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Risk Assessment for Leaving a Cult


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/09/17

Scott is the Founder of Skeptic Meditations. He speaks from experience in entering and leaving an ashram. Here we talk about existential risks of someone who leaves a cult or cult-like group.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What bigger existential risks exist for the individual who leaves the cult, immediately?

Scott from

About experiences when leaving the ashram cult of Self-Realization Fellowship, I would say the biggest existential risks are:

1) Feelings of despair and meaningless after leaving the group. A huge draw of cult-like groups is their promise to deliver ultimate meaning and purpose in life. Whereas, I believe similar to the existential philosophers like Nietzsche, Camus, and Kierkegaard, that life itself and the universe is ultimately meaningless. Each of us must grapple with that reality. Yet, cult-like ideologies promise answers to the ultimate questions of existence. Gurus and authoritarian leaders short-circuit or bypass the natural process of us grappling, struggling, and resolving for ourselves individual and as a society the meaning and values we make or bring to our lives and existence.

2) Only leaving a cult-like group physically. That is not leaving it also in your head, or psychologically. There are several layers of nuance when we refer to “leaving”. There is leaving physically, which is perhaps less complicated. You split from the ashram and move out. Easier said than done when highly controlled members are often dependent completely for food, shelter, clothing, community on the cult-like group. Leaving the group psychologically is much more complicated. For reason cited above in my response #1 above about desire for ultimate meaning and purpose. The existential challenge of leaving a cult-like group is loss of identity which often has been wholly shaped by the disciple’s existence within the group’s worldview. Leaving the group physically is no guarantee of leaving the group psychologically. For many followers-disciples of the cult are actually living outside the close-environment of the ashram. It is just that living physically within the confines of the “headquarters” or “center” puts follower-disciples under greater influence by the cult-like psychological manipulations. Such as fear of reprimands for not attending classes, not showing up for group meditations, not appearing obedient to a superior’s suggestions or instructions. Entire books have been written on this topic. One book that I have found particularly relevant to the topic of psychological manipulations within the guru-disciple relationship context is The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad.

3) Notice that I use the term “cult-like” for my investigations into so-called cults led me to realize that all people, organizations, and societies contain “cult-like” attributes: deference or obedience to authority, ideological and cultural myths that bring ultimate meaning, and cultural norms that put pressures to comply or risk being ostracized or shunned by the group. Perhaps these traits are not unnatural or evil, when seen within an evolutionary context. Primates display these traits: obedience to and dominance of the alpha male gorilla in the herd has many evolutionary benefits, including the alpha male getting to mate with more female gorillas, passing on “strong” genes to more baby gorillas. Also, the alpha gorilla beats his chest and perhaps scares of outside predators and dangers that allow the group as a whole to survive another day. Cult-like behaviors are on a spectrum, a matter of degree not of kind. If Guru Baba (fictitious name I just made up) demands obedience from his followers, to the degree disciples obey his commands without challenge or question, to that degree we might call the group cult-like.

Jacobsen: How does someone view the world if the cult or cult-like group is all they have ever known in life?

Scott: I was raised Catholic. As a teen after Catechism indoctrination found the faith wanting in reason and sense. While in college I read Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yoganada, the guru whose ashrams in California I was to live in as a monk a few years later. My identity as a person as a self was, probably still is even though I do not believe consciously, in souls, gods, or karma (heavens or hells in some afterlife).

There are many cult-like groups who indoctrinate infants and children. All that is needed is to be born within a group or society and walla — indoctrination by the culture, traditions, and meanings of the family and group. Is the goldfish swimming in my fishbowl aware it is existing within water? Jumping out of the water and landing back in the bowl could be fatal to Goldie’s existence! In the same way we all have these fishbowls we swim in. Jumping out of them, at least momentarily, gives us an opportunity to see or experience from the outside and potentially generate entirely new ways of viewing the world and our existence.

Jacobsen: How can they — those for who the entrenchment and indoctrination are arguably the most thorough — leave mentally and then physically?

Scott: As I mentioned above leaving a cult-like group physically is perhaps the easiest part of “leaving”. Though sometimes in some groups leaving can be fatal. Apostates who “leave’ the faith of some religions, fraternities, or political parties can be shunned, excommunicated, even assassinated. For leaving the group be a threat to those who remain within the cult-like group. Especially when detractors or leavers of the group speak out against the group or join rival groups. Again, in the deep-seated sense these are existential threats at a collective and individual level. Most of these existential threats are seldom articulated as such but are underlying, lurking underneath our conscious awareness in the unconscious.

