Margaret Singer 1978 Persuasion and the Problems of Ex-Cult Members
An Interview with Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D
May 21, 1978
Interview conducted by Dr. Klaus Karbe
Margaret Singer gave this interview, which has been compiled into one statement, in Berkeley on May 21, 1978. It has previously been printed in the conference report of the technical conference on new youth religions in Hanover in February 1978 (Goettingen 1979), although Dr. Singer did not participate in that conference. Dr. Singer used this statement to develop an article which was published in the American Psychology Today and in the German magazine Psychologie Heute in August 1979.
Margaret Singer: have interviewed nearly *300 ex-cult members, primarily from the Unification Church. They were between 16 and 42 years old, and some of them have belonged to a number of cults. There are about nine different varieties of cult: cults which have approximated Christianity, like the Unification Church and the Children of God; cults based on Hinduism; cults approximating Chinese-Japanese religions; cults related to occult mysticism or magic; and race cults such as the Black Moslems. Along with that are Flying Saucer and Outer Space cults, as well as psychological and political cults like the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) which kidnapped Patricia Hearst. You see then, that there are an immense number of cults. We should probably speak about cults or cult-like groups.
A cult must have a self-proclaimed Messiah or messianic leader who says that he gets his power of domination from a source outside of humanity, from a superhuman source. Besides that he must be a living person. The major religions, in contrast, do not possess living self-proclaimed messiahs. The second criterium of a cult is the duplicitous degree of its ethic or moral philosophy – one is the ethic inside of the group which dictates that you should not lie, you should not steal, inside the group you should always be honest; the other is the ethic external to the group which says that you may apply a different degree of ethics in the outside world, you may lie, steal, cheat or otherwise deceive people who do not belong to the cult. Thirdly, all cults seem to deal exclusively with recruiting new members and getting money – in contrast to other religious groups, which perform altruistic work for humankind.
Several cults do not completely fulfill these three criteria. Because of that I would like to call several of these cults cult-like groups. In general, however, these three characteristics determine the existence of a cult or a cult-like group. The cults themselves differ among each other in their ability and their cleverly devised styles of recruiting members. The Unification Church has produced the most cleverly devised recruitment and indoctrination program.
The material which I am looking at now comes from a District Court of the United States. I did not have any legal or judicial responsibility in this one. Hearings in the conservatorship process revealed that the recruitment techniques of the Moonies were very “sophisticated.” They recruit their members in teams, and even operate on the basis of the opposite sex, i.e., two women approach a man on the street close enough so that they can look at him directly in the eyes to get his attention. Then they begin with “love bombing,” and invite him home for something to eat. In doing that they lead the target person to believe that they are members of a “Creative Community Project” or a “New Education Development Program” or even of “Awareness Training”, they may be CARP or HARP members. In other words they have very many different names for their groups, which are all just front groups for the Unification Church. Anyway, when young people are invited to eat, they think that they will get acquainted with group life. They are invited out to the country, and if they agree, they will be driven to a three-day indoctrination program. Then they will be asked to stay for a one-week indoctrination, then for a 21-day program.
If they actually stay that long, then they are indoctrinated enough to send out onto the street to collect money and recruit new members. After one month or a little more than a month they have gone that far – thanks to the techniques which resemble the centuries-old manipulations which people have used against other throughout the entire history of humanity, and which have been much refined by the Communist mainland Chinese and the North Koreans to effect behavioral changes in individual persons or groups. These are centuries-old standard techniques which do not require scientists in white coats. The first step consists of isolating the people so that they are literally transported to a building from which they have no access to their former social ties. Here the people are shipped off to Boonville, Camp Kay or to southern California, where the Moonies have a ranch in the mountains. In New York and Pennsylvania, for example, they are brought to Tarrytown.
