The cults edition

Last week, I heard the amazing Derek Thompson on The Gray Area podcast. The title of the episode was “Everything’s a cult now.” In the episode, Derek lays out a speculative (in a good way) yet provocative theory that everything is becoming a bit cult-like.

By “cults,” Derek doesn’t mean religious and doomsday cults like Peoples Temple or Heaven’s Gate but something far more ordinary but problematic nonetheless. Derek published the same episode on his podcast, Plain EnglishHere’s how he defines a cult in the episode’s introduction:

In an age of declining religiosity, capitalism seemed to be filling the God-shaped hole left by the demise of organized religion with companies, services, and products that were amassing a religious-like, or, you could say, cult-like, following.
And by cult, I should probably define it here.

I don’t mean something that’s bad, by the way. The book was going to be agnostic about the concept of cults. I was using the term in a very specific way. A cult, I said, is an organization that offers its adherents a radical rebellion against an illegitimate mainstream culture. 

He further elaborates on this definition in The Gray Area podcast:

I think of a cult as a nascent movement outside the mainstream that often criticizes the mainstream and organizes itself around the idea that the mainstream is bad or broken in some way. So I suppose when I think about a cult. I’m not just thinking about a small movement with a lot of people who believe something fiercely.

I’m also interested, especially in the modern idea of cults being oriented against the mainstream. That is, when they form as a criticism of what the people in that cult understand to be the mainstream. And cults, especially when we talk about them in religion, tend to be extreme, tend to be radical, tend to have really high social cost to belonging to them.

You today, especially in the media and entertainment space, have this really interesting popularity of new influencers or new media makers adapting as their core personality the idea that the mainstream is broken, that news is broken, that mass institutions are broken, that the elite are in some way broken, and elite institutions are broken.

The fragmentation of media that we’re seeing, and the rise of this sort of anti institutional, somewhat paranoid style of understanding reality, I see these things as rising together in a way that I find very interesting.

I loved the episode and spent the week digging a little into cults, so I figured I’d share a few things I learned.

For a term we throw around often, there is no accepted definition of the word “cult.” The word comes from the Latin word “cultus,” which means to take care of something or cultivate. It also meant cultivating favor with the gods. In French, “culte,”  which again comes from the Latin word “cultus,” means worship. People also used the word to describe non-mainstream religions or faiths. However, over time, it acquired a negative connotation.

Cult is a term which, as we value exactness, we can ill do without, seeing how completely religion has lost its original signification. [Fitzedward Hall, “Modern English,” 1873]

Cult. An organized group of people, religious or not, with whom you disagree. [Hugh Rawson, “Wicked Words,” 1993] — Etymoline

Today, the most common definitions of the term involve these elements:

  1. A central and God-like figure who dominates and commands total obedience from followers.
  2. Indoctrinate and subordinate people through various rituals to change their thought patterns.
  3. Exploit people physically, emotionally, sexually, or financially.
  4. Demanding leaders who require total submission to the cause at the expense of personal lives and social identities.
  5. Instill an “us versus them” mentality in followers. Cult leaders convince their followers that they have all the answers and that they are the only ones who can protect them from the evil people in the world.

But Amanda Montell, the author of Cultishsays that there’s no accepted definition and that most experts don’t use the term anymore. She says cults do include elements such as leaders, us vs. them mentality, supernatural beliefs, coercion, and conditioning, but the definition is hard to pin down. In her experience, the definition has become much “hazier” and “nebulous” over time.

Cults, generally speaking, are a lot like pornography: you know them when you see them.

Of course, the uncomfortable truth here is that even true church (large, established, tradition-claiming church) and cult aren’t so far apart – at least when it comes to counting up red flags. The presence of a charismatic leader? What was John Calvin? (Heck, what was Jesus Christ?) A tradition of secrecy around specialised texts or practices divulged only to select initiates?

