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Groups, Cults, & the “8 Elements of Brainwashing”: Part 4 The Demand for Purity

November 10, 2021

The third characteristic of a cult is what Lifton called the demand for purity. As noted in the introduction, the summary by the anti-cult activist Rick Ross is the starting point for each of these posts:

The Demand for Purity– The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.

The demand for purity, and the inevitable ‘purity tests’ in their various forms are applied not only within a group, upon its own members, but also applied to the outside world. Subjecting certain “out-groups” to a purity test, is crucial to the ‘milieu control’ discussed earlier. It enables a cult or cult-like “in-group” to define itself positively in contrast to an ‘impure’ group. This serves to strengthen identity and community, as well as de-humanise that out-group. The out-group can be excluded, damned, or physically attacked, depending on the nature of the in-group. It also allows any criticism by the out-group to be dismissed out of hand.

Conspiracy Theories

Applying a purity test to an out-group is in fact one of the defining features of a conspiracy theory. Often, the whole of society is simply written off as unworthy– as fools, deviants, barbarians, or dupes of a cabal of parasitic power-seekers or manipulators who control “everything”.

Ultimately, subjecting outsiders to a purity test is not concerned so much with promoting certain ideas or values, but is rather an assertion of power.

This makes any kind of reasoned or critical response to the in-group’s ideology extremely difficult. The out-group has already been condemned as guilty according to criteria that are considered to be so obvious that there is no need for discussion. The judgment has fallen, and the punishment must be carried out. Trying to respond rationally to this completely misses the point. For the in-group this is not about fact checking or reasoned analysis. It’s a power struggle. This war was probably declared by the in-group long before any skeptic or critic had even heard of them.

This is why skeptics and critics nearly always fail to even make a dent in the propaganda of conspiracy theorists. They don’t realise their antagonists are playing a straight forward power game, not a logic game. The points they think they are scoring with their clever analyses of contradictions, logical fallacies and incorrect information count less than nothing for the in-group. Repeated failed attacks merely make the in-group feel and appear stronger.

Sooner or later the purity test that was applied to outsiders begins to be applied to insiders as well. Contradictions and conflicting interpretations within the ideology (inevitable in all conspiracy theories) turn minor squabbles into divisive conflicts. If one particular faction gains the upper hand, some kind of purge within the in-group is almost inevitable. This is especially the case if the group’s membership and influence expanded too swiftly for conflicting opinions to be resolved or filtered out.

In other words, finicky internal squabbles are often far more problematic for such a group than any encounter with factual reality or contradictory ideas from an out-group.

Groups that seek to gain political power over an out-group are a menace to society and a threat to democracy. Ultimately, unless they self-destruct, they can probably only be stopped with force.

Spiritual groups whose members are more focused on their own purity or personal success are more likely to be merely a menace to the group members themselves.

Spiritual Groups & Ideologies Based on Revelation

The apparent absence of purity tests is probably one of the main attractions of modern esoteric spirituality for many people. The absence, at least, of Christian notions of original sin, guilt around sexuality, and prescribed scriptures with the attendant priestly power structures can in many instances be counted as a plus for this broad tent of spiritual ideologies.

It might come as a surprise to some people therefore, that modern esoteric teachings always come with numerous built-in purity tests. Spiritual teachings usually involve some kind of “instructions for living”. Thus, the customer’s success or failure to achieve the desired reward inevitably becomes a form of purity test in itself. It can only be this way with such teachings. They are always presented in black and white language, which eventually drives followers into a corner.

If the customer’s life doesn’t improve, the customer will be accused of failing to follow the instructions properly. There is no other possible explanation within the ideology for the failure. The judgment falls with the full authority of the teacher or inventor of the revelation.

Criticism from outside inevitably faces the same fate. The critic will be dismissed as having failed the purity test and condemned to facing the consequences of their error. To live in misery, to die of cancer for their “negativity” (as one Louise Hay customer told me), or to otherwise go to hell.

Refraining from criticising the teacher or teachings becomes in itself a purity test.

Red Flags & Consumer Protection

* Are group members placed under pressure by the ideology or prescribed activities to conform or perform? What options are available for non-conformity?

* What behaviours and ideas does the ideology explicitly condemn? Is it realistic or even sensible to expect people to refrain from them? What are the consequences for transgressions?

* What is implicitly excluded from the ideology? How do group leaders and members respond to the idea that the teachings might be incomplete or in need of improvement?

* Do members of the in-group reflexively judge critics or anyone who holds a conflicting view according to the groups internal standards or purity rules? (If so, normal reasoned communication with its members will be difficult and will require a good knowledge of the ideology and internal rules.)

* Likewise, do group members tend to respond to external criticism in an identical fashion? Ideologies that paint the world as black and white, (or positive and negative, in the case of law of attraction scams), offer believers only a very limited vocabulary which shuns critical thinking and often simple human honesty, and therefore leaves only very few options for responding to non-compliant ideas. Usually they will simply attack the critic in terms of the internal purity test.

* Does the teacher follow the rules and apply the teachings in their own life? If not, it’s a good sign that the rules and expectations are unrealistic. (This is usually easy enough to find out if it’s a local group, simply by asking around. Dirt has a way of spreading through a community — even group members often know the truth and choose to ignore it.)

2 comments

  1. So true my friend, in pursuit of purity, the political positions, the media sympathetic to them and the private groups who flock to be counted among them … this theme is common and foul among all of them. It sickens me and allows no surprise of how many people are hesitant to turn on the television or even the damn radio these days.
    Politically or religiously or environmentally or whatever … everyone seems to seek to be a little smarter than those who believe otherwise, no?


  2. Yes… I’m glad that the main focus of this blog is spirituality and not politics. I’m one of those who can only stomach the news in small portions right now. But all these processes are a lot easier to spot in politics right now than any of these subtle spiritual manipulations.



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