SacredTensionNewReligiousMovements SUMMARY KEYWORDS religion, new religious movements, people, cult, jonestown, group, brainwashing, question, satanic temple, called, leader, colts, talking, absolutely, religious, scientology, church, world, america, students SPEAKERS Joseph Laycock, Stephen Bradford Long
Joseph Laycock 00:00 And one thing that I believe is that human beings need some kind of created order to think about their lives, right that we need a language we need a structure for reality that is not inherently there. You know, we don't we're not comfortable saying, well, the order of the worlds right people wear pants, we eat pigs, but we don't eat monkeys. You know, we pet dogs. We don't pet cockroaches. We don't want this to be arbitrary, because we can imagine it being a different way. And so one of the ways to create that sense of psychological security that we need to function in the world is the idea of well, there's a transcendent order, this is the will of God, this is the will of Heaven.
Stephen Bradford Long 01:06 This is sacred tension, the podcast about the spiritual discipline of asking questions. My name is Steven Bradford long and we are here on the theology corner Podcast Network. Today I am speaking to Joseph Laycock. Again, Joseph, welcome back to the show.
Joseph Laycock 01:21 Thanks for having me.
Stephen Bradford Long 01:22 So last time, we had you on we were talking about Dungeons and Dragons in the Satanic Panic and about your book dangerous games, which is a fabulous book and it was a great conversation. Today, we're going to be talking about new religious movements, aka cults. So before we get started, just share some of your your history, your bio, your field of study.
Joseph Laycock 01:45 So I am trained to study American religious history under Steve prothro at Boston University, but I'm interested in kind of the more controversial and marginalized religious groups and maybe that's because I'm from Austin, and I remember experiencing the events in Waco, Texas as a kid. Oh, that's right around the Branch Davidians. And so now I am a I'm on the editorial board for a journal called Nova religio. And this is a journal that produces new scholarship and research on on these kinds of groups.
Stephen Bradford Long 02:20 I think the first question and the most obvious question and then I'll hand it off to my listeners, the academic world tends to call colts new religious movements where as popular culture kind of the rest of us just refer to these weird fringe groups as colts why new religious movements? Why not just call them cults? Why is that distinction important?
Joseph Laycock 02:43 So the word cults originally it's, it's related to the word cultivates it goes back to Greco Roman times and when he would talk about cultist, DRM the care of the gods, he would go to a temple and you would take care of a God the way that you take care of your your houseplants, right, so on its most basic level of cult just refers to any organized form of worship. But in the 1970s in America, we had what were called the cult wars. And this was a period of time when a lot of new religious movements got really big really fast. And I'm talking about movements like the Harry Christmas that everybody saw at the airports with their ponytails, the Moonies, who are in the news recently for doing a blessing of the AR 15. Rifle after the controversy in Florida, a group called the children of God who engaged in a practice called flirty fishing, which basically involves getting young women to use their bodies to spread the religion. And so there was this cultural moment where we said these cults are destroying America. And these cults are brainwashing our children and some scholars in sociology mostly pushed back and said, Well, wait a second, wait a second, what is a cult you can label anything a cult, and it implies all these terrible destructive things, which might be true, some of these groups really do have pretty serious problems, but it might not. And so they wanted a less pejorative label to talk about what they were studying. And I'm not sure they really solved the problem, right? Because it's not really clear what defines something as a cult. When I asked my students they will often say things like, well there has to be a really authoritarian leader and they have to be doing inappropriate things with money but then here in Central Texas when I asked people to name some religions that are cults they will often say Wicca right well we'll go are paganism has no leader
Stephen Bradford Long 04:34 and as it would probably be considered a pretty valid religion.
Joseph Laycock 04:37 I mean, the charter legally it's a valid religion. There certainly have not been that many cases I can think of, of sort of pagans being involved in violence. It doesn't have any of the characteristics that they usually ascribed to a cult. So why is it a cult I think really what these religions all have in common is that they kind of freak out the mainstream religious establishment which is mostly Protestant and so in religious We'd like to pretend that the work that we're doing is scientific and that we are taking. We're taking these kinds of objective frameworks for what we study. But really, whether we call it culture, new religious movements, we're studying things that kind of freak out mainstream Protestant America. And we've begun to say that's, that's a little bit of a problem. That's maybe not the best way to organize the data.
Stephen Bradford Long 05:20 So generally speaking, kind of, unofficially, a cold is anything that freaks out the wasps.
Joseph Laycock 05:26 That's right. The problem with the word cult is it is shorthand for all these other bad things that a group may or may not be doing, right. But you kind of are able to say these things about a group subliminally, right? I didn't actually say your group was involved in brainwashing or your group was involved in money laundering. I just said you were a cult. And I'm gonna let the listener you know, infer all those associations that we have with the cult stereotype.
Stephen Bradford Long 05:54 I have a friend named Chris Shelton. I don't know if you're familiar with him, but he comes on the show. He's been on the show two or three times. And he is a former Scientologists member of the sea org, and he wouldn't call himself an expert in colds but he calls it you know, he is an expert in Scientology. And when I asked him about this, he said that there is a difference between cold and destructive cold, and that cults are, you know, kind of everywhere. cults are ubiquitous, but the difference is a destructive cult, a destructive cult meaning a group that starts to prey on their people that starts to do nefarious things. Would you agree with that differentiation between Colt and destructive cult?
