Cults in Our Midst - Book Review

Cults in Midst – Book Review


The following is a transcript from the podcast What should I think about. To listen to the full conversation download from your favourite podcast app or by following this link: https://whatshouldithinkabout.podbean.com/e/cults-in-our-midst-book-review/



[00:00:00] Celine: Hello and welcome to the What should I think about..? podcast. I'm Celine. And today


Stephen: we're talking about, well, it's a book review, I suppose. Today we're going to talk about, I suppose, one of the, the sort of seminal works, at least historical seminal works, if you like by Margaret Thaler Singer: Cults in our midst, the continuing fight against their hidden menace. So that's the book. I got it over Christmas, I think.


Celine: Someone that was in a Cult herself?.


Stephen: Uh, no, no. She was, uh, a therapist. She was, well, actually a clinical psychologist, I should say, so she was obviously helping people who were victims of cults. So she describes different types of victims in society , and she describes people in cults as being a particular [00:01:00] subsection if you like of these victims.

So victims of thought control ways of sort of manipulating them and leading them to do things that , were not in their interests, essentially. So, yeah, so that, that was her background. She was a clinical psychologist. She worked also in, so she helped people, she counseled people, but she also worked with courts, as an expert called witnesses.

She had a couple of run-ins as well with a few of these groups who didn't like what she said about them, and yeah, she, she was at the wrong end of a couple of lawsuits I do believe so. So she's fairly controversial, amongst some quarters, but


Celine: against cults though.


Stephen: Yeah. I mean, there has been a fairly long running dispute between, , [00:02:00] I suppose in the main psychologists and again, a subsection of psychologists who tend to be clinical psychologists or therapists, , who are very anti cult, and another group of social scientists tends to be more social scientists or sociologists who are a bit more skeptical of how, how damaging cults are. They just see what's happening within a group as being essentially, these are normal social interactions and that people go into cults voluntarily, and lots of them leave. So kind of, unless there's bad things happening in the cult itself, the question is what's the problem? Uh, I'm not saying I, I take that stance.


Celine: I think the problem is most of them ended up being bad. And the reason we call them cults is to attribute.


[00:03:00] Stephen: Yeah. It’s seen as a pejorative term, although Singer it doesn't like that, she, she argues that we shouldn't see the word cult as a pejorative. Meaning, , you know, it was sort of like a, like a slur or an accusation that it's a particular type of organization, as far as she's concerned, that does some specific things that essentially controls people's thinking and behavior, so she rejects the idea that they are just like other organizations.


Celine: I think the reason I take it as a pejorative is because anything that's trying to control how you think and feel or do is bad. In my opinion. I mean, everything's trying to control you, I guess you could say like, oh, marketing isn't this though?

But like, you know, when we think in terms of cults and ways of controlling, I think that's generally bad being controlled to, to believe certain things and do certain things. So that's why I kind of take it that way. In in, uh, in the way that I find it it's useful as a term. And it's useful for us to have the attachment towards it, because it means that like, when it is mentioned, we kind of know what we mean is a genuinely use the term.

We know, what it means when they say it's a cult, we know it means it controlling in a bad way,


Stephen: I guess so, although I would, if I could, I'd get rid of the word tomorrow, if I'm honest. , but I think it's impossible to get rid of it now because it's, as you say it is, it is the way that we describe a constellation of different characteristics, but I think it has so many problems with it. , so I suppose that the naming itself is reflective of this, this argument, I guess, between the sociologist and the [00:05:00] psychologist. , so you may have heard new religious movement used as a term. So in a lot of the research that I did for my masters, this term NRM kept cropping up, when talking about groups, so NRM was seen as a more, as opposed, less pejorative and I guess politically correct term, to describe groups that others would call cults. So Jehovah's witnesses, Mormons. These sorts of groups are described in lots of the literature as new religious movements, as opposed to cults.


