A most excellent resource for those interested in the increasing world problem of cults, especially religious or ‘spiritual’ cults is found at http://www.fwbo-files.com/CofC.htm#Ex. It contains a succinct but extensive overview of most of the difficulties involved in the investigation and exposure of cults. The first article on that web page is so insightful that I take the liberty – with acknowledgement – of reproducing it here, interspersed briefly with comments from my own experience and knowledge, obviously mainly for the Sathya Sai Baba cult. The article highlights the major problem that most governments and their judiciary represent for those who have been deceived by cult figures or their organizations in their conservatism and political correctness towards all sects claiming the protection of ‘religious freedom’ while employing cultist agendas.
One serious and often tragic consequence is that those rational and sane persons who have survived cults physically and mentally – and thus have inside experience and really know about their occluded practices, as opposed to formal researchers by neutral or would-be ‘objective observers’ who look in only from the outside – are largely neglected as a resource. There is much prejudice against whistle-blowers, dissidents, apostates and determined critics of ‘spiritual’ cults, persons who alone have the insight into the secrets and methods of indoctrination, manipulation and control from which they have freed themselves – often at great personal cost. Academic researchers of religious history, sects and cults invariably use the writings of others as their chief materials and very seldom have the hands-on approach that genuine participance can provide (even as a participant-observer investigator, for example). So, at a second or third remove from the real subject matter – the actual persons and groups in cults – academics mostly provide sanitary and rather shallow conclusions. Partly for this reason, governments and lawmakers are too often unaware of the real nature of the shadier cultic organizations and the dangers and depredations they cause among the populace. There are thousands of such organizations in the world today, from the very small to truly enormous rich and influential world-spanning organizations. They obviously vary in degree of repression of their members, in the extent of their secrecy, the reach of their clandestine operations and the extent and nature of illegal activities, yet all benefit from the laxity of authorities towards these often near impenetrable goings-on. For example, the Sathya Sai Baba cult is one of the most subtle, deceptive, powerful and rich cults in the world today, in which sexual abuse, murders and financial crime are covered up to the highest level in the Indian judiciary and government.
Excerpts from ‘The Culture of Cults’ (in blue text):-
Difficulties Facing Critical Ex-members
In general, cults have a hierarchical or pyramid type of structure. At the lowest level, members are part-timers who are only partially committed to the group and are who are only lightly brainwashed. All the cult leadership really requires of this level is that members should speak well of the group and be generally positive. Members at this level have little power or influence, and are unlikely to be aware of the full range of the cult’s teachings, knowledge of which is restricted to a trusted inner circle of committed, full-time members.
Members at a part-time level of commitment are less likely to be manipulated or abused to any significant extent, because achieving strong influence over a person really requires that they be exposed to a mind control environment on a more full-time basis. Mind control only works on a foundation of personal friendship and trust, and it takes time and effort to establish this foundation. Strong mind control is partly a one on one process, in which the controlee is assigned a personal mentor, a more senior and experienced member, who is willing to devote the patience and effort needed to coach the aspirant/controlee in the beliefs and practices of the group.
For this practical reason, therefore, strong mind control is generally only applied to selected individuals who are perceived to be not only receptive, but who also have something in particular that the group leadership wants. Sometimes this is money or sex, or it may be some practical or business skill which is desired by the group leadership in order to expand the group or to raise money. The greater majority of members are not specially targeted, and are only relatively lightly brainwashed.
A person involved at a more superficial level may find it genuinely difficult to believe what goes on in some of the more committed levels of membership. Members who have not been specially targeted, and who have enjoyed the warmth and friendship of the group without having been exposed to its darker side, will tend to think well of the group, and may be puzzled by criticisms of it. These positive and supportive members can be used as a public relations shield, to counter any allegations against the group, and to reassure new members. Individual critics can be simply outnumbered and their criticisms discredited.
