Schismogenesis: from 'Understanding Cults & New Religions'

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Schismogenesis: from 'Understanding Cults & New Religions'

Post01 Mar 2016

From Understanding Cults and New Religions by Irving Hexham & Karla Poewe.

'Understanding Cults and New Religions' was a 1987 book by Irving Hexham & Karla Poewe within which the authors attempted to establish the concept of "schismogenesis" as an explanation of why certain individuals join cults or new religious movements.

I don't think it worked although I find the book one of the better and more insightful books on adherence to new religious movement and free from the usual factionalism or exploitation angles. I attempt to quickly paraphrase elements of it here and, specific to BKism and Lekhraj Kirpalani's mental state at the time of his transformation, take a quote from 'The Exploration of the Inner World: A Study of Mental Disorder and Religious Experience' (Boisen, University of Pennsylvania) used by it.

The key to this type of esoteric interpretation is the magical manipulation of numbers. In essence it involves ways of thinking that display an obsession with coincidence and the creation of sacred patterns. Such ways of viewing the world are typical of people under severe stress or those who are suffering from hysteria.

Anton T. Boise has also observed that an obsession with impending doom is common among mentally disturbed individuals. My position is that rather adopting the Brahma Kumaris own fictionalised and hagiographic version of their founder's "enlightenment" (not a word BKs actually use) or his early rapid evolution to godhood, we should start by consider whether he had had a mental breakdown and was suffering from mental illness of personality disorder.

I mean, what does it require to believe one is god for 20 years ... several gods in fact ... and surround oneself with a harem of other men's wives and children. Even to pay for their upkeep, to upkeep the massive delusion of grandeur.

Boise found that "many of the more serious psychoses are essentially problem-solving experiences which are closely related to certain types of religious experience ... case after case of individuals describing the same strange ideas of world catastrophe, death, rebirth, cosmic importance, and mission ... and that certain types of mental disorder and certain types of religious experience constitute similar attempts at social and psychological reorganization. The difference between them lies in the results they produce and the concept of reorganization is an important one.

The authors of the book actually differ from those who are inclined to characterize conversion as a sign of mental illness and write about the reorganization of those who join new religions being different from the reorganization of those who do not. People shop for alternative religions because they are experiencing some kind of dissonance and/or schizoid way of being in the world, primarily in two areas; relational and psychological.

They suggest some people experience and/or internalize the world's tensions and convert; other experience the same tensions but don't convert. Their idea is, that prior to conversion, individuals who become members of new religions typically experience a split between reason and emotion - a characteristic that they refer to schismogenesis.

Such individuals consequently rely on one faculty or one aspect of their personality to the detriment of the others. They suggests that "schismogenesis" continues after the individuals join a new religion. The reorganization that they experience does not necessarily - and perhaps never - affect their total personality. Their reorganization is merely a matter of psychological reversal or even a profound spiritual revolution. Their reorganization does not produce a balance, but to the contrary roots them in their imbalance. The imbalanced aspect of their personality is precisely that "single idea" which forms the essence of the new religion, which in turn exacerbates the tendency.
Instead of fighting it, or repressing it to bring about balance, the new member learns to see it in a new light, to surrender to it and to transform it into pure spirituality. For example, those who join Buddhist monasteries often note that before they joined, their tendency to rationalize had produced wihtin them a sense of "terrifying emptiness" but come to claim their practise has turned this emptiness into "blissful nothing". Their emptiness becomes the very essence of their spirituality and instead of resisting it, they are encouraged to surrender to it until they experience it as bliss.

Their hypothesis is that those who convert to new religions do so because they can reorganize only with the help of something external. By joining a new religion they regain a sense of well-being and at the same time come to live in a community of others just like them.

Some people cannot convert. They are able to maintain a dynamic balance by themselves and experience an intra-individual reorganization. They find that they are able to integrate and grow with unusual experiences as easily as with familiar ones.

Not all people who experience their existence as schizoid join new religions ... most find non-religious ways to deal with their condition. some receive psychiatric help. Others drift until they reach such a state of deterioration that they require hospitalization. Generally, however, they enter a period of searching and find bits and pieces of a new mythology ... other worlds ... the possibility of personal wholeness etc.

Victims of relational schismogenesis are said to be experiencing relational double blinds and seek religious way out after rational or secular efforts fail.

Victims of psychological schismogenesis are said to be experiencing relational psychological blinds;
    Spiritual schismogenesis arises from conflicts between inner spiritual worlds and the external world of reason leading people to retreat into a private world of visions, voices or hallucinations.

    Rational schismogenesis arises from conflicts between reason and emotion (or lost emotion) leading to a sense of having lost touch with their emotional and physical reality.

    Emotional schismogenesis arises from conflicts between emotion and reality leading to a people to vent their emotions with increasing frenzy or violence.
Spiritual schismogenesis, they suggest happens most to individuals who were physically or mentally mistreated early in their lives (prior to 6 years old).

Victims of rational schismogenesis, upper middle class or professional homes who tend not to feel at home in their own physical bodies, e.g. intelligent but emotionally clumsy or immature, covering their inadequacies with cleverness or skilful rationalization.

Such individuals tend to drift towards new religions emphasising self-realisation through meditation and emotional muting.

Emotional schismogenesis occurs when people are so overwhelmed by life that they fall apart and sink into emotional chaos ... the examples he gives are of those in Third World ghettos given to religious frenzy and panic. Once that frenzy or panic recedes, they find balance in daily rituals.

