Make sure it’s easy to leave…

Via D. Patrick Miller
on Jul 12, 2012
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The recent news of the divorce of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes has once again raised the issue of cult religiosity in American culture, especially since it’s been rumored that Cruise’s devotion to Scientology played a central role in the couple’s split.

Not only did Scientology fail to solve the couple’s problems, it may well have been one of those problems, as it’s been rumored that Holmes was never comfortable with Scientology and wanted primary custody of their daughter Suri partly to protect her from its influence.

According to several unconfirmed reports, Holmes has also wasted no time in reaffirming her historical allegiance to Roman Catholicism—which, as some wags have pointed out, could well be viewed as a much larger cult with a much longer history.

The whole scene reminds me of some advice that the philosopher Jacob Needleman once imparted in a discussion we were having about mystical spirituality. When considering the pros and cons of any esoteric path or organization, he suggested that the safest ones would be “relatively difficult to join, but easy to leave.” And he said,

 If a spiritual group makes it very easy to join but then difficult to leave, watch out.

Photo: katherinedubois

That reminded me of being accosted on the streets many years ago by abnormally friendly Moonies, who were always inviting me to free dinners and extolling the wonders of their secret society. Years later I would meet and interview at length a young woman who accepted one of those invites and became a total devotee. She would not break free of the cult until her parents, learning that she was about to be married in a mass ceremony to another Moonie she had never met, had her forcibly kidnapped and deprogrammed.

Most of us come by any religion we happen to have quite easily, as we’re born into our parents’ faith, if they have one. And turning one’s back on that native allegiance can prove quite difficult, depending on the degree of familial and cultural devotion involved.

In a culture that’s increasingly identifying itself as “spiritual but not religious,” breaking free of one’s inherited faith is becoming less of a crisis for many.

But as the Cruise/Holmes divorce reminds us, even relatively new religions can foment an obsessive and troubling degree of devotion, requiring either a real or metaphorical divorce to get free of them. The question is why—what is it about any religion that can induce emotional ties so powerful that they rival those of intimate partnerships, friendships and family?

In the next edition of Sense & Spirituality, I’ll take a look at the lures of religious devotion—and how those lures compare with the unattractive demands of spiritual discipline.

~ Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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About D. Patrick Miller

D. Patrick Miller has been a seeker and researcher of spiritual wisdom for over two decades. He is the founder of Fearless Books and the author of a dozen books and over 100 magazine and online articles for such periodicals as Yoga Journal, The Sun, Columbia Journalism Review and San Francisco Chronicle. His research spans a wide variety of subjects, including A Course in Miracles, the Enneagram typology of personality, the I Ching, Jungian psychology, yoga, shamanism, cultism, spirituality in the workplace, psychic phenomena, altered states of consciousness, and advanced human capacities. He is the author of THE FORGIVENESS BOOK: Healing the Hurts We Don't Deserve (Hampton Roads, 2017), UNDERSTANDING A COURSE IN MIRACLES, and LIVING WITH MIRACLES: A Common Sense Guide to A Course in Miracles. He also provides other writers with editing, independent publishing assistance, and professional representation through Fearless Literary Services. Connect through Facebook.


4 Responses to “Make sure it’s easy to leave…”

  1. yogasamurai says:

    Is it religion per se? I really don't think so. Actually I think religion provides much stronger barriers to these problems than do New Age and non-Western "spirituality" systems.

    Most modern religions do not require the surrender of personal autonomy and individual identity; nor do they involve the creation of personality cults. The Divine Being does not walk the earth, and the intercessors – priests, rabbis or imams – have limited authority.

    These "New Age" groups destroy personal boundaries, and invade people's psyche – and they do it deliberately to organize pyramids of power that siphon off their adherents' wealth, and psychic energies under a veil of secrecy and strict obedience.

    That's the "supply" side of the problem. What about the "demand" side? Is everyone susceptible, or equally susceptible? I think not.

    That might lead us in the direction of social-psychology and the analysis of personality types. The linkage is often the mobility systems that these groups provide to afflicted or power-oriented narcissists to advance and to become power-holders themselves. That's how I view it.

    Look forward to seeing more from you. I do see organized religion, as a protective factor — as opposed to a risk factor in terms of cult identification. It's precisely the absence of formal religious exposure and more structured "formation" that leaves people more susceptible to recruitment and adherence to these systems. Simply put, people don't know any better.

    Katie had her Catholic formation to fall back on – and interestingly, perhaps, that''s where she ran right away, within hours, it seems – to a parish in New York, to rejoin.

  2. It's certainly true that Scientology is not a religion in any classic sense, or in any sense at all except as a legal entity for tax avoidance purposes. Scientology is a unique and bizarre compendium of science fiction and self-help philosophies packaged as an astonishingly aggressive and successful business. Philosophically it doesn't appear to be "new age" nor even "spiritual," for that matter. By all the usual standards, it does qualify as a cult. My point is that both mainstream religions and alternative cults share many of the same attractive elements, and from a scientific or even agnostic point of view, they are all equally delusional. I'm less interested in that critique, however, than I am in the cultural shift that's evidenced by so many people electing to call themselves "spiritual but not religious." (See the numbers in my previous column, "Has God, like Elvis, left the building?") Both cults and religions tell us what to believe and how to behave; the genuine spiritual inquiry takes us into experiencing the mysteries of existence and the quandaries of morality on our own.

  3. jack says:

    Interesting post, Patrick. By coincidence, I met a Jonestown survivor last month (Laura Kohl). I read her book, she read a chapter of mine, and she's asked me to write something for the Jonestown Report, so this subject has been on my mind lately. You're right to point out that ease of entry and great difficulty of leaving are necessary attributes of a cult, although there's more to it than that, as I'm sure you know. I agree that the SBNR way of thinking should be less cult-like, to the extent that it is done in isolation from other people. But as soon as you start attending regular meetings, like ACIM study groups, the risk of the emergence of a cult appears. Endeavor Academy is a good example. I suspect that cult formation is a consequence of several deeply-rooted aspects of human nature, some of which give rise to potential cult leaders, others to potential followers. As with any heritable personality traits, there is great variability in the population, and some people are more or less vulnerable because of their particular draw from the genetic deck. That, sadly, is something none of us can control. What we can do is to be alert for danger signs such as the one you point out here. But even that insight is not always enough. Usually the difficulty of exit becomes apparent only gradually, and so late in the game that some people feel they have no way out. That was a big part of the problem for the folks in Jonestown.

  4. Not long ago I had a discussion with a journalist friend about what kind of books sell best, and he observed that no matter how much writers like he and I might think that people want solid information and skillful insights on which to base sound decisions, "what most people really want is for someone to tell them what to do." So it goes with religions and cults. Years ago I went to a reading by a Sufi teacher who was asked whether a local Sufi group was a good one to join, and he replied "Never trust Sufis in a group!" I think what he was getting at is that an authentic spiritual discipline is an innately private and interior undertaking that can very easily be distorted by group discussions and social pressures. Yet seekers who have taken on any challenging discipline will naturally seek the support and insight of peers. Still, cultism is less a problem with such esoteric disciplines (in the ACIM realm, for instance, Endeavor is an exception rather than the rule) than with people who are not actually drawn to a discipline, but are just looking for someone to tell them what to do with themselves. Megalomaniacs like Jim Jones have the skill set to draw in such folks who have the tendency to be followers rather than seekers.