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Pills of logic: The reliability of 'apostates' in a nutshell

Luigi Corvaglia

An important criticism of researchers on totalitarian cults is that much of the information available to them comes from apostates, i.e. former members who have left the cult (Melton and Moore, 1982). Apostates are considered unreliable because they have motives to denigrate the cult, otherwise they would have stayed in it. In practise, the reason given is that one cannot take at face value the description of the ex-spouse gathered by the other spouse. Either the latter has a poisoned tooth and his or her description will never be benevolent. The objection makes sense, but it is true that if a wife alleges that her husband is abusing her, there is no reason to be biased in favour of her husband. Every allegation must be proven and all testimony must be carefully examined. Therefore, if there is to be mistrust, it should go both ways. And even if one is bitter and therefore has a motive to speak ill of a group to which one used to belong, that does not automatically mean that one is in bad faith. As it says in an unpublished text by an Italian author:

If one did not make use of the testimonies of former members, checked and balanced, of course, by sources within the movement under study, the study of political parties would be impossible (the books of Amedeo Bordiga, Angelo Tasca, Lev Trtozky, Ignazio Silone, Enzo Bettiza, all the anti-Stalinist 'apostates', some of whom remained communists and others not, are studied in order to understand the other side of the coin of the pro-Soviet and Soviet communist parties, as a counterweight to the writings of ardent communists), the fight against the mafia or certain organisations considered dangerous[. ...] Who better than a former member can in fact reveal the secrets of a religious cult to the outside world? [...]It is therefore necessary to evaluate the testimonies in a different way, based on their number, their consistency and the degree of matching [...].

Singer (1996) wrote instead that

Cult apologists blame the victims and protect the villains. Like mad old kings, they shoot the messenger who brings bad news. One of the most illogical positions of apologists is their claim that only current members of a cult are telling the truth. However, the findings of many researchers, as well as my many interviews with former members, show that members of a cult are so dependent on the group when they are inside that they dare not tell the truth, dare not complain.

For his part, Beit-Hallahmi comments:

Recent and less recent disasters involving the NRM help us to understand that in each and every case the claims of hostile outsiders and detractors were closer to reality than any other account. Since the Jonestown tragedy, the testimony of former members has proven more accurate than that of the NRMs' apologists and researchers.

In Japan, the 'apostates' had denounced the danger of an attack by AUM years before the nerve gas attack in the Tokyo underground. They complained to the police, who did not intervene because AUM was a 'religion'. In 1978, Deborah Layton Blakey, an apostate of the ReverendJ ones People's Temple, predicted the possibility of a mass suicide in Jonestown. She had stated this to the US Embassy in Georgetown, Guyana, and then made an affidavit in the US, months before the massacre.

Finally, a terminological note that gains importance in the light of Lakoff's (2004) reading on framing, i.e. how words activate mental frames that elicit emotions and consequent evaluations. I refer to the term 'apostate' itself.

Introvigne (1999) states that:

Although many such ex-members resent being called "apostates" the term is technical, not derogatory, and has been used for some decades, as documented in a recent excellent volume edited by David Bromley (1998).

In other words, the term sounds pejorative, but it is not, because they use it. Strangely, however, the author continues like this:

Although perhaps terms other than "apostates" may be used in the future, some sort of term is necessary in order to distinguish between "apostates" and other ex-members who do not turn against their former group.

It follows that the 'technical' term strangely fits only former members who are dissatisfied with their former experience in a group. Former members who do not complain do not deserve such a technical and non-pejorative term, which applies only to the dissatisfied. If the term were only a synonym for ex-member, as the author claims, it would be worthless and applied to everyone. However, if it is only applied to disgruntled former members and resentful ex-members, it is hard to argue that it is a technical and worthless term. What is certain is that the word 'apostate' triggers resentment and untrustworthiness, which a priori undermine the claims of former members (the disgruntled, the other are trustworthy). In practise, this is what is called poisoning the wells.

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