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Psychological Processes Operative in Spiritual Movements

Article Index
Psychological Processes Operative in Spiritual Movements
Type of Members
Uniqueness of the movement
Probation and conversion
Failure of predictions
Belief versus intellect
Common practice, work and ritual
Sacrifices, financial secrecy, favours to the rich
Reprehensible behaviour amongst members
Fear of exclusion
Literature (so far)

Hi, I am Michael,

For fifty years I have been in contact with spiritual movements or read up on them.  I have been interested particularly in their influence on its members, who I have followed now for a considerable number of years all over the world.  I have been struck by the fact that developments within such groups always seem to follow a similar pattern.  When people unite for a special purpose a field of tension seems to arise based on unleashed subconscious drives. 

Please allow me to share with you some of my observations.

Psychological group-mechanisms

Before introducing the subject I should like to make it clear that it is not meant to belittle members of sects or movements.  I am myself a member of one.  That does not mean that we should close our eyes to the psychological processes that operate in them.  If undiscovered they may well gnaw at their foundation, or steer the movement in a way the original founder never wanted to.  Human beings, grouped together, are obeying unconscious drives they are hardly aware of.  Yet, associations of people are very necessary to reach a common goal or bring about something in the participants' mind.  Their combined efforts create strength.  Herewith a tentative summary of factors operative in spiritual movements.  A psychologist may well do the same for other groups such as stamp-collectors (few people within the committee have to bear the burden yet they are criticized etc., etc.), sport-associations and political parties.  Victor Mansfield has done so for the special guru-disciple relationship.  Margaret Singer for cults based on health fads, business-training programmes, getting-rich quick schemes, on one hand, and on the other groups who use fundamentalist religious interpretations, or thought and discipline borrowed from Eastern culture to further their causes/courses.  In those the following summary of tendencies have become a systematic pattern of exploitation of the individual.

I do not wish not to deal with those.  Instead I wish to turn to well-known spiritual and religious movements many of us may be a member of to mutual benefit and to satisfy our particular spiritual aspirations.  If I have offended unintentionally the reader in his genuine conviction, I offer my apologies beforehand.  It is my sole intention to direct his attention to pitfalls which may not be applicable at all to his situation. 

The main features

Which are the features most common to spiritual movements which are of psychological influence?

  1. The outlook/aspiration of their members
  2. The authority of the leader/founder
  3. Shared belief in a scripture, revelation, or sayings.
  4. Uniqueness of the movement.
  5. Salvation through baptism, initiation, or conversion.
  6. Belief in a prediction/prophesy
  7. Belief versus intellect
  8. Common practice of a ritual
  9. Sacrifice.  Financial secrecy.  Favours to the rich. 
  10. Reprehensible behaviour amongst members. 
  11. Fear of expulsion