The Taboo Against
Religious Traditions
that Make
Strong Requirements of Members



We often seem most comfortable with people whose religions consist of nothing but a few private sessions of worship and prayer, but who are too secularized to let their faiths influence the rest of the week. This attitude exerts pressure to treat religion as a hobby. . . .

Stephen Carter, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion

In considering the matter of new religious movements that make strong requirements on their members, it is useful to study the case of the "Tnevnoc Cult", presented by sociologists David Bromley and Anson Shupe. The movement recruits young women, and requires them to shave their heads and wear special uniforms. It gives them new names in a foreign language. Furthermore, it requires these young women to give up their personal possessions and sleep on hard pallets for the rest of their lives. During their initial membership in the cult, the young women were isolated from family contacts. Later, they were required to ritually marry the dead founder of the cult.

Here are some more details about the movement:

Once a girl had been induced to join the cult she was immediately subjected to totalistic control. Like the Hare Krishna and the Children of God, members were forced to surrender all aspects of their former lives. Virtually all personal possessions were taken away, and individuals were prohibited from developing any outside involvements and commitments. Indeed, members were required to devote literally all of their time and energies to cult activities. The round of cult life was relentless and consuming. Members were routinely waked at 4:30 a.m. to face an arduous day of menial labor interspersed with long hours of prayer, meditation, mind-numbing chanting, and compulsory religious ceremonies. Like Hare Krishna sect members who always carry prayer beads in cloth sacks attached to their wrists, Tnevnocs carried such beads which they used in their repetitive, monotonic chanting. Members gathered in candlelit, incense-filled rooms closed to outsiders for a variety of special rituals involving chanting and meditation. One particularly bizarre observance was a type of love/unity feast involving ritualistic cannibalism. Members consumed food which they were told symbolically represented parts of the dead founder’s body.

The time not taken up with such rituals was devoted almost entirely to menial labor such as washing clothes, preparing food, and scrubbing floors. Indeed, only one hour of “free time” was allowed each day, but even during this brief period members were forbidden to be alone or in unsupervised groups, being required to remain together and monitored by cult leaders. All luxuries and even basic amenities were eliminated. For example, members slept each night on wooden planks with only thin straw mats as mattresses. They subsisted on a bland, spartan diet; food deprivation was even more severe than the meager diet implies, members being permitted to eat sweets only once a year and often being placed under considerable pressure to fast periodically. This combination of limited sleep, draining physical labor, and long hours of compulsory group rituals and worship, all supported by a meager subsistence-level diet, left members without sufficient time or energy to preserve even their own senses of individual identity.

All the members’ former sources of emotional support also were severed upon joining the cult. During the first year members were forbidden to leave the communal (and often remote rural) setting in which their training took place and could receive no outside visitors beyond one family visitation. It thus became virtually impossible for parents and friends to maintain regular and frequent contact with members. For example, members were permitted to write only a minimal four letters per year. Further, just as do Unification Church leaders, Tnevnoc cult leaders deliberately disrupted family ties by creating a fictive kinship system in which they assumed parental roles intended to replace members’ natural parents and siblings. Any other relationships which threatened cult control were also strictly forbidden. For example, sexual attachments of any kind were, without exception, tabooed. Lone Tvenocs were never allowed in the presence of individuals of the opposite sex and they were forbidden to maintain close personal friendships with each other or even to touch physically. All loyalty had to be channeled to the cult, and its leaders, in authoritarian fashion, enforced those strictures. Leaders went so far as to assert that they were God’s direct representatives on earth and therefore due absolute obedience by all members. This subservience was formalized in each member’s written promise of absolute obedience for three years, after which time individuals often were led to make similar commitments for the remainder of their lives.

Perhaps most striking was the emergence of cult-induced personality changes. This began with the alteration of each individual’s exterior appearance. Like the Hare Krishna, Tnevnoc cult members immediately upon joining had their hair cut off and were dispensed long flowing garments specifically designed to render members indistinguishable from one another. This concerted effort to wipe out any sense of individuality was carried to such extremes that members were never permitted to own or even look into mirrors. The cult literally attempted to destroy the old individual, her identity, and her former life’s associations by assigning a new cult name and designating the date of her entry into the group as the individual’s “real” birth date. Of course such identity changes were more difficult to monitor than behavioral conformity. One way cult leaders maintained close surveillance over the most private aspects of members’ lives was to require members to reveal publicly and to record in diaries even the most minor infractions of elaborate cult rules, as well as improper thoughts and wishes. This totalistic environment, with its rigid, all-encompassing code of behavior that individuals could not possibly follow without some minor infractions, engendered within members constant and inescapable feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, anxiety, and guilt. Cult leaders deliberately exacerbated these nagging feelings by instituting a series of humiliating, ego-destructive punishments for even the most trivial infractions of cult rules. For example, daydreaming or entertaining “improper” thoughts, however fleetingly, called down upon members ceremonies of public degradation. Members were forced to prostrate themselves in front of the cult leaders and kiss their feet or, alternately, were denied food and reduced to crawling from member to member on their knees begging for the dregs of other member’s meals. Such punishments became more severe as time went on, and members were expected to punish themselves regularly for these deviations. The cult went so far as to issue each member a ring to which were attached several lengths of chain with barbed wire points on the ends. Members were required to return alone to their beds at night at regular intervals and flagellate themselves with this cruel device as atonement for their infractions.

