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Examining the Conscious Choice of Joining a Cult

09/26/2013 10:32 pm ET | Updated Nov 27, 2013

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Simplistic, "one size fits all" misconceptions about cults are not adequate explanations. From the widely held falsehood that people actively seek to join a 'cult' (since the label 'cult' is now a derogatory term, no organization identifies itself as a 'cult') to the erroneous assumption that people who do join are young, naïve, misfits searching for a hole in which to hide (members range in age, education level, and socio-economic class), there is a lack of factual information regarding both how one joins and who joins. The recent TEDTalk attempting to simplistically and succinctly explain the behaviors and actions of followers, assigning 'viral memetic infection,' -- a cultural group think that could be spread like a communicable disease between members -- seems another example of trumped up misinformation. Until there is scientific evidence proving the cringe-worthy concept of brainwashing, that cult members' brains are rewired by their shared belief system in a manner that can be experimentally tested, this appears as yet another erroneous theory. The "viral memetic infection' analogy considers cult members almost like innocent victims of a virulent flu. Let's purge the ubiquitous incorrect understanding of the cult member as a passive victim.

The truth is cults would not exist without active members daily affirming and consciously choosing how to live.

It is easier to explain away the behavior -- be it polygamy or celibacy, communal compounds or monastic huts -- as the members having caught an infectious bug. -- Jayanti Tamm

It's simpler to assume that cult members exist in a realm without choice, but that's only because to those on the outside, so much of what constitutes the lifestyle appears distasteful and abnormal. It is easier to explain away the behavior -- be it polygamy or celibacy, communal compounds or monastic huts -- as the members having caught an infectious bug. The truth is that cults are organizations founded by charismatic leaders who offer a visionary point of view, a belief system in which people choose to engage.

Choice is a word rarely used when discussing cults, but the fact remains that with the exception of people who were born into cults (such as myself) or raised in cults from a young age, it is not a sleep-walk into submission. People choose it. People elect to believe in the vision and in the alluring powers of its leaders. Are they victims? Only those on the outside and ex-members view them that way. To the devout, the concept that they are 'victims' is a direct insult. How can they be victims when they have chosen their path?

The act of belief is a choice, and with it comes a unique thrill of stretching belief, expanding its reach, challenging oneself to offer more and more until, from one perspective, it appears the people have lost themselves. However, that is false. Belief at its most extreme state is still a choice. Surrendering oneself to one's beliefs is a willful act.

To the outsider who holds fast to a spectrum of beliefs considered culturally mainstream, it may be difficult to comprehend how one may renounce the 'normal' for the abnormal. Within the confines of the organization, the sooner one wholly embraces the philosophy and enthusiastically engages in its practices, the greater the welcome. Commitment to the vision through demonstrated sacrifice announces membership and seals community. There is a thrill attached to being welcomed, to being permitted access to what is understood to be the greatest shared secret -- they possess the answer to that which all of the poor, ignorant masses lack. That is empowering and invigorating. It creates an awakened sense that they are special.

To those on the outside, the risks, of course, for being a member may appear grave -- the relinquishment of family, careers, wealth -- but for the insiders, the rewards promised are transcendent. And for many, the rewards, as they daily perceive them, are happily and consciously worth it.

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