Bird, Beast or Bat? The Dangers of All-Or-Nothing Thinking

A Bat, flitting through the forest, was captured by a gang of woodland Beasts.

“We are at war with the Birds,” they told him angrily. “You fly through the air like a Bird, but you have fur. Are you Beast or Bird?”

“I am a Beast,” he told them, and was released.

Flying on through the forest, he was soon caught by a group of Birds. “We see that you look like a Beast, but you fly like a Bird,” they shouted. “We are at war with the Beasts. So, are you Beast or Bird?”

“Surely, I am a Bird,” he said, and again flew free.

Eventually, the Birds and the Beasts settled their differences, but when they came to a census of who was a Bird and who was a Beast, they found the Bat on both lists. The combined council of Birds and Beasts called him forward, asking him to choose, once and for all, whether he was Bird or Beast.

“Can I not be both?” he protested. “Indeed, during the war I pretended to be one or the other to escape harm, but I have never felt enmity to either side, and count myself as kin to both.”

However, those who had fought fiercely in the war disagreed, insisting that no one could be aligned with both sides – otherwise, why had they fought, killed, and even died? So, the council of Beasts and Birds expelled him from both circles; to this day, the Bat flies alone, separated forever from the rest of the Creatures.

Of course, anyone who has taken a biology course knows that the Bat is a mammal, not a bird, but fables, with their talking animals and ever-present demigods, do not need to be biologically accurate to teach us their lessons. So, I have shifted the original narrative – where the bat is a coward who switches sides based on who is winning the battle – to fit the cautionary lesson upon the dangers of black and white, all or nothing, Manichean thinking.

This limited worldview is found in totalist groups and abusive relationships. One is either part of the elect or of the damned, with us or against us, part of the solution or part of the problem. This habit of thinking can follow survivors of such groups and relationships into their lives after they escape: those who still believe in the group’s teachings while speaking out against the abuses of the leadership are viewed with suspicion and even animosity by those who have yet to shed the belief system completely – and vice versa: there are angry people in every camp. Sometimes, cliques of survivors create circles every bit as isolationist as the cults they have escaped: if you are friends with this other survivor we don’t like, then you cannot be part of our club, and are every bit as evil as the cult we have escaped.

Shunning has become a practice: ignore, rather than persuade. Those still in the group are stripped of their human worth, demonized and treated as vermin. Anyone who disagrees with the opinions of how the “mother cult” should be treated are labeled enemies. Just as in the cult, there is only right vs. wrong, us vs. them, evil vs. good. And those survivors still caught up in cult-think will show the same hostility to those still in that they once felt to disbelievers.

Even those whose lives have never been shadowed by a coercive relationship often fall into this habit: this politician can do no good, that celebrity can do no bad. All the followers of this faith are evil, anyone who belongs to our club must be protected at all costs. Too often, the heuristic “shortcuts” we use to make sense of our world become intellectual crutches at best, and thought-stopping straitjackets at worst. Once the disease of all-or-nothing categorization sinks in, even the most rational and compassionate of us can ignore the humanity of millions with a single, thought-stopping phrase.

However, human experience and opinion is much richer and more diverse than the binary, limited choices offered in a black and white setting. Just as we can have flying mammals and flightless birds, we can have people who agree that an abusive group is harmful, but do not agree with us on what to do about the group or even the nature of the harm. Polarized, binary, black-and-white, Manichean thinking is not only a hallmark of an abusive group, it is also a mental trap facing all of us. It is up to each of us to be aware of polarizing attitudes, and remember that, most of the time, the answer is not one extreme or the other, but a middle path of moderation and acceptance of differing opinions. There is no value in simply dominating other people; to be wise, we have to talk and we have to consider facts – from both “sides” of any question. And, as Isaiah Berlin said, we should be intolerant of intolerance.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novel? Do you have a story about all-or-nothing thinking that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!

Certainty, Aversion and the War of Jenkins’ Ear – Jon Atack Talks with Pearse Redmond

Jon Atack and Pearse Redmond are together again, this time exploring a wealth of fascinating questions, including, but not limited to:

  • Who is Scientology TV produced for?
  • Why do we feel so certain about our beliefs?
  • Why did the German people of the 1930’s vote to give up their right to vote?
  • What is hypnotism?
  • What can we learn from the assault of Louise Ogborn?
  • How do salespeople get us to buy – NOW?
  • Has the actual quantity of bombings gone up, or just the prevalence of reporting them?
  • What is the cultural significance of aversion and disgust?

As always, it’s an amazing and thought-provoking conversation – a must-listen.

Dispensing of Existence: the Ultimate Undue Influence

Editor's Note: This entry is part 8 of 8 in the series Lifton's Eight Criteria of Thought Reform

Dispensing of Existence is the eighth and final point of Robert Lifton’s Criteria for Thought Reform, and the most deadly. The dispensing of existence is the division of humankind into two groups – those who are worthy, and those who are not.

It is the height of arrogance to decide who should live or die, and many abusive groups and individuals will flatly deny that they make this distinction, but separating the elect from the damned is a core belief of a totalist organization. In the totalist worldview, those who “know” have embraced the beliefs through which they will survive Armageddon, ascend to Enlightenment, or release them from rebirth into yet another lifetime of suffering.

In these closed systems, the rest of humanity is living a “false” existence; only those within the safe circle of the group know the truth. As in all abusive situations, this status as member of the elect is tenuous and depends upon the continued devotion and obedience of the believer. Those in the group are sure that if they leave, they will be damned along with unbelievers. They may be seen as worse off than those living in ignorance, as they have heard the “truth” and rejected it.

