How To Determine If You Are Involved In One
Guest post by Emma Bragdon, Ph.D.
From time to time people tell me, "Someone I know thinks Avatar is a cult. How do I respond?" I ask, "What is their definition of a cult?" No one has had an answer. It seems the word cult creates a great deal of reactivity. Images of mass suicide spring to mind. Yet few stop to define, "What is a cult?"
M. T. Singer, PhD clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at the University of California at Berkeley, published Cults in Our Midst (Jossey-Bass, 1995) with J. Lalich, writer and consultant. The book differentiates cults from groups that support more healthy human growth. Dr. Singer has been doing research, counseling and teaching for over 50 years. She has been a court-appointed witness and examiner in cases involving cults and has counseled thousands of people who were either former cult members or family to a cult member. To paraphrase Singer and Lalich:
A humanitarian group is a vehicle for healthy human development and assists individuals to become open and flexible. Members are more able to manage the uncertainties of life. The group's training supports being consistently open to transformation and change, continually seeking a deep core of ethics, and the ability to laugh at oneself. Democratic process and open forums for working out differences are preferred over authoritarian organizational structures. There is freedom of speech and expression. The group's boundaries are permeable membranes through which people come and go relatively unimpeded.
A cult, on the other hand, is more fundamentalist in nature. There is a dogma, a set of beliefs, or absolutes, which must be rigidly followed. The organization is authoritarian. A cult leader, regarded as a supreme authority, induces others to become totally dependent to the point of surrendering their money, possessions and life choices to the cult leader. Members are obliged to recruit new members. Manipulation and brainwashing are commonplace. Cults attack those who leave the membership as defectors. Cults exhibit increasing hostility to the "outside" world and transmit that point of view to their members.
Rarely would one group fulfill the definition above completely because groups, like people, are always growing and changing. Thus, it is wise to see the definitions as opposite ends of a spectrum in motion. On one end there is a group that is a vehicle for healthy human growth and on the other there is a highly authoritarian cult. The extreme behavior of a Jim Jones would exemplify the highly authoritarian cult. But, that does not mean that every group that joins to support human development is a cult. It only indicates that there are extremes that can lay waste to potential good. An active alcoholic on a binge can make alcohol look like poison, so we forget that wine is used in sacred communion. One Jones can make group activity look like Hell, so we forget there are other groups that are benign or truly helpful.
In order to clarify a more detailed and current profile of a group, to measure the negative and positive aspects, we might use additional scales. For example:
1. A scale that starts with encouraging personal freedoms: diverse social contacts, freedom of speech and freedom of expression and ends in discouraging these freedoms and giving totalitarian authority to the leader.
2. Another scale that starts with a democratic organization built on honesty and clear agendas and ends with totalitarian organization built on a double standard that fosters hidden agendas and manipulation.
3. Another scale that measures integration with and appreciation of the outside world versus increased hostility with those outside the group.
Emma Bragdon, PhD , Vermont
The Avatar Journal would like to thank Dr. Bragdon for sharing her viewpoint.
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