In the Simpson’s episode entitled “The Joy of Sect,” Homer Simpson is eventually persuaded to join a UFO cult called the “Movementarians.” The episode is a satirical exposition of cults and mainstream religion in America. Within the episode numerous allusions are made to Scientology and UFO cults such as Heaven’s Gate and the Seekers. The issues satirically addressed within “The Joy of Sect” include: The grandiose promises of bliss and eternal reward; the breaking down of the individual to remould their cognitive constructs in accordance with the cult’s ideology; the employment of various “thought reform” techniques; the indoctrination of children; physical isolation (“milieu control”) from the outside world; the use of the power of suggestion; the media’s negative reporting on new cults; Scientology’s “Project Clearwater”, which was, and continues to be, an attempt to take over the entire town of Clearwater;the insanely long (billion year) contracts for service that Scientology makes initiates sign; the use of jingles, mantras and catchy and repetitious phrases and prayers used by both cults and mainstream religions; Scientology’s frequent use of lawyers to quash unfavorable publicity and the subtle yet not so subtle discouragement of apostasy from the cult/religion.
This essay will examine and analyse the cult references and representations as they apply to UFO cults, Scientology and other mainstream religions. Specific emphasis will be placed on some of the social-psychological strategies employed by cults and religions to not only indoctrinate new members, but to persuade existing members to remain loyal to the ideology of the cult or religion. The indoctrination processes employed by cults and religions will be the primary focus of this essay.
Childhood indoctrination is a theme touched upon in this episode of the Simpsons at two levels. Maggie and other infants undergo indoctrination at the primary socialization level, being taught a song that reinforces the ideology of the cult, and Bart and Lisa undergo indoctrination at the secondary socialization level, learning in the cult’s classroom that thunder and lightning come from the leader of the cult, which appears to also be a satirical take on creationism being taught in the science classroom.
Cults and religions with generations of adherence, or those newer religions and cults that manage to convert an adult member of a family with children are afforded one of the most successful means by which their ideologies are woven into the fabric of a social group, or society. Childhood indoctrination is possibly the most effective strategy for propagating an ideology, which is why religions and cults have employed this strategy with outstanding results. Schopenhauer discussed the religious indoctrination of children, saying:
“But religions admittedly appeal, not to conviction as the result of argument, but to belief as demanded by revelation; and as the capacity for believing is strongest in childhood special care is taken to make sure of this tender age. This has much more to do with the doctrines of belief taking root than threats and reports of miracles. If, in early childhood, certain fundamental views and doctrines are paraded with unusual solemnity, and an air of the greatest earnestness never before visible in anything else; if, at the same time, the possibility of a doubt about them be completely passed over, or touched upon only to indicate that doubt is the first step to eternal perdition, the resulting impression will be so deep that, as a rule, that is, in almost every case, doubt about them will be almost as impossible as doubt about one’s own existence”.
It should be no surprise that in religious countries like the U.S. which, despite experiencing a minor decline in this regard in recent years, cults enjoy a relatively high degree of success. In 1982, Dr. Singer estimated the number of active cults in the U.S to be around 3,000. Further, Berkley psychologist Margaret Singer estimated that the number of active cults in the U.S rose in 2005 to around 5,000. This success may be, at least in part, attributed to the separation of church and state, which created a free market approach to religion, but a more likely reason for the proliferation of cults in the U.S. might be better explained by the abundance of “believers” who have a pre-existing mindset for belief-adherence – people who have been indoctrinated by their parents by way of various ‘non-evidential’ forms of instruction. The impact of religious indoctrination upon children was recently studied by researchers at Boston University, who found that children raised within religious households are less able to distinguish between fact and fiction than children raised by parents who employ more rational, evidence-based forms of teaching. The researchers concluded:
“The findings show that the way that children differentiate among genres [factual vs fictional] varies markedly depending on whether they have had a predominantly secular upbringing or religious or exposure to religion, through their family, their school or both. By implication, the environment in which children are raised has an important influence on the way they process and categorize the narratives that they encounter”.
The indoctrination process is one in which “non-evidential teaching” takes any of the following forms: 1. It can involve teaching which simply fails to give reasons, evidence or arguments for the beliefs taught. 2. Closely related is a preoccupation with what is taught rather than how it is taught. Green (1972, p. 37) suggests that “when, in teaching, we are concerned simply to lead another person to a correct answer, but are not correspondingly concerned that they arrive at that answer on the basis of good reasons, then we are indoctrinating.” 3. Concern about the preoccupation with learning correct answers is at times expressed in terms of an objection to mindless drill, recitation, and rote memorization which are also seen as indoctrinatory by some (Passmore, 1967, pp. 1930. 4. A final method of non-evidential teaching involves attempts to persuade the subject “by force of the indoctrinator’s personality, by emotional appeal, or by use of a variety of rhetorical devices,” rather than by reasons, evidence, and proof (Benson, 1977, p. 336).
