Editor’s Note: Here’s a look at cults from the unusual perspective of a former self-realization monk and current Clergy Project member. He describes three cults, including his own former cult, and then indicates the destructive characteristics that they share. This is reposted with permission from his blog.
Extreme groups like Amish, Skinheads, and Self-Realization Fellowship Order promise followers “paradise”. Promises of “paradise” come in various forms: a heavenly afterlife by following tradition, spiritual enlightenment by meditation practice, or superiority over others by violence.
Below we compare the underlying psychology within three extreme, cult-like groups:
Skinhead promise of paradise
Christian Picciolini was born and raised on the south side of Chicago in a working-class neighborhood called Blue Island, the birthplace of the American white power skinhead movement. 
One day at 14 years old I was standing in an alley and a man came up to me an essentially promised me paradise. He promised me that I wouldn’t feel powerless anymore. 
That man was Clark Martell who in 1987 co-founded the Chicago Area Skinheads, also called Romantic Violence, the first organized neo-Nazi white power skinhead group in the United States. 
Martell promised me that I had something to be proud of. And that if I joined him and his movement I would leave a mark on the world and find my purpose.
Did Skinheads deliver on their promise?
At first it felt like a family. There was a lot of acceptance. Here you have a bunch of broken people who enjoy each other’s company because we were all broken in some way. But quickly it turned into a dysfunctional family. It was after a while each person for themselves movement. There was no loyalty, only people with an agenda they wanted filled. They used others as pawns. 
Picciolini, after 8 years as a Skinhead, left the group. He co-founded a non-profit–Life After Hate–which helps people leave hate groups.
Amish in tradition and fear
A former Amish man testified on camera :
I was Amish. It was a simple life. We were a unified people that shared one thing: Tradition. Within the Amish Order we all had our part: The older, the younger. From the outside we looked good. We looked satisfied. But on the inside we were confused, unsure, scared.
I lived in a society that was based on fear: The fear of hell. Each day I had questions and uncertainty about my life’s purpose. The elders told me not to question but to obey the teachings of the past. I tried to live at home but my reality was defeat. I had to hide my feelings for the sake of acceptance.
“Loyal” gods in Self-Realization Fellowship Order
My story: In Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) the guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, promised to show us we were gods. In a secret ceremony disciples vowed their complete loyalty to the guru and SRF – his organization. Then the guru initiated disciples into Kriya yoga meditation techniques. Meditation and being loyal to the guru would show us we were gods. In its Service Reading #39, SRF teaches:
“To such a God-sent Guru [e.g., Yogananda] the disciple must always be loyal throughout his lifetime and through future incarnations until he finds redemption.”
Did SRF and Yogananda deliver on their promises?
At first, there was a sense of certainty, purpose, and acceptance. The guru and SRF made promises and had the answers. They made us dependent on them.
But after the honeymoon wore off it was a different story. There was no loyalty, only loyal followers and those who were labeled disloyal. Each person was loyal for his own self-preservation. Everyone’s true thoughts and feelings had to be hidden for fear of not being accepted. Any person could at anytime be branded as disloyal, shunned or ostracized within the community.
I lived in fear. People had to accept their “training” without question. Abuses were easily excused and justified. Towards the end of my decade-and-a-half within the Order, a few monks and I discussed our fears of fanatically “loyal” monks who might assassinate other monks who they considered disloyal. That kind of “loyalty” and fear was the last straw. All four of us monks in that conversation left the Order within the next several months.
There was no loyalty except to persons who said or did what SRF and its leadership wanted. Their promises were empty.
Loyalty in cult-family
At first, members of each of these groups, Amish, Skinheads or SRF Order, feel like they are part of a family. Members of the in-group feel accepted into the community. People outside the group don’t understand them and even ridicule them. A persecution or messianic complex drives followers of these groups to bond even closer together. However, the loyalty is to the leaders, tradition, or ideology–not to the individuals themselves as human beings. Any deviation from the tradition, guru or institution is seen as disloyalty. Fear takes over. Some members eventually leave the group.
These examples illustrate some common themes of groups like the Amish, Skinhead, and SRF Order:
- Leader or tradition that promises certainty, purpose in life
- Feeling, at first, of acceptance and family
- Dysfunctional group held together by fear
- Hiding of one’s feelings and living in fear of being found out
- Eventually, fortunate persons leave and are able to help others leave.
Bio: “Scott” was a monk at the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) ashram for 14 years before leaving to complete his education and enter the business world. Raised Roman Catholic, he got into eastern religious practices and was influenced in his 20’s by reading The Autobiography of a Yogi by SRF founder Paramahansa Yogananda. He is now a member of The Clergy Project and a successful business consultant. He discusses the hidden, and sometimes dangerous side of meditation practices, systems and groups at his blog, SkepticMeditations.com. The above lightly edited essay is re-posted with permission.
1 Life After Hate. Staff. Accessed on Aug 20 2017 at https://www.lifeafterhate.org/staff
2 The Center for Investigative Reporting. Hate on the march: white nationalism in the Trump era. Reveal broadcast. Aug 19 2017.
3 Clark Martell. Wikipedia. Accessed Aug 20 2017 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clark_Martell
4 Amish: Shunned and Excommunicated. Mission to Amish People. Accessed on Aug 19 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hgU7hiBczjI&list=PLv3ujCEQ-THhKEp6ty81eFlAhcG6j4wcP
>>>>Photo Credits: By it:Utente:TheCadExpert – it:Immagine:Lancaster_County_Amish_03.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1249760