The reason why the people are “transported out”:
When somebody wants to modify behavior and attitude quickly, that deals with a type of practical psychology. The subjects must be cut off from all social support, from their social background, from their families, their familiar environment, their friends, their workplace, their schools, and be brought into a new environment. And then, in order to be able to manage behavior processing, like some cults carry out, an absolute control over information is necessary, i.e., control of mail, telephone calls, radio and television, visitors, etc. The people who carry out indoctrination this way gain total control over all possible incoming information. In doing so they avail themselves of a very subtle process. If, for instance, young people would want to telephone their parents or call their friends, they throw their coins into the pay telephones, but the devices in this camp are always coincidentally broken down. Any access to past ties is therefore completely cut off.
Since the people are immediately subjected to an intensive, waking program, they soon suffer from a sleep deficit which clouds their critical ability to judge. On top of that, newcomers are put on a protein-poor diet which leads to digestive disorders so that they do not feel well. They are told, however, that this queasiness is a result of their own evil and satanic existence. Most young people have not been trained to know that a protein-poor diet leads to these complaints. When someone becomes a vegetarian of his own free will, first he usually gathers information as to how he can obtain a sufficient amount of protein. True vegetarians get enough protein even without meat, fish or poultry and do not suffer from these digestive difficulties. So the young people who join these groups have a lack of sleep and protein.
When one is first invited by the Moonies to eat (as reported by the young people who were there), a Moony is always seated on either side of the guests. One is never alone and neither can one speak freely with the other new “recruits.” They start to prevent the recruit from thinking about what he is doing from the program’s outset. They want to stop anyone from reinforcing the doubt or negative attitude which the new “candidates” will undoubtedly have as recruits. When the recruits arrive in the education camp, any negative feeling has been suppressed. It is explained to them right away that “negativity” is not expressed in groups. If they have questions or negative impressions, they are to direct themselves to designated, mostly upper-level people. In this way the recruit does not find out that others also have doubts. He or she just looks around the circle of people and gets the impression that all are in favor because the Moonies have suppressed any negative feeling through their teachings and through the method in which they deal with the recruits and with their own people.
Then they capture the entire attention of the recruit through games, lectures and singing. In other words, they involve people so much that they do not even have time to think about what they are doing. In this way they place people into a sort of trance state. Most people do not even know that they can be hypnotized and put into a trance state by very simple and subtle methods without needing any spectacular preparation like the hypnotist on stage who takes out his watch, swings it around in circles and asks his audience to watch him very closely. There are many subtle processes of capturing other’s attention and causing them to fixate on something, on a lecture or singing, for instance. Through direct, repetitive suggestion their attention can be fixated and all coincidental associations can be suppressed so that young people can be placed into a sort of fascination trance. In this way young people are put into an altered state of consciousness so that their own thoughts and considerations are gradually more and more limited, that means they think less and less about themselves.
Their clothing still needs to be mentioned. If one really would like to change somebody, the external appearance has to be changed, too. Therefore they cause the young people to cut their hair, they give them new clothing and new names, too; all that is part of their new identity. They give them nicknames. They do that in very subtle ways. When someone comes and says his name is Jonathan, he is called Jeremiah from there on in. If someone is called Jeremy, then he is re-named Joshua. They like to take Biblical names. If someone is called Norbert, for instance, he is renamed Noah where possible. If someone is called Susan, the name is changed to Sarah. There is a shift towards more biblical names, but in the form of a nickname and without great ceremony, like in the Hindu cults.
Inside the Unification Church and several other sects, extensive use is made of accidents, of explaining a coincidence by saying that it happened because the person affected was seeking a religious experience or a greater religious meaning in his life. What would have been a sheer coincidence is interpreted by this sect as a special, divine connection or prophecy. They use all possible minor accidents to give the impression that the fact of their encounter is far more preordained than perhaps would have been generally assumed.
At the end of this, all old connections are described as Satanic. Relations to parents, friends, etc. are to be broken from that point on because they are evil. The end result of this treatment is that people feel extremely guilty because of their past. Any instability, any deviation, such as smoking marijuana or an occasional LSD trip, is held up to them as very, very evil. And since most young people do not know what everybody else who has smoked marijuana says, they get the feeling that their little “slip” in using marijuana was already serious drug abuse. That is how it is suggested to them that they were very evil in the past. Wholesale feelings of guilt are produced in this way. Moreover they are given a feeling of guilt that if they leave the group, all their forefathers and descendants will be damned. Therefore the recruits develop major feelings of fear and guilt.
