Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Memo to TM: How Not to Be a Cult

Give me a moment. I mean to give this post a positive agenda. But it may take a second to get there.

I could complain about Transcendental Meditation. But I'd like to give the new leaders a few tips on how not to be a cult. In the future, at least.

Heck, science fiction has always been my preferred literature form.

This is what I observe. When critics label a group cultic, there's a knee-jerk reaction. The group enters an escalating spiral of defensiveness. First, they claim they are not a cult. They give dozens of reasons why they're just like other religions or groups. They attempt to destroy their critics. They claim critics are "disgruntled," criminal, bankrupt, unbalanced — downright crazy.

When these tactics don't work, cults ratchet up repressive isolation of their members and forbid them to read critics.

Critics rightly point out these defensive maneuvers make the groups even more cultic than before. Which sets off another round of defensiveness.

Once in a great while, modern cults claim they've reformed. Scientology and ISKCON come to mind.

I remember opening my apartment door one sunny summer day in 1996 to Gene Ingram's smiling face. Gene's a private investigator best-known for allegedly intimidating critics of his main client, Scientology. He heard I left a startup cult activist foundation. So he thought I might be sympathetic to Scientology's side of the story.

"Scientology used to have some problems. But it's over. We threw the bad guys out. The good guys won."

And yet cultic abuse complaints continue to dog Scientology some 12 years later. Maybe the mainstream media didn't get the memo.

Same tune, different day with ISKCON's Hare Krishnas.

Okay. So on to my positive agenda.

Not every organization that critics label a cult started out to abuse its members. But without forethought, any organization can become cultic. Look at the problems the Catholic Church faces.

So here are a few tips for Nader, Hagelin, and the other new TM leaders. Maybe, just maybe they can dodge the cult label.
Be Transparent

  • discuss policies, procedures & scandals openly

  • publicize open complaint procedures

  • report public scandals promptly to members, law officials & public media

  • allow free information flow & fully disclose "secrets," especially those that might affect potential members' choice to join

  • fully disclose the group's political & legislative involvement

  • fully disclose finances, particularly international finances, with third-party audits

  • create a member-driven task force to set reasonable fees for retreats & "courses"

  • dialogue openly with laity, the press & the public

Be Accountable

  • publish — and adhere to — a set of ethics

  • publish — and adhere to — all fees & donation policies

  • oversee clergy & other agents with governing boards

  • if any group agent acts unethically or illegally, take full responsibility

Advocate Freedom

  • allow open questioning of the leader's beliefs & practices

  • Create a mechanism for modifying beliefs & practices

  • create an elective or accountable structure of representation (as in most churches)

  • promote freedom of speech within the group, without reprisals for contrary opinions

  • promote academic freedom for clergy & scholars

  • allow access to files/records held on members & public individuals

  • advocate freedom to explore our spirituality without shunning or other repercussions

  • avoid use of shame or guilt to control members

Provide Member Protections

  • institute safeguards against members devoting damaging amounts of time, money & emotional resources to the group

Value Respect for Non-Members

  • foster a systemic respect for other spiritual traditions & non-members

  • foster a systemic respect for the rule of law, rather than the belief the ends justify the means

  • foster a systemic respect for members' families, whether they are members or not

  • foster a systemic practice of charity & support to the less fortunate

  • encourage members to live or socialize with non-group members

Provide Informed Consent

  • fully disclose negative side-effects of group's mind-altering or medical techniques

  • undertake real efforts to address & heal side-effects

  • accept financial responsibility for members suffering side-effects

Imagine a Transcendental Meditation Org that acted with this kind of integrity.

That's a spiritual organization I could be proud of.

I'm sure readers will think of more bottom-line policies for successful non-cults. Please feel free to suggest them in comments below or by emailing me directly at

John M. Knapp, LMSW

No comments:

Post a Comment