Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
The Man Who Saves You from Yourself (2013) (harpers.org)
264 points by schrijver on June 17, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 139 comments

This is a long article with a lot of items to discuss, but my take is that its "easy" to "brainwash" people because a lot of what's being offered is actually good, but, of course, used cynically and for social control.

The Hare Krishna kid didn't know it before, but he now realizes that meditation helps with his social anxiety. Except now, he's in bed with the Krishna's, instead of finding a personal and secular path to meditation. The girl in the Christian cult discovered the power of community and forgiveness. Funny how white centric these articles are. If a kid becomes a Krishna its suddenly a bewildering thing, but if a kid joins a gang on the south side of Chicago, we just shrug. Both these things have a lot in common; society, family, etc not providing what they should and not projecting those values to kids.

I think religiosity and cults rise when secular society fails at something. We're not telling kids that meditation can help them. We've not telling them that maintaining personal relationships is actually hard work and forgiveness even harder. Perhaps nowadays we are. I see a lot of what religion offers distilled into non-faith based practices. You can meditate without knowing the first thing about the buddha. You can engage in a personal spirituality without feeling guilted to show up for social functions (that only seem to empower the leaders of congregations). You can explore consciousness with drugs, lucid dreaming, or just via one's informed imagination, etc.

Empowering individuals to discover information on a personal basis is what the information age is all about. There aren't anymore gatekeepers. I imagine this keeps cult activity low, not to mention a lot of cult stereotypes are from the 60s and built upon mindless baby boomer excess and dramatic parent attention baiting like 'dropping out of society.' Not only are we in the post-cult age, we are entering the post-religion age. I don't see too many gen-x'ers and gen-y's dying to get up early to go to church to be sermonized by the ravings of 1st century zealots. I don't see how that's remotely in their interests.

"I think religiosity and cults rise when secular society fails at something."

I think it's more useful to think of it as a psychology hack that can strike almost anyone. Not any person at any time, but any person at one of their vulnerable moments.

Worth remembering though that there are many cultish aspects to the mainstream, e.g. political movements fight tooth and nail to influence what young children are taught at school.

> there are many cultish aspects to the mainstream

Quite literally, given how many aspects of 'cults' went mainstream. Environmentalism, meditation...

...anti-intellectualism, NASCAR...

... The Iraq war ...

... Anything social group that you don't agree with ...

... and which offers illusory salvation (a safer, democratic Iraq, reduced terrorist threat) from spurious ills (WMD, Al Qaeda support by Saddam) delivered by a charismatic leader with access to a divine hotline (Blair, too!) and engages you by blatant falsehood, psychological manipulation and peer pressure ...

No, I think even groups I do on later reflection agree with are acting questionably if they try to influence my early education. They probably think it's usually wrong to do so but they make an exception in the case of their ideas because they consider them uniquely urgent and important. That's just an old mistake. Twas ever thus. The more important an idea is, the more important it is to be able to think freely about it.

Same with technology choices & favored practices.

It is interesting to note that one of the cults he shut down used a juice bar to recruit candidates.

This fits well with his point that as the times change so do the "cults", as the leaders are just con-men praying on people's loneliness and insecurities.

Anyone would be skeptical of a group of people it had all of the earmarks of a cult from the 60's (robes, rituals, communes, dirty hippies, etc.), but what could possibly be more innocuous and "normal" than a group of attractive women wearing yoga pants indulging in the latest diet fad? So what if there if there is a side helping of brainwashing, you're part of a hip new community!

>a lot of what's being offered is actually good...meditation...society


>I don't see too many gen-x'ers and gen-y's dying to get up early to go to church to be sermonized by the ravings of 1st century zealots. I don't see how that's remotely in their interests.

Here you hint at a problem: when you take away religion you leave a vacuum. What fills that vacuum? In our society, today, by default it is filled with "the pursuit of wealth". Gordon Gecko was a fictional villain in 1987 cinema. Jordan Belfort is a real hero in 2013 cinema. People sense the emptiness of greed, and our nascent popular skepticism prevents them from filling the vacuum. Who can read this riddle?

Clearly, we need something to fill the vacuum that religion leaves that is also compatible with our skepticism. What replaces it is not necessarily a religion, but it serves the same purpose: morality and self-restraint. Secular humanism is clearly not enough.

> What fills that vacuum?

Religion is a cultural construct to address certain issues like morality, cosmology, etc. It didn't fill any void, its just an outward expression of culture. Current culture is to handle these things inwardly and via some level of rational inquiry. We don't need a turn-key replacement. The only turn-key replacement for religion is more religion. Religion as a category and part of human experience needs to be eliminated. There's nothing to fill past that point.

This is like saying, "Now that we don't have phrenology, we need a new phrenology." No, we just accept we can't figure out how people work or what kind of people they are by feeling their skulls. We live with the ambiguity and use other tools to determine what people do via personality testing, statistics, psychology, etc which do not have the false certitude the pseudoscience of phrenology did the same way modern understanding of the world does not have the false certitude that religion delivers.

>Gordon Gecko was a fictional villain in 1987 cinema

Gecko and non-fictional villains of that age were all baby boomer monotheists, if not extremely faithful churchgoers, and often justified their negative aspects via faith. Or on a more everday front, see the Prosperity Gospel, The Secret, etc. George Bush still justifies a lot of his disastrous decisions in office via faith, including the invasion of Iraq which has killed at least 120k innocent civilians. Pardon me if I find the "but without religion we're lost morally" argument unconvincing. If anything, religion lets us act immorally without consequence.

>>This is like saying, "Now that we don't have phrenology, we need a new phrenology." No, we just accept we can't figure out how people work or what kind of people they are by feeling their skulls. We live with the ambiguity and...

But that's the whole point: a lot of people simply cannot live with the ambiguity. For them, ambiguity means uncertainty, and uncertainty means fear and a lack of stability in general. Instead, they need to be told what to do and think and how to live their lives. They need some sort of compass, ideally one they share with a lot of others.

