How the Anti Cult Movement Harms Ex-Cult Members

After experiencing a catastrophic loss of faith in your previous religious or spiritual pursuit – was this you?

It was me.

The anti cult movement teaches that minority religions harm the mental health of their members. Countless psychological practices have been built on the idea that Ex members of these minority religions are suffering from some form of mental damage, and that they need to ‘recover’ from it.

Experiencing a loss of faith and leaving your previous religious or spiritual pursuit, whatever it is, can be a time of upheaval in your life. There’s a phrase for it “Losing My Religion”.

For those who have experienced a loss of faith, adopting the beliefs of the anti-cult movement, however, can be catastrophic. These beliefs can have a profoundly negative effect on how an Ex makes sense of her own past.

So we must ask:

How helpful is the ideology of the anti cult movement in making sense of things?

Is it even true?

A Religion or an Ideology As a Sense-Making Instrument

Sensemaking is the process by which humans give meaning to experience. A lot of data comes at you from the world during the course of a day and you need to process it to act effectively. Religions and other ideologies can help perform this role for you, giving you time-tested beliefs and solutions that tell you what thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors to adopt. When you are in a group of people who are all applying the same sense-making instrument to the world, then you’ve got a shared culture that gives you stability as a human being. It gives you status and all the other good things that we get out of belonging to a tribe.

Ex Members Are in a More Vulnerable State When They Leave a ‘Cult” Than When They Joined One

It’s a stereotype to say that whenever anyone joined a cult, they did so because they were in a vulnerable state of their lives. Some were, some weren’t. But to say that an Ex-member who has just left a ‘cult’ is in a vulnerable state, that’s much more accurate, and much less of a stereotype.

This is because it does not matter whether it was a minority religion or a majority one, or even if your sensemaking ideology was atheism. Your worldview has let you down. You’ve lost faith in it. And you have no idea what or how to process your experience any more.

Since the late 1990’s, Ex-members in this vulnerable state have gone onto the Internet to try to figure things out for themselves after leaving their minority religion. Since the late 1990’s – almost exclusively – they find the ideas of the anti cult movement to make sense of their previous religious or spiritual pursuit.

A New Sense Making Instrument to Completely Re-Interpret Your Whole Previous Life

As a sense making instrument, the ideology of the Anti-Cult Movement is pretty simple. It’s no BhagaVad Gita, that’s for sure. It goes like this:

“You were in a CULT and you were BRAINWASHED to believe the way you did. You were made to undergo HYPNOSIS INDUCING TECHNIQUES which made you LOSE YOUR POWER OF CHOICE and to adopt beliefs that created a WHOLE MATRIX OF THOUGHT THAT WAS NOT YOUR OWN“.

That’s basically it. An Ex member adopts this extremely simplistic view to make sense of their past involvement, and who they used to be, what they believed and why they believed it. The AntiCult Movement becomes their new belief system.

Since you’ve adopted this new instrument of sense-making, you begin to re-define and re-interpret every experience you ever had in the ‘cult’. You will use this anti cult movement ideology to radically change everything you ever knew about yourself and your previous life.

What you used to call ‘religion’ you now call ‘cult’. What used to inspire you with sacred ideas is now so profane it makes you feel sick. What you used to be proud of, you are now ashamed of. What you used to think was sensible, you now think is delusional.

And you have a handy rationalization for the things you are struggling to understand about yourself – you were ‘brainwashed!‘.

This would all be great if the anti cult movement ideology was complex enough to correspond to the complexity of real life. But it’s not. This belief system greatly oversimplifies life in a very self-destructive way. And, as it turns out, none of its ideas actually hold up to scrutiny.

The anti cult movement’s ideology is too simplistic to be true.

The Anti Cult Movement Harms Ex-Members in 5 Major Ways

I have been writing about this since it first began to dawn on me how destructive it has been to me. Yet whenever anyone in the thrall of this anti cult movement ideology hears my ideas, they just think I’ve gone back into Scientology. It’s just one example of the stupidity that anti cult movement instills in its adherents.

Here are 5 ways that I have identified over the last 21 years of being out of Scientology which show how the adoption of the anti-cult movement harms ex members.