Just look at the practitioners of the Eleusinian mysteries in Ancient Greece, or contemporary mystics in a variety of spiritual traditions, from the Jewish Kabbalah to the Vajrayāna Buddhist tradition. Isolated living on a compound? Consider contemporary convents or monasteries. A financial obligation? Christianity, Judaism and Islam all promote regular tithing back into the religious community. A toxic relationship of abuse between spiritual leaders and their flock? The instances are too numerous and obvious to list. — What is a cult? (archive)

You are probably in a cult

After reading and listening to cult experts, I believe that cults exist on a spectrum—some benign, some suicidal. In fact, many things in our lives have cultish elements. You don’t need charismatic leaders, isolated compounds, suicide pacts, or sexual orgies to be in a cult. If we look closely at our groups, relationships, politics, beliefs, the companies we work for, and the products and services we use, we may very well be part of some benign cults.

In the world of finance, which I am most familiar with, there are plenty of culty things—chief among them the cult of Warren Buffet. People describe going to the annual shareholder’s meeting in Omaha as a “pilgrimage.” Even the classical value investors resemble a cult. Value investors have an almost dogmatic belief in the superiority of value investing and consider all other investing styles to be inferior. That’s culty.

Then there’s technical analysis. Up until about 5 years ago, before a new generation entered the markets, technical analysis had a small but rabid following, but it’s become less popular now. Grown men have an unwavering belief that by drawing magical lines on a chart, they can predict price movements. Technical analysts have an almost religious belief in its efficacy and sneer at people who don’t get it.

Of late, snake oil salesmen who peddle get-rich schemes in the market have garnered cult followers. Regardless of the centuries of evidence that making money quickly in the markets is hard, fraudsters who peddle these schemes have never been more popular. Thanks to greed, they keep attracting newer suckers even as older ones lose money and grow disillusioned. The most culty aspect is that followers defend snake oil salesmen on social media with the same fervor as religious fundamentalists and terrorists.

Then there’s crypto, the cultiest of all finance cults. The faith of a small group’s belief that fiat currencies will lose their value, traditional financial institutions will collapse, and that purchasing Bitcoin is the only way to safeguard oneself against this eventuality is truly remarkable. And of course, crypto has its own share of messiah-like pied pipers to attract and shepherd true believers. I’m saying all of this without passing any value judgments about whether crypto is good or bad.

Derek Thompson: So, this definition of cults—my definition of cults—has two parts. One, it’s a set of internal rules, some of which might be a little bit extreme or socially costly for the people who follow them. And second, it’s a set of external critiques.

Like, if you really liked the latest Dune movie and you enjoyed reading reviews about it, that’s not a cult, right? There are no rules, there’s nothing exclusionary. You can watch Blade Runner the next day and be just as obsessed with that.

But if you spend $10,000 on esoteric cryptocurrencies, and you speak to fellow travelers in this space with crypto vocabulary that makes outsiders confused, and you do all of this because you subscribe to a theory that the mainstream US financial system is going to collapse, then yeah, I think for better or worse, you are participating in something that follows the contours of what has historically been considered a cult, a costly, literally in this case, costly rebellion against the mainstream. — Plain English

Cults are a continuum—some more culty than others. Some are okay, and some are horrible. Sometimes, even if something feels like a cult, it’s not necessarily bad if people stick with it, as long as there’s no financial or emotional harm. The trick is to be cognizant of it.

Amanda Montell: I was concerned when I set out to write this book that becoming so hyper-aware of how ‘cultish’ manifests in the way that I speak and the way that others speak would turn me into a cynical misanthrope. You know, by contrast, it actually made me appreciate our inherent communalism and dreaminess as a species even more. It made me want to teeter up closer to that very blurry line. I talk about it differently, and we’re talking about it in a way that can seem really paranoid. Nobody’s saying, but genuinely, my message is not necessarily to defect from any group or behavior that could be considered cultish.

It’s more about leaning into critical thinking and always having that skeptical twinkle in your eye that suggests there’s always some amount of make-believe here and our identities are more complex than any one given group, guru, or glossary. So maybe the answer is to become a member of multiple different cults.