That is why religion has been so massively popular: some figures in the sky say, "this is how shit works and you can't question me/us about it" and that is sufficient for most people. They now have that area of their life handled and can comfortably think about other stuff. They can sleep well at night knowing that some omnipotent being is protecting them, and if shit goes wrong they have something they can attribute it to, like "we must have angered such and such omnipotent being."

Phrenology never played such an important role in people's lives, so its going away never created the type of vacuum that lack of religion creates for people.

Do they really need that certainty, or has that been trained into them from an early age?

That is a very good question. But it appears religion (even atheist religions) manifests itself in just about every society so it probably is a need of most people to a certain extent.

Maybe the answer is to keep inventing better religions. The old ones keep appearing more and more ridiculous and pernicious. I suppose this trial and error produces lots of cults and casualties.

Or maybe the answer is for people to grow up and take personal responsibility and truthfully examine what we really know about life and stop trying to hide from reality. That's the path I personally have chosen. But I think the first might be easier on a mass scale. IDK.

Obviously very hard to test. But no one is told they need certainty. And a lot of people get existential angst -- a topic discussed on HN at length.

And we clearly have a strong need for social belonging, most of us.

Spiritual experience is scientifically measurable brain activity. People enjoy it.

People are not told they need certainty, but they are subject to a great deal of emotional violence to get them to conform to systems. You bring up the topic of social belonging - being ostracized is the primary form of shaming that is used.

Having been wounded in this way, people seek any path out of their suffering.

Spiritual experience is observable in the brain, but it is certainly not understood, nor are the mechanisms. This is equally true of psychedelic experiences caused by drugs.

You seem to forget that we, as a species, are wired for religion. Remove it and it will leave a void, a god-shaped hole, that is going to be filled with something, no matter what. You can't just leave it empty in the general case, you need to replace it with a powerful heavy NOP, like an Indiana Jones switch. Otherwise you're just going to have a really bad time.

Sure there's people that can be secular on their own selves, without too much conflict about it. But I believe most of them have put something to fill that behavioural slot. And even if they didn't, you have to see that the majority of people are never going to bear that vacuum and be taken advantage, of the moment their belief-system is vacant.

Living in a country where religiosity is low (France), I can attest I don't feel any void. What I often see however is other people pretending I have a void. Some even say I don't believe in anything. Well, I believe in the potential of Science, I believe in a small hope of actual immortality (if not for me, maybe for later generations), I believe in love, and lots of other fine things in life.

But if I were to out as an atheist in a deep corner of Religious America… I guess the resulting ostracism would leave a void.

As for being wired for religion, I don't believe it. Granted, we have some biases, like our tendency to see sentient agents everywhere, that tend to favour religious interpretations of our observations. To suggest however that more accurate interpretations leave a void is a stretch. If I have a God shaped hole, it is mostly filled with physics. Any remaining void just fuels my curiosity.

We are also wired for racism and magical thinking but we tend to just avoid it with the use of education, not debating how we are left with racistm-shaped hole.

Good point. I'm not an expert on racism, but it would seem that racism does have positive attributes, especially for the "in" group - social cohesion first among them. I'd argue that the racist hole left in Americans, anyway, was filled with it's opposite: tolerance. The only thing we don't tolerate anymore is intolerance (which, BTW, is a very good change).

The "shape" of the hole left by religion is more complex. I suppose the best way to describe it would be to compare all extant religions and see what they have in common. My lay-opinion is that they almost all give the adherent two things: a) an almost Newtonian, absolutist world-view, in which b) some sort of father or mother figure that will make everything all right (in the long run). So, it's a kind of certainty about one's own personal insignificance. It's an excuse to "let go".

From this perspective, ignoring differences in specific dogma, religion is actually far more realistic than humanism, which usually tends to stress individual importance. But most people (and I include myself in this) are not important. Heck, think of any of the most important people in history - will they be remembered in 1000 years? 10,000? On an even somewhat long (human) time scale, almost none of us matter.

It's hard for me to see how a belief that you can have a personal relationship with creator of the universe can make you more aware of your insignificance. Scientific view that places you on speck of dust for barely a moment in universes time, until you dissolve into nothing leaving at best some memories in your culture is much more humbling.

People use religion mostly to keep disbelieving in injustice of physical world and to combat loneliness and meaninglessness.

You are spot on that in USA intolerance towards intolerant replaced racism. Nowadays people get fired over careless comments that can be percieved as racially loaded. It's almost funny when observed from a country that has 99.9% of population of one skin color and nationality and where racism by pople who hate it is perceived more of a sheer stupidity than capital offence.

I never 'had' religion - I was raised by atheists. So, I never had a 'void' to fill.

So, what does that make of me? I feel like a 'moral' person - do I need something other than common sense, empathy, and civility to be moral?

No, of course not. You're obviously just fine as you are.

That said, your atheist parents may have done a particularly good job teaching you common sense, empathy, and civility, or you may be naturally inclined towards common sense, empathy, and civility in a way that not every person is.

For those individuals who aren't inclined to common sense, empathy, or civility, and for those individuals with parents who aren't so good at teaching common sense, empathy, and civility, religious organizations can play a very useful role. The god-talk isn't the important part, it's belonging to a broader community that specializes in teaching moral lessons. The decline in religious institutions really doesn't affect smart well-off people with good parents, but it's been terrible for the rest of society, because no secular community has replaced it.

As an aside, the void that so many of these cults fill isn't an absence of moral precepts, it's that sense of community and belonging.

>>For those individuals who aren't inclined to common sense, empathy, or civility, and for those individuals with parents who aren't so good at teaching common sense, empathy, and civility, religious organizations can play a very useful role.

It can also make them use religion to justify their lack of common sense, empathy and civility.

The trouble is when a serial killer says the same thing.

Like John Wayne Gacy who read bible verses to the young men he was strangling?