1. Denies You Your Power of Choice When you are brainwashed, the choices you make are not your own. So the life you lived was not your own, either. Look at this idea as sense-making. This is how you now make sense of your previous life, and who you used to be while you were a member. Can you see there are other ways of making sense of how you made your decisions, and what you were trying to achieve while in the cult – rather than just “I was brainwashed!”? Once you begin to investigate those other ways, you’ll find that you were using your own power of choice the whole time.

2. Walls Off and Toxifies Your Previous “Cult” Self Steven Hassan is one of the primary promulgators of the anti cult movement’s ideology. He has a model, based on Leon Festinger’s work, which Hassan calls “The BITE Model”. This sensemaking instrument prompts you to split yourself up into a “true self” and a fake “cult self”. Because I personally bought into this anti cult ideology when I left Scientology, it’s hard for me to describe the amount of damage this idea caused me, and how much of my life was derailed by it. I’ve since learned: YOU WERE YOU BEFORE THE CULT, DURING THE CULT, AND AFTER THE CULT. Try using that as a sense-making instrument instead.

3. Gives You Nightmarish Narratives of Who You Were & What You Did I know of Ex-Members who are heavy anti cult movement promoters who have said that Scientology’s RPF was “the worst experience that any human being could ever live through”. That is a direct quote. Obviously this Ex has not put his experience into perspective with the experiences of other human beings who have been through things like Auschwitz, Darfur, or even modern day Syria. But that is the kind of nightmare fantasy that the Anti cult movement’s ideology regularly instills in Exes. These types of cognitive distortions have been proven to cause depression and anxiety – and they come straight out of the anti-cult movement’s ideology.

4. Becomes a Huge Source of Guilt & Shame The biggest evangelists of the anti cult movement regularly say that you were not stupid for giving up your power of choice and becoming a brainwashed zombie. But you believe you were a brainwashed zombie. This is the only conclusion allowed. This is a cartoonish oversimplification of your past, who you were, how you thought, and what you believed. But there is no other possible interpretation for who you were but a brainwashed zombie, as long as you buy into the anti cult movement’s ideology.

5. Prompts You to Nullify & Discard Your Whole Previous Life If you have ever been to a gathering of Exes who are trapped in the ideas of the anti cult movement, you will see one or two stand up and say that they wasted 30 YEARS of their life while in the cult. Or however long they spent inside. Yet the person they were when they were in the cult was sometimes the best person they’ve ever been. All of that personal experience got wasted when they adopted the anti cult movement, disowning their past and walling it off. Not only is this damaging to an ex-member, it is so false that it literally wastes the value of your own life experience. That is a colossal waste – directly caused by adopting the anti cult movement’s ideology.

There’s a real liability to allowing your sense-making instrument to fall apart on you. And so I realize the level of discomfort that my ideas here are creating in those who have left a cult and found a new ideology to make sense of it for them.

But I’ve seen the anti cult movement do so much damage to myself and to other very good people that I just can’t shut up about this.

So what, in my experience, should you do instead?

1. Instead of denying your own power of choice – embrace it. Accept that you woke up every day and decided on purpose to be a Scientologist. Find out why. Find out what you were getting out of Scientology (or your previous religion or worldview) and explore how to keep getting that now on the next step in your evolution.

2. Instead of walling off your previous “Cult Self”, recognize that you were you before the cult, during the cult, and after the cult. See if your strengths and weaknesses have changed because of leaving it. Don’t walk around thinking you have two selves inside of you, one with which you are at war.

3. Next time you tell yourself a nightmarish exaggeration about who you were & what you did in the cult – STOP. Examine what you are telling yourself. Ask yourself if that nightmarish story is accurate, or if it is distorted or dysfunctional. Take some of the emotion out of it. Gain some reason on it. Then think up what is the non-exaggerated truth. And practice telling yourself that from now on. This an extremely valuable self discipline for a person who is making their way through any difficult transition in life.

4. Study whether there is any actual science on brainwashing. Ask yourself if you really were “brainwashed” by what you did in your religious or spiritual pursuit. Evaluate the word ‘cult’ as a mental construct. What is the reality which this mental construct is describing? Is it really accurate? Stay cool headed about this. Find factual terms that are backed up by science.