Joseph Laycock 06:38 Yeah, this is actually really important. I think that partly why we use this word cults is because we want to protect the word religion, we want religion to only refer to good things, right? We want religion to be something positive, that that unifies us, and we want to be tolerant. So we want to be open to religions other than our own. But then we need some other word now to talk about something that looks a whole lot like religion, but that we think is bad. And with my students, I encourage them to be more comfortable with just saying, you know, I think this is a bad religion. Yes, it's legally it's a valid religion. But it's, it's bad. And you know, certainly with a group like sea org, you can point to a lot of things that are arguably bad or bad that have happened in the past. That doesn't make it not a religion necessarily,
Stephen Bradford Long 07:25 exactly. How about if I go ahead and let my listeners take it from here, I collected a lot of questions from social media. You know, I announced that I was having an expert in new religious movements. Come on, I think we're in this cultural moment. Or maybe we're in a cultural moment. That's just never gone away since since the 70s. But we seem to be fascinated with cults right now. For example, there have been lots of shows lately out about colts there's Waco, there's a you know, American Horror Story last year did their season about a colt. And so we just seem to be in this moment that's obsessed and fascinated with Colts. And I'm sure there's more insight there. But so a lot of people were very interested in this conversation and had lots of questions. Here's a question from Donald, can you tell us two to three new religious movements that have started within the past five years, you know, we tend to think of colts as a thing of, you know, Jonestown, Scientology, Heaven's Gate, all of these new religious movements, they tend to be more in like the second half of the 20th century. Can you name any that are that have just started within the past three to five years? Yeah, I
Joseph Laycock 08:36 mean, there's a there's a gap between when a religious group starts and then when other people find out about it. And then finally, when scholarship is produced on it, sure. But the American Academy of Religion national conference meets every year, I'm currently reviewing articles that have been submitted on that one trend of growth we're seeing right now is in what's called invented religions. So this would include things like Jedi ism, okay, people who would say I'm a Jedi, I call on the force that's a bit older than five years, but not a whole lot more. And this is a trend we're seeing towards you know, if you want to create a new religion in the 21st century, that the traditional ways of starting a religion where either you tell people this is really ancient, and maybe it's been rediscovered, or you tell people I had a revelation from from God to start this new religion. And you know, some people have argued that the best way to do it in the 21st century is just to be honest with people and say, Look, I made this up, but hey, cool, and we can have a cool religion together. So Jedi ism would fall in that category. There are other religions kind of based on media. Another area we see is lots of schisms of pre existing groups. So there is for example, a group called the Native American church that the government has said is allowed to use peyote for traditional purposes. There is now a guy named James Mooney, who is for Probably more European ancestry than Native American has taken the title flaming Eagle for himself, he started his own sort of branch of the Native American church. And there's an argument about is this is this real or not, there was a controversy. Last semester, while I was teaching my class about a group, I think their their name is pronounced Nexium or something like this. But it is a kind of self improvement route for young women. And there was a story that this involves branding people somewhat against their will, oh, my goodness. And so you know, and so a lot of these things are kind of in this kind of gray area between what we traditionally think of as a religion and being something else. So this group presented itself as a kind of self improvement program, or a kind of network or something like this, but it seemed and there's a lawsuit going on right now. So we won't know kind of all the details until later, but seem to have some of the kind of classic things that people are afraid of goes goes on, in a group like this, including a kind of giving over your your autonomy to a to a powerful leader. So yeah, there's lots of growth going on. But there's a little bit of a gap for how fast we can keep track of
Stephen Bradford Long 11:09 it with something like the new Satanic Temple or the Satanic Temple be considered a new religious movement,
Joseph Laycock 11:15 I consider the Satanic Temple, a religious movement. But this depends on how we define what a religion is, right. And this is something that the government refuses to do. Supreme Court doesn't want to come in and say, This is a religion, and this is not. So by default, the branch of the government qualified to do this is the IRS. Right? The IRS gets to decide if you're not really if you're a religion, or not just if you have to pay taxes or not. There's a slight difference between being a church that has money coming through it and being a religion, the argument that Satanic Temple is not a religion is that they're atheists, they say we don't believe in God, we don't believe in the devil. The argument that they are, is they would say, look, not all religions are about supernatural beliefs. We have this really powerful symbol, which is the Satan of the Romantic poets and of John Milton, it means a lot to us, we do rituals together that shapes our worldview. That's what makes it a religion. And I'm actually the more that I've known about this as an example, I visited their headquarters in Salem, and they they do have rituals that they do all by themselves. They don't do them to annoy people or to annoy Christians. That's a lot of what they do. Yeah. But they do seem to be sincere that this actually does mean something to them. It's not entirely just about irritating their their political friends.
