins precise terminology to explain the processes behind coercive techniques used in mind control in his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China. Through his research on tactics employed by Chinese communists to effect drastic changes in personality and opinion, he delineates what he refers to as the “Eight Criteria for Thought Reform,” criteria that have since been applied to cult dynamics: (1) Milieu Control, (2) Mystical Manipulation, (3) Demand for Purity, (4) Confession, (5) Sacred Science, (6) Loading the Language, (7) Doctrine over Person, and (8) Dispensing of Existence. What emerges is an elucidation of an almost methodised scheme to successfully control thought and behaviour, a scheme Orwell masterfully recognised and fictionalised in the ever-popular 1984.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have been the topic of recent discussion surrounding religious freedom. With Russia’s decision to ban the sect under pretences labelling it ‘extremist,’ many rushed to its defence, rightfully citing that the Witnesses are peaceful and are taught to submit to local authority. That the Witnesses are nonviolent, however, is not under discussion. They, and many groups like them, are not formally recognised as a cult. But neither designation nor persecution status can mitigate the damage high control groups inflict on their members. Was Russia right to ban their assembly and confiscate their property? I would utter an emphatic “No!” as I’m sure any proponent of freedom of speech and religion would. But are their practices completely innocuous? More importantly, would categorising them differently shed light on mentalities and thought processes that are naturally conducive to abuse? Does a group need to be explicitly violent, or even cult-like at all, to have any of its dynamics questioned or legally obstructed?
Unmasking the method:
(1) Cults, and other thought control groups exploiting similar strategies, first embark on the insidious mission to isolate the recruit from their ‘milieu’ or family, friends, and community. Jehovah’s Witnesses anticipate eventual apprehension and discouragement from concerned relatives or friends. They frame this within a persecution narrative that establishes right from the start that this sort of behaviour is not only to be expected, but is a sign of demonic forces at work, actively planting the seeds of doubt in the mind of the recruit through their close ones. Any opposition is from the Devil and must be guarded against and even avoided. Close association with nonbelievers is highly discouraged, even if this means minimising contact with family members who are seen as a threat to the recruit’s devotion to the cult.
(2) By manipulating circumstances to create the impression of divine intervention, like prophecy fulfilment and historical revisionism, cult leaders reinforce the idea that their group is favoured and part of an eternal plan. Jehovah’s Witnesses reinterpret actual historical events in light of biblical prophecies, most famously the year 1914 and the onset of World War One as marking the beginning of what they refer to as the ‘last days’ in their eschatology. They also use biblical verses that speak of a ‘faithful and discreet servant whom the lord has made ruler over his household’ to lend legitimacy and authority to their organisational hierarchy, the ‘governing body’ based in Warwick, New York, which formulates doctrines, produces literature, and organizes international operations. Cults consistently favour ‘knowledge’ that is filtered through the hierarchy as opposed to individual interpretation. They openly state that members would be hopeless without the ‘faithful and discreet servant’s’ interpretation in publications like the Watchtower and Awake! magazines, only two in a litany of resources that guide Bible reading.
(3) Cults often come with ‘loaded language’ or a set of vocabulary that uncannily approaches ‘Newspeak’ in the way it obstructs critical thinking and allows members to avail of ready-made responses. Lifton used the term ‘thought-terminating cliches’ to describe these easily memorised responses that discourage free, individual thinking. Hearing these words and phrases repeatedly and incorporating them into daily speech is a form of conditioning. It alters a person’s thinking in order to make it consistent with the cult’s perspective. Jehovah’s Witnesses refer to their belief system as ‘the truth.’ ‘New system of things’ refers to the new world order that follows Armageddon, or the apocalypse that will cull believers from wicked nonbelievers. ‘Worldly people’ is used to describe anyone outside the cult. Contact with people outside is highly discouraged. This is only a small sampling of the vocabulary used to reinforce the idea that this group is separate and esoteric.
