The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 2

A tolerant society gives people the space to freely choose their faith or non-faith without fear of reprisals. It doesn’t punish minority choices.

There’s a sense in which I hate writing about the struggle to vouchsafe spiritual freedom. I would much rather write about art, music, or the joys to be discovered by exploring spiritual pathways. But there are people intent on closing off those pathways, so discussions of religious freedom (and how the ACLU has helped safeguard it) are sometimes needed.

In Part 1, much of our focus was on John E. LeMoult’s seminal study “Deprogramming Members of Religious Sects,” and on the ACLU’s parallel study of deprogramming which likewise led them to condemn the practice. We examined the case of Donna Seidenberg Bavis, a Hare Krishna devotee who was abducted by deprogrammers, but was later helped by the ACLU in getting compensation, with the ACLU acting to curb civil rights abuses by rogue attorneys. BRAVO ACLU!

Currently in the U.S., anti-cult tactics favour psychological coercion over physical coercion, but the principle is the same: If you can make it sufficiently painful for someone to remain involved with a minority faith group, they may recant simply to avoid further pain. If you can make them feel like a “member of a hated class,” they may recant in order to avoid being hated and discriminated against. This is the context in which we should understand the contemporary use of hate material vilifying religious minorities and their spiritual leaders.

John LeMoult noted that the cost of a deprogramming (in 1978) could run as high as $25,000, and that deprogrammers often have no special training other than an ability to bully. In subsequent decades, there’s been an effort on the part of anti-cult groups like the American Family Foundation (a.k.a. International Cultic Studies Association) to turn deprogramming into a mental health “service” — to make paid faith-breaking the province of those psychologists and psychiatrists not barred by personal ethics from engaging in it. For more on this phenomenon, see “Deprogramming Seeks a New Identity,” by Anson Shupe and Susan E. Darnell.

That new identity is “exit counseling,” which unlike deprogramming, does not typically entail abduction. In the U.S., physical coercion has been largely replaced by psychological coercion. This often takes the form of gaslighting, i.e. falsely equating the choice of a minority faith with mental illness.

The whole “recovery” apparatus is brought to bear — as if being spiritual were something one has to recover from! A person who makes a minority spiritual choice is treated as a “cult-affected family member.”

In exit counseling, intense psychological pressures (both negative and positive) are brought to bear upon the minority adherent, and such pressures are portrayed as a type of treatment, with the psychologist or psychiatrist cast in the role of compassionate caregiver. The subtext is: We’re not religious bigots or control freaks, we’re folks on a rescue mission to save purported “cult victims.”

The power dynamics tell a different story. Notwithstanding the fig leaf of “cult education” or “rehabilitation,” aggressive majoritarians are using psychological techniques to bully or entice minority adherents into conforming to mainstream secular values. As I discuss in “Hate Propaganda and Anti-Cult Ideology — What’s Wrong Here?”, such euphemistically described treatment is based on pseudoscience. Faith is not a form of mental illness, and when faith-based phenomena are misclassified and jargonized as psychological maladies requiring “intervention,” this constitutes a major category error leading to civil rights abuses.

It’s one thing to disagree with someone’s spiritual choice; it’s quite another to use harsh social control measures and/or hate propaganda to penalize that choice. No doubt, some of those employing harsh measures believe they’re doing good — that no one could possibly be happy making minority choices, and that such choices must be punished or outlawed in order to force people to be happy the way that society thinks they should be happy, based on a largely egoistic and materialistic world view. But when social control measures are used to force people to conform to a lifestyle they did not choose and do not want, we call that repression.

The situation is not unlike the repression of dissidents in Eastern Europe by confining them to mental institutions, simply because they disagree with the dominant political ethic. The shared belief on the part of the repressors is that non-conformism is dangerous, and people would have to be crazy to disagree with those who comprise the ruling elite — society’s rule-makers.

If some political elites want to forcibly dominate the political landscape, the anti-cult elite wants to dominate the spiritual landscape by enforcing its particular view of reality on society at large. To anti-cultists, reality is primarily a secular phenomenon, with perhaps some room for milquetoast religions in a minor role, but no room for spiritual movements which entail a depthful commitment that’s integral to daily life.

