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Danger Signs in Cults

Danger signs in cults

Daniel Goleman, a psychologist with considerable expertise in spiritual development work, has summarised some very practical indicators of problems in spiritual work. This is an adapted extract from his article 'Early warning signs for the detection of spiritual blight', in the Association for Transpersonal Psychology (Summer '85) quoted in Charles Tart's book 'Waking up' (Element Books 1988) which was monitored for the Institute by Roger Knights.

Spiritual groups - like families, corporations, therapy groups, and marriages - are susceptible to the full range of human foibles.  Vanity, power-seeking, and looking out for number one are as likely to show up in a spiritual organisation as any other. 

The very nature of such groups often makes it difficult to notice or acknowledge that something is awry. Group collusions such as 'It's all part of the teaching' are invoked as alibis for meanness of spirit and pettiness.  Wandering the spiritual path by no means protects us from the normal dose of folly that accompanies any other human endeavour.

Spiritual work is perhaps all the more ripe for foibles because of the excellent cover-up self-deception lends for the use of the spirit in the service of the ego, libido and pocket book.  As a spiritual freelancer for many years who has been at the centre or periphery of a variety of such groups, I've had ample opportunity to note or fall prey to some of the typical pitfalls listed below.

Of course, in one or another context each of these signals may be a false negative - a benign symptom with no underlying pathology.  But more often than not, they mean that an open-minded, skeptical enquiry is called for.  Be wary when you notice the first signs of:

Taboo topics: questions that can't be asked, doubts that can't be shared, misgivings that can't be voiced. For example, 'Where does all the money go?' or 'Does Yogi sleep with his secretary?'

Secrets: the suppression of information, usually tightly guarded by an inner circle. For example, the answers, 'Swiss bank accounts,' or 'Yes, he does - and that's why she had an abortion. '

Spiritual clones: in its minor form, stereotypic behaviour, such as people who walk, talk, smoke, eat and dress just like their leader; in its much more sinister form, psychological stereotyping, such as an entire group of people who manifest only a narrow range of feeling in any and all situations: always happy, or pious, or reducing everything to a single explanation, or sardonic, etc.

Group think: party line that overrides how people actually feel. Typically the cognitive glue that binds the group. Eg 'you're fallen, and Christ is the answer', or 'you're lost in Samsara, and Buddha is the answer', or 'you're impure, and Shiva is the answer'.

The elect: shared delusion of grandeur that there is no way but this one. The corollary: you're lost if you leave the group.

No graduates: members are never weaned from the group. Often accompanies the corollary above.

Assembly lines: everyone is treated identically, no matter what their differences; eg mantras are assigned by dictates of a demographical checklist.

Loyalty tests: members are asked to prove loyalty to the group by doing something that violates their personal ethics; for example, set up an organisation that has a hidden agenda of recruiting others into the group, but publicly represents itself as a public service outfit.

Duplicity: the group's public face misrepresents its true nature, as in the example just given.

Unifocal understanding: single world view is used to explain anything and everything; alternate explanations are verboten. For example, if you have diarrhoea its 'Guru's grace'. If it stops, it's also Guru's grace. And if you get constipated, it's still Guru's grace.

Humourlessness: no irreverence allowed. Laughing at sacred cows is good for your health. Take, for example, Gurdjieff's one-liner: 'If you want to lose your faith, make friends with a priest.'