What is thought reform, and how does it affect us? Is it really true that my thoughts can be reformed by another person? They are so personal, and so integral to who I am, how is this possible? Is this a real thing?
Well, look at non-threatening examples from your life. When was the last time you asked for advice from a trusted friend, doctor, teacher? You listened to what they had to say, and their input probably influenced your decision making, right? For example, maybe you hate to take pills, but your doctor says these pills will kill the virus you are suffering from, so you take them against your desire. They work, reinforcing the idea that following instructions from others can sometimes be very good.
Say you just became a Christian, and are looking for advice on how to live a good life. You listen to the minister/spiritual teacher, and try to understand their instructions. Even if some of it crosses your comfort zone (say getting up and praying from midnight to one every night), you have learned in life that could work. “The purpose of indoctrination in cults is, in essence, to convince inductees that what they are gaining is far more important than what they are losing.” (Ron Burks, ICSA Today, Vol. 5 No. 3, 2014)
Where or when does input (teaching) from others cross the line and begin to intrude on your personal freedom? First you have to define for yourself what freedom is. “The sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word ‘liberty'” (Abraham Lincoln). While the sheep (cult member) may thank you for intervening and saving them from the control of a cult, the wolf (cult leader) will decry your interference of their grand, God-given mission to save the sheep from their sins. The wolf will never see it from the sheep’s viewpoint, because it is a wolf. It can only see its own goal, drive, desires. There is always a power differential in cults, and the leader will wield that power unconscionably because they feel they are called by God to do so. They are not concerned with society’s concerns about individual freedom. As CJ leaders loved to say, “Christianity is not a Democracy”.
The other saying that was used frequently was “…bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:5). The catch was that the obedience had to be expressed to God by expressing it to the CJ leaders (or those they appointed from time to time), and the captivity was to the instructions of the leaders, not self-derived criteria. In word they said we could discern the will of God on our own, but in practice they expected complete obedience to every directive they pronounced. Being convinced by their persuasion that this ‘temporary’ servitude would bring forth the fruits of the Spirit, we persevered.
Persuasion happens all the time; advertising and political rants being two examples. Actual thought reform takes time and repetition, and a closed religious community is a perfect place to practice it. The other place it was so successful was the Korean prison-camps. Lifton’s 8 criteria explain in more detail how it happens. (Lifton, 1961, Thought reform and the psychology of totalism.)
This is why it is so necessary to teach critical thinking in school, High school ideally, at least in College. Once you have had your mind influenced by the intensity of thought reform, getting out is only the beginning of recovery. Getting away from the source of the pressure is the first step. Then you have to rediscovery your own thought processes. “Former members frequently avoid exercising their freedom because of the challenges freedom brings after a cult experience: anxiety, boredom, loss of a sense of purpose and meaning.” (Ron Burks, ICSA Today, Vol. 5 No. 3, 2014). That is the challenge.
I laud and applaud the courage of ex-members. We have a daunting task ahead of us, and we tackle it. We persevere. We ask the hard questions. We don’t take bs anymore, because we have had our full of that. And more often than not we face the anxiety, boredom, loss of purpose, and we dig deep and find our selves, our true desires, and true beliefs. Life is full of choices, and we make them. Step by step, small choice by small choice, we create a life for ourselves. Whether you believe in Divine guidance or not, it all comes down to the choices we make each day that bring us step by step to our healing. Perhaps there is a loving God guiding our choices, protecting us from harm, and perhaps it is our own inner spirit that guides our choices. Either way, it is our life, and we are living it.