5. Don’t wall off your previous self. Your experiences were valid, and the lessons you learned are too. All that treasure is still there. Why harm yourself by throwing it away? Break down the wall between you and your past – integrate and embrace who you used to be. Practice your own self-acceptance, and keep learning from your experience.

If you can do these things you can see that getting out of a cult is not something you recover from, but something that makes you stronger.

13 thoughts on “How the Anti Cult Movement Harms Ex-Cult Members”

  1. For me, the best way I’ve been able to contextualize my post-Scientology experience is that I graduated.

    When one enrolls in any school, one is in a junior position to the people who are teaching at the school, and even to the students who have been at the school longer than you. That’s the point in going to the school—they more know more than you do about something and you want to know what they know.

    Eventually, it is expected that you will learn everything that you can from that school and you will move on. There’s even the formal ritual acknowledgment of that called graduation.

    Scientology has all sorts of “graduation” steps contained within its boarders for a member, but there is no process for or even an acknowledgement that a person can graduate from the subject itself.

    In fact, if you were so bold as to state publicly, “I’ve graduated the subject of Scientology and I am now done with that,” this would be viewed as blasphemy or delusional by most Scientologists and certainly Sea Org staff. In Scientology‘s view, you are forever junior to Hubbard, the Tech, the church, and even those more dedicated Scientologists who are on staff.

    This is what happens when you get involved in a group founded by and controlled by a narcissist.

    It is usually quite distressing for a person to pull away from Scientology so it is important to do so in in the healthiest way possible for you.

    Scientology does not grant that you can graduate from it. You have to wrest it from them, and claim it as your own. This is empowering. This is recovering your own sovereignty as a person. This is no longer allowing yourself to be juvenilized.

    I think with many people, the idea of graduation from the entire subject of Scientology escapes them, because no real school they’ve ever experienced would offer such a vindictive, petty, mean-spirited response as does Scientology to your desire to take what you’ve learned and leave.

    Well, consider that your final examination in Scientology, in order to graduate, is to endure the process of leaving it. That’s the gold seal on your diploma.

    And now you can take that diploma and put on your wall, or shred it, or flush it down the toilet or whatever. You learned what you went there to learn, it was part of your life path, it was your time spent because you were living your reality as you saw it at that time.

    And those experiences should be viewed within the context of their time and place. Just like you’ll never likely engage in another junior high spelling bee or science fair, you can still enjoy that you did that in that time and place and what you learned from it.

    You don’t have to like all of the abusive experiences you had in Scientology any more than you have to have liked the bullying, fights, or other bullshit you endured in school. But you probably learned life lessons from those things too.

    So acknowledge that you’ve graduated. Don’t beat yourself up because you went to grammar school, or wall off the self that you were when you were eight. Just be happy you got through it and moved on.

    • Well said, that’s pretty much the way I look at the experience’s perspective. My father was the first one to get into Scientology and he then got my mother into it through threat of divorce – he told my mother he needed to do Scientology to fix himself, and if my mother was not on board he would have to go his own way. This was enough pressure to get my mom to artificially ‘go along with it’ while not being into it herself initially. Over time, she too eventually considered herself a ‘Scientologist.’ When I would have problems at school, whenever I got into trouble, etc, my parents would sit me down and basically say ‘you can be punished for a month and not leave the house, or you can take a simple Scientology course for a week that we know will help you to get your ethics in.’ I knew Scientology was a ruse from the get-go and absolutely hated this manipulation from my folks. It was only after the course of years of falling for this that the ‘tech’ started to ‘make sense.’ Flash-forward 20 years later and I am a full-blown, completely indoctrinated Scilon on OT 3. I completely broke down on this level, couldn’t sleep at night for fear of ‘BTs talking to me all night long’, and had a nervous breakdown outside the AO. I remember that day like it was yesterday. I called my father on the phone and told him the voices in my head (BTs) are trying to kill me, and he wore his hat well as a fully programmed Scilon (he is OT 8) to get me ‘handled’ and back on the auditing. Long story short, it took me a decade to understand and un-do all the lies and programming, and I haven’t seen or spoken with my parents since. It almost killed me and it did drive me literally insane. I didn’t know what I was really walking into, and I had a certain level of trust in my parents just by the fact of them being my parents and having control, knowing more, etc. The entire experience was part of my own life path that I wouldn’t take back because of all that it taught me. It required me to go DEEP to get answers and to educate myself in areas that never would have interested me otherwise. I ‘graduated’ from Scientology, and can’t be conned pr deceived anymore. The only bone I have to pick with all this is: is it really necessary to be born into this kind of a world where such madness even exists to begin with? Could we not teach our children from the out-set the truth and not continue to indoctrinate future generations into such lies? Can we break the inter-generational, passed down insanity?

