My journey out of a cult

John Keane
10 min readJul 5, 2019
Photo by Joiarib Morales Uc on Unsplash

What is a cult, really?

In common usage, the term cult is used to describe religious groups viewed as sinister, strange or dangerous. The term is used to describe groups that that exercise manipulative or abusive control over their followers.

But what is normal and what abusive? One persons cult is another persons normal. No one ever thinks that they are in a cult! Until they leave it of course.

Edwin Meese, attorney general under Ronald Reagan was famous for saying “I can’t define pornography but I know it when I see it”. Defining the term “cult” is similar.

by HDG A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

We all remember the Hare Krishna members pushing flowers into our hands in airports. Young men and women seemed to be throwing their lives away to enrich a worldwide movement that collect vast sums and large property holdings.

In 1978, the Rev Jim Jones convinced 918 followers in his Jonestown, Guyana enclave to commit suicide by drinking cyanide poisoned juice. 304 of the dead were children. The beliefs and practices of this group clearly were sinister. I think that we can all agree that this was a cult.

Photo by Yan Boechat from freeimages

There are Islamic countries today that treat woman as property, deface ancient works of art from other religions, and execute homosexuals.

So, the behaviors we dislike in cults is not restricted to Christian offshoots. Cults are a bad thing, but there are many religions not considered cults that really meet the same standard of sinister and dehumanizing behaviors and beliefs.

Searching for Tradition, Order, Safety— Catholic Traditionalism

In reaction to the sweeping changes of the 2nd Vatican council in the mid 1960s, Millions of Catholics felt lost. My own father who was a convert to Catholicism in the 1930s lost interest and stopped going to Church.

Much changed in the visible church , such as architecture and liturgy. Several decades of liberal theology called into question the very idea of doctrine. Is there really such a thing as eternal and universal truth? Devotions such as the Rosary, silent retreats, Stations of the Cross, and many many others became passe — replaced by eastern mysticism and prayer labyrinths.

It should not be surprising that there was a backlash. Some people wanted to return to “the good old days”, when we knew the Protestants were going to hell, boys were boys and girls were girls, etc. This backlash was formalized by Archbishop Lefebvre.

By Antonisse, Marcel / Anefo — [1] Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945–1989, Nummer toegang 2.24.01.05 Bestanddeelnummer 934–7220, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29326511

Lefebvre founded the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) in 1970 with the permission of his superiors. The Society adherents were opposed to the changes made in the Church after Vatican II, and after several major disagreements with Rome, Lefebvre was ordered to disband the society. He ignored the decision, and in 1988 consecrated four bishops to continue his work with the SSPX- in violation of Church orders. The church declared that he and the other bishops who had participated in the ceremony were excommunicated. Lefebvre and his followers refused to acknowledge this.

Others took their disagreement even farther, with “independent” Catholic churches springing up all over. These churches were led by priests who were not under the authority of any Bishop.

Many of the Independents referred to themselves as” sede vacantis” believers. This means vacant seat in Latin. In other words these people believed we did not have a valid Pope. Conspiracy theories bloomed for decades around this and still survive today.

How I began

I did not grow up religious. In fact I grew up in a violent alcoholic household. I escaped home and went to college. And, like many luke warm Catholics my age, I went on retreat in college and developed a stronger sense of spirituality. After college I was very active in religious education and liturgical music. I studied Church doctrine and history as well. Say what you want about Catholicism. It is the best documented religion today. The Church has published many sources on its history and teachings. Armed with the Bible, the New Catechism, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Ludwig Ott), and the writings of such theological luminaries as Cardinal St John Newmann I was set. I also relied on “Faith of the Early Fathers” for early church history. This jewel was a set of translations of letters and writings of church leaders in the first several hundred years by a Protestant author, William A. Jurgens. C.S Lewis was another important source for me, and whetted y appetite for reading doctrinal / philosophical essays.

No more loosey goosey

I fell in with a growing population of people my age who were unhappy with the strange modernist ways of the parish church, and (in our view) the bizarre milk toast doctrine of diocesan religious education.

In this era of confusion and change, I fell back on my desire for structure and order. Decades later, I would learn that as an adult child of alcoholics, I naturally yearned for order and that this played a big role in my gradual evolution into a Traditionalist. It is truly alarming how our natural dispositions lead us in certain directions — even when we think we are guided by reason.

I developed a love for the Traditional liturgy — the ancient Tridentine Mass — in Latin. The grandeur of traditional Catholic architecture and art contrasted strongly with the geometric simplicity and starkness of modern churches. Traditional thinking offered certainty and logic instead of the touchy feely stuff taught at modern CCE class.

To this day I still find the stark contemporary churches to be uninspiring. But I now turn to Gaudi for my inspiration, and his emphasis on nature and organic shapes — rather than the Romanesque or Renaissance Churches I had thought of as the ideal when I was in my twenties and thirties.

Once hooked, I dug deeper and deeper into Traditionalism. Eventually those roads lead to the Pius the 10th society. I became an agitator in the diocese, writing reports to the Bishop about the shocking things being taught in CCE and at the retreat centers. Eventually I realized the Bishop was in agreement with those shocking things(!).