The problem I have with that is that nobody actually minds that they are new or not is I don't care whether they're new or not. That's not the problem. The problem is what do they do? And that's why I prefer the term high control group or high control organization, because that's actually descriptive. And it's very clear, and that's why I'm [00:06:00] not so keen on the word cult because it isn't really descriptive. It's just a label that you then have to go on to explain what that means. So I prefer high control group cause that, that tells you what it is. Yeah. , but anyway, that's, I don't think that's ever going to catch on as well as cults does.


So we're kind of stuck with it. Exactly. , so I do use the term, I try wherever I can to refer to these groups as high control groups. Cause that's actually what they're doing. , anyway, that's, I don't think that's the major kind of question on our minds, but I think it is something maybe to, uh, to just keep in mind.


Celine: Okay. So when was this book written?


Stephen: Yeah, so the book was written in the nineties and, there's been a couple of additions to. Reviews or edited additions of this with a bit extra on the end. So the book's getting bigger. [00:07:00] As, as new cults came along, she added to the books,


Celine: Is she still with us?


Stephen: So no she's passed away, she died. Off the top of my head, I can't tell you when she died, but no, she died few years ago now. So, yeah, I suppose we're thinking about what's happening at the time. So she wrote this originally in the nineties, so she would have been experiencing, or she would have been seeing people that had belonged to groups perhaps from the hippie era, if you like.

So a lot of these kind of dropout communes, , and then of course there were some big, uh, terrible instances of things like the Jim Jones heaven's gate, the Manson family, which was essentially described as a cult, and there were a number of these groups that kind of cropped [00:08:00] up that were either just very weird to people's eyes or frightening, , or, you know, were actually dangerous.

People died as a result of them. And there seemed to be a lot of these groups that sprung up all at the same time. So that's kind of the cultural background. That's that's when she wrote this book, but of course at this point she hadn't, we hadn't seen a lot of the things that came after that , so it is with any, I think it's important to remember it is within its context.


Celine: Do you want to talk about the value?


Stephen: Yeah, so I think, I think some of the value is in, in thinking about what I suppose we could talk about the definition of cults here and the difficulty of identifying what we mean by that term. There is actually quite a nice little table in the book.

[00:09:00] It's on page 58 and it's called the continuum of influence and persuasion. So I think one of the most sensible things that she talks about is the fact that, we're influenced all the time. So actually what we're seeing here is what you might describe as a spectrum, or I'd call it a dimension on which cults are kind of at one extreme.

And, and she goes from education through to advertising through propaganda, through indoctrination and finally thought reform. So if you can imagine a kind of line with education at one end, which is benign through to thought reform or brainwashing, it sometimes called. And in between we’ve got advertising propaganda and indoctrination.

So it's [00:10:00] quite a big table, so I won't go through it all. But what I did start to do is I went through it and I looked, I thought about my own upbringing and my own experience in Jehovah's witnesses to think, well, whereabouts would I place this? , so let, I'll give you a couple of examples.


So structure of persuasion is one of the examples. So structure of persuasion. So at one end, we've got education. Here says that the education, the teacher or uses teacher pupil structure. So in other words, you've got a teach, you've got a pupil and logical thinking is encouraged. So that's education.


Advertising, which is another ramp-up of the influence, I suppose, uses an instructional mode to persuade the buyer [00:11:00] The next level up from that is propaganda. That takes an authoritarian stance to persuade. So you must do this. You must believe this.

The next level is indoctrination. Again, takes an authoritarian and hierarchical stance. So you've got levels of, I suppose, of authority there and then thought reform at the end takes all authoritarian and hierarchical stance, no full awareness on the part of the learner. So in other words, Don't think, just do what you're told. So that's kind of the, the, uh, the spectrum when it comes to persuasion.


Yeah. And so the question is, well, where, where did my, group sit? I'll put them at the far end, takes an authoritarian and hierarchical stance. No full awareness on the part of the learner. [00:12:00] So I would either, I would say. Straddle indoctrination and thought reform. Yeah. Cause I think people were encouraged to use their thinking faculties, to understand things like the 70 weeks of years and, and the Daniel prophecy.

