The author’s decade-long experience in a cult ostensibly devoted to the practice of the individual will and the liberty of the individual produced a state of cognitive dissonance in him which forced his departure in the late 1990s. The rationale for remaining despite abusive treatment from superiors coupled with his eventual decision to leave the group are discussed in a first-person narrative format.
Keywords: cognitive dissonance, cults, religion, personal narrative
At the age of 19, I joined a cult. At the time I would have insisted that the organization I joined was the furthest thing from a cult based solely on the group’s purported adherence to a mystical quasi-philosophy called Thelema. The central tenant of Thelema, as postulated by the group’s most famous past grand master, Aleister Crowley, was summed up by the phrase, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” The organization was called the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), and promoted self-empowerment and self-exploration through the practice of ritual magic. For a decade I embraced the OTO as my chosen tribe, my ingroup, and accepted without question the demands placed on me by members of higher rank. In due course, however, I found myself unable to reconcile the organization’s stated values and purpose with the behaviors of the local leaders; as I took on a greater leadership role in my region, I found myself mimicking the same behaviors I had observed that were at odds with Thelema. A crisis ensued and I left the cult in order to alleviate the cognitive dissonance I experienced.
Setting the Stage for Cognitive Dissonance
Smith, Mackie, and Claypool (2015) assert that cognitive dissonance is an unpleasant sensation that arises when individual attitudes and actions run contrary to one another (p. 282). That is, cognitive dissonance is the consequence of believing one thing and saying or doing another.
As noted by Matz and Wood (2005), dissonance is a social phenomenon which arises in the context of groups (p. 22). Central to Aleister Crowley’s concept of Thelema is the notion of the individual will as the supreme force in the universe. Each person is capable of doing tremendous things, or one tremendous thing, and this through the power of the will. However, Crowley used various quasi-religious organizations, including the OTO, to promote his ideas; these organizations were based on hierarchies where those at the top are empowered to create regulations that limit the behavior of those below. The belief in the supremacy of the will coupled with the behavior of limiting expression of the will sets up inevitable cognitive dissonance.
The question then presents itself: Why would a person who believes in the supremacy of his will capitulate to the edicts of others that stymie the expression of his will? According to Mannberg (2012), utility theory provides an answer in that a rational individual will maximize utility by equating marginal cost to marginal benefit (p. 1327). In the case of membership in the OTO, marginal cost is the acceptance of will-thwarting edicts imposed by higher ranking members and marginal benefit is remaining in good standing with the ingroup. If the cost is too high—if the edict is simply too atrocious for the individual to accept—he will not pay it and so fail to obtain the marginal benefit, effectively ending his ascent in the hierarchy of the organization.
The OTO employs a gradual process of indoctrination to promote acceptance of its edicts. Membership is broken into degrees and the notion of service being honor is touted by its senior members. Being an honorable person, it is argued, will enable one to rise to higher degrees in which membership is conveyed by invitation. Lower ranking members, however, are incapable of serving in ritual capacities and are thus encouraged to perform mundane tasks at the behest of senior members. This is a not-so-subtle foot-in-the-door technique that results in expectations of capitulation to greater demands in the future (Smith, Mackie, and Claypool, 2015, p. 279).
Cognitive Dissonance Manifests
As I entered the mid-level management degrees of the OTO, I found myself dealing with the psychological problems of lower degree members. Expressing my concern to the leadership of the organization was met with disapproval. When a regional group leader began to use drugs and hypnosis in rituals that he barely understood, and insisted on intruding into members’ work places, I encountered a sudden upswing in my own cognitive dissonance. My willingness to accept physical, verbal, and emotional abuse for the sake of progressing in the organization was one thing; watching other people subjected to increasingly dangerous practices to sate another’s curiosity proved to be more than I was willing to endure. My own hypocrisy in touting one set of attitudes and participating in contrary practices became apparent.
As McKimmie (2015) observes, when group behaviors and attitudes conflict with societal and personal norms, cognitive dissonance may occur among group members. My personal attitudes of respecting the individual will extended to the wills of others. Societal norms demand we not interfere with the livelihoods of others, especially those whom we claim to cherish.
The more issues I raised with how the organization was being run and with the abuse of lower ranking members, the more resistance I encountered; the more resistance I encountered, the worse I felt about the situation. In hindsight, when I left the organization I felt absolutely miserable but soon began to feel better about myself. I also regretted my own role in abusing others, having relied extensively on the effort justification effect to quash complaints regarding my own behavior. The same defense was used by those above me and the belief that suffering equals devotion was easily defended by the cliché, “Monkey see, monkey do.”
I joined, participated in, and then escaped from a cult. The foot-in-the-door technique was used to indoctrinate me. The crisis in my membership was produced by cognitive dissonance when I recognized that attitudes and actions of cult leadership, including myself by this point, were at odds with one another. Leaving the cult was the only way to alleviate the bad feelings I was experiencing.
If someone approached me about joining a secret society, dubious fraternal organization, or fringe religion, I would advise them against it. If they persisted, I would urge them to write down what they believed and what the organization professed. I would then urge them to revisit these two lists of beliefs and compare them to what they were experiencing within the organization. I would encourage them to try to recognize the defenses we use against cognitive dissonance and to see conflicting attitudes and behaviors for what they truly are.
Matz, D. C., & Wood, W. (2005). Cognitive Dissonance in Groups: The Consequences of Disagreement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(1), 22–37. doi:10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.206
Mannberg, A. (2012). Risk and rationalization: The role of affect and cognitive dissonance for sexual risk taking. European Economic Review, 56(6), 1325. doi: 10.1016/j.euroecorev.2012.06.005
McKimmie, B. M. (2015). Cognitive dissonance in groups. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 9(4), 202–212. doi:10.1111/spc3.12167
Smith, E.R., Mackie, D.M., & Claypool, H.M. (2015). Social Psychology (4th ed.). New York, NY: Psychology Press.