Yet, for those who share the vision of a society built on tolerance, reality is a rich enough phenomenon to accommodate both secular and sacred lifestyles. There’s no reason to force rigid secularism down people’s throats, or to close off spiritual pathways through fear-mongering and repressive measures. A tolerant society is one which has room for everyone, providing the space for each person to freely choose their faith or non-faith without fear of reprisals. This is what Evelyn Kallen means when she opines that freedom from vilification is a human right.

It’s been jokingly suggested that anti-cultists have no objection to religion as long as no one takes it seriously (shades of repressive tolerance). Yet, in Part 1 we explored the phenomenon of religious conversion via William James, Carl Jung, et al. When an individual has a genuine conversion experience which turns her spiritual interest from “cold” to “hot,” that’s precisely when she runs afoul of anti-cultists, who want to redefine her strong spiritual interest as mental illness.

Anti-cultists may subject the minority adherent to a “cult intervention” which is alleged to be a non-coercive mental health intervention. Yet, questions remain unanswered, such as why a person who adopts a minority faith should be singled out for a mental health intervention when the prevailing scientific view is that he/she suffers from no mental illness. Falsely attaching the stigma of mental illness to the choice of a minority faith would, on its face, seem to be coercive, since no one wants to be labeled mentally ill. The implicit threat is: If you continue to believe and practice as you do, we will judge you insane. How is that not coercive?

While there have been changes in terminology and methods, the end goal of exit counseling has remained largely the same as that of deprogramming: to get the minority adherent to recant. The notion that parents troubled by an offspring’s participation in a minority faith group might solve the problem through acceptance and tolerance is never on the table.

Despite claims by proponents that a “cult intervention” constitutes a “respectful” form of “education,” it is not conducted by a professor of comparative religion, but rather by a psychologist or psychiatrist who has been trained in techniques of faith-breaking. Upon investigation, these techniques turn out to involve psychological manipulation, and generally try to make it as emotionally painful as possible for the target to remain affiliated with his or her chosen faith group.

Regardless of labels, the practice entails performing psyops on the target. This may include bombarding the target with “alternative information about the cult” which is often little better than thinly disguised hate material, or trying to indoctrinate the target into the discredited brainwashing theory of religious conversion, i.e., that the target has not made a religious choice in good conscience, but is rather a “victim” of “cult mind control.”

During the prior era of deprogramming, it was typical for the deprogrammer to express open contempt for the target’s religion. Today, the techniques are more refined, with an emphasis on gaining the target’s trust and reassuring him or her that the exit counselor is a sympathetic listener. There’s considerable deception and psychological sleight-of-hand involved in the sense that the exit counselor may be an apostate who is fundamentally opposed to the spiritual group in question, but who may praise the group and speak about its positive aspects in order to develop a rapport with the target. This rapport is ultimately used to turn the target against the spiritual group — not necessarily through full-throated denunciations, but by gradually poisoning the well of faith until the target has weakened or wavered and may be pried loose.

An apostate’s way of presenting himself may be to spend a long time building up his spiritual credentials, based on a prior period in which he was an ardent spiritual seeker. But at the end of his presentation, you may find he was just setting you up with tales of past glory in order to deliver the “knockout punch,” which is some kind of putrid anti-cult material designed to repel and disgust. He’s retailing a story arc which only gradually develops into the familiar anti-cult narrative: I was the most sincere, devoted disciple; I did everything right; I was well-liked and achieved elevated status within the group. But then such-and-such happened, and that’s why I no longer believe in magical thinking, and now try to rescue cult victims by circulating atrocity tales, sugar-coated to go down easier.

Concerning apostates who build up their spiritual credentials in order to tear down their former affiliation, this bears some resemblance to “sheep-dipping” — a practice in which an intelligence operative takes on a false identity in order to more effectively disseminate fraudulent material or undertake covert action. For example, in Oliver Stone’s film JFK, Lee Harvey Oswald is depicted as a right-wing operative who was sheep-dipped as a left-wing operative by posing as a defector to the Soviet Union, and by handing out pro-Castro leaflets. (I have no idea if this is true.)

