How accurate are the stories told by ex-members about spiritual groups? What are some factors which can lead to inaccurate accounts, and what effect does this have on society? Wading into the thickets of the Bithika O’Dwyer controversy…
I do want to discuss Bithika O’Dwyer, but it’s neither reasonable nor necessary to reinvent the wheel every time a particular individual goes off the rails. Some people have already discussed the core issues at length here. There’s also a collection of essays and anecdotes called “Dealing With Negativity” which offers further insights.
I want to spend some time going over general concepts before turning to the individual case of Bithika O’Dwyer in Part 2.
Part 1: General Concepts
In a free and open society filled with people who possess inquisitive minds, and hearts seeking after truth, it’s fairly commonplace for people to join and leave spiritual groups. In fact, it happens every day, not unlike marriage and divorce. As in cases of divorce, the breakup can be amicable, respectful, and mature; or it can be acrimonious, spiteful, and marked by childish behaviour. We’ve all probably known a divorced couple each of whom is a decent enough person in themselves, but one of whom makes their former partner out to be the devil incarnate. Yet we know from personal experience (knowing the individuals) that it simply isn’t true.
Scholars of religion have studied this broad phenomenon as it applies to leave-takers from spiritual groups. The stories told by ex-members in this context are sometimes referred to as apostate accounts, atrocity stories, deconversion narratives, or testimonials.
The term “apostate” is likely to come up repeatedly in any discussion of religious movements and their detractors. The term has a generally accepted meaning among religious scholars. That meaning is not, in itself, derogatory. An apostate is someone who, after leaving a religious or spiritual group, actively opposes that group, often by speaking publicly against it. Thus, an apostate differs from an ordinary “leave-taker.” There are thousands of religious or spiritual groups, and people come and go from them every day (usually in non-dramatic fashion). Most leave-takers either quietly rejoin the secular majority, or perhaps join a different spiritual group. Most don’t publicly apostatize.
However, media stories defining how the general public views religious movements are often disproportionately shaped by apostate accounts, which can be inaccurate and may reflect certain motives or biases which have become familiar to scholars of religion. Anti-cult material describing religious movements tends to be constructed almost exclusively from apostate accounts, pointedly omitting accounts by the current faithful describing their own beliefs, practices, and lifestyle. For these reasons, apostate accounts (and questions about their accuracy) have become a major focus in the study of religious movements, even though apostates make up a relatively small percentage of ex-members.
As noted above, the term “apostate” is not by definition derogatory. For example, if we were to define the group Al-Qaeda as a “religious cult” (rather than a paramilitary organization which uses Islam as an excuse to commit terrorist acts), then an apostate from Al-Qaeda who speaks publicly and accurately about Al-Qaeda’s known terrorist activities would presumably be doing something positive and beneficial, warning the public about a genuine danger. But if an ex-Jehovah’s Witness or ex-Hare Krishna devotee claimed those groups are terrorists, we should call that foolish alarmism.
The biblical story of Jesus and Judas Iscariot presents an (obvious) example of apostasy viewed negatively. Jesus was a man of peace who tried to usher in a new era in which ideals of compassion might triumph over greed. When Judas lost faith in Jesus and his teachings, he did not quietly fade away, but targeted Jesus for persecution, taking thirty pieces of silver to identify him to the chief priests, leading ultimately to Jesus’s crucifixion by the Romans.
Thus, while the term “apostate” is not necessarily negative, the Judas archetype in Western culture signifies one who betrays a benevolent teacher or teaching due to some self-serving motive. How one views any particular apostate depends on how one views the spiritual teacher or group from which the apostate is a defector, and what precise form his/her apostasy takes. If apostates are sometimes viewed negatively, it may be due to instances in which they’ve cast false slurs on teachers or movements which are essentially benign.
These are not binary concepts. A religious movement may be open to legitimate criticism on some grounds, but apostates may engage in extreme tactics similar to yellow journalism. In a familiar pattern, the site jehovahswitnessblog.com turns out to be an anti Jehovah’s Witness site, and asks such illuminating questions as “Would it be fair to compare Jehovah’s Witnesses to Terrorist Organisations?” (This is accompanied by a graphic of a bearded, turbaned Middle Eastern man holding a bomb with a lit fuse.) “Many say that the Jehovah’s Witness religion is a cult. Do you think it’s a cult? In this section, we’ve housed all the blog posts that show you if it is a cult or not. You might be shocked at what you find.” (Not really.)