Even if a member involved at a less committed level is not swayed by the general air of positivity, and does develop suspicions about the group, they are unlikely to have enough inside information about the group to be able to verify their suspicions, or to be in a position to effectively warn others of potential problems. Nevertheless, the mere suspicion that a group might be a cult can be enough to deter a person from becoming involved, and so it can still be worth making relevant criticisms and sowing the seeds of suspicion.
If a critic is an insider, someone who has been more deeply involved and who has enough inside knowledge about a cult to be able to make detailed criticisms, they will still be unable to prove anything (because of the subjective nature of personal belief in general, and the non-falsifiable nature of cult belief systems in particular). They will be unable to prove that the group used deception or misrepresentation in marketing the benefits of participation in group run courses and activities.
If an ex-member claims that they were subjected to brainwashing or mind-control techniques, not only is this again unprovable, but it is tantamount to admitting that they are a gullible and easily led person whose opinions, consequently, can’t be worth much. If an ex-member suffers from any mental disorientation or evident psychiatric symptoms, this is likely to further diminish their credibility as a reliable informant.
Additionally, dissatisfied members or other critics have great difficulty in disproving ad-hominem arguments, such as that they just have a personal axe to grind, that they are trying to find a scapegoat to excuse their own failure or deficiency, or that they are simply being subjective and emotional. Cults have a vested interest in challenging the personal credibility of their critics, and may cultivate academic researchers who attack the credibility and motives of ex-members.
In general, the public credibility of critical ex-cultists seems to be somewhere in between that of Estate Agents and flying saucer abductees.
Comment: In general this is probably a fairly widespread public perception. However, in the case of the former Sathya Sai Baba followers who have dissented, they are not dependent upon their subjective experiences – though these can have been decisive for them – but rely on the masses evidence, testimony and documented deceits and misinformation by Sai Baba and his propagandists. We can point to the amazingly excessive claims Sai Baba made which have never been proven – or predictions that have never been fulfilled. Ex-followers know how Indian Prime Ministers and Presidents, having declared their faith in Sai Baba long before much evidence about his deceptions and abused emerged through the Internet and had to uphold their prestige and diverse involvements with him because of the power over the judiciary and many ministers he had achieved by then, including financial power.
Summary of Advantages Enjoyed by Cult Organisations
To summarise, a cult – defined as an identifiable, organised group of people holding to an independent belief system which primarily originates or is primarily interpreted from within the group, and which has a hierarchical organisational structure based on that belief system – is to a large extent immune from outside criticism, either of its belief system or of the methods used to recruit followers, because:
1. Legal criticism is ineffectual, firstly because freedom of belief laws largely protect cults from outside investigation or regulation, and secondly because of the subjective, non-provable nature of personal belief itself.
2. Moral criticism is ineffectual, because a cult belief system can set its own self-justifying moral codes.
3. Philosophical or theological criticism is ineffectual, because a cult belief system follows its own internal logic, which is impenetrable to an outsider.
4. Empirical or scientific criticism is ineffectual, because the tenets of a cult belief system are non-falsifiable.
5. Criticism by ex-members is ineffectual, because apostates tend to lack credibility for a variety of reasons.
Immunity from outside criticism and regulation does not, in itself, necessarily mean that a group will develop and use what might be considered, by the standards of the mainstream, deceptive or devious psychological techniques to gain or control adherents. It only means that they can, and that there is little come-back if they do. Religious freedom and freedom of belief laws tend to protect the rights of religious and quasi-religious organisations, much more than they protect the rights of individuals who may become involved with those organisations and their belief systems.
Comment: One feature which distinguishes a cult from a mainstream religious sect or church is the emphasis given to the doctrines aspects which aim at control of the follower’s perception, thought and possibility of expressing doubts, criticism or the like. One having accepted the basic premises, those inducted to a particular faith and belief-system begin to organize all appearances to fit the basic premises. Cults always have a complete set of arguments and rationalizations – as well as other manipulatory techniques – to counter and suppress internal dissent.
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