I have a hard time believing that a serial killer will be cured by religion.

I don't know about serial killers but I know a slave trader who was cured.

Serial killers are practically defined by their lack of empathy, so no.

Serial killers who are almost universally white Christian males?

So... secular, non-cultish meditation schools? Spirituality without the guru-worship trap?

This might be controversial here, but I'm going to say it anyway. There's a lot that the old spirituality of India did very well. They came up with an incredibly rich array of meditation techniques, suitable for just about any temperament and inclinations. But they had an Achilles' heel: the divinization of the guru. That was the open door where all the evil came in.

People don't need gurus. That is just a mask to the problem.

What they need is therapy. Real therapy. But we live in a culture where we think some mystical shaman in Mumbai has the answers we seek, not some medical professional who studies the mind and how it works.

Many of the so-called 'swamis' of the world would be considered mentally ill in the Western world. I'm not being hyperbolic. Many of them are not well and the behavior is what you might see from an unbalanced homeless person wandering the streets of major U.S. cities.

And even in the West, insurance companies and the societal culture shun the idea of therapy. So while meditation and mental focus and all of those things can help people, they are tiny, usable sections of real therapy. But people take the easy way - the 'quick magic bullet' and clamor for the populist ideal of a mystical guru, whatever form that may be in.

People didn't have it 'figured out' hundreds or thousands of years ago. Hundreds or thousands of years ago people use to cut out other people's tongues or raid each other's homes to kidnap slaves. The human race has done some horrible things to each other over time and I don't subscribe to the idea that somehow we should be looking to those generations for advice on mental wellness.

Who determines what 'real therapy' is?

I can't tell if you're being serious but medically certified psychologists are the most qualified to answer that question. Therapy is a medical science, but every layperson seems to think they have enough knowledge to comment on what it is or whether it's needed.

> Therapy is a medical science,

Therapy is a practice, not a science.

> but every layperson seems to think they have enough knowledge to comment on what it is or whether it's needed.

Ah, the "leave it to the experts" trope.

Giving that responsibility to someone else is the same as relying on a guru or a religious personality to tell you what to believe & do.

If you look into psychology & related fields, there are different traditions & approaches. A practitioner will go to school for a few years learning a particular curriculum. What is to say that that curriculum & approach is correct for you? That takes a leap of faith.

The workings of the human brain & the dynamics of personality is actually not fully known. There is a lot of progress being made and that knowledge is something that you have access to. Hopefully you can have an independent & thoughtful mind to make your own decision.

There's also issues with the Pharmaceutical industry. Pharmaceutical companies want to make money and making money means selling drugs. Hence it is in their best interest to have people regularly take their drugs.

Also notice that natural remedies, used for most of the history of life, are discredited. Why? The Pharmaceutical industry has an interest in controlling the channel of your medicine. They cannot profit from natural remedies that are commodities.

A side effect of many anti-depressants is suicide, yet these drugs are heavily advertised and prescribed. Billions of dollars are being made every year. Notice that there are ulterior motives that do not relate to your health.

Btw, Pharmaceutical companies also visit doctor offices and have a symbiotic relationship with the doctors. Some doctors are ethical & some doctors are not...

Medicine is based in science. Not sure what you are getting at by claiming it isn't.

Psychotherapy is still at a woo-woo stage in its scientific development. Primarily because nobody has a real clue as to what connects the "mind" to the "brain" at the fundamental functional level.

A century after Freud, Jung and a host of their 'intellectual' descendants, "therapy" might as well be a pseudoscience as much as it is (claimed to be) science. Sure, modern day variations may appear quite different in practice than what was being done a few decades ago, but just because "it works" (for some) does not mean we understand the working of the mind well enough to call it a science.

A (poor) analogy might be like saying that just because a 3 year old kid can use the iPad to play games (cause-and-effect learned from touching, moving the device), he/she understands the workings of the ARM processor inside. Or even the code that game runs on.

> Not sure what you are getting at by claiming it isn't.

Semantics & accuracy.

I'll appeal to authority for you...

“Some doctors are scientists – just as some politicians are scientists – but most are not,” "Indeed, most doctors are incapable of critically appraising an article. They have never been trained to do so." Richard Smith - Editor British Medical Journal http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC428500/

Physics, Chemistry, Biology, etc are sciences.

Pediatrics, Oncology, Counseling are practices.

The technique will use science, however they are not a science in themselves. Even though the practices are "based on science", sometimes there issues with the initial studies that we later find out in later studies.

Dealing with the inner working of reality is hard. There's lots of unseen complexity. The unknowns are still unknown. Science often lags practical application because it requires fundamental understanding, capital, accredited scientists, & peer review. E.g. we knew how to create catapults before we had Newtonian Physics.

Also, be careful because the definition of "based on science" has become heavily politicized & driven to sell something to the public. Monsanto created GM crops that are "safe" "based on science". We are now finding out that their crops are wreaking havoc to the ecosystem. e.g. the Bees & Monarch Butterfly populations have collapsed.

In the 1950s, Cigarettes were deemed "based on science". Asbestos was deemed safe "based on science".

I speak because I do know a renowned medical practitioner & researcher. I have a glimpse on how the sausage is made.


> Many of the so-called 'swamis' of the world would be considered mentally ill in the Western world.

That is more of a condemnation of the Western world. Locking someone up just because they are not "gainfully employed" and "another brick in the wall" is hardly healthy.

> People didn't have it 'figured out' hundreds or thousands of years ago.

We don't now either. Look at how humans have impacted the environment in such a short time. Also look at our pointless & expensive wars that we engage in. Look at the obesity epidemic. Feel the cold unhappiness & judgement of modern western culture.

> Hundreds or thousands of years ago people use to cut out other people's tongues or raid each other's homes to kidnap slaves.

We still do. People are still murdered, oppressed, silenced. Slavery still exists, more so now then ever.