(4) The recruit either conforms entirely to doctrine or is shamed and excluded under the guise of maintaining ‘purity’ within the ranks. The Witnesses pride themselves on their distinction from the rest of the world as peaceable, wholesome, non-racist, devout, and clean (they have articles dedicated to literal hygiene and micromanaging the lives of the Witnesses) as though these traits were exclusive to them. They are God’s “chosen people”, who will inherit the earth, and must proselytise to win as many over to the faith as possible, lest they perish in the Final Judgement. It is not enough to be a good person. This is a group with world-changing ambitions. It is not only a religion, but a lifestyle governed by doctrine that burrows into the minutiae of everyday life – even holidays are not to be celebrated because an examination into their origin reveals them to be pagan (an arbitrary decision if there ever was one- a plethora of innocuous customs, customs they take no issue with, have origins in pre-Christian culture). One must be in the faith and follow it to the letter, or he/she is culled from the congregation in a ‘disfellowshipping,’ or excommunicating, ritual, which brings us to the next point:
(5) Members are exhorted to confess their own sins, and even report any suspicions regarding the misconduct of others, to the elders of the congregation. What is created is an unhealthy environment of guilt and a power play between dominant and submissive, absolver and sinner. If the Witness elders deem the sin serious enough to warrant excommunication and the sinner insufficiently penitent, the sentence is pronounced in front of the entire congregation. Privacy is of relatively little importance. Disfellowshipped persons are cut off from any cordial contact hitherto enjoyed within the cult; any gatherings, picnics and recreational activities are off-limits. Family members are encouraged to maintain minimal, strictly necessary contact with them in the hopes that this will set them on the right path in recognising the gravity of their ways and turning again to God. Isolation, loneliness, and depression are highly effective methods for forcing a person to conform – and the bond between parents and children is not spared. Anyone who decides this is unhealthy and chooses to pursue a burgeoning, critical line of thought and speak up about this unhealthy practice is labelled an apostate. Apostates are said to be “better off dead” and are certainly seldom spoken to: all this in the name of “love”.
(6) ‘Science’ is fitting a term here as the doctrine that is put forth as unquestionable veracity, as though it were verifiably correct in the same way a hypothesis tested by the scientific method might be. A frequent, esteemed example used to illustrate blind devotion is that of the biblical Abraham, who, when asked to sacrifice his son, proceeded to prepare to do just that until God intervened and spared the young man. At church meetings, which are held often twice a week alongside family Bible study, proselytising commitments and annual assemblies and conventions, members are often questioned whether, if the organisation told them to, they would wake up every morning at three o’clock and jump around. They are exhorted to do so without questioning the motive, as God always has a purpose that is often hidden or incomprehensible to us. The cult’s perspective is all-encompassing, applicable to every aspect of life, and not subject to questioning. Any amendments follow (as they often do when prophecies fail to come to fruition) under the pretext of ‘new light’ that God directly sheds upon His organisation through the governing body. Disagreement and personal opinion are not only discouraged, but portrayed as signs of haughtiness and insufferable individuality. Members must never prioritise their own thoughts, but must acknowledge that the governing body has their best interests at heart and that they are simply not capable enough to interpret the true and proper meaning. Humility is emphasised in this context. To ever truly get through to a Witness, logic must be eschewed in the initial stage. Any attempt to directly attack practices or teachings of the organisation result in defensive, automated behaviour and recitations from their literature. They are conditioned to believe opposition is nothing but lies intended to thwart them on the road to salvation.
(7) Doctrine supersedes individual experience, and the latter is often reinterpreted in light of the group’s precepts. If a member was unhappy for any reason prior to their involvement with the organisation, this is seen as confirmation of the cult’s capacity to provide meaning and satisfaction in life. If something unfortunate befalls a member while within the organisation, this is seen as a test of faith or as persecution from a devil intent on distancing the member from God’s flock. Any experience is affirmation and is often shared publicly during conventions and assemblies, wherein members recount their stories as inspiration – stories of overcoming financial difficulty by remaining committed to attending church services and foregoing promotion at work; stories of spousal abuse relenting because of the wife’s admirable devotion to both God and her husband; and stories of ex-homosexuals persisting in the straight and narrow path to realize that yes, they are indeed more satisfied and fulfilled (the position of the Witnesses on homosexuality has remained unflinchingly backwards as other denominations adapt Bible teachings for a more humane, 21st century interpretation).
