Jayanti Tamm Rebuttal, Part 1


This is a two-part rebuttal to anti-cult activist Jayanti Tamm which I wrote in 2011 but never published. In coming across it, I realized it says much of what I would say generally about anti-cult groups and individuals who circulate propaganda which demeans and “otherizes” spiritual minorities. We live in a populist society where the majority is increasingly running toward secularism and materialism. That is their right. It’s also why we need strong laws protecting the rights of spiritual minorities — because without such protections democracy becomes just another form of tyranny.

As I discuss in “Therapists, Hubris, and Native Intelligence,” America is vast and consists of many different communities. The normative values of one may be oppressive when imposed on another. That is the underlying sense of numerous cases such as Wisconsin v. Yoder where the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the rights of religious minorities to live their daily lives in keeping with their faith. The right to be different is what makes America great.

I happen to be a liberal, but lately I’ve been observing that there are different strains of liberalism. To me liberalism is about freedom of choice, and finding ways for people who have different beliefs and customs to learn to live together in harmony, with mutual respect. This is the type of liberalism often practiced by mayors of big cities like New York and San Francisco, where the population is steeped in diversity, and forcing everyone to march to an identical set of beliefs and customs would be a prescription for disaster.

Yet, there are people like Jayanti Tamm who stump for conformism based on a constricting set of values set forth by a fringe group of psychologists and lawyers at the American Family Foundation (a.k.a. International Cultic Studies Association or “ICSA”). They would presume to tell us all what is “healthy” and “normal,” or what “the law says” on particular issues.

When psychologists and lawyers start dictating how people should pray, meditate, or conduct their spiritual lives, we have a problem in set theory. However well-meaning they may be, psychologists and lawyers lack the spiritual training to be experts in such matters. It should be up to individuals how to conduct their spiritual lives, which are part of their interior lives and not generally accessible to psychologists and lawyers.

The truth is, neither profession has all the answers; they have (at best) limited solutions to a finite number of (typically secular) problems. Psychology is a soft science; law is not a science at all. Both fields are highly interpretive, and both professions (as popularly practiced) tend to be concerned with normative values, which over time are as changeable as the weather.

Neither psychology nor law “say” one particular thing on complex human issues. Rather, individual psychologists and lawyers decide how to interpret the huge amount of available data, which in itself is often contradictory. Yet, Jayanti Tamm has become a familiar purveyor of dumbed-down “cult checklists” purporting to tell good religion from bad, or acceptable from unacceptable practices. This is so much hokum, and I grow weary of seeing it in liberal publications which should know better than to publish it. She may be a hero at atheist swap meets or cult survivor emote-a-thons, but her views just don’t stand up to critical analysis, and her personal accounts are largely fictional.

A neutral, common-sense reading of history and civilization — as well as any decent textbook on comparative religion — tells us that in every society there are always a few people who feel a spiritual calling which is stronger and more definite than what is felt by the general populace. These people are in the minority just as musical prodigies are in the minority, Olympic athletes are in the minority, and red-haired, green-eyed people with Type O Negative blood are in the minority. None of these groups require deprogramming or exit counseling to make them more like the majority, and neither do spiritual adherents. Continue reading

The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 5

What is freedom of heart, and how does it differ from freedom of mind? Are the two compatible? Should we follow our hearts?

In Part 4 we talked about various methods used by oppositional groups to abridge the civil rights granted by the U.S. Constitution, and by laws guaranteeing freedom of choice in spiritual matters. Some of those tactics include spreading alarmist misinformation, or attempting to portray minority choices as unethical, irrational, or even criminal. Yet, the many spiritual groups which dot our land are part of America. They do not lie outside her borders, and participating in them can be an ethical, sensible, and (dare I say?) joyful choice for someone who feels a genuine spiritual calling.

Many people inherit secular beliefs and values by default and accept them unquestioningly. But of course, the whole point of laws guaranteeing religious freedom is that they’re there to protect minorities from maltreatment at the hands of aggressive majoritarians.

An analogy to freedom of speech can be made in that the latter is hardly tested by walking down Main Street at high noon whistling “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Free speech is only tested when one whistles a less popular tune or acts in some unexpected way, such as opposing a popular war.

The attempt to crack down on unpopular views and unpopular religions often entails looking for some excuse — some way of redefining matters so that the crackdown no longer appears as an affront to human rights, but rather as a necessary imposition of social control. The reason some Commonwealth nations (such as our next door neighbour Canada) have passed laws against religious vilification is that they rightly perceive such vilification as leading to religious persecution (which historically it has). First come the angry denunciations, then come the townsfolk with flaming brands to burn down the convent, synagogue, mosque, or temple.

In Part 4, after exploring the question of whether faith arrived at by nonrational means can be moral and ethical, we closed by noting that mystical experiences play an important role in many spiritual traditions; and while mystical experiences are themselves nonrational, they’re often explained within a larger philosophical framework which is rational and consistent. Thus, many living, vibrant spiritual traditions can be described as practising techniques which lead to direct spiritual experiences, and as proliferating a philosophy and culture in which these experiences make sense, become comprehensible.

Yet, as the secular world becomes increasingly estranged from the spiritual world, secular do-gooders want to wage war on spiritual groups in order to “rescue” adherents from “magical thinking” and other fates apparently worse than death. (See “Putting The Wind Up Richard Dawkins” for a humorous look at the effort to “batten down the hatches of reality so that no trace of imagination can infiltrate the 39th parallel of dull and boring.”)

One way of describing these conflicts is as relating to differences between “freedom of heart” and “freedom of mind.” The latter has become a cornerstone of Western democracies, but the former is sometimes thrown into question. One method used by anti-cultists to circumvent constitutional protections is to impose a host of conditions on faith, including the requirement that faith be arrived at through a rigidly prescribed course of critical reasoning.

At first glance, this requirement seems modest, since as a society we find critical reasoning immensely helpful in science (which it certainly is). However, spirituality is a quite different field, and critical reasoning is not always beneficial to faith — in fact, it may sometimes be an impediment, not because faith is bad or because it inherently conflicts with reason, but because faith is intuitive or “of the heart” and relates to matters which cannot be resolved empirically. As we discussed in Part 1 via William James and Carl Jung, conversion experiences tend to come as personal revelations rather than analytical conclusions. Like Saul on the road to Damascus, we are each entitled to our personal revelations, and to act on them in a positive way which does not harm others. Continue reading