Stephen Bradford Long 12:32 I mean, even in Yeah, so like, even in a basement alone, they're still Satanists. And you know, I bring up the Satanic Temple. By the way, for listeners who are interested, I have two episodes with the Satanic Temple one with Greg Stevens, who is a spokesperson for the temple to go through the seven tenets of the Satanic Temple and then two leaders from gray faction to talk about the Satanic Panic. So if you're interested, go check those out. But one thing that really interests me about the Satanic Temple is how they're entering into this kind of gray space with religion. And do you think that religion in America and this is my question, and this isn't from a listener? Do you think that religion in America in this current age is changing that the way religion looks and a fundamental level is shifting somehow, where you know, we've had kind of these monoliths of religion in America, Christianity, or Protestantism, Catholicism, so on and so forth. And you know, we can look at those and say, here are the pretty basic characteristics, they gather together in a particular place. They believe in a literal supernatural deity or dogmas, there's a central book, so on and so forth, central rituals, just all of this basic stuff, you know, and I'm sure that I'm way simplifying it, you know, I'm sure that it's more complex than what I'm portraying it as, but do you think that that's changing? Do you think that the fundamental makeup of what religion is in the way practitioners of religion do you think that it's changing in a fundamental way
Joseph Laycock 14:02 so JC Smith was a very famous scholar of religion he just died this year but he's he said that the default of what a religion is supposed to look like four Americans is Protestantism. Yeah. And the more something looks like a Protestant Church, the more likely we are to say yes, that's that's a real religion. And as evidence for this he's looking at a case from 1983 involving Santeria, right, which is a traditional Afro Caribbean religion from from Cuba. And this was about whether this town in Florida who did not like having this religion in it could pass a law banning animal sacrifice. And in the decision, the Supreme Court said, this is absolutely their constitutional right. You can't make a law blocking them from doing this as part of their religion, but in doing that they kind of frame Santeria as if it was a Protestant church and they talked about kind of this community comes together to share their values and so forth. and JC Smith said, this is kind of odd, because really what they're doing is they're offering, you know, chickens to the gods, right in exchange for blessings of the gods, and they're talking about it as if this was kind of like an Episcopalian gathering because the subtext if it's if it's not, if it's that different from Episcopalians, then how can we defend it legally? So I do think you're right, that we're moving a little bit away from that assumption that religion means you have a building that people go to once a week and you have hymnals and things like this. The other factor that we see is in demographics, when we survey Americans, more and more of them are saying, I have no religion. And people like Richard Dawkins have tried to claim these people as atheists. They're not atheist. These are people who might describe themselves as spiritual but
Stephen Bradford Long 15:48 who still read their horoscope or still, you know, have a Tarot reading, they still believe in a supernatural higher power,
Joseph Laycock 15:55 are they pray to God? Yeah, absolutely. And I think that this is especially big with with millennials. And interestingly, I think that this too, is a consequence of Protestantism. I think the idea that if you're really spiritual, you won't just go to a community and let them tell you what to do, you'll figure it out yourself, in a weird way dates back to kind of Martin Luther, his critiques of the traditions of the church that this was empty ritual, and that faith begins in the hearts. So there's a kind of irony there that I see the kind of spiritual but not religious trend to be at its core, a very Protestant orientation to the sacred,
Stephen Bradford Long 16:33 absolutely, you know, something that along those lines, something that I've been thinking about a lot, because I've been doing a lot of self examination, I consider myself a deeply religious person, I would at this point, call myself kind of a non theist, I'm a member of the Satanic Temple. But I'm also you know, deeply Christian, I don't think that that will ever go away. And I'm somehow in this weird place of being able to have both of those, you know, I go to an Episcopal Church, and I'm a member of the Satanic Temple. And then I teach yoga, and I'm kind of a Buddhist, and it was Buddhism that really got me through a lot of my very dark ruts. And my partner is a former Jesuit novice, and you know, we're kind of this weird conglomeration of stuff, and just looking at myself and noticing how I have this DIY approach to faith. And I think that that's kind of indicative of my generation as a whole. You know, I feel like millennials, we kind of have this Do It Yourself approach to religion and faith and spirituality, which really freaks out the old guard, you know, which really just terrifies or freaks out the more established mainline religions.
Joseph Laycock 17:42 Yeah, there was a very famous book on the sociology of religion in America that came out in the 80s. And they met this woman named Sheila. And she said, Well, my religion is Sheila ism, and Islam. And she's explained exactly that sort of thing that, you know, my parents are Quakers. And I love Taoism. And I love Native Americans. And at the time, that was pretty bizarre. And there was a lot of papers on Sheila ism. And what does this mean? I think that, oh, you know, a significant percentage of the country are doing some form of Sheila ism.
Stephen Bradford Long 18:14 Yeah, absolutely. Well, and you know, when I'm honest, I have to admit that that's what I'm doing. I value religious identity. So very much I value my religious upbringing and identity and kind of these these guiding myths so much, I don't want to live without them. But at the same time, kind of the old, the structures that have been given to me aren't working for me, for whatever reason, I also have to accept science and empirical evidence and skepticism. And so I have to somehow wed all of those together. And I think I speak for a lot of my listeners when I say that the most of my audience is in this place of kind of this deconstruction of old Christian faith and finding this weird new amalgam of some, you know, this compromise of what we hold on to and what we let go. Moving on to another question, have new religious movements declined, because we don't seem to hear about them as much these days. And this is coming from Ben. And so you know, I think what Ben is referring to are like the big colts of the latter half of the 20th century, you know, Scientology Heaven's Gate Jones town, children of God, have colts kind of gone on the decline or underground.
Joseph Laycock 19:29 I think that we're not seeing movements of the kind of scale that we did in the 70s. For all the kind of fuss about Scientology in the media lately. Conservative estimates are there's only about 20,000 Scientologists out there, and most of those are in Los Angeles. So we might not have Scientology in 50 years, or it might have changed into something totally different. Harry Krishna is better known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness is still exists. I don't think they're as big as they were in the 70s Interesting They've began a project called Krishna west where they've said, you know, why do we have to have robes and ponytails? Why can't we look and dress and acts like Americans and still be about kind of the faith in Krishna. So that could be another change is that we're seeing these classic groups kind of reformatting themselves in ways that we don't notice them as much anymore. I think that there is some room for growth online, I think it's easier now to go online and kind of form a group that interacts with each other through the internet. But, you know, we know historically that most, most new religions don't last very long. It's pretty rare that a religion actually survives, you know, more than a century. If it does, it tends to be here to stay.
Stephen Bradford Long 20:43 That's really interesting. Here's a question from Joe on Twitter. What do anti vaxxers have in common with cults?
Joseph Laycock 20:50 This is a that's a really, it's a really interesting question you were asking earlier, why are we so fascinated with cults? And you know, all my students are, you know, really interested in podcasts that cover cult violence, there's, there's, there's a podcast is called cults.
