Scientology and Other Unusual Belief Systems: Dispelling the Myths about Who Gets Involved
On Ronald Federici’s web page he recently erected about me that I commented on previously, a large part of the page on me is taken up with letting people know about my past experience in Scientology. Since I have already been very public about my experience, this is hardly a revelation and what he did not mention is that I left Scientology in 1976, 35 years ago. For those who are old enough to remember the 1970s, what were you doing back then?
The implication (unstated premise) appears to be that the fact that I would get involved with such a strange belief system at all, means that I am someone who is marked for life, damaged goods and can never be a credible source, no matter what I achieve after that, even though I do have the support and endorsement of a number of people in the mental health community who do not in any way consider my past an impediment. I received tremendous support from a number of people in the scientific mental health community who have been following the public records on recent (now dismissed by a Federal judge) legal ordeal (since this was a Federal case, public records are available via PACER). A number of people have also offered me support and comfort regarding the ongoing 2-year internet smear campaign by anonymous individuals who, while too cowardly to put their name to what they post, seem to be unhappy with my criticism of certain therapies and I thank each and every person who has supported me.
Nevertheless, common experience I have had is if I get into a debate or disagreement with someone who for whatever reasons does not wish to refute me or has no rebuttal to what I am saying, they pull out an attack on me for my long-ago past experience in Scientology, the lazy way to attempt to discredit me rather than face me and address the issues I raise. In the case of Dr. Federici, I raised a number of criticisms, points and questions about the intervention he has promoted in his self-published book and media appearances. Click here for a summary.
What the actual evidence about people who get involved with cults and other strange belief systems shows is that the common stereotypes simply are not the case. Here are some myths about people who get involved in cults and other belief systems the average person would consider strange, that I have written about previously.
One of the most easily refutable is that such people are mentally unstable. Numerous studies have shown that this simply is not the case. The vast majority of people who get pulled into such groups are perfectly normal, in terms of mental health. Cultic groups appeal to such normal people for a variety of reasons, that can vary, according to the individual, among them:
1. A normal, healthy desire for a sense of community with people who share what are perceived as common values. Cults do not expose their odd, eccentric belief systems to new recruits. They appeal to ordinary values that many people have, such as the desire to make a difference in the world and healthy personal growth. By the time the person learns about the strange belief system (for me, it was over 2 years after I first became involved), they have come under undue influence and reached a point, usually by a gradual series of steps (in Scientology this is called a gradient) to accept belief systems they would not had accepted, had they been exposed to it from the very beginning.
2. A number of ex-cultists reported to researchers that they were approached during a time of crisis or transition in their lives, not mental illness, but rather, the sorts of crises that all or most human beings go through, such as the death of a loved one, breakup of a romantic relationship, loss of a job, being away from home during first year of college, recent graduation and trying to find oneself, etc.
3. Some people do have specific problems that they are looking for solutions for. However, again, research such as the Harvard psychologist Richard J. McNally’s research, examined people who believed they were abducted by UFOs and compared them to people in the general population who had no such beliefs. Dr. McNally’s research has shown that the percentage of people having diagnosable disorders is quite low among people who believed they had been abducted by aliens and in fact, was no higher (not statistically significantly different) than the percentage of people with diagnosable disorders in the general population comparison group who have no such beliefs.
4. People who get involved in cults may be more susceptible to hypnosis and suggestion. However, studies on susceptibility to hypnosis have shown time and time again that there is no relationship between such susceptibility and mental instability or any kind of dysfunction, nor is there any relationship to intelligence. Such people do tend to score higher on a personality trait called “Absorption” which means that they tend to get deeply absorbed in what they are doing to the point where they can temporarily block out what is going on, in the present. This, however is not a mental illness. Far from it. Many highly creative people with no mental disorders can score highly on “absorption”. Here is an scale that measures this trait, which is highly correlated with the “big 5” personality trait, openness to experience. Again, the “big 5” measures personality differences, not psychopathology. I happen to score very high on openness to experience and this is one trait I have that makes me very open to exploring novel approaches although recently I have learned to do so critically.
5. There is no relationship between people who get involved in cults and intelligence. Again, studies have shown time and time again, that many people who get involved are intelligent people, quite a few with college or even graduate degrees.
Yet, due to false stereotypes about ex-cultists and cultists, there is still tremendous stigma attached to having had an experience with one of those groups, even if the person managed to defy the authoritarian group and walk out on their own as I did nearly 35 years ago with Scientology. This stigma is based on ignorance and not supported by research, but that does not stop many people from having knee-jerk responses when they hear that someone has been in such a group.
Still, I hope that people will stop and think about this and question these stereotypes, next time you hear that someone has been involved with one of these groups and you feel tempted to jump to conclusions about that individual.
The tactics of my detractors is to dredge this past experience up and then associate it with my present activities that have involved exposing abusive therapies. Ironically, this is the same tactic that Scientologists use. If someone criticizes them publicly, they go into the past of the individual and dredge up anything they can find that would make the individual look bad. What they will not do is address the issues the critics are raising, which is also the case with the proponents of the therapies I have been criticizing. I suppose it’s much easier for them to throw around buzzwords like “cult”, “Scientology”, “crank”, “kook”, etc., than to actually address the issues at hand. Instead, these distractions are created.
I only ask that when people see these distractions from the topic at hand for what they are.