Below is a piece I wrote up for a social media forum on Scientology (COS). While I don’t have extensive experience with that cult, I do have many years of experience dealing with many other groups. I am publishing it here because I think what I offer might be beneficial to others who have experience with other groups.
Extreme Measures. I’ve probably spent the most amount of time dealing and conversing with Jehovah’s Witnesses out of all of the various cults, sects, and fringe groups. It is common when someone leaves the Watchtower to become an atheist. The reasoning goes something like the following. If that was supposed to be the absolute truth and they were wrong, well then, no similar claim can be true, to I reject all claims out of hand. This is a very common reaction for people who leave many other groups and I’d wager it is for former COS members also. (The same is true not just for beliefs but also behaviors that the group prohibited. It might be not so hot of an idea to automatically and completely swing that pendulum in the other direction.)
It is important to recognize that this reasoning is often motivated by a desire to purge oneself of everything from the group. It is a normal reaction. And such a reaction can be cathartic and liberating. It is a process that will take time. So, understand, it is normal to feel this way, but recognize that this is a coping mechanism and not a reasoned position. Unfortunately, it isn’t beneficial in the long run. Think of it like buying some product, like laundry detergent. Suppose you were sold on some brand as the be all and end all of laundry detergent. You try it and it doesn’t work worth a crap. In fact, it is worse than what you were using before. Would it be reasonable to never use any laundry detergent ever again? No, of course not. But it would be reasonable to examine claims a bit more before you buy another brand.
The Mind Abhors a Vacuum. Like the above, people often react by rejecting any belief, but in reality this is impossible. You are going to have to believe something. This doesn’t imply that you go back to believing the nonsense of the COS, the Watchtower or whatever sect you’ve left or are considering leaving. It does imply that you are going to have to believe something. You can’t go your through your life believing nothing. You have to have some “story” in your head about the nature of the world, how you know things, what is good or right behavior and what is wrong or bad behavior, and some set of reasons why that is. This is so even if you become an atheist. You can’t replace something with nothing. And the hard part is, every position has intellectual problems to address. The hard truth is, there really are no easy answers. Welcome to the human condition.
The Cave of Scientism. Sometimes people retreat to science as the be all and end all measure of truth. They end up endorsing a kind of scientism, a rather fallacious view. Again, this move is understandable. It too is another coping mechanism. After having their whole prism through which they see the world shattered, they don’t want to be duped again. They feel insecure and so they want a security replacement. But scientism isn’t the answer either. There are a few simple reasons why. First, there are entire domains of human life that science can’t address. Take ethical judgments. Pick whatever ethical theory you like and it will be the case that science can’t tell you on that theory what is moral goodness or rightness or even what acts you ought to perform. This is for the simple reason that science offers descriptive propositions. At best, it tells you the way things are and not the way that they ought to be.
And on top of that, such a retreat to scientism assumes science tells you the way the world in fact is, rather than providing useful models that serve human interests. Those scientists and philosophers of science who are anti-realists about science, that is, science just provides the useful, not the truthful, do science just fine and get around the world just as well without believing that science actually gets you to the “real” world.
This is because in part, what science is or is thought to be changes over time. It is a human practice. If you don’t believe me, just pick up any introduction to the philosophy of science or just read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, arguably the single most referenced cross disciplined work of the 20th century. It’s a standard text in such courses in any major university. In short, science too depends on very specific philosophical beliefs, which of course science can’t demonstrate because, well, science depends on them, not the other way around. This is not to demean science or to discard it, but it is to recognize that retreating to scientism is not a real solution to your past problems or a vaccine against any future ones.
If You’re Lost, Don’t Move. Every so many years I do some backpacking in the Sierras. I love the serenity. The wind through the aspen and pine trees and the pure silence, excepting birds of course. But it is very easy to get lost, especially if you get off the trail. Even with a map and a compass, you can trek for miles on a single mistake. So, one rule to keep in mind is, if you get lost, stop moving! Either wait till someone comes and finds you or find a way to signal others.
The same is true when exiting some sect or an abusive cult like the COS. If you don’t know what to think or believe, then just sit still. It is OK not to know what to think or believe right now. If you apply yourself slowly and reasonably, the answers will come in time. So, take your time and by time, I mean years. If Rome wasn’t built in a day, you aren’t going to rebuild your entire belief system about the world in a matter of weeks or months. Again, it is OK not to know. No one is requiring you to figure it all out right now. So, your need to figure it all out right now, yeah just let that it go.
This is probably the most important advice I can give. I have watched many people rebound and throw themselves into some other group right after leaving another one. And sometimes the group they join is worse than what they were in, though with COS, this is difficult to do. So, while there ain’t no lovin’ like rebound lovin’, please, if you don’t know what to believe as a replacement, just sit still for a while…like a few years. In the end, you’ll be glad you did.
Critical or Skeptical? Watching Aftermath, I was struck by a comment made by the film producer who was in Scientology, whose name escapes me. He remarked that he had never gone to college or taken a philosophy class. As someone who taught philosophy for a while, I must I admit I had an “aha! See!” moment. Given that philosophy is an undervalued discipline in the US, it is rather hard not to do. So Mea culpa! That said, a little bit of philosophy goes a long way. To help make sure that something like this doesn’t happen to you again, you need to learn to be a critical thinker.
