BY EMMA HEWITT
JUNE 9, 2014
For most educated people the idea that they could be vulnerable to the promises of a cult seems laughable. But according to Ian Haworth, founder of the
Cult Information Centre
, Oxbridge students are among the most likely candidates for recruitment.‘It’s a common misconception that these groups target isolated or vulnerable members of society. Intelligent, well-educated and idealistic people are most susceptible to indoctrination.’ What’s more, the number of cults in the UK is higher than ever before. Haworth claims close to 1000 such groups are operating in the UK with well over 600,000 members – and they can take the form of anything from Scientology to a local yoga club.
Haworth explains what actually constitutes a cult. He makes a distinction between two categories, religious and therapy cults, the former appearing to offer spiritual or political guidance, the latter focusing on self-help. But all cults, he says, have certain things in common. They constitute an elitist totalitarian society, centred around a bewitchingly charismatic leader. They believe the ends justify the means to recruit members and solicit funds. Their wealth does not benefit members, many of whom make extreme life changes; religious cult members often leave society’s work force. Finally, cults use psychological coercion to recruit, indoctrinate and retain members, sometimes with terrifying consequences.
For Haworth, the campaign against cults has a personal dimension. In the Seventies, he was approached by an attractive young woman with a questionnaire, who invited him back to a meeting of the PSI Mind Development Institute. A four day ‘self-improvement’ course, during which Haworth believes he was hypnotized 16 times, convinced him to hand over every penny he owned. Soon after the group was exposed by a journalist, meaning Haworth managed to escape, but suffered eleven months of amnesia and depression in recovery. This experience prompted him to found the CIC, whose charitable status was questioned in 2012 after accusations of bias. Haworth believes these complaints came from a Scientologist. The CIC has managed to retain its status.
Scientologists and Hare Krishnas often appear in the media in relation to ‘cult’ accusations, but in recent years shocking examples of financial and mental manipulation by less high-profile groups have also been reported. Lee Thompson, the leader of a sex cult who walked his girlfriend around on a dog leash, was jailed in 2010 for forcing one of his slaves to have sex with other men. Self-styled guru Michael Lyons was jailed in 2010 for multiple cases of rape, using his messianic status to take advantage of his young female followers. Judy Denton (or ‘Mata Yogananda Mahasaya Dharma’) deceptively coerced members of her Somerset-based Self Realization Meditation Healing Centre into giving her hundreds of thousands of pounds. Last month, Juliette D’Souza was tried for fraudulently taking money to send to a Shaman in the Amazon jungle with the promise he would heal followers.
Despite the media coverage of these stories, Haworth believes the vast majority of cult stories go unreported. ‘If you’re a cult member, you’re programmed to understand that all of the outside world is going to be against you, and especially the media and your family and friends, because they’re all full of ‘negative activity’. Afterwards, you don’t necessarily want to stick your hand up, because that doesn’t help on one’s CV – or in having any kind of credibility. Furthermore, the media itself is manipulated by cults due to fear of litigation. I was sued for thirteen-and-a-half years from early ’83 to ’96, and eventually bankrupted. There have been some hard-hitting stories that have never seen the light of day, because newspapers don’t dare upset organizations and potentially be sued from here to eternity.’
But is the association of cults with extreme instances of abuse too simplistic? Amanda van Eck, Deputy Director of LSE’s
– Information Network Focus on Religious Movements – wants to encourage people to avoid snap judgements. She prefers the term ‘New Religious Movement’ or ‘NRM’ to ‘cult’. ‘“Cult,”’ she says, ‘is very imprecise. Essentially I think people understand a cult to be a small religion they don’t like, for whatever personal reasons. Rather than jumping to conclusions according to generalisations, we’d rather talk about what the issues are with each group individually. One might end up thinking, I need to avoid Scientologists and Hare Krishnas because they’re cults, and then get involved with something else that seems incomparable, which could be equally problematic.’
There are other reasons to suspect the word ‘cult’ unhelpful, though on slightly different grounds to van Eck. Not only will its upkeep likely stigmatise the innocent, I think it will also detract from preventing the harmful, by mythologizing their existence. The idea that your new yoga class is run by ‘cult members’ trying to brainwash you is as believable as someone telling you The Da Vinci Code is a biography of Robert Langdon.
Inform, largely managed by sociologists, though unsurprisingly patronised by influential religious figures, aims to use academic principles and statistics to provide ‘up-to-date and reliable information’ on NRMs. Van Eck’s perspective is in fact wider than so-called cults. Psychological manipulation is not exclusive to NRMs: peer pressure and coercion happen everywhere from boarding schools to boardrooms. Van Eck explains, ‘I’m worried that if you’re told cults ‘brainwash’, but as long as you’re not in a cult you’ll be fine, we will be less critical of the coercion methods we are exposed to in everything from advertising to the workplace.’
For Haworth, however, this tentative attitude makes Inform ‘part of the problem. Nobody in my field deals with it because it’s loved by the very groups with which we are concerned. It pooh-poohs the notion of mind control and disregards, in my opinion, a lot of the clear evidence that’s out there.’ Inform is what Haworth describes as part of the ‘counter-counter-cult movement’. Its founder, he tells me, ‘spent a prolonged period of time with the Moonies in the 1980s, supposedly researching them – but how much time do you need to spend before you are influenced? Whatever the situation, they are giving a different message to the rest of us.’
