Instead of pointless debate over whether they should be called ‘cults’, I believe the spotlight should be focused upon their inner workings and their effects. Many of these groups are insular and secretive by nature, and foster disregard for the law, believing that they are above it. The face they present to the public to attract new converts, and the reality of life once on the inside, are very different. Nobody joins a cult thinking ‘I’m going to join a cult.’ You go through a process of conversion.
A cult preys upon the goodness in people, the idealism, the desire to serve some greater purpose. In the beginning you see only the high ideals, the beautiful face of it, you are literally what is termed ‘love bombed’, made to feel special, loved, important. You are encouraged to disconnect from former family and friends who can’t possibly understand the truth of your new beliefs. You attach to the group as your new family and once hooked , you are then slowly introduced, indoctrinated and conditioned into the more insidious doctrines and practices. Freedom of information is controlled from within and without. Critical thinking is discouraged and called ‘doubt’, which is a serious offense. Those who question the teachings and dogma are punished. You are made to feel that everything within you is evil and only by staying close to group and the leader can you attain enlightenment.
It is no secret that the term “brainwashing” was first coined in communist China, where they carried out mass indoctrination on an entire country. Yet even before the Chinese had a go, Hitler was steadily working toward his dream of a zombified Arian race at his command, and the atrocities that ordinary people committed against those outside their race, showcased the dangers of pressurized group-think and mind control on a massive scale.
A group dynamic has dangerous potential, for humans can be made to do things they ordinarily wouldn’t on their own. People will go along with things that, as an individual, they may consider to be wrong, just because everyone else is doing it. They will refrain from questioning the actions of the group or its leader, for fear of being singled out or turned on by the group.
Being part of a group with ideals and goals you share, gives one a natural feeling of superiority over those outside the group–the unenlightened, the lost, the damned. Believing you have the ultimate truth also grants you an authority or “higher law” over “man’s law”. In the words of St. Peter and the apostles taken to court in the Bible, ‘we ought to obey God, rather than man’. This is where disregard for civil authority, government and law factors in.
Now let’s bring children into the picture, because it is the children born into these environments which are the real subject of concern, indeed, of this post. I believe cults are an unsafe environment to raise children in. It’s a bold statement, I know–one of those things many have a vague idea must be the case, but nobody pronounces definitively because there is a general trepidation over stepping on the religious rights of the parents, or pointing fingers at their doctrines and practices, which play a major role in the raising of their children.
I should begin by making this part of the issue very clear: a parent’s religious right means they can believe and practice whatever they choose. However, the moment the practice of that right infringes on the rights of another individual, then it becomes a problem, even and especially when that individual is their child.
They have the right to religious freedom. They do not have the right to abuse the Rights of the Child in pursuing that freedom.
These rights have been very clearly outlined in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. I will proceed, using this comprehensive charter to demonstrate why I believe cults (in particular, those who shut themselves off from society at large) are inherently unsafe environments in which to raise children.
Article 3 (Best interests of the child): The best interests of children must be the primary concern in making decisions that may affect them. All adults should do what is best for children. When adults make decisions, they should think about how their decisions will affect children.
This is the very first problem and perhaps defines all the rest. The environment of a cult is such that the adult members themselves are incapable of forming their own decisions. The autonomy of the individual is reduced to an infantile acceptance of the leaders’ dictates. What is commanded from the top is instantly obeyed by the “foot soldiers”. Parents have little or no say over the raising of their children, are very often absent working for the good of the group and the children reared by other members.
All things pertaining to child rearing within authoritarian cults is dictated by the leadership.
This bleeds directly into Article 12 (Respect for the views of the child): When adults are making decisions that affect children, children have the right to say what they think should happen and have their opinions taken into account.
Obviously, if the adults themselves do not have a complete say over their actions, it is impossible that the children’s rights in this matter would be adhered to.
Article 7 (Registration, name, nationality, care): All children have the right to a legally registered name, officially recognised by the government. Children have the right to a nationality (to belong to a country). Children also have the right to know and, as far as possible, to be cared for by their parents.
In America alone, there are over 3,000 cults. That continent having vast stretches of country in which any little fundamentalist group can build a compound and disappear from society, police and governmental oversight. I venture to suggest that there are thousands of unregistered children who have fallen through society’s cracks.
That aside, the nature of a cult is such that fellow members within the group become family. Everybody believing and adhering to the same ideals are innately “good”. The implicit trust of other ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ within one’s cultic family is absolute. Children are often cared for by random members within the group. There is no ‘screening’ process, as exists in regular society, of those in whose care the children are placed. This environment, in and of itself, creates a higher possibility for harm to occur.
This links directly to Article 19 (Protection from all forms of violence): Children have the right to be protected from being hurt and mistreated, physically or mentally. Governments should ensure that children are properly cared for and protect them from violence, abuse and neglect by their parents, or anyone else who looks after them.