Stephen Bradford Long 21:07 And it's a great podcast. Yeah, yeah. But this
Joseph Laycock 21:09 is a little bit inexplicable, right? Because in the 60s and 70s, you know, we had all these parents whose kids went off to college and joined a cult in the 90s, we had these incidents of cult violence, right Heaven's Gate, and Waco, and so forth. We don't really have anything like that right now. And yet, there's this fascination. My theory about why that might be is because we are culturally, so divided over things like vaccines and the authority of experts. We are kind of, you know, labeling each other's media as fake news. And really, it's fake news. And I think partly what is at stake with this kind of cults label is, these are people who look like me talk like me, but they see the world in a completely different way. Right. And it's a way of kind of getting your head around the fact that your neighbor could be sort of part of your culture, but thinks that Obama is secretly still president and Trump is about to, you know, is going to unleash this satanic pedophile ring that Hillary Clinton is part of. And you know, I mean, there's really wild stuff out there. Yeah. And I think that what we saw in things like American Horror Story is kind of setting these two things side by side, right and saying, What does this political division and political extremism have to do with with a religious extremism? So I guess that's kind of what I sense being at stake there. And the question is kind of how do you how do you explain people who have a totally different understanding of what's happening in the world and what's happening in their in their country?
Stephen Bradford Long 22:41 Yeah, it's almost like is, I think another example is flat Earth ism. There's one example that drives me absolutely nuts, because everyone around me is just raving over it. Young Living and doTERRA essential oils, where they believe that and I don't know if you know about this or not, but they believe that, you know, pure essential oils can cure cancer, I had a friend put essential oils on my fucking cat to try to calm her down. And it's, it's almost this it is also weirdly a cult of personality, where young living the founder is this charismatic charlatan and fucking everyone in this area is into it. And there seems to be now like this, this blurring of scientific integrity or scientific understanding of the world, or critical thinking of the world, at least that's how I see it. That's, that's what I'm perceiving. And so no essential oils can't cure cancer. No, not vaccinating your kids is not a good thing. No, you know, Hillary Clinton does not have a pedophile ring out of a pizza joint, or know that the Earth isn't flat, you know, these these weird blind spots these weird black holes within our reasoning? And is that somehow like, the new manifestation in our age of the same kind of stuff that created colts in the 70s? And 80s?
Joseph Laycock 24:09 Yeah, so there was a book on legitimating new religious movements. If you start a new religion, how do you convince people that what you're saying is true? And one of them is revelation, right? saying, listen, God really talked to me, I'm, I'm for real. And if you're very charismatic person, you could persuade people of that, but another one was reason, right? I mean, groups like the Satanic Temple would fall into this, they would say, look, what we're proposing is reasonable. And so with that strategy, I think goes a kind of appropriation of the cultural authority of science, right, saying, you know, look, what we're doing is scientific. What mainstream scientists are doing is not really scientific, what we're doing is and so it's weirdly kind of promoting this alternative understanding of the world and it's, it's sold as being as being reasonable as being based on on science. And this isn't a new thing or really at all, if you go back to the church of Christian Science and the 1800s, yes, right. This was Mary Baker Eddy was saying faith healing is real. And it's not it's not supernatural, right? This isn't a sense something empirical. And of course, in her day, you are often better off trying faith healing than going to a doctor, because medicine was not nearly as as advanced. So So there's, you know, as strange as some of the things going on right now are there they're not really unprecedented. For
Stephen Bradford Long 25:29 sure. Here's a question from Timothy, would you consider progressive Christianity a new religious movement? If so, how?
Joseph Laycock 25:37 Yeah, I don't think it kind of bears the family resemblance to a lot of the groups that we study. This is again, the problem with the category, right? When people submit papers to the conference panel on new religious movements, or they submit proposals to the journal that I edit. We don't have like a list of topics that are okay. And a list of topics that are not so I mean, I would, I would argue Christianity began very progressive, right? Yes, absolutely. Like socialism is pretty progressive, I think in and of itself, that probably would not qualify. However, there have been various kind of experimental communities in progressive Christianity, that I think would more have that family resemblance to the other kinds of groups that we study groups that are sort of experimenting with creating kind of their own society and organizing themselves differently. There's a long history of these kinds of experimental communities in America. And of course, Jonestown began as a progressive Christian movement or Absolutely, Jonestown, before everything went bad. So I think it depends less on, are they progressive, but sort of, you know, how, what are they doing to kind of distinguish themselves as a as an organization from other kinds of Christian groups?
Stephen Bradford Long 26:52 Sure. So here's a question that I have, you know, kind of, as I've been reading about this subject, I'm fascinated with Heaven's Gate. I'm especially fascinated with like the alien religions. I think they're just so fascinating. I'm fascinated with, you know, Waco, and Jonestown and kind of all the big classic colts and out of the big Colt scare in the 70s and 80s. There was this thing called deprogramming. And kind of the flip side of that is called Mind Control. And so you know, this idea that colts reprogram your mind and that it's, it's deeply powerful. And, you know, they use cult Mind Control techniques. And then you have people there's one individual, I can't remember his name, who was a professional D programmer, you know, we have these people who've made a career of either kidnapping people out of cults and deprogramming them, you know, and so on and so forth. But now, what I've heard lately is that this whole idea of cult programming and deprogramming is maybe not very accurate isn't true. And could you help me understand that some
Joseph Laycock 28:01 so this was a big part of the cult wars, right was this idea of of brainwashing? The idea of brainwashing begins in the Korean War. So it was originally an idea coming out of the intelligence community, American POWs in that were captured in North Korea would occasionally be videotapes, you know, giving speeches about how communism is good, and they don't want to go back to America because Americans are evil. And in 1950, a journalist with ties to the CIA published or wrote a newspaper article with this term brainwashing. So that was the first time we had seen the word. And what he basically implied was, there is a kind of secret that has an ancient history in Asia, of controlling people's minds, and getting them to think the way that you want them to think. And the term brainwashing was a loose translation of a term that actually comes from Confucianism, and a more accurate term might be cleansing the heart. So there is some truth to this, we know that in these POW camps, they would do things like tell people, if you write an essay about why communism is good, we'll move you to a larger sell, right. And so those kinds of tactics, especially if you have complete control over everything that somebody does, because it's like a POW camp sometimes really can shift your attitude. Some people if they write enough essays about something will begin to believe what they are writing. But this was also a kind of a way for the intelligence community to explain why Americans would ever say such things. And so it was began as something in espionage. And so this famous movie and novel The Manchurian Candidate, introduced this concept to Americans. And then it was a decade later that these new religious movements come in. And so it shifts from being something that foreign governments do to something that weird religions supposedly do. And an interesting transition in this I think, is the Mel Brooks sitcom get smart. And so there's they did an episode with a character called the groovy guru who was both a kind of A new religious leader who was recruiting hippies, but also secretly was a spy who worked for the bad guys. And not long after that episode came out, you get this kind of explanation of well, why did my son drop out of college and join the Harry Krishna is, it must be all the chanting that they do is this secret form of mind control. And so this this person, Ted Patrick, that you named, was hired to buy a woman to basically get her kids back from a group called the children of God. And Ted Patrick concluded this is brainwashing this is what they were talking about with the Koreans. And the only way to reverse it is to forcibly abduct people from these religious groups, and then brainwash them again, to sort of back how they were. And they would use the exact same techniques. So you might have forcibly drag somebody away from, say, a Harry Krishna ashram, take them to a hotel room tied into a chair, and say, you know, spit on this picture of Krishna. And I'll untie you, right or say, say you don't like Harry Krishna, and I'll give you some some water. And so it's, it's every bit as bad. And so this led to all kinds of legal cases, because if these groups were practicing religion, and people were choosing this as their religion, it's constitutionally protected. If however, this is actually some kind of psychological warfare, then these people did not choose a religion, they are sort of medically damaged, and have to be fixed. And so these court cases would have people like Margaret singer come in and say these religions brainwash people, and then the other side would say, just Coca Cola brainwash you, right? When they make you die. He would have to say, yes, right, right. That's also a form of coercion. So the brainwashing debate has kind of broken down. And I think where we can kind of agree is, of course, religious groups have sophisticated techniques to persuade you that their religion is correct. It doesn't seem like in most cases, they can actually kind of do something like The Manchurian Candidate, where they sort of turn someone into a zombie, what it seems like they're more capable of doing is kind of giving you really good incentives to stay in a group right? So to not leave, and that could be things like, you know, in Jonestown, Jim Jones literally had your passport and all your money. Right? Exactly. Just can't leave unless you're very, very motivated. Or the Jehovah's Witnesses will disfellowship people if they leave, right we can't associate with you anymore. So that's an incentive to to stay in the in the church. You know, talking about this, my students, I say, my my gym makes me sign a two year contract. If I want to quit the gym before the time's up, I can't. So they've given me this incentive not to leave even if I want to leave is that brainwashing? I mean, it seems to be of a peace with the kinds of things that that we call brainwashing. I think that this is actually much more kind of common sense and sort of easy to see than we originally imagined it as being something kind of mystical coming out of Asia and able to literally control people.
Stephen Bradford Long 33:01 And it's much more ubiquitous. I mean, these are ploys that businesses use and families use to good and bad effect.
Joseph Laycock 33:07 Yeah. And my students are kind of trying to brainwash me when they want, you know, an extension on a paper. I'm a whole repertoire of tactics that they employ.
Stephen Bradford Long 33:18 So here is a question from Baca. Is there anything that makes sense to him? Him being you? Is there anything that makes sense to you about what cult leaders have to say? Have you ever thought, well, they've got a point, yeah,
Joseph Laycock 33:33 this is quite common, right? That the kinds of people who become new religious movements, scholars tend to be very sympathetic to these groups tend to be very, they often tend to have a kind of bully complex. They don't like seeing people who are different being kind of picked on. And so there's a lot of anecdotal evidence of people going out and doing ethnography with these groups and deciding that they want to join, and often they don't join, but often they're sort of on the verge of it. And this is partly just kind of human nature, right. When I was doing research for my book on this group of apocalyptic Catholics out in New York, I didn't share any of their values. They were very homophobic and very conservative, but they were human beings, right. And after sort of working with them and accepting hospitality from them for three weeks, I thought these are kind of nice people even though I don't agree with their kind of politics or values at all. I guess the other thing I would talk about it there's a concept from theology, which I find really helpful called spiritual regrets, which is an attempt to describe looking at another religion and understanding it and thinking how that could actually be a really beautiful way to see the world but it's not your way. It's, it's somebody else's. So kind of this was you know, a theologian saying when I look at Buddhists meditating, and kind of think about the peace, the experience with music, that sounds really great, but I don't see the world the way a Buddhist Does because I believe in God. And I believe I have a soul created by God. And I believe in reincarnation and so forth. I feel that way a little bit with the Satanic Temple, this kind of sense of spiritual regrets, I kind of admire how some of their leaders have this ability to see something that they think is unfair and wrong, and just kind of embrace the kind of righteous indignation that comes with that. And I really admire that. On the other hand, you know, I looked at a script for a black mask that they performed, and I was like, I don't think I could do this.
Stephen Bradford Long 35:32 What is what is your spiritual tradition? If you have one?
Joseph Laycock 35:37 Yeah, so my wife and I are kind of culturally Catholic. And we got married in the Catholic Church, which was no small feat. There's a lot of classes and a paperwork and things like this. And my, my wife also studies Tibetan Buddhism. So if you look at our house, there's a lot of Buddhist art and things like this, that are up in the house. But Catholicism is our core tradition. And it has a lot more to do with kind of this is our tradition. This is our heritage. Yeah. And it's something that's important that we don't want to, to lose. Even if, you know, I get annoyed with something that say a Catholic Leader might might say, absolutely. I still stick with it.
