Sunday, April 10, 2005

The cult of the anti-cult

Procrastinating finishing my posts on creation, I thought I would toss out a quote from Niedzviecki'sbook "Hello, I'm Special"

Dr. Marc Galanter, a psychiatry professor at the New York University School of Medicine, has noted that the anti-cult movement itself functions like a cult, with "those who were de-programmed" exhibiting a "much more negative attitude toward the sect" than those who simply left the cult of their own accord. Galanter points out that the deprogrammed cult members generally become involved in the deprogramming movement and end up the most "articulate and active critics of sects such as the Moonies and the Hare Krishnas, in contrast to the majority of ex-members who had left on their own initiative." Galanter seems bemused when he notes that the deprogrammed members' "animosity toward the new religious movements in general paralleled the intensity of feeling found in the sects they opposed." This fascinating revelation has clear implications for the phenomenon of neo-traditionalists communities: The anti-cultists form, in a way, their own community devoted to being anti-cult. It's a cult against cults that may be no less enticing than the original neo-traditional community they now gather together to oppose.

While other posts around the bloggernacle have mentioned pretty much this same idea, I think the quote nicely illustrates some of the problems that come by attacking institutions for being well, institutional like.

For one, I always smirk when people want institutions to publicize ways in which they may be wrong, even if these mistakes may only appear from within limited paradigms or perspectives. Because verbal admissions are seen as so easy, it is often assumed that failure to do so is either because of spite, a belief in infallibility, a deep cover up, or as a net result of cultish indoctrination. It seems to be a contest of "just admit that you are wrong, and then I will let you go on believing that you are right." Personally, I think the attitudes necessary to create something substantial carry a natural consequence that makes these types of admissions difficult. It is not that many organizations don't believe they are ever wrong, instead it is probably because many mistakes are assumed to be part of a large process. Thus many controversial subject, like the war in Iraq for instance, can really only be judged long after the fact. Of course, then they are often judged from a winning perspective. This causes things to appear blatantly obvious, and neglects the other perspectives, whose perceived validity made the issue so controversial in the first place.

An article from the Maryland Cult Task Force adds to this idea.

A problem arises, however, when terms like "fraud" and "deception" are broadly defined, and interpreted by individuals hostile to the group under scrutiny. For example, it’s not unusual, when first visiting an "establishment" church, to receive a subsequent home visit from a pastor or lay leader. The pastor or leader will likely exude warmth and concern, inviting the newcomer to join a supportive community. It may only be in subsequent visits to the church that financial obligations are discussed, and target percentages of income identified as a worthy contribution. A cynic might call this kind of recruitment "love-bombing," and deception (i.e., failing to mention financial expectations at the outset). Others would see it as an established and well-understood practice, with no harmful intent. Again, the suggestion is not that the tactics of new religious groups are beyond examination or censure. What should be considered is the possibility that practices of "favored" groups can easily be seen as benign, while similar or identical practices of "unfavored" groups are portrayed as malicious and destructive.

Perhaps the last sentence that I highlighted is the key. People's underlying propensities rarely change quickly. Forcing belief to something that is personally incongruent requires fanatical conviction. As the first quote states, this propensity is carried into the ironic pursuits of some anti-cultists. So what's the solution? I think it is a congruence of thought and practice. The melding of these two is a long slow process of embodiment. One consequence of this may be to make problems that other's find obvious, appear innocuous. Of course from an anti-cultist's perspective, as from a believing member, they are jsut acting in harmony with what they think. In a world with such a myriad of perspectives, where everything will be wrong from one view point or another, I guess the big question is, is one embodying a position that enables exterior to one's self to be good or bad. Perspectives of attack seem to embody the latter. Perspectives embodying the former would seem one to allow one to believe in a god who could view the earth, and all the bad things in it as ultimately good.


chris g said...

Some other interesting cult articles that are actually informative, rather than antagonistic This explains that some people join extreme cults being fully aware of the consequences. It also talks about how many views towards extreme cults are based on lots of hype (social science type recursionary referencing). It also talks about how much of the estrangment that occurs within families happens because of coercive attempt to remove them from the cult. I wonder if some of this is what happens with the anti-cult cultists?

chris g said...

The wikipedia entry is also pretty interesting, covering lots of ground.

chris g said...

Of course, has a quite different take on things. I'll refrain from nasty comments. Irony doesn't work unless one can see another perspective.

RoastedTomatoes said...

I think it's interesting that the Latin word that "cult" comes from is actually just another word for legitimate religion. Understanding this fact makes it pretty easy to see that the fetishization of "cults" in the US is just a way to make old-fashioned religious prejudice look more attractive.

On the other hand, I have a quibble to make with your point about organizations admitting when they are wrong. While some people would ask the LDS church to admit that it is wrong on, say, history or the Book of Abraham, others have a different but possibly similar-seeming perspective.

If the Church were in the habit of raising the controversial issues as pending concerns or frontiers in research or something, that could help innoculate people against these ideas. Then, when they encounter the controversies, they might have some emotional defenses against them. All too often, as it currently stands, people's first taste of these things knocks them permanently off their feet.

chris g said...

While I admit presenting people with a range of possible perspectives and confidence interval for each would help to prevent people "getting permanently knocked off their feet," I think it is easy to underestimate how difficult this is for institutions.