From Apple products to yoga, therapy, fitness, and self-help groups, we are all part of one cult or another. Again, “cult” doesn’t always have to be pejorative.

Amanda Montell: I mean, how lonely would life be if we had to completely defect from everything considered a little bit cultish?

We crave cults

We’re social animals, and love, community, friendship, meaning, and purpose are at the heart of what it means to be human. Without all these things, we are a bit like a kite with its string cut off, vulnerable to being caught by anyone and being made whole again.

We also crave meaning; except for those weird French existentialists, most of us can’t accept the fact that life is meaningless and there’s no grand purpose to everything. Cults take advantage of these tendencies. They prey on people who are vulnerable, lost, or facing a crisis. They offer answers to whatever it is that people are seeking.

Further, individuals who are particularly distressed prior to joining—such as those experiencing economic, social, and/or psychological stresses—are particularly more likely to experience a significant sense of relief upon joining a cult. Meanwhile, growth in cult membership helps to reinforce the merit of the group’s ideology and validate the group’s existence. — Cults, Charismatic Groups, and Social Systems: Understanding the Transformation of Terrorist Recruits (archive)

Most people assume that people in cults are brainwashed, but Amanda Montell disagrees:

Amanda Montell: Think about brainwashing not as a process where a cult leader completely wipes someone’s brain clean. Instead, it’s more about coaxing individuals to gradually accept more and more radical versions of ideas they’re already open to. You can’t convince someone to believe something they don’t have any inclination towards at all.

Even if you grow up in a cult and their language is all you know, if you possess an inherent skepticism or a tendency to question, you can resist those beliefs. For instance, I interviewed individuals who were born into cults like the Children of God. Despite being surrounded by euphemisms, loaded language, ‘us vs. them’ labels, and thought-terminating clichés designed to shut down dissent, they always had an inkling that something was wrong. They could feel it in their bones, even without having the language to articulate it. — The Fanatic Language Of Cults w/ Amanda Montell

That cults appeal to whatever is missing in us makes sense. Cults appeal to the things that make us vulnerable, like our emotions, lack of purpose, sense of justice, meaning, and connection.

One time-tested tool cult recruiters use to connect with potential recruits is to lovebomb them. It’s a technique in which the recruiter showers a potential recruit with a great deal of care, affection, and attention in order to gain trust.

They are good at using language that triggers charged responses and makes it seem like they can fill whatever deep hole we have (archive) in all of us.

In and of itself, the urge to quiet internal demons is not a negative trait. I’d argue that, to the contrary, it’s an effective adaptation that allows us to cope with the stressors, big and small, that bombard us on a regular basis.

However, cult leaders meet this need by making promises that are virtually unattainable – and not typically found anywhere else in society. This, according Pedersen, could include “complete financial security, constant peace of mind, perfect health, and eternal life.”

Here’s Steve Hassan, a former member of a cult and now an expert on all things cults:

You’ve heard of MKUltra, the CIA research into mind control. The Russians were doing it too; there was a Cold War run-up. I was MKUltra 3.0. I would have died on command, killed on command, and thank God my family rescued me. So, I’m here to tell you about the dual identity that occurs. There was Steve Hassan of Flushing, Queens, and then there was Steve Hassan, the son of Moon and his wife, the true parents of the universe.

I loved this conversation because Steve shared in great detail how he got recruited into a cult. He also talks about how he was trained to resist external information that he was in a cult and how he rationalized being in a cult.

Steve Hassan: Yes, but it can be an ideological authority. It doesn’t have to be a human being or a living human being. That’s where I disagree with some of my colleagues who think you need to have an actual guru. I don’t think so at all. But these four overlapping factors, which I refer to as the BITE model, the more of these you can tick off behaviorally—like controlling sleep, controlling diet, changing your name, rigid rules, and regulations—the clearer it becomes.

