The topic of extreme religious organisations or cults was of particular interest to me because I was in a “cult” with a guru for twelve years myself!  I was interested to hear Ruth’s take on “extreme religious organisations.”


Ruth’s reflections and reading have led her to understand that cults in different countries and of different flavours have much in common in the way they behave and the effects they have on members and ex-members.


She sees cults as being controlling and authoritarian, often with dogmatic teachings and an unquestionable charismatic leader.  One criterion of a cult which Ruth sees as being crucial is that the organisation in question takes money from its members, much of which is not used for the benefit of members or the wider world.  Large amounts of money are often raised from members.


In the cult to which I belonged for example there were regular very expensive weekend “intensives,” and the organisation attracted many rich celebrities such as John Denver and Lulu.  One rich member (or “devotee”) gave a country house with grounds including a lake in Liphook to the organisation for its use.


Ruth explained that recruits to cults are often more educated and intelligent than average. Recruits are normally welcomed (“love-bombed) at first and then carefully monitored and controlled when in membership.  Scientology, the Mormons, and Isis come to mind.


Leaving a cult can give rise to a feeling of great loss of meaning and community and can give rise to disorientation. We heard a moving sharing by a former member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Her parents and sister no longer talk to her.  At the age of thirty when she left, the “outside world” was a bewildering place for her. She had not had the “normal” experiences of adolescence and young adulthood.  She found herself doubting herself all the time and didn’t know who to talk to.  She said she had not developed skills of critical thinking because she had always been told what to think.


We were given a case study to discuss in small group about a “refugee” from an extreme religious organisation who was suffering from anxiety, feeling bereft, deceived and lost. We were asked to look into our reactions and feelings around this client and also considered how we might work with her as counsellors.


Ruth suggested to us that one difficulty might be that the client may well not trust an empathic approach, having had a history in the cult of receiving empathy and then being let down.  Can the counsellor manage to show the client that “unconditional positive regard” is real and possible, as opposed to the conditional positive regard that the client had received in the cult?  The client understandably will have lost trust in authority figures and even in her own judgement.


In my own case, I remember leaving the yoga organisation at 43, disillusioned and with a sense of loss. In my case I had a good support network of family, friends and a good job whereas the ex-Jehovah’s witness woman who spoke to us found herself jobless and friendless when she left the church at age thirty.  The effects still continue for her and her children. “It never stops,” she told us.


Perhaps the loss of certainties and community in our post-modern Western culture is leading more and more people into the certainties and community of extreme religious (and political) organisations.  However, we can see that membership of such organisations can come at a heavy price. Think of the case of Shamima Begum and her son for example

Thank you Ruth for helping us to explore this relevant, and important issue.

David Brown