The way I left mentally or psychologically the SRF systems of thought-control, which I experienced eventually as cult-like behaviors and attitudes, was through a gradual, years-long process. I really can’t’ say I found a silver bullet, or one or even a top ten things that helped me to escape. However, in all honesty, it was the community within the ashram cult-like group that allowed me to come out as questioning authority of the leaders and organizational systems of SRF.

The monks at that time had started these encounter-like groups. We had begun to confront our existence as a community. For instance, we would sit in a circle of maybe 10–50 monks and discuss questions such as: If SRF ashram was an instrument to our feeling the bliss, joy, and love that our guru, Yogananda (1893–1952) promised followers-disciples then why were we mostly feeling fear, despair, and hopelessness? Why were the leaders of SRF seemingly indifferent to our despair? Could it be that the leaders and the organizational systems gained its very power over the fear-based systems of psychological controls? These and many other questions were discussed for a year or two in the ashrams. Until the leaders shut down the conversations by banning our ashram “encounter” group sessions. My questions are by no means representative of all the questions raised during the encounter groups, which by the way were instigated by the Spiritual Life Committee. A group of 3–6 senior monastics who were given the role of leading the sessions along with outside professional psychologists as facilitators.

Jacobsen: Do halfway houses or safe transition houses exist for ex-cult members as with women domestic abuse victims?

Scott: I am not aware of any halfway or transition houses for members who leave cult-like groups. There is some apostates or members who leave some groups, like Scientology, SRF, or Mormons, who take people into their homes, provide jobs or job training, and basic support to establish a home and life outside the high-control group. There are numerous films on Netflix about children who runaway from high-control communities like the Warren Jeff’s Mormons who believe in polygamy. Girls see they will be married off to a much older man and do not feel the group is treating them right. So, they leave family, everything, to try to make a go of it in the “outside” world. Also, some interesting documentaries, one called Amish: Shunned. I believe this was first aired on PBS and may be viewable on Netflix. These documentaries all illustrated my earlier point: its not about particular groups labelled cults, though we need to be aware of dangerous controlling organizations. The difference between a cult and normal group is zero. It is a difference of degree in how leaders-disciples relate to each other and not a difference in kind versus other groups who may have lower degree of guru-disciple worldview. Substitute guru-disciple with tradition, faith, myth, political party, church, mosque, synagogue, team, whatever. I am not saying these groups are bad. Just trying to point to the nuance of degree. Even degree is not so easy to pinpoint. As one person’s too much control might be another person’s just right. However, as an individual and society I believe we can find some ordinary agreement about what is too much and what is potentially or dangerous. But then it again raises who gets to set what is too much? Too cult-like? These are tricky but worthwhile questions for us individually and collectively to discuss and explore. That is what I do as a hobby and in my blog and Facebook page. I use meditation and yoga techniques and groups as a jump off point for getting underneath to the existential crises and issues that these groups and worldviews promise to solve and/or create.

Jacobsen: Do some never ‘get over’ their experiences, the trauma for example?

Scott: Correct. Some, perhaps most if not all who spent many years within high-control groups, may never get over the abuse or controls. Why would we want them to get completely “over” it? For me, the lessons I learned getting out of the ashram cult-like situation, both physically and psychologically, was perhaps one of the most defining experiences of my life, of my psyche. I have scars and trauma lurking underneath my psyche. On the outside I live a fairly ordinary life, with fairly unremarkable job, car, family, friends and accomplishments. But most people I know do not know what I have been through. How could they? I heard of soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan who say the same thing. They miss the meaning, purpose and intense camaraderie of war, or at least their band of brothers who were trained for war and killing. Soldiers who return whom after serving their country honorably, if they are lucky may integrate into a society from which they may feel alienated from, especially after living through and seeing the horrors of war, blood, and death. Should they “get over” it? Then, be “normal”. The greatest lessons are often those hardest earned. Frankly, as I think about it, perhaps no one really has a “normal” life psychologically. I am not saying we are all traumatized but what I am trying to get at is the nuances. It has easy to focus on the physical, the normal, what is on the surface layers, while forgetting underneath is mostly the struggles for meaning and not questions of kind.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Scott.

Scott: My pleasure. I have enjoyed our discussion.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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