Oh, of course it's very manipulative, but I think they, they do want people to understand it again with scare quotes, so I personally would call it indoctrination.


Celine: Yeah. Yeah. It would depend as well on your congregation leaders, I think, which, and you start a more..

Stephen: absolutely. So here's another one tolerance. So tolerance, education respects difference, uh, advertising. [00:13:00] Puts down the competition. So it's not tolerant to the competition. Propaganda wants to lessen opposition. So they're trying to get rid of the opposition, uh, indoctrination aware of differences, but they'll probably denigrate the differences and thought reform is no respect for differences at all.

So I would say JWS fit in that category.


Celine: wonder. Cause like things like, you know, just the way you dress is told to you and there's no room for difference there.


Stephen: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. I think looking through them, I obviously won't go through them all now, but looking through them all, I felt that there was a, a kind of straddling of most of the indoctrination and thought reforms. Yeah. Yeah. It wasn't all like the most extreme, but you could imagine some groups would literally


Celine: the different congregations I think could easily to the furthest and cause that's the thing. Yeah. It's not like all cults are the same. Cool. Hoban, everybody in the cult is there, you know?

Yeah. Or high control group, if you will. , like Jehovah's witnesses that a large organization spread across many parts. They're separate cells acting individually, aren't they? So

Stephen: that's right. I mean, they do, they do have, we've talked about this before. They do have quite a. Strong grip on those organizations.

But I think you, you, you can identify some groups and it does depend on the body of elders, essentially, how head banging they are really, some of them are incredibly hard banging you know? , so yeah, I think you're right. [00:15:00] I think you're right. That will differ from congregation to congregation.


Yeah. So, yeah, so that's quite a, quite a good part of the book. I think that's, that's quite interesting and it does allow you to consider, uh, but of course, again, this isn't a scientific way of doing it. You're really just trying to put people into, uh, or groups into a category based around quite a small amount of information.


We, my experience of the inner group is obviously augmented by talking to other people, but it's still only quite limited. So you're, you know, you're left with your own opinion, essentially your own way of thinking about that, one of the areas that she talks about, which I, I have a problem with.


Generally when we're talking about groups and we actually alluded to this when we talked to Lloyd the other day was this whole way that we see identity and self. I personally feel there is a too [00:16:00] simplistic way of thinking about identity. So Singer talks about a pseudo personality, that is, Hm, your own personality, but is essentially the cult personality that is superimposed upon the genuine or authentic personality or self.

And of course there is some truth in that, because in fact, there is a scripture in the Bible that we were told a lot, was to strip off the old personality. At least in the New World Translation to strip off the old personality and put on the new personality. So it's almost like you couldn't, you couldn't write a better admonition or admission that that's what we're doing, you know?


Yeah. So when you become a Witness, you need to put away the old person and become a new person in Christ, and lots of groups [00:17:00] try to change, people's thinking and behavior. So if you're thinking about personality in terms of behavior, then, okay, I can, I can buy that. If you're thinking about identity on the other hand or a sense of self that's, a slightly different thing.


And I, I worry a little bit about this narrative about, the cult self, versus the real self, and I worry about it for a couple of reasons. One is that it, it creates a break for the individual who's trying to leave. It's almost, it could feel like for the person that's involved, that I don't actually know who I am at all, and I need to completely build from scratch, a self, and that could feel very daunting.


Celine: a lot of the people talk about having a bit of a breakdown post leaving. And I wonder if that's because yeah, everyone's telling you that you don't have a personality anymore. The place you've left is telling you that. And the people that you go to for support are also telling you that like these books, cause obviously there are a lot of them are written for people that go in and out. Not that we're born in.


Stephen: Yeah, I suppose that's, that's where I'm coming from. I'm I'm coming, particularly from the perspective of somebody that was born into one of these groups. And then, uh, when you leave and I'm not denying that there is a period of, of self discovery, and it can be incredibly painful.


