The Nature of Personal Belief & Free Will in Cult Membership

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The Nature of Personal Belief & Free Will in Cult Membership

Post09 May 2012

The Nature of Personal Belief

Free Will, Free Choice, and Personal Belief

The subjective, non-material nature of free will means that, strictly speaking, neither free will itself, nor any manipulation of free will, can be objectively proven. In any given case, it is always at least partly a matter of opinion as to whether a person might have acted out of their own free (and informed) choice, or whether their mental liberty and freedom of choice might have been restricted or unduly influenced in some way. It is ultimately unprovable either way.

The personal and experiential nature of the belief system promoted by a cult means that it is not possible for a person to exercise informed free choice in advance, about whether the belief system is valid or not, or about the benefits of following the study and training opportunities offered by the group. The benefits, if any, of group involvement can only be evaluated through personal experience, through spending a suitable period of time with the group. How long a suitable period of time might be, depends on the individual, and cannot be determined in advance.

Unfortunately, the subjective, non-material nature of free will means that a person who becomes involved with a cult and its belief system, and who subsequently comes to regret this, can never actually prove that they had not been acting entirely out of their own free will in becoming involved, or that their free choice had been in any way manipulated or deceptively influenced, even if it had.

If they claim that the cult's descriptions of its belief system were false or misleading, preventing them from making a reasonable and informed free choice before becoming involved, they will not really be able to prove this. This is because the subjective, non-material nature of personal belief is such that any descriptions of a belief system are also subjective and a matter of personal interpretation.

Therefore it is virtually impossible to prove that a belief system might have been mis-represented or falsely described. An allegation of mis-representation can always be countered with an allegation of mis-interpretation. A cult can always claim that critics have misunderstood the belief system itself, and have therefore simply misunderstood and mis-interpreted the cult's description of its belief system.

The subjective, non-material nature of personal belief also means that any criticisms of the effect that exposure to a cult belief system may have had upon a person's mind or behaviour are unprovable, since it is impossible to prove what someone does or doesn't believe, and therefore it is impossible to prove any consequences. As long as the burden of proof remains with the critic, a cult can never lose, and criticism is impotent.

The net result is twofold: firstly, cults are spared any obligation to prove to the outside world that their members became involved purely out of their own free will and choice, and secondly, they are not obliged to prove that involvement is safe and not psychologically damaging.

It is possible to broadly place a group's belief system along the quasi-religious spectrum, based on investigating the belief system from the outside, as a non-believer. However, it requires more of an insider's perspective to understand the interior dynamics of the belief system, and in particular the effect that involvement with a cult belief system may have upon a person's mind or behaviour.

The Hermeneutics of Personal Belief

This kind of investigation, into the inner workings of a group's belief system, could be described as hermeneutical. Hermeneutics, derived from the Greek for 'interpret', is a philosophical tradition concerned with the nature of interpretation and understanding of human behaviour and social traditions.

An influential contributor to this tradition was the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey (1833 - 1911), who argued that the 'human sciences' could not employ the same methods as the natural sciences, but needed to use the procedure of 'understanding' (Verstehen) to grasp the 'inner life' of an alien culture or historical period. To understand the inner life of a belief system, an investigator has to go native and enter into the belief system to some extent. They have to become a believer, or at least suspend disbelief.

A belief system has both objective and subjective aspects. There are the formal doctrines and tacitly agreed behaviour codes of a particular faith or culture or group, and there is the complex of sometimes conflicting ideas, convictions, attitudes, and affiliations within the mind of an individual member of that particular faith or culture or group. Understanding a belief system requires some ability to empathise with the mind and outlook of a believer, and some ability to experience the emotions of a believer.

Clearly, there is a tension between being an impartial investigator and being a believer. Hermeneutics is sometimes divided into the 'hermeneutics of suspicion' and the 'hermeneutics of faith'. The French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, wrote of this tension: 'Hermeneutics seems to me to be animated by this double motivation: willingness to suspect, willingness to listen; vow of rigor, vow of obedience.' [16]

A hermeneutic of faith allows an investigator to enter the inner world of a belief system. However, there is the danger that this may compromise an investigator's impartiality and objectivity, because an investigator has to make a paradigm shift and adopt, at least temporarily, a new set of beliefs. They have to go native to some extent, if they hope to understand the inner life of the belief system and see it through the eyes of a believer. Otherwise, they will always be an outsider, and not really able to comprehend the belief system.