Stephen Bradford Long 36:21 Cool. Very cool. Here's another question from Becca on Twitter. Is there anything about the cold phenomenon that is distinctly American?
Joseph Laycock 36:29 Yeah, that's, that's really interesting. You know, to answer that question fairly, I think we would have to do some kind of comparison between America and some other culture. I have heard claims before that Americans are sort of more drawn to messianic leaders or sort of more drawn to millennial movements. If there's any truth to that, I think there's a couple of things to think about. One is that we get this emphasis on the apocalypse and kind of our role in it from our Puritan forebears, right, that sort of the Puritans imagine America as a city on a hill that would have this important role in bringing about the end of the world and the return of Jesus. And JFK, you know, hearken back to that in his speeches, right? We are sitting on a hill we are that we have this great destiny. I think in new religious movements like Mormonism, that's very much at stake that America is a place where these holy events happens. The other thing I would think about is another country that's known for new religious movements is Japan when the Allies basically took over Japan after World War Two, we drafted a new constitution for them guaranteeing religious freedom, which which hadn't been there before. And there was this explosion of new religious movements. And so there may be a connection between kind of enshrining ideas of religious freedom and kind of personal autonomy to choose your religion in in our laws. And the the impulse to go ahead and create new religious organizations and groups. But there's new religious movements all over right all over Europe, all over Africa all over. There's even new religious movements in China, even though the government is quite afraid of them and has done a lot to kind of suppress them. So it is It is human nature, it can't be It can't be stopped by by governments or culture.
Stephen Bradford Long 38:14 So that leads me to my next question. This is from the podcast or out of Eden. For listeners who don't know he's a fantastic podcaster, who explores post evangelical Christianity, Sam from out of Eden asks, Is there a reason why the brain or individual people can ignore cultish behavior within religions deemed socially normal,
Joseph Laycock 38:35 interesting. So it kind of the history of the study of religious movements initially, there was a theory that there was a cult type, that there was a particular personality type that joined cults or was susceptible to cult indoctrination. And there were some kind of psychological studies with people who had joined these groups to try to see if they had something in common that research falls more into the sphere of psychology. And I think now it is the the theory has kind of shifted to well, it has less to do with what kind of person you are, and more to do with sort of what's happening in your life at that particular moment. Right? Are you having you know, if, if you've just lost your job and your house is burned down and your partner has left you and someone says, Do you want to do you want to join my church? You might be more likely to say yes, right then if everything is going very well, having said that, I mean, there's definitely personality types, and one person that I work with at no religio is Rebecca Moore, who is a professor and runs a site on Jonestown. And two of Rebecca's sisters, her older sister, and her younger sister became very involved in the people's temple and died there in Guyana. And Rebecca was asked to join and she said, Now, I have no interest in this. And the reason she cited was she said, You guys keep talking about racial justice and all of the upper leaders of this organization are white. I think you guys are full of it. So it's very interesting to have you know, three sisters who have the same family, they grew up in the same church that emphasized social justice. And two of them thought the people's Temple was the greatest thing ever. And one of them thought, absolutely not. I don't want anything to do with this. So I, you know, how do we explain that other than just sort of, you know, different personalities?
Stephen Bradford Long 40:16 That's really interesting.
Joseph Laycock 40:18 I highly endorse Rebecca Moore's website. By the way, if anyone interested in Jonestown, it's a really great archive and really pushes back against the sensationalism to kind of think about the people who really were there and kind of why they made the choices that they did. What's the name of that website? Oh, gosh, I think it's, I think it's just called the Jonestown project. Okay. Well, it's through San Diego State.
Stephen Bradford Long 40:41 Okay, awesome. Well, I will research that and put that in the show notes for listeners. Here's a question from someone whose name on Twitter really worries me heartbroken. Dad asks, what is it in our nature that makes humans believe and therefore expect that a higher power or deity is necessary for their fulfillment? This is a big one. This isn't this might be above your paygrade?
Joseph Laycock 41:04 I mean, this sounds like a fairly loaded question. Yeah,
Stephen Bradford Long 41:07 it really does it heartbroken. Dad seems like he, he's asking a lot here.
Joseph Laycock 41:12 Right. So somebody like CS Lewis would say, that's because we were created by God. And he put in us this desire to know him. Um, on the other end of the spectrum, somebody like, you know, Sigmund Freud would say this is because, you know, we feel guilty about subliminally wanting to kill our dad. And so we made this kind of sky dad to take his place. You know, my, my theoretical framework for these things tends to come from sociology. And one thing that I believe is that human beings need some kind of created order to think about their lives, right? That we need a language we need a structure for reality that is not inherently there. Animals don't need this, right? Animals can just sort of be turned loose on the world, and they're happy human beings need to create an order. I was reading recently about Helen Keller and Helen Keller having a moment where she realizes everything in the world has a name, but there's a word for everything. And so, you know, we don't we're not comfortable saying, well, the order of the worlds, right people wear pants, we eat pigs, but we don't eat monkeys. You know, we pet dogs, we don't pet cockroaches, we don't want this to be arbitrary, because we can imagine it being a different way. And so one of the ways to create that sense of psychological security that we need to function in the world is the idea of, well, there's a transcendent order, this is the will of God, this is the will of heaven, that things be this way. And even very, very rationalist people will still have to concede that sometimes we just agree to things out of convenience, we don't really have a rational reason Absolutely. For doing it right. No one decides what language they're going to learn as a baby, right? You just learn from your parents. And then if you want to learn a second language after that, you can but no one in the womb is saying, Well, you know this many people speak English. And this many people speak Mandarin. Maybe I should learn to label things this way we get that from our from our culture.
