Stop Calling TST a Cult
There are several patterns leading up to and following someone’s dramatic departure from The Satanic Temple. One of the patterns is that the person will start throwing around the C word -
I get that these folks have serious grievances with the organization, and some of them are valid. TST is not perfect. It is made up of people, and people are fallible. But throwing around the word, “cult,” often without considering what exactly a cult is and if TST even fits, is harmful to those of us who have actually survived a cult.
Hi, I’m Dresden and I am a cult survivor.
Growing up in a cult during my formative years (11-16), and then escaping and coming to understand it for what it was, is part of what gave me my motivation to fight against unjust and arbitrary authority. I am willing to bet that many of my Satanic siblings could say the same. So to be told that our chosen religion, in which we have found a home where individuality is celebrated, is the same kind of group which held us in subservience -- well, it hurts.
What makes a cult?
I will go down a list of some cult criteria, so you can see where the group I grew up in fits, and how I feel TST is different. For context, the cult I grew up in was a combination Alcoholics Anonymous + Al-Anon (families of alcoholics) group. I am not claiming that all 12-step groups are cults. I believe the 12 Traditions are in place to prevent this. My group did not follow them.
A charismatic living leader who is an unquestioned object of worship:
My cult had two leaders, a husband and wife. This, despite the fact that it was disguised as a 12-step group, so should have had rotating leadership, according to the 12 traditions. In most 12-step groups, a “sponsor” and “sponsee” have a private relationship with anonymity between the two of them. In my cult, you were assigned a sponsor, and there was a chain of sponsorship to the top. Nothing was private. Your secrets would be passed up the chain, and orders were passed down. They even told the single folks who to date. This system and their orders went unquestioned. Disobedience was met with punishment in the form of shunning.
In TST, we have a spokesman who may seem to some to be the charismatic leader. He does sometimes make unilateral decisions for the organization (an organization he owns). But we also have other governing bodies, campaign leaders, chapter heads and local councils. It is all these people working together who make most of the decisions. And when a decision is made that members disagree with, BOY do they hear about it. And if the reasoning is not sufficient to them, they are free to leave the organization, while keeping their personal religion if they choose.
Isolation from society / outsiders:
Shunning was quite an effective punishment, because we were encouraged to spend all of our free time at “The Hall”, lest we fall back into old behaviors, and we were encouraged to cut ties with any family or friends who questioned our involvement in the group. Since it was clearly a cult, most family and friends questioned it, and were therefore cut out of our lives. Soon enough, everyone you know is in the cult, and all of your time is spent there.
I have never been encouraged to isolate from people outside this organization. I do feel that if a person has a dramatic flounce, we are expected on some level to cut ties with that person. There are cases in which I have not cut ties with a friend who flamed out, and I feel that I get the side-eye for it. Maybe lost some opportunities because of it. This could probably be better, but I also understand the suspicion and the desire not to have repeat drama.
Elitist mentality, us vs. them, “we have the answer”:
My group billed itself as holding the answers to all of our problems. We would be lost without them. People outside the group were “living in their disease” and were dangerous to our “recovery”.
TST does not proselytize. We do not claim to be the answer for everyone, and each person is encouraged to follow their own path.
A process of coercive persuasion or thought reform:
There was definitely love bombing at the beginning. Lots of hugging strangers. We even went out to other AA and Al-Anon meetings to recruit new people. My mom was looked down upon for her inability to bring my father into the group. When we shared in group (either at home or away) we would always say how grateful we were for the group and how much good it had done in our lives. The slogans we appropriated from real 12-step groups were a big part of it. “Keep coming back, it works if you work it!” There were subtler forms of brainwashing, as well.
When a new person comes into TST, they are encouraged to do their own Satanic study. Old goats may point them toward their favorite reading materials, and get into discussions, but generally each person is free to find their own way down the left hand path. Each of us is careful to talk about our own experiences, not make blanket statements about others. And again, we are not encouraged to proselytize.
Instills shame or guilt:
We were taught that we had a disease or sickness that we would forever need to be recovering from, otherwise we would backslide into those shameful behaviors and be lost. If you finish working the steps, you start over and do it again. If you get to a place where you feel healthy, it's time to pay it back by helping others. Good in theory, but a lifelong sentence. I was taught from a very young age to over-analyze my thoughts, feelings and actions, question my motives, and find fault in myself where there might be none.
TST does the exact opposite. It instills me with Pride and Self Confidence. It gives me the permission to feel good about myself, and to make choices that I can be proud of.
Instills fear of leaving:
We were told, in no uncertain terms, that we would die if we left. The Alcoholics would drink themselves to death, and the Al-Anons (families of) would return to our damaging behaviors and either go crazy or die. I was told (remember, starting at 11-years-old) that because I was born into an alcoholic family, I was destined to fall in love with an alcoholic unless I stayed in the group. Like, forever. When people did leave, rumors were spread about what happened to them after. I remember it was said that one lady had run over her husband with her car. We ran into her a couple years later. It was, of course, all a lie.
The only fear I have of leaving TST is that I may lose some friends. But since that would really only happen if I threw a lit match over my shoulder on my way out, I would just have to stay level-headed and employ tact if I ever decide to follow a different path. And, since I was never isolated from friends or family, I have plenty of support outside of the organization, if my relationship with it ever ends. I have absolutely zero fear of insanity or death, should I choose to leave TST.
Exploitation of members by the leader/s:
In my cult, we paid our “dues” at every meeting. This is normal for 12-step groups, however we were at meetings almost every day. We also did free labor in order to pay rent for The Hall (or so we were told). We stuffed envelopes and did other odd jobs to earn money for the group. We also played bingo, which was a way to get more money from members. My mom was again looked down upon because she didn’t have much money to contribute. The AA guys all worked at “The Shop” for free. They would fix cars and build motorcycles that would win prizes which were credited to and kept by the leaders. The excuse for their free labor was, “to keep their hands busy, otherwise they’ll pick up a bottle.”
TST accepts donations. TST holds fundraisers. It does not demand my contribution or participation in any of them. Some people may want more transparency about where the money goes. Some ex-members claim our leaders are getting rich off this thing. I am perched close enough to the top to peer in and assure you this is not the case. If you don’t believe that, don’t donate. It’s that simple. You don't have to spread lies about things you have no knowledge of. Those of us who trust the decision-makers well enough will keep buying the T-shirts.
Hi, I’m Dresden and I am a cult survivor.
Growing up in a cult was traumatic, and I am still recovering from my experience there. The Satanic Temple is one of the ways I am able to reclaim my personal sovereignty and heal. So, if you would be so kind, please knock it off. Just because you don't like it doesn't make it a cult. Thanks.