In the group they get a lot of affection, group affection. They are “love-bound,” as the Moonies call it. It is explained to them that they are worthy of love, etc. And that is, naturally, very effective. Most of the youth with whom I have spoken became members at a point in their lives in which they were very discouraged and very lonely.
Then come the Moonies, invite them home, give them stability, pamper them and tell them they are loved. That gives them the feeling that they are good. At the same time feelings of guilt and fear are aroused and manipulated in them in order to convince them that they can only be saved if they stay with the group.
Apart from being depressed and discouraged, many young people have sexual conflicts. How should they choose their partner, have sexual intercourse and marry? When they enter the cult, any sex they had dies.
In the Moonies, for instance, there is only brotherly-sisterly love and contact. If they are actual, righteous, upright Moonies, so the word goes, then they will have a blessed marriage in the end. Here in the California Bay area there are about 300 Moonies, but only six married couples. The chances of marrying are very slim. Several months ago 1,800 people married in Korea, some of them to get passports. According to the information which I have received from former Moonies, there does not appear to be all that many “blessed” marriages.
The other cults are not quite so well organized and not quite so “sophisticated”; the style of monopolization is the same. I have spoken with people from several cults in which the cult leaders had their people wear earphones to listen constantly to the indoctrination lectures. In several cults, people even had to go to bed with the earphones and listen to them the whole time they slept. Content varies widely from cult to cult, however there are great similarities in all, primarily as concerns psychological manipulation, isolating people from their past, changing their conduct, forgetting or giving up their past and remaining with the group.
As now concerns rehabilitation, I have heard from many people who belonged to a cult who could not have left, even if they would have wanted to, unless someone had come and gotten them out. They were not able because of a guilt complex and because they were so wrapped up in the activities of the cult that they could get themselves out only with difficulty. In the United States it often happens that the parents come to speak with the children and literally try to lure them out.
As the opportunity dictates, the parents then get them together with former cult members who tell them what information the cult is keeping from them, and they also receive information as to how behavior modification is brought about by the cult. This is a type of “deprogramming,” and deals with information about the cult leader, how the money collected is being used and about behavior modification. Rehabilitation and the return to normal life is accomplished much easier if the young people meet with “deprogrammers” or “reentry counselors”; those are people who tell them about the cult and advise them about getting back into normal life.
Without this information it is very difficult for people to keep from going back to the cult, because they are not clear themselves about what really happened. Often they hear a voice of hallucination which urges them to stay with the group because they have heard it so often in the indoctrination program and these messages are constantly repeated in the cult: “Stay here, it is the most honest, righteous, upright way of life” etc. I think that it is those who speak with “deprogrammers” or “reentry counselors” who find their way most quickly and easily back into normal life. In doing that I have the impression that most young people who leave a cult of which they were a member for over a year need about one month just to get accustomed to eating and sleeping well, etc., and to have enough time to read more about the cult and be quite simply free and protected from new contact with the cult which would like to win them back. After these three or four weeks of relaxation, nourishment and information, it takes another 8 to 18 months for people who have been in a cult for over a year to regain their mental disposition. By that, however, I do not mean that these people are mentally ill or anything of that sort. Most of them are normal according to American psychological and psychiatric standards. It can only be told from the reports of the parents and good friends who knew the subject people previously how much their intellect has been restricted. Most of them, during the first few months of leaving the cult, begin to realize how much more they think and consider. Then they become aware of how dull and inactive their minds were in thinking. I have contact with many former members here in the Bay Area. The amazing thing, again and again, is that many of them, one or even two years after their departure, are puzzled by the progress they have made in their lives; their spirit is rejuvenated and they once again have a foothold in life. But it still takes 8 to 18 months until they are completely mentally capable again. That, by itself, is fascinating. Very many young people have come to me to get counseling because they are suffering from various forms of loneliness and very diverse problems.
One of the parents’ groups asked me whether I could conduct group therapy with a colleague.
As a result we developed a group effort which we call “discussion groups.” Every Friday evening we meet for two hours, from 7 to 9 p.m. The program runs for three weeks. Then we take a Friday off and meet again for another three weeks, and for three weeks after that. So we get together nine times and have the opportunity to deal with many topics which result from common problems in our individual discussions and individual therapy.
Difficulties of former sect members
The first problem which young people who have left a cult or a sect have is loneliness. Their entire days in the sect, and those of fellow cult members, were full, or they were outside on the street to collect money or recruit new members.
They have tremendous difficulty making their own decisions because all decisions, when they belonged to the sect, were made for them. They even need help in things as simple as buying an alarm clock in waking up on time in the morning.
Another problem is the drifting through the various stages of consciousness which they experienced during their time in the cult. I have spoken with people who belonged to sects which performed much meditation exercise. Some groups have their members meditate 21 hours a day 21 days in a row. Naturally, that has a horrible effect on their frame of mind because they learn how to just sit there and “empty” their minds, that means to shut out any other thought, and that for 21 hours a day, for 21 days.
The fourth problem: depression.
Their old depression which they had when they went into the cult will almost certainly come back when they get out. On top of that they have lost friends which they really liked who are still in the cult. Besides that they have the feeling of having lost their innocence. They went into the cult, full of reverential wonderment, with wide-eyed naiveté, and then they found out that they have been deceived and taken in. So they experience a feeling of grief, of having lost their innocence and having become more skeptical and cynical than they were before.
Besides that these young people have feelings of guilt, because most cults have used them to recruit members and collect money in ways were not always quite honest. In order to receive money or even to recruit members, they have told people stories which are not always true.
The sixth problem: the fear of the cult. Sects differ in the degree of harassment or the efforts to get people back. Several of the young people were in small, very frightening cults and were literally afraid. In some of the major sects certain myths were told that if people left, god would punish them with death or the cult would kill them, etc.
There exists every possible feeling of indebtedness to the people which they have left behind in the cult. In some sects, for instance, people enter as a married couple. Then it can happen that the wife, for instance, can become increasingly aware of what is really being played out here, would like to leave, but she still has a husband and children in the sect. On the other side she also feels like she owes something to the members whom she, herself, has recruited, and who still remain in the cult. Then she questions herself as to whether she could go back and also get these people out.
In our group therapy, we are continually asked the question of what to do and say when one runs into friends who are still members of the sect.
Another problem: how should one get over the constant watchfulness of parents and friends. We call that the “fishbowl effect,” where everybody is looking at the goldfish swimming around. Many former cult members quite simply have the feeling that they are constantly being watched by their families for a sign that they could perhaps run away and go back to the sect. From that, I call it the “aquarium effect,” because the fish in an aquarium can be observed no matter where they swim.
Former sect members would like to speak about the positive aspects of the sect. Their families and friends, however, do not want to know anything about the positive sides. In our groups, I give these people the chance to talk about that. In doing that it can happen that very shy people have learned to establish relations with other people and win friends in these sects. Naturally, they will rate the cult very positively. Or they might want to talk about love and attachment to a single person which they met in the cult. As said, however, their families and friends do not want to hear anything about these aspects. So we talk about that in our groups.
Special difficulties stem from the question: how should you tell people whom you have just recently met that you have been in a sect at all: How can you tell people who have never belonged to a cult without revealing your innermost feelings? It often happens that people say, “How can such an intelligent person join a damned cult anyway?” That is a genuine problem. I tell these ex-members that even the jury could not understand Patty Hearst during her time in the SLA, although A. Bailey tried to use a whole battery of experts to communicate, in brief, how persuasion through force, which is so often called “brainwashing,” works. In our group therapy we talk about how the word “brainwashing” is a term which leaves people much doubt as to whether such control over another person is possible. Then I explain to them how Bob Lifton said in his work that the term “brainwashing” is a sort of bad translation of the Chinese words for “thought reform.” “Thought” was translated as “brain”; “reform” as “washing.” Therefore terms like “mind control” and “brainwashing” are laughed off because people cannot comprehend that something like “coercive persuasion,” as we who deal with these processes call it, is at all possible in sects. We prefer to call it “coercive persuasion” because this designation is less dramatic than “brainwashing,” and therefore more credible. When I worked for the Army, the soldiers always thought that the bullets would never hit them, but would hit others instead. In the same way, people with whom I have spoken about “coercive persuasion” or “brainwashing” think that only simple-minded people could give in to it, but never them. Everybody feels invulnerable, yet we are all vulnerable and can be talked into or forced into something.
