Jul 23, 2017

Can the Study of Cults Help Us Understand Radicalism?

Benjamin David
Sarah Mills 
Huffington Post
July 19, 2017

Terrorism and the process that leads to it, radicalisation, are the pressing problems defining much of the discourse of our time. Although extremism is currently, and frequently, manifesting itself in the form of Islamist terrorism, the driving mentality behind it is specific to no one religion in particular. Can other forms of extremist thinking help us better understand and, hopefully, combat terrorism and radicalism?

Cults can offer significant insight into devotion-based violence. Even when their practices do not cross over into physical violence, of which the most notorious of them have indeed been guilty, cults regularly infringe upon human rights and exact, through coercive persuasion, the sort of exclusive loyalty that is characteristic of other worldviews that do result in bloodshed. Psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton, in his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China, provides criteria by which we may identify mind-control groups. The criteria, which has since been applied to cults, elucidates the mentality operating within a person who is willing to die or murder (or both) for his or her beliefs. It easily bridges the gap between potential violence and terrorist violence. Lifton’s definitions could also be extended, thus classifying groups as cult-like that had hitherto not been considered as such.

The Orwellian method behind the madness takes shape through a study of these characteristics, revealing the insidiousness intrinsic to groups that maintain their power through mental and emotional abuse. Cults first and foremost isolate the recruit from her milieu. Contact with outsiders is limited, even eliminated, reinforcing the ‘us versus them’ dichotomy. Teachings manipulate circumstances, even historical events, in order to situate the group as part of a “divine plan”. Members see the group as a mediating force between divinity and themselves. All, even unrelated, knowledge is filtered and interpreted in light of teachings. The group is exclusionary; it derives its life-force from a worldview in which distinction from nonbelievers is essential. There is an emphasis on purity and an inflexible pressure to conform entirely to the doctrine. Sins are a public affair. Members are encouraged to confess and, if they are not publicly shamed in culling ceremonies, they are ostracised from the community. Doctrine is all-encompassing, applicable to every aspect of daily life. Disagreement, critical thinking, and personal interpretation are all highly discouraged. The group makes claims to infallibility. The language is ‘loaded,’ or adapted and infused with new meanings, in the vein of ‘Newspeak.’

There is no salvation outside the cult, nonbelievers will eventually either convert or perish, and believers will inherit a given version of eternal paradise. The psychological effects of indoctrination are devastating, even for those who never deviate from it (those who do - the ‘apostates’- are often subjected to harassment, loneliness, isolation, depression, and suicidal thoughts).

Of particular note is the relevancy of the above characteristics to modern-day religious and political organisations that might be legally classified as non-violent, but which regularly incite hatred of the ‘other’ - othering that, of course, renders impossible living in peace if you are an ex-member. What would it take for non-violent extremist groups to cross over into actual violence? According to Dr Arthur Dole, professor in psychology and member of the International Cultic Studies Association Board of Directors, terrorists are fuelled by the same extremist thinking as high control groups. The degrees of distance between groups like Al Qaeda and Heaven’s Gate are negligible and the standard by which he assesses their affinity to cult-like characteristics - the Group Psychological Abuse Scale - demonstrates the extent to which underlying mentality is uniform across the board. While cults do direct their abuses towards members, and terrorists towards non-combatants, both offer a transcendent, ideal vision of the afterlife, encourage a metaphorical or literal martyrdom, promise a sense of meaning and distinction, infringe upon individual freedoms, and cultivate an extreme dependency on the group or its leader.

There is fundamentally little difference between those who believe God will eventually exterminate all nonbelievers and those who enact God’s will for Him. The harm of letting these beliefs go unchecked far outweighs any harm that might result from offending the sensibilities of the religious. The same mentality that justifies psychological abuse, that separates families and friends, that segregates and ostracises on the basis of gender, race, orientation, identity, or belief is the same that can very likely lead to fatalities. And it is facetious to label any organisation that does so as ‘non-violent.’


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