I’ve “come out” in posts on this blog as a survivor of sex trafficking and various other kinds of child abuse, a lesbian, a non-Christian, a teacher who isn’t always happy with the way schools are structured or organized, and a former mute. I have one more confession.
I was born and raised in a religious cult.
I never thought of it that way growing up, but then most people in cults don’t consider their religion a cult until they are out of it. I never thought of it, really, at all until almost 20 years after I tore my Bible in half, threw it down on the front porch, stomped on it, and announced I wouldn’t be attending services anymore.
I thought the Christian sect I grew up in was a little weird, a little repressive, and not what I wanted in my life. But I never thought in any more depth about it. Until I did.
What’s defining about cults is not so much their methods—although you can find lists of these online that often do more or less coincide—as the ways in which they affect their members. The common characteristic of cults is that they work to isolate their members from outside forms of support and information so that members become entirely dependent on the cult for meeting all or almost all personal and emotional needs.
As a part of this, cults usually attempt to dissolve the ego boundaries of members, so that they are no longer sure who they are or what they think as individuals. Tactics include “love-bombing” and public confessions of transgressions—both serious and minor.
For an adult, the loss of a sense of self is hugely damaging, and those who exit cults usually need to spend a long time rebuilding those normal psychological boundaries. For children born into cults, it means their egos start out distorted and they often lack any internal sense of what personal boundaries should be in the first place. Recovery from my religious upbringing is part of my work towards normal.
I left the cult for a simple reason: Charlotte Brown, our minister that year, told us week after week in services that we needed to be obedient: obedient to our parents, obedient to the ministers, obedient to God as the cult understood Him. My parents stressed the same message when I got home. But obedience, in my case, was clearly going to get me killed—quite literally.
I don’t blame Charlotte. I’m sure she was well-intentioned. (and I’m also sure she has now passed on). But something was wrong with that picture.
And, like I said, I didn’t think beyond that for 20 years. You could say I had more pressing concerns.
But now I realize all of the small ways growing up in a cult has affected me. I’m afraid to disagree, even with my students, despite the fact that it’s my job to make the rules and then enforce them. I’m afraid to do something better than someone else. I feel anxious when I wear a shirt with very short sleeves. I put off getting a hair cut as long as possible, even though the split ends annoy me and make my hair look a wreck. I’m afraid of a lot of really stupid things—minor things and really important ones. What I learned from the cult was fear.
I should, perhaps, give a little more background here. The cult I was raised in claimed not to have name, but refers to itself (modestly) as “the truth” or “the way.” It doesn’t have a written or clearly articulated doctrine. Which is clever, actually, because then everyone is constantly worrying about whether they have the right beliefs in mind. Lack of clearly articulated doctrine keeps people insecure and guessing, ready to be told what to think.
Tharold Sylvester - Ronan Convention 1973 – “God has given us a better Way, a perfect way, the Narrow Way. Enter in at the Strait Gate. Strait means difficult. God’s Way is difficult.”
They are often referred to as the 2x2s, the Cooneyites, or the Friends and Workers religion. If you do a quick web search, it’s not that difficult to find fairly accurate information about it. As it turns out, a lot of people have exited the cult, and some of them have written about their experiences or dug up the history of the cult or created message boards to support other former members. So I won’t go into it in depth here.
The 2x2s don’t advocate mass murder as Charles Manson’s The Family did. They don’t push women and children into sex trafficking like The Children of God (now known as The Family International). They don’t really stand for anything worse than dressing like you live at the turn of the century. But, like all cults, the 2x2s destroy the individual’s sense of self and worth.
Recently, Higher Thinking Primate posted this very excellent short talk from Ted Talks about a former cult member. During the talk, Diane Benscoter says she understands how a group of people could be convinced to commit genocide and mass murder. She says cult members become capable of anything. I know what she means.
Although the 2x2s were more concerned with what we wore and how we looked than how we treated other people, I do think that if the way to salvation became committing acts of violence and terror, we would have done it. We would have been obedient, because that was our place and we wanted to fit in with God’s chosen people and with God’s way.
So I wonder now if Islamist terror cells function in exactly the same way as the 2x2s, and if Al Qaeda isn’t mainly a violent religious cult—the Moonies with RDX and instructions for how and when to use it. I wonder if there is an angle on this we are missing in our War on Terror.
Because terrorism is rarely about only violence, or only politics, or only hate. It is usually about beliefs. Terrorists, like most people, really want to be good people, and they want to do good things. They often want to save the world, which is a higher ambition than most of us can claim. The problem is, if you’re a terrorist, saving the world often means killing people–usually a lot of them.
We know fairly well by now why so many young men (and it is mostly young men) have turned to terrorist organizations in certain parts of the world. Times are hard. Life is uncertain. Poverty and unemployment are rampant, and there seems to be little realistic hope for the future for many young people. Ideology offers certainty during times of uncertainty.
But I wonder if we don’t know well enough how ideological groups work, or what happens to people after they are drawn into them. I just wonder.
I wonder if there isn’t a lot more we could be doing, a lot more that we actually know already from the massive amounts of cult activity we experienced in the US in the 60s and 70s, and if we just haven’t put it all together yet.
Hockman, J. (1990, April). Miracle, Mystery, and Authority: The Triangle of Cult Indoctrination. Psychiatric Annals. Retrieved from: http://www.rickross.com/reference/brainwashing/brainwashing14.html
The Lying Truth. http://www.thelyingtruth.info/?f=
Telling the Truth. (2008, August 2). http://www.tellingthetruth.info/home/
Via: The Road from Bondage to Freedom. http://www.votisalive.com/