“Mom, how come that guy’s poster says God hates me?”
I unbuckle the toddlers for Mass while my oldest children jump from the van and stare at the neon-colored signs. Once a month the Westboro Baptist’s hate campaign targets our parish and I spend the last minutes of the Sunday-scramble assuring our toddlers that God loves them while my husband distracts the pre-teens from a woman wearing a shredded, filthy U.S. flag.
After Mass the signs are gone and the kids talk doughnuts, but it’s hard to forget the other children, those who spent their morning happily singing about our death. Unlike my son and the people of Topeka who find Westboro followers incomprehensible, I don’t need to ask, “Why do they do that?” I know. As a former member of a cultic organization, I inhabited the same Gnostic universe and remember exactly what it felt like to stand in opposition to society, thinking my group alone held the key to salvation, that we had the blueprint for Utopia and the mandate to transform the world. Different messages are scrawled on the signs, but all cult members share the same mental mechanism, a way of thinking that holds them in a true prison.
In part 1 of this series, “Cults: The Mind Enslaved,” I defined the essence of cult membership as a replacement of normal thought processes with blind adherence to an irrational doctrine revealed through controlling leaders. Most cult analysis begins with a taxonomic classification based on exterior characteristics. Warning signs and red flags circumscribe the domain of manipulative organization. This approach is limited because invasive groups can be deemed safe if they appear normal or lack the stereotypical, pop-culture features usually associated with cults.
Organizations such as Scientology, Jim Jones’s People’s Temple, or fundamentalist Mormonism have rigid behavioral structures that render individuation practically impossible. Many true cults lack such a physical control over members. In more fluid cults, members might pick and choose which aspects of dogma or behavior they will actually implement, giving them a sense of complete freedom. To accurately evaluate the cultic nature of a group, we must see if the organization facilitates the development of the Gnostic mental process in members who actually implement the ideology.
“The Mind Enslaved” summarized that human beings gain knowledge through sensory information from which we derive general principles upon which we base meaning and behavior. We also learn from adults and peers who share their acquired wisdom. The cultic mind bypasses reliance upon the senses and logical analysis. Instead, members accept the worldview — theology or philosophy — and code of normative behavior presented by cult leaders, even when all these fly in the face of evidence and reason.