Dispensing of existence is not limited to religious or pseudo-religious organizations. It can also be found in political parties, where those with an opposing viewpoint are dehumanized with thought-stopping labels such as “libtard”, “fascist” or “feminazi”. Business cults assure members that anyone who rejects their system will suffer the financial “death” of poverty. Therapy cults promise mental decline to escapees, and “health” cults warn that disease and death await those who stop using their products faithfully. Criminal gangs, and a few of the more abusive martial arts groups, often say that defectors will be murdered, to assure unswerving loyalty believers through sheer terror. Similarly, an abusive spouse will often say that if they cannot have their partner, no one else can: some domestic abuse situations end in murder just after the abused partner has finally left.

Dispensing of existence is the most severe of the eight criteria, so it is the most powerful weapon in a predator’s arsenal. As the ultimate in created aversion, the dispensing of existence creates a bond of fear, keeping victims of undue influence from escaping. To escape takes healthy skepticism: no one can tell us whether we “deserve” to live or die – and a critical thinker will see these threats for what they are. At Open Minds, we promote independent decision making and the sovereignty of the self.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about the Dispensing of Existence that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Word of the Day: Manichean

Manichean comes from Manichaeism, a third-century Persian religion incorporating Christian, Zoroastrian, Pagan and Gnostic elements, but ultimately espousing an extreme worldview involving an epic struggle between the forces of good and evil. In modern terms, Manichean refers to a dualistic philosophy incorporating black and white thinking, or simply a viewpoint which excludes, or even dismisses, the idea of any moral grey area.

Some years ago, I was having a tense conversation with a soon-to-be ex-boyfriend, whose lawyer was fighting off the collections department of a large corporation. The lawyer, who was working for free, had advised him to lie for a better chance of settlement (doubtless the lawyer used plausibly deniable language, as lawyers always counsel their clients to tell the truth). For me, it helped to shift this man’s role in my life from current to ex; it was the wrong moral choice to commit perjury, even when it was a “victimless” crime, and I told him, using far more direct language than his lawyer had.

“So, you just think we should all just roll over and let the corporations run roughshod over us?” he snapped.

Any student of debate will recognize this as a “straw man” argument, where an absurd over-exaggeration of the opponent’s viewpoint is used to denigrate their whole line of argument. Like the “slippery slope” fallacy, this form of false logic relies on the idea of black-and-white thinking, where something can be one or the other, but never both, and one is either willing to commit a felony for the “right” cause, or one is shaking hands with the enemy – there is literally no middle ground.

High-control groups and even abusive individuals often use Manichean thinking to create double binds with which to ensnare their victims: You’re either with us or against us; Either you toe the line and ignore your disbelieving family member, or Jehovah will be angry with you; Either you spend time only with me, or you’re an out of control slut; Either you think our leader is wonderful, or you hate our group and everything it stands for (and should be harassed as an enemy of all that is good and right).

Manichean thinkingNow, I could also be tasked with holding a “black-or-white” viewpoint in stating flatly that perjury is wrong, but although I cannot conceive of such a situation, I am willing to concede that it might – just might – be the acceptable moral choice, but it would have to be a very serious matter: such as if perjuring oneself was going to prevent, say, a genocidal massacre, or some sort of global disaster, or at the very least, keep them from making another “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequel. Simply put, I am open for debate, even in hypotheticals.

A Manichean system, however, is never open for debate. Or, rather, believers will “debate” you happily, but there is no recognition of your views or your evidence. This is negative fervor, that zealous state where belief is all-encompassing and everything centers upon that belief. There is no room for other opinions or possibilities; speaking out against the abuses of a group is tantamount to a slap in the face to every member, having compassion for an enemy’s child is to let evil into the ranks, not shouting yourself hoarse at the rally means you don’t really believe in the Cause. It’s all or nothing, and you MUST commit completely; to do anything else is akin to treachery. As Yuval Laor says, the group or relationship is viewed like a child; it is a very bad idea to suggest that there is anything imperfect about a child to the child’s parent.

Once the world is so vastly simplified, any action, no matter how horrible out of context, becomes acceptable, even laudable, when committed for the perceived good of the group. Civil rights are suppressed, and whole populations are relegated to sub-humanity. Extremist, Manichean thinking is a foundation of undue influence.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about Manichean thinking that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

An Insecure Base: How a Cult Is Like a Movie Set (or a Rat Park).

How is a Cult Like a Movie Set?

Lauren/Sylvia: Don’t you ever feel guilty?

Christof: I have given Truman the chance to lead a normal life. The world, the place you live in, is the sick place.

1. It Could Happen to You

Christof: He could leave at any time. If his was more than just a vague ambition, if he was absolutely determined to discover the truth, there’s no way we could prevent him. I think what distresses you really, caller, is that ultimately Truman prefers his cell, as you call it.

it could happen to youThe phrase “It could happen to you”, emblazoned across a poster depicting a jetliner hit by lightning, is not the kind of warning we expect to see in a travel agency. Yet, in the movie The Truman Show, this is exactly what Truman sees when he goes to buy a ticket to leave the quiet town where he lives – the place where his actions are constantly controlled, monitored and broadcast worldwide, 24 hours a day.

The intent of Christof, the director and the creator of the show, is to prevent Truman from abandoning the set, which he believes to be a town inhabited by sincere and joyful people. To do this, Christof is committed to creating a fear of the outside world within the unwitting protagonist, by describing it as full of danger.

Security only exists inside the group, everything outside is dangerous; a Manichean vision that strongly resembles life in a cult. Even there, one or more demiurges, charismatic builders of new worlds, instill in their followers a fear of anything beyond the confines of the group. What is outside is irrelevant, if not terrifying. In one scene, we can see the little Truman at school, expressing the desire to become an explorer. The teacher responds promptly: “Oh, you’re too late! There’s nothing left to explore … ” There is no world outside the cult.