Coercion appears to be a common element in many forms of indoctrination and it is expressed within this episode of the Simpsons when Lisa, outraged over the obviously false information being imparted to her classmates, stands up and protests. The teacher responds by threatening Lisa’s most cherished and coveted grades. The coercion employed by religious indoctrinators can also be physical in nature. Irfan Khawaja recalls his Muslim upbringing, saying:
“The coercion I’ve described lasted maybe five years, from age five until age ten. After that, my commitment to Islam looks to all outward appearances voluntary. I was indoctrinated in early childhood…I’ve said that I was beaten to make sure I recited the Qur’an accurately, but the beatings were never severe and had almost certainly stopped by age ten.”
Beating children to indoctrinate them with the teachings of Islam is a common practice, and this child abuse can, on rare occasions, be fatal. In 2013, Sara Ege beat her seven-year-old son to death because he was having trouble memorizing the Qur’an.
Child abuse is a popular method of religious and cult coercive indoctrination. Wooden describes the abuse suffered by the children of the Jonestown cult, reporting that “physical abuse was a part of the routine at People’s Temple, and that children were beaten for not calling the cult leader ‘father’, or for talking to other children who were not part of the cult.” By beating children and isolating them from outside influences, cults and certain religious groups create an abusive insular structure within which they can increase the effects of indoctrination with relative ease. In a religious context, the “milieu control” is achieved within the confines of the religious household, which acts as a subsidiary cult.
As in the case of this Simpson’s episode, however, physical coercion is not the only method of indoctrinating children. Psychological coercion, like threatening Lisa’s grades, for example, is also a frequent strategy for making a child succumb to the ideology of the group.
The daughter of one of America’s most renowned Christian apologists, Matthew Slick, recalls her upbringing and the psychological manipulation employed to maintain her religious indoctrination. Within Rachael’s recollection she describes having been home-schooled, which, as mentioned, is a strategy (“milieu control”) numerous cults and religions employ to achieve unfettered indoctrination. In a letter she composed as a child, Rachael wrote: “Oh boy. I’ve got a lot to work on. I try to be obedient but it’s so hard! The more I read, the more I realize how bad I am!” The Christian canonical and non-canonical texts contain this psychological strategy for breaking-down the individual’s self-esteem in order to remould their cognitive constructs in accordance with the religion’s ideology. Some of the central tenants of the Christian religion are focused on — to varying degrees according to the interpretation of the given denomination — having the believer believe that they are inherently sinful, and that the only way to cure this imaginary sickness is with the imaginary cure offered by the religion of Christianity, namely, faith in the now-deceased cult leader, Jesus. This technique is particularly effective for not only the initial stages of indoctrination, but also for maintaining the indoctrination throughout adulthood.
Adult Indoctrination & Cult Maintenance
In the “Joy of Sect”, the Movementarians use the “circle of judgement” in a fruitless attempt to break Homer’s self-esteem. Members surround him and say negative things about him, which, to the utter dismay of the cult administrators, has absolutely no impact on him whatsoever. Breaking down and remoulding new cult members is a technique that has been observed by numerous commentators and witnesses. Margaret Thaler Singer and Louis Jolyon West developed a list of ten elements likely to be used in any successful cult indoctrination and the fourth one on the list is “degradation or diminution of the self.” This often takes place in what sociologists refer to as “degradation ceremonies.” These ceremonies are designed to attack the initiate’s sense of self. Dawson comments on this strategy: “Today’s programs are designed to destabilize an individual’s sense of self by undermining his or her basic consciousness, reality awareness, beliefs and worldview, emotional control, and defense mechanisms. This attack on a person’s central stability, or self-concept, and on a person’s capacity for self-evaluation is the principal technique that makes the newer programs work.” Such destabilizing programs are also employed as ongoing tactics to maintain loyalty among members of cults and religions.
It has been alleged by numerous ex-Scientologists that the organization uses a system which has been dubbed “the hole,” in order to keep the selves of individual members broken down. In a 2013 article, the Tampa Bay Times described “the hole” as: “a place of confinement and humiliation where Scientology’s management culture — always demanding — grew extreme. Inside, a who’s who of Scientology leadership went at each other with brutal tongue lashings, and even hands and fists. They intimidated each other into crawling on their knees and standing in trash cans and confessing to things they hadn’t done. They lived in degrading conditions, eating and sleeping in cramped spaces designed for office use.”