Scholars of religion tend to visit a huge number of sites, and the above is more or less the boilerplate approach found on many anti-cult sites started by apostates from a wide variety of faiths. It’s this type of crude demagoguery which can lead to the view that apostates are something less than accurate, unbiased sources of information.
The scientific study of religion is (at least in theory) ethically neutral; but much public discussion about spiritual groups is not scholarly at all (in fact it’s quite emotional!). It often entails making subjective value judgements about particular teachers and faiths, and about those who actively apostatize against them.
The problem of making such judgements fair is in turn complicated by the problem of locating accurate resources, the problem of media bias, the problem of moral relativism, the problem of majority versus minority beliefs and values, and the postmodern problem of settling on objective truth even when accurate resources are available. John Leo, who is often a stickler for facts over emotions, points to
… the postmodern notion that there is no literal truth, only voices and narratives. If so, who can object if you make up a narrative that expresses the truth you feel?
— John Leo, “Lying Isn’t So Bad If It Makes You Feel Good”
Among those scholars who approach religious movements with an attitude of tolerance, there’s an awareness that apostates sometimes circulate narratives or “testimonials” which are designed to communicate an “emotional” truth (how they feel about past involvement in a religious movement), rather than a “factual” truth. Where so-called “atrocity stories” told by apostates turn out not to be factual, this contributes greatly to the credibility problem with apostates as a class.
Notwithstanding the high degree of freedom and mobility shown by the populations of most Western nations to try out different spiritual groups (joining and leaving more or less at will), the accounts circulated by apostates often take the form of “captivity narratives.” Such narratives stress the powerlessness of the individual in both matters of joining and leaving a spiritual group. They joined because they were “brainwashed,” stayed because they were “brainwashed,” and only left when someone such as a therapist, anti-cult activist or new romantic interest rode in on a white horse and forcibly “rescued” them from their imprisoned and debilitated state. Scholars of religion tend to question such accounts, and have largely dismissed the brainwashing thesis as a serious explanation.
In Western nations, it’s extremely rare that a spiritual group would hold anyone captive. When interviewed, most spiritual adherents can give a reasonable accounting of why they joined a spiritual group, what they hope to achieve, and what they perceive to be the benefits. One can disagree with particular choices that they make, yet recognize that these are choices.
Many spiritual groups have a probationary period where new members can get their feet wet, learn more about the group, and decide if it suits them before making a stronger commitment. Few spiritual groups want members who join on a whim today, and leave on a whim tomorrow. This phenomenon was satirized on the TV sitcom Seinfeld. In an episode titled “The Conversion,” George Costanza wants to become Latvian Orthodox merely to pursue a romantic interest. But before he’s accepted as a convert, he has to demonstrate his sincerity, study a thick stack of religious texts, and pass a conversion test (which he cheats on by writing the answers on his hand). He quickly loses interest when he learns that his paramour is leaving New York to live in Latvia for a year.
In many cases, people write extremely detailed accounts of their lives while with a spiritual group, and these accounts reflect a thinking, feeling individual who is living out their spiritual choices, consciously reaffirming those choices day after day, year after year. But later, after exiting the spiritual group, the same individual may supply a “captivity narrative” in connection with participation in an ex-cult support group. The captivity narrative often seems contrived, formulaic, and scripted in comparison to the same person’s prior narrative describing spiritual experiences with uniqueness, and in detail.
Captivity narratives are retrospective accounts delivered to a new audience which has radically different expectations than the old one. When speaking to a new secular peer group, the apostate may ratify his/her affiliation with that peer group through exaggerated criticism of the spiritual group left behind. This may take the form of a “confession” to friends, family, or an Internet audience that the speaker was once a “cult victim” who experienced horrible abuses, but has now seen the light of critical thinking, and become a true believer in baseball, apple pie, and motherhood. This then symbolically purges the former “cult” member’s reputation in the secular world. Such public purgative activities involving confessions or anti-cult testimonials are known collectively to scholars as rituals of denunciation. The accounts produced are not viewed as highly credible owing to the underlying pressures. Quoting from The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion:
Conversion and disengagement both represent significant shifts in personal identity and situated meanings. As such, biographies are defined and redefined in light of ongoing experience and narrative in an effort to make sense of past decisions and provide legitimacy for current ones. Retrospective accounts must be understood in this context and interpreted accordingly. For example, ex-members may need to justify their departures by finding fault with, or attributing blame to, their former groups. Presentation of the emergent self after NRM disengagement often requires a defense against a “spoiled identity” in the face of stigmatizing efforts by significant others. To save face, the ex-member is compelled to negotiate a new identity (apostate, whistle-blower, penitent ex-member) that plays to a new audience and is calculated to defend the self. The new associates in an external or oppositional group may be slow to fully accept the defector until he/she participates in appropriate rituals of denunciation (testimonials, confessions). After all, the newly exited person has a lot to live down from his or her “unsavory” past involvements.