> The human race has done some horrible things to each other over time and I don't subscribe to the idea that somehow we should be looking to those generations for advice on mental wellness.

It's not so much the time period or ethnicity. It's more about the attitude we have toward each each other. There are good and bad people now. There were good and bad people then. History teaches us on what works and what doesn't work.

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"

- George Santayana


Note: I find it amusing that my previous comment, which basically says "think for yourself", have a "critical view of things", and "understand causality", is downvoted on HN.

Psychotherapy is not the same as physical medicine.

I think the issue is people thinking that there is a vacuum in themselves that can be 'filled'. Too many people want to find an answer outside of themselves, possibly for the simple reason that true self-growth is really fucking hard.

On one hand, religion serves to control people who would otherwise not be controlled. Fear is the driving factor - don't steal, or you won't go to heaven. Don't murder, or you won't go to heaven. For some people, it just apparently isn't enough to not murder because nobody wants to be murdered. The need a belief that there is an invisible man in the sky that will 'get them', so keep it clean.

But it still doesn't work. Because supposedly religious people steal, lie, cheat and murder all of the time.

Think of how many prisons are full of people who still believe in God or Allah.

I don't think most religious people think of it as that kind of quid pro quo. Most people, regardless of conviction, want to do "good," whatever that means. Religion tells people what they already believe: that helping other people is a good thing, even when it's not comfortable, and there is some reason for you to do it -- some kind of meaning. They don't obey God out of fear of hell; they use heaven and hell to rationalize what they already feel is right. Regardless what the doctrine may say, people believe in God because they want to be good, not the other way around.

This instinct gets manipulated by certain religious institutions that emphasize political and scientific claims made either by church leaders or their religious text. They use it to justify other things that they already "know" without strong evidence. Ideas like racial purity, xenophobia and the like. And they often make the same mistake that you have, in believing that people who believe differently only do so for material reasons, and without the fear of eternal damnation, we'll immediately descend into a society of savages and psychopaths.

> morality and self-restraint.

... and hope.

Note the lack of hope among so many skeptics. Start talking to them about the future and you quickly discover that not only is life meaningless and success essentially random, but human civilization is doomed to extinction due to ecological overshoot soon so who cares...

This lack of hope can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It causes people to disengage and stop investing in the future.

I'm a humanist, and it has made my worldview much, much brighter. I don't walk around with a load of guilt anymore. The things that happen to me are not "God" punishing me for something my great^n grandparents did, but effects with causes, some of which I can control. I get out of bed. I believe in myself.

It's nice. It's hopeful. It makes sense.

Unfortunately religious guilt often gets replaced by secular neo-Malthusian doomsday ideology. That might not be your experience but it seems to be common. It plugs into the same port: "forgive us nature for we have sinned... we have overshot our ecological carrying capacity..."

Another thing about secularism that bothers me (and I am not religious) is the strong negative association with birth rates. Look up the statistics. The more rational your worldview is the less you reproduce, to the point that most very secular nations are in demographic decline. Difficult investments in the future such as child rearing seem to be replaced by an evolutionary dead end Epicurean lifestyle.

I'm not arguing that everyone should join the Quiverfull movement, but it bothers me that fertility is inversely correlated to a rational worldview. Darwin is clearly on the side of fanaticism and superstition, in that if there is any genetic basis to these traits we are strongly selecting for them. Even if there is no genetic basis, beliefs propagate most strongly from parent to child so we are certainly culturally selecting for fanatical religious ideologies in the long term. A higher proportion of tomorrow's children will be the product of today's fundamentalists. I suspect this is why severe religious ideologies are historically so powerful. Those that didn't hold them left fewer descendants.

I see a connection there -- between deep pessimism and lack of fertility -- that points to some kind of psychological vacuum related to motivation and hope. Seems like when you take away myth, you take away teleological action. Actions belong to the realm of narrative -- storytelling -- not fact. This is as true in the secular realm as in the religious -- progress is a myth, not a fact. In the extreme it takes on a quasi-religious tone in the form of "the Singularity" and similar ideas. Even companies have myths, and startup founders often have to put on at least a little bit of a guru hat.

You also seem to take away the idea that one can stand up against overpowering adversity. It's certainly true that humanity faces difficult challenges, but those who have secular worldviews seem to easily default to hopelessness the minute their logical analysis turns up a probability of success that seems less than 50/50. Perhaps there's something adaptive about the craziness of faith... it causes us to actually try in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity.

I'm not convinced that lack of religion and pessimism are correlated at all. In my experience, religious people are as likely to be pessimistic as non-religious people. The latter may be more cynical, but those people were almost always religious at some point in their lives and their darker attitudes are caused by their disillusionment about religion, rather than by lack of religion.

I think you have some deeply rooted misunderstandings about the relationship between religion and fertility. Religious people have more kids primarily because most organized religions frown upon birth control. It has nothing to do with hope or optimism and everything to do with the fact that they are having sex just as often as non-religious folks but are much more likely to conceive. Another reason is that non-religious people tend to be more independent in their thinking and they question and resist social pressures -- and even economic incentives -- to have kids. Atheist couples are much more open to sitting down and having a conversation about whether they want kids and, if they do, whether they are ready.

As for religion and evolution... I don't even know where to begin. Just because you're popping out child after child doesn't mean those children are likely to survive, prosper and reproduce. That is traditionally why people have felt the need to have lots of kids: you didn't know how many of them would live long enough to have kids of their own. It is only very recently that modern medicine has significantly decreased child mortality and increased lifespans. This is yet another reason why developed countries have lower birth rates.

The bottom line is that your entire narrative seems to be that lack of religion leads to pessimism, which then leads to lower fertility, and this is somehow going to have evolutionary implications. To anyone who is knowledgeable about any of these topics, this is just sheer, unadulterated nonsense.

Religious people have kids because of a commandment to "multiply and replenish the earth". There are lots of religious families with six or more children, all spaced two or three years apart using birth control.

