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Cults Within & Without

by Archpriest Alexey Young

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. (II Tim. 4:3)

In his monumental work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, written more than two hundred years ago, Edward Gibbon perfectly depicted the religious polytheism of American society in the following description of ancient Rome:

The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman Empire were all considered by the people as equally true.... Rome was incessantly filled with subjects and strangers from every part of the world, who all introduced and enjoyed the favorite superstitions of their native country.... Their love of the marvelous and supernatural, their curiosity with regard to future events...were the principal cause which favored the establishment of polytheism.

In pluralistic, ecumenically-conditioned North America, the average citizen, does tend to think that all religions are basically good, if not basically the same. But as Joan Johnson writes in The Cult Movement (Franklin Watts, 1984):

The past two and one-half decades have shown that all religions are not good. Certainly those groups that masquerade as religions merely to get around laws or avoid taxes are not good. Those groups that use their followers as pawns to attain wealth or power are not good. Groups led by individuals whose motives and judgment are specious are not good. Andreligions that, for whatever reason, condone mind manipulation are not good.

Some years ago I was preparing a catechumen for Baptism. One day he asked me: After Im baptized, will there be higher mysteries or revelations for me to learn about?  I was taken aback until I remembered that he had come from a staunch Mormon background, with heavy emphasis on hidden temple rituals and oaths of secrecy.  In his simple naivet he thought that the cultish aspects of Mormonism might be normal components of all churches. He quite literally didnt know any better.

But we Orthodox also have a simple naivet about the cult mentality, and it is a dangerous naivet.  As virtually every priest knows, more and more converts are coming from cult backgrounds of all kinds.  If a priest is not familiar with the broad outlines of cult psychology, he may be preparing these catechumens doctrinally, but is overlooking the cult mentality unconsciously lurking in the catechumens mind. And because we tend to think of cults in dramatic terms, such as the Jonestown massacre, the Solar Temple suicides, Waco, Texas, or Japan's apocalyptic Aum Shinrikyo cult, we dont realize that we see only the tip of the iceberg—for mind control techniques have become ineffably refined and could even penetrate Orthodoxy itself, under certain conditions.

Combatting Cult Mind Control, by Steven Hassan (Park Street Press, 198), addresses this issue. Mr. Hassan is an exMoonie who, after several years with that cult, was de-programmed. He now serves as National Coordinator of FOCUS, a support network for former members of cults.

After carefully distinguishing between brainwashing (the use of force, sometimes including torture, to coerce anothers thinking) and mind-control (the use of psychological techniques for behavior modification without the recruits awareness that this is going on), the author identifies four main types of cults—on the basis of their use of mind-control tactics:*

1. Religious cults are the most common and familiar. They may be Christian-oriented (e.g., Mormons, Jehovahs Witnesses, or smaller, less well-known groups) or based on Eastern religions (such as the Hare Krishna movement, Rajneesh, etc.). They may be of an esoteric, illuminist orientation (e.g., Rosicrucians, the former Holy Order of MANS) or a bizarre combination (such as the Moonies).  A great body of reliable literature is available on all of these groups—Hassans book contains an extensive and authoritative bibliography—and our clergy should familiarize themselves with this material.

2. Political cults: these include both left- and right-wing fringe elements—among the best known are the various neo-Nazi organizations and Communist groups.

3. Psychotherapy cults emphasize personal enlightenment through allegedly therapeutic techniques and may also contain aspects of both religious and political cults (e.g., Scientology, EST).

Sexual immorality and perversion may or may not be present in any of these first three categories, depending on the particular cult and its founders/leaders.

4. Commercial cults: these groups are less well-known but rapidly growing in our society.  Appealing to greed, they recruit teenagers and young adults through newspaper ads. Usually their victims have to pay stiff fees for training, and end up selling merchandise door-to-door in another city, returning most of their income to the company.

According to Hassan, the four main components of mind control are control of behavior, thoughts, emotions and information.  Control of behavior has to do with environment—what a person wears, where he lives, and often includes sleep restriction and inadequate diet.

Thought control involves manipulation of thought processes so that cult members view reality in terms of us versus them. They are conditioned to immediately reject any criticism of the group or its leaders.

Emotional control makes use of guilt and fear as ways of keeping cult-followers under control. One particularly powerful aspect of fear is the skillful manipulation of followers phobias (troubling and negative thoughts and anxieties based upon poor self-image).  Members are conditioned to define happiness in terms of unquestioning obedience to the leaders, who must be appeased at all cost, yet who never seem to be quite satisfied with ones performance.  Specific behavior modification techniques are extensively used.