There's much more, including an interesting division of shamanist or spiritualist style of cults involving trance and mediumship. They also coin an pertinent term that I think also applies to BKs very well ...
Solitary sociality as opposed to a pattern of relationships based on couples or nuclear families.

And look at the class backgrounds of cult adherents according to education, wealth, generations etc.
BKs, and especially non-pukka BK supporters, should be reminded daily of one word of advice they give ...
A spiritual high, no matter how frequently repeated, cannot take the place of systematic, cumulative learning.

And, to close for just now ... I note their remarkable prescience in summing up 20 years what is going on in the BKWSU Western Order now.
Unless members of new religions accept that experiential knowledge can no more than complement rational knowledge, their new religions will fall silent like their gurus to become, at most, splendid failures ... some may become established churches that differ relatively little from what we have now, except that their organization may resemble a large international corporation more.

The BKs themselves do not feature in the book but similar Hare Krishnas and Jehovah Witnesses movements do. They make some quite acute observations of American Buddhist orders.

The book is thoughtful and sensitive rather than accusatory ... well worth the investment for anyone still in, joining, or just out of a cult like the BKs.
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Re: Schismogenesis: from 'Understanding Cults & New Religion

Post02 Mar 2016

More quick notes at random ...

Do the Brahma Kumaris exploit individual and family difficulties instead of helping them?
    Relational schismogenesis - similar to borderline personality disorders

    Spiritual schismogenesis - culture-bound reactive psychosis

    Rational schismogenesis - alienation or dissociative disorders

    Emotional schismogenesis - expressions of hysteria
with individuals possibly suffering from more than one.

New religions are not new products taking the place of old ones in a religious market ... merely recent versions of experiential therapo-religious phenomena. Experiential rather than intellectual. Throughout history there has been a waxing and waning of medico-moral, or therapo-religious, or therapo-spiritual cults ... untidy religious mutants ... embarrassing irrational problems.

neuroses being socialized into succeeding generations.

Three major elements of cultural hysteria; a deep sense of moral injustice, an idee fixe, and heightened suggestibility, or evident in new religions as well. Experiential or magical religions tend to encourage unclear verbal statements, a choice of global rather than specific labels for experience, and fail to understand the implications of their ideas, all of which tend to make members appear shallow. New religions are expressions of cultural hysteria which amplify or produce hysteric tendencies at the same time as they "cure" them; and they are sought out by Westerners who display Western form of hysterical personality.

Many individuals who join today's new religions solve their psychological and social imbalances as deep social injustices that call for dramatic moral or spiritual solutions. They translate their behaviour problems, emotional turmoil and mental restlessness into fantasies and myths or alternatively they translate myths to undergoing healing.

Mythological fragments into which they hook their anchors.
If shamans, "prophets", and leaders of new religions do not manifest one or another for, of "hysteria" themselves, then they are at least very sensitive to its prevalnce in a good proportion of the population.

Leaders' abilities to "dramaticize" and their followers' susceptibility to such dramaticization create a powerful bond between them.

The book also quote an ideas from 'Ecstatic Religion: An anthropological Study of Spirit Possession and Shamanism' by IM Lewis dividing shamanists traditions into
    Peripheral amoral possession cults, and
    Central morality cults
defining shamanism as mediumship, communication between human and spirit realms, involving trance states induced at will.

Peripheral cults being protest cults usually allowing the underprivileged to heal themselves and make demands of their masters, moralistic cults being primarily concerned with the moral order of societies and tending to develop in societies under major religions such as Islam or Christianity during times of rapid change.

The authors underline significant themes in case histories of shamans and members of new religions in general such as, desire to escape drudgery of everyday life, hankering for status or being considered special, a fertile but undisciplined imaginative or fantasy life, dramatic talent and little or incomplete education. They note that many of the young adults who joined the new religions they studied have some further education but that few completed it.

They differentiate between; complete possession, partial possession, and histrionic possession which is characterised by an absence of all the evidences of true possession, perhaps as we are seeing now with Gulzar and her recent seances.
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Re: Schismogenesis: from 'Understanding Cults & New Religion

Post03 Mar 2016

Thanks. Good research and interesting extracts.
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Re: Schismogenesis: from 'Understanding Cults & New Religion

Post03 Mar 2016

I found some of the descriptors of the "types" of those likely to join new religious movements to be very accurate in my own case (never finished higher education etc); and the "intellectual but uncomfortable etc" upper middle class ones made me think of others of my generation, e.g. Julian, Neville, Nikki etc.

Others people I knew, at the tail end of the "counter culture" generation, were off doing TM, Rajneesh, Maharishi, Scientology etc.

However, I wonder how things have changed over the last couple of decades, especially with cults like the BKs focusing on professional/corporate clients?

Sexless, childless, post-menopausal "women of a certain age" in the West (as they are known) would seem to be another demographic ... lower to middle class women looking for something to do with their lives, but unkeen to get their hands dirty doing anything too demanding, perhaps?

The demographic targets appear to older, but wealthier.

And, in India ... mother dominated young men, young lesbians, and dissatisfied wives looking to get their husbands off their back, retirees?
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Re: Schismogenesis: from 'Understanding Cults & New Religion

Post18 Mar 2016

Click to see list.

The original authors are not actually derrogatory of cults but trying to establish a basic model and explain tendencies causing the attraction to joining. I am pretty sure it's either not the complete picture, or there are simpler models ... other than the ones the BKs might chose, e.g. "It's God" or "It's the Truth!". They say/think/feel that.

I like the other common idea that cult adherence is, for most people, a 'ready to wear' mask they adopt while making personality or relationship changes behind it ... and that most discard it later, once they have achieved the changes they want.

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