It has been demonstrated repeatedly that higher education is correlated with lower birth rates, all the way down to sub-replacement levels. This is indeed a problem for anyone who wants to promote secular policies in a democracy, if they quickly find themselves outnumbered in a few generations (assuming that "conversion" to secular politics happens at a lower rate than the non-secular birth rate). That is how I read the parent comment.

Exactly. Liberal types try to win by being right. Right-wingers win by... Umm... Winning. I was not arguing that the inverse correlation between secularism and birth rates is a good thing.

Says who? All of the atheists I know tend to have some like of Star Trek-like futurist beliefs. Or watered-down Tim Leary beliefs of mind expansion and space migration.

Also, its probably not in our best interest to pretend that extinction events don't happen. If anything, if we're seeing some paranoia, it might be healthy paranoia. Imagine if Al Gore was a "everything happens for a reason" type person and didn't care to invest his political life into the environment. Instead he fought to popularize global warming and has helped moved policy forward. Policy that will probably make a difference to our grandkids. There's a lot of middle ground between the optimism of 72 virgins and the strawman doom-and-gloom person you describe.

The most hopeless people I know tend to be conservative religious types for whatever reason. "Get while the gettings good" seems to be their collective motto. Who cares about the future when Jesus/Buddha/whoever is coming back any day now!

Correction -- all of the atheists you know who vocally express their beliefs have Star-Trek-like beliefs, or other generally optimistic beliefs about the future. The atheists who think that there's a significant chance that we'll manage to wipe ourselves out in the next century generally aren't going to vocalize those beliefs, unless there's something actionable that can be done about it (though I don't think I actually know anyone who thinks that ecological overshoot is a real threat to civilization, much less humanity).

I think you see the pessimists on both sides of the secular / religious divide. The difference is that pessimism is generally low-status and frowned upon in secular groups, meaning that pessimists in those groups are generally not very vocal about their pessimism.

I think we are firmly in YMMV territory here. :)

I always noticed that at academic conferences the casual greeting seemed to be agreement about the impending human die-off due to global warming / ecological doom / whatever.

It's an empowering sort of hopelessness, though, at least for me. It's a dark world, with lots of horrible people, and humanity seems to only make bad or worse choices, but at the root of things, they are OUR choices, so it's for us to work our asses off to fix them. Even if success is essentially random, if you try more you'll succeed more. I've always felt that it was disingenuous to not look at all the terrible aspects of the world head on, but I also see no reason this shouldn't be a tool for those who can see it, depressing as it may be.

People* like to belong to something.

Quite a lot of people like to delegate their worries to a leader with an answer. Other people like to feel that they're "in the know" (gnosis), that they know something other people don't that grants superiority. This goes for spirituality, politics, and JS frameworks alike.

There used to be essentially one option for meeting these needs: attend your local church.

Population growth, mass communication, and intellectual freedom have resulted in a huge explosion of things one can belong to and things one can be gnostic about. It's not that there aren't cults any more - Scientology is still strong, Mormonism arguably qualifies - but there are so many things you can cling to (mostly "fandoms" these days) that there's no reason to put up with a bad cult. Or a difficult or demanding one.

It's still too early to call the death of religion until the shooting has stopped in the Islamic world, though.

(*"I don't" is not a useful reply to this; I'm talking about people in general)

>>> You can engage in a personal spirituality without feeling guilted to show up for social functions (that only seem to empower the leaders of congregations).


So many people equate spirituality with religion. The deepest things I've learned about spirituality was when I was studying Native American religions and Shamanism. I was brought up Catholic, but it wasn't until I realized my spirituality didn't have to be connected to my religious beliefs that I really started to see the world in a whole new way.

It just opened up so many new paths of exploration and understanding. It truly was an "ah-ha!" moment.

If spirituality was an entirely new term that we invented today, we would call it brain hacking, or consciousness hacking.

After reading the relevant chapter of Cialdini's Influence, my take is that it's easy for cult leaders to brainwash people because they've read it too. And, of course, because they're evil, greedy bastards. Presumably, many people could do it but don't.

This is a very sensationalized article. It seems to be based almost entirely on Singer's acolytes, people with severe conflicts of interest, and long-outdated information, and doesn't reflect the current understanding of 'cults'. Some starting points. On the value of the opinion of "the doyenne of cult scholarship", an issue that the OP seems to never mention despite constant invocations and quotes of Singer https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Singer#Cults

> Her expert testimony was no longer accepted after the report of the APA taskforce on Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control, of which she was chair, was rejected by the Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology (BSERP) of the American Psychological Association. Thereafter, courts shifted to accepting the position held by the great majority of scholars studying new religious movements, moving away from the perspective of Singer and others sympathetic to her brainwashing thesis.[11] This had significant consequences later on, since it meant that brainwashing could no longer be used a defence for the practice of deprogramming.[11]

(Singer, incidentally, made a lot of money from being an expert witness peddling her debunked theories.)

Some relevant excerpts of less credulous research: http://lesswrong.com/lw/imu/notes_on_brainwashing_cults/

Great lesswrong link.

It seems to indicate that people doing things in cults is a bit like spam, huge dropout rate but the people you wind up with will do lots of silly things.

The purpose of the initiation and nonsense is almost to weed out people who are not extremely controllable.

So it's not really brainwashing as much as gullible finding.

I remember this article when if first came out. Of all the weirdness outlined, one item, which wasn't even part of the main story and added as a bit of color detail, stated:

"Sullivan first worked with Singer in the early Nineties. One case involved a woman posing as a psychologist, who had persuaded several of her male clients to undergo sex-reassignment surgery. (The men later alleged that they had been brainwashed.)"

That is a level of brainwashing that I wouldn't have even believed was possible.

I'd be quite skeptical that she was ever able to successfully trick anyone into undergoing SRS. For one thing, it's fairly expensive. Secondly, no reputable surgeon would perform the procedure without verifying that the psychologist who wrote a letter was actually a licensed practitioner. Third, the WPATH Standards of Care specify that SRS should only be performed on patients who have two letters of approval from two separate practitioners.

