By Rick Ross

In a recent opinion/editorial New York Times piece titled “The Cult Deficit” columnist Ross Douthat stated, “the cult phenomenon feels increasingly antique, like lava lamps and bell bottoms.” He concluded, “Spiritual gurus still flourish in our era, of course, but they are generally comforting, vapid, safe — a Joel Osteen rather than a Jim Jones, a Deepak Chopra rather than a David Koresh.”

Interestingly, Deepak Chopra was a disciple of Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who was often called a “cult leader.” Maharishi was the founder of Transcendental Meditation (TM), a group frequently included on cult lists and still quite active amidst allegations of abuse.

Douthat doesn’t seem to care much about destructive cults or the damage they do. He laments that the Branch Davidians were “mistreated and misjudged.” Apparently the columnist hasn’t bothered to do much research as he has ignored the facts reported in the press about the Davidians and as established through the congressional record, the Danforth Report and submitted through court proceedings. Suffice to say that despite anti-government conspiracy theories David Koresh was one of the most vicious cult leaders in modern history. He was a deeply disturbed man that sexually preyed upon children and stockpiled weapons for the purpose of a violent end.

Journalist Tony Ortega at Raw Story points out that “The same week the US goes to war with one, NYT’s Douthat asks, where are the cults?” Ortega recognizes that many terrorist groups today are little more than personality-driven cults, such as al-Qaeda once was under the influence of Osama bin Laden. History is strewn with examples of the destruction wrought by totalitarian cults from the Nazis led by Adolf Hitler to the family dynasty that continues to dominate and control North Korea.

Not surprisingly following up Douthat doesn’t quote Ortega’s response, but instead prefers “Reason Magazine,” a Libertarian leaning publication that essentially agrees with him. Calling a column written by Peter Suderman a “very interesting response” Dauthat again ignores the facts and reiterates his opinion, as supposedly supported by a “religious historian” and venture capitalist. Suderman doesn’t dispute Douthat’s claim that cults are in decline, but rather uses it as a hook for his own spin about the “rise of subcultures.”

However, despite all the liberal or Libertarian posturing performed by these pundits the cult phenomenon has actually expanded around the world.

Unlike the United States, other countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East have taken steps to respond to cults both through regulation and law enforcement. For example, in Japan and Germany cults have been closely monitored and in China some have been outlawed. Recently in Israel cult leader Goel Ratzon was convicted of sex crimes. Ratzon’s criminal conviction followed a lengthy government investigation and raid by law enforcement.

In addition to malevolent cult movements that have captivated nations the old familiar groups called “cults” that Douthat thinks have faded away actually are still around such as Scientology, the Unification Church, Hare Krishnas, Divine Light Mission, International Church of Christ, and Est (the Forum), although they may now use new names to avoid easy recognition.

In fact the United States has become something of a destination point and haven for groups called “cults.”

Dahn Yoga, led by Ilchee Lee, which started in South Korea, later set up shop in Arizona and now has a following across America.

Another recent arrival is the World Mission Society Church of God led by Zhang Gil-Jah, known to her devotees as “Mother God.” Not long ago Zhang opened her first church in New Jersey. Since then the group has grown rapidly across the US and Canada. Mother has even rented space in Manhattan not far from the New York Times.

Exiled “evil cult” leader Li Hongzhi, founder of Falun Gong, had to leave China, but found refuge in New York. According to researchers Li now has a flock of about !0,000 followers in North America. He claims to channel miraculous healing powers, which has allegedly led to medical neglect and death. The group has regular parades and demonstrations in NYC, Apparently Mr. Dauthat missed that.

Just as there will always be con men running schemes to take people’s money, there will always be destructive cult leaders exploiting the vulnerabilities of humanity. For con men and cult leaders it’s a business and it seems to be quite profitable. When Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard died in 1986 his estate totaled hundreds of millions of dollars. Today, Scientology reportedly has a billion dollars in cash and vast real estate holdings. When Maharishi Mahesh Yogi died he left behind a spiritual empire valued in billions. Rev. Moon, the founder of the Unification Church, likewise left behind a hefty financial legacy, which is now managed by his children. Whenever there is cash and assets someone will step in to take over. And in the United States cults can operate with relative impunity as an unregulated industry.

