Memo to Cult Leaders: How NOT to Be a Cult
Posted by: 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 ( 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 (

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.

Be Transparent
* 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

Be Accountable
* 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

Advocate Freedom
* 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.

Re: Memo to Cult Leaders: How NOT to Be a Cult
Posted by: solea13 ()
Date: June 24, 2008 10:13PM

I like this list of rules on how not to be a cult very much! You've covered a lot. There are a few people in my organization who should see this.

Thanks John. If I think of anything to add I will let you know.


Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 06/24/2008 10:13PM by solea13.

Re: Memo to Cult Leaders: How NOT to Be a Cult
Posted by: The Anticult ()
Date: June 24, 2008 10:59PM

Of course, leaders of these groups carefully set up the group to be Totalitarian and even "fascist" in that all of the control comes from the top down, and all the money goes from the botton up.
And they have to deceive people otherwise they would not go along with the program.

If they didn't do these things, then they would not be a cult, and not be in control of people, and not make millions of dollars for themselves, as they would have to pay staff, etc.

I looked at John Knapps website. He was a former TM member, and now does ex-cult counselling.
I didn't read his entire website, but his page on TM seems accurate. Especially the list of problems people experience from doing the TM meditation. TM meditation is not benign, its very damaging.
I believe the Mararishi designed it like that, as that is a common method.

Promise them paradise with techniques.
Those techniques make them feel worse and worse.
This brings them deeper and deeper into the group.

Byron Katie does the exact same thing, its a deliberate method.

In SALES, they find your PAIN, and then magnify your PAIN, and then sell you services that promise to take away the pain.
If those "services" increase their pain while promising to reduce it, you have a Customer For Life.

Re: Memo to Cult Leaders: How NOT to Be a Cult
Posted by: The Anticult ()
Date: June 24, 2008 11:03PM

(think about it, if their techniques worked, and you felt great, then they lose a customer. They are punished by success, and rewarded by failure.)

Re: Memo to Cult Leaders: How NOT to Be a Cult
Posted by: John M. Knapp ()
Date: June 25, 2008 12:26AM

Thanks guys for your kind words -- and discussion.

IF these groups adopted these policies, they would, of course, cease to be cults. That's my point.

I'd love to be put out business as a cult counselor!

Another way to look at the article is as a shopping list of what to look for in legitimate spiritual organizations.

Cults may or may not change.

But bigger organizations than the relatively tiny cults have been changed from within. The Reformation changed the Christian church. Mahayana changed the face of Buddhism. Even the modern Catholic Church is grudgingly making some changes in the face of their laity's outrage.

In the end, we are the source of all power within the our cults. It's our money they're spending. It's our allegiance that gives them the illusion of power.


John M. Knapp, LMSW
Knapp Family Counseling
Spiritual & Cultic Abuse: Healing. Prevention. Research.

Re: Memo to Cult Leaders: How NOT to Be a Cult
Posted by: John M. Knapp ()
Date: June 25, 2008 02:21AM

I'm sorry!

I think I made a basic mistake. I am generalizing from my own cultic relationship to TM.

Cults exist on a spectrum, from the most benign to the most destructive. For instance, if I were to rate Transcendental Meditation on a scale of 1 to 10, I'd probably give them a "6." Scientology a "7" or "8." But there are many that are much worse.

Such cults have power over us that we do not give them.

Prisoners at Gitmo have no control over the abuse they experience. Extreme physical, emotional, or psychological abuse causes trauma in nearly everyone eventually. And that alleged trauma is the source of US interrogators' power.

Most of us did not experience that level of abuse.

But some did. I'm working with a client now out of Mohan Singh's group, for instance. She reports being raped and otherwise humiliated and severely abused.

I don't mean to imply that Singh only had the power that she ceded to him.

But I think that once we become aware of the mechanisms of control in most groups, from that point forward they only have the power that we cede to them. At least that was my personal experience with TM.

Please accept my emendation to my original post in this topic.


John M. Knapp, LMSW
Knapp Family Counseling
Spiritual & Cultic Abuse: Healing. Prevention. Research.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 06/25/2008 02:25AM by John M. Knapp.

Re: Memo to Cult Leaders: How NOT to Be a Cult
Posted by: The Anticult ()
Date: June 25, 2008 07:06AM

I also must admit I find no hope in reforming these large groups or "cults".
I don't know of one single group, large or small, that has ever improved.
They seem to get worse, or implode.

I would not include the Catholic Church in this same discussion, personally. Besides, they have not changed much, and don't want to change.

Personally, I don't see cult-groups improving, only getting worse if anything.
They may get better PR, and break fewer laws.

But for example te Landmark Forum...they are smarter at getting away with things over time, that's what I see. Same with PSI SEminars.
They get worse, because they get smarter every year, more techniques.

Re: Memo to Cult Leaders: How NOT to Be a Cult
Posted by: John M. Knapp ()
Date: June 25, 2008 09:09AM


You may be right.

But I don't see much effort being put into reform.

The agenda of attacking the cults doesn't seem to me to be working. I agree many of them are getting worse.

The Catholic Church has changed tremendously since the time of the Reformation. And that, for simplicity's sake, was largely started by one man.


Sorry, only registered users may post in this forum.
This forum powered by Phorum.