I'd want some verification before taking that tidbit as fact, for sure. The way it's written, it sounds like an urban legend.

Yup, an urban legend designed to exploit the taboo and stigmatized reputation of "sex-change" surgery.

You speak in the present tense. Was this true in the 60s?

As far as I know, yes. Generally speaking, the medical establishment was far more restrictive (overly so) in giving trans people the treatment they needed back then.

The human brain can be very susceptible to hacking, especially if its trust channels are open.

I would never grant such lever of trust to anyone.

Hell i don't trust myself so there's no way in hell I'll grant someone else that level of trust.

Doesn't matter; there are well known and effective ways of hacking the trust channels as well.

In Scientology one of the ways to do this was to address the person's views on "help". Is it okay for others to help you? Have you ever helped anyone else? What if your car broke down by the road, would you refuse help to get it back running? If it was a friend or family member who offered to help?

It doesn't take long to make people see that we trust people to help us all the time, often with big, important things, often without thinking about it. Once someone is open to the idea of help in general, it's not a huge leap to show them that the organization is there to help them, and that it's okay to accept the help. Challenging someone's views on control is sometimes required as well, done in a similar manner.

A follow-up tactic is to find someone's "ruin". Everyone's got something they will trigger on. Health, depression, family, money, career, whatever. It's usually very easy to get people to volunteer this, sometimes you can just do a cold read of someone and know right away without even talking about it, it's the same thing a fortune teller does. So, you offer to help them with their ruin.

There's nothing magical about it, and it works on everyone if skillfully applied, even if they have their guard up in advance and have heard all kinds of awful things about you. You aren't forcing people to do anything, you're not being dishonest or tricking them. Everything is above-board. The hard sell comes later, when a deeper level trust has been established over time.

That's mostly because they rely on the fact that once you help someone they feel indebted to you that all breaks down if the person your helping feels no obligation to return the favor.

A lot of people use this behavior to manipulate other people so it's a good idea deprogram it in yourself.

Whenever I help someone i don't expect anything back in return that's probably why I'm ok helping anyone regardless if i ever meet them again and i expect the same no string attached help.

Don't get me wrong though i never 'expect' anything from strangers however if they offer to help (which is a nice surprise) that the type of help i expect.

You want to help me? Fine.

Scientology usually actually helps people at the beginning. Just as you said, everything is aboveboard. That is what makes them so dangerous; they actually help people enough to get them hooked.

"Get it wrong, and we call it a cult. Get it right, in the right time and the right place, and maybe, for the next few millennia, people won't have to go to work on your birthday."

- Dr. Robert Sapolsky


Yeah, that is a very resounding quote but it does not take into account that there have been few incentives to remain a Cristian and people have, despite not being "pressed".

Unless you think millions of people can be brainwashed by priests and pastors.

And it is remarkable how "Science" was born in those countries where they do not work on that date.

> it does not take into account that there have been few incentives to remain a Cristian and people have, despite not being "pressed".

Yeah, cult followers, once brainwashed are typically very resistant. Besides social pressure to be Christian is often massive, especially the USA.

> Unless you think millions of people can be brainwashed by priests and pastors.

You seriously believe they can't? Hey, wanna buy a bridge?

> And it is remarkable how "Science" was born in those countries where they do not work on that date.

Yeah, it was born despite religion, when people stopped believing everything the priests and pastors told them and started thinking for themselves.

> it was born despite religion

I was born out of metaphysics, which, at that time, was primarily a spiritual and esoteric religious pursuit.

I think you mean "it was born despite exoteric religion".



Millions were killed and forced to convert by christian fanatics during the Crusades, the Inquisition and the "Ages of Discovery". I am Portuguese and find it appalling what was done in the name of Religion back then.

I encourage anyone interested in cults to watch the documentary film "Kumare" which is available on Netflix and Itunes [1].

It's the story of a film maker of Indian origin who creates a cult persona and gains followers in the Phoenix area. It's really fascinating to see what kinds of people fall for it and how they are increasingly more drawn to him.

[1] http://www.kumaremovie.com/

Wow. There was actually a nice, sweet comedy about this exact scenario, called The Guru: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lEIEb5jPhhA

'The Guru' is a bad movie. Kumare on the other hand is much better and it is based on real life experiment to boot.

The 'print' button opens a very readable version: http://harpers.org/print/?pid=243068

there is a PDF version too.

Many years ago I had a friend who became involved with a Dahn yoga center. (No offense to yoga, I do it myself).

It started off innocently enough, but soon became (in my opinion) very obviously a cult. Not only did they make ridiculous claims and demand large amounts of money, it became all consuming, especially for his wife. My friend sometimes talked about "enlightened masters" and if that phrase doesn't ring the CULT bell I don't know what will. I became a bit concerned and suggested he stop going. He didn't listen. Soon enough, his wife was spending lots of private time with one of the instructors or officials at the local center. My friend was not concerned because according to him, that particular individual had transcended the desires of flesh and was pure in intent. At least... until his wife confessed to having sex with the guy (I'm sure this is against Dahn policy and this particular incident doesn't indite the entire "cult".... it's just the kind of danger cults bring). So, after a few "I told you sos" my friend and (reluctantly) his wife agreed to quit the Dahn center. A few months after that they joined some kind of fringe pentecostal church (what is wrong with people?). I shook my head in disgust and stopped hanging out with him. Later he and his wife divorced and he moved away and we lost contact.

I still see ads for Dahn from time to time portraying them as a harmless yoga center set up in the strip mall. In fact, some people here may respond angrily that they are NOT a cult. But based on their rhetoric they most certainly are. They may be slightly less pernicious than some cults but they are harmful, are after your money, and can cause you trouble. I have seen it first hand.