      • That’s one hell of a story of your experience Doug. Thanks for sharing it.

        My response to the questions you pose in the last three sentences of your comment: of course not, yes, and yes.

        Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, humans intrinsically are not the cute little simple beings Hubbard suggest they were. Humans are complex, layered, and unique in the experiences that they have, and their approaches to the world.

        I often think about this video by Alan Watts that may give some perspective on why humans put themselves through the things that they put themselves through in the quest for spiritual improvement or enlightenment. It’s eight minutes and if you Google “Alan Watts come off of it” it should come up.

  2. I got into Scientology because I believed the lies. I wanted to be part of a humanitarian group to help the planet. I was not interested in joining a cult, going up a Bridge and spending a ton of money “going Clear” spending hundreds of thousands of dollars thinking I was getting rid of my reactive mind….but later finding out I was not saying the right words….”I mocked up my own reactive mind but can stop it”…hence hundreds of thousands of dollars more and decades of my life.

    I stayed in Scientology because I was under a spell and believed the lies. I was under hypnotic commands.

    I got out of Scientology because I personally witnessed criminal behavior where Scientology staff members were extorting money out of others. Regrading people up and down the Bridge. Being abusive. Staff were not winning – they were poor and suppressed. There was no state of clear…no state of OT….just pure arrogance.

    I was in for several years. I was okay when I walked in. I had a lot of life prior to Scientology…and I had a successful life.

    I was in bad shape when I walked out. I lost my identity, my family, my friends. My abilities and skills were smashed and I was confused and in fear. My mind was scrammbled. Thanks to some friends and family who welcomed me back with open arms….I finally was able to feel safe and recover.

    I recovered with love and compassion by others (wogs) and by learning about mind control and how cults operate. I appreciate the work from Steven Hassan.

    There is a time and a place for the ex members and then you move on.

    There is no need to go from ex Scientologist to now ATTACKING ex Scientologists.

    Find a new game Alanzo.

    Figure out who hurt your feelings and deal with them.

    Stop attacking people.

    Mike Rinder and Leah Remini are helping people wake up.

    I am now out of everything “Scientology”

    This is my last post anywhere

    Good luck Alanzo….I do hope you find a new game. This one you are playing is not productive or helpful…just another place to park on the Bridge out of the Cult.

    Get off the Bridge and start living your life.

    • When I got out of Scientology in the late 90s and began criticizing them on the internet, do you know how many Scientologists told me to stop ATTACKING them and just shut up about everything and walk away – exactly as you have done here?

      Every single one.

      You wrote:

      “I stayed in Scientology because I was under a spell and believed the lies. I was under hypnotic commands.”

      Just like Scientologists believe that the only reason anyone leaves Scientology is because they have OWs, this is a belief that you tell yourself from the anti cult movement.

      You are hiding from yourself your real reasons for staying. There’s gold there for you.

      I hope you find it.

  3. Couldn’t agree more. Great post. The anti-cult is just as much a “cult” as the groups they protest against.

    Whenever you leave a long relationship of any kind, you need to take time off to yourself so that you can honestly reflect upon your experience without any lens filtering. I recall about a girl I dated about 10 years ago that ended horribly. When we broke up, I was so angry and upset that I did nothing but focus on all the negative aspects of it. All I could think about were the bad things happened and the things she said that made me upset. Through this lens of anger, I was the victim and she was the bad person and not a single good thing happened ever.

