Friday, November 10, 2017

The Power of Ideology

Researchers occasionally contact me for information in their efforts to poke and prod at the bubble of the Children of God/The Family International cult to try to see what held it together and what it was like on the inside.

The other day I was asked, “Did you get paid for your work?”

What a shocking question. Back in my cult days, I certainly didn’t think of my life from the perspective of earning a living. To think of it that way now drops me into the void of loss and regret. I probably could have earned a respectable living and set aside funds for both my retirement and my children's education had I not given thirty years of the prime of my life to the Children of God.

But alas, it was not to be.

My cult days were filled with service. In the early years, I would get out of my bed—or off of my sheet on the floor—put on a smile, and greet my fellow commune members, then sit down to a breakfast of barely yellow eggs, rice, and water. After devotions, which consisted of reading usually the newest Mo Letter from our founder, David Berg, we got ready to spend the day proselytizing.

From morning till night, we would knock on doors, sell cult-produced publications or products, then come home for dinner. After dishes there was more reading, perhaps some united singing, childcare, and bed. The next day, it all began again.

As the years passed, my work changed to caring for other people's children. But still, the ideology was the same. As part of the “body of Christ,” I was facilitating our missionary cause by schooling and looking after children, which was one of the many ministries that in sum furthered The Family's universal goal of bringing God's Kingdom on earth.

How could I have cheerfully gotten up each morning and faced not an iota of personal freedom? To diligently work, even to the point of nervous breakdown, for no money whatsoever? It was the adhesive of the Mo Letters that held the group together and kept us going.

Each day, we spent hours studying Family publications or our Bibles, which we read through the lens of the Mo Letters and Berg's interpretation. Our conviction drove us. Our united cause drove us. We were part of a worldwide group with an exclusive calling, God's Endtime army. We were to be willing to do anything for Jesus, sleep with strangers to “show them God's love,” beg on the streets, care for other people's children 24/7, whatever it took, to promote the cause.

The intensity and strength of a clear belief system should never be underestimated. It can lead to people becoming “new creatures,” completely different from their former selves, with a new set of values, priorities, and goals. Ideology can overcome familial ties, motherly protective instincts, and it can create slaves out of otherwise rational people.

But what is the appeal? What draws people to cults and other controlling groups? The lure of a strong code of belief and a common cause worthy of fighting for, giving a noble purpose and direction to one's life. What keeps them? Camaraderie and a united goal, a sense of purpose, belonging and being part of something of epic proportions. On top of this, there is the myriad of human tendencies: the false valuation of life in the group, the confirmation bias, social norming, loss aversion, sunk cost, and maybe even inertia. One's sense of what is normal becomes completely skewed.

What of conflicting evidence? What if a true believer is shown proof that his faith is unfounded? It is the nature of man when confronted with evidence that contradicts our firmly held beliefs to cling defensively to those beliefs. Faith becomes enmeshed with our personal image. Our beliefs become a part of us and who we are. It would be like tearing out a part of ourselves to give them up.

The only way to “rescue” someone from a firmly held belief is to separate them from the constant input and influence of dogma. To dilute the poison of propaganda by distance and by providing a wide variety of information, some of which will contradict and show other sides to what they have been holding dear. But this must be handled gently, with compassion and understanding, because this is a matter of the will and the psyche, of the very essence of who one is.

Trust must be won. There must be a gradual rebuilding of mental pathways and a growing over of the old habitual ones learned in the cult. This requires time, patience, and the nurturing of a desire to learn.


  1. "What of conflicting evidence? What if a true believer is shown proof that his faith is unfounded? It is the nature of man when confronted with evidence that contradicts his firmly held beliefs to cling defensively to those beliefs."

    That reminded of this quotation by Galileo I read recently:

    "In the long run my observations have convinced me that some men, reasoning preposterously, first establish some conclusion in their minds which, either because of its being their own or because of their having received it from some person who has their entire confidence, impresses them so deeply that one finds it impossible ever to get it out of their heads. Such arguments in support of their fixed idea as they hit upon themselves or hear set forth by others, no matter how simple and stupid these may be, gain their instant acceptance and applause. On the other hand whatever is brought forward against it, however ingenious and conclusive, they receive with disdain or with hot rage — if indeed it does not make them ill. Beside themselves with passion, some of them would not be backward even about scheming to suppress and silence their adversaries."

    To help people avoid that trap, Carl Sagan provided a Baloney Detection Kit for Bullshit-Busting that includes 9 critical thinking tools:

  2. I forgot to click the "Notify me" button for my previous comment

  3. Great quote from Galileo, thank you. It just goes to show that humanity has always been subject to the same mental biases.

    Thank you for taking the time to comment.