My friend is the survivor of a daring escape from a religious cult.* From time to time she sees herself on an old 20/20 rerun; the first time I watched it with her I could hardly believe that my spirited, independent, savvy friend could have let every aspect of her life be controlled by this group. She’s not so unusual, though. Turns out that any of us, including Pagans, can find ourselves the prey of charismatic manipulators.
The Pagan community, feisty though we might be, is particularly susceptible to cult-like deception. For one thing, it’s in our Pagan nature to be more idealistic than most. If someone has an exciting vision of the future, we want to believe it can be true, soon convincing ourselves that we can trust this new person. Add to that our proclivity for hiding from the world and you have a recipe for trouble. Modern Pagans accustomed to stories about the “burning times” and told that openness about their spirituality will have dire consequences have a history of falling for the “them and us” lie.
Wherever secrecy and opacity trump community values, whenever we think that it is more important to hide ourselves or our group from the rest of the world, dysfunction can then grow rampantly, like black mold in a damp basement. Ever since I came to Paganism, myself, I have encountered cons, child molesters, abusers and others circulating freely or moving from group to group. If exposed or confronted in one locale, it has been easy enough for them to move on to another group just down the road, knowing that overall communication is so poor and that Pagans prefer to circle the wagons rather than scrutinize one of their own. I see that my friend, Macha, has just posted a new column called “The Tyranny of Secrecy” over at Pagansquare.com.
If you are as old as I am, it only seems like yesterday when a wonderful group doing great things for the poor moved far away from the public eye and then committed a mass suicide (The People’s Temple, Jonestown, 900+ dead, including nearly 300 children). Before that, I well remember a talented man with a progressive idea for modern ministry who came to my former elders for advice before sucking up the life savings of uncounted seniors and unwitting devout people (Jim Baker, PTL Club, and – for the record – my elders told him it was a bad idea). More often, cult leaders simply waste our time, burn out our emotions and drain our bank accounts before moving on to greener pastures. Those left behind are the lucky ones, but they may spend a lifetime wondering what hit them, let alone healing and recovering.
Isaac Bonewits created an outstanding checklist, his “cult index,” which I strongly recommend to everyone, leader or not. But the short version is this – here are the most common signs that you are being courted by a cult:
Money – Sex – Isolation – Control
Money – No ethical leader will have you sign over your paycheck, property and assets, savings or insurance policy to her. If your money seems to be going into a black hole, stop giving it now. If someone says they are tax-exempt, you have a right to see their IRS Letter of Exemption and to check on their standing with the Secretary of State.
Sex – Even though Pagans embrace quite broad expressions of sexuality, there are still boundaries we must maintain for our own safety and mental health. Nearly every cult out there has a leader or leaders who help themselves to (often exclusive) sexual access to the women in the group, especially the young ones. Sex is certainly not bad, but when people break the law or use sex to control others, they are predators. When children are the result of this sexual access, they are too often then enmeshed in the sick dynamic of the community.
Isolation – Think communal living away from the pressures of the rest of the world is a great thing? Maybe. But what if you find yourself with no money, no phone, no car, no privacy, and you just want to talk to an old friend or family member? Are you free to come and go? Free to change your mind? I’ve been there, and it has taken me a lifetime to get over and then past it.
Control - Good leaders do not have a problem with our positive scrutiny of their motives and background. Good leaders do not insist that only they can speak for the group. Good leaders don’t choose our job or sexual/life partners for us. A good leader encourages continued growth, development and expansion of others. A good leader identifies and trains her possible future replacement.
Spirituality can make strange bedfellows, but we should still insist on a safe community, one which aids our “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” If you have questions about a situation, take a step back, turn to someone you respect who is outside your close circle. If someone makes you uneasy, look closer, check their stories, make them earn your trust over time, rather than handing everything over. If you realize that you are already in over your head, reach out for help in the best way you know how. If you have been the victim of crime, including sexual assault, fraud or domestic violence, don’t think twice about going to law enforcement, who now (in most states) have active victim advocates working alongside them.
This is a nasty subject, one I’d rather not have spent my afternoon writing about. But now and then I get a reminder that as long as Pagans are human, we must be vigilant. Please share this freely by any means you have. You never know whose future you may be saving.
*In this article, I use the word “cult” to refer to a group which uses its ideology to control, manipulate and otherwise violate members. Note that academic use of the word “cult” simply means a system of beliefs and ritual, often religious.