Stephen Bradford Long 43:04 Fascinating. You know, what that reminds me of is a biblical scholar who I really love named James Brownson, who's done a lot of work on sexuality and homosexuality within within the church creating a theological framework for accepting homosexuality. And one of the things that he talks about is how much of Levitical law is exactly that, you know, Levitical law is exactly this appeal to divine authority to keep these cultural frameworks in place, and you know, these divisions between clean and unclean, and that animals that that transgress the boundaries laid out in creation, between land and sky, between water and earth, that those things that violate those fundamental boundaries, including male and female, are considered unclean. It's just very, very fascinating. So here's a question from Ruth, on Twitter, what warning signs can we watch for I'm assuming she's speaking for in regards to destructive cults. What warning signs can we watch for particularly in the digital age, most of what I've read on warning signs is decades old. And what's a warning sign people are unlikely to recognize
Joseph Laycock 44:12 there is what's called the anti cult movements. And this is a an organization that still exists today. But it really has its roots in the Cold War's the 1970s. And that's why you can go online and you can find these lists of sort of warnings that your child's in a call to that your churches in a cult, and they are mostly from the 80s. What like
Stephen Bradford Long 44:29 websites like cold education, stuff like that? Yeah, absolutely.
Joseph Laycock 44:33 watch.org There's a guy named Rick Ross, who has a really big website. Yeah, I would really caution people to take all that with a grain of salt. Often these are people who are sort of trying to make a career for themselves as this kind of authority who can detect cults and save people from cults and so forth. And it's kind of their, their, their livelihood. I don't do that work, right. I don't do the work of sort of extracting people from religious groups. or advising them what religion they should join or what they shouldn't. I think, you know, my advice would just be to use common sense, right? If if you have a loved one who is cutting off their ties with everybody is making poor financial decisions, if you know that they're being physically abused or something like that. I mean, if that strikes you as something dangerous that's going on, and it's dangerous, right? Your instincts are probably correct. On the other hand, if it's something like everybody in my church believes that the leader is really wise, well, that might be okay. Right, that might not necessarily in itself be some kind of destructive authoritarianism, but I guess more harm can be done by sort of rushing to label groups as being destructive and dangerous. My colleague, Kathy wessinger wrote a book on violence in new religious movements, looking at groups like Waco and Jonestown and said, basically, you know, we should never just assume that a group is going to be violent. And we should also never give a group a clean bill of health and say, we check this out and nothing bad will, will happen. So our our ability to kind of predict is not that great. And that's a little bit what annoys me about the anti cult movement is that they act like we have this great ability to diagnose and predict that we actually have a pretty bad track record on
Stephen Bradford Long 46:17 Yeah, like, for example, wasn't Heaven's Gate considered, like a benevolent cold, like a benign cold by a lot of people, and then it suddenly ended in mass suicide.
Joseph Laycock 46:27 Yeah, Heaven's Gate is an unusual case, but certainly they never meant any harm to anybody else. They never threatened anybody else. They never had weapons there, you had two leaders there. And they believed initially that the spaceship was going to come and was going to kind of take them to the level above human is what they called it. And they had two leaders, and one of them died. And this was a theological crisis for the group because I said, we're all gonna get on the spaceship together. How can we do this? If one of us is dead? So there was this gradual shift towards well, maybe we don't go on the spaceship physically in our bodies, right? Maybe we have to die first. And also the group was ageing and running out of resources and things like this. And it just sort of happened. I mean, I mentioned earlier in the interview that religious groups die out all the time. And and sometimes when you see issues of suicide or violence, it's they know that they're there, their group is ending and they get to sort of choose what ending they want, right? I think that was at stake it at Jonestown, as well. I also just want to emphasize things like Jonestown and Heaven's Gate and Waco are actually incredibly rare.
Stephen Bradford Long 47:34 Oh, absolutely. That's why we all know about
Joseph Laycock 47:36 them. But but the number of groups that actually have something like that happen is astronomically rare.
Stephen Bradford Long 47:42 Well, and that's why that's why there's such cultural touchstones, you know, if, if that happened all the time, they wouldn't be these iconic American moments, you know what I mean? But but
Joseph Laycock 47:53 there is a kind of cultural stereotype that this is just what cults do, right? That they're sort of raison d'etre is to commit mass suicide. And I see this in shows like Family Guy where they're issuing punch, and the leader says, haven't any of you been in a cult before? Right. So my students especially I want to emphasize this is really rare. And there's always a kind of special set of circumstances that takes a group to down this this path.
Stephen Bradford Long 48:16 So I think this is a really helpful corrective for some of what I've been doing on the show where Matt and I met one of my co hosts, we have, you know, read through those lists, I've had other people come on and talk about those kinds of lists of cult behavior put out by the anti cult movement, and kind of just the thing that I have that I'm hearing and that I have been realizing is that potential destructive behavior is everywhere, you know, we kind of swim in the constant potential for destructive behavior, be it in a church or a business or a friendship or whatever, you know, in so it isn't limited to these fringe groups. It's something that is likely anywhere, and we just need to constantly be open to the possibility of things going south that human nature can be authoritarian, regardless of where it is. Here's one last question. And it kind of ties into the very last thing that you said, can a cold ever be healthy and not harmful? What would that look like?