Vulnerable people are often still just as vulnerable even when you can convince them to leave one harmful, controlling influence in their lives; they will often just search out another right after.

There's a "Download PDF" button. Holy cow, my respect for Harper's, and perception of them as a serious publication, just skyrocketed.

Are any other online publishers doing that? It's not even that I'm going to print it out or anything, but clearly it shows that their priority is readership, not ad conversions.

The regular web version cuts off after hundreds of words with a "click here to subscribe to continue reading" wrapper, but the PDF has the complete article. Bizarre.

If you click on that popup though, it displays the rest of the article without forcing a subscription. Much better than the New York Times in my opinion.

>> "...my respect for Harper's, and perception of them as a serious publication, just skyrocketed."

Really? I have always thought of Harper's as first among equals in the respectable, serious-journalism cohort. I think it's the best grown-up publication available in America today.

Oh, I didn't mean that I thought they were lousy before, but now my perception is overwhelmingly positive.

clicking the "Reader" button on safari, located to the right of the URL bar gives a similar view.

"The FBI hired him because he claimed to be a Vietnam veteran, but Sullivan discovered that this was a lie — during the war Nivette had been a student at UCLA."

This baffles me and lets me question the sincerity of the article. Can this possibly be the case?

This happens all the time. There's a whole bunch of people who lead VA boards and testify in congress and things who later get discovered to have never served.

Then they move off and make up a new story and start it all over again.

Why couldn't it be? I doubt he needed an actual security clearance to do the work he was doing. The stated "FBI Clearance" probably just amounted to being given access to some confidential records regarding the people he was treating which probably aren't classified.

They hired him to be a therapist for other Vietnam vets. They likely never did a (significant) background check because they weren't hiring him for anything crucial (security wise). They were hiring him to help people who had a similar experience to his.

UCLA as an ROTC student? 'Veteran' implies in the popular mind 'served in theatre' but couldn't it also mean 'was a soldier'?

A "veteran" is a person who served in the military. A "combat veteran" is a person who served in combat while in the military.

In the US Army's case, a combat veteran would have a Combat Infantryman Badge. In the Marines, it would be a Combat Action Ribbon.

> Cult leaders and con artists are opportunists who read the times and the ever-changing culture and adapt their pitch to what will appeal at a given moment.

Multi level marketing, in particular a company called Nerium [1] is the closest thing I've seen to a cult lately.

[1]: http://www.nerium.com/

All multi level marketing companies are cultish by nature. Realities such as market saturation simply don't exist, you're just not working hard enough / recruiting hard enough.

I spent a lot of time in south Florida, where it seems everyone in non-professional careers is hustling the newest MLM. The MLM recruiters are in turn driving their recruits into workshops like Landmark Forum, which is not a cult but is certainly cult-like. It promises the participant a "breakthough" in personal or professional life, but nearly everyone who participates in Landmark is there primarily to increase their MLM recruiting fu.

this: “Forget about their philosophy,” he said. “Let’s focus instead on who is really in power.”

Although not precisely related, I always say 'follow the money' to find out why you see certain political ads, or certain magazine articles, or anything like to figure out who is really in power. Find out who benefits from people believing certain things and it will be like magically being able to understand a language you don't currently speak.

It can be used as a tool to deceive and lead you deep into conspiracy theory delusions as well, however.

Records and studies show that vaccinations have saved millions of lives? No, that's just Big Pharma propaganda to make you inject your children with expensive poison! Follow the money!

Scientific evidence shows that homeopathy doesn't work? No, again it's Big Pharma, attacking a superior competition! Follow the money!

Massive consensus among the scientific community that climate change exists, is a serious problem, and caused by burning fossil fuels? No, those scientists are just drumming up publicity to get grant money! Follow the money!

This is also true, you are correct. But when you see news stories about something, say, 'Turns out corn syrup is good for you!' showing up on the evening news, and on Access Hollywood, and on the Yahoo! front page, and on ESPN, and on Jeopardy! questions all on the same day, there's something up.

I mean, this isn't some revelation I'm offering, it's just interesting as to why ESPN and Access Hollywood, who cover completely different genres, would both suddenly have a corn syrup story on their radar.

As for Big Pharma, I did used to wonder why prescription drugs were advertised on television...I mean, patients don't pick and choose their brands, their doctors do, right?

Until it hit me that often pharmaceutical companies find/discover drugs that don't automatically have a market. But if they advertise that new 'sleep disorder/re-order' drug, then people will think, 'Hey, maybe I need that' and start asking their doctor.

My doctor told me that people walk in all the time and ask if they should be taking some new drug they just heard of, and his reaction is 'why? you never had a problem with what this drug is describing before.' There are legitimate cases, but tv ads driving people to buy meds they might not even need is a real thing.

>I mean, patients don't pick and choose their brands, their doctors do, right?

Oftentimes, there's a choice between brand-name and generics, as well as different medications treating the same illness/disorder/symptom. In these cases, advertising would certainly have an effect. Or, maybe the ads serve as the push to convince people to take the step from OTC meds to prescription meds.

Believing in reptilian illuminati or the AH1N1 pandemia, both are delusions... one invented by internet freakos and the other invented by big pharma and mass media.

Yes, because we've never seen massive casualties as the result of a flu virus. Oh, wait...

Worrying about what influenza viruses are doing is not in any way shape or form similar to worrying about reptilian illuminati.

Anything that questions mainstream media version of the truth is automatically labeled as conspiracy theory delusion and hence put in the same category as believing in reptilian illuminati . How is this different to cult brainwash mechanics? (to ridicule a view other than the cult-accepted view).

The sirya crisis is a perfect example: a few years ago the shariah law al'qaeda guys were the movie villains: religious fanatics that stone women to death and bomb our free countries, the media now portrays them as rebel democratic heroes because they oppose the siryan government, we almost send them an aircraft carrier as military support. If you don't see the contradiction and obvious attempt to manipulate your opinion to support an agenda, then (downvote me to zero karma if you want) you are a well educated fool.