People who leave a sect are overly aware of all the sins in the world and of all the inadequacies of their families and of the world. They have to be brought to reconcile themselves to the fact that neither they, themselves, nor any one of us is perfect and that we have to live with this fact.
Another problem area? Those young people would like to be altruistic, but they would like to be able to help humanity without being deceived by another cult. And they do not know how they should go about it.
Ex-members are angry at the sect. After they recognize what has happened to them, most of them have the feeling that they have been misused.
Often those who have been affected are very annoyed about the lost years of their lives which they have dedicated to the cult. Very tragic cases are the women who have belonged to the cult for years, are in their late 30s, and then realize after their departure that they have practically wasted their chance to marry and have children. They could still marry if they wanted to but are, in their opinion, too old to have children. Many women in this situation prefer to remain in the sect because they are past the right time to get married and have children. They see no other chance for themselves.
Many young people who leave a sect have intimate, personal difficulties. They need a lot of help to solve their personal problems. Consequently I speak with many young people and their parents and try to advise them for the long term.
When one leaves a sect or a cult, one no longer belongs to the Chosen Few, the elite, but is just simply one person among many. That, of course, is a strange feeling after having once been a part of the Chosen Few.
One of the greatest problems is the limitation of mental activity, the damming of thought, so to speak.
It has been asked whether many people leave of their own free determination. Only about 10 percent of the 300 ex-members interviewed by me have left of their own will. They were mostly people who had climbed up in the sect hierarchy and had come to know where the money was going. Therefore it was a type of cynicism, based on knowledge, which helped them leave the cult. For these people, who left of their own free will, it is tremendously important to keep in contact with people who, themselves, once belonged to a sect, to get information from them to overcome their past, and understand how things worked, etc. Those who claim to have been “deprogrammed,” but then returned to the sect, were almost never fully deprogrammed, that is, they did not have enough time to retain the information, or the deprogrammer did not recognize that the person was very friendly to all outward appearances, but had still not completely broken with the past. The deprogrammer goes home but the young people still have their problems and questions and do not know who they can talk them over with. So they go back to the cult.
Those who go back also include young people who had tremendous psychological problems before they joined the sect, and who have had a nearly inconsequential life in society. The cult, then, gives them a life in society which they were never able to have before. These people know how very much the cult will praise them when they go back. Some cults overwhelm people with praise and acknowledgment when they have had contact with deprogrammers but came back anyway. There is, as a result, a group of very unhappy, psychologically disturbed people who go back to the cult simply to be praised. It is a very interesting sub-group. You often meet them here. They then tell other former members that they would have gladly left, but found no substitute for that which the sect offered them.
It is difficult to obtain extensive statistical material about the number of those who go back. Several observers estimate that only 5 percent go back.
According to our observations of the 300 youth with whom I have spoken, very few of them return if they have really found good support, have good contact with the deprogrammers who were very calm and friendly and dedicated enough time to them – it is, in fact, very time-consuming – and who also found support in their parents. I absolutely do not believe that the parents can be blamed, or that there are bad parents whose children join sects. The Moonies, for instance, contact very nice children; they instruct their members to recruit only good people, that is, only those who are as good as themselves or possibly even better. Quite the contrary, they are not supposed to bring bad people back with them. In the United States, primarily middle or upper class youth are recruited. In contrast, only very few youth from the lower class are recruited by sects because they are, as they say in the USA, “street-smart,” that means they are clever rascals who know very well that they are not going to be invited to eat for nothing, that they do not get something for nothing, but will have to come up with something in return. However, some sects are now trying to recruit lonely, older women who might be black or belong to another minority. Efforts are made, nonetheless, to recruit old people who are alone, but who can bring in a certain amount of wealth to the sect. But by and large the sects are interested in recruiting young people from 18 to 25 years old.
As to the argument which is often stated in discussion that the parents of the family of the youth who join the cult are to blame, my answer is that I absolutely do not agree. There is, however, a certain percentage of people who join sects because they have monstrous problems with their parents. The vast majority of youth who enter sects are recruited by very “sophisticated” members. They are lonely, they had love affairs or they are between relationships; they find themselves in a transitory phase – between two love affairs, between two work places, between high school and college, etc. They were quite simply in one phase of depression, they were deprived of something in their lives when the sect offered them a kind of ready-made friendship and separated them from their parents. Young people themselves, however, do not leave their parents because they had horrendous conflicts with them. That is not at all the case. Here in the USA, many claim that the young people would not have joined the sects if their parents were not sheer monsters. To that I can only answer that that is not at all the case.
For some years (since the post-war era, I believe), parents here in the United States have not wanted to tell their children anything about the evil in the world. After the war they only had the desire to make their children happy, to present them with a better world. The poor instruct their children not to accept money, clothes etc. from other people. The rich, in turn, tell their children to protect themselves from kidnappers who want to take their money or break into their houses. The middle class parents, in contrast, primarily those of the post-war era, have not told their children that there are evil things in the world because they only want to make their children happy and show them a better and happier world. Therefore they have not told their children enough. Here in Berkeley, for instance, I have told my children that there are bad people on the street and they have to be careful. In spite of that, my children are very happy. My own parents and those of former generations generally had very happy lives with their children even though they told their children that there are good and bad people on the earth, and that they should rely on their own good judgment and not be taken in or let something happen to them – like in the wonderful stories they have been told. I completely believe that parents have failed in that they have not explained to their children and warned them about people who talk cleverly and beautifully and want to manipulate them. That, however, is the only thing which I would blame the parents for.
One goal which young people often seem to be looking for is the wish for total involvement in other people, that is, to find a person to whom they can apply themselves completely and fully, from whom they can feel completely and fully loved, and who dedicate themselves just as perfectly in return. Instead of this now they find the entirely normal highs and lows of various interpersonal relationships, and encounter great disappointments in each phase of the search, which most young people have to go through if they are not lucky enough to find a type of soul mate in earlier years.
If we, as parents, teachers, etc., would express ourselves more realistically, if press, radio and television were more realistic and showed that people have to go through many different friendships in order to find a person with whom they can live or spend the rest or a good bit of their lives, and that this search brings disappointment for very many people, then it could be made clear to the young people that they are not alone on the lonely search for a partner. Our television, movies and romance novels, however, give the impression that everybody, except us, has found the perfect partner. Especially in the movies, young people are given a peculiar concept of how the normal mortal lives. We, as parents, I believe, should help them out more there – by calm discussion about private realities and the reality of interpersonal relationships.
Now to the question of how, in my opinion, a rehabilitation organization should be built… We have to find people like Joe Alexander and his wife, who are quite simply ideal. They know how one manages a rehabilitation center. I think that some youth have to spend a certain amount of time, maybe a month, with people like the Alexander couple, who understand everything. If these young people, after a month or two, want to go back home, want to go back to school, or whatever they and their parents have talked over, then they should do that. I have found that certain parents or parents’ groups sometimes underestimate the fact that most youth who have left a sect want, after a certain period of time, to be independent and self-sufficient, free from parental control. Most of the former sect members, who find help and support in a rehabilitation center and in their families, work their way back into society after a certain period of time, and gradually get accepted. However a small number, about a third of the people who have left a sect (approximately a third of the young people with whom I have been involved) are still a little confused psychologically without actually being mentally ill or suffering from a psychiatric illness which can be diagnosed. Perhaps they need more time – not absolutely with psychiatrists or psychologists, because those people do not understand anything about sects, but with other convinced ex-members and with understanding parents. The average psychologist or psychiatrist cannot help because he is forced to treat terrible neuroses which these young people generally do not have. I have spoken with very many psychologists and psychiatrists and have tried to explain to them that they do not really know what happens in sects or what happens with the young people there, and that they have no concept of “thought control”, “behavior modification” or the other problems which people experience when leaving sects. In the rehabilitation centers, however, are people who understand something about the problem professionally and are interested in the psychological and social processes. They are better able to help the ex-members.
