Guest writer Lisa Kendall
I’m an SGA. That’s a second generation adult from a high demand group, commonly known as a cult. The flavor of cult my mother joined when I was nine was an end-time movement. There are five varieties of high demand groups including Bible, New Age, and Eastern, with over 3,700 “known” to exist. The Move of God, my former home, is and was an international bible cult. The communities I, and many I know from the Move, grew up in were highly exploitive in the 70s and 80s and remain so today although slightly better due to outside pressures.
Why am I outing myself here? Because there are hundreds of thousands of us and you need to know who we are and how we make your life harder.
Cults are expensive. For the people snared by their enthusiastic welcome and for the world left to clean up the mess. You are part of the mess-cleaning-up machine even if you don’t pay taxes.
What has this got to do with religion? For one, the acceptance of religious dogma in American culture creates a slippery slope that allows extreme religions to flourish. Widespread belief about God’s will and God not giving you more than you can bear keeps people in harmful communities attempting to bloom where they are planted. But we’ll get back to that.
In Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind; Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, he explores values related to individual and collective societies (cults are very collectivist). One study he references contrasts the difference in the view a town in India has toward widows eating fish three times each week with the way it is viewed in the West.
Members of the Indian town or Orissa would condemn a widow, on moral grounds, for eating fish regularly while Americans have no problem with it. Since Indians view fish as a “hot” food, it is believed that eating it regularly would increase the widow’s sex drive. Mythology is at the heart of the prohibition against regular fish consumption for women familiar with the pleasures of the flesh while being unwed. For those indoctrinated in this culture, folktales have become reality and dictate how people should live.
In the christian religion, a folktale about a virgin birth became ideology making it reality for those indoctrinated in that culture. In the Move of God folktales from the biblical “book” of revelations captured the imagination of a schizophrenic Southern Baptist preacher. Sam Fife, our original leader, was unemployed when god called him to save the world. He told anyone who would listen, including himself, that god has chosen him to usher in a new era. The world would end in five years when the tribulation began for the bad people good enough to be chosen to suffer for a hundred years to earn a ticket to heaven. People in the Move would help those during the Tribulation. For those of us indoctrinated in this ideology this was our reality. It might not have been mine, but it was for almost everyone I knew.
Like the widows of Orissa, folktales dictated how I lived from 9-19 years of age. The Move of God dictated that children be raised to avoid worldly things. The world according to them was fallen. Since Satan constructed everything in the physical world, children should not be exposed to it. Most people understood the decree forbidding movies, tv, radio programs, current fashion (normal clothes), books, magazines, science, music (even commercial christian groups), and star and moon jewelry (pagan/Satan). Some of us did not.
To give you an idea about how many people are impacted by cults, there is a network of organizations that study, document, expose, and combat cults in Europe and the Americas. The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) is one of the more widely known. Their stated mission is to “study psychological manipulation, especially as it manifests in cultic and related groups.”
There are many accepted definitions of a cult, but let’s just go with theirs for now:
A group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control designed to advance the goals of the group’s leader, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.
A bit wordy for my taste, but as an official definition by a prominent anti-cultic organization in the US, I’m using it this time. All of those words relate to the pain and loss of people whose stories are rarely told. I am one of those people. So are the children I grew up with. Ongoing abuse, neglect, and exploitation led many to mental health wards, prison, and early graves. In most cases, the few parents who defended their children were swiftly dealt with by those we were told to trust.
Predators were pushing on the open doors of the most vulnerable to exploit for sex and money. Of course, many of the devoted followers I knew or knew of, were good, well-meaning people. Many did not know what was happening and the few, meaning hundreds if not thousands, who did rarely understood the consequences.
Exploitation has left thousands of women, from this one cult alone, destitute. Many women who cooked, cleaned, and gardened for decades on the Move’s many farms were dropped off at government funded nursing facilities when they could no longer work and needed care themselves. After taking their savings, social security checks, and benefiting from decades of unpaid labor, they were cast aside when they could no longer produce. Thus, leaders in the Move turned a public good into an isolated community good into the private good of individual leaders.
The desire to protect the organization with an intense distrust of government has prevented many in the Move from reporting assaults on both adults and children. Former members report multiple assaults on multiple people over long periods of time as a result of predators remaining in the communities. This has resulted in thousands of adults from cults with serious mental health issues. People whose treatment you pay for. Thanks.
The consequences of not preventing the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of children is expensive. Not addressing them in a timely manner is a tremendous burden on communities that don’t understand their needs and a government lacking resources for adequate care. Ongoing health issues, decreased productivity, drug and alcohol dependency, and stress in the home are among the factors that make healing and educating former cult members nearly impossible.
The social and financial costs to society that has its roots in isolated, exploitive religious communities can be greatly reduced with long-term, strategic planning. Several European countries provide models for how to do that. We’ll talk about that next week.
To be continued…
January 20, 2018
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