By Prabhuppb (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Research has proven that spiritual beliefs are beneficial to human well-being, yet there is an undeniable dark side to religion when it takes on an extremist overtone. How do we carry a healthy and empowering practice across the line where it becomes manipulative and dangerous? The answer requires a bit of thought and a historical context in regards to how power is balanced within communities.
Problems generally begin with leadership issues. Community leaders face constant criticism by their followers. Some forms of critique have merit, but others don’t. Chaos ensues without a clear mission as conflicting personal agendas override the community vision. The failure of legitimate leadership often leads to the promotion of toxic self-serving leaders who seek that which is best for themselves rather than their community. They may be motivated by financial gain, a strong desire to control others, political perks, or even sexual favors.
When toxic leaders infiltrate communities of faith the results are often devastating. Spiritual leaders have more power than spiritual seekers. They are more likely to be trusted and believed simply by the merit of their position within the religious community. They are less likely to be questioned or challenged when their decisions are incongruent with the values of their faith. Particularly manipulative clergy have been known to adopt a carrot and stick method of leading parishioners astray.
In recent years, we have seen an example of this tactic by faith leaders who preach on a path towards salvation through purity. It has been heavily employed in Muslim, Christian, and other mainstream faiths throughout the world; however, the scope of the problem was not fully understood until the study of cults began in the 1960’s. That is when the concept of brainwashing became understood as a deliberate and effective act of aggression by one who has power over those who wish to become empowered.
The message of a leader seeking control of the people through manipulation is the same for the misleading pastor and the political despot: you are defiled by impurity, and I am the only one who can lift you up and assure a proper place for you. In other words, the powerful leader assumes the role of God. The power seeker is methodically groomed to believe that there is no other alternative but to believe and obey.