The True Believer

Here is a short , but deeply personal expression of Diane Benscoter describing her experience of being inside a cult.

One might easily dismiss anyone who once was in a cult, but when she admits to knowing the appeal of killing the other, of genocide, it’s worth stopping and thinking: what about me is susceptible to cults?

Because we all are.

I personally feel it in my instinctive response to defend any verbal attacks on my organization or group. I feel it when I resist questioning deeply held beliefs. I feel it when I am righteous and just and can for a moment justify any means for it. I especially feel it when I am lost or uncertain and hope for an idea to save me.

What is this “virus of the brain” as Benscoter puts it that creates a resistance to all inquiry?

Part of the answer must be in that desire to be rid of the messy and difficult work of inquiry especially about the self. One would think that in our individualistic world, the self is the most important identity we hold. In reality, our animals roots find a deeper connection with our group identity than our individual ego resulting in an all too easy tendency to give up the self for the group.

A cult in this light would seem to provide the perfect relief for the dissatisfied soul. Free from questioning, from uncertainty, from thoughts of self, the individual can become one with a noble cause. Eric Hoffer in The True Believer noted that “a mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation.”

There are other ways to give up the self besides joining a cult: drink or gamble to forget, lose yourself in a relationship, find a guru, join an institution. This is not to say that having support from a group can’t be tremendously helpful. However, if the group is leading down the path of less inquiry rather than more, the individual will be dragged in with it.

Benscoter is right. We do need to understand why this happens and what can be done about it. This isn’t a problem unique to a small segment of deviants. It’s a very human problem that deserves all of our attention.