It was for me and yeah, I questioned everything about myself, really. And again, we've talked to about this on the Sunday [00:19:00] interviews that I've talked about, some of those same things and it's terrifying. It's , you feel there's been lots of great metaphors that people have used to explain how that felt. But, I think for me, when I look back, I, I see a person that has developed and grown.


Hmm. I don't think that I became a completely brand new person when I left. I think I grew. And so that allows me to tell a story about who I am and who I was and that development over the years. And sure there were periods of, yeah huge steps that I had to take after I left Jehovah's witnesses, but I still feel that I am still Stephen.

I'm still the same person, you're always developing. You're you're always learning new things and you're [00:20:00] adjusting to those things and so on. And I, I feel that that's a more for me, perhaps a slightly more useful way of thinking, especially if you are somebody who is born-in. And it reflects much more what we really think or what we, we think we know about identity is a story.


It is a way of decribing ourselves. And I think it's important to be able to incorporate that thing that happened to us, who we were into our self that we now have. I have to stress that I am not a counselor. You know, you can shoot me down and explain to me why,


Celine: you know, I don't think it necessarily right or wrong.

That's just, what's worked for you, you know?


Stephen: Yeah. I know. Obviously I'll come to it from a particular position, but I'm also applying some of the psychological [00:21:00] theory that we have talked about on this podcast before around self. And that it, isn't just this kind of unitary thing that you can easily describe. It's a complicated constellation of things, thinking thoughts, feelings, emotions, experiences, we string all that together. Make sense of it. And it's that activity that we're doing that essentially generates our feeling of this is who I am, and from the bits of research that I've seen around people that have had, uh, moments in their lives, big change or transformation, the ability to incorporate that story into past present and future is quite an important part of what helped them to get through that. Yeah. And so while it might be useful to think about this in those terms, if you have been recruited into a group. [00:22:00] It's super imposed upon you, this pseudo personality and your mission now is to get back to the one that you had before.


Okay. That might be useful for that situation, but I don't feel it's particularly useful for me as somebody who grew up in that, that group, you know, an extreme, I'm not saying this is, this is taking an extreme way of looking at it by an extreme. Looking at like that it would be that I have to basically say that everything that I was before, before I left, I don't want anything to do with anymore, but I don't think that's that's, I guess nobody's actually saying that, but if you're not careful, that's how it can sound.


Hmm, when we talk about pseudo personalities and, a cult self and so on. So, again, it might be that maybe the problem here is that we are talking about many [00:23:00] different things, which I guess leads on to the discussion around hypnosis and some of the methods, the techniques that the book talks about.


So, Singer identifies things like hypnosis, repetitive chanting, hyperventilation, repetitive motions. These are all ways to basically get people into a certain mental state. That leaves their mind open to the new self that is being imposed upon the individual, I just don't feel that I experienced that.

Celine: No I suppose the interesting thing maybe is that when you first left you for a long, long time, many years, you didn't [00:24:00] tell people that you'd been a witness and you. Hid that past, , until more recently when you've come out as an ex witness.


Stephen: , yeah. Well, it feels a bit like that. Yeah.


Celine: Yeah. So I guess you kind of packaged that away for a while.


Stephen: , yeah, and I don't think it was particularly healthy. I mean, I guess we're going back to the point before, but I, I felt, I feel now that I'm much. More at ease with myself because I can explain who I am based on my history. Right. You know, so when I, when I tried to hide the fact that I'd been brought up with this set of these sets of beliefs, , I guess I felt like


Celine: disappearing.


Stephen: This is a weird guy, you know, he's got these, he's got this set of, yeah behaviors [00:25:00] and these ways of thinking and so on. And even if your way of thinking and behaviors is a direct, kind of antidote of what you were, that that's still, that's the reason, you know what I mean? So to deny that that ever happened in a way is, is not particularly healthy, but I think we want to dwell on it, but I think it's been, for me, it's been useful to.