— The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion [footnotes omitted]
The scholarly language might throw some readers. What does it mean that “biographies are defined and redefined in light of ongoing experience and narrative in an effort to make sense of past decisions and provide legitimacy for current ones”? It means that a person changes their story to correspond to their new world view, new secular peer group, and newfound interest in (for example) a secular business career.
What do we make of the phrase “stigmatizing efforts by significant others”? After leaving a spiritual group, the leave-taker may be subjected to pressure from friends, relatives, or a romantic partner to “denounced the cult” in order to be accepted back into worldly life. The leave-taker may leave with good memories of the spiritual group left behind, but subsequently feels pressured to adopt a new identity as an “apostate, whistle-blower, [or] penitent ex-member.” (“Oh, I’m so sorry Mummy and Daddy that I stayed with that awful cult! Won’t you please put me back in your will now?”)
The leave-taker may fall in with other ex-members who have been strongly influenced by anti-cult ideology which portrays spiritual groups as abusive rather than beneficial. Some such ex-members may have received formal deprogramming or exit counselling. They then introduce this ultra-critical-cum-activist view into the ex-cult support group, where it becomes the dominant view reinforced through readings from a closed universe of anti-cult authors who see involvement in a spiritual community solely through the lens of trauma and abuse. This ignores thousands of years of history in which people have explored living in spiritual communities as a joyful way to grow, evolve, and put their cherished beliefs into practice in concert with others.
So, what does it mean that “The new associates in an external or oppositional group may be slow to fully accept the defector until he/she participates in appropriate rituals of denunciation (testimonials, confessions)”? It means that a typical initiation ritual for someone who joins an ex-cult support group is that they’ll be asked to read highly negative “testimonials” portraying the spiritual group as abusive, and to voice their agreement or even write their own testimonials based on existing models. For the lonely ex-member seeking “support,” this is the price of admission to a new social clique. The testimonial of abuse is a fashion accoutrement donned when visiting an ex-cult support group, and eventually becomes part of the apostate’s permanent wardrobe.
The apostate is eager (perhaps even desperate) to “prove” that she’s no longer a member of a stigmatized group (i.e. no longer a “cult” member), and therefore may act much like a cooperating witness in a government trial, ready to accuse former friends and colleagues in order to escape conviction herself.
The secular majority is not always kindly disposed toward minority adherents, even those now trying to rejoin the secular majority. Hence the need to rehabilitate one’s reputation by talking trash about a group one had previously extolled. This may be done in preparation for marriage or a secular career, or simply to enhance one’s social standing.
In this way, pretending to be a “cult victim” becomes a social lubricant or business lie told without regard for ethics or consequences. In many cases people begin by deceiving themselves, then come to deceive others. Their desperation to rejoin the secular world and gain worldly advantage leads them to project a stereotyped view of themselves which they feel will help them fit in and not be blamed for their spiritual past. Former seekers are often counselled to follow this approach. Pretending to be a cult victim becomes their cover story for returning to the world.
However, Occam’s razor slices thin here. When someone leaves a well-organized spiritual path with no history of abuse, it’s usually for very conventional (even prosaic) reasons. Spiritual work is challenging but rewarding. There is always a pull to revert to the mean and to lead a life which is most ordinary, requiring relatively little effort, able to be coped with on brain base.
Someone leaves because they lost their spiritual aspiration, interest, or intensity, the figure who originally inspired them is no longer there in the physical to lift them up, they have grown tired, have run into a rough patch in their own nature, or they still have unfulfilled desires and ambitions which take them back to worldly life. (Or a combination of all these factors.)