Perhaps part of the reason this seems hard to fathom is how wrapped up we are in individualism. Today we tend to see little reason why an establishment can't have some anti-establishment like tendencies when dealing with foggy frontiers. As I said before, I would contend that the momentum required to overcome people's natural reticence in other areas can't help but be carried over to other fronts, where, from the outside, we see they shouldn't. The problem is, the culture required to give confidence intervals with every idea doesn't necessarily mix well with many institutions. Not to say it is impossible or unwarranted, only that you can't have this trait and not take out many other things or subtle attitudes as well. In other words, you can't just avoid the bad consequences. All postitions have inescapable problems. This means over arching intent becomes paramount.

For instance, the western world likes to think that peace keeping should have all the strength of a combat group, but be pliable to local needs and background ethics. However, for a military group to be really effective, it usually requires a very strong, us vs. them attitude. Not that there arent' people who can't balance this (Romeo Dallaire for instance). However, I think most people can't. We tend to project the thought they can, but then this is the whole point I am arguing against.

So would it be easier for people to handle things if some issues were brought out in the open. Sure. But, for the overall efficiency of the institution, based on its overarching goals, it may not prove as effective as those affected by these issues would assume.

Not being much of an apologetic, I tend to think exceptions are best handle by small groups of people within the institution rather by the instituion itself. Thus, to my mind, when people get rocked by controversy, personal relationships will usually have more individually nuanced perspectives than institutions can provide. Funny how this seems to be one of the prime roles of the holy ghost.

Clark Goble said...

It seems to me that there are many people for whom religion actually means commitment to the group and not the ideas. That is it is more like a super-fan at a sporting event. It thus leads to us vs. them attitudes and often a kind of hyper-commitment.

I think this is typical not just of cults, anti-cults or even at times apologetic movements. It also happens with sports, rock star fans, politics, and so forth. Some people just have trouble with content. I wouldn't be surprised if there weren't some psychological reason for all this. i.e. something isn't working right mentally for whatever reason.

chris g said...

I totally agree with the super fan analogy. I think it is partially because of this that I think institutions get carried away with things. However if superfans are an inherit part of the population, one can never really escape their influence. Sure you can try to minimize it, but the effectiveness of this really depends on what percentage of the population is super fan like (and of course the standard distibution of that mean).

Thus I think the subtle changes that some people argue for are improbable. Not because they wouldn't be good, but because the masses tend not to be able to handle this subtlety. It is, in effect, an unstable equilibrium point, that I think is caused by the super fan component.

Clark Goble said...

There was an interesting discussion on the radio the other day comparing and contrasting baseball and soccer. One big difference was that soccer allowed anyone in and the "top" tiers were basically determined by wins. This led to more focus on players rather than facilities and so forth. So everything else in europe (with a few exceptions) were cheap. In the US the relative monopoly and closed nature allowed it to be more of a business.

Where this had a practical effect was in how fans were dealt with. In the US there was an economic incentive to make sports a more family event. Thus the relative lack of "hooliganism" as is common in soccer. Soccer enouraged the sport to be tied with nationalism and other such effects with very radical us vs. them attitudes. This is fairly rare in the US, with the recent Detroit vs. Indiana basketball game fights being one exception. But if you look there, the business aspects of basketball led to pretty strong controls on that. This just doesn't happen in Europe to the same effect.

The reason I bring this all up is to wonder whether the closed/open nature of religion also leads to similar economies of the "super-fan" and that kind of extremism.

Of course the worst extremism in Europe was during the reformation and counter-reformation. Not only were Catholics and Protestants going at it with each other, but the Protestants were going after each other over fairly small differences, such as the method of baptism. It really was the super-fan routine at its worst.

chris g said...

Good point. I think the soccer baseball differences are best explained by nationalism which is quite strong in Europe. Since there are so many different sub groups in fairly close proximity, they tend to want to make sure they are defined and unique. I think this also explains the Catholic / Protestant animosity. They were each striving for a unique identity precisely because they were so similar.

So to my way of thinking this supports the idea of stable vs. unstable equilibrium. The super fans want to have a unique equilibrium. This reminds me of a girl I was going out with. She wanted everyone to be pretty much the same, or at least value the same things. That way her hard work would enable her to be the best, or at least stand out. The path to success was clear, all it required was work. I think the "super fan" has a hard time unless enough people support their bizarre form of extremism to make their work at uniqueness worthwhile.

Like you say, I think the nature of religious institutions encourages zealotism. Closed systems with absolute value codes encourage it as individuals expand on relatively minor differences in order to be unique. Open systems with liberal values encourage it through as more extreme acts are required to be noticed and thus seen as unique.

Personally I think the church does a good job of moderating this. I remember a very reluctant Church of Christ investigator who upon receiving a testimony was quite upset at how little the church was doing to get the word out about the restoration. He thought the strength of his experience warranted zealotism. So to me the question becomes how does one mitigate the super fan (zealot) tendency without overly devaluing the experience that excites them?

Stephen said...

I've really enjoyed browsing around on this blog.

Thanks for the posts.


However, for a military group to be really effective, it usually requires a very strong, us vs. them attitude. Not that there arent' people who can't balance this (Romeo Dallaire for instance). However, I think most people can't. We tend to project the thought they can, but then this is the whole point I am arguing against.

So would it be easier for people to handle things if some issues were brought out in the open. Sure. But, for the overall efficiency of the institution, based on its overarching goals, it may not prove as effective as those affected by these issues would assume.

that is a great comment.

chris g said...

Thanks for the comment. After reading my post, it took me a while to figure out what I was actually saying. Of course I wonder if many of my posts aren't like that. Oh well. Glad they make sense to someone.