Welcome to the Modern Age of Cults
There are cults all around us that we voluntarily (and sometimes involuntarily) join.
In 2006, Sarah Edmondson paid $3,000 to participate in a five-day "executive success program" in Albany. N.Y. The workshop was created by NXIVM, a personal development company that boasted its "patented technology" could help ambitious people like Edmondson become more successful in their personal and professional lives.
“I was challenged in my relationship, challenged in my career,” she said. “I had this idea that maybe I’d become a famous actor and use my celebrity to have a voice or have an impact on the world. That wasn’t happening.”
On day three of the five-day training, Edmondson had a "breakthrough" during a session on self-esteem and limiting beliefs.
Over the next 12 years, Edmondson would become a top-ranking member at the company, responsible for opening a chapter in Vancouver, recruiting new members, and teaching seminars to spread the group's philosophy. She finally had what she was initially seeking — purpose and connection.
But she was not prepared for what came next. Edmondson was told that as part of a women's empowerment initiation ritual, she'd have to get a small tattoo. She, along with other female NXIVM members, was blindfolded, taken to a house, and told to lie naked on a massage table. Then, another member used a cauterizing device to brand her with the initials that belonged to the founder of the organization. The two-inch mark was seared below each woman's hip, in their pubic region.
Edmondson had falsely believed she belonged to a personal development company. Instead, she had been part of a cult that engaged in sex trafficking under the guise of mentoring and empowering women.
“We didn’t join a cult,” says one NXIVM member turned whistleblower. “Nobody joins a cult. They join a good thing. And then they realize they were fucked.”
Edmondson's story is detailed in a deeply disturbing documentary called, "The Vow." After watching it, I couldn't stop thinking about the fallibility of the human mind and the slippery nature of identity and belief.
Barry Meier, The New York Times reporter who broke the NXIVM story, said, "The central thing that I took away from [this story] was how extraordinarily vulnerable we are as people, and how even people who, on the surface, are bright, capable, talented, and successful, have this intense vulnerability. That vulnerability is available for someone to exploit."
Right about now, you're probably thinking: "Oh please. I would never be roped into something like this." But when you have that thought, I would urge you to also ask yourself: "When's the last time I challenged an institution — political or religious or astrological?"
We live in a time where we have to contend with more uncertainty than usual. When we don't have answers, we may turn to sources of authority who at first told us that face masks weren't effective or that our worries about inflation were overblown.
At a press conference in June, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said inflation was transitory. Although we now know it is taking much longer than expected to transit, there was a lot of optimism at that press conference, which led the Wall Street Journal to write this: "All of this optimism is enough to make us wonder if Mr. Powell now thinks the economy can keep growing without any more of President Biden’s spending. Too bad no one asked."
"Too bad no one asked." Those are five words that often lead to the unchecked power of influential institutions. Depending on what circles you're in, questioning any aspect of the mask guidelines or the inflation numbers could mark you a psycho with views that should never see the light of day.
Tribalism and dogma have become dangerously prevalent in our society. After leaving NXIVM, Edmondson became more mindful of the information she consumed on a daily basis. She began to inquire and embrace skepticism in an effort to get closer to the truth.
For instance, she wears a mask to help prevent the spread of COVID, but she says she did a lot of her own research to understand exactly why it was necessary rather than blindly accepting the ever-changing public narrative.
“I’ve had family members be like, ‘It’s dangerous for you to criticize [mask-wearing],’” Edmondson said. “I’m not criticizing. I’m not even questioning, in a negative way. I just want to know more. I’m at the point where I will never follow something blindly. I have to know why I’m doing what I’m doing, because I did follow blindly for 12 years, and look where it got me."
Because so many of us crave connection, we’re willing to flush our independent reasoning skills down the drain and adopt a certain group’s beliefs instead. This is how a lot of conventional thinking is born. We're happy to be brainwashed if it means gaining entry into a social tribe we admire.
Tim Urban offers a great experiment to try to figure out if you're part of an open-minded tribe or a blindly dogmatic one:
"The next time you’re with a member of a tribe you’re a part of, express a change of heart that aligns you on a certain topic with whoever your tribe considers to be Them. If you’re a religious Christian, tell people at church you’re not sure anymore that there’s a God. If you’re an artist in Boulder, explain at the next dinner party that you think global warming might actually be a liberal hoax. If you’re an Iraqi, tell your family that you’re feeling pro-Israel lately. If you and your husband are staunch Republicans, tell him you’re coming around on Obamacare. If you’re from Boston, tell your friends you’re pulling for the Yankees this year because you like their current group of players.
"If you’re in a tribe with a blind mentality of total certainty, you’ll probably see a look of horror. It won’t just seem wrong, it’ll seem like heresy. They might get angry, they might passionately try to convince you otherwise, they might cut off the conversation—but there will be no open-minded conversation. And because identity is so intertwined with beliefs in blind tribalism, the person actually might feel less close to you afterwards. Because for rigidly tribal people, a shared dogma plays a more important role in their close relationships than they might recognize."
Not every cult has branding rituals or megalomaniacal long-haired cult leaders. There are cults all around us in the form of echo chambers that we voluntarily (and sometimes involuntarily) join.
Approaching the world with a healthy dose of skepticism is a good thing — even if it may not be popular. Next time you hear, "I am doing this because [insert X authority figure] said so," question, inquire, and verify.
Even in these tumultuous times of uncertainty, aim to reject blind dogma and embrace the unknown. Remember what Stephen Hawking said: "The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge."
Thank you for bringing this research to us. You would think that with all the transparency the Internet could bring, these cults would be flushed out by now. The reality is the opposite. I would love to see you explore this topic further. Education is the key.