No one knows exactly how many cult members there are in the United States. But almost every day I learn of a new group or organization that seems to fit the core criteria, which forms the nucleus for most definitions of a destructive cult. These core criteria were established by Robert Jay Lifton back in the 1980s. Rather than focusing on what a group believes Lifton’s criteria focus on the structure, dynamics and behavior of a group.

First, the single and most salient feature of a destructive cult is that it is personality-driven and animated by a living, charismatic and totalitarian leader. It is that leader who is the defining element and driving force of the group. Whatever the leader says is right is right and whatever the leader says is wrong is wrong. He or she determines the relative morality of the group and its core identity.

Second, the group engages in a process of thought reform to break people down and then redevelop them according to a predetermined mindset, which includes a diminished ability to think critically and/or independently. This is accomplished through a synthesis of coercive persuasion and influence techniques, relentlessly focused on individuals subjected to the group process.

Finally, the third criteria, is that the group does harm. This may vary from group to group as some groups are more harmful than others. One groups may simply exploit its members financially or through free labor, while others may make much more intense demands such as sexual favors, medical neglect or even criminal acts.

Whatever the group may present as its facade, be it religion, politics, exercise, martial arts, business scheme or philosophy, it is the structure, dynamics and behavior of the group that sets it apart and aligns it with the core criteria, which forms the nucleus for a definition of a destructive cult.

For those who would attempt to diminish the power of persuasion used by cults we have only to look at the pattern of behavior within such groups. Why would people act against their own interests, but instead consistently behave in the best interest of the cult leader? Why would cult members allow their children to die due to medical neglect or surrender them for sexual abuse? The most compelling explanation for such otherwise improbable behavior is that cult victims are under undue influence and therefore unable to think for themselves independently.

The dirty little secret about cults and their bag of tricks, is that we are all vulnerable to coercive persuasion and influence techniques. And this is particularly true when we are at a vulnerable time in our lives. This might include a period of grief, financial instability, isolation or some other personal setback. It is at these times that cults can more easily and deceptively recruit people. No one intentionally joins a cult. Instead, people are tricked by cults, through deceptive recruitment practices and a gradual indoctrination process that doesn’t immediately fully disclose the group’s expectations and agenda.

If people were not vulnerable to persuasion and influence techniques there would be no advertising or political propaganda. Every person approached isn’t taken in by cult recruitment tactics, just as everyone doesn’t buy a product promoted by slick advertising. The question is not why don’t cults recruit everyone, but rather how do they recruit people and why do those people often stay to their determent.

Instead of denial and fanciful claims about the decline of cults our best response regarding such groups is education and increased awareness. Understanding the basic warning signs of a potentially unsafe group is a good start. And utilizing the Web to find information about specific groups before becoming more deeply involved is always a good idea. More information helps people make more informed choices. Ignorance may lead to devastating consequences.

As Tony Ortega concluded, “As long as the media remains in the dark about destructive cults and the way they work, we’ll continue to get bewildering statements about ISIS, and ignorant columns from the New York Times.”

Deepak Chopra has recently taken up golf, and like so much of what the guru does, it may turn a profit too.

Chopra has written about his new game in a book titled, “Golf for Enlightenment.”

The MD and former disciple of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi says, “I nourish my relationship with the ball by saying, ‘You’re part of me…. When you soar, I will soar with you.’ ”

Right.

And Chopra insists, “It’s not about winning.”

But according to an LA Times article “Golf with Deepak” by Roy Rivenburg, Chopra doesn’t really seem to follow through on his mantras.

When his game didn’t go well the guru/doctor “became increasingly rattled and distracted.” At one hole “he walked off without two of his clubs.”

Later as the Times staff writer watched, “he hit the wrong ball in the tree area [and] his karma went completely on the fritz.”

The golfing guru later tacitly admitted, “My book isn’t really about golf…It would be stupid of me to write a book about golf…. The title just gets you in the door. Once you’re in the door, it’s about something else — spirituality.”