There’s a whole list, and it’s on my website, It’s also in my books—a whole list of behavior control variables, information, thought, and emotional control variables. But where it gets really bad, in my opinion, is where they create a new identity that’s dependent on and obedient to the group.

A new identity that’s dependent and obedient. In other words, it has an external locus of control. Whereas the real person, the adult, thinks for themselves, and their locus of control is internal. Instead of asking, ‘Tell me what God wants for me,’ or ‘You have a direct revelation from God, so therefore I must suppress my conscience, my common sense, and my critical thinking.

Cults use everything from sleep deprivation, isolation, threats, rewards, and repetition to break down our mental barriers, destroy whatever sense of coherent identity we have, and create a new one. They systematically isolate us from anything that can cause a rupture in our new subservient identity, creating a sense of powerlessness and a powerful dependency.

Words are the most powerful tool cult leaders use. Their sweet nothings flow down the cracks we have in our psyche—our fears, hopes, dreams, and insecurities—and fill those cracks. In time, even the stable reality of violence and dominance becomes preferable to the pain of having to leave, face the outside world, and remake oneself. Inertia is a dangerous thing. Insanity + time = normality.

We are all susceptible to cults

If someone asked people to guess the type of person who’s most likely to join a cult, most people would guess someone who’s not that smart or physically or mentally ill. That would have been my guess, too.

Well, that might be true, but what surprised me is that even the smartest and most accomplished people are just as likely to join a cult (archive).

Many people have a hard time believing that bright, talented people—often from good homes and with higher education— could fall under the control of a cult. What they fail to realize is that cults intentionally recruit “valuable” people—they go after those who are intelligent, caring, and motivated. Most cults do not want to be burdened by unintelligent people with serious emotional or physical problems. They want members who will work hard with little or no sleep. Most of the former cult members I have met are exceptionally bright and educated. They have an active imagination and a creative mind. They have a capacity to focus their attention and enter deep states of concentration. Most are idealistic and socially conscious. They want to make the most of themselves—and to make a positive contribution to the world.

Here’s Marion Goldman, who studied the Rajneesh movement:

The devotees belied popular stereotypes of passive, easily manipulated spiritual seekers. Two-thirds of Rajneeshpuram’s residents had four-year college degrees and/or had previously pursued lucrative career paths.

These women and men talked with me about their experiences and life histories. Most men, for example, felt that they had personal relationships with their guru, even when they had never met him. They also emphasized how Rajneesh helped them access their hidden intellectual and emotional strength

It kinda makes sense when you think about it. Cults want smart and idealistic people that can stick around and contribute; why would they choose weaklings?

There’s also a status angle to cults. Here’s Will Storr, whose work I had written in a previous post (archive):

They really believe what they’re saying is true, and I think that was true in cults. You wouldn’t go to that extent. People often say, ‘Oh, well, they get money. They get sex with lots of people.’ Yes, they get those benefits. I’m dubious of this idea that most cult leaders are crooks in the sense that they deliberately come up with this mad scheme in order to entrap people.

To answer your question about what kinds of people, the argument they’re making in this status game is that they are the kind of people who have failed at the games of ordinary life. So, in the words of psychologist Robert Hogan, humans want to get along and get ahead; we are tribal animals. That’s what we want to do. We want to join tribes and thrive in them. We want connection and status.

And that’s what we’re trying to do when we play the games of life, whether it’s religion, our careers, a hobby, or when we’re on social media as part of some group swapping studies. We want to connect with other people and gain status in their eyes. The kinds of individuals who are vulnerable to joining cults are the ones who have failed repeatedly at the games of ordinary life. Cults offer a very specific set of rules, precise.

In Heaven’s Gate, for example, they had huge rule books detailing exactly what you had to do—how you took scrambled eggs, exactly what time you took your vitamins, how much toothpaste you could use on your toothbrush, how deep your bath was, and even where you could fart. If you follow this set of rules precisely, we will reward you with connection and also status.