Christof quoteTo prevent Truman from discovering his fake reality, the director has delicately invented ways to dissuade exploration, and broadcasts fake channels with news reports on the dangers of traveling and television shows on how good it is to stay at home. So it might seem that the director, as the cult leader, if not guaranteeing positive freedom – that is the ability to choose – at least allows a kind of negative freedom, that is, the lack of impediments to the choice, but this is not actually true, because fear is a powerful impediment. This is what Steven Hassan refers to when he writes:

When cult leaders tell the public, “Members are free to leave any time they want; the door is open,” they give the impression that members have free will and are simply choosing to stay. Actually, members may not have a real choice, because they have been indoctrinated to have a phobia of the outside world. Induced phobias eliminate the psychological possibility of a person choosing to leave the group merely because he is unhappy or wants to do something else[1].

But there is another impediment that eliminates that possibility of a “free” choice and demonstrates that the lack of overt violence and explicit threats are not a guarantee of freedom. George Orwell points out the issue well when he writes:

“…public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law. When human beings are governed by ’thou shalt not,’ the individual can practice a certain amount of eccentricity: when supposedly governed by ’love‘ or ’reason,’ he is under continuous pressure to make him behave exactly the same way as everyone else.”[2]

Truman “feels trapped into a familial and social world to which he tries to conform whilst being unable to entirely identify with it, believing that he has no other choice”, some psychoanalysts noted[3].

2. Seaheaven – an Insecure Base

Christof: Seahaven is the way the world should be.

seahaven the way the world should beEverything we have said so far about the movie The Truman Show, in addition to being an excellent metaphor for the management of a cult, is also the perfect description of how good parents should not behave with their children. The British psychologist John Bowlby told us clearly:

All of us, from the cradle to the grave, are happiest when life is organised as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures.[4]

This means that children should develop trust in their attachment figures in order to explore and enjoy the world, safe in the knowledge that they can return to their secure base for help if needed. In other words, a secure base is provided by care-giving figures who are sensitive and responsive and support exploration, because they know that their children are sure of their care, and can turn to them as a safe haven when upset or anxious.

Though the tiny town where Truman lived was called Seahaven (that is, Sea Haven), its function is absolutely different from what Bowlby attaches to the safe haven provided by good parents. Seahaven is the only safe place for Truman. A “safe haven”, as Bowby intended it, is the harbor where we can take refuge when the storm comes, and a starting point for new excursions to the open sea. In other words, a secure base. Exactly what a cult is not. A cult, like the director of the Truman Show, discourages exploration. So what is lost is the ability to look at the outside world with confidence. The sea is always stormy.

A Manichean system in which every security is placed within the limits of the cult implies general insecurity and a strengthening of the attachment to the only perceived centre of certainty: the cult, its leaders, its teachings and its dogmas. That is what we call insecure attachment, whereas the condition of trust in caregivers and confidence about the wider world provides a secure attachment. Some studies suggest that insecure attachment is a risk factor for the development of psychopathology in childhood and in later life. It seems that these first life experiences of attachment affect self-esteem, self-regulation of emotions and behavior and the quality of relationships throughout life[5].

3. Mothers in Cults Are Like Matryoshka

Christof: I know you better than you know yourself.

Truman: You never had a camera in my head!

I know you betterSome of the followers of a cult are mothers. Mothers should be a secure base for their children. Therein lies a problem. They cannot be a source of security and confidence, because of their own lack of security and confidence. In fact, the imbalance of power between the cult leader and the follower is analogous to that between parent and child. The leader is supposed to be the caregiver; the follower is infantilized. It is a set, a fake island where the leader is wise, powerful, devoted and trustworthy in the opinion of the disciples, and where the world outside is dangerous and misleading. The mother is wise, powerful, devoted and trustworthy in the opinion of her child, but inept, impotent and incapable without the leader’s guidance with respect to her own opinions.

So there is a bigger mother, the cult, which contains a smaller one, the “disciple” mother. It is like a matryoshka, the traditional Russian doll. The child asks his/her mother for guidance, and the mother asks the leader. How can an insecure mother give security to her child? What we know is that this insecurity in the mother is further fed, precisely by leveraging on the condition of maternity. In fact, cults direct the mother’s childrearing, to increase the perception of non-control by these women, whose power is not recognized, even in the most natural context of care-giving and responsibility for the child.

The ways to do this are:

  1. Control of conception and pregnancy
  2. Discouraging the mother-child bond
  3. Control of time spent with the child
  4. Actual or threatened removal of the child from the mother
  5. Monitoring and judging the relationship between the mother and the child

The conflict between their own sense of what is right and the cult’s control could lead mothers to three different solutions:

  1. The mother may continue to consciously disagree with the cult practices, but will give in externally to resolve the pressure being applied on her. These mothers are often characterized as bad group members.
  2. Some mothers may repress their sense of right, fully embracing the group’s ideology, yet maintain an unconscious feeling that something is wrong. These may often be the “good” cult members.
  3. Some mothers may resolve the conflict by a total submission to the group and its deceptions, perhaps in exchange for a degree of power. These are the mothers who become permanently trapped[6].

Mothers of group b are like Truman who, according to the above -mentioned psychoanalysts, lives “in a familial and social world to which he tries to conform while being unable to entirely identify with it”. That’s why he was able to get a boat and leave Seahaven.

4. Addiction and Cults

Truman: Lauren, right? It’s on your book.

Lauren: Lauren. Right. Right.

Truman: Well, I’m Truman.

Lauren: Yeah. I know. Look, Truman, I’m not allowed to talk to you. You know.

