Opinioni: ogni comunità religiosa può trasformarsi in una “deriva settaria” / Fondamentalismi religiosi, leader estremisti e la manipolazione della mente


When Organized Religion Becomes a Cult


The distinction between cult and religion lies squarely in how those leaving or those wanting to leave are treated

Diane Benscoter tells her harrowing story of leaving the “Moonie” cult. In highlighting the dangers of cults, Benscoter uses clear examples like David Koresh, Jonestown, suicide bombers, the Westboro Baptist Church, but often the line between conventional religion and cult is not so clearly defined.

Cults claim exclusivity, are highly secretive, and authoritarian. To many of my atheist friends, religion fits the bill. What distinguishes religion from cults is the ability to question without being shunned and ability to reject dogmatic tenets without being shunned.

Many religions make exclusive claims to truth. There is nothing wrong with that. Many systems of philosophy do the same. Kantianism’s categorical truths are, for example, incompatible with utilitarianisms balancing of harm and good.

The harm stems from a system that shuns and ostracizes adherents that don’t accept their exclusive claims to truth. That is where conventional religion becomes a potentially harmful cult. Forcing people to conform by using the subtle threat of social alienation is a form of coercion.

People leave religion because of the seemingly restrictive lifestyle, conflicts between science and literal biblical interpretation, ethnocentrism, sexism, dogma, intolerance or boredom. Those may all be legitimate reasons or just misapplication of religious principles but the bottom line is those are personal choices people make about whether to follow a particular religion.

Any religious community can become a cult. It’s not about how faith is expressed in a community but more importantly how people are treated if they want to leave and disbelieve.

While camping in northern Wisconsin I found an opportunity to talk with several teens of the Old Order Amish. The Old Order Amish are distinguished from more modern Amish because they strictly forbid automobile ownership, modern books and require strict traditional dress.

I asked the older teens why they returned to their community after theRumschpringe (which is a period where youth temporarily leave the community to experience the outside world). The answer surprised me.

I was expecting to hear that they returned for the longing of a simpler life, free from the rat race and materialistic pursuits of the modern world.

They almost unanimously expressed that they returned to Amish life because they had no other choice. It was either the modern unknown world, or their family. If they chose not to return, their family would disown them. Leaving their loved ones behind was not seen as an option. Sadly, that, in my opinion, is the definition of a cult.

The Amish lifestyle is beautiful, environmentally-friendly and family-focused. But shunning those who want to leave is a sinister form of coercing adherence.

The historical roots of three monotheistic religions, namely Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, are founded on the story of Abraham, a man who was willing to question authority and refute the superstitions of worshiping material objects. This story is the foundation of monotheism and should serve as an example of how nonconformists should be embraced.

According to Biblical lore, through a process of logical deductions and observation of the universe around him Abraham began to question the validity of idolatry and recognize that because the universe is so complex it must have a designer. Abraham was unafraid to challenge the mores of his time and to question authority. This is the historical underpinning of monotheistic religions.

Religious communities and society as a whole should allow wider expression and diversity, allowing all to feel welcome and comfortable.

In order to prevent crossing the line from religion to cult, communities need to purge themselves of dogma, intolerance and ostracizing those with different beliefs, so their adherents have true choice on how to live their lives.





NOTA SULL’AUTOREEli Federman serves as Senior Vice President & Chief Communications Officer of1SaleADay.com, the largest independently owned deal-a-day website. 1SaleADay hasrecently been featured on The View, Extra (TV), Wendy Williams Show and elsewhere. 

He earned his B.A. from Marquette University and graduated law school from City University of New York School of law where he served as executive editor of the law review and interned for civil rights lawyer Ron Kuby. He received his theological training at Mayanot and the Rabbinical College of America. 

He is also a community activist and writer whose work has been published in USA Today the NY Times, The Forward, Jerusalem Post, The Jewish Press and elsewhere on issues pertaining to sexual abuse awareness, gender equality, civil rights and improving police-community relations.



NOTA 2) Su Diane Benscoter, citata dall’autore nell’articolo, leggi il seguente post del 27 settembre 2013:

Identifying the Extremist Brain


Extremism has become a sensationalized catchall phrase, often used by politicians and mass media to polarize and to label groups of people as “the bad guys.”

But, what is extremism? And how do we get to the root of its destructiveness?

