By Lisa Kendall
Continued from January 20, 2018
Last week we explored how exploitation in high demand groups, commonly known as cults, is harmful to individuals and expensive for society. Some cultic experts say that not all cults are harmful. I disagree. The very definition of a cult – manipulating people for personal gain – requires a victim. Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, explains: “Anything that binds people together into a moral matrix that glorifies the in-group while at the same time demonizing another group can lead to moralistic” harm. His assertion that “many religions are well suited for that task” is especially true of cults.
This brings me to a frequently asked question. How does the impact of abuse in a cult differ from abuse in any other communities?
Many of the now adult children who grew up in the Move of God, the cult my mother joined when I was nine, regularly talk of loss: loss of opportunity, education, family photos (a few Move communities burned them), pets, interactions with relatives outside the Move, nutritious food, toys, books, and friends. The loss of a happy childhood and a meaningful adulthood. The loss of peace as a result of bad memories and nightmares. These are common themes of discussion for many people I know from the only cult I experienced.
Haidt describes the social constraints religion provides as a “moral exoskeleton.” Due to the isolation of many high-demand groups, people who grow up in them have an even thicker moral exoskeleton. Many young people left without exposure to other moral constructs leading them to exhibit reckless behavior at a much higher rate than their mainstream counterparts. People end up like Humpty Dumpty, and entire families like scrambled eggs, with very few ever put back together. Many people I know from the Move of God, the cult I grew up in, report being content with their childhoods. One person’s ceiling is another person’s floor.
A seldom considered way in which religion does harm is the long-term cost to a society’s quality of life. I don’t have adequate training in economics or sociology to elucidate this complex issue, but the hit to the balance sheet is obvious. The tremendous outlay required to foster, educate, heal, house, and incarcerate thousands of people harmed by religious groups that operate in secret to avoid scrutiny leave a shrinking pool of money for education, healthcare, and hunger relief for the population at large.
America’s love affair with religion legitimizes comically absurd belief systems. Harm done by religion, mainstream and fringe, has been widely documented, yet most Christians require extensive evidence of harm before condemning an abusive cult. Without the longstanding acceptance of religion, abusive religious communities would receive greater attention. Our lack of pushback on baseless claims of religious persecution in the US has left us unable to demand investigations too much of the time. We think of the more benign religions as being normal churches and the more severe ideologies as problems without considering their connection. None of it is helpful in the big picture. Science tells us that secular communities and families are healthier and happier.
So, what do people get from religion? Humans need a tribe. Haidt compares the transcendent experience of fans at a sports game as having the same effect as a congregation gathered during a worship service. The game and church service are both about the experience, the euphoric feeling that sustains crowds cheering at a football game and what keeps church members coming back. It’s about being part of a whole, feeling close to others in a culture that many find isolating. The practice of getting this marvelous sense of community from a religious organization supports the questionable religious communities indirectly and thereby the desire to enhance that effect. Cults are community on steroids. More intense belonging. More supportive community, earnest worship, and zealous singing. More extreme ways of worship, such as snake handling, speaking in tongues, dancing in the spirit, rolling in the spirit, faith healings, and exorcisms during worship sessions. (Yes, I bet you do think these things are rare. I wish you were right. Snake handling is the only rare form of worship I listed, and it is far too common… and deadly). All of this leads to more concentrated activities which lead to higher highs and lower lows. The fervent worship typically accompanies a more severe lifestyle with greater demands, such as leaving out common activities and interests seen, at best, as peripheral. Given that, it’s time to stop throwing good money after bad in our quest to heal, punish, and reeducate those harmed by religion. It’s time for prevention.
Solutions: There are people working on the problems associated with cults. One of the organizations that address religious abuse, Child Friendly Faith (CFF), seeks to raise awareness about the ways in which dogma, the power structure, and the desire to protect the organization lead to harm the more vulnerable members of American churches. CFF was founded by an atheist and boasts a diverse board that includes members of the clergy. The commitment to making churches safer by both secular and religious groups is a testament to the severity of the problems people encounter in places of worship.
Here are some other groups doing good things to prevent, expose, and even litigate abuse by cult members: European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Sectarianism, International Cultic Studies Association; and Parliamentary Commission on Cults – in France: Union Nationale des Associations de Defense des Familles et de L’individu; and Miviludes. These organizations need support in the way that mainstream societies provide for the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Center for Inquiry, NAACP, and The Humane Society. Creating and supporting community in secular spaces will lead to fewer people keeping church pews warm and more money in your pockets.
January 27, 2018