Apostates are often used in exit counseling because even though their loyalties have shifted and their views now reflect anti-cult ideology, they may still be viewed by the target as having some sort of spiritual credentials, and may be regarded with less suspicion than a “generic” counselor who was never a member of the group in question. Thus, the apostate can act as a covert operative who may decry anti-cult rhetoric and deny anti-cult affiliation, but who nevertheless employs familiar techniques intended to demolish faith, such as circulating atrocity stories. If the Judas of legend betrayed Jesus with a kiss, some apostates may sheep-dip themselves in devotion even as they assault the character of a former spiritual mentor.

In exit counseling, not all pressures will be negative. There may be a good deal of positive reinforcement for coming round to the counselor’s POV. There may be an effort to move the targeted individual into a “cult recovery” group which provides strong social support for anti-cult ideology, and which essentially tries to resocialize the target into viewing himself or herself as a “cult victim” rather than a spiritual seeker. The ex-cult group becomes a surrogate cult — in fact, critics claim that such groups are often more cultlike than the spiritual groups members left behind.

The content of group sessions typically revolves around creating a new narrative in which the spiritual group is viewed as abusive rather than beneficial. On an emotional level, this often means turning (reasonable) guilt over failed spiritual commitments into (unreasonable) anger at the purported “cult leader,” with concomitant calls for vigilante justice (which is one reason anti-cult groups are potentially dangerous).

Within the social dynamics of such “cult recovery” groups, the generation of atrocity stories plays a key role. This is so because the plausibility of the newly adopted role of victim is ultimately dependent on some recitation of alleged facts which would support the role. Confirming one another’s victimhood becomes the dominant group ethic, and to that end no story vilifying the purported “cult leader” is considered too outrageous or unbelievable. Indeed, what one sees is a kind of competition emerging between strong personalities in the group as to who can tell the juiciest atrocity story, who can provide the emotional goodies needed to sustain the illusion of victimhood, with celebrity status conferred on those who do. This race to the bottom inevitably leads to the type of prurient material which characterized the “Awful Disclosures” of Maria Monk and other (more extreme) anti-Catholic pornography of the mid-nineteenth century.

Naturally, there exist real victims (of train wrecks, street muggings). There are even rare examples of religious groups run amok, such as the tragedy at Jonestown. But in anti-cult circles one often encounters faux victims who have embraced the role of victimhood because it suits their needs. This includes: 1) their psychological need to assuage guilt and relocate blame; 2) their political need to repress spiritual groups they now oppose; 3) their economic need.

Some self-styled “cult survivors” make money on the anti-cult lecture circuit, despite having grown up as creatures of privilege. Others financially leverage their newly professed victimhood by filing baseless lawsuits. Still others become exit counselors or “cult-buster” attorneys. There can be economic motives for portraying spiritual groups negatively, since there’s money to be made doing so.

In a paper on “The Psychology of Victimhood,” Ofer Zur, Ph.D. notes that “We have become a nation of victims, where everyone is leapfrogging over each other, publicly competing for the status of victim, and where everyone is defined as some sort of survivor. … The victim stance is a powerful one. The victim is always morally right, neither responsible nor accountable, and forever entitled to sympathy.” As we shall later see in a later quote from Matthew Johnson (in Part 3), hate groups absolutely thrive on the notion of victimhood. See also psychologist Tana Dineen, “Are We Manufacturing Victims?”

Within ex-cult support groups, codependent relationships may develop, with the women becoming faux victims, and the men becoming their “valiant” protectors. These assumed roles reflect a need to create an artificial world in which the apostate is viewed as an heroic crusader rather than a (possibly failed) spiritual seeker. If the person’s own conscience is telling them they could have acted better, could have been truer, donning the garb of victim or protector may be a salve for the conscience.

This psychological ploy is ultimately unsuccessful because (in the immortal words of Bob Marley) “You can’t run away from yourself.” Yet, playing the roles of victim and protector is a way for couples to pair off romantically. I even know of one couple who got married this way. She never tires of reworking and retelling tales of her sexual exploits while a “cult member,” and he always plays along, never questioning, even though the ever-changing stories are internally inconsistent, not to speak of being inconsistent with reality. One would be hard-pressed to locate a finer clinical example of folie à deux (which itself is an extreme form of codependency). This couple is typically “unavoidable for comment” on the Internet. They even make YouTube videos — mislabeled, naturally, to fool aggregators and take advantage of initial interest confusion.