So, yeah, that's, that's why I, I kind of, I'm very careful to do this or I, , yeah, for a big part of my life, I did that, that would perhaps help explain why I behave this way now. , and I think that's, for me, it's, that's been useful for me to be able to do. But I didn't, I didn't experience, , hypnosis. In fact that was a big no-no Jehovah's witnesses. Not allowed. Yeah, absolutely. [00:26:00] Exactly, there was no chanting. I mean the kingdom songs are very mild and most people don't sing them much. Absolutely. Bops, you know? They kind of mumble their way through them. Prayers are just somebody standing up.


Celine: Yeah. Or mentally you just do them in your head


Stephen: Exactly. Said that it's not, I just don't see that. And okay. So maybe that's one thing that isn't part of a, of that particular group, but you're left with a little bit of a problem, I think. And one of the things, I guess I felt coming out of reading this book and actually what, what really got me thinking about how we describe these groups?

And one of the things that really hit me was when she started to talk. So singer talks about Cialdini’s six tactics of [00:27:00] compliance here, which you're familiar with.


Celine: interestingly, I'm not going to say where, but my day job, I did have to do some, , study on it or not study. We do training videos and this was one of them.

It was part of it. It seemed quite old. I would say that it was, you could tell it was from an old training program, but it was on the, as to how to sell. So I work in


Stephen: sales. These are, these are six tactics for compliance. I believe there's a new edition. So I think he’s still alive as he’s just released a new edition.


Celine: maybe we, we bought the new addition who's to say,


Stephen: and, and Cialdini comes up with six tactics for getting compliance out of somebody. And singer identifies these as being important ways many of these groups or many of the things they do to get people in or get them [00:28:00] to do what they're telling them to do.

So one is consistency, so keep on saying the same thing over and over again, uh, re reciprocity. In other words, you know, you do something for them and they're most likely to want to reciprocate social proof. So you bring them. You know, old brother and sister such and such. You've been this thing for many years are happier now than they've ever been, or authority.

So you've created a structure where you've got somebody that is an authority and they are respected.

Liking. So you're more likely to buy from somebody that likes you, and scarcity so creates a feeling that this could end any minute, you know, Armageddon could come tomorrow and you've lost your chance, you know,


Celine: The Sale’s about to end.


Stephen: Exactly. Yeah, the Sale’s going to end, , we're running out of stock. I wouldn't leave it until tomorrow if I was you. So it's these sorts of tactics and these are used in sales. These are used legitimately, I guess, [00:29:00] in, in some sorts of areas, but of course they can be, they can be used of course, to get people to do things in cults or groups like this.

And this leads me to think that actually, what is happening in a lot of cults is that these things are essentially a lot of them are con tricks. Are they, if you're looking


Celine: just to clarify con tricks, not all one word like con and then tricks. Cause at first that's what I thought you meant earlier. It's like, no, it just thought you were saying some sort of like psychology word that you probably never.


Stephen: Yeah, confidence trick, it's just a way of parting somebody with their money or their labor or something else that is wanted by an individual or individuals, and so Singer was, uh, very active in, you know, helping people to [00:30:00] take cases against some of these groups for money that they'd stolen from them or con them out of, and I would suggest why don't we just call them what they are?


Celine: Hmm. I'd like to say that obviously. Yeah. It's usually. , like I said, , sales and stuff, I think when you're going to a place to buy something it's fair game, like it's expected that they're going to try and sell you the thing you go in wanting to buy a thing.

They want to sell you a thing it's like accepted. That's fine. I wouldn't say that's not a con I don't think you're being conned. You're going to a place to buy a thing and they want you to buy the thing. That's the whole point. I think that's not a con that's just the way that selling and the shop works.


It's when these things are being used under, dodgy circumastances. You didn't know you were going into to buy a thing, let's say you didn't know you were going into to join a religion. Yeah. Do you [00:31:00] know what I mean? Like these, this, the way they used it on the hand use of them that I think is when you should be concerned.

I don't think you should be worried if you can tell that, the retail assistant is using reciprocity or yeah. That telling you the sale will end soon. I don't think that's scammy or dodgy. That's just the way that we know these things work.


Stephen: Yeah, absolutely, and, and that's, that's where our continuum comes in.

