Cult Spotting 101: Evaluating a New Group Before You Join

Wow, it’s been a long time since I did a post for my Cult Spotting 101 series! I’ve got a new one for readers today.

If you’re not familiar with this series, I link to a source (or in this case sources) and ask readers to take a moment to identify any red flags that might indicate cause for concern about cultic practices or teachings. It’s designed to give readers a chance to exercise their skills in identifying potentially problematic groups.

Why? Because the best safeguard against cults is learning how to recognize the signs.

This week, I’m looking at the Sisters of the Valley (aka, the weed nuns). They’re a relatively new group, consisting of two Sisters who make Cannabis products to sell online. They don’t have a doctrine or body of teachings to analyze. Rather, we’re going to practice evaluating what they say about the group as if it were a new group we were interested in joining.

They’ve been really popular as a share on Facebook, therefore we’re going to start with one of the videos that has been circulating.


Watch it, make notes about the things that give you pause for concern. If you’re really dedicated, feel free to peruse their website and a Tech Insider article on them as well.

Then, as always, come back here for my breakdown of my own thoughts.

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Welcome back!

When I first heard about these “nuns” and saw this video, my initial reaction was excitement. As someone who appreciates the value of herbs and is interested in seeing Cannabis used for herbal purposes more, I was psyched that people were dedicating themselves to such a cause.

However there were also a few things in the video that took some of my excitement down.

Environmental Control

In the documentary, the nuns describe how they “live together, work together, pray together.” That phrase threw up a flag about potentially unhealthy isolation.

Isolation is one of the foremost ways that abusive people and groups use to control others because, by isolating someone, the group essentially becomes a gatekeeper through which all information must get filtered. Control the environment, and you control who people see, what they read and hear, what the group norms are, etc.

Because we have such a strong drive to belong, what we surround ourselves with heavily influences our own beliefs and values. Having exposure to a range of ideas, worldviews, and personalities is healthy because it fosters critical thinking. Without opposing viewpoints, even horrendous things can come to seem normal (e.g. many children growing up in abusive homes don’t realize that other children aren’t beaten like they are. What they experience seems normal to them because of the environment).

But in addition to the potential for excessive isolation from the outside world, environmental control can also interfere with necessary self-reflection. The concern isn’t just that they describe a communal living situation but that they describe doing everything together.

Wherever there is a group that allows for little interaction with non-group members and also severely limits the time that individuals can be alone with themselves, that’s problematic. Granted we’re seeing a 60 second documentary that obviously has a priority of what to present and may not think their vibrant social life is all that important, but their choice of words is important information that needs to be taken into consideration.

Behavior Control

In the documentary video, the nuns say that “all day, every day” is devoted to crafting and cultivating Cannabis and the products derived from it. That’s a lot of time dedicated to one’s work, even if you feel called to it.

Gardening/farming for a living doesn’t exactly fit into a 9-5 work week, and absent some of the other things I might not be so concerned. However, these “nuns” also wear habits to demonstrate their devotion.

In the Tech Insider article, one of the sisters comments: “We live together, we wear the same clothes, we take a vow of obedience to the moon cycles, we take a vow of chastity (which we don’t think requires celibacy), and a vow of ecology, which is a vow to do no harm while you’re making your medicine.”

Despite claiming that they aren’t part of a religion, they clearly have a whole litany of things beyond making their products that they have to do. There isn’t a lot of information given about what their vows constitute, but a few of the words that stand out include “obedience” and “chastity.”

Gathering information about whether to join a group is a little bit like playing the detective. Most of the time, people will be putting their best face forward, and identifying toxic elements often involves reading between the lines a little bit. When you get key words like that above, that should make your spidey sense tingle. Hone in on that and get more information before proceeding forward.

Spiritual Elitism and Special Knowledge

Their website explains that they are not part of an “earthly religion,” but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own brand of religion. The nuns claim to be part of “an order of New Age Progressive nuns” (stated at the beginning of the documentary).

All of their products are cultivated with prayer, and they claim on their website to prepare everything “during moon cycles, according to ancient wisdom” though they don’t indicate what this ancient wisdom is or where it came from.

