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Elliot BenjaminElliot Benjamin is a philosopher, mathematician, musician, counselor, writer, with Ph.Ds in mathematics and psychology and the author of over 150 published articles in the fields of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, pure mathematics, mathematics education, spirituality & the awareness of cult dangers, art & mental disturbance, and progressive politics. He has also written a number of self-published books, such as: The Creative Artist, Mental Disturbance, and Mental Health. See also: www.benjamin-philosopher.com.

SEE MORE ESSAYS WRITTEN BY ELLIOT BENJAMIN

No I'm Not A
"Guru-Hater"

Review of Modern Religions

Elliot Benjamin

I have always approached spiritual leaders and gurus with an open mind, as I have searched for spiritual meaning virtually all my life.

In many ways I appreciated Brad Reynolds' Integral World article Defending Adi Da SamRaj, which was a response to my article Gurus and Ivory Towers, which expressed my concerns about Reynolds' effusive worshiping praise of Adi Da in his previous article The Pandit: Standing on the Shoulders of the Sat-Guru [1]. The crux of my criticism was that Reynolds made essentially no mention at all of the serious concerns regarding the questionable ethics, narcissism, and destructive behaviors of Adi Da, as disclosed by a number of Adi Da's ex-students. However, to Reynolds' credit, he did acknowledge and discuss these accusations in his subsequent Defending Adi Da SamRaj article, and did so in an extremely self-revealing and vulnerable way, which I very much appreciate (cf. [1]).

Although in the course of doing so Reynolds characterized me as a skeptic and “guru-hater,” before I could even think about responding, David Lane came to my rescue with his own responsive essay in this series: Adi Da and the Devotee's Defense: The Art of Deflecting Criticism [2]. I certainly appreciate David's informative and supportive (of me) response, and I wholeheartedly agree with Lane in his analysis. In fact, as I commented on David's essay (cf. [2]), I agreed sufficiently with Lane and felt enough satisfaction that I no longer felt the need to respond myself any further to Reynolds' essay which focused upon his critique of “guru-haters,” with myself apparently in the forefront.

Well be that as it may, I now feel that it is time for me to respond to Reynolds in essay form. First off, let me say that as Lane conveyed in his own responsive essay to Reynolds (cf. [2]), I also would not have had a problem if Reynolds confined himself to disclosing his own experiences with Adi Da and left things at that. Reynolds candidly explained that he never experienced the kind of destructive behaviors on the part of Adi Da that others have apparently witnessed. However, Reynolds also admitted that he was “not” in the inner circle of Adi Da's followers, and Lane pointed out that this in itself could very well explain why Reynolds did not witness what others have apparently witnessed in regard to Adi Da's problematic behaviors. (cf. [1], [2]). In the review of my Modern Religions book by Nori Muster [3], this point was expressed by Muster as follows (see the full review below):

One of the weaknesses of rating organizations is that it is difficult to see what is going on behind the scenes. A researcher would have to stumble into the inner circle of any group to find out what is really going on. Therefore, there is a danger of falsely giving a group a benign rating.

Reynolds' most recent Integral World article True Meditation: Evolution's tool for Ego-Transcendence [4] is in fact an interesting portrayal to me of the value of meditation based upon higher level personal experience, with admiration and respect for Adi Da included, but not to anywhere near the extent of the worshiping effusive praise that characterized Reynolds' previous essay (cf. [1]). I would certainly have had no reason to write a responsive critical essay to Reynolds' "True Meditation" essay, and I am quite sure that neither would have David Lane.

However, the fact remains that I have been accused of being a “guru-hater,” and in spite of David Lane's accurate defense of me, which once again I am very appreciative of, I think it is time for me to shed some of my own light on why this accusation is completely false. And I think the best way that I can do this is to include the full book review by Nori Muster of my book Modern Religions: An Experiential Analysis and Exposé (cf. [3]). I have always approached spiritual leaders and gurus with an open mind, as I have searched for spiritual meaning virtually all my life, and I think this is apparent in my Modern Religions book, which can be seen from Nori Muster's following review (cf [3]).

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BENJAMIN, ELLIOT. (2011). Modern religions: An experiential analysis and exposé. Raleigh, NC: Lulu.com. 377 pp. 978-1-257-08261-2. Paperback, $18.44.

Reviewed by Nori Muster.
“Elliot Benjamin seems to have a cast iron stomach for unusual group experiences.”
—Nori Muster

Elliot Benjamin, Ph.D., describes his experiences in a variety of new age spiritual organizations, most of which are psychology-based groups. He describes each group and offers his ratings based on three academic scales in use since the 1970s: the Anthony Typology, the Wilber Integral Model, and the Bonewits Cult Danger Scale. He then places the groups on a spectrum that ranges from favorable and benign to high cult danger. The first hundred pages of the book familiarize the reader with the scales and Benjamin's method of rating.

Developing a reliable rating method is useful, since it emphasizes the differences between groups, and would prevent journalists and casual researchers from lumping all new age spiritual organizations in the same category of danger. Along with the more notorious groups, Benjamin rates about a dozen groups that he considers benign. This may help researchers who study group dynamics to recognize what makes a group dangerous. It may also inform religious leaders who want to fall on the favorable-benign side of the spectrum.

