As he told it, Ron lived epic. As a youth, he befriended Calvin Coolidge Jr., the son of the president, became a full blood brother of the Pikuni tribe, and won a string of navy battles in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters respectively during World War II. After the war, he pursued his love of writing full time and established a new religion. All but the last two incidents are true — depending on who tells the story. The Church of Scientology, founded by L. Ron Hubbard in 1954, has since amassed a following of nearly 10 million members worldwide. Its short history is not without controversy.
The church has been accused of denying mental illness and discouraging the use of research-based medicine, charging its members exorbitant fees for rituals, harassing former members, and discouraging anyone who dares to criticize or leave the religion — claims that have led countries like Germany and France to label the group a “dangerous cult.” A recent documentary television series by former Scientologist Leah Remini — who was a practicing member for over 30 years — has brought them to increased scrutiny in the American media. The group responded by launching a website to attack both Remini and the series. What was once seen as a punch line — a club exclusive to those in show business, perhaps, is now being seen as something more sinister. But what draws people to cults in the first place?
There is little doubt that our brains have us wired as social beings — however individualistic we believe ourselves to be — interacting with other people forms the connections within our neurons, and so we are dependent on each other. We live healthier with a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging, and a sense of identity — all things that cults can offer their members — just as any service organization or organized religion provides to attract members. Stories like that of the woman forcibly disconnected from her mother, or a television journalist forcibly imprisoned, may seem like remote tragedies that would never befall us or people we know, but the reality is much more unsettling.
Cults demand unquestioned loyalty. This is one of the most prominent traits that ring true of all cults — they are led typically by a singular authority figure, often hailed as being far more illustrious and enlightened than his followers. Hubbard’s contemporaries claimed that he saw starting a cult as the quickest way to acquire money — and talked about starting a religion at least a decade before Scientology came around. An admirable trait in the leader of any given organization is to seek out advice and listen to others, carefully considering what they have to say or offer, before acting. They act out of the community’s best interest, whereas a cult leader looks out for their own.
Hubbard even went so far as to place his own knowledge above that of established modern science. The dust jacket on one of his books reads: “We have the sane and sober views of a medical doctor on the physical facts and consequences of the actual atomic blast and the diseases resulting from it.” He, of course, had no credentials as either a scientist or physician, but this practice of science denial — taken to dangerous levels — continues to be seen among Scientologists. Tom Cruise, a prominent Scientologist, made headlines not long ago for promising to cure heroin addiction with a vitamin diet.
In turn, members of a cult are cut off from the outside world — another stark contrast from ordinary service organizations or churches that encourage family involvement. Consequently, recruiters may look for potential members that lack a support network of family and friends, a practice used by the LaRouche movement, in which many members came from broken homes. According to former member Molly Kronberg: “People were told to go home and denounce their parents — as soulless automata. Unbelievably, many people did. Family relations were ruptured for decades. People disowned mother and father, brother and sister, and all former friends.”
It makes you wonder how they could, but high exit costs are another telling sign of the cult. Members remain members not only because their leader is the only one (they believe) that can help them, but they fear of what may happen if they leave — particularly if they have come to distrust the outside world. There is also a good chance that the member may have invested a great deal of their own time and money into the cause that they believe is right. The LaRouche Youth Movement required members to drive for miles and pay their own travel costs — leading to one young man being stranded and killed on a North Dakota highway. Members of Synanon lost their homes paying for treatment for drug addiction.
Perhaps when individuals are immersed in a cult, they are convinced that it can’t all be for nothing since they have invested so much. And ultimately it’s that complete investment of identity into the cult that makes recognizing cults for what they are (and leaving them) all the more difficult.