However, if they do adopt a new belief system, even partially and tentatively, how can they at the same time maintain an impartial and objective perspective on it? Their old belief system may be incompatible with the new belief system, and in time the original reasons for undertaking an investigation may no longer seem entirely valid under the new belief system. An investigator needs some equivalent of Ariadne's thread [17], if they want to be confident of finding their way back out of the new belief system.

Of course, no-one is forced to join a cult. No-one is forced to adopt a new belief system, either as a whole or in part. Equally however, no-one, be they an independent academic investigator, a curious onlooker, or a potential new member, can understand a belief system, without trying it out first. It's not really a belief system, if you don't believe in it. Without some ability to see a belief system through the eyes of a believer, and to experience the emotions of a believer, an investigator will always remain an outsider. Without a hermeneutic of faith, and a 'vow of obedience', in Paul Ricoeur's phrase, an objective investigation ('vow of rigor') will be impotent and ineffectual.

Consequently, it is not really possible to make an informed choice in advance about whether or not to adopt, either wholly or in part, a new belief system. It is only really possible to make an informed evaluation of a belief system after having tried it out it and lived it for a period of time. However, cult belief systems tend have a particular set of characteristics which make it dangerous even to experiment with them. The dangerous characteristics of cult belief systems are that they are hierarchical and bi-polar in nature.

Hierarchical, Bi-polar Belief Systems

In general, cult organisations promote utopian ideals of self awareness or self-transcendence, ostensibly for the benefit both of the individual and of the world at large. For example:

'The central teaching of the Buddha is that we can change our lives. Buddhism offers clear and practical guidelines as to how men and women can realise their full potential for understanding and kindness. Meditation is a direct way of working on ourselves to bring about positive transformation. We teach two simple and complementary meditations. One helps us develop a calm, clear, focused mind; the other transforms our emotional life, enabling us to enjoy greater self-confidence and positivity towards others.' [7]

The type of belief system implied above is not unique to cults. Many belief systems could be described as aspirational or even utopian, in the sense that they proclaim an ideal to be realised, and propose a path or a lifestyle for believers that leads towards realisation of that ideal.

However, cult belief systems have some additional characteristics. Firstly, they tend to be hierarchical in perspective, revolving around ideas about lower and higher levels of personal awareness and insight. They also tend to be dualistic and bi-polar, in the sense that they tend to make a clear distinction between the two poles of the hierarchy. There is a clear distinction between lower and higher, between mundane and ultimate, etc. For example:

'I see it [the spiritual path] in terms of a very definite transition from what we regard as a mundane way of seeing the world and experiencing the world, to what we would describe as a transcendental way, seeing it in terms of wisdom, seeing it in terms of real knowledge, seeing it in terms of ultimate reality, seeing it in terms of a truer, wider perspective.' [18]

'spiritual life begins with awareness, when one becomes aware that one is unaware, or when one wakes up to the fact that one is asleep.' [19]

'We always have to be aware that our. . .um . . . what we think, is not true, until enlightenment.' [20]

Not only do cult belief systems tend to be dualistic or bi-polar in philosophical terms, they also tend to be bi-polar in psychological terms, rather like Bi-polar Disorder or manic-depression.

Cult belief systems promote a utopian vision in which any individual, through following the group's teachings, can begin to realise their own higher potential, and can ultimately transcend the mundane. As outlined earlier, believers begin to aspire to a 'new life' or a 'new self', one which embodies the ideals and insights of the belief system. At the same time, cult belief systems encourage the aspirant not only to identify with this potential new self, but also to adopt the perspective of this new self, which sees their old self as comparatively inferior and unaware. It is ego-utopia or hubris for the new self, and ego-dystonia or shame for the old self. [21]

There are two intertwined aspects to this process:
    From the ego-utopian side, a cult-type belief system presents a vision of an ideal new self, and this vision can become a source of vicarious pride for believers, as they identify with the ideal and bask in its reflected glory. Believers can begin to experience a feeling of intoxication with the ideals proclaimed by a cult, and a sense of pride in being associated with these ideals.As their commitment is recognised and acknowledged by the group's leaders, they may also develop a sense of pride in being admitted into an exclusive coterie.