Psychologists and psychiatrists like to write off sects as a genuine religious conversion experience which individuals long for, without having recognized the coercive influence and the “sophisticated” recruitment methods, the side of things which they do not generally see. Moreover, they believe the presence of sects and cults to be a completely normal, transient trend, comparable to the Middle Ages, when people went into cloisters.
Third, psychologists and psychiatrists believe that membership in a cult or sect is an expression of a psychic pathology of young people. I can absolutely not share this view. The other big problem is that career psychologists and psychiatrists have only one form of therapy which they use all patients.
I would like to point out that throughout the entire history of mankind, there have always been cults or sects. The times in which cults rise up have always been times in which there were breaks in the prevailing social structure. At the end of the French revolution, for instance, cults and sects shot up all over Europe like mushrooms from the soil because there had been a break in the social structure. At the time of the Industrial Revolution in England, when all the young people were streaming from the countryside into the cities, where the major networks of operations were located, just as many cults formed back then. Here in the United States, when the big push from East to West began, just as many cults and sects developed concurrently with the break in society. In more recent times, I think that three main things have contributed to the formation of so many cults and sects: at the end of the 1960s here in the USA, we had many young people rioting on the streets; it was the era of the Hippie movement and many similar movements. As these waves subsided, the cult movement came about, which again could be traced to a break in the structure of society. Secondly, a strongly feeling of alienation developed; people felt lonely. In view of the strong industrialization of the United States, the mobility is very high. People break their old connections, move into the industrial centers and feel alienated – not only because of the break in their social structure, but also because of the strong mobility of the population. Third, there is the humanitarian movement. The movement of consciousness expansion, of self-awareness and self-recognition became quite popular among the intellectuals, so we were all told that we could change the world with simple, private meditation.
That is an apparition, an event which traverses all centuries. People just simply believe that all possible kinds of fantastic, new worlds will arise – just by meditation, introspection and inner contemplation. I believe these three things – the collapse of social structures, the feeling of alienation and the suggestion of inner contemplation or meditation – have contributed decisively to the formation of cults and sects in that past, and also at this particular point in time.
Here in the United States the Hindu and meditation trend has receded, in my opinion, while more and more Christian-oriented cults and sects have been developing. However, I do not have any reliable statistics on that to prove it. We have an increasing expansion of the evangelical and charismatic movement in the USA, the Charismatic Movement in the Catholic Church, for example. The people stay in their group, but succumb to other processes, that is, greater social, individual participation in the form of singing, speaking, etc. On top of that a movement can be on a voluntary basis. For instance, people voluntarily join the Baptist Church. The same way they go to the Unitarian Church or to the Jewish community, the Catholic group, etc. In my personal opinion, they are doing that voluntarily.
We have talked about specific events before the Reformation. At that time, there were sects like the Flagellants and other groups. Luther was not the first, by any means. Jan Jus had been trying to reform the Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia. His adherents formed something like a cult or a sect. He was burned at the stake. Here in the United States, many people criticize the Catholic, the Jewish and the Protestant Churches because they are supposedly not energetic and powerful enough to come to terms with the present needs, especially the needs of younger people. There may also be a parallel to Catholicism in the era right before Luther.
The Reformation brought about certain changes; those may perhaps be comparable with those which are happening with the sects. Maybe the complaints about our officially recognized churches should have more attention paid to them. Perhaps something similar is happening in several of the Evangelical Movements and in some of the Charismatic Movements inside of the Catholic, Jewish and Protestant Churches.
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- David McCarthy
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