Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Systems Theory and Religious Cults.

Rule by Divine Right:"Theocratic" is one way to spin "autocratic"

This post follows on from my last post on the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I’m going to hark back to the 70s and 80s when I was scrutinising the cult world. At that time I produced many rambling hand written notes on a systems theory approach to cults. In this post I want to boil some of that down to its essentials.

As I investigated the world of Christian cults and the strict regimes of observance they imposed on their personnel I started playing with the idea that cults constitute a kind of organism whose basic unit of construction were human beings. My thoughts went as follows:

Cults are in effect “collective identities” in as much as their unit building blocks (people in this case) are highly organised in terms of their uniformity of practice and belief. It is this high organisation that gives cult personnel a collective pattern which sets them apart from their environment. We know from our studies of organic structures that this kind of organisation requires cybernetic circuits to be in place in order to maintain the organisation in the face of the randomly perturbing and disrupting effects of the environment. Biological organisms not only need the instructions found in DNA but also a controlling nexus of feedback circuits necessary to read and implement those instructions and thus preserve bodily identity. These two cybernetic features also appear in cults, as we shall see.

To us as individuals the collective identity of our myriad bodily cells is bound up with our conscious survival as sentient beings; in fact as far as human values are concerned we would probably agree that the individual cellular units, like the individual insects of an ants nest, serve the greater whole rather than the whole serving the units. In fact in order to maintain the much valued collective identity of our bodies, cells grow, serve and die; but that doesn't matter as long as the integrity of the body remains intact. This means that if it were a choice between the overall identity of the body and the survival of the myriad individual cells, the corporate body comes first. In terms of human values cells are there only to serve the corporeal system identity whereas the high level corporeal system only serves the cells in so far as they continue to provide effective service that preserves the overall bodily identity. In a sense the body is a kind of meta-level parasite on the life of cells, cells which live and die for the body not unlike the individual ants of an ant’s nest. The body has an identity by virtue of its organised pattern but the individuality of the cells that make up this organisation is all but immaterial; you could replace huge numbers of cells but the essential organised identity of the body would remain. The human body in this sense is a bit like a data pattern where the exact medium on which that pattern is impressed has a limited relevance.

If we now set these basic ideas up against the cults we find, ominously, something similar; the cult collective identity seems to have precedence over the interests of its basic units of construction, that is, its personnel. This personnel serves the system, and the system only serves the personnel in order to facilitate their active maintenance of the whole. The collective identity of the cult has a kind of moral precedence over its unit member’s quality of life. The cult identity is therefore a meta-level parasite that embraces its hosts rather like the human body is a “meta-parasitic” on its host cells.

It was thinking like this that started me wondering if cult systems almost constitute a new form life, a form of life made up of human units. This notion isn't entirely new; the idea that ant’s nests form a super-organism has been mooted before and my idea about cults had a similar look about it. As with organisms like the human body, the individual units of  a cult only count in so far as they promote overall system identity and as such their quality of life is not paramount: Cult personnel are fed a deceptive and often a very intimidating line in order to keep them in place and serving well. In bad cases these personnel lose all their freedom of choice and can almost become slaves. But a collective group pressure and group think keeps them in place.

The case of Raymond Franz (ex JW governing body member) reveals a lot about the cult dynamic in this respect. It shows that a cult can tolerate a turnover of membership even in high level personnel and yet the cult identity remain in place - just as there is a large turnover of cells in the body and yet the overall identity of the body remains stable. If the human hosts of the cult become a problem and threaten cult identity, then provided these problem personnel don’t exceed a certain threshold in number, the cult can excrete them as waste as can be seen in the Raymond Franz case. But in spite of Raymond Franz’ loss to the JW organisation his contribution to it in terms of the many anonymous articles he wrote in support of the Watchtower during his enthusiastic and loyal tenure probably remain there to this day. In other words he has left the cult a supporting legacy which can still be used to mobilise and galvanise gullible recruits. The cult, therefore, has life of its own, apart from its individual recruits.

The teachings and doctrines of which governing body member Franz was a major contributor are the equivalent of the DNA of the organisation; they provide instruction on the expected belief and practice of its members. This observance based faith is essential to the structural integrity of the organisation; after all it is ultimately the collective behaviour of the cult's personnel that defines the cult's collective identity. This essential observance is maintained by a reporting and discipline system that aims to keep transgressions within the standards of the cult. The information that comes from headquarters also provides the valuable service of responding to the philosophical challenges faced by Kingdom Halls in their local and national context. Instruction on how to think about the hot issues of the day are found in the Awake and Watchtower magazines and in the many Bible study aids all of which are sold by the Watchtower to its Kingdom Halls; in short, the Watchtower followers have to buy the information that keeps them in line. As my accompanying pictures show the JW system is very hierarchical and this facilitates the up and down flow of the information which promotes a strict uniformity of belief and practice between Kingdom Halls. This two way flow of information up and down the hierarchy constitutes the cybernetic circuits of the system.

In as much as the essential organised pattern of the cult is maintained by its internal systems it is a self-perpetuating pattern that sucks in the lives of its host human organisms. The cult is, as it were, a kind of “wave” form that travels through its human media impressing its pattern on this medium at least for a while and then, may be, “excretes” this medium from its back end when it has finished with it. In the face of an inevitable membership turnover it is the corporate identity that is the meaning of life, the universe and everything as far as the cult is concerned. That identity lives to survive and survives to live; it is stuck in a self serving feedback loop. But as a parasite on human life it can have the effect of degrading their quality of life and can turn them into wretched slaves of the system.

In the light of these considerations I gave up on any notion that the cult is some kind of conspiracy complete with an illuminati whose aim in life is to deceive and control those they rule. No, the leaders of the cult, as Franz has shown, are just as taken by their own propaganda as the rank and file; that the cult’s leaders genuinely believe their own teaching makes them far more persuasive. The concept of a controlling illuminati is a human attempt to personify what is in effect entirely impersonal, namely the cult system, a system that is a huge parasitic pattern praying on familiar human weaknesses and fallibilities Those weaknesses and fallibilities are legion; human epistemological limitations, and human traits like the need for security, belonging to an elite fellowship of confidants, paranoia, pride, vanity, self centred ambition, sleaze, ignorance and incompetence.

The kind of conspiracies envisaged by conspiracy theorists is in one sense far too moral in an inverted way to explain the success of a cult. A cult with an illuminati conspiracy at its head would require a very disciplined integrity of purpose amongst them, albeit a purpose directed against non-initiates. It is ironic that the grand conspiracies envisaged by conspiracy theorists are in a sense too “moral” for the untidy, erratic and oft self-centred behaviour of human beings. It is ironic that the real enemy is not some highly intellectual conspiracy which in terms of looking after its own interests is also very moral, but rather the impersonal chaoskampf *or chaos monster of insentient beast-like systems that so easily seduce and corrupt us by appealing to the baser aspects of our nature. All those apparent conspiratorial cover ups have a ready explanation in terms of our common human  failings and the temptation to cover up our own fallible nature and make good our pride. The conspiracy theorist seeks to personify otherwise difficult to comprehend forces that exploit fallible human nature. The cult model is a warning paradigm for all those cases where we feel alienated from systems which aren't serving us well and instead we feel that we are serving them.

* The idea of chaoskampf leads us into a connected complex of ideas in mythology and legend:

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