(8) There is no salvation outside the cult. Existence, or survival even, is ‘dispensed’ or bestowed upon cult members exclusively. The Watchtower and Awake! magazines state in no uncertain terms that anyone found outside of God’s true organisation at the time of judgement will perish – an end that depends neither upon charity or goodwill nor any other aspect of morality so much as it does membership to the party. Their covers are frequently adorned with violent, apocalyptic illustrations depicting fire raining down from the sky over a corrupt city shrouded in darkness, as God’s chosen people escape to safety and a subsequent earthly paradise. Does such a message leave room for people to adhere to the cult for any reason other than sheer terror? Are children immune from judgement? If so, are they allowed to mourn as orphans the death of their sinful parents?
Psychological effects of cult involvement:
If all this has not been sufficient to warrant scepticism regarding the perceived innocence of organisations or groups that are not explicitly violent, what is to be said of practices that result in suicide or death by wilful negligence in the name of religious belief? The practice of shunning, in which members shun, disavow, or cut off contact from other members who have gone astray, can potentially lead to devastating consequences. In a dramatized, instructional video produced by the governing body (and released by several Youtube users in an attempt to expose this harmful practice), a young, adult woman is shown to suffer the consequences of her sinful behaviour. Her natural desire for a male companion leads her into temptation and she is shunned by her parents who, following the Biblical example of Aaron whose rebellious sons were killed by God and whom God told not to mourn their deaths, refuse to answer phone calls from their lonely, depressed daughter who, as the narrator tells us, ‘just wanted to hear their voices.’ Does the punishment really fit the crime? A quick Google search reveals how this practice has led to the suicide of countless victims who, feeling worthless, abandoned and guilt-ridden, have preferred to take their own lives rather than live with the shame of having disappointed God, their family, and the only friends they know. In an online petition over six thousand persons signed, there was an appeal to launch an investigation as to whether Jehovah’s Witnesses can be held at all accountable for their practices and whether they have the right to use mental coercion to force members not to leave. However, the abuse does not end here.
The refusal of the Witnesses to accept blood transfusions has been directly responsible for deaths, sometimes even the deaths of children. Basing their belief on millennia-old biblical verses that say to ‘abstain from blood,’ the writers of which were referring to blood consumption in food and could have never foretold advancements in medicine that would end up only preserving the sanctity of life, the Witnesses risk their own lives and those of their children by refusing life-saving treatment. Manon Boyer, aunt of Eloise Dupuis – a young woman who refused a blood transfusion after giving birth and died of a haemorrhage – says that the practice amounts to an ‘honour killing.’ The victim’s relative contends that she was not in a position to give informed consent and might have been under undue influence from the Jehovah’s Witnesses hospital liaison committee, who made sure the doctrine was upheld. A report by the National Institute of Health explores the ethical concerns at the intersection of religious doctrines, the ‘do no harm’ oath, and the delicate position of those in the medical field. For the interested reader, this link also provides a harrowing, close examination of the manipulative language used in the organisation’s literature to praise the needless sacrifice of lives in upholding a doctrine that has no convincing biblical basis – let alone moral justification (“Would a Christian break God’s law just to stay alive a little longer in this system of things?”).
By now, it might be reasonable to assume that the reader has either subconsciously or consciously made the connection between this group and another toxic strain of religion that has permeated within society. This toxic of strain of religion has significantly more extensive political reach, a wider audience under its influence, and far higher fatalities that extend even to nonbelievers. It is primarily this last point that distinguishes cults from terrorist groups. But is the underlying, driving mentality any different? And what of groups that do not engage directly in terrorism, but that fuel the ideology that leads to it? I encourage the reader to put radical Islam to the test by running it past the defining characteristics of a cult. Is mixing with nonbelievers in a tainted or worldly ‘milieu’ seen positively? Are believers convinced they have a calling or a higher purpose, and are events, wins, losses reinterpreted to suit the belief system? Is the ‘us versus them’ dichotomy clearly demarcated? Is there extreme pressure to conform and is public shaming or punishment an occurrence? How are ex-members treated? Is the doctrine above questioning and all-encompassing, applicable to every aspect of life? Does it dictate these aspects? Does it come with a special set of vocabulary that reinforces the insiders/outsiders binary? Is individuality condemned? Is salvation reserved only for members? Is death reserved for nonbelievers? Will the entire world eventually be comprised of or inherited by believers? Does religious influence spill over in extremely harmful ways into everyday life, even in nations not governed by radical Islamic law?
