Memo to Cult Leaders: How NOT to Be a Cult
John M. Knapp
Date: June 22, 2008 11:59PM
Give me a moment. I mean to give this article a positive agenda. But it may take a second to get there.
I could complain about my group, Transcendental Meditation. But I'd like to give the new leaders a few tips on how not to be a cult.
Perhaps other cults and leaders could incorporate a few of them.
This is what I observe. When critics label a group cultic, there's a knee-jerk reaction. The group enters an escalating spiral of defensiveness.
First, they claim they are not a cult. They give dozens of reasons why they're just like other religions or groups. They attempt to destroy their critics. They claim critics are "disgruntled," criminal, bankrupt, unbalanced -- downright crazy.
When these tactics don't work, cults ratchet up repressive isolation of their members and forbid them to read critics.
Critics rightly point out these defensive maneuvers make the groups even more cultic than before. Which sets off another round of defensiveness.
Once in a great while, modern cults claim they have reformed. Scientology and ISKCON come to mind.
I remember opening my apartment door one sunny, Sonoma summer day in 1996 to Gene Ingram's smiling face (http://web.tampabay.rr.com/sp/PI.html). Gene's a private investigator best-known for allegedly intimidating critics of his main client, Scientology. He heard I left a startup cult activist foundation. So he thought I might be sympathetic to Scientology's side of the story.
"Scientology used to have some problems. But it's over. We threw the bad guys out. The good guys won."
Gene left me his business card and invited me to Los Angeles for a private tour of Scientology's facilities there -- and a private audience with some church bigwigs.
Somehow, I never got around to that trip.
Gene sadly misjudged my state of mind. Despite his assurances, cultic abuse complaints continue to dog Scientology some 12 years later. Maybe the mainstream media didn't get the memo.
Hare Krishnas reform? Same tune, different day with ISKCON's Hare Krishnas (http://www.culteducation.com/reference/krishna/krishna7.html).
Okay. So on to my positive agenda.
Not every organization that critics label a cult started out to abuse its members. But without forethought, any organization can become cultic. Look at the problems the Catholic Church faces.
So here are a few tips for cult leaders. Maybe, just maybe, they can dodge the cult label.
* discuss policies, procedures & scandals openly
* publicize open complaint procedures
* report public scandals promptly to members, law officials & public media
* allow free information flow & fully disclose "secrets," especially those that might affect potential members' choice to join
* fully disclose the group's political & legislative involvement
* fully disclose finances, particularly international finances, with third-party audits
* create a member-driven task force to set reasonable fees for retreats & "courses"
* dialogue openly with laity, the press & the public
* publish -- and adhere to -- a set of ethics
* publish -- and adhere to -- all fees & donation policies
* oversee clergy & other agents with governing boards
* if any group agent acts unethically or illegally, take full responsibility
* allow open questioning of the leader's beliefs & practices
* Create a mechanism for modifying beliefs & practices
* create an elective or accountable structure of representation (as in most churches)
* promote freedom of speech within the group, without reprisals for contrary opinions
* promote academic freedom for clergy & scholars
* allow access to files/records held on members & public individuals
* advocate freedom to explore our spirituality without shunning or other repercussions
* avoid use of shame or guilt to control members
Provide Member Protections
* institute safeguards against members devoting damaging amounts of time, money & emotional resources to the group
Value Respect for Non-Members
* foster a systemic respect for other spiritual traditions & non-members
* foster a systemic respect for the rule of law, rather than the belief the ends justify the means
* foster a systemic respect for members' families, whether they are members or not
* foster a systemic practice of charity & support to the less fortunate
* encourage members to live or socialize with non-group members
Provide Informed Consent
* fully disclose negative side-effects of group's mind-altering or medical techniques
* undertake real efforts to address & heal side-effects
* accept financial responsibility for members suffering side-effects
Imagine a cult that acted with this kind of integrity.
That's a spiritual organization I could be proud of.
And I'm not willing to accept anything less.
I'm sure readers will think of more bottom-line policies for successful non-cults. Please feel free to suggest them in comments below or by emailing or private messaging me.
John M. Knapp, LMSW
Knapp Family Counseling
Spiritual & Cultic Abuse: Healing. Prevention. Research.