Truman: Yeah, well, I can understand, I’m a pretty dangerous character.

Intervening in the mother-child relationship means interfering with the deepest bonds provided by nature and disrupting, for many women, the basis of much of their identity. Why is this so important? Because the relational condition plays an important role among the factors that help to maintain a condition of dependence. To understand this, let’s try to respond to this question: What causes drug addiction? Probably most of the people will respond: “drugs with their chemical hooks”. But if you break a leg, for weeks you may be given an opiate more powerful than heroin, but it is unlikely that you will become an addict.

According to a study by Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander, there is another variable that explains the addiction to drugs[7]. In his experiment, called “Rat Park”, Alexander created two environments: the first is the classic ‘rat in a cage’ to which morphine was administered, and a daily amount of the drug left for it in a vial. The second, however, is a “paradise for rats,” the Rat Park, complete with games, cans, running wheels, food and other forms of entertainment where rats could entertain social and sexual relationships. Even in Rat Park there was a bottle of morphine; this was also administered to the rats.

The result was eloquent: the rat in the single cage stuck to the bottle and in no time it developed an addiction to drugs, losing interest in any other activity. The rats of Rat Park, after an initial enthusiasm, dropped the bottle. Some would return every so often to consume small amounts; others not even that. In a “social environment” that is broader and more interesting, the rat feels no need to “take drugs,” the study concludes. We can suppose that, if it remains locked in a cage alone, the drug is an effective way of escape for the rat. It is, in fact, an adaptation to the circumstances.

This probably also occurs in the “cult addiction”. In fact, the effectiveness of undue persuasion increases in specific relational conditions. So if we ask, “What causes enslavement to a charismatic leader?” The right response is not, “The leader, with his or her psychological hooks”. The process is very similar to that which we have just seen. In a cult, we replace a substance with new relationships and new beliefs. In other words, some people might surrender to persuasion because they live like the rat in the cage. What is offered to them is an artificial, good integration, in a warm and safe environment. It’s a kind of rat park.

That could be a good world for a rat, but what about humans? It is an artificial reality. It’s like Seahaven in The Truman Show: another cage, with the initial one inside. The cage of loneliness and dissatisfaction contained within the park rat, a painted cage, with no apparent bars and a blue sky drawn on the background. Larger forms with smaller ones inside. It sounds like the matryoshkas again, which brings us back to the “disciple” mothers. It is clear that this condition poses a risk to the loyalty to the group and its leader. A good mother-child relationship may reveal itself as a viable escape route from absolute cult ownership. The power of love and the importance of the child in her life could distract the mother from the cult.

good eveningA religious allegory that one could read into the movie we are using as a metaphor relates to the Garden of Eden, from which Adam (Truman), having eaten from the tree of knowledge, wants to leave. In every “heaven” (Seahaven), a snake inevitably appears . This is also the case in Truman’s ersatz paradise: the woman who reveals to him that he is on TV, before being removed from the set. His dream of finding her is also the dream which, at first, he doesn’t know he has, of finding the truth of the outside world. Similarly, the mother-child bond can become a tree of knowledge. A child could be the opening that reveals the light of the outside world and awakens the inner one. This is a fissure that a cult must necessarily seal, as Christof does, when he tries to prevent contact between the star of his show and the girl he loves.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about cults that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

[1] Hassan, S., Combating Cult Mind Control, 1990, p. 65; new edition Freedom of Mind Press, Newton, 2015
[2] Orwell, G., Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays, 1950, pp. 71–72
[3] Brearley, Michael; Sabbadini, Andrea (2008). “The Truman Show: How’s it going to end?”. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis 89 (2): 433–40.
[4] Bowlby, J, A Secure Base. Basic Books , New York, p. 62
[5] Lorenzini R., Sassaroli S., “Attaccamento, conoscenza e disturbi di personalità”, Raffaello Cortina, Milano, 1995
[6] Stein, B., Mothers in Cults: The Influence of Cults on the Relationship of Mothers to Their Children, 1997
[7] Alexander, B.K., Beyerstein, B.L., Hadaway, P.F. & Coambs, R.B. (1981). The effects of early and later colony housing on oral ingestion of morphine in rats. Pharmacology, Biochemistry, & Behavior, 15, 571-576.

After Charlottesville: Alex Stein Talks About Totalist Structures on Chicago Public Radio

Our board member Alexandra Stein has just done an excellent interview on Chicago Public Radio, entitled “After Charlottesville: the psychology behind extremism and cults.”

She and host Jerome McDonnel discuss the inherent similarities in all coercive situations, whether they be in an intimate relationship or in a high-control group, religious, political or even financial, and framing the experience of being in an abusive group in terms of Attachment Theory. An excellent listen.

What do you think about this interview? Do you agree? Have you read Alex’s book? Do you have a story about totalism that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Fifth: “Thou shalt not kill” – The dark side of faith

You’re walking along the railroad tracks when you see a runaway trolley barreling down. It is about to hit five people standing on the track. You are next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a side track. However, there is a little problem: you notice that there is one person on the side track.

You have two options:

  1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track, where it will kill one person.

What should you do?

When we ask this question, 90% of people all around the world say that they would pull the lever. That is because one is less than five. So it seems that the moral choice of the lesser evil is a matter of arithmetic. This is perfectly in line with Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism: “It is the greatest good to the greatest number of people which is the measure of right and wrong”. So, we might rewrite the Fifth Commandment as follows:

You Shall Not Kill, unless killing fewer people will allow to save a greater number of people.

If it is so, if we want a human being to commit actions that involve the death of some individuals, we have just to convince him or her that this action will allow to save a greater number of people and his or her conscience will not be disturbed. All the better if it is supposed that this majority is wrongfully mistreated. In fact, many terrorist proclamations are based on the concept of the deliverance of mistreated multitudes.

However, if we take a look at a different version of the same moral dilemma, things change. Now there is the same runaway trolley and the same five people on the truck about to be killed, but you are looking from above a footbridge. Next to you there is a huge man. You know that with his bulk he could stop the train and save those five people.

You have two options:

  1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the track.
  2. Push the fat man off the bridge, so that he dies, but the five people are saved.

What should you do? When we put the “trolley problem” this way, 95% of people say that they would not push the fat man over. Yet the mathematics is the same: 1 vs 5! The difference seems to be that in the first case, the person dies because he is on the track by accident, and his death is not necessary to save the other five, while in the other case, killing the fat man is essential to save them. To refuse to kill the fat man is in line with Immanuel Kant’s thought: “Act in such a way you always treat humanity, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end”. This is a moral necessity, absolute and forever valid, from which all other duties and obligations descend (Kantian categorical imperative).

Jihadist terrorism is comparable to the “fat man” case, not to the “side truck” one. It is the difference between killing someone and letting them die, the same difference we can find between “strategic bombing” (that is, when we bomb military targets and public infrastructures to win a war, even if this makes many innocent victims) and “terror bombing” (an indiscriminate bombing to frighten a country into surrender). The first is in accordance with the doctrine of the double effect proposed by St. Thomas Aquinas: “If a bad effect is not the means by which one achieves a good effect, action is not reprehensible”. Actually, St. Thomas can be used to justify many abominations, but there are situations that cannot be justified even with his advice.

The Utilitarian calculus is no longer applicable to Jihadist terrorism, because the death of ‘Western’ people is not “collateral damage”, but a means to the ultimate goal. Only individuals recognized as “psychopaths” believe that pushing down the fat man is a good deed, but terrorists are not psychopaths. (Silke, A., 2008).

Even if it is admitted that this cold Utilitarian calculus is permissible, this does not take account of human sensitivity. In fact, let us examine another moral dilemma:

Jim finds himself in the central square of a small South American town. Tied up against the wall is a row of 20 Indians, most terrified, a few defiant, in front of them several armed men in uniform. The captain in charge explains that the Indians are a random group of the inhabitants who, after recent acts of protest against the government, are just about to be killed to remind other possible protestors of the disadvantages of protesting. However, since Jim is an honored visitor from another land, the captain offers him a guest’s privilege of killing one of the Indians himself. If Jim accepts, then as a special mark of the occasion, the other Indians will be let off. If Jim refuses, then there is no special occasion and 20 Indians will be killed.

What should you do if you were Jim? You probably would not be able to kill an innocent person, even if it is a good deed in a Utilitarian sense. That is because there is a crucial moral distinction between a person killed by me and a person killed by someone else. We are “moral agents” who decide according to our own integrity and preserving our psychological identity. To kill an innocent person, is not enough to do it because it is good, but we need something that preserves our integrity, that resolves our cognitive dissonance.

That is why many anthropological and sociological theories concerning Islamic terrorism are fallacious. Some readings of the phenomenon tend to minimize the role of religion and faith (or fideism) in favor of explanations centered on psychological, political and social aspects, but to defuse the power of a categorical imperative we need another categorical imperative! To kill innocent people believing we are right we need to hold a world view that does not give equal dignity to “us” and to others. We need a faith! We need an exclusive belief system that posits a one and only Truth and makes us look at the outside world with suspicion, fear and hate. Denying this is only possible by acting like an ostrich or applying to that form of intellectual dishonesty that is called political correctness. So the explanations based on the concept of “superstructure” (globalization, cultural fragility, and so on) only contain part of the truth. Let us see an example:

According to Scott Atran [Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) France],

– Religion has little to do with Islamist terrorism

– Daesh/ISIS exploits the potential of suffering, indignity and humiliation in Muslim societies

– So what motivates participation in violent political action is a “parochial altruism”

This is the scheme:

The five on the main track represent the Islamic community that is constantly overwhelmed by the train of humiliation, suffering and indignity. The expendable person on the side track is the unbeliever. The one who pulls the lever is the jihadist and the action of pulling the lever the expression of his parochial altruism. But, as we can see, Jihadist terrorism is like the “fat man” case, and we cannot kill someone as a means to an end.

Parochial altruism does not explain the silence of the categorical imperative (the fat man) and the overcoming of the “agent problem” (Jim’s dilemma), that is, unless the victim is not properly “human”. If we replace the fat man with a gorilla (or the 20 Indians with 20 monkeys), people respond in a different way. They tell us that we can sacrifice a primate to save more of them. Dehumanization passes from Kant to Bentham. This “dehumanization” is only possible thanks to the moral disengagement brought by the exclusive belief system discussed above.

When dehumanization operates, the victim is no longer viewed as a person with feelings, hopes and concerns, but objectified as a lesser sub-human. This is only one of the eight moves to achieve a moral disengagement described by Albert Bandura (1990). Fanaticism can activate each of the eight mechanisms.

Only a blind and fanatic faith can produce a moral disengagement that blows up the emotional servomechanisms selected by evolution (aka, moral dumbfounding). Before modern scholars of social sciences explained the processes of persuasion, before they tried to explain terrorism with complex theorizations -such as Drive-Theory or Social Learning Theory – and highlighted the systematic errors, or bias, needed to fixate an individual into his dysfunctional worldview, three thinkers had already explained the risks inherent in the lack of doubt produced by an exclusive and total belief system:

The first thinker was Isaiah Berlin: after a fable by Archouls, he divided men into foxes and hedgehogs. The first are the expression of pluralism, the latter, of monism: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows the big one”.