If and when abuses do occur, they will not be taken to police or government authorities as would be the case within larger society. Everything is dealt with internally. What happens “in the family” stays “in the family”. This means that abusers are very likely given a slap on the hand and relocated to a new city (in the case of an international cult), where their abusive practices will recur. If this sounds a great deal like the Catholic church, we must remember that abuse of power exists within all religions, institutional or cultic.
However, children raised in mainstream society have a system of checks and balances in the form of teachers, nurses, doctors, etc., who can recognise symptoms of abuse and intervene. Those born and raised within these more insular groups are schooled within the group. They lack any contact with “outsiders”. This automatically removes the structure of support given by those outside of their immediate environment. The child has nobody to turn to. His word is never believed over that of an adult adherent and even if it were, it is likely that all the adults are involved in some degree with the child’s abuse, exonerated by their beliefs.
Governments, therefore, cannot ensure that the children are properly cared for or protected, if a) they do not know of their existence and b) have no interaction of any kind with the children in question.
Article 13 (Freedom of expression): Children have the right to get and share information, as long as the information is not damaging to them or others. The freedom of expression includes the right to share information in any way they choose, including by talking, drawing or writing.
Article 14 (Freedom of thought, conscience and religion): Children have the right to think and believe what they want and to practise their religion, as long as they are not stopping other people from enjoying their rights.
Freedom of information rarely exists within a closed cult. Knowledge is power and any good authoritarian cult leader knows this. One of the first ticks on the textbook list of how to create a successful cult, is control of information. Limiting what a member reads, listens to, or watches and surrounding the adherent only with the group’s own material, means they are less likely to have a comparison to make an informed decision, less likely to doubt the veracity of the ‘leaders’ dictates, more likely to go along with just about anything.
With this in mind, a child raised within this limited world, will not have the right to ‘get and share information’, indeed will know nothing other than what they are told is ‘true’ and ‘right’. They certainly will not have the right to think and believe what they want and practice any other religion outside that of the cult’s own dogma and beliefs. Not unless they want to risk severe punishment and possible banishment from family and friends. To stay in the group, you must believe, practice and think as the group.
Which takes us right into Article 17: (Access to information; mass media): Children have the right to get information that is important to their health and well-being. Governments should encourage mass media – radio, television, newspapers and Internet content sources – to provide information that children can understand and to not promote materials that could harm children. Children should also have access to children’s books.
Books, radio, television and internet will always be a big ‘no-no’ for the same reason mentioned above–freedom of information. Only materials sanctioned by the leadership, which do not in any way contradict the opinions and beliefs of the group will be permitted to be perused. Anything which encourages counter-opinions and critical thinking are as dangerous to the group’s continuance as explosive fire-bombs.
Article 24 (Health and health services): Children have the right to good quality health care – the best health care possible.
This may seem obvious, but the nature of many belief systems are such that doctors, medicine, etc. are never considered in matters of health, and in some cases, even counter to the group’s doctrines and practices. There have been numerous court cases surrounding parents whose beliefs did not permit blood transfusions, even when it would save the child’s life. Absolute trust in God in many cases, means refusal of ‘worldly medicine’. If God wills the child to die, then who are the parents to question the will of God?
Article 28: (Right to education): All children have the right to a primary education, which should be free. Young people should be encouraged to reach the highest level of education of which they are capable.
Article 29 (Goals of education): Children’s education should develop each child’s personality, talents and abilities to the fullest. It should encourage children to respect others, human rights and their own and other cultures. It should also help them learn to live peacefully, protect the environment and respect other people.
Again, education means knowledge, and knowledge encourages critical thinking. Most cults will educate their children to read, write and do basic maths, as these are skills which are necessary and useful within the group. However, subjects like science and history are often limited to only what compliments and coincides with group belief. Higher education is not only discouraged and disallowed, but within apocalyptic cults, it is seen as unnecessary. If the world will soon end, then higher education is pointless. Self development and future ambitions are pointless. Protecting the environment is pointless. Learning the basic skills which would enable a child to function as an adult in society at large such as writing a CV, managing a bank account, filling out tax forms, etc. are not taught. If you are born into a closed cult, you will only learn those things which enable you to function within the cult. If you choose to leave as an adult, you will be ill-prepared for life on the “outside”.
Of course, it is natural that a parent would wish for their child to follow them in their beliefs, culture and lifestyle, but a child has a right to choose their own life path when they reach adulthood. Yet how can they, if they are not given the information and knowledge with which to make an informed decision? A parent who truly had their children’s happiness in mind would also permit them to explore their own interests and find their own life’s purpose, even if that did not coincide with their own desires.
Article 32 (Child labour): The government should protect children from work that is dangerous or might harm their health or their education.
Article 34 (Sexual exploitation): Governments should protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse. This provision in the Convention is augmented by the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.
Article 36 (Other forms of exploitation): Children should be protected from any activity that takes advantage of them or could harm their welfare and development.