That’s the other thing cults offer—huge amounts of connection. As you follow the rules, you become part of a loyal family for life. That’s the promise, anyway. And cults offer incredible status. If you join a cult, it’s like a really tight religion. For example, if you joined the Heaven’s Gate cult, they promised you were going to enter what they called the ‘evolutionary level above human.’ You would literally be swept off in a UFO to somewhere better, like a version of heaven. So, a cult is just a very tight human group.

Why do cults spring up?

One reason is uncertainty, tumult, or some other form of upheaval. Whenever there’s widespread uncertainty, discontent, malaise, or a feeling that things aren’t working, people are hardwired to seek certainty and meaning. Cults thrive in such times because they offer a false sense of certainty and security, promising all the answers.

As I’ve been writing this newsletter, I keep having the thought that people seem increasingly unmoored. It’s an idea I wish to explore in greater detail in future posts, but in short, people seem lost with no meaning or purpose in life. One factor that explains this is the decline of religion in large parts of the world.

Religion has grounded human existence since time immemorial, but it no longer does. People are desperately looking for something to replace religion, but there’s nothing. Smartphones have replaced the church, and a confessional is just an arms length away. This is one explanation for why weird cults, fringe beliefs, conspiracy theories, and other small groups are flourishing.

I loved Amanda’s take on this:

Jordan Harbinger: Do you think people, especially young people now, are looking more for meaning, I guess maybe spirituality, but also just meaning and not getting it through regular faith? Because you see people leave churches and things like that, but instead, maybe they like go to SoulCycle one day and they’re like, “Whoa, filling a need that I have that I didn’t maybe even know I had.”

Amanda Montell: Totally. Well, I think that meaning, purpose, ritual community, these are profoundly human drives that have existed since the earliest hominids. Like even early humans would gather with their tribes in circles and engage in group song and group dance, even though there was no adaptive or survival benefit, it just felt good. It felt profoundly human.

And I think right now is an interestingly cultish time, because our sources of meaning and connection and community are changing. So increasingly young people, in particular, are losing trust in these traditional sites of spirituality, like our churches and our synagogues that we maybe grow up in.

We’re also losing trust in larger institutions like the government, the healthcare system, but we’re still craving those things and want to fill those voids. And so we look to alternative groups.

Scholars at the Harvard Divinity School, for example, have done studies finding groups like SoulCycle and CrossFit are some of the sites that are filling this truly religious craving or spiritual craving that we continue to have. These are sort of like secular forms of religion. That sounds like an oxymoron, but I think it really can exist.

Wellness spaces, so many different spaces are serving this spiritual and community role in people’s lives and not all of them are destructive, but some of them are. And it’s really like the wild west in terms of cultish is particularly with social media.

Many other people have made a similar observation that times of uncertainty give rise to cults:

New religious movements have arisen to help humans navigate turbulent times throughout history. In Europe, many emerged during the turmoil of the Renaissance and as a backlash against institutional religions. In India, they developed out of the social turbulence caused by the transition to agriculture and later, as a response to British colonialism.

New religious movement is a word scholars use instead of cult.

Robert Wilson writes, “According to relative deprivation theory, apocalyptic religious groups are made up of people who are on the periphery of society. They lack political, religious, and social power, and have little social status. Furthermore, they know that they are on the periphery.”2 This definition certainly applies, at varying times, to Jews, Christians, Muslims, Protestants, cults, and essentially every group that has developed an apocalyptic worldview at some point. — Apocalypse Across Contexts: Reactions to Sudden, Unwanted, and Comprehensive Change (archive)

Here’s Tara Isabella Burton, who has written extensively on religion:

The very collapse of wider religious narratives – an established cultural collectivism – seems inevitably to leave space for smaller, more intense, and often more toxic groups to reconfigure those Geertzian symbols as they see fit. Cults don’t come out of nowhere; they fill a vacuum, for individuals and, as we’ve seen, for society at large. Even Christianity itself proliferated most widely as a result of a similar vacuum: the relative decline of state religious observance, and political hegemony, in the Roman Empire.