Then too, a person may have started a spiritual business, but finds it quite challenging to keep it afloat. People can love each other dearly, but working together on a daily basis may bring out personality conflicts; and rather than resolve these conflicts, some people prefer to move on. (See Sri Chinmoy’s story “Why the Disciples Don’t Come” about those who leave due to personality conflicts.)
In one sense it’s reasonable to want to relax after working hard for a number of years. But in the spiritual life, when people relax, their own worst nature may ambush them, so that they lose all the progress they have made, and may for a time become unfit to lead the spiritual life. This is sometimes called a “hostile attack.” Sri Chinmoy writes:
It is not the spiritual life that increases your undivine qualities. On the contrary, the spiritual life wants you to conquer all the undivine forces once and for all so that they cannot come and disturb you. Otherwise, two or three undivine forces you will conquer today because of your intense spiritual aspiration; and then, after a few months, there will be again an attack by some other forces. So, if you know that all the forces are going to attack you either today or tomorrow, then you will be fully prepared. You thought that you had only one enemy. How is it that you now have ten enemies? But this should not make you discouraged. On the contrary, you should be happy that all your enemies, all your weaknesses, are coming forward. Only if they come forward can you conquer them.
How will you do it? It is through your constant inner cry. Do not be disturbed, do not be agitated, do not be depressed, do not surrender to these attacks. You simply should be happy that all your weaknesses are coming to the fore. Otherwise, each one will take its own time and bite you and pinch you. Then you will suffer like anything. So let them all attack you. Your faith in the Supreme — who is my Guru, your Guru, everybody’s Guru — has infinite power to conquer these undivine forces.
You want to go one step ahead and become totally divine. But the moment you enter the spiritual path, all the undivine, hostile forces attack you. Before, you never had doubt, you never had fear, you never thought that anything named jealousy existed on earth. But where did they come from? They did not come from above. No, they were all dormant inside you. The tiger within you had all these undivine qualities. But the tiger did not use all its power. It had only to use a little power, just a small quantity of its power, in order to frighten you. But now that the tiger knows that you are trying to leave its den, the tiger is ready to show you all its capacity. It will muster all its strength. But at that time, you have to be very devoted to your spiritual life, to the divine life within you, and say, “This is a great opportunity to conquer all my enemies all at once.” So you should be courageous and, at the same time, totally surrendered to the Will of the Supreme.
– Sri Chinmoy, from Illumination-World, Agni Press, 1977 [emphasis added]
To stay afloat in the spiritual life, one has to do battle with ignorance. If one becomes lax, then all the old problems may resurface, or even new problems may come. So some people leave because they no longer wish to do battle with their own nature, or for many other conventional, unremarkable reasons.
Now, why do some people disguise these very conventional reasons for leaving by telling an outlandish story of abuse, a so-called “atrocity story”? We’ve already discussed this, but here’s another powerful reason given by psychologist Sushmitam Rouse:
I remember an experience I had when I was quite new on the path — a year or two perhaps. I was overwhelmed by the love, the peace and the experiences of God that I had gained on the path, but at the same time was struggling with some of the lifestyle aspects of the path. I realised at this time that my positive experiences far outweighed my struggles and that I definitely did not want to leave the path. However in dealing with this struggle, I came to the realisation that if anything ever pulled me away from the path, the only way I would be able to bear to leave, would be to destroy in my mind all the positive experiences I had gained — otherwise the grief of leaving would be completely overwhelming. Everything good would have to be made bad, everything pure made impure, in order to justify to myself such an action.
I have seen a number of people leave the centre over the years, and in my experience, it is those, like myself who have had tremendously positive experiences in their spiritual life, who resort to this destructive measure — and often they publicise their opinions, as if to further convince themselves they have left something ‘bad’ not good. On the other hand, people who never got much out of the path in the first place, just tend to drift away.
Lastly, I would like to say a word about the place of therapy in all this! The issue of abuse and therapy is such a complex and controversial one. It is well known in the psychological community that some therapists encourage patients to ‘dig’ for abuse that was never there, and that some patients completely unconsciously project their own impulses and traumas onto others who they then believe ‘abused’ them.