The pluralist knows that conflicts of value are an intrinsic, irremovable part of human life (the fox knows many things), so he does not consider it necessary to impose his truth on others.

For the monist, instead, all genuine questions must have a true answer, and one only (the hedgehog knows the big thing); all other responses are errors. Hedgehogs need borders, walls, landmarks.

“The mass neurosis of our age – Berlin said – is agoraphobia”. That is what we call Need for Closure (NFC). There is a strong relationship between “Need for Closure” (ie need for certainty), in measurable clinical scale, and extremism (Kruglanski, Chen, Dechesne, Fishman and Orehek, 2009; Kruglanski, Belanger, Gelfand, Gunaratna, Hetiarrachchi, Orehek, Sasota & Sharvit, 2013; Orehek, Sasota, Kruglanski, Deschesne & Ridgeway, in press).

This could be explained by the second thinker, Max Weber. Berlin’s hedgehogs act within Weber’s ethics of principles. The hedgehog refers to absolute principles, without posing the problem of the consequences that will arise from them (“the operation was successful but the patient died”), making possible moral disengagement, while in the ethics of responsibility, attention is paid to the relationship, means, / purpose and consequences: foxes’ stuff.

Why does the ethics of the principles lead to those that Paul Watzslavick called ipersolutions (dangerous actions which are thought to have a role in one’s salvation)? The answer is in the third thinker, Karl Popper, who said that: “irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice”. Faith and ideologies are not subjects of confutation, so those theories cannot be confirmed either. We can euphemistically say that the ideas that are supported with more “enthusiasm” are those that are held as dogma and, as such, cannot be validated in their claim of absolute truth. The greatest example is religious ideas, but political ideologies can also make such a claim. Moreover, demonstrable concepts do not require great effort to be imposed; the effort is needed to convince others only of that which cannot be proved, which is, usually, the fact that we are better than them. In fact, as Voltaire said, there are no sects in Geometry.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about radicalization that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Atran, S. (2019), L’Etat islamique est une revolution, Les Liens Qui Libèrent Editions, Paris Bandura, A. (1990). Mechanisms of moral disengagement. In W. Reich (Ed.), Origins of terrorism: Psychologies, ideologies, theologies, and states of mind (pp. 161-191), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Berlin, I. (1953), The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London
Kruglanski, A. W. (2004). The psychology of closed mindedness, Psychology Press., New York
Kruglanski, Chen, Dechesne, Orehek, & Fishman (2009) Yes, no, and maybe in the world of terrorism research – Reflections on the commentaries, Political Psychology, Vol. 30, No. 3, pp. 401- 417
Kruglanski, Belanger, Gelfand, Gunaratna, Hetiarrachchi, Orehek, Sasota & Sharvit (2013) Terrorism–a (self) love story: redirecting the significance quest can end violence, American Psychologist, 68, pp. 559-575
Edmonds, D. (2013) Would You Kill the Fat Man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong, Paperback
Popper, K. (1974) La società aperta e i suoi nemici. Volume II: Hegel e Marx falsi profeti, Collana «Filosofia e problemi d’oggi», Armando, Rome, (It. Ed.)
Silke, A. (1998), Cheshire-cat logic: The recurring theme of terrorist abnormality in psychological research, Psychology, Crime & Law, Volume 4, Issue 1; 2008, Holy Warriors. Exploring the Psychological Processes of Jihadi Radicalization, European Journal of Criminology, Vol. 5 (1), pp. 99-123.
Thomson, J.J. (1990), The Realm of Rights, Harvard University press, Cambridge, Ma
Paul Watzlawick, P. (2013), Di bene in peggio. Istruzioni per un successo catastrofico, Feltrinelli, Milan (It. Ed.)
Weber, M. (1996) Scienza come vocazione. E altri testi di etica e scienza sociale, Franco Angeli, Milan (It. Ed.)

The Comedian and the Communist Cult – a Review of Alexei Sayle’s “Stalin Ate My Homework”

stalin ate my homework cover

Comedian Alexei Sayle grew up in a communist household – but in Liverpool. Many people – and I do include myself – think of Alexei Sayle as the founder of British “alternative” comedy and one of the great artists of his time.

On stage, he often riffed on his childhood – as the creator of the first “Marxist-Leninist funk band”, for instance – but in the first volume of his autobiography, Stalin Ate My Homework, we find out what childhood in a doctrinaire pro-Soviet household was like back in the 50s and 60s.

The book opens with a six-year-old Alexei desperate to join his chums at the tenth anniversary relaunch of Disney’s Bambi. He knew that his parents wouldn’t approve (they “compromised” by taking him to see Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky!).

The book shines a light on the problems of second generation members (or “born-ins”) in any group – whether the views of the group are better than the culture around or not, the child is separated from the values of the society and will inevitably feel different. Sayle turned this to his advantage, but it was a very bizarre childhood.

As well as communism, Sayle had a second set of values to deal with: his mother was Jewish, but afraid to tell her own father that she had married out of the faith, in case she was ostracized. Some orthodox Jews “sit shiva” for any member who fails to follow the restrictions of the faith. The shunned person is thenceforth considered dead.

Sayle’s father, Joe, had to conceal his membership of the Communist Party, by direction of the Kremlin, so that he could infiltrate the British Labour Party. As Sayle remarks, “Though everybody understood that here was a man who was dedicated to introducing a one-party state in which government terror was a central tool for ensuring the dictatorship of the proletariat I would hear people say, ‘You couldn’t meet a nicer bloke than Joe Sayle.'”

