Interview with Scott of Skeptic Meditations on Parents and Cult-Like Organizations

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott is the Founder of Skeptic Meditations. Here we discuss parents and cult-like organizations.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Have you ever been given any indication as to what parents feel or sense as they begin to lose their children to a cult or cult-like organization?

Scott of Skeptic Meditations: From my own experience of leaving home, family, and college in my early twenties to join a cult-like group, the Self-Realization Monastic Order, my parents wondered what was wrong with them, with me, and with the group. Why would I “run away” to live in an ashram? Why was I so fervent about meditating hours each day and about following the path of a deceased Hindu yogi-guru with a strange, exotic name: Paramahansa Yogananda. I hadn’t told my parents I was leaving home. I left a note after I left to join the ashram.

My dad, later after I’d been in the Order for a few years, told me he blamed himself for my leaving home and joining the Order. I told dad, at that time, he was not to blame. He knew I was unhappy at home. I had been attending college while living at home. My parents fought alott. Marital issues that the four of us: dad, mom, sister, and myself who all lived under one roof that caused us to feel like we were all walking on eggshells while in the house or together as a family.

I had found what I thought was a grand solution, a peace and stability in meditation practice and in frequently visiting the local SRF Temple to meditate more and to listen to the lectures about yoga and “how to live”. It was all, at this vulnerable time in a young person’s life, quite seductive and transforming: the promises, the answers, the certainty offered by the church in the midst of my chaos of home life and of facing an uncertain future of leaving home on my own. Let me be clear, I’m not claiming that my just-so story above applies to other families, parents, or children who “lose” their children to cults. Yet, the metaphor, the underlying psychological situation may illustrate some of the reasons why parents may “lose” their children to cult-like groups.

Young people are especially vulnerable during major life transitions, like leaving home, completing college, starting first career, and may dread facing having to make “a living” in an existentially scary world. But how that existential dread gets handled or channelled depends on many factors. We human animals seek meaning and purpose in a fundamentally meaningless and existentially scary world. Young people are bombarded by an endless stream of religious pablum and political dogma that claims to have answers but creates more conflicts. Our vacuous consumerist techno-scientistic society promises efficiency and productivity and to outsource the future to robots in the name of profits for the 1%. Democracy is a name only and young people see (or sense) the hypocrisies of our post-modern culture. Is it any wonder that introverted, sensitive, artistic, intellectual young people who seek deeper meaning in life than getting a degree, getting married, having kids, and consuming things are probably the most vulnerable and susceptible to joining abusive relationships, coercive organizations, and authoritarian religions?

Jacobsen: How can parents and friends build bridges with those who have succumbed to a cult or cult-like organization?

Scott of Skeptic Meditations: Cult is often a pejorative term used for ideas or groups we don’t like, that contradict our deeply held beliefs.

My first recommendation would be not to call your child’s ideas (or the group’s) a cult, or see them as stupid or wrong. But to truly try to understand the group’s appeal from the child’s or follower’s perspective. Educating oneself about the underlying psychology and sociology. The best way to help is to get educated about cult-like behaviors. Not just react to fear or sensational, extreme, or suicidal accounts of cults or leaders, like Jim Jones, Charles Manson, or Marshall Applewhite. But to understand from the followers perspective, their childs’ or friends’ perspective, why they joined and why they stay inside the cult-like group.

There are many books available on cult psychology. Dr. Yuval Laor’s free chapter on parent-child model of love and fervor provides a useful framework for understanding cult-like behaviors, relationships, and organizations. Laor’s theory posits that as a society we accept that parents may unconditionally protect their child even if the child was a Hitler or Manson. A parent or child in a state of infatuated fervor often has many blind spots and is willing to overlook grievous flaws of the beloved person or organization. Love and fervor is neutral, not judged. What’s interesting to understand are how infatuated love, fervour, and awe are typically feelings and experiences of those in cultic relationships or organizations.

Jacobsen: Any knowledge as to what is the outcome to the emotional and mental health of parents who have lost children completely to a cult or cult-like organization?

Scott of Skeptic Meditations: As I mentioned earlier, Dr. Laor’s theory of love and fervour between human animals, especially parent-child relationships, explains some of the actual or possible outcomes within the parent-child in the context of infatuated love, fervor, or awe. The feelings of love, fervour, or awe can blind us. They also can open us to new experiences and feelings. I don’t want to speculate on the wide-variety of outcomes that are possible. Rather than judging, fretting, or trying to dissuade our loved ones from a particular ideology or group, I believe our energies would be better spent learning the dynamics and flaws between human animals: why we have blind spots (sometimes called biases), the many ways fervour and awe get triggered, and how our experiences and relationships can be both healthful and harmful. With cult-like groups we tend to focus on the behaviors that are disagreeable and that we think are harmful.

I recommend learning from experts in the field, mental health professionals in the field, and organizations that provide resources for parents or children in or coming out of abusive relationships or cultic groups or extremist ideologies.

Jacobsen: Are there hotlines or places to make calls for help, including law enforcement?

Scott of Skeptic Meditations: Unless there’s physical abuse or breaking of the law, I’m not aware of what you’d be able to do to get help from law enforcement. However, there’s a toll free hotline with Recovering From Religion, The hotline is for people who have questions or problems coming out of religion or religious groups.

The Cult Education Institute has a Directory of Cult Recovery Resources that includes mental health professionals.

The Open Minds Foundation also lists resources for parents and children in abusive or coercive organizations. Yuval Taor, whom I recommended above, is associated with and has pages listed with Open Minds Foundation.

The International Cultic Studies Association website has support groups and resources.

I hope this information helps you or your readers learn more and to look for the resource to help them on the journey.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Scott.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by Malcolm Lightbody on Unsplash

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