Saturday, December 12, 2009

Inspiring words from John Knapp: "How not to be a cult"

When I first read this article, I felt relieved. It made sense and I liked the positive tone of it. It constantly reminds me of the kind of qualities I want in any organization I may join in the future, whether for work or personal interest. I thought AoL was an organization with these qualities. It took me many years to admit it wasn't like this, and a few more to stop justifying it.

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.

John M. Knapp, LMSW

Now imagine an Art of Living Foundation that acted with this kind of integrity. That's the spiritual organization I dreamt of and definitely one I could be proud of!

You can find more articles by John in and


anita said...

oh yeah ive seen some groups like arya samaj and iskcon reform btw am a 4th gen arya samaji....and i do believe if aol reforms a lot more than whats been happenming in the last yera or so in india maybe it could actually be the organistaion it projects itself as...

John M. Knapp, LMSW said...


That's my fervent hope for AoL and its members as well!

Any ideas on how we can make this happen?

John M. Knapp, LMSW
Knapp Family Counseling

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Knapp, as a Hindu by religion, I can assure you that all these movements, which in your country are called 'cults' ( as of course your country is not a Hindu nation), eventually settle down and find their own place in the vast Indian spiritual democracy. You are having a cultural shock maybe but if you study a bit of Hindu history and of course, some sociology, you will find this to be a common occurrence. Gurus come and go, and this is how it is supposed to be. If they have to create a monopoly after their passing, they usually go the Mohammed or the Jesus way, and that obviously is not Hinduism.The moment groups like TM or AoL (AoL has a much better chance in this), like other spiritual organizations in India, enter the democratic process by supporting their candidates in elections, everything will start getting normal. Of course, this might sound ominous to you, but, as I said, it is cultural difference.The Arya Samaj which Ms. Anita talks about, grew to mammoth proportions in North India and became ridiculously fanatic with regard to forbidding idol-worship,advocating celibacy,and other such things, but once their members went into politics, they crumbled and were cut down to their appropriate size. Their vast properties, schools and institutions went in the hands of their former trustees and office bearers who grabbed whatever they could and sold what they could not. Now when their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are growing up, most of the assets of Arya Samaj have gone back to where they came from-the society and the organization itself is split into many streams of spiritual thought that have evolved over the years. I know this because some of my distant relatives were deep into Arya Samaj in the 20s and the 30s and they benefitted hugely by the disintegration of the Samaj-they became overnight millionaires by cornering a large chunk of the Trusts institutions in North India. Two generations controlled these schools and universities and now their descendants have lost control over most of these properties which are now in different types of use like parks, houses, apartments, markets etc. No trace remains that these lands were ever Arya Samaj. This is what will happen to AoL also and all the Hindu Yoga and Spiritual groups. This is how it is meant to be and will be.