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. Continue reading