– Sushmitam Rouse from “Question For The Women” (discussion thread)
It could also be said that the lies some people tell about their former spiritual path are like a bandage which they apply to the wound of leaving — leaving something which they actually love, or which their soul loves.
Leaving a spiritual path can be painful, just as divorce can be painful. This leads to a temptation (or even unconscious reaction) to simply throw all the blame on the other person (in the case of divorce) or on the teacher or path (in the case of leaving a spiritual group). But there is great potential for misattribution of cause and effect here. People may become unhappy after leaving a spiritual path which they followed sincerely for decades of their lives. But this doesn’t mean the spiritual path is the cause of their unhappiness. As I write in “Making Sense of the Spiritual Life”:
When people suffer a hostile attack, they end their spiritual practice, and then blame the spiritual life for all the problems which ensue. This is clearly a misattribution of cause and effect.
I have personally seen people become unhappy after making a sudden, abrupt change in their lives — a change where they cut themselves off from people and activities which had once sustained them emotionally and spiritually. Then, in their unhappiness, they misattribute the cause, blaming the people and activities from which they cut themselves off.
I’ve also had occasion to quote from this TIME magazine article:
By all accounts, the descent into delusion is gradual. Everyone has experienced slights, insults or failures at one time or another, and most people find some way to cope. Or, if they don’t, a trusted friend or family member may persuade them to forget the past and get on with their lives. But if they cannot shake off the sense of humiliation, they may instead nourish their grudges and start a mental list of all the injustices in their lives. Rather than take a critical look at themselves, they blame their troubles on “the company,” for example, or “the government” or “the system.” Often these aggrieved people fall in with others sharing the same point of view. The group helps them to rehearse their grievances, ensuring that the wounds remain open, and exposes them to similar complaints. As a result, paranoia blossoms and spreads.
— Christine Gorman, “Calling All Paranoids,” TIME magazine
This applies in spades to so-called ex-cult support groups, and I hope regular readers of my blog will forgive me if I once again quote this passage from “The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 2”:
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 counselling 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, counsellor, 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.”
Owing to wretched excess in the anti-cult movement, it’s nearly impossible to be too over-the-top in one’s denunciation of a purported “cult leader.” The situation is analogous to that described by singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie in his 1967 signature piece “Alice’s Restaurant.” At one point in the monologue, Guthrie is trying to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam. His strategy is to appear so gung-ho that he would be viewed as undesirable:
I went up there, I said, “Shrink, I want to kill. I want to kill! I want to see blood and gore and guts and veins in my teeth! Eat dead, burnt bodies! I mean: Kill. Kill!”
And I started jumpin’ up and down, yellin’ “KILL! KILL!” and he started jumpin’ up and down with me, and we was both jumpin’ up and down, yellin’, “KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL!” and the sergeant came over, pinned a medal on me, sent me down the hall, said “You’re our boy.” Didn’t feel too good about it.
— Arlo Guthrie, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre”
Those members of anti-cult groups willing to tell over-the-top atrocity stories may receive status elevation within the group (similar to having medals pinned on them). If they can supply bodice-ripping drug store fare, this has the potential to be used in anti-cult publicity campaigns, and may even find its way into a courtroom. The writers know this, and so tend to compete in a “race to the bottom.” It’s therefore difficult to escape the conclusion that these stories are being told for self-serving motives, especially where they diverge significantly from the known facts about a spiritual teacher or group, and are not supported by objective evidence.
We should keep in mind that apostasy is not a private, personal decision. The apostate makes a great public show of her newfound rejection of faith, and actively seeks to persuade or influence others to join her in rejecting faith. The apostate “atrocity story” is a public relations tool used by anti-cult groups to vilify minority spiritual groups, leading to harassment or diminution of rights for such groups (or in extreme cases, crucifixion).
As I discuss in Part 2, when apostates hurl false accusations, this is similar to people throwing rocks at church windows. One might like or even love someone who does grievous harm, but it’s difficult to forgive them while the glass is still tinkling and people are checking themselves for cuts and bruises. If the hurlers will not stop, then it may be necessary to invoke lawful due process. See also this post discussing the problem of false accusations of a teacher in relation to the film Term of Trial. The links at the end concern UK libel law as it applies to Facebook, Blogspot, and other social media sites.
This concludes Part 1 covering general concepts. In Part 2 I’ll discuss the particular case of Bithika O’Dwyer.
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.
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