With faux victimhood comes faux therapy, carried out in public. Would the following work in marriage counseling? Go on the Net and tell your former spouse how much you hate them. Make up some sexual story about them so no one will ever want to date them. You’d expect such advice from a low-life hanging around the water cooler, not from any professional counselor. This wouldn’t work in marriage counseling, and doesn’t work in exit counseling either. But because exit counseling is an invention of the anti-cult movement (which is primarily concerned with social control), going on the Internet and pretending to be a “cult victim” is part of the supposed cure for having done the socially unacceptable and joined a “cult” in the first place. (Remember, the existence of “cult victims” is a rationale for targeting minority spiritual groups with repressive measures.)

A typical problem with ex-cult support groups is that members otherize spiritual groups whose beliefs and practices they formerly espoused. They experience a pathological loss of empathy for former friends, colleagues and mentors, and a pathological escalation of hostility. They no longer honour the social contract and no longer treat others with basic human decency. This leads them to commit unethical or even illegal acts against their former colleagues.

These are predictable results stemming from the wilful adoption of a victim mentality, and from the perverse folk wisdom (ultimately traceable to anti-cult sources) that the cure for feelings of spiritual alienation is to get angry at the “cult leader” and curse his guts in public or try and have his church or temple closed down. (This cure just happens to coincide with the operational objectives of anti-cultists.)

Unlike such faux therapy, real therapy is conducted in private — and no one is minuting every word for repurposing in anti-cult campaigns or uploading to the Internet. Real therapy is about an honest search for personal truth, not an attempt to manipulate public opinion. Anyone can call themselves a therapist and claim that bloviating on the Internet is their new therapy; but even accredited therapists rarely conduct therapy on themselves because they know the high risk of personal dishonesty.

In good therapy, the therapist holds the client to a high standard of truth, and doesn’t allow the client to construct a false narrative in which every problem is blamed on some third party. But in exit counseling (and various folk remedies based on exit counseling), there is an a priori assumption that the spiritual group was bad, its requirements were unreasonable, and any conflicts arising from participation were entirely the fault of the spiritual group. There is no possibility that the “breakup” reflected any failings in character, conduct, or psychological makeup on the part of the former member.

Thus, while such faux therapy may initially seem supportive, it actually limits the client’s ability to change and grow because it glosses over core issues. Just as in cases of divorce, or where the client has left a corporation or institution of higher learning, there’s no reason for the therapist to assume that the problem is a bad spouse, bad company, or bad school; likewise, where the client has left a spiritual group, there’s no reason to assume that the spiritual group was bad, or to imagine that the loss of empathy and the propagation of hostility are desirable goals for the therapy, or are signs of improved mental health.

When someone studies with a spiritual teacher, the teacher becomes an important part of her life. Even if she ends her studies, her former teacher will usually be someone with whom she needs to live on comfortable terms. A healthy narrative truth emerging in therapy is one which doesn’t attempt to demonize the former teacher or alienate the former student. When therapists violate these principles, this may be seen as abusive, just as inducing Parental Alienation Syndrome is considered a form of parental abuse.

One of the universally recognized symptoms of PAS is lack of ambivalence. Quite simply, the parent from whom the child has been alienated is seen as completely bad and evil. Lack of ambivalence is unnatural behaviour in human beings. Rarely can someone of basic intelligence, maturity and emotional stability support the notion that one person is completely bad.

Yet, when people receive anti-cult counseling or participate in ex-cult support groups, they tend to undergo a pathological inversion of views. They are systematically alienated from their former spiritual teacher, to the point where they depict him/her as thoroughly bad and inhumanly evil. This may be described as Guru Alienation Syndrome, or GAS.

The reason such systematic alienation should be considered a form of abuse is that it effectively robs the former student of all the benefits of having a spiritual teacher, including the ability to interact positively with that teacher, and to enjoy loving memories of that teacher. Unambivalent hatred of the spiritual teacher doesn’t just harm the hated teacher, but also the former student.

While not everyone seeks out a spiritual teacher, for those who do — and who have studied for 5, 10 or 20 years with that teacher — there is an existing relationship which typically has many positive aspects and serves an important purpose in the student’s life. The loss of that relationship is a grievous loss. A wise and compassionate therapist, counselor, or friend will therefore not attempt to destroy that relationship by circulating hate material vilifying the teacher.

However, just as divorcing parents sometimes play tug-of-war with the child, in anti-cult circles one often encounters manipulative people who want to play tug-of-war with the former spiritual student. They feel the only way for such students to prove their newfound loyalty to mainstream secular values is to loudly proclaim their hatred for the spiritual teacher. Circulating vilification material is one of the tactics used to fan such hatred; and willingness to publicly voice such hatred becomes a kind of loyalty test or perverse indicator of “cult recovery.”

Indeed, new members of an ex-cult support group may be shown heretical texts which portray a respected spiritual figure in a hateful and obscene manner, then asked to write their own “testimonials” which conform to existing models. These psychologically coercive techniques are designed to produce false “confessions” that the writer was once a member of an “abusive cult” but has now recanted. One would expect such tactics from a corrupt police force (or perhaps the East German Stasi), but not from any professional counselor.

Look to the methods, not the labels. Some ex-cult groups aren’t explicitly labeled as such, but practice techniques like circulating atrocity stories, false confessions, or testimonials of abuse. They may use the soft sell; they may claim to be unbiased, informational, or engaged “critical thinking;” but if you observe carefully, you would see that these are ex-members groups where the main thrust is to get people to read highly negative material, and respond by abandoning their faith. Sites which prominently feature (and heavily weight) deconversion narratives are typically apostate sites, even if they’re given spiritual-sounding names.

Within the dynamics of an ex-cult support group, the faux victim may play a crucial role in pressuring other members to tow the party line. This may be done through emotional blackmail and “whipping” of votes, e.g.:

Last night I was becoming depressed over the lost dreams and years of my life and how hurtful it is when people accuse me of lying. So I decided that rather than try to divert my self out of it, I would just have a good cry. I buried my head in my pillow and sobbed my woes up to heaven. Then I decided we should have a new poll. Who do you believe, me or the cult? We’re also voting on whether it’s time to kick out all the cult members. Enter your vote today and vote for me, me, me!

To decode the dynamics here, we need to understand that the typical member of an ex-cult support group has already been separated from what Buddhists call the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha — meaning more universally the spiritual teacher, the spiritual precepts, and the spiritual community. What he is faced with is an emotionally manipulative “victim” who delivers the ultimatum that: “You either believe my story that I’ve had a dozen illegitimate children by the cult leader who were all strangled at birth (which is why there’s no evidence), or else you’ll be branded a ‘cult member’ and kicked out.” The ex-member is told that he’s in need of “support” — but support will be withdrawn if he won’t agree to believe the unbelievable.

It does not seem to concern anti-cult counselors that some people who left a spiritual group 20 years ago are still languishing in a frozen state of victimhood due to such bad therapy. And while this lack of concern is lamentable from the point of view of ethics, it makes perfect sense politically and economically. Having a bunch of people bellyaching on the Internet about how bad cults are perpetuates the cult scare of the 1980s, helps fuel fundraising appeals by anti-cult groups, and provides some rationale for the high fees charged by exit counselors (as much as $3,000 per day). The existence of a permanent underclass of “cult victims” who haven’t responded favourably to the hate therapy prescribed for them by anti-cultists is nonetheless useful to the latter group.

There’s a joke in pig butchery that the butcher uses “everything but the squeal.” But with anti-cultists, it’s the squeal they seem to value most. The client may be quite unhappy and maladjusted according to conventional diagnostic metrics, but as long as he or she continues to loudly and publicly “denounce the cult,” the anti-cult therapist seems satisfied. This implies a type of dual relationship in which the therapist’s primary allegiance is to a movement ideology — to the long-term detriment of the client.

A biased process and biased result is confirmed when the success of the therapy is measured in terms of the degree of anti-cult advocacy taken on by the client. In plain English, the exit counselor is an anti-cult activist, and pronounces the client “cured” when he/she becomes one too. Yet, there is no scientific evidence that a former spiritual seeker will be helped in any way by (for example) contacting the media and vilifying his or her former faith group. Still, it’s a remarkably convenient and self-serving tactic for people primarily concerned with achieving a particular social/political outcome.

It also raises serious media hazards, since the average editor unfamiliar with these practices wouldn’t know to question whether a person claiming to be a “cult victim” is telling the truth, or is simply acting out a feature of her therapy regimen which (oddly!) involves phoning up the newspapers (or the Internet equivalent). Where a spiritual group enjoys a generally good reputation and has no history of criminal activity, attempts to plant false stories in the media describing the group as “criminal” constitute a type of information terrorism (see Part 3), as well as libel per se.

Again, the exact term “cult victim” will not always be used, nor will the term “brainwashing.” To the extent that these terms have been discredited, other euphemisms may be employed. However, the cult brainwashing scenario persists even where the terms are artfully disguised. (You’ll hear a dog whistle and find yourself mouthing the word “cult.”)

Likewise, deprogrammers or exit counselors may not announce themselves as such. Where you see an organized effort persisting over time to get people to abandon and publicly denounce their faith, and where this is accompanied by material falsely claiming that a respected spiritual figure slept with 101 dalmatians (or similar claims), you can be confident you’re dealing with some attempt at deprogramming or exit counseling. Where the mainstream media have grown suspicious of known anti-cult sources, you may find that attempts to discredit a spiritual leader or movement make use of third party technique (using people who don’t clearly identify themselves as belonging to an anti-cult group).

The study of comparative religion reveals that just as faith is a universal phenomenon, loss of faith is one of the garden variety issues spiritual people have to deal with. Loss of faith is commonplace, and Occam’s razor suggests that it’s the simplest explanation for why people leave well-established spiritual movements which have shown themselves to be beneficial. For most people, faith is hard work. Tiring of the work of faith, and hankering after those things which can only be gotten through worldly desire and ambition — this is perhaps the most frequent scenario under which people allow their faith to lapse. Human nature may sometimes rebel against the difficulty of the spiritual quest; this doesn’t mean the quest is not worthwhile.

In our present era, the individual struggle to have faith is complicated by political and social factors. (See Dr. Bryan R. Wilson, The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism.) Anti-cult groups don’t accept simple loss of faith (which might imply personal responsibility) as an explanation for lapsed spiritual practice. Rather, the person who loses their faith tends to quickly be caught up in the rip tide of apostasy. He or she is redefined not as a lapsed spiritual seeker, but as a “cult victim” who (by definition within the movement ideology) must have been abused. There’s a pattern of denialism in which every circle must be turned counterclockwise. Conversion experiences which were absolutely real at the time must be retrospectively branded as false, and the credentials of spiritual leaders, however impeccable, must be impeached. There’s a search for abuse at any cost, and if no abuse can readily be located, it will be invented.

For these reasons, scholars of religion tend to regard anti-cult groups as a sub-species of hate group, though the hatred is not always white-hot but is sometimes expressed in the cold language of pseudoscience or law, or the conflicted language of apostasy. It nevertheless can degenerate into familiar types of out-and-out hate material, such as fake revenge porn using words instead of pictures, about which I have written more here.

As to that conflicted language of apostasy: it often expresses itself in seemingly irreconcilable statements, e.g., “My years in the cult were the happiest time of my life; I’m so glad I got help and am no longer brainwashed.” There comes a point where one must look at what people do, not what they say. There are wife-beaters who will break down and cry and talk about how much they love their wives, yet they continue to beat them. Like this, there are apostates who will occasionally wax sentimental and misty-eyed about their “years in the cult,” but who continue to circulate hate propaganda and to actively harass the group or teacher they claim to love, in effect becoming cyberstalkers. These actions speak louder than words.