Cults and Terrorism: Is there a connection?
Extremist thinking is not the exclusive domain of terrorists. But terrorists are fuelled by extremist thinking. Dr Arthur Dole, professor in psychology and member of the International Cultic Studies Association Board of Directors, studies the connection between cult-mentality and terrorism using the GPA, or Group Psychological Abuse scale, to determine how closely different entities – including Al Qaeda and Heaven’s Gate, for example – conform to the approach employed by high control groups. He acknowledges that terrorists target non-combatants, while cults direct their hostility against members or ex-members. With regards to Heaven’s Gate, he did not see, for instance, any terrorist behaviour that might have posed a threat to outsiders. According to his interpretation of GPA items, however, he concluded that much like the suicidal supporters of the Heaven’s Gate leaders, the devotion to Bin Laden’s leadership exhibited by his followers was decidedly cult-like. When Dole rated Al Qaeda on the scale, it resulted strongly characteristic of a group that made use of psychological abuse. Al Qaeda scored exceptionally high on Compliance and Mind Control in which obedience to Allah superseded everything else. Terrorist organisations, much like cult leaders, offer followers a ‘transcendent vision, an ideal world beyond planet Earth that they [can]attain by the ultimate self-sacrifice.’ Camaraderie, initial love-bombing, a sense of purpose, superiority, and distinction from a corrupt world of ‘others,’ a curtailing of individual freedoms for the greater goal, and a fostering of ‘deep-seated anxious dependency on the group and its leaders’ are all signs that are frequently shared by both cult and terrorist group leaders.
In an article on the American Psychological Association’s website, Hassan says, “We need to apply what we know about destructive mind-control cults, and this should be a priority with the war on terrorism. We need to understand the psychological aspects of how people are recruited and indoctrinated so we can slow down recruitment. We need to help counsel former cult members and possibly use some of them in the war against terrorism.” He makes the link between cults and authoritarian regimes, like Nazi-fascism, which also extensively exploited propaganda and thought-stopping vocabulary that effectively obstructed any doubts from entering the minds of those under its control. Much like Dole, Hassan asserts that Al Qaeda, like other terrorist groups today, fulfils the criteria for a destructive cult. Stephen J. Morgan, former leader of an extremist political cult in the 1980s and member of the American Management Association/Management Centre Europe in Belgium, currently lectures on how crucial an understanding of cults can be in combatting terrorism. “It is a question of our health and safety as a nation,” he said in a convention on the matter. Dole explores the potential applications of a view that considers cult and other extremist mentality on the same level. He suggests that certain interrogation methods, consistent with human rights, might be ‘adapted from effective exit consultation or other methods of behavioural change with former cult members.’
Freedom from religion:
What, then, are the degrees of distance separating a Christian denomination and a group that only takes things a step further in enacting God’s apocalyptic end goal for Him? What would it take for one to cross over into the next? How much difference is there really in believing it is just to kill another human and believing it is just that God do so? Does mind control only exist in the realm of science fiction? Many groups make use of it with impunity. We respect no one’s culture when we do not recognise the imperialistic, domineering ambitions of mind control groups. These pervasive, dictatorial organisations rob their members of their individuality and identity. This should not cause people to retreat as though the very freedom of religion were being discussed. It can be tricky to advance a liberal defence of banning, and this article is certainly not calling for a ban on any religion. But should religions be immune to scrutiny? That is a very illiberal concept. From the moment religion infringes on the fundamental human rights to live, think critically, act independently, speak freely, it should cease to enjoy freedom for itself. An understanding of the mentality that drives people to abandon these ideals – whether this mentality manifests itself in cults, terrorist organisations, political groups, or even communities – will help us establish a common way of treating the root of the problem. Extremist thinking is a religion in and of itself and it should never be above questioning, much less respected.
Sarah Mills is a managing editor and writer at Uncommon Ground Media.