The deciding factor as to whether not something is a conspiracy theory delusion is not whether or not the mainstream media agrees. It's whether the conspiracy theory has any facts to support it. Deadly influenza viruses = lots of evidence = not a conspiracy. Reptilian illuminati = no -evidence = conspiracy. You may notice that this schema does not even reference the existence of MSM...

Sadly, David Sullivan, the subject of the article, died of chronic lymphoma just around the time it was published.



And even so, they resort to mass suicide only when they come under threat and have no other way out. Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate, for instance, had a terminal illness.

I'm unaware of Marshall Applewhite having a terminal illness when he convinced 38 of his followers to commit suicide.

He feared he might have cancer but an autopsy revealed he didn't have it, and I'm unaware of any evidence that says that was a motivating factor in the suicides.


Medical examiners determined that his fears of cancer had been unfounded, but that he suffered from coronary atherosclerosis.

Most people his age (65) suffer from coronary atherosclerosis and it's not considered a "terminal illness" like pancreatic cancer would be.


After age 40, about 50% of men and one-third of women can expect to eventually have coronary artery disease.

So here is a question :

What is the difference between a cult and an established religion ?

Is it the size of the following ?

Is it the time of origin, i.e. recent vs long ago ?

Is it the number of followers ?

Or is it some combination of the above, or something else altogether ?


A "cult" is a disparaging term for a religion that someone other than yourself belongs to. YOUR belief group on the other hand is obviously not a cult, but a religion.

(Actually I guess it might be size, but in common vernacular I think the above is actually often the case).

That's certainly not the only or even the most common usage of the word.

For example, most educated Catholics don't consider the Anglican church or mainstream Judaism or Islam as cults. On the other hand, many Catholics would consider Jehova's Witness and some pentecostal churches as cults, even though at some level Catholicism's doctrines share more bullet points with these organizations than with Judaism or Islam.

There are a number of uses of "cult" (both the disparaging term you use for a group, the neutral use "pattern of devotional practice" which refers to a set of actions rather than an organization, and various objective criteria for organizations)

Size usually isn't a criterion in the definitions used for groups, whether the disparaging ones or the more objective ones (e.g., in the approach used in Marc Galanters Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion.)

Cults have another attribute: a mechanism for addicting members and keeping them, usually through psychological means.

So, Catholicism's / baptists / etc. hell, the Jehovah's Witnesses everlasting destruction, Mormon / Jehovah's Witness / Amish excommunication... ad nauseum.

Those are really passive techniques. Cults have active, planned techniques of mind control. Try this: http://www.scribd.com/doc/514598/How-Cults-Seduce

I was a Jehovah's Witness and since leaving three years ago I have been struggling to differentiate between cult tactics and the control tactics of that particular religion.

JW tactics are definitely taken from the cult playbook.

Its literally every one of the the large religions.

Any group that exists more than briefly has a mechanism for drawing and keeping members that, necessarily, operates "through psychological means".

Good question. According to webster, it has to be 'relatively small' to be a cult. From the article, it seems that the cults have a higher relative level of exploitation. My guess is that there is a continuum that runs between the two.

Edit: My guess substantiated by wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult

ok, so that implies that all religions were once cults , no ?

So in effect, there is no fundamental difference.

I don't think it's any of the things you listed.

I think the biggest difference is that cults (as the article mentions) generally are run by people who don't actually believe in what they teach. That does occasionally happen in established religion, but it is not common.

The other thing about cults is that they are mainly about the personal gain of the leaders, while at the same time requiring members to devote much or all of their money to the cult continue to be a member. This is unlike most established religion, which is generally giving is always optional and often more transparent (all of the religious organisations I work with supply full budgets to all the members). Sadly, of course, there are exceptions here too (but those exceptions often are heading towards cultishness).

I think it really is size, time established, etc.

This sounds impure, but actually as I think about it it's quite scientific: does it lead to mass suicide? Can respectable people hold such beliefs while continuing the behaviors that made them respectable? Is the cult/religion "fit" in the evolutionary sense? By their fruits shall ye know them, it seems.

A cult is usually about a single charismatic leader. Religions don't really have this - Catholicism has the pope, I guess, but he's not the glory boy of the religion.

Religions are just cults that survived deaths of their gurus.

Tasty. Too bad people like him don't practice deprogramming us from greater evils than two-bit cults - for example, communism, capitalism, patriotism, orderism.

Each of these isms also demand suspension of thought and beliefs in either magic or the greater wisdom of authority figures.

Look, when a Fox News journalist says he needs to be with his family at the mall on Christmas eve to "create capitalism" I get a little worried. And sure, there are lots of cults built on these ideologies. But the ideologies themselves are not cults.

believing in some magic "invisible hand of the market" to always bring the best results sounds kind of cultish.

Just a question for those of you here who've been around the block a few times; have you ever run across a company that acted like a cult? That espoused a messianic vision? That fostered an aura of infallibility around its leaders?

Just kidding. Apple, Google, Oracle and other tech companies are nothing like a cult. Not at all. In no way. It was rude of me to even suggest that might be a shadow of a possibility.

This guy should help people who listened to the charlatans and then bought Bitcoins and Bitcoin ASICs.

I want someone to save me from the people who want to save me from myself.

fyi paywall

Click the PDF link.

+1 for using "to-the-tits" as a modifier of degree.

This ends at a climatic moment prompting you to spend 40$ to continue reading. Fuck everything about this dishonest baiting. It's a shame because I enjoyed reading this up to that point.

Don't waste your time with this cliffhanger.

I was invited to support the publication, or click a button to continue reading. Clicking 'continue reading' revealed the rest of the article with no further prompts.

Worked for me as well.

Oops! The texts were overlaid on top of each other for me and hard to decipher. I assumed the worst while I should have had trust. Thanks for the correction!

Just disable Javascript, works perfectly.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact