Do Krishna Cults Brainwash Their Members?: A Moral Psychology Perspective

By: gaurarader

The short answer is: Yes, and no.

People, and you might be one of them, assume that Krishna religions are not cults because the followers are clearly not brainwashed. They can clearly articulate their beliefs, they can defend them vehemently against criticism. In short they are able to think critically about their beliefs and if you speak with them it becomes clear they chose to believe everything they believe. You might believe that about yourself. And further you might believe that if a religion doesn’t brainwash its members then it is not a cult.

The truth is a bit more complicated than the above analysis indicates. It is true that Krishna cult members can articulately defend their beliefs, and in that sense they are not brainwashed. But there is no such thing as brainwashing. The term originally referred to prisoners returning from the Korean war who had supposedly been brainwashed into accepting communism and hating America. It turns out there were two distinct phenomena at play. Some prisoners didn’t believe what they were saying to their captors but just told them what they wanted to hear so they wouldn’t be subjected to torture. Some of the prisoner genuinely did believe that communism was superior to capitalism and that the United States was evil for participating in the war, but these people were liberals who already believed those things before they were captured. So, “brainwashing” isn’t a real phenomena.

But people do come to believe very strange things, so how does that happen? To understand what happens to someone when they join a cult, or more broadly any group with a moral or political message one needs to understand a little moral psychology. The perspective I offer here is a bit different than standard interpretations of cult groups and how people come to be indoctrinated into new belief systems by cults. I highly recommend Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind as great moral psychology primer and one of the most powerful books you could possibly read if you are interested in understanding the morality, religion, politics, and humanity itself.

People join religious or political organizations for any number of reasons. Some are even genetic in that there is a genetic predisposition to liberalism, conservatism, and libertarianism. Often times with religious cults people are going through an identity crises or a particularly difficult time in their life. Or they are just on a search for the truth, although often times that is  probably a sort of identity crises. Anyhow, a person finds themselves part of a moral community, whether it is religious or political it doesn’t matter.

Once a person is a part of a community our psychology, beautifully designed by evolution, essentially turns off our rational thinking, as it applies to whether beliefs of the group are true or not. All rational thinking is dedicated not to evaluating the truth of the beliefs fo the group but to proving the beliefs to be true and proving all other beliefs to be false. And also of course to hating everyone outside the group and loving everyone in the group. A moment’s reflection on this should make it obvious why this psychological feature is useful. When you are about to go to war with the neighboring tribe it is not useful to be thinking about how maybe your tribe is wrong in the dispute and how your tribe is being greedy. They are the one’s that are being greedy, they are wrong, they deserve to die and rot in hell eternally. Kill’em!

Human beings are tribal creatures and morality, to use Haidt’s term, serves a two-fold purpose in “blinds and binds” us. It blinds us to moral truths outside the truths of our group and it binds us together with other members of group.

So, given that “brainwashing” is a red herring, what useful questions might we ask regarding whether a group is a cult.

One of the most useful things we can do is look at recruiting tactics of groups. If a group goes after lonely, vulnerable, isolated, idealistic, naive, young people then I think it is fair to say the group is a cult. Because once a person joins a religious group a person’s own moral psychology will do the rest of the work. The trick is just getting them to join.

Cults, of course, have other features. Cults harm people, either their own members, outsiders, or both. Cults indoctrinate their members into an extremely distorted view of reality. They get their members to make insane sacrifices for the sake of the leader or the group. They have leaders whom the members must submit to. Etc. etc.

Another useful question when thinking about whether an individual is “brainwashed,” is to look at their beliefs. Cults get people to believe very, very strange things. Science and philosophy, or reason, can help us figure out what we should believe. Not all belief systems are equal. Some beliefs systems are almost entirely irrational (cultic religious belief), some are mostly rational (non-cult moderate religious belief), and some are entirely rational.

If your group is on the wrong end of that spectrum you are probably in a cult of sorts. Krishna cults don’t brainwash their members in the pop culture mind control sense of the word “brainwash,” but they do use dubious tactics to bring in new members who are then indoctrinated into believing very strange things, and from there an individual’s moral psychology takes over inhibiting rational evaluation of the groups practices and beliefs.

That being said, if we consider standard definitions of what makes a cult, which while being a little simplistic in their understanding of moral psychology can be useful, then clearly Krishna cults fit the bill. Krishna cults involve veneration of specific people, they use emotional manipulation and deception as part of their recruiting tactics, and the worldview they indoctrinate members into has all the telltale signs of a cult worldview.  (Here is a simple answer to the question “What makes a cult?” by Rick Ross with links to Robert Jay Lifton’s important work on cults and thought reform.)

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top