Joseph Laycock 49:20 Yeah, I mean, the paradox is that just the way that we use these terms in popular discourse, if we think a group is healthy, and we like them, we call them a religion. All right, we don't call them cults. You know, I think one example of a group like this that's gained acceptance would be the Amish right on paper. The Amish have all the hallmarks of a cult there is a Patriarch who decides all the rules for the community. They are isolated. The Supreme Court ruled that the Amish do not have to send their children to public schools past a certain age because they have a religious right to keep people within their own community but we kind of inexplicably love the Amish in America. they'd been kind of described as America's conscience or something like this. There's something charming about them. And maybe that's because they have this kind of pedigree, we don't think of them as something new. We think of them as something from the old world, right? That is that is charming. There is a scholar named David felt May. And he has argued for thinking about new religious movements less as social problems that we have to fix, or contain and thinking about them more as kind of experiments and different ways of organizing society and seeing if there's anything useful about them. And one example of this is Jonestown, you know, he says, if you look at all the good that Jonestown accomplished, before the leader sort of made this, this terrible decision, but they were, they were taking people from the most dangerous, poverty stricken neighborhoods of Oakland and Los Angeles, and they were housing them, and they were feeding and housing everybody for something like, you know, $120 a month per person. And so David and David felt me it was not, it's not suggesting that we all move to Guyana, and you know, pull our resources, but he says, you know, this is interesting, what if you had a community where everybody kind of pooled their resources and you did your shopping at Costco to save money? Could you actually make a better life for the poor in America, because more and more Americans are becoming poor? And we don't think about that all we think about is they drank this poisons, flavor aid. So there is without ever apologizing for someone like Jim Jones, I think that there is a potential source of ideas and experiments that could be mined, and maybe something useful could be found.
Stephen Bradford Long 51:32 Absolutely. So I have one last question, and then I'll let you go. This is something that I have been thinking about quite a bit online discourse seems to be online and offline discourse seems to be polarized into these two categories. One side is the skeptical atheist community, which is very anti religion and anti cold. And they they tend to be on this campaign against any kind of irrationality and religion and Colts. You see this a lot in the responses to like Scientology. I feel like Scientology is a centerpiece of this and I feel like figureheads of this, you know, for lack of a better term, the new religious move or the new the new atheist movement figures like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. I'm just curious what your assessment of that rationalist counter reaction to things like coltan religions what what do you agree with? And what do you not agree with?
Joseph Laycock 52:32 Well, you know, what I tell my students, I encourage critical thinking, I encourage them to think about the data for themselves and to some extent that entails letting go right if I really want my students to make their own conclusions, they're going to make different conclusions whether they are an evangelical Christian or or an atheist, but what I am intolerant of in my classroom is smugness,
Stephen Bradford Long 52:54 yes. Oh, god, thank you.
Joseph Laycock 52:57 Yeah, me it's smugness, right? It's not that people have beliefs that they you know, if I'm a Christian, who says, Look, I believe Jesus Christ is my Savior. I don't have to offer a rational explanation for that. It's fine, right? Yeah, if I have a student who says all of the religions that we've studied in this class are highly implausible and don't have any real evidence, that's fine to what I can't stand is when there is this kind of certainty that everyone who disagrees with them is stupid, and doesn't have to be taken seriously. And that's what I sometimes find myself pushing back against when I'm looking at writing assignments from students is kind of take a step back, try to put yourself in somebody else's shoes, and have a little bit of empathy for someone that you that you don't agree with. And that's what maybe we're losing in the online discourse.
Stephen Bradford Long 53:43 Yeah, I agree. You know, listening to a lot of the New Atheists, what I hear is a profound lack of empathy, and kind of a lack of self awareness of well, what if this was you, in this situation in this idea that rationality is just taken for granted that it is a fundamental aspect of human nature? And I don't think it is, you know, I think that we are primarily irrational, secondarily rational creatures, and that's beautiful. That's a good thing. It means that we can all look at the same thing and come away with completely different interpretations. It's what makes humanity interesting. It leads to beautiful things like art and religion and spirituality, and then it leads to horrible, destructive things like propaganda and religion and spirituality. And the empathy within a lot of the atheist community towards religious people. And honestly, I think that kept me a fundamentalist for a very long time. I sometimes feel like there's this draconian deal that the atheist community offers where they say, here are all the riches of science, but in order to accept it, you must let go of your beloved religious community. Most of us just can't we don't have the ability to accept that deal. And so I feel like I remained in fundamentalist Christianity far longer than I ever need. had to because of that. But I was just I was just interested to hear your perspective on that.
Joseph Laycock 55:04 Yeah, you know, and these psychologists have in the brainwashing debates and one of the tactics cults use is milieu control, which milieu control is just basically you don't leave the call, you don't talk to people born in the cold, you don't read things that aren't called teachings. And this is a way of brainwashing. And of course, this theory is adapted from studying prisoners of war with Facebook, we're kind of all prisoners of war, right? We've we've done milieu control to ourselves. Absolutely. Someone who disagrees with us about anything important. And so we are in a sense brainwashing ourselves to the extent that brainwashing is really a thing.
Stephen Bradford Long 55:40 That's a great insight. And I think that's a great note to end on. Well, Joseph, thank you so much for joining me again, on the show listeners, I'm sure will really enjoy this. I love talking to you. It's always really interesting.
Joseph Laycock 55:50 Well, thanks again for having me. It's always fun to chat. Yeah, for sure.
Stephen Bradford Long 55:53 Well, that's our show. For those of you who want to support my show, please go to Esper Halford long.com where you can read my dozens of articles on faith and doubt and spirituality and religion and mental health and LGBT issues. You can also go to theology corner.net theology corner is the podcast and blog network which hosts this show. They have amazing shows there. If you want a show about feminism, interviewing female pastors from all sorts of traditions, check out Theo Sofia, if you want a podcast about the Desert Fathers from an Eastern Orthodox perspective. Check out the Patristics, if you want a show of the Jew and a Protestant talking about theology and smoking cigars, check out a Jew and Gentile we have all kinds of fantastic shows there. Please go check them out. So the music is by Matt Langston, the jelly rocks. The artwork is by Justin kala Bryant, I have one last request. If you find value in this show, if you find yourself listening to it every week and looking forward to it every week, please take the time to write a five star review on iTunes or wherever you listen that will help me reach a wider audience. So we will see you next week.