His mother was a true believer, too: “Like Fundamentalist Christians who have to believe that every word of the Bible is true and those holy words were written by people who had no human foibles, so it was with Marxists like my mother. They only wanted to listen to messages that confirmed the things they already believed in written by authors who were ideologically pure … While I could leave pornography or alcohol lying round my bedroom I was forced to hide my copy of Brideshead Revisited in a secret compartment at the back of the wardrobe.”

Stalin Ate My Homework is a fascinating and at times hilarious account of an alternative childhood in post-War Britain. Read it and laugh.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Stalin Ate My Homework? Do you have a story about growing up with a totalist worldview that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Phobia Induction and Desensitization

Without enough human hearts to gorge on, Huitzilipochtli would leave the sun standing still in the sky and bring down catastrophe upon the whole Aztec empire: the crops would wither and the children would die. Who would risk checking if this dire prediction were true, when priesthood were so very certain?

This is phobia induction writ large, and it is exactly the sort of enforced dogma that plagues members of totalist groups and those in totalist relationships. The whole world becomes all or nothing: if you want the world to continue – or to take your place in heaven, or the socialist workers’ paradise – you must obey what on close inspection are capricious rules.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are terrified that Armageddon – the end of our world – will catch them unawares. Former members can break into a post-traumatic sweat at the very thought that they will simply die rather than joining their loved ones in paradise.

Departing Moonies have to overcome the threat that not only their souls, but the souls of all their ancestors are doomed to hell on their departure. Krishnas are told that they will be returned to the first step of the 84,000 incarnations necessary to be born human once more (or so a Krishna once told me). Scientologists will simply ‘lose their immortality’.

Of course, dire threats have been the rod of control for countless generations. The formula is simple: do as I say, or be reviled and punished.

This all seems laughable when it is someone else’s belief system, but the consequences are just as real in terms of panic as the threats of direct physical violence handed down by gangsters, traffickers and manipulative partners. Most phobias are induced by words rather than blows.

Desensitisation is an approach to diminishing fear. If someone is frightened of kittens, you first of all show them drawings and photographs; then film of kittens playing; you might then put them the other side of a window and then gradually introduce them to a kitten, step by careful step. Eventually, the kitten will sit on the previously phobic person’s lap (this example normally uses spiders, but I didn’t want to frighten anyone. My apologies to anyone suffering from gatakiphobia).

Desensitisation is as much mental as it is physical. If you have been scared half out of your wits by some prophecy of your doom, it is wise to face the phobia gently by peeling away the irrationality. Talking about it to a friend should help. If not, it may be time to find a counsellor.

Eventually, the phobia will dissolve and no longer be triggered by a chance comment. The manipulator may still be dangerous, but the strings of control are cut when a chill of fear is no longer overwhelming.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about a phobia you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!

My Top Ten Recommended Books

I have been asked to recommend 10 books which are either directly about cults, or are about subjects related to the phenomenon of cults. After much soul searching, I composed a list of 10 books, and here they are:

Books about the cult phenomenon and “brainwashing”:

1. Cults in Our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace (1996, 2003) by Margaret Thaler Singer and Janja Lalich

This book is a fantastic introduction to cults. Singer, a clinical psychologist and a pioneer in the study of undue influence, wrote the quintessential work about cults. This book, (which is a revised edition of a 1996 book by the same name), is concerned with what cults are, and how they function, but it does not give an account of what it is like to be in a cult, or what to do if a loved one has joined a cult.

2. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China (1961, 1989) by Robert J. Lifton

Robert J. Lifton is one of the giants of the field. This book is a landmark in the field of cultic studies, establishing much of the theoretical groundwork of the field. Most of the book is about thought reform in communist China, based on interviews with returning U.S. soldiers who had been taken prisoner during the Korean War as well as priests and students who spent time in Chinese prisons after 1951.

3. Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults, and Beliefs (2012) by Steven Hassan

While the first two books are focused on understanding the phenomenon of cults and undue influence, this book is much more practical. Drawing on his own involvement with the Unification Church, or Moonies, Steven Hassan gives a highly readable account of the phenomenon of cults, as well as a practical guide to helping people get loved ones away from the influence of such groups. It is important that family members of a person involved with a cult read this book early, since many people make matters worse when communicating with loved ones in cults.

4. Feet of Clay: a Study of Gurus (1996) by Anthony Storr

While cult members are more fundamental to understanding the cult phenomenon in general, cult leaders also deserve attention. In this book Storr offers an analysis of a number of figures he considers to be gurus. Some are classic cult leaders such as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later known as Osho) but others such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung are not the first people one thinks of when considering gurus. While the book is focused too much on the psychology, and not enough on the neurology, of such figures, it nonetheless offers an important analysis of gurus and cult leaders.

Great books which have not made the list include: The Manipulated Mind: Brainwashing, Conditioning and Indoctrination (1983) by Denise Winn; Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse (1993) edited by Michael Langone; and Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control (2006) by Kathleen Taylor.


Books about specific cults:

5. Let’s Sell These People a Piece of Blue Sky: Hubbard, Dianetics and Scientology (1990, 2013) by Jon Atack

This book is a well-written, thorough account of the fascinating history and nature of Scientology. There are many great books about specific cults. Some focus on what it was like to become and be a cult member, others are focused on the biography of a cult leader, and some concern the history of a specific group. Because I do not have room on this top 10 list, only Jon Atack’s wonderful account of Scientology represents this genre of important books (the fact that the author heads the Review Board at the Open Minds Foundation had nothing to do with my choice).

Books which have not made the list, but are nonetheless highly reccomended are: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (2013) by Lawrence Wright; The road to Xenu: Life inside Scientology (2010) by Margaret Wakefield: My billion year contract: Memoir of a former Scientologist (2009) by Nancy Many; Blown for good: Behind the iron curtain of Scientology (2009) by Mark Headley. There are many others.