    But after about a year of down time, I came to realize that it was not so black and white. There were times when we both made stupid choices. There were also really good times and moments of genuine love just like there were bad times. It was at this point that I learned from the experience and actually became stronger for having gone through it.

    Here is the important part: Had I just rushed out and immediately started dating some new girl, would have missed out on this process. And that is exactly what the anti-cult is: the “new girl” you meet on the rebound that offers a quick fix to a bigger problem. The anti-cult tells you that you were a brainwashed zombie the entire time you were in the “cult” group. So there is no point in engaging in honest self-reflection because you were not YOU during this time period. You are completely a victim in every possible way. Just focus on your anger and bitterness like Darth Vader.

  4. To clarify my own experience: everyone knows that there are left-wing and right-wing political cults (the LaRouchies, the Jim Jones movement etc) which use very similar tactics to Scientology to control their members. Now, I’ve never been in one of those groups which took over my whole life – but I have been in a group where an unaccountable leadership used manipulation and emotional blackmail to keep its followers in line. (“Cultism” is a spectrum. Honestly, I think cultism is just an exaggerated, sick version of the processes that hold all groups together.)

    The interesting thing is that, while I was in that group, my own political beliefs changed to match those of the leadership, whom I trusted and “gave up my power to”. But afterwards, my beliefs have moved more or less gradually back to what they were before. I’m not ashamed of what I believed while I was in the group – I was given data which later turned out to be incomplete. I still have issues with the leaders who love-bombed me when I was “good” and threw me to the wolves when I was “bad”. BUT: I’m not going to join a new cult insisting that the people who treated me bad were a cult and need to be wiped off the planet, through state oppression or a shocking reality TV show. On the Left, they call it “Darkness at Noon” syndrome – the way in which no-one is as fervent and angry an anti-communist as someone who was once a fervent and angry communist.

  5. Honestly, I think the best model to interpret “cults” (of religious or political or even anti-religious versions) is as abusive relationships. Abusive partners do use mind games, love bombing, gas-lighting and emotional blackmail to keep their victims in line, just like the Church of Scientology or several political movements. I wonder if – when my mother left my father because of his violence – Stephen Hassan would have jumped in there to yell at her about how she was BRAINWASHED and created a FALSE SELF – and whether that would have helped or hindered her recovery.

    • Using a metaphor to interpret all the different experiences of your own, and of other people, has costs as well as benefits. Any metaphor you are going to use to filter decades of your life better be a real good one, or at least be one that is thoroughly examined for it strengths and weaknesses.

      So let’s examine your metaphor of ‘an abusive relationship’.

      The assumptions of this metaphor:

      1. Your relationship with your past religious or spiritual pursuit was abusive. If it was, then this is a workable way to see things. Every time I used it to think with abusive group dynamics, it illuminated some things in accurate ways. But if only some peoples’ participation was abusive, but yours was not, then adopting this metaphor would not be helpful or constructive for you in interpreting your own experiences.

      2. It victimizes you. Maybe some people were victims, but were you? Was your power of choice really taken from you? I think it is vital to examine which what parts were theirs, and which parts were yours.

      3. What are the alternatives to using this metaphor? I’ve found the best metaphor that I can use to view my own past involvement in Scientology is the idea which is actually not a metaphor at all – but an attempt at a description of objective fact.

      A ‘cult’ is a minority religion, a type of subculture, within a wider mainstream society.

      When you examine your metaphors and ask yourself “What objective reality does this metaphor point to?” I think it helps to decide whether the metaphor is apt or not.

      4. Does the metaphor work for only a little while – when you are first getting out – but then break down once you’ve been out for a while and gotten your sea legs? It’s great to be allowed to tell yourself you’ve been abused for a while as you re-adjust your morals and your norms to your new life outside your previous religion. But there will come a time when that is just too simple, and too, well, ‘victimy’. You will need to exhume your power of choice, and that takes looking at your part in what you experienced, and what your strengths and weaknesses are so you can learn from them.

      “I was in an abusive relationship” takes a toll on you after a while, if you keep telling yourself that, and self-identifying with others that way. Just like any metaphor, no matter how constructive, it does not produce the complexity of thought required to reconcile with, and learn from, your past experience.


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