Atheists should be in the pursuit of knowledge through a rational process. Margaret Singer has used this rational process to examine the world of cults. In her book, Cults In Our Midst, she outlines the research and analysis of what a cult is. She applies the term to groups that are on the edge of socially acceptable organizations. However, a discerning reader will see how the techniques of the fringe groups, that she outlines, are reflected in established religious denominations and social organizations.
An established organization brainwashes through group conformity and undermines the critical thought of individual members. For example, a Baptist or Pentecostal (these two groups often appear as non-denominational) control their members in a similar manner to groups identified as cults, e.g., Scientology or Mormon.
Whether a group is a denomination or a cult, they still use fear to keep people within their groups. Singer identifies six conditions cults need for thought control:
1) Keep the person unaware that there is an agenda to control or change the person
2) Control time and physical environment (contacts, information)
3) Create a sense of powerlessness, fear, and dependency
4) Suppress old behavior and attitudes
5) Instill new behavior and attitudes
6) Put forth a closed system of logic
These are applied to adult converts, and if you were to convert as an adult to a denomination the criteria for success is similar:
1) They do not explicitly state their agenda. They too want to keep the convert in a state of acceptance to their group.
2) The mainline denominations use less control of time and environment, but peer pressure compensates for this factor.
3) The element of fear is disguised as faith. If you do not strengthen your faith, you will suffer the consequence - a separation from God and eternal hell.
4) All groups want your behavior to conform to the standards of that group and to leave your old self behind.
5) All groups create a closed system of logic that works if you do not challenge the core premises' of that group. For example, Christians start from a premise that the Bible is the inspired word of God. If that word says there was a virgin birth, it must be true. God's word does not lie, even in the area of the impossible.
For Singer there are four concerns about what is wrong with cults:
1) They cause damage to the individual and families - so do denominations, e.g. , the Pentecostals or Baptists in their use of faith healing.
2) They use sophisticated psychological and social persuasion techniques - so do denominations, e.g., Catholics and Lutherans use these techniques in their sermons to keep parishioners faithful to the church.
3) They use their wealth to suppress criticism - Catholics and Episcopalians have on occasions used their wealth to suppress bad press by buying off the critics of pedophile priests.
4) They encroach on our freedoms through authoritarian disguised as moral laws and other legal means - so do denominations, e.g., Evangelical and Fundamentalist groups, led by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, have tried to pass an agenda into law that would control the rights of homosexuals and take away abortions rights.
Singers' research and coverage of cult operations, behaviors, and the way to get out of these groups is extensive. There are organizations and resources listed in the book that will assist a person in shedding the influence of these cults. However, they support a religious agenda from the mainline denominations in most cases. These same techniques that help people get out of cults, may be used to get out of mainline churches or organizations. It is important to develop critical thinking skills that expose the falsity religions and cults.
Although Singer provides extensive research, her style and content could easily be read by the average person. The fact that she recommends specific steps to counter being ensnared into cult groups does not prevent us from seeing the application of the material to denominations. - Grant Steves