The Children of God/Family International, FLDS, Branch Davidians are all examples of the sexual abuse and exploitation that goes on within groups with no government oversight or intervention until it is too late. There are also many recountings of manual and physical labour performed by children with cultic groups, including Children of God and Scientology. Often hard physical labour is used as a punishment for rebellious children who question group doctrine, or will not submit to authority. In other cases, children work for the group in fundraising efforts, selling cult materials or performing for monetary purposes.
The greatest worry are groups which function in 3rd world countries where there is little or no oversight into their workings, they can do what they please without intervention and where members will not be prosecuted for crimes committed outside the jurisdiction of their Western home countries. There must be greater international cohesion to prosecute offenders and abusers for crimes committed abroad.
Children within these groups are certainly never made aware that they have rights at all and are often instilled with a fear of government and police. This serves to deter inquiries into alleged human rights abuses, for when questioned by authorities, the children, already terrified of the ‘evil police’, will lie to protect their parents. They are told that what is done to them is not abuse, but the “outsiders” could not possibly understand the doctrines and beliefs given them by God.
The many accusations of sexual abuse within the Catholic church is testament to the fact that abuse can occur anywhere, in every religion. What is unacceptable is the consistent cover up of abuses and failure to turn over the guilty parties to law. Perhaps they believe that it will be a negative reflection on their religion or belief system if such abuses are leaked to the public, but by covering them up and trying to pretend they have or do not happen, there is a much greater loss of public trust and esteem than if they had dealt with it in an above board manner and turned the culprits over to the law in the first place.
Article 37 (Detention and punishment): No one is allowed to punish children in a cruel or harmful way.
Many, and this is not confined to cults alone, feel it their religious duty to discipline their children in a manner which could be considered as both ‘cruel and harmful’, using beating, solitary confinement, withdrawal of food, etc. as legitimate disciplinary methods. Many Christian Fundamentalists follow the age old maxim of ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ to administer harsh beatings. Muslim Fundamentalists will even go so far as to kill their own children who ‘wander from the path’ in honour killings. Certainly in closed, extremist cultic groups this goes without saying. Children who step out of line are often dealt with in brutal and unnatural ways. Beatings, exorcisms and confinement are used to drive out the manifestations of the ‘devil’ in the child.
Article 39 (Rehabilitation of child victims): Children who have been neglected, abused or exploited should receive special help to physically and psychologically recover and reintegrate into society. Particular attention should be paid to restoring the health, self-respect and dignity of the child.
I can personally attest to the general lack of resources and knowledge about the issues children growing up within closed authoritarian groups face when leaving and integrating into society. Most therapists have little or no idea of how to treat ex-cult kids, for which reason most will never even go to a therapist, or those who try, often give up the idea after realising the ignorance of those who should be knowledgeable on the subject. Many ex-cult kids feel like lab specimens, isolated and different, never really belonging anywhere, with glaring gaps in their general knowledge of popular culture and lingo.
Most kids who leave their cultic environment are thrown into the world without any support or knowledge of how to function within it. They are forced to face life on the outside without help or resources because, to leave a cult often means being “disconnected”, that is, cut off from family and former friends.
It is little surprise that ex-cult kids experience a range of problems adapting and integrating into society, yet most would rather die than go back to the group–and many do. There are high rates of suicide and drug overdose amongst ex-cult kids.
A study done by Dr. Jill Mytton on 290 ex-cult children revealed a significantly higher level, in respect to their secular peers, of the following:
– obsessive compulsive behaviour (reflecting the constant vigilance developed as children)
– interpersonal sensitivity, a sense of inadequacy and inferiority
– anxiety and paranoia
– Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (symptoms include hypervigilance, nightmares, avoidance of triggers such as the Bible and churches, flashbacks, etc.)
– sense of loneliness
– difficulty making decisions
– a loss of, or uncertain identity
There needs to be more detailed information about and a greater awareness of the problems/challenges faced by this demographic of children, that would enable those who need help to be better served by the professionals and organisations that have the resources to provide a support structure.
I believe that it is imperative the following questions be addressed in order to ensure that these children are being raised in the best environments possible to their mental and physical well-being:
How do we balance freedom of religion and belief with the rights of the child?
How do we raise visibility and awareness of a largely invisible problem and population of children?
How do we gain access to monitor the welfare of children within closed and secretive groups?
How do we balance the need for access with rights of privacy?
Peter Frouman, a director of Safe Passage Foundation, offered the following suggestions.
1. A child protection system that has adequate resources and authority to actually protect children from harm and prevent violations of their human rights rather than only feebly reacting after the harm has occurred. In countries where child protection agencies exist, many of
them are extremely underfunded, understaffed and overworked. Throughout the world, military spending is exponentially higher than child protection spending. Imagine what could be done if a tiny fraction of military spending were reallocated to child protection.
2. Holding cults and cult members financially accountable in the civil justice system for the significant economic harm that their flagrant violations of the basic human rights of children have caused.
I will add a couple more:
3. Institute a form of international law and cooperation so that crimes committed by citizens in foreign countries can be prosecuted.
4. Expect all “new religious movements” to register with the government of the country in which they operate, and to present a charter of rights for all the members, including and especially of the rights of children.