I hope my readers know me well enough to know that I have absolutely no problem with a self-designed spirituality; however, whenever a group, even one claiming to have that kind of spirituality, seems to indicate having any kind of “special knowledge” that isn’t available to others, that should make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up on end.

Combined with a stringent expectation of behavior and communal living that leaves little room for outside involvement or personal solitude, there is a lot of room for a prescriptive spirituality determined by one and obeyed by the others.

The fact that there are only two Sisters currently doesn’t give me much comfort. Their blog post described how Sister Kate was meeting with other “Sisters” and “Brothers” about opening up other venues. The Tech Insider article points out that they hope to have other abbeys spring up. Would they have to follow the Sisters’ brand of spirituality?

“Once you’ve experienced the growing with your own hands and the turning of that into medicine, it is very hard to walk back into a different kind of life.”

This quote from the documentary was the first thing that set my radar off. It simultaneously expresses difficulty in leaving and returning to a previous life as well as a sense that only in this lifestyle can life be fulfilling.

Most groups think they have something to offer others, but when a group starts trying to convince you that they and only they have fulfilling or holy lives or that you have to join them in order to obtain your desire (to help people, to be healthy, to make money, to reach heaven), proceed with extreme caution.

Substance Use

“It’s time for the people to revive their spirituality,” Sister Kate declares, “and we believe the path to that is through Cannabis.”

While I don’t think substances should never be used for spiritual purposes, I am very cautious about them being prescribed for spirituality. Substances require safeguards and an extremely safe space because they lower inhibitions and make people more suggestible and easily manipulated. If there isn’t a dedication to protecting the autonomy of individuals in a communal spiritual space, the use of substances can quickly become an abusive practice.

Blending Business with Spirituality

Perhaps more concerning than just the Sisters designing a New Age spirituality is the way it gets tangled up with the business.

In the blog post on their site, Sister Kate described having meetings with others who she hoped would join her cause. Tech Insider gives a prime example of the doublespeak surrounding whether she’s establishing a religion or a business, at once calling these other hoped-for establishments “franchises” and “abbeys.”

At the end of the article, Sister Kate expresses how she hopes the habits will be an identifying mark of the abbeys.

“We would like it to be such that wherever you saw women in their blue jean skirts, white blouses, and hats … those women know about cannabis.”

So on the one hand, they’re purporting to be expanding their business, but their business expansion comes with the hope of expanding their brand of spirituality, lifestyle, and habits (pun intended).

Suddenly it doesn’t sound so much like a business as it does a religious group that happens to sell products. The difference might seem to come down to semantics, but the semantics are significant.

Summing it up

If my initial excitement had gone further into a desire to be part of this movement, how might I handle these red flags that indicate the potential for environmental control and isolation, limited information and access to reality checks, behavior control, spiritual elitism, and muddying the distinction between business and spiritual lifestyle?

I wouldn’t have enough information just on this to feel certain about whether they were indeed a toxic group, but I would have enough to indicate that I shouldn’t jump into this group head first.

We’ve taken the first step of evaluating some sources, including their own words to describe themselves. If we were dealing with a group that had been around long enough to have ex-members, speaking with them might also be a valuable source of information about what life is like on the inside and what they faced when they decided to leave.

I would also eventually want to talk to current group members and ask questions, paying attention to the way they answer, not just what the answer is. Do they seem open to questions and push-back? Do they give vague answers that don’t really contain helpful information?

Any red flags that came up in the initial evaluation would be something I would want to feel certain had been sufficiently addressed, either in direct conversation or through observation of how they interact. If it seemed impossible for me to answer my questions without fully joining the group, I would walk away.

Disclaimer: My use of this documentary or group as an example doesn’t constitute an accusation that the group is necessarily a cult. The documentary could just be over-simplified, highlighting what seems unusual, quirky, or interesting while failing to show other aspects of the nuns’ lives . . . or it could be a warning of something deeper. That’s why I’m giving you practice with spotting red flags, wherever you may find them. They are a symptom that should alert you to be careful and use your critical thinking.

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