Another means by which cults and religions like Scientology maintain adherence, is by using strict and laborious work regiments to keep the individual member focused and, possibly, to stop members’ minds wandering into critical thought processes that may adversely affect adherence to the ideology of the cult. In “The Joy of Sect,” the Movementarians were tasked with constantly harvesting lima beans. This is an obvious satirical take on the allegations of overwork made by former Scientologists. According to the former high-ranking Scientologist John Brousseau: “The Church of Scientology imposes a raft of restrictions and mental controls on its religious workers, who grind on, abiding 100-hour workweeks.” In that same article, Brousseau reported that there were armed guards at Scientology work sites who were there to prevent people from escaping. This allegation was depicted in “The Joy of Sect” when Marge successfully overcomes the armed guards, attack dogs, and other obstacles in place to prevent Movementarians from escaping the compound.
Islam is notorious for its method of deterring apostasy. According to numerous interpretations of Islam, apostasy carries the death penalty. Due to the political nature of the Islam, apostasy, particularly in the early Islamic period, was seen as not only a sin, but also as a form of treason. Reporting on the classical doctrines of Islamic jurisprudence, Peters and De Vries say: “The punishment laid down for apostasy is the death penalty. The opinion that this punishment constitutes a hadd or ‘restrictive ordinance’ (the fixed punishment for crimes against religion which have been forbidden or sanctioned by punishment in the Koran) is contested by Hanafite and Shafi’ite lawyers. Hanafite theory excludes some categories from capital punishment; although qualified to perform a valid act of riddah they will not face its ultimate consequence: (a) Women are ‘kept in hostage’ instead. They shall be beaten every three days in order to effect their return to Islam.”
The religious rules and shari’ah surrounding apostasy vary only slightly today, but it makes practical sense that in the early stages of Islam, when it might have been more accurately described as a cult — although a case could be made for the continued application of this label — that it strictly prohibited and deterred apostasy. Despite the relaxation of apostasy prohibitions in more modern and revisionist interpretations of Islam, the majority opinion among Islamic scholars today, who rely on the two primary pillars of Islamic jurisprudence, the Qur’an and the hadith, apostasy remains an offence punishable by death. “The Joy of Sect’”also satirizes a kind of fatwa issued by the cult in which the violent return of the Simpsons to the cult is announced on the television. This part of the episode could possibly be based on the testimonies of former Scientologists such as Rathbun, Rinder, De La Carriere, Scobee and Headley, who all told The Hollywood Reporter that “they are still sometimes confronted, threatened or followed by people sent by the church years after having left Scientology.”
Cults and the Hypocrisy of Mainstream Religion
“The Joy of Sect” also highlights not only the similarity between cults and religions, but the apparent hypocrisy of mainstream religion’s criticisms of cults. In a scene in which Rev. Lovejoy is giving a sermon on the “evil” Movementarians, he says: “This so-called ‘new religion’ is nothing but a pack of weird rituals and chants designed to take away the money of fools. Let us say the Lord’s Prayer 40 times, but first let’s pass the collection plate.” This kind of apparent hypocrisy is a fitting example of how the distinction between “cult” and “religion” is largely discursive in nature. One may even go so far as to say that religions are large, socially-accepted cults, for the distinctions between the two are predominantly extrinsic and largely superficial.
“The Joy of Sect” is a thoroughly researched satirical exposition of cults and religion in America. It covers many of the most dramatic and striking issues surrounding American cults and religions such as Scientology, Christianity, and Heaven’s Gate. The indoctrination processes cults employ to indoctrinate and maintain adherence to the cult resemble mainstream religious practices. Childhood indoctrination may be argued to be the primary tool by which religion has succeeded in spreading throughout human society. By targeting children for conversion before they reach the age of reason, that is, before the child has the ability to distinguish between fact and fiction, and exercise more developed critical thinking skills, religions and cults can succeed in creating lifelong adherence to their ideologies. For adult initiates, the breaking down of the individual’s self-esteem and personal identity and the subsequent substituting of the individual’s cognitive processes and personal identity with the collective ideology and identity of the cult, which frequently focuses on a leader, whether that leader is alive or deceased, is one of the key techniques for the success of the cult/religion. Milieu control assists in the indoctrination process by controlling the information that a cult member may be exposed to, which works to also solidify the cult’s ideology by reinforcing the beliefs of the group through social-psychological means. The prevention of apostasy is also commonplace among cults and religions, the most infamous example in mainstream religion being Islam’s jurisprudent edicts which issue the death penalty for apostasy. Scientology has also been reported by some to discourage apostasy, and as ex-Scientologists attest, the church will often stalk former members and intimidate apostates with legal as well as personal harassment. One of the most interesting features of this episode of the Simpsons is the parallel highlighted between mainstream religion and new cults. Whilst there are distinctions that can be made between what may be strictly defined as a “cult” versus that which may be called a “religion,” such nuances are predominantly superficial and largely extrinsic in nature.