Today’s cults might be secular, or they might be theistic. But they arise from the same place of need, and from the failure of other, more ‘mainstream’ cultural institutions to fill it. If God did not exist, as Voltaire said, we would have to invent him. The same is true for cults.

Another reason for the rise of cults—both benign and dangerous—is a lack of shared reality. This is Derek Thompson’s thesis. He argues that the internet has shattered our collective sense of reality, and the shards of the reality we once shared have become mini-realities of their own.

You had technologies like the telephone and the Telegraph that allowed newspapers to share information and report on information that truly was national. It allowed information to travel much faster than it had ever traveled before. And so suddenly, in the late 19th century, we had the possibility of a national and even international, somewhat real time shared reality. And that shared reality might have come to its fullest expression maybe in the middle of the 20th century, with the rise of television technology, you had just a handful of channels that were reaching tens of millions of people.

And at the same time, you also had the rise of national newspapers, and maybe the apogee of national newspapers in terms of their ability to monopolize local advertising revenue and become just enormous machines for getting tens of millions of Americans to read about a shared reality.

And so you move from the 19th century with sort of the birth of this possibility of a shared reality, into the 20th century, where you really have the rise of a kind of monoculture, which was never really possible for the vast majority of human history.

And what I’m interested in is the possibility that the Internet has forever shattered that reality, that we are, in a way, going back to the pre 20th century, where culture is actually just a bunch of cults stacked on top of each other, a bunch of mini local realities stacked on top of each other, and that we maybe will never have anything like monoculture ever again.

Because the Internet, in a weird way, thrusts us back into the 19th century, and there’s all sorts of fascinating things that can unspool from the fact that monoculture and shared reality, as we briefly came to understand it, is dead.

In the podcast, Derek also talks about the media landscape. He talks about what it takes for influencers and new media startups to be successful. The easiest way is to keep saying that “the media” is broken, that there’s a grand conspiracy, and that they have the answer.

The result is a growing distrust of traditional media, with more people getting their news from social media, private chat groups, and other individual influencers. These fractured media diets are further leading to small, cult-like groups.

This was my favorite part of the podcast:

I remember in my conversation with various sociologists and economists and anthropologists when I was doing my cult research, is that at one point I was asking them, what would it mean to you for everything to become a little bit more cultish?

And one of them made the really interesting observation that we’ve gotten so damn good at making products with good physical attributes, at making good enough stuff, that the commercial war of the future won’t be about value or quality, it’ll be about identity. Are you the kind of person who buys this product rather than is this a product that does more for you?

This reminds me of a brilliant article by Dror Poleg titled “In Praise of Ponzis.” In the article, he writes that the old era of scarcity, in which producers manufactured something and then paid gatekeepers like TV and newspapers to manufacture demand, is over.

In the new era, algorithms are kingmakers, and brands aren’t in control of their destiny. However, he says thanks to crypto, it’s now possible for anyone to launch a token easily, pump it up, and use it to “bribe” people. Brands can entice people with these tokens to do something. The more people who sign up for this bribery, the more the token circulates and the more its price rises. As the price rises, it attracts a new set of buyers, creating a virtuous cycle of more buyers and liquidity. Welcome to the Ponzi economy!

“Harder” might not be the right word. Let me rephrase: Launching a successful product is riskier than ever and more dependent on random forces than ever. In the past, a producer could rely on their own manufacturing capacity and on relationships with powerful gatekeepers to guarantee a product’s success. It did not always work, but it often worked.

Today, producers can launch products more easily. But so can their competitors. And ultimate success depends on the behavior of large groups of people. These people cannot be coaxed or threatened. But they can be bribed.

Algorithm is the ultimate cult leader

In one of the podcasts, Amanda said something that stuck with me: “Algorithms are the ultimate cult leader.”