Most former members of spiritual groups quietly take their leave without much fanfare. A few may have unresolved conflicts about their participation, and may try out different retrospective narratives in order to arrive at a personal interpretation which satisfies them. This type of thing is sometimes done in therapy or a support group; and the reasons most therapists and support groups conduct their activities in true (offline) privacy are manifold. The material which comes up in therapy/support is often highly charged, and is not meant for public consumption. Privacy allows people to experiment with different narratives, including some which may place excessive blame on friends, family, colleagues, or mentors.

In a private therapeutic setting, the situation is manageable, and does not pose legal problems such as libel. But in a public setting, or any setting where anti-cult operatives are trolling for “atrocity stories,” the narratives constructed may undergo radical distortion due to social influence, and may bring participants into conflict with the law.

Online therapy conducted in order to help purported “cult victims” is subject to abuse, and may be turned into a public degradation ceremony by anti-cultists. Participants may be told that they can anonymously post either positive or negative appraisals of their former spiritual teacher or group on a public message board. However, positive appraisals are greeted by threats, curses, and cries of “Throw out the cult member!” Negative appraisals are heralded as signs of “cult recovery,” and people posting negative “testimonials” (sometimes under multiple aliases) may receive status elevation within the group, such as being promoted to moderators, giving them control over what type of content gets approved or disapproved. Posters who ask tough investigative questions about seemingly fabricated claims of abuse may be summarily banned, and will certainly not be befriended.

Out of thousands of messages posted, those containing extreme negative portrayals conforming to the abuse narrative being put forward by moderators may be cherry-picked and leaked to the media, or uploaded to a remote site. No mention is made of the group pressures which were applied in order to produce the negative testimonials, and no mention is made of the positive testimonials (which may actually be more persuasive and fact-based), or of the messages questioning the accuracy of the negative testimonials. For these reasons, material concerning spiritual teachers and groups whose original provenance is anti-cult message boards tends to be regarded with low credibility by scholars of religion.

The goal of anti-cult operatives, however, is to transplant such material to a high credibility medium. They may resort to targeted e-bombing of journalists (or the use of nepotism) in order to get negative accounts published in mainstream media outlets, the net effect being one of social control. A message is sent to the public that this is a “bad” or “non-approved” group or “cult.” (The latter term has lost any precise meaning, and is primarily used as a slur in popular parlance).

Although mainstream media attention is what’s most sought after by those circulating anti-cult “testimonials,” the seal of approval of a professional person such as a lawyer or psychologist is also valued. This can help pull in white collar readers who would otherwise be turned off by the in-your-face hatred expressed on the site which was the original source. Thus, a professional person may be used to repackage and gentrify what are (at their core) messages of hate.

Not all anti-cult groups are formally organized or accurately labeled by their creators. The brute force technique of old-style deprogrammers has given way to a recognition that most people want to see themselves as spiritual, or at least maintain some remnant of spirituality even as they’re persuaded to abandon the essence of their faith. Some anti-cult groups maintain spiritual trappings or a spiritual veneer, despite being populated by apostates and being primarily concerned with discrediting or undermining bona fide faith groups.

Such is the case with “Abode of Yoga,” an anti-cult web site (Blogspot blog plus Facebook group) started by attorney Joseph C. Kracht of the Lawton law firm of San Diego. Though “Abode of Yoga” features apostate testimonials of the why-I-left-the-cult variety (and some fake revenge porn), the site’s name, artwork, and header quote are all designed to imply that one is visiting a spiritual site rather than an anti-cult site — in essence, to “pull in” the casual visitor who may have some spiritual interest, but wouldn’t knowingly visit an anti-cult site or read hate material.

The Chinese have a saying: “Hanging out a sheep’s head to sell dog meat.” Obviously, with anti-cult sites masquerading as spiritual sites, the Internet can be a confusing place. In Part 3 we’ll try and allay that confusion with a discussion of “cloaked hate” on the Net. We’ll examine the use of fictional narratives by hate groups, and take a more in-depth look at Joe Kracht’s infamous “Abode of Yoga” (NOT!).

"Abode of Yo-Yos" or "One Docket Short of a Caseload"

“Abode of Yo-Yos” or “One Docket Short of a Caseload”

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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14 comments on “The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 2

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