The first part of critical thinking includes a general familiarity with the history of ideas. It turns out it is really difficult to come up with a new idea. If you take thirty minutes to walk through the library stacks of a major university library, you’ll see what I mean. A passing familiarity with intellectual history can serve as a great vaccine against belief bull. If you think about it, take the Scientology’s belief in the embodiment of fallen souls. This is just a rehashed form of ancient Gnosticism. It is not unique or new. All LRH did was combined it with really bad science fiction and human conditioning techniques, of the North Korean variety. But the idea shows up in history again and again whether it is in different religions, psychological dissociative disorders like Body Integrity Dysphoria or rebooted science fiction like BattleStar Galactica. Knowing such things before hand vaccinates you against claims that such and so has some new secret truth to sell you. When you hear it and recognize it, it will have no power over you.
So here I’d recommend some casual reading in the history of ideas. Melchert’s The Great Conversation, is a standard entry level history of philosophy which isn’t pricey, but there are many others out there. Oxford University Press has a series called “Very Short Introductions” on just about any topic. They are about 100 pages, fairly cheap and written by experts in the field. They are a great place to start (not finish). A wonderful but rather academic resource is the on-line Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
The second part of critical thinking is the critical part. Here I distinguish between critical and skeptical. The critical stance is one where the person examines the reasons for beliefs to determine if the reasons are good and sufficient to support the belief or not. The skeptical stance is one where one is disposed to reject or doubt every claim and every reasoning offered. For people looking for a security replacement, the skeptical stance is easy to move to and very appealing. But the security it offers is illusory. If there are no easy answers, the skeptical stance can’t be one of them. This is because even the skeptical stance requires justification or reasons, and if one is consistently skeptical, one will have to be skeptical of it too. That is a dead end. The skeptical stance is just another coping mechanism. It gives the illusion of security while providing none.
So, if you engage in critical thinking how are you to figure out if the reasons for belief claims are good ones or bad ones? Well part of that will fall under figuring out if the facts behind claims are what the claimant says they are. Figuring out the factual part is the easy part. The hard part for most people falls under logic. I used to tell my students that logic was Drain-O for the brain. A little bit of logic can clear out tons of mental garbage lickity split. Logic is, roughly the science of truth preserving inferences. This can be a bit intimidating so let me unpack it a bit.
An inference is just a rule of reasoning. If A, then B, for example. An inference is good if it preserves or transfers the truth of the premise to the conclusion without fail (deductive) or most of the time (inductive). The conclusion is the claim or thesis that needs supporting. If an inference does this, then it is a good inference and so supports the conclusion, if not, then it is bad. Bad inferences are called fallacies. There are two basic types of fallacies-formal and informal. The former are few in number while the latter are numerous.
In my experience, about 90% of nonsense whether it is from sects like Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses or even in the Press or especially from politicians fall under informal fallacies. If you learn to spot most of those you can filter out a world full of bull. You can learn plenty from general on-line resources on fallacies or you can take a lower division critical thinking course at a community college. Such a class will usually cover informal fallacies without getting into symbolic logic. While symbolic logic is very profitable it is probably too dry for the average person. And truth be told, a little bit of logic will be useful in making every day decisions like buying a car or other things.
The Way of Belief. Why is the logic stuff important? Well if you weren’t raised in Scientology, the Watchtower or any group like this, then the reason you got duped in part was not just a matter of what you believed, but how you came to those beliefs. If you don’t fix or significantly improve the procedures you have to figuring out which beliefs are true and which are false, then you are just setting yourself up to get duped again and that applies even to everyday things like buying a car. This is why it is not uncommon for people to leave one group in which they were very rigid and dogmatic to only move to another one and be the same way. The content of their beliefs has changed but their disposition and belief acquiring procedures haven’t. To put it another way, fundamentalism doesn’t care about content.
So, you need to take some steps to evaluate and change how you come to the beliefs you have and not just focus on the content of those beliefs. How you come to the beliefs that you have is just as important as the beliefs themselves. And part of this is learning to take some responsibility for being duped and fixing the problem.
The Shell Game. Many conversations I have had with former cult and sect members end up being about why every thing in the cult or sect was bad. That may be more or less true. I recognize that it is important for people to voice the suppressed dissatisfaction that they had with whatever group they came out of. They need to release that intellectual tension. That much is very true. But what I find that many people miss is they are running while looking backwards. They are so focused on getting away from their former group, that they really aren’t thinking critically about what they are mentally running to, in terms of a replacement belief. The intellectual problems they are trying to avoid are also present, albeit in a different form, in their new view they are running to. But they can’t see it, because they are so focused on trying to get away from what they used to believe.