David G. Bromley and Anson D. Shupe, Jr., "The Tnevnoc Cult,"
Sociological Analysis, 40(4): Pages 361 to 366, 1979


When sociologists David Bromley and Anson Shupe originally described this cult, they received many inquiries about the cult's abusiveness, from sociologists and others concerned about psychological manipulation within cults.

Only later did Bromley and Shupe reveal that "Tnevnoc" is "convent" spelled backwards!

We recommend that you re-read the description of the cult, before continuing, with this new understanding . . .

There are a couple of lessons to be learned from this little thought exercise:

Use of "cult" language One can take a perfectly legitimate religious movement or group, and — merely by describing it using heavily loaded language geared toward triggering emotional reactions (starting by calling it a "cult") — one can manipulate most listeners into having a completely negative view of that religious movement or group that is completely unwarranted, as we have pointed out earlier.

Right understanding of the role of discipline in fruitful spiritual practice — Of course, one could take this example in a completely different way: "You know, maybe they're right! Maybe the convent is an abusive cult! I mean, self-flagellation — I don't care that the Catholic Church has been around 2000 years, and is mainstream; that's still wrong!"

There is something to be said for this point of view, namely, are extreme or ascetic disciplines necessary for spiritual attainment? What is not in question, however (based on centuries of reportage from all the world's great spiritual traditions) is the need for discipline as a support for spiritual growth. It was this very same "Tnevnoc" tradition that gave rise to such genuine and great Christian saints as Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, and Térèse of Lisieux.

Down through history, many religious groups (like convents, monasteries, intentional communities, etc.) have required their members to adhere to strict diets, schedules, repetitive praying, abstinence from sexual activities, isolation from former friends and their family or origin relinquishing money and possessions, and other disciplines. The general logic behind this was simple: they were leading a contemplative life, and these disciplines helped them keep their attention immersed in their contemplation (whether that was comtemplation of Jesus, contemplation of their breath, or contemplation of the Buddhist Pure Land).

Because we live in a time steeped in the materialistic view, we are acculturated toward poo-pooing such an approach to living, primarily because, by that same culture, we are trained to presume there is no such thing as a greater-than-material reality, and therefore no such thing as spiritual realization, etc. We are not oriented toward thinking of any greater purpose for life than self-fulfillment. And the self-transcending life of spiritual contemplation is very much at odds with the usual life of self-fulfillment.

We are also culturally organized around the notion that "a man's home is his castle" (or to generalize to the family unit, "a family should act as a kind of fiefdom"), and that each individual (or family) should live in isolation, pretty much as they will. To the extent that we even acknowledge being part of a community, it is with "block parties", occasional neighborly dialog and exchange of favors, and the like. In other words the self-orientation predominates in living circumstances as well as in living habits. The idea of "communal living" (both for the sake of sharing resources and for providing mutual support, inspiration, and demand for spiritual growth) tends to be abhorrent, since it so strongly cuts into the self-centered "private castle" notion (deliberately and necessarily so, for anyone whose intended spiritual realization requires transcending the ego!)

But (fortunately) not everybody is completely possessed by materialism, and those smaller numbers of people dissatisfied with the merely material view are sometimes willing to try the experiment that is represented by a contemplative life. For those people, the Realization is worth the price paid in terms of discomfort, inconvenience, material and social sacrifice, etc. Materialists can understand this by analogy with what a soldier is willing to go through in Army or Marine boot camp for the sake of becoming a great soldier; what an athlete must do (and give up) in order to achieve Olympic-level quality; or what a businessman or businesswoman must do to go from having no money to becoming a billionaire.

It's just that the spiritual practitioner probably would find it silly to go to such lengths and pains for such impermanent attainments:

Spiritual life is about Realizing utter Love-Bliss, greater Bliss than is realized through sex or any other conditional experience. Such Love-Bliss is available before, during, and after any conditional experience. If you Realize It, if you devote your life to the Realization of That, then That is what you get — a life devoted to the Realization of That, a life of Communion with That. Then you will link your present life with What is Prior to this life, whereas if you devote yourself to the human conditions of existence for their own sake, you do not link yourself to What is Prior to this life. You link yourself to the same thing again. You perpetuate it, through reincarnation or simply through repetition in one form or another after death.

Avatar Adi Da Samraj, This Liberating Impulse



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