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Erin Prophet Blog

 

 

Summer Reading: Martial Arts Cult or Religion?

Erin Prophet

Book Review: Death by Budo: A Mystery in NRM Studies By Susan J. Palmer; Illustrations by Sylvia Rack.

 

 

When messages from a long-dead Japanese noblewoman begin to emerge from a martial arts studio, the line between fitness culture and religion blurs. Death by Budo is a clever murder mystery and a (relatively) painless way to learn more about how new religions form, split, change, and become more (or less) controversial. When a murder occurs during a martial arts class, a sociologist, already investigating the group on her own, is brought in to help the police. Is the group a cult? Is it dangerous? How should they proceed?

Palmer, a sociologist based in Canada who has studied real-life minority religions like the Unification Church (Moonies), the Raelians, Scientology, and the followers of Rajneesh, aka Osho, is familiar at first hand with the mercurial quality of new religions. She has documented ways in which charismatic leaders transform and reinvent themselves and their teachings as part of the complex power dynamics that take place both within the group and between the group and society. She also shows that new revelations are often tangled up with the leader’s own emotional ties and personal crisis, even psychopathology. But even the leader often perceives the revelation as coming from an outside and divine source. At least at first. But what happens when the revelations stop coming and the leader must still provide answers?

Palmer’s plot centers around Oliwia, a bored and overweight housewife who is transformed by a powerful but flawed martial arts instructor, and in turn becomes an unlikely charismatic leader, channeling the mysterious deceased and fictional Japanese empress Lady Nii, and making apocalyptic prophecies. Before long, a second murder has been committed, the prophecies have spread, and Oliwia is not the only one receiving revelations from Lady Nii.

The only potential pain in this publication comes from the book’s realistic descriptions of the exhilaration of fitness (perhaps based on Palmer’s own experience in the mixed martial art Kajukenbo), which may inspire readers to take up martial arts themselves, if only to get in shape. The murder(s) seem almost incidental to the plot, and they glide by farcically, conforming to murder mystery tropes that make this sociology lesson go down easy.

Order Death By Budo

 

 

Revisiting Theories of Coercive Persuasion (or Why I am Addressing the International Cultic Studies Association)

Erin Prophet

Most people who know me are aware that I use the term "cult" very carefully, if at all. Why, then, have I chosen to speak at an event sponsored by the International Cultic Sudies Association (ICSA)? On July 2, I will be participating in a panel discussion at the ICSA annual conference. The panel is entitled "Church Universal and Triumphant, Elizabeth Clare Prophet and the Gregory Mull Trial: A Review of the Coercive Persuasion Model."

The choice to present at this conference was difficult. I have had an unfavorable opinion of ICSA because of its association with discredited theories of mind control and coercive persuasion, as well as the engagement of some of its members in coercive exit counseling and forms of deprogramming. However, I have chosen to join the panel based on indications that the organization is committed to a more nuanced and rigorous approach than in the past, and its acknowledgement that minority religions (aka "cults") are not all the same, nor are the experiences of their members.

I will be evaluating the 1986 trial of Church Universal and Triumphant vs. Gregory Mull (and countersuit), and aftermath. The case is indeed a laboratory for coercive persuasion models and a time capsule of the "cult wars" of the 1980s and 1990s. I will be reviewing the documentary evidence and testimony presented at the trial, including Mr. Mull’s involvement with the church between 1974 and 1980, as well as the events after he had left. I will also discuss his public conflicts with the church and with my mother, the church's leader, Elizabeth Clare Prophet. This case offers a unique look into the kind of personality transformation that can occur when an individual joins and then leaves a minority religion. The ample written evidence gives insight into Mr. Mull’s state of mind, if not going all the way back to his pre-group personality, then at least to his earliest involvement.

The above letter was written by Gregory Mull in 1980 in response to newspaper articles portraying Church Universal and Triumphant as a cult. Six years later, he was awarded $1.5 million by a jury after claiming that the group was really a destructive cult. The letter was used as evidence in the trial. The panel will address questions of agency in letter writing and other individual actions.

The above letter was written by Gregory Mull in 1980 in response to newspaper articles portraying Church Universal and Triumphant as a cult. Six years later, he was awarded $1.5 million by a jury after claiming that the group was really a destructive cult. The letter was used as evidence in the trial. The panel will address questions of agency in letter writing and other individual actions.

 

In my presentation, I will evaluate theories of influence promoted by expert witnesses at the trial, with a focus on mind control and coercive persuasion, and highlighting themes of autonomy, deception and free will. The testimony of Margaret Singer will be evaluated, as well as that of opposing experts J. Gordon Melton and James Richardson. The case occurred during the time of maximum acceptance of theories of coercive persuasion in US courts. I will refer to trial exhibits, including transcripts and correspondence between Mr. Mull and church officials, as well as my own experience as a member and leader of Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT). The suit resulted in a $1.5 million judgment against the church and Elizabeth Clare Prophet.