So once again as Rivenburg points out astutely Chopra is “a shrewd marketer.”

It seems the guru’s golf book is just another gimmick, this time to target men as consumers for his “spiritual…empire.”

Dr. Deepak has followed in the footsteps of his mentor Maharishi and made “spirituality” into a virtual money machine.

In his new book Nothing Is Impossible, Christopher Reeve offers inspiration and hope, but the Hollywood icon also demonstrates his enduring sense of humor.

In a chapter titled Religion, Reeve tells the story of his involvement with Scientology during 1975.

The saga begins outside a supermarket where the actor runs into a Scientologist promoting a “free personality test.” Reeve obliges him and takes the test, curious to find out its results.

The next day in the “plush…inner sanctum of…[Scientology's] headquarters…suitable for the president or CEO of a major corporation” he is told the bad news. Scientologists warn Reeve that he is carrying “heavy ‘baggage’” and suffers from a litany of personal problems.

But of course they can provide the needed “‘training’” to help him, which they say he should begin immediately.

So the future Superman takes Scientology courses hoping one day he will “go Clear,” which is Scientology jargon for reaching a supposed advanced state of consciousness made possible through their training.

Reeve writes about an exercise called “‘TRO’ (Training Routine Zero)” and explains, “The objective was to empty our minds of extraneous thoughts (‘clutter’)” And “whenever our own clutter tried to come back in, we were…to acknowledge its return and then command it to go away.”

Doesn’t this sound like “brainwashing“?

The actor tells readers that TRO only cost him “a few hundred dollars.” But after that came “auditing,” which he describes as “outrageously expensive.” And Reeve says Scientology wanted “$3,000 in advance” for that service, which was billed at a “$100 an hour in 1975.”

He explains that the “auditor” used an “E-Meter,” which is “a simple box with a window that contained a fluctuating needle and a card with numbers from one to ten. Two wires running out of the box…were attached to tin cans,” which he was asked to hold.

Apparently it didn’t take x-ray vision for Reeve to conclude that the “E-meter was basically a crude lie detector.”

What Reeve subsequently details sounds like an interrogation. The actor was asked to “recall the use of…illegal substances…painkillers…anything stronger than aspirin.” He says, “My drug rundown used up for or five sessions.”

But Reeve had “growing skepticism about Scientology.” So he decided to run his own test.

He told the auditor a long story supposedly about a past life, but he made it all up, based upon a Greek myth.

However, the auditor didn’t detect anything, even with the help of the trusty “E-Meter.”

It was then that the “Man of Steel” decided he was done with Scientology. Reeve writes, “The fact that I got away with a blatant fabrication completely devalued my belief in the process.”

Summing up a religious critique the actor says, “My problem has always been with religious dogma intended to manipulate behavior.”

Elsewhere in the book Reeve recounts exposure to Transcendental Meditation, a run-in with a devotee of Baba Muktanananda, an awareness weekend seminar, Deepak Chopra, “Harmonic Convergence” and “rebirthing.”

But Christopher Reeve never became another movie star devoted to some guru or “cult.” And it’s refreshing to find a celebrity that isn’t another annoying Hollywood cliché, constantly promoting some leader, special mentor or weird group.

Even after life dealt Reeve a tough hand in 1995 through a freak accident that paralyzed his body, he still didn’t grasp for some self-serving, comforting or convenient belief system.

Instead, the actor says God wants us to “do our best” and simply “discern the truth.” And Reeve cites a guiding principle espoused by the pragmatic Abraham Lincoln, “When I do good I feel good. When I do bad I feel bad. And that’s my religion.”

It seems Scientology has more to learn from Superman than he ever could have taken in from its endless courses and “auditing.”

Maybe this movie star should teach some Hollywood Scientologists like Tom Cruise and John Travolta?

Given his current circumstances many might think Christopher Reeve is bitter. But the actor centers much of his life and faith upon the value of hope.

He concludes at the end of his book, “When we have hope, we discover powers, within ourselves we may have never known—the power to make sacrifices, to endure, to heal, and to love. Once we choose hope, everything is possible.”