So, deceptiveness is one of the, elements on that. continuum. So education is not deceptive. Advertising can be deceptive, selecting only positive views. I mean, I would get, I would say that's the same for, we talked about this when you know, we're looking at unis for you, you know, nobody on the, on the uni propectus says, yes, you should be aware that your digs are going to be two miles away from the actual.. no one's going to put that up [00:32:00] front and that's the way it is.


Celine: Yeah. You'll have to walk half an hour every day to get in. We don't actually live on campus when you live in London, just so you know, no one in there's like one halls where you live five minutes away and everyone is like it's coveted


Stephen: And when I, when I went, for, for the, open day for my second uni, they, you came with me actually on that day. Do you remember? And, the place that they did it, it was absolutely beautiful. It was a gorgeous building.


Celine: And you never saw it again


Stephen: In fact on the first day when I went in, I ended up in that building and I said can you tell me where is such and such? And they had not a clue what I was talking about. It was like, I mean, it was still on the same complex, but it was not actually part of their uni or not their college anyway.


Yeah. , you know, but, so I think it is [00:33:00] typical of advertising and so on. There is often a bit of omission if you like, but yes, there's degrees. And I think that is obviously where we're what we're talking about. It's got me thinking about maybe how we categorize these groups. And again, this, I suppose goes back to the original discussion about whether we should call groups cults or high control groups or whatever.

And it got me thinking about how different these are, you know, my experiences at Jehovah's witness. I didn't experience some of these things, but I did others and there'll be, you know, a big variation. Maybe there's like a, a deeper level of taxonomy, you know, how we categorize animals in terms of lots of different ways of describing them.

It feels like with cults, you know, okay. We might have this umbrella [00:34:00] term cult, but then there's lots of different types of cults. And maybe we can group those together a little bit. Maybe there's a whole taxonomy there. Trying to group certain groups together and certain types of cult and this work has been done to some degree, but it's often done in relation to the subject matter. So we hear about UFO cults or, health cults or psychotherapy courts or religious cults. So that's one way of categorizing them, but maybe there's a more useful way, which is looking at the specific methods they deploy, uh, maybe even the intentions of the people who are running these calls or starting these groups.


So that's kind of my thinking on this. This is by no means a, fully formed theory [00:35:00] yet. It's still very, very early days. I'm really just thinking out loud at the moment. And so I do need to do some more work on it, but do you want to hear where I've got to so far in trying to categorize these groups?


Yeah, so I so far I've come up with five types. If you like, we could call them cult types. If you like. So one group I would describe as the con trick, I think there are groups out there and this perhaps sits better with MLMs multi-level marketing groups. You know, sales type marketing groups that, that fit all a lot of these cults aspects, but basically a con trick, you know, give us your money up front and you'll be able to do X, Y, and Z.

So some of these pyramid schemes and the way that they get people involved, they're manipulative. They're lying. They're not [00:36:00] giving you the full information, essentially. It's a con trick. , so that's one particular group, I think. And then I've called the second one, disorganized abusive. So I think that is often perhaps in a family situation or a small group where you've got an individual who is perhaps abusive, maybe physically, sexually abusive to their partner or to their family or to a little group that maybe they've happened to get around them, and things like that. Like smaller. Yeah, that's right. Yeah. Smaller groups with no kind of no theology or philosophy, particularly. It's just about the individual dominating and coercively controlling the people in their family. And I would suggest most of [00:37:00] those types of groups are literally just families.

When I say just, I mean, it's the family and often they, the abuser I've called it disorganized because then. They're not sitting thinking it through. They're just behaving, aggressively. They are controlling what their partner does. I mean, the classic example is the, the man who won't let their partner go out and socialize and they read their text messages and like tell them who they can see who their friends are and all of that.

I mean, that has a lot of the characteristics of a cult but that's. I think it's particularly own thing. It's a disorganized, abusive relationship where I suppose most often it would be the man, but not always, but the man or the, the abuser is, quite effective, very effective at [00:38:00] controlling the partner or the others in the household.