I do not want my participation in the conference to obscure the fact that as a scholar of religion, I do not agree with all ICSA positions. ICSA has in the past been hostile to all “cults,” a term which I view as a loaded word, and I prefer to use minority religion. Currently, the ICSA website, while acknowledging that different definitions exist, uses the definition of “cult” as “an ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and demanding total commitment.” It is easy to pick apart each portion of this definition—to identify groups that control certain of their members (for example, employees and middle management), more than others, for example, as well as groups held together by institutional, rather than charismatic, authority, whose founders are dead. And how does one determine whether an organization is ideological or not? But I do not think that a cult needs to be defined (or a group needs to meet a narrow definition) in order for an individual to need assistance in recovering from a difficult experience, and on that I can agree with ICSA.

I do not think that a cult needs to be defined (or a group needs to meet a narrow definition) in order for an individual to need assistance in recovering from a difficult experience, and on that I can agree with ICSA.

 

Another area of potential disagreement with ICSA is its focus is on the “social-psychological manipulation and control” said to be practiced by all cults. There is no question that minority religions, like any other group, influence and control their members. However, as ICSA acknowledges, the degree of control varies and systems of influence may or may not be constructed with the deliberate intention of harming or manipulating the followers. ICSA does not provide a list of cults, but instead focuses on providing resources for those who have left. See here for more information on ICSA and its positions.

As a former member myself, I have a great deal of sympathy for those who have left a small and close-knit group. It is difficult to replace social bonds, particularly if the majority of one’s most important bonds are within the group, and even moreso if the involvement has been close and of long duration. There is no question that small groups in a high degree of social tension with society are subject to unique pressures and often place their members in stressful situations. The gradual or sudden departure from such a group (whether voluntarily, by expulsion, or coerced deprogramming) is often painful, and may require support and psychotherapy.

In the past, sociologists have focused on evaluating the groups themselves, as well as attitudes of former members, and psychologists have focused on helping people “recover” from their experience. Both groups of experts lament the lack of evidence about individuals’ “pre-cult personality,” since those who have left under difficult circumstances often view their experience in an entirely negative light, and blame the group for all of their problems. I hope that my presentation will help provide additional insight into the divide between the points of view.

I will be participating on a panel with psychologist Cathleen Mann, moderator, and psychologist Steve Eichel, discussant. The conference agenda can be located here.

More information about the event can be found on my calendar here:

A Balanced Look at the Roots of the I AM Activity

Erin Prophet

Guy and Edna Ballard, founders of the I AM Religious Activity, with their son Donald and his wife, in 1938.

Guy and Edna Ballard, founders of the I AM Religious Activity, with their son Donald and his wife, in 1938.

From time to time, people write me with links to work by Gerald Bryan, who was for some time the only external source of information about the I AM Religious Activity, founded in the early 1930s by Guy Ballard and his wife Edna. Using the names Godfre Ray King and Lotus Ray King, they wrote and recieved from masters thousands of pages of material. Bryan's book, called Psychic Dictatorship Over America, is generally seen today by historians as a biased but occasionally useful polemic. Many people are not familiar with a more neutral description of the group by Charles S. Braden, included as a chapter in his book about minority religious groups, These Also Believe, published in 1949. Since this book is not widely available I have scanned the chapter here: The I Am Movement by Charles Braden

There is also excellent work that has been done by other scholars more recently, including in The Handbook of the Theosophical Current, edited by Olav Hammer. The I AM books influenced many people, including my parents, and as I wrote in Prophet's Daughter, were something I learned about in Sunday School as scripture, right next to the Bible. Just as it is important to expose the Bible to critical scrutiny, I think it is important to look critically at the I AM books and their context. The Braden chapter is a useful part of this process and I include it here as a resource for anyone looking for a deeper understanding of the I AM revelations.

As far as my overall opinion of the I AM books, I view them as didactic fiction whose real takeaway is the power of positive affirmations. I think it is possible that writings can be helpful spiritually while still laying out entirely unrealistic expectations for human behavior. The perfectionism and asceticism of the I AM mythology reverberates today in the lives of many who may have read the books and tried with varying degrees of success to apply them.

I have a 1999 interview with Dr. James Burns, longtime member of the I AM, who recalled an incident with "Daddy Ballard," regarding the eating of meat, which was forbidden to those who wanted to "ascend" in the I AM, i.e., become like Jesus after death. Burns recalls a Sunday morning breakfast at Clifton's Cafeteria in Los Angeles when Ballard was serving soup. Ballard "pulled a big piece of meat" out of the pot. As Burns remembers, Ballard "didn't get excited. He just put it in, cut it up, gave it to them." According to Burns, the Ballards themselves were not fanatical, "but people around them were, a lot of times." I raise this incident not to promote or condemn eating meat, but simply to point out that even within a single group, belief and practice can change over time, with culture.