    Often, established cult members will tend to divide the world into the saved and the fallen, and seeing themselves as members of an elect, will look down compassionately upon those not yet fortunate enough to be initiated into their belief system. This vicarious pride or hubris-by-proxy can be intoxicating, and may possibly be one of the most addictive aspects of cult involvement.

    In the absence of alternative sources of emotional nourishment, a believer can develop a psychological dependence on the feeling of enhanced self-confidence associated with being accepted as a member of an elite group. Like any addict, they can become dependent on their supplier. A believer can become dependent on the granting of recognition and appreciation by the believer's adoptive peer group, and by its leaders and hierachs. This appreciation and recognition can usually be earned, like brownie points, by supporting the group financially or by working for the group in various ways.

    From the ego-dystonic side, a hierarchical cult-type belief system, combined with the aspirational and idealistic ethos of a community of believers, tends to create an ego-dystonic dynamic within the group. Ego-dystonia tends to perpetuate itself given the two necessary conditions, which are a hierarchical, bi-polar belief system and a community of believers. The doctrines of a hierarchical belief system encourage ego-dystonia and also define the community; the community perpetuates the doctrines, and the aspirational nature of the doctrines consolidates the community's appeal as a refuge for ego-dystonics.
In other words, the belief system both creates a problem (ego-dystonia) and simultaneously offers a solution (ego-utopia). Like the proverbial chicken and egg, the whole thing can tend to become a self-perpetuating symbiosis.

As they try to practice the cult's teachings for themselves, believers tend to alternate between seeing themselves as fairly heroic in their efforts to achieve an ideal personality and to help bring about an ideal new world, or feeling guilty over their failure to overcome their recalcitrant old self, with all its supposed negativity and reactivity and sinfulness.

Cults don't usually try to induce extreme or pathological levels of ego-dystonic guilt in their members; milder levels can be just as effective. Mild guilt tends to be a good motivator, while excessive guilt tends to be disabling, and a disabled, de-motivated believer is of no use to a cult.

Cult leaders don't necessarily plan all this out in advance; these processes tend to occur naturally, given the necessary conditions. In fact, given the necessary conditions, it takes a positive effort to avoid becoming a cult.

In general, believers feel a pleasant ego-utopia or hubris so long as they remain in favour with the group, and an unpleasant ego-dystonic guilt if they are out of favour. For an outsider to be able to understand whether this type of psychological dependency may be a factor or not, it is necessary to have some understanding of the 'inner life' of the group's belief system, and to be able to empathise with the mind of a believer.

Hierarchies and the Politics of Personal Belief

The two conditions necessary for a cult to form are:
    a) a hierarchical, bi-polar type of belief system, and
    b) an organisation devoted to promoting that belief system.
Many belief systems, both cult and non-cult, are associated with a church or with an organised community of believers, which ostensibly supports and encourages individual believers in their efforts to realise the ideal for themselves. In the earlier section 'Organisations and their belief systems', various criteria were proposed as a means of investigating the nature of a particular community of believers. Enquiring about roughly where the belief system fits in the quasi-religious spectrum, and about who the preceptors and moral arbiters of the group are, can be helpful in gaining an understanding of the group.

The particular area of enquiry proposed in this section, is into the interior dynamics or politics of how an individual believer interacts with the organised body of believers.

Is the group's hierarchical belief system, with its beliefs about higher and lower levels of personal realisation, used to justify a hierarchical power structure within the organisation? Do the institutions of the belief system tend to support the aspirations of believers, or do they tend to subordinate believers to the interests of the organisation and its leaders?