In retrospect I was on a clear trajectory. I was heading for the Pius X society. Why is that? Because the society was the most visible organization calling the Church back to what I thought of as its roots. And it was the only organization that offered the Traditional Mass regularly in many locations.

Returning to the 1940s

In retrospect, and as I eventually realized, the society really has no claim on tradition. Rather than being truly traditional, as in returning to the first few centuries of Christendom, the society harkens back to the 1940s and 50s. Women wear veils, priests are shown unusual reverence and trusted implicitly, lay people pray the rosary and hold Ignatian retreats, and the children have prayer card collections instead of Pokeman cards (dating myself here I know). There is a wealth of spiritual practices that Catholics adopted over centuries that became passe at Vatican II. Society members eat them up — as long as they pre-date Vatican 2.

Society churches are, to me today, a black-and-white parody of a colorful and living faith that I feel animates me. There is a feeling of decay and false piety that animates Society churches. The focus is on negativity, sacrifice, self loathing, and shame. This is how I look at it today. Current members certainly would not admit to these. But these too played into my ACA personality. Shame fit me like a glove.

As my wife and I were quite independent, we had home schooled for many years. We loved the idea of home schooling, and it aligned with my desire to create a safe home and protect my kids. This too was an unrecognized outcome of my nature. I wanted to protect my kids — so that I would be protected.

I read a book in my twenties that truck me hard — Hinds Feet on High Places. It is an allegory in which the central character, called Much Afraid, learns the difference between loving and longing to be loved. It struck a chord in my youth, but I did not understand why until my ACA experience.

When we came to the society church, the parish priest felt that home schoolers were removing too much revenue from the local school. He attacked home schooling, calling it “un schooling" which carried the aura of modernism and disorder(Bad!). This was one of the aspects of the Society that kept me on my guard. I was also put off by the fact that the church school used textbooks (even for science) that were at least 50 years old — and they were proud of it. Oddly enough, this Priest wound up leaving the society to marry one of the parishoners wife(!).

Conspiracy theories abounded in the Society, from top to bottom. They were conspiracies about the validity of the Pope, conspiracies about the origin of the new mass, and it was common for society members to believe just about any government conspiracy theory in existence. I met several John Birch Society members at the church. Again, this was something that kept me from fully embracing the Society.

One of its leading bishops, Bishop Williamson, was known for his belief that 9–11 was an inside job AND that the holocaust was a fraud. This really put me off. I tried to disabuse him of the 9-11 conspiracy theory over dinner following a confirmation ceremony where he spent the entire sermon ranting about 9-11. I stressed my PhD in engineering, and my over 20 years in the United States Air Force. I tried to be reasonable and cool in my delivery.

He got angry.

Bishop Williamson does not like anyone disagreeing with him — on ANY subject.

The more we engaged in the parish life, the more I felt uncomfortable. I have daughters, and I definitely did not agree with society attitudes that women should not go to college or work. I also had interpersonal conflicts that were partly the fault of the wacky beliefs and behaviors of people in the church, and partly the fault of my own ACA issues.

I was struggling in my personal life, my work life, and in the church. Something had to give. I was physically and emotionally sick. I felt trapped in a situation I could not deal with or escape from. I sought counseling and started to realize that I really needed to fix my own issues. And I also realized that I really needed to get away from that church.

Thankfully my wife was very supporting an understanding, She was also extremely patient and forgiving. I left my job and we moved to another state. This was a critical step in my recovery — and my escape. It turned out eventually to be a new flowering in our marriage and in our family.

We put our children in public school when we moved into our new neighborhood. Things seemed to be going well. However, we had a rough time when one of our girls went through severe depression. At this time, she came out to us as gay. My wife and I immediately saw the choice before us. Did we accept the principle that this beautiful child of ours is flawed and dammed to hell? The answer was NO!

If we were still part of the Society church when my daughter came out, this would have caused a crisis as the members sought to shun us into rejecting our daughter. I know we would have made the same decision, but it would have been much more difficult for her and she would have suffered in silence longer. As it turned out the shunning still happened to a lesser extent any way— through Facebook and electronic media.

This was a final turning point for me. I decide that anyone capable of disowning their child for being gay does not know God.

The society church fed on shame, guilt, self hatred, constant infighting, and name-calling. Given their stance on morality, the high frequency of teen pregnancies in the church and moral issues with some of the Society priests and brothers revealed a monstrous hypocrisy.

What is Important?

There are times when you have to fall back on what is most important to you. I am sure there are many stories about how people fall into cults. But I think they probably all end in a decision to choose love (Love of self and Love of discarded “unbelieving” family members) over acceptance by the group. This is tough and can take time. Wen your head is turned around backwards and you think down is up — it takes time and an open heart to see the truth.

Cults come in many varieties. Some are horrific and scary. The pious the 10th society is dangerous, sinister, and crushes the human spirit. But I think there are far worse cults out there, and that some of the mainstream faiths are even more dangerous.

In this age of exaggerated tolerance, we don’t like to point fingers or generalize. And it is a rarely true that all members of a religion are dangerous and sinister. But I urge everyone to carefully look at the facts when considering your beliefs and allegiance.

Choose light and love over darkness and fear.

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John Keane

Husband, Dad, Rocket Scientist, Retired Military, Space Alien.