Books on subjects adjacent to cultic studies

6. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (1974) by Stanley Milgram

Many people have heard of the infamous Milgram experiment, where subjects were instructed by an authority figure to administer electric shocks to an innocent person. Nobody was actually being shocked, and the experiment was designed to test people’s obedience to authority. In this classic book, Milgram offers an account of the 16 different variants of his famous experiment. His analysis of the subject gives an insightful look at the nature of authority specifically and human nature in general.

7. Contemporary Theories of Religion: A Critical Companion (2009) Edited by Michael Stausberg

This book is a collection of 15 articles, each giving a summery and a review of a book about a theory of religion. It offers a good introduction to different views in religious studies in general and evolutionary accounts of religion specifically.

8. The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, & Critiques (2008) Edited by Joseph Bulbulia, Richard Sosis, Erica Harris, Russell Genet, Cheryl Genet, and Karen Wyman

This is a collection of 50 short essays about various theories concerning evolutionary accounts of the phenomenon of religiosity. Some of these are better than others, especially since some of the authors come at the subject from the problematic point of view of the “cognitive science of religion”. Nonetheless, the book offers a good overview of the subject, as of 2008.

9. Varieties of Anomalous Experiences (2000, 2013) edited by Etzel Carde–a, Steven Jay Lynn and Stanley Krippner

This collection of essays is concerned with strange experiences. It includes chapters on Near-Death Experiences, Past-Life Experiences, Hallucinatory Experiences, Lucid Dreaming, Alien Abduction Experiences, Mystical Experience and others.

The (objective) study of subjective experiences is largely neglected in books about cult involvement. Most of them focus on doctrines, behaviors, group dynamics, and other important aspects of the phenomenon, but the subjective experiences people have, especially anomalous experiences, is not given the serious attention it deserves.

10. The Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs (1987) by Michael Persinger

While the previous book concerns experiences from a psychological point of view, this book tackles them from a neurological perspective. Even though the book is almost 30 years old, and its opinion regarding the function of religion is wanting, it is a very thoughtful and highly readable introduction to the neurology and nature of what the author calls “god experiences”.

Persinger describes patients with neurological impairments, particularly temporal lobe epileptics, that cause them to become “hyper-religious”. Through understanding the hyper-religiosity that can come about after a specific brain injury, Persinger offers a fascinating theory of religiosity and religious experiences.


Another good book about the religiosity of temporal lobe epileptics is Seized (2000) by Eve LaPlante.

Books which have not made the list include: The Origins of Totalitarianism (1973) by Hannah Arendt; Crowds and Power (1962) by Elias Canetti; The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976) by Julian Jaynes; Changing Expectations: A Key to Effective Psychotherapy (1990) by Irving Kirsch; How Religion Works: Towards a New Cognitive Science of Religion (2003) by Ilkka PyysiŠinen; A Sociology of Religious Emotion (2010) by Ole Riis and Linda Woodhead; and, finally, the hilarious The Savvy Convert’s Guide to Choosing a Religion (2008,) which has been written anonymously.


Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Which books on your shelf should we include in future lists? We’d love to hear from you! 


Arendt, H. (1973). The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Atack, J. (2013). Let’s sell these people a piece of blue sky: Hubbard, Dianetics and Scientology. River Forest, IL: Richard Woods.

Bulbulia, J., Sosis, R., Harris, E., Genet, R., Genet, C., & Wyman, K. (Eds.). (2008). The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, & Critiques. Santa Margarita, CA: Collins Foundation Press.

Canetti, E. (1962). Crowds and power. London: Gollancz.

Carde–a, E., Lynn, S. J., & Krippner, S. (2000). Varieties of anomalous experience: examining the scientific evidence. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Hassan, S. (2012). Freedom of mind: helping loved ones leave controlling people, cults and beliefs. Newton, MA: Freedom of Mind Press.

Headley, M. (2009). Blown for good: Behind the iron curtain of Scientology. Burbank, CA: BFG Books Inc.

Jaynes, J. (1976). The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Kirsch, I. (1990). Changing expectations: A key to effective psychotherapy. Pacific Grove, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.

Langone, M. D. (Ed.). (1993). Recovery from cults: Help for victims of psychological and spiritual abuse. London: W. W. Norton & Co.

LaPlante, E. (2000). Seized: Temporal lobe epilepsy as a medical, historical, and artistic phenomenon. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Lifton, R. J. (1989). Thought reform and the psychology of totalism: a study of “brainwashing” in China. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Many, N. (2009). My billion year contract: Memoir of a former Scientologist. La Vergne, TN: CNM Publishing.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Persinger, M. A. (1987). Neuropsychological bases of God beliefs. New York, NY: Praeger.

PyysiŠinen, I. (2003). How religion works: towards a new cognitive science of religion. Leiden: Brill.

Riis, O., & Woodhead, L. (2010). A sociology of religious emotion. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Singer, M. T. (2003). Cults in our midst (Revised edition). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Stausberg, M. (Ed.). (2009). Contemporary Theories of Religion: A Critical Companion (1 edition). London; New York: Routledge.

Taylor, K. (2006). Brainwashing: The science of thought control. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

The Savvy Convert’s Guide to Choosing a Religion. (2008). Venice, Calif.; Hove: Knock Knock Books.

Wakefield, M. (2010). The road to Xenu: Life inside Scientology. Lexington, KY:

Winn, D. (1983). The manipulated mind: brainwashing, conditioning, and indoctrination. London: Octagon Press.

Wright, L. (2013). Going clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the prison of belief. New York, NY: Knopf.

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