One thing both Haworth and van Eck agree on is that NRMs are increasing and diversifying in the UK. This is for a number of reasons – travel is more widespread than ever, leading to what van Eck calls the ‘reverse mission’ phenomenon; established religions are both decreasing in overall control and occasionally experiencing revival; the ‘Big Society’ initiative gives religious groups more power, for example over free schools; and the UK’s unusually relaxed regulation of medical practice – unlike in France and Belgium – means anyone can diagnose and treat illnesses privately as a ‘healer’. This has spawned websites such as ‘Sarlo’s Guru Rating Service’ – a rather more tongue-in-cheek approach to the field of NRM studies. A recent addition to Sarlo’s UK listings is Satguru Sri Romana, of the Shiva Trust, that practise Hindu teachings. The Trust does a huge amount for charity – a recent crowd -funding initiative raised £31,000 for a vegan food truck which distributes free meals. I spoke to a member, a composed young man, about how he got involved.
‘I’d always been interested in changing the world and also my own process of spiritual enquiry and growth,’ he told me. Knowing ‘there was more to life than material existence…from my experience with Sri Romana, I felt like she was what I was looking for – that she radiated an amazing love I’d never experienced. She’s a divine incarnation, with no ego or struggles in the way you or I have. There was a small group that went through an intense process with her which culminated in the formation of the charity. It was amazing that simultaneously about a dozen people made an identical life choice – stopped their jobs or moved and sold their houses.’ Anyone can be involved as much or as little as they like with the Trust: ‘It’s open and loose and universal; kind of organic.’ He himself, however, is ‘a practising renunciate – the equivalent of a monk. So that means little contact with the world – I don’t have email, don’t have a phone.’ The group have met some prejudice, which seems to bemuse him. ‘It’s funny because people know very little about Hinduism, even though it’s the oldest world religion. Our director has experienced real bigotry from people who look down on the belief system. Everybody knows there are charlatans and fraudsters, but at the same time the true gurus are not dismissed because of their presence. It’s like saying there are no good politicians just because they are lots of bad ones. People dispute that sat gurus exist, or say that Romana is a cult leader, but everyone who’s met her has had a uniformly positive experience.’
Haworth stresses he has no problem with any belief system; only how believers reached their views. He has identified a wide variety of tactics such as sleep and food deprivation, chanting, and isolation, used by cults to recruit members – but the most dangerous is hypnosis. Many groups ‘claim to practice meditation but don’t define what they mean by the term. They put people into a state of mind where they’re vulnerable to suggestion. With cults it’s a case of double deceit. One, you don’t agree to be hypnotized, and two, you are left with post-hypnotic suggestions that are in favour of the group and its leader. So you don’t choose and it’s not for your benefit.’
Clear definition of meditation, then, is crucial. A former student of St James’ School, which has in the past received some criticism concerning links to the School of Economic Science, and which provides students with the option to meditate, explains. ‘You have to be careful about the different types of meditation. One involves saying a mantra, which is completely internal, and that’s the type my school offered. It’s not repeated out loud so no-one can force you to do it. It’s not about getting rid of thoughts, just about being able to recognize and not be distracted by them – a way of focusing. For us, we could also just sit and read a book if we wanted. Group meditation – doing something where you have to follow a leader – is very different. There are some types I’d personally never be part of because it does feel a bit like hypnosis; like you don’t have complete control.’ For her, the practice was ‘very helpful. I was not a calm child and meditation can be a way of calming down without being punished or told off.’
So how do we respect genuine and beneficial practices, while protecting against the harmful and fraudulent? In 2001, France introduced the About-Picard law, which made it easier to prosecute cults. In terms of legislation, the UK does less than other countries, which Haworth thinks is shocking – ‘we are hopelessly behind.’ Van Eck is less sure. ‘A law focusing on cults would get bogged down by definition. The existing laws could definitely use some more enforcement, though. If victims felt more comfortable about stepping forward, that would be good.’ She cites the Michael Lyons case. ‘Many of the women didn’t want to go to court. Because they said that while they didn’t consent, he was their guru, he had special powers.’ Taking action against NRMs in the courts, however, will always be a difficult process. Van Eck believes victims who feel, for example, that at the time they went through with a process thinking it would heal them, and now think they were sexually abused, are sadly always going to struggle to bring their case forward.
Nevertheless it seems that increased regulation of voluntary organisations, though far from foolproof, would be beneficial. Haworth and van Eck concur that more supervision could help detect dangerous cults, but without the funds, staffing, or support, at the moment such a scheme would be impossible. What is clear is that Britain’s current system is proving receptive both to new fraud and new faith, and the numbers of NRMs will only continue to rise. For now, van Eck encourages us to remain both informed and open-minded. ‘Some beliefs are stigmatised, and others aren’t: but we all believe in something.’
Some names have been omitted for personal reasons.
http://isismagazine.org.uk/2014/06/from ... t-culture/