Take someone who moves from thinking there is a God to one who is an atheist on the basis of the problem of evil. (If God is all powerful and all good, then there should be no evil, but there is. Ergo…) That is a big problem and the literature in philosophy back and forth is nothing short of vast and extremely complicated. Now, whether the person is in fact right or not is not relevant here. Why? Because suppose there is no such God. Does evil still exist? If so, why? If evil is just part of nature or if there really is no moral property of evil in nature, why does it bother us so much? You’d think we would have gotten used to by now. The point is, these kinds of problems are problems every worldview has to face. Just changing worldviews doesn’t solve the problem, it just moves or relocates it to another viewpoint. But people have a hard time seeing this because they are focused on fleeing where they came from and achieving a kind of mental release of past intellectual pressure, rather than actually solving the intellectual problem. This too is another coping mechanism.
Fatal Attraction. Sometimes when people leave a cult, sect or something else, they are energized to expose it. This is important for lots of reasons. First because there could be actual wrong doing that requires the attention of the civil authorities and that wrong doing can include real and moral harm to persons that requires remediation. Second, because after exiting, people need to “detox” from the group. It is part of the healing process. Now, unless someone has a special calling or is in a special position, devoting your life to exposing the group is likely going to make things worse for you in the long run.
Don’t get me wrong. I am all for having your say and doing what you can, but you need to accept a few hard truths. First, you are limited and your lifetime is limited. You only have so much time. Don’t waste it being angry or on a fruitcake group. After years of doing counter-cult work I discovered that I had spent a ton of time learning about what other people believe and why they are wrong and I spent less time thinking about what I believed and why. On top of that I spent little time doing things to make my life better or to enjoy it. Second, you will likely burn out after a few years. You will grow tired of it and eventually not want to think about it at all. You’ll want to forget it ever happened and just wish it never happened. That too is normal. Third, history is replete with cults and sects of all kinds. For every one you are familiar with, there are likely half a dozen more that you have never heard of or could imagine. This is not just about those in the past that no longer exist, but for ones that are smaller and live just below the social radar. It turns out it is really hard to kill an idea, even a stupid one.
This is because there is an ever-new supply of not so bright people or people who don’t engage in critical thinking. Germany wasn’t special in the ability of its general population to be duped by an ideology. In sum, the group will likely survive and that for some time. Many groups do not survive the death of their founder. Some do but undergo some kind of transformation after a power struggle. They can last for generations until they eventually die out. So, your cult, sect or group probably isn’t going anywhere. And unless you are a high-profile individual, you’re very likely a very small person in a very large world, a Hobbit of sorts. This is not to say that little people can’t change the course of history, but chances are, you are probably just one of many such persons. In short, obsessing about your cult is a coping mechanism in search of fulfillment. You’re anger will likely never receive the satisfaction you wish for.
Get Outside. In cults, sects or other groups, psychological or intellectual tension can mount due to prohibitions. Many times, though not always, these prohibitions are unreasonable. On top of this, groups like Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses are time suckers. They always have something for you to do. There is no time for that which is natural or little to no appreciation of it. Nature has little to no value of its own in such contexts. Only the “work” is important. Unfortunately for such a view, humans have a nature and are part of the natural world.
So, find some time to get outside. If you live in the US, there is actually a lot of nature to see. (This is of course true of…oh, everywhere.) Going camping, backpacking, fishing, etc. can be very therapeutic. I am partial to alpine fishing. For my part, if I die at 9k elevation fishing a glacial lake, please, for the love of all that is good and right, just bury me there. So, go to your local sporting goods store, REI or whatever, pick up some equipment, make a plan and go. You can learn some new skills (like reading a compass! Exciting!), meet new people and spend time with your family. You might even learn some new things about yourself, and that is no small thing.
But even if you are not the camping type, find something you love to do, especially if it was something you couldn’t do in your sect (within reason of course). If it is cooking Triple Dark Chocolate Merlot cookies, then crack out the Ghirardelli’s and let the Merlot be free flowing! Gardening might sound lame, but you’d be surprised how a little peace and quiet with some potting soil on your hands can help. Besides, you’ll have better tasting tomatoes to boot. But whatever it is that you like to do, especially if it was something that the group either prohibited or kept you from doing due to time sucking, go and do it. You’ll get your head away from thinking about the group, which means they won’t be renting out space in your head anymore. And that is a big part of being free.
There’s Always the Sun. Lastly, leaving a cult, sect, etc. can be very stressful and depressing. So, it is important to do a few things to combat depression or despair. Here I am not a doctor of any sort and so offer only what I understand to be generally recognized to be beneficial and what I found to be so for myself. First off, expose yourself, within reasonable limits, to sunlight. Being cooped up all day arguing on line about stupid cult leader Todd isn’t going to help you. Take some time to get some sunlight on your skin.
Also take some time to get some exercise. Even light exercise like walking for 20 minutes a few times a week can help improve your energy levels and your mood. If you have a dog, take your dog for a walk. As an owner of many dogs over my lifetime, I have never known a dog to dislike taking a walk. They enjoy it and you will to. (Cats, it turns out, not so much.) But make the time to set a routine to get some exercise. For my part, I find a schedule is impossible to keep, but a routine is much easier, but find whatever works best for you in this regard.