Information control denies members the vital information they need to make rational judgments and decisions. Any information critical of the cult and its leaders will be kept from the followers.  Often, control over their lives and minds is so extensive that members may not even know there is outside criticism or concern about their cult.  But as Joan Johnson writes:

Learning to think critically is one of the most important skills an individual develops.  How else can a person make wise decisions?  In a world of the sincere and insincere, of the believable and the absurd, individuals must make difficult decisions. Survival depends on the ability to think critically. That skill can be lost or its growth stunted if it is not constantly used. Imagine how differently history would have been written had Jim Joness followers asked, Why? ... But they didnt.  They were victims of unquestioning obedience. They did not think critically. And now they are dead.

Although not every cult necessarily uses all of the above techniques, Mr. Hassan says that Each form of control has great power and influence on the human mind. Together, they form a totalistic web, which can manipulate even the strongest-minded people.  The more sophisticated the cult, the more subtle will be its use of these techniques, whether alone or in lethal combination. Each method or control is discussed in considerably more detail in Hassans book.

Additionally, an elitist mentality is carefully nourished. Cultists often feel that they are in some special way chosen for a great destiny, a unique task in history. Later we will see the special form this could take even in Orthodoxy. In Hassans words, [Cultists] consider themselves better, more knowledgeable and more powerful than anyone else in the world.

What kind of psycho-social profile does a typical cult recruit have?  According to Peter Rowleys New God's in America (David McKay Co., 1971), A very large number, if not the majority, of the young joining these beliefs have had less than satisfactory experiences with their parents. Middle-aged parents, influenced by materialism and memories of the Depression, either ignored their children or held them in rigid psychological chains. Many new beliefs and particularly the communes are new families replacing those that never existed. The [leaders] . . .  are clearly father-figures, substituting for those Dads who gave their time to the corporation rather than to their sons or daughters.

Orthodox parents must also realize that there are tens of thousands of ex-cult members in our society today—and by God's Providence some of them find their way to Orthodoxy. Hassan says that they leave a group in three basic ways: they walk out [many, once they see that something is very wrong, literally run away], they get kicked out (often in a very burned-out condition, both psychologically and physically), or they get counseled out. Although they are fortunate to leave the destructive cult, the adjustments to life in the real world can be extremely difficult. If they dont get good information and counseling after they leave, the cult-induced phobias they carry with them will make them into walking time bombs. Also, many cult members have lived for so long without any kind of normal work or social life that the process of readjustment to adult life is an uphill climb.

This process of readjustment may fall to the pastoral counselling of the priest during the time of preparation for Baptism. His expertise—or lack thereof—may be critical to the future spiritual survival of the ex-cult member, now a catechumen.

But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions,
do the work of an evangelist, make full the
proof of thy ministry (II Tim. 4:5).

Orthodoxy has seen cults before: indeed it has had a long history of experience and wisdom in that regard. Even a Jim Jones and his Jonestown is nothing new: a few fanatics among some 17th-century priestless Old Believers urged their followers to commit self-immolation in order to escape what they believed were the forces of Antichrist—and many of them did. But aside from doctrine, the primary difference between the old Khlysty or Skoptsy sects in Russia and modern cults, is the much more sophisticated use of mind control.

We rarely speak of it, perhaps do not even suspect it, and are certainly uncomfortable with the idea, but cultism has had its impact within Orthodoxy even today.  Some of us know about those places, situations, and leaders (sometimes abbots or archimandrites, occasionally even married priests) who have exerted an unhealthy and puzzling influence over their followers—but we didnt necessarily associate this with cultism.

Those of us adhering to the old ways of our fathers in the Faith value obedience and humility, a careful preservation of monastic principles, and we look constantly to our elders (especially in the monastic ranks) for guidance and example. But these are all practical ideals that, in the hands of the inexperienced, the mentally ill, the amoral, or the power-hungry, can be abused.

There are many books in English which deal with traditional monastic or lay spiritual struggle (in Greece, Russia, and elsewhere). The best are lives of saints and biographies of great Church leaders, both men and women. There are also excellent manuals about spiritual struggle (such as Unseen Warfare and The Arena). Such books can provide a standard by which the neophyte can measure what he is experiencing in a given church situation.

However, a note of caution: although one reads much in those books about startzi (elders) and obedience to them, it must be made clear that in this country, at least, there are NO true elders today whose voice can be the voice of heaven for a disciple or spiritual child.  To think otherwise is very dangerous: whole groups have been led into schism or heresy because they believed their leader to be an unerring elder.

In addition to the outline of mind-control techniques given in the first part of this article (which may apply totally or in part to cult manifestations when they occur within a Church context), there are certain questions that should be asked about individual leaders and their followers.  If the answer to any one of these questions suggests that something is not quite right, the follower (whether he be in a monastery for men or women, a parish, or in a lay association) should immediately leave, for obedience has meaning and value only if it is freely given, not if it is extorted by means of fear, guilt, or emotional blackmail.  This cannot be understated.

1. What is the history of the group or jurisdiction?  As a priest, I have often been surprised at how little interest the prospective convert shows in this question.

2. The leader (bishop, abbot, abbess, priest, layman, etc.) of the group: What is his background and training?  Beware of cultish talk such as, All of the other monasteries are bad; you cant trust them, but were doing it right!

3. Is there paranoid talk or a feeling of us versus them?  Does the leader feel persecuted and misunderstood by others in the Orthodox world?  Are outsider critics seen as the enemy? Are followers discouraged from having contact with those that are outside the group?  Are critics invariably referred to in un-Christian or demeaning language (such as stupid, vulgar, peasants, worldly, etc.)?

4. Have you ever been asked to do something you knew to be illegal, immoral, or degrading?  This is a tricky one, for once the cult mind-set has been accepted by the follower, all kinds of things can be justified in the name of obedience, a sense of superiority, etc., indicating a psychopathic mentality on the part of the leader.

5. Are there doctrinal/historical deviations such as We dont need bishops (or priests, etc.); all of the bishops have gone bad? Beware: this usually indicates that the leader in question has gotten into some kind of trouble with his bishop (if he ever had one).  Are attempts made to undermine or destroy the reputation and character of other accepted authority figures in the Church, or at least cast doubt on their competence?

6. While there may not be external signs of great wealth in a given group, are there attempts to persuade recruits to sign over money, property, or credit cards to the group?  (Even in a monastic situation this should be watched very carefully. Normally, a novice would not make a financial transferral—either to his own family or the monastery—until he was ready for tonsure.)  Are relatives and visitors flattered and specially honored in order to obtain large donations from them?

7. Are guilt and fear employed to, first, get someone into the group (If you dont become a monk I can guarantee that you will go to hell) or, second, to discourage them from leaving (If you leave, you will be lost, you will go back to your former immoral life-style)?  Is there a lack of congruity concerning those that have left the group?  For example, you know that a given recruit simply walked out, but the leaders invariably say that he was kicked out for (choose one) immorality, mental instability, disobedience, etc., rather than, simply, He wasnt suited for the monastic calling.

8. If you are a layman in a parish situation, are you expected to get permission (a blessing) from the priest before you change jobs, buy a new car, etc.?  Under normal circumstances these are not the proper purview of a parish priest, however wise and pious he may otherwise be. One may—and should—ask for prayers and advice about these and other non-controversial aspects of practical life, but asking for permission is a quite different thing.

9. Is lying or misrepresentation justified by the leader because, he says, the group is serving a higher cause? In other words, do the ends justify the means?

10. Are members given medical treatment (physical or emotional, if needed) by the group, or are they sent home so that the family can bear the expense?

11. Is there grandiosity on the part of the leaders?  In other words, do they see themselves and the group as somehow rescuing, fixing, or saving the rest of the Church?

One may, indeed, be giving a very good witness, but this is not something to be shoved down the throats of others or trumpeted far and wide.  In Orthodoxy, a witness is simply lived, quietly, peacefully, and in harmony with others as best as can be.  In this century, the examples of Saint Nectarios of Aegina and the righteous Papa Nicholas Planas of Athens, not to mention our own contemporary, Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco, are good examples of this.

For parents whose children may one day be tempted by this or that guru (whether in the Church or out), Steven Hassan has wise words:

Reliance on television for entertainment and information, is also a factor in predisposing one to cult membership Unfortunately, most television viewing does not stimulate our intellect, imagination or higher aspirations. Instead, television encourages conformity and creates a distorted perception of reality.  Where else can all problems be resolved in a one-hour episode?  In addition, while it is certainly important to know what is happening in the world, incessant news reports on drug problems, sex scandals, corruption and violence take their toll on the American psyche.  We become desensitized to our own values and lose the powers of creativity and discrimination.

In the last decade or so, the cult mentality has seriously threatened the innocent minds and souls of many Orthodox seekers. Some of them have been grievously harmed, even though they may have left the groups that were harming them.  As parents and priests, we have a responsibility to face this problem squarely and honestly, although it is not easy or comfortable to do so. We must not pretend  or hide our heads in the sand.

Among the tasks that face us are—

1. To help parents understand the factors in family life that might predispose our children to one day abandon their free will to unscrupulous and unworthy leaders, whether in the Church, in politics, or elsewhere.  We must teach children what free will is, how it operates, and why it is so precious. And we must start teaching them now.

2. We must educate our young so that they understand what true spiritual fatherhood (or motherhood) is, what authentic monastic life consists of, and what, by contrast, are the recognizable signs of a cult.

3. By our example and words, we should try to rescue as many souls as we can who are presently involved in cult activity and who, no longer able to exercise their own free will, may never find the strength of will to walk out on their own.

4. Counsel and nurture those who have already left a cult but may be silently suffering not just emotional scars but still-open wounds from the experience.

Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day.  (Eph. 6:13)

From Orthodox America #139. This article started a three-part exchange between St. Gregory Palamas Monastery and Vladimir Moss.