In a sense, we can’t even claim to be growing “less religious” when social media’s job is explicitly to generate ideological sects, to pack people’s feeds with suggested content that only exaggerates what they already believe. As each of us posts, curating our individual online identities, the apps capture those personas via metadata and reinforce them through irresistible targeted ads and custom feeds. No “cult leader” takes advantage of our psychological drives quite like The Algorithm, which thrives on sending us down rabbit holes, so we never even come across rhetoric we don’t agree with unless we actively search for it. ― Amanda Montell, Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism

It’s true. I don’t buy the argument that algorithms are leading people down weird and dangerous rabbit holes anymore. I used to believe in the naive explanation that algorithms are ruining civilization, but the more I read and listened to thoughtful people, the less this one-sided argument made sense. I mean, we are supposedly the most intelligent creatures in the known universe, and we can be tricked by a few lines of code to destroy society?

Sure, algorithms are to blame as well, but that doesn’t mean we’re blameless. We’re not docile vegetables, consuming whatever slop the algorithms feed us. We make choices by pressing buttons, so we must share most of the blame. The Amazing Gurwinder Bhogal explained this really well on the Forbidden Conversationpodcast:

Um, because what I realized when I actually began to monitor the behavior of people on search engines was that they were not actually going for the most credible information. They weren’t seeking the most highly-rated information; instead, they were opting for really low-grade clickbait, gossip, tabloid journalism, and that kind of stuff. This really opened my eyes because they completely ignored all the academic papers, all the peer-reviewed studies, all the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism, and they would go for this really low-grade stuff.

I thought to myself, hang on a second, so what does that mean? We could give people the best information in the world, but what’s the point if they’re not even interested in it, you know? That was a big blow to my worldview because I realized that the problem of misinformation and polarization wasn’t caused by tech algorithms, it wasn’t in the search algorithms, it wasn’t the recommendation algorithms. It was actually the fault of the algorithms of the human heart.

It was human beings—their desires, their evolved behaviors—that were the culprit behind it because tech algorithms are just a reflection of human desires. They just do what human beings want them to do, you know. They follow market pressures. The tech giants want to obviously be the market leaders in their field, so they calibrate their algorithms to give people what people want. And what people want is that low-grade information. They don’t want the truth; they want a kind of counterfeit of truth that justifies their own prejudices, their own beliefs.

Take a break and smell the roses

The only way to know if you are getting brainwashed is to take a break from your smartphone. Climbing Mount Everest in shorts might be easier than doing this, but I think we need this. Being constantly plugged into the matrix is not good for our brains.

Here’s Steve Hassan. One of the reasons Steve was able to leave the cult was due to an accident that isolated him from the Unification Church members, also known as Moonies. This break from them, along with some pleading and prodding from his family, helped him regain perspective.

Steve Hassan: I first want to state that deprogramming back in the 70s was forceful—like kidnapping people or luring them to a location and using security guards. One of the big things to help people get out of mind control is cutting off the constant reinforcement and indoctrination. Fast forward to 2021, this is such a big problem because of smartphones and platforms; people are constantly being reinforced.

Back then, for me, I had a cast from my toes to my groin. My other leg was all bandaged, and I was on crutches. I was lured to my sister’s house, and they took my crutches away. I had been indoctrinated to believe that Satan, which was everywhere, might try to attack me and take me away from the Messiah. This would end ten generations of my ancestors, on both my father’s and mother’s sides, who were stuck at low levels in the spirit world. They would be angry at me forever. But the whole fate of the planet was at stake as well. So, I was not cooperative at all. I didn’t have access to a phone; I couldn’t call the Moonies to check in as pre-arranged.

Most of us won’t be in death cults, but we may be in the thrall of some problematic ideas and beliefs. The fact that we have easy access to information that conforms to our priors makes this all the more problematic. Disconnecting once in a while, forces the brain to do what it was built for: to think, and this can help us regain perspective.

Try not to start a cult after reading this!

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