Why We Need To Become
As people in the counter-cult movement monitoring the
ongoing activities of cults, we are more aware than the general public about the
importance of asking questions about how groups operate. We understand that a group, a
community, or church may appear benign, but in fact have a hidden agenda. The authors of
this article understand acutely as cult survivors the importance of preparing people
in our society not only to become savvy "material consumers," but also savvy
Think for a moment about the amount of energy we spend
researching the consumer choices we make. We spend a great deal of time searching out
facts about the safest minivan to buy, the best accounting software package to get, the
highest yielding mutual fund to invest in, and the best health clubs to join. But we
naively and trustingly silence our analytical powers when it comes to making decisions
about spiritual choices in our lives. We are seasoned material consumers by virtue of
living in a capitalistic culture. However, we also need to think of ourselves as spiritual
consumers before we commit too heavily to a new church, guru, or spiritual community.
As cult survivors, we have compiled what we call our
"20/20 Hindsight List" of questions we wish we would have asked as spiritual
consumers before we got involved with our spiritual leaders and communities. We didn't
demand answers to these questions because we didn't know better. We didn't realize it was
important to ask these kinds of questions. Part of the reason for this ignorance is bound
up in our culture. What in our society, then, hinders us from questioning spiritual
Even in this new day of the "information age" we
are still socialized to always respect tradition and authority. We are not usually taught
in our educational or family systems to question authority. Rather we are expected to fit
in, to take orders, and obey people in positions of power. When the authority is benign
and provides a good role model for young people, then respecting authority is good. But
when authority is twisted and manipulative, we are not trained to recognize it, let alone
to question it.
If our culture hasn't prepared us to be good spiritual
consumers, how else can we protect ourselves from cult exploitation? First it's unwise to
make any decisions about joining a group when we are depressed or in a state of
transition. At these times we are lonely, more open to suggestion, and less skeptical.
Sometimes all it takes is being away from home for the first time, or breaking up with a
boyfriend or girlfriend to be vulnerable to cults.
This vulnerability is especially acute for young people
between the ages of18 and 30, the largest target group for cult recruiters.
Developmentally, these young adults are sorting through their roles and identities. After
they have confidence in their identity they focus on issues of intimacy and isolation.
Their challenge is to maintain their separateness while becoming attached to others. Cults
want malleable members who can be easily molded into pseudopersonalities. Thus, they give
people struggling with identity issues a new identity, and those searching for intimacy a
ready-made community of friends, which eventually replaces their family.
It doesn't take much to be vulnerable to cults. What, then,
can we do to change this, to minimize cults' influence and make good choices about who and
what to believe in? Our hope lies in cult education, learning what to look for when
considering a teacher or group. The following is a list of questions we wish we had
considered before we got involved in our respective cults. We hope these questions may
help some say" no" where we unknowingly said "yes."
Important Issues to Consider When Choosing a Spiritual
1. What credentials does this teacher possess that
qualified him/her togive this instruction?
2. How does the teacher maintain his/her authority in the
group or in relationships?
Does he/she claim to be the only teacher that gives this instruction?
3. Can you challenge the teacher's instruction? Can you
advice? What happens if you disagree with the teacher?
4. Who does your teacher report to? If you were to complain
teacher, to whom would you go? Is there a system of checks and balances
within his/her line of authority?
5. Within this organization who makes the rules? Who can
change the rules?
How often does this happen? What happens when someone breaks the rules?
6. What will you be expected to "give up" or
"sacrifice" to study with this
teacher? Ask this question in advance and be as specific as possible.
7. Are students free to leave this teacher/group? What
happens to those
8. When do you graduate from this instruction?
9. How does the teacher talk about people who have left the
contact with them allowed, discouraged or forbidden?
10. What attitudes does the teacher have toward maintaining
with friends, family, and others outside the group?
11. What is the teacher's attitude toward people outside
the group in
general? Are you encouraged to be tolerant and understanding, or
judgmental and elite?
12. Are secrets being kept from you? Are doors locked,
telephones limited, or is information restricted in any way?
13. Does this teacher insist that the world is coming to an
end in the near
future? What proof does he/she have of this? Prophets and teachers have
been predicting this for centuries, and we're still here. Does the teacher
use this prophecy to frighten or influence people?
14. Does this teacher repeatedly remind you to listen to
your heart and not
your head? If so, why must you disconnect from rational thought to learn this teaching?
15. Does the group use "mind-altering" exercises;
meditation/chanting/praying for long periods of time, sleep deprivation,
constant busyness, protein deprivation, the use of drugs? What scientific,
documented proof does this teacher have that these practices will enable
the student to reach higher states of consciousness?
16. Ask the teacher what his/her attitudes are about sex in
the group. If
celibacy is strongly advised for the student, ask if the same standard
applies to the teacher. If the standards are different, ask why.
17. Who pays for the leader's expenses and lifestyle? Is it
different from the students? Will your financial responsibility continue
to increase to maintain good standing? Is there an annual report for this
group? Every bonafide church, charity, and non-profit organization has
this information available for anyone who asks for it.
These questions are meant to provide areas of exploration.
Many teachers will not respond directly to your inquiries. We encourage you to conduct
your own research and scrutinize your teacher as closely as possible. Remember: avoidance
of your questions should raise a red flag. A healthy spiritual community, church, or
teacher will encourage questions about their group.
Attitudes of avoidance or secrecy may tell you something
about what the future will be like in this group. Rosanne Henry, a former cult member, has
been a cult educator for over 10 years. She works as a family therapist and cult
Sharon Colvin is a former cult member who has been in the
counter-cult movement for 7 years. She was actively involved in the Cult Awareness Network
and has been a facilitator in several workshops in Colorado.
From the Editor
This will be the last issue of AFF News. In order to
improve our capacity to distribute useful information, AFF is moving the Cult Observer
from a bi-monthly to a monthly (it previously alternated months with AFF News).
We will also initiate in the fall a free internet magazine,
which will supplement the Cult Observer and Cultic Studies Journal. Through the internet
magazine, which I will edit, we will bring you much information that would otherwise have
been unavailable. Those who currently subscribe only to AFF News may receive a free trial
subscription to the Cult
Observer or the hardcover book, Recovery From Cults,
free with a subscription to the Cult Observer and Cultic Studies Journal.
If you wish to receive our free Internet Journal
in the fall, please e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org)
and put "Subscribe IM" in the subject line. AFF News has published many useful
articles and has served as a valuable outreach newsletter. However, the time has come for
AFF to expand its services in this area. We hope that you will continue to support AFF by
subscribing to our periodicals, including the new Internet Magazine.