When I was 17, I learned about extremism first-hand. Young, vulnerable and searching for what I call ‘easy answers to hard questions,’ I left my loving, middle-class, midwestern — very normal and average, by all accounts — family and fell prey to the teachings of a religious cult.

I became a devout follower of Sun Myung Moon and was the victim of highly manipulative tactics. Being a “Moonie” completely dictated my decision-making processes. It tore me away from family, friends, my planned future, and everything else I had previously known and loved.

In my TEDTalk I define what happened to me as having been infected by a “memetic virus.” Once infected, I would have done anything for my “messiah.” My mind was closed, fixed, intolerant and impervious to change. I was an extremist.

If we hope to prevent extremist terrorism we have to begin with understanding the mental condition of extremist leaders. We also need to understand the mental condition of those most vulnerable to extremist tactics. Finally, we need to understand manipulation, the vehicle that connects the extremist leader and it’s victims.

Extremist Leaders

What causes someone to become a cult leader like Sun Myung Moon or Jim Jones, or a terrorist leader like Osama Bin Laden?

I agree with Neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor’s assessment that religious fundamentalism could be treated as a form of mental illness.

Extremist leaders are addicts. Addiction is a powerful force. The addiction to power and/or money can affect the brain much like other types of addiction. The overwhelming desire to feed any form of addiction can eventually lead to a type of psychopathy. In the most dangerous circumstances charismatic leaders, under the influence of their addiction, can make a powerful and potentially deadly discovery. They can discover, and put into action, a set of manipulative tactics that prey on vulnerable segments of society.

sun myung moon
Extremist Victims/ Followers

It’s hard to think of a terrorist as a victim, but we have to ask what’s going on in the brain of someone who straps a bomb to his or her body and detonates? As I express in my talk, with great repulsion, I understand how it could happen. I was a victim of extremist mental manipulation. So are they.

In these cases the victims are often young adults who feel lost in their world and desire the comradery and easy answers to complex questions offered by extremism. When I read the background of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing, I see a bit of 17-year-old me.



In my memoir, Shoes of a Servant — My Unconditional Devotion to a Lie, you can see how vulnerable I was to the specific type of manipulative tactics used by Sun Myung Moon and his followers and how I became an extremist. While Moonies are certainly not terrorists, it is the mental condition we need to understand.



What can we do?


There are many examples of how educational campaigns have greatly slowed down the spread of infectious diseases and brought awareness to important social topics. I propose that we create similar campaigns to combat extremism.

The complexity of preventing extremism should not be underestimated, especially in war-torn parts of the world where the use of religious fundamentalism is woven into the culture and vulnerability is high.

Fortunately there are organizations like SAVE (Sisters Against Violent Extremism) and Quilliam a London based Anti-Extremism think tank that’s working diligently toward solutions to extremism.

I’m also working on a new book and other projects that will help expose prevailing social tactics most commonly used by extremist leaders to manipulate. I look forward to the results of ongoing research by neuroscientists and psychologists working toward a greater understanding of cognitive processes associated with addiction and mental manipulation. When information about mental manipulation becomes common knowledge power-addicted extremists will have less success, because vulnerability will be lowered.


The War for Peace


We need a dual approach in ongoing discussions and to solve this problem. We need high-level strategic research of the brain to better understand addiction and vulnerability to manipulation. On the ground level, we need social understanding and education. Once we arm individuals with knowledge about vulnerability to manipulation they can better protect themselves and others. We can help the most vulnerable diminish their feelings of isolation, so that they can make informed, powerful decisions based on critical thinking vs. circular logic. Working together, we can ensure a less destructive world.





Nota sull’autrice: At 17, Diane Benscoter joined The Unification Church — the religious cult whose members are commonly known as “Moonies.” After five long years, her distressed family arranged to have her deprogrammed. Benscoter then left The Unification Church, and was so affected by her experience that she became a deprogrammer herself. She devoted her time to extracting others from cults, until she was arrested for kidnapping. The shock of her arrest caused her to abandon her efforts for almost 20 years.

Now, after decades of research and study, Diane has begun to speak about her experiences. She recently completed a memoir describing her years as a member of The Unification Church and as a deprogrammer.

Furthermore, she has embarked on a new project to define “extremist viral memetic infections.” She believes that defining extremism as a memetic infection, from a cognitive neurological perspective, might allow us to develop better memes that would inoculate against the memes of extremist thought. These inoculating memes could prevent the spread of extremist viral memetic infections and their inherent dangers.



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