A few years ago, I wrote a paper for the cultic conference on the apparent ease with which individuals could be switched into atypical thinking and acting after an apparent ‘conversion’ experience. This conversion may have little to do with anything religious. It can be said to occur in any situation when an individual opts suddenly to see and experience the world in a new way. ‘Conversion’ is a massive topic and I do not propose to say much on this occasion. In itself it may be good or bad, depending what one is converted to. The effect on the people around suggests that they normally see the results of this change. When they believe the effects to be in some way negative they are likely to describe the sudden change as a kind of ‘brainwashing’. It is as though some sort of internal trigger has been pulled. There is a dramatic shift; a start of a new pattern of thinking has come into being within the affected person.
Needless to say, this kind of sudden change to a political or religious cult was being discussed by the attendees at our gathering in Bordeaux. Many had experienced such a dramatic change themselves or seen it in a close relative. Those who spoke about this change either in conversation or in one of the presentations were clear on one point. The mind that has at some point surrendered to a new ideology does not easily subsequently ‘snap out of it’. Even after an escape from the coercive group for whatever reason, the tramlines and habits of cult thinking remain. There is no spring mechanism that rapidly brings the mind back to an old position of easy relaxed communication with relatives and former friends. The cult ways of thinking and understanding go very deep and full release will come only after a number of years, if ever.
In my paper that I presented three years ago I referred to a famous social psychological experiment when twenty or so students were paid to act out a role play. Some were required to be prisoners and others to be prison guards. The experiment turned into something horrifyingly realistic as all the students took to their roles with a degree of terrifying intensity. After six days the experiment was terminated when the girl friend of the experimenter, Philip Zimbardo, could see that the whole experiment was descending into a kind of madness of cruelty and abject suffering.
The Stanford Prison Experiment has provoked much discussion since it was done. Ethical considerations would make it impossible to repeat the experiment so we have to rely on the reports that have been handed down to us. The experiment was done in a cellar, so all the participants were unable to ‘touch base’ with their normal lives. The role-play became their only reality for six days. Human beings, even well-adjusted ones, easily adapt their understanding of what is going on around them to be the norm that is to be followed. In one presentation I heard, the point was forcibly made that isolation from the past or from daily normality quickly affects an individual. The case of Patty Hearst, the heiress who became a bank robber after being kidnapped, was also raised. One way of reading her story is to say that she was simply adapting to her environment as a way of surviving. In her case she was eventually able to re-enter her old life of upper middle-class privilege after a spell in prison.
All the cults and indeed the more extreme religious groups that we study are successful at the task of isolating people from their pasts – family, friends etc. Most people, when they are cut off from old sources of information, quickly start to trust the new information that is on offer. The brain craves consistency and if one is hearing a consistent repeated message there may be less resistance to receiving it than we might think. One of the new facts of twenty first century society is to discover how much the press interacts with many people’s thinking. I am tempted to suggest that in some cases, certain newspapers are creating quasi-political cults in the way that they bombard their readers with slanted and biased information. Both the left-wing and the right-wing newspapers are guilty of this. Perhaps a good test of whether we are being brain-washed by a particular newspaper is to ask ourselves how much we find ourselves questioning the editorial slant. Do we rather fall into the trap of being the kind of reader that wants to see in print all our prejudices set out?
The final more serious point is the one that suggests that brains and opinions are easily manipulated – more than we would like to admit. It is then hardly surprising that extreme religious groups, who may work with a largely vulnerable clientele, are able to shift the thinking and emotions of their audience. That may be far from contributing to their benefit. How do we find a wholesome life-enhancing version of the Good News? So often the presentation from coercive cults and religious groups is thoroughly Bad News. It seems to contain the message that no one is ‘saved’ unless they constantly wallow in guilt and fear. At the same time they have to surrender their ability to enjoy life to follow a narrow legalistic set of moral instructions. Cult and some charismatic leaders have a vested interest in controlling the lives of their followers so that it cannot easily ever be good news. My hope in the fact that it is possible to read the account of Jesus in a way that does make it good news for all of us. I shall keep on explaining this and try to wean my readers away from what they may have had throughout their lives – a message of fear and damnation.
Written on the Kings Cross to Newcastle train. Apologies for any grammatical errors