It is sometimes suggested that Christianity began as a cult. The Christianity of Jesus and the disciples was unorthodox in its time, and might well have met several of the criteria proposed so far for identifying a cult. However, a saying such as 'The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.' [22] does imply a spirit and an ethos centered on the needs of a believer, rather than on the needs of the belief system and its institutions. While it is admittedly rather difficult to know the 'inner life' of believers two thousand years ago, early Christianity would appear to fail Lifton's criterion for a cult of 'Doctrine over Person'.[9]

Potentially, any belief system can be interpreted either in a cultish or in a non-cultish manner. Personal belief can sometimes become institutionalised and harden into group ideology, and it is not always easy for an outsider to know to what extent this has happened. The Uraguayan theologian Juan Segundo, who considers that 'the alienating sin of the world is ideology', writes that:

'liberation from ideology requires opting for the exercise of an ideological suspicion in order to unmask the unconscious ideological structures which dominate and which favor a powerful, privileged minority.' [23]

In the case of a cult, the 'powerful, privileged minority' are the cult leaders and hierachs. The difficulty is that an investigator (or potential new member) has to exercise a hermeneutic of faith as well as of suspicion, if they are to succeed in penetrating into the mind set of a cult member and in unmasking therein any 'unconscious ideological structures'. Only someone with hands-on experience of the ethos and interior dynamics of the group actually knows the point of view of an engaged believer. Only an insider can really tell us if the 'inner life' of the belief system serves the members or a privileged hierarchy.

This places an investigator in a dangerous paradox. On the one hand, they have to go native and enter into the belief system to some extent, if they want to know whether the 'inner life' of the belief system serves the members or the hierarchy. But the difficulty with experimenting with a hierarchical, cult-type belief system, is that it is impossible at any point for an investigator to know how far to go, or when to stop. Having begun to adopt, cautiously and on a trial basis, elements of a hierarchical, dualistic belief system, it is never possible to know when the belief system has been given a fair trial.

This uncertainty arises because of the very nature of a hierarchical cult-type belief system, with its ideas about higher and lower levels of personal understanding. At no stage can an investigator or a newcomer eliminate the possibility that they have failed to attain any more than a mundane level of understanding of the group's beliefs. They can never be sure that a breakthrough to a deeper level of understanding is impossible, or that valuable insights will definitely not result from attending the next training course or residential weekend offered by the group. Or from the next course after that. A hierarchical cult-type belief system is like an endless road to a uncertain destination.

This is because a hierarchical type of belief system, with its ideas about lower and higher levels of awareness and understanding, is intrinsically non-falsifiable [24]. No counter observations or criticisms of a hierarchical type of belief system can ever be established as objectively true. It is impossible for an investigator to prove any fault with the tenets of a hierarchical belief system, even after long term personal experience of the belief system, or to censure any of the methods (short of physical force) which might be used to promote such a belief system.

It is never actually possible to prove that a group promoting such a belief system has used 'devious psychological techniques to gain and control adherents', even if they have, because critics can never prove that their criticisms are not based merely on mundane ignorance and misunderstanding. From the perspective of a hierarchical, dualistic type of belief system, critics are deemed to be at a lower level of awareness, and are thus effectively disenfranchised.[25]

Any attempt at debate with the hierachs of a cult is doomed, because a critic can never disprove the hierachs' claim to a special revelation, or to a more profound understanding of the group's core beliefs. So attempts to reform a cult from within tend to be futile. It may also be difficult to warn outsiders what the 'inner life' of the belief system is actually like, because critics can never actually prove that their criticisms are objectively valid, not just personal and subjective.

These difficulties tend to be characteristic of cult-type belief systems, and help to put cult organisations beyond the reach of any outside authority.



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Re: The Nature of Personal Belief & Free Will in Cult Member

Post06 Jun 2012

Really interesting... :)


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Re: The Nature of Personal Belief & Free Will in Cult Member

Post06 Jun 2012

In the cultic world, the process of hooking a certain member is achieved merely by "constant brainwash" and not by logic and knowledge teachings, so the free will becomes automatically deactivated and goes into the dormant mode.

This process invariably involves severe punishment for those who do not follow, and a huge reward for those who comply.

In the case of Brahma Kumaris cult, the followers reward is paradise on earth, and disintegration and destruction for the rest.

When a certain person successfully completes the "Brainwash" process, he or she becomes like a robot and would be prepared to give away unlimited money, free time and, in certain cults, would even be prepared to give his life in exchange for the promised paradise ... !!

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