Spotting Forgeries: Assessing Cult Thought Reform

My wife and I enjoy buying and selling antiques. After a while, it is easy to discern a real antique from a forgery. Forgeries are in a lot of places. So, it goes in the world of religion. There is the authentic and the forgery.  Buyer beware. You have to be discerning.

A number of years ago I was at a conference in which the presenter spoke about a particular aberrant religious sect. As he spoke, members from the sect pounded on the outside doors, honked their car horns, and attempted, in any way they could, to disrupt the talk. They even followed the presenter to the airport! This particular sociological sect was a little unsettling. 

It is always easy to join these groups but it is always difficult to leave. One author wrote, in the beginning they offer you a big juicy carrot but you end up getting whipped by the stick holding that carrot! Here are some traits of sociological sects, prisoner of war camps, and sometimes even bad marriages (Margaret Singer, Six Conditions for Thought Reform)

1. Keep the person unaware of what is going on and how she or he is being changed a step at a time

2. Control the person’s social and/or physical environment; especially control the person’s time.

3. Systematically create a sense of powerlessness in the person

4. Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments and experiences in such a way as to inhibit behavior that reflects the person’s former social identity.

5. Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences in order to promote learning the group’s ideology or belief system and group-approved behaviors.

6. Put forth a closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure that permits no feedback and refuses to be modified except by leadership approval or executive order.

When we scrutinize antiques, we look for particular properties or traits, we consult a collaboration of experts, and we check for the maker’s mark. In a similar way, when it comes to religious or sociological groups, there are good quality groups and there are frauds. Certain sects attempt to look like a healthy and caring group.  However, if you get past the veneer, it all falls apart. Fraudulent groups do not want you to ask any meaningful questions. Like a slick salesperson, they evade questions and scrutiny. At first, they will befriend you. They will offer gifts or “hidden” wisdom. They make you feel good at first. By hook or by crook, they will attempt to bring you in. Don’t worry, however. By being familiar with what is the authentic, you will soon spot the forgery. When you find the authentic, hold on to it as it is a prized possession.

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