Researchers will find plentiful information on lesser known groups. Since many of the groups described in the book are small, or not considered dangerous, until now they may have been ignored in the cultic studies literature. Hopefully, the information on benign groups will put some people's minds at ease. As the director of Steamboats.com, a website dedicated to historic preservation, I once received a letter from a concerned mother questioning her son's employment as a deckhand on the Delta Queen Steamboat. I assured her that it was most likely a positive experience for her son that would look good on his resumé. Benjamin's descriptions may bring similar peace of mind to friends and relatives of people who dabble in the benign groups he covers.

The Anthony Typology, developed by Dick Anthony, analyzes a group on the scope of its beliefs, whether it is charismatic, and whether it is antagonistic toward the outside world. The Wilber Integral Model, developed by Ken Wilber, rates a group according to how controlling it is, and whether its philosophy has a rational or traditional basis. The Bonewits scale, developed by Issac Bonewits, assigns a number between one (low danger) and ten (high danger) on fifteen traits, such as the leader's claim of wisdom, the amount of wisdom attributed (blind followers), and rigidity of dogma. Bonewits rates how much a group is interested in money and political power; as well as the common hallmarks of a dangerous cult: sexual abuse, censorship, endorsement of violence, paranoia, lack of sense of humor about itself, internal control of members, and surrender of will. The ratings are added up and divided by fifteen to come up with an average cult danger rating.

Benjamin describes each group, then rates each on the three scales, and follows with his rationalization for why he rated each group as he did. He admits that his ratings are purely subjective, based on his experiences. Individual researchers will certainly disagree with some of Benjamin's ratings, and certainly the groups themselves will disagree if they have a bad rating.

One of the weaknesses of rating organizations is that it is difficult to see what is going on behind the scenes. A researcher would have to stumble into the inner circle of any group to find out what is really going on. Therefore, there is a danger of falsely giving a group a benign rating.

Even a homeowners' association or bridge club may have the potential to inflict extreme emotional, financial, or other abuses, which a casual observer may not notice. Also, it must be kept in mind that groups can change. They may reform themselves or turn sinister, based on who is in the group, and whether the system is ripe for abuse, or ready for healing. In addition, once a group has been stained by sexual or other violent forms of abuse, it may have a difficult time getting its reputation back. Therefore, high ratings on the Sexual Manipulation and Endorsement of Violence scales need to be more heavily weighted to get an accurate picture of a group's overall danger rating.

Another note is that it would be a mistake to apply the Bonewits scale to political groups, as Benjamin has in essays outside of this volume. All political groups would score high on several of the scales, such as Wisdom Claimed, Wisdom Credited, and Dogma, and certainly they would score high on the Wealth and Political Power scales. Since these five scales would be elevated, it would be unfair to compare the average of a political group's rating to the average of a new age spiritual organization. To obtain a more accurate rating of political organizations, a researcher would need to remove those five items, and add five items to rate the group's integrity. Does the group lie for political gain? This would say more about whether a political group is dangerous than if they want wealth. Needing money is built into the game of politics these days.

In Chapters Two and Three, Benjamin presents a collection of essays he wrote at the time he was going through his group encounters. The essays are presented in two sections, first the late 1990s and early 2000s; then the 1970s. Benjamin took about fifteen years off in between to earn his Ph.D. in mathematics and establish himself as a college professor with a specialization in pure mathematics. He describes his academic pursuits as part of his spiritual search, since he spent years working on pure mathematics for several hours each morning as a meditation. Benjamin's essays in Chapters Two and Three read like journal entries, written in the moment. Many of these entries begin when he is enamored with a new group he is exploring, then in a subsequent entry, he denounces the group and explains what he dislikes about it. He seems to have a cast iron stomach for unusual group experiences. Many ex-cult members and researchers may experience the gack factor (feeing repulsed) by some of Benjamin's realizations as a naïve follower.

As an ex-member of an Eastern guru group, I have avoided all new age religious organizations except a very few. The Philosophical Research Society, founded by Manly Hall in 1934, was a short walk from where I lived in Los Angeles in the early 2000s. I attended many lectures, workshops, and even a tai chi class there with no adverse reactions. However, once in the late 1990s, I attended a house party put on by members of a group Benjamin would rate as mild. At one point, they got everyone's attention to do a group meditation. Everyone joined hands in a circle in the living room. This was an unbearable trigger for me and I waited out in the front yard until the ceremony was over.

In my experience, I would have found most of the situations Benjamin lived through as undesirable for myself. Benjamin describes his deepest and most conflicted affiliation in Chapter Four: Encounters with Scientology. In a series of his characteristic journal-like essays, he reveals little-known details about the group, such as how they get people to join and what goes on in an auditing session. As a researcher, I never knew much about Scientology before, but the book has given me a substantial education on the group's inner workings. Since Scientology is a highly secretive group, I believe this is one of the book's greatest contributions.

One of the most terrifying aspects of Benjamin's experience was the amount of money he invested in the various groups he joined. His non-cult friends and family must have found themselves exasperated trying to prevent him from wasting yet more of his hard-earned money chasing the next great thing. Benjamin repeats a similar pattern in each group: He becomes intrigued, gets hoodwinked for a sum of money, becomes disenchanted, and leaves. He discusses the financial hardships of group involvement quite extensively, which will be informative for seekers who are considering a similar path. One would think that interest in joining coercive organizations would have died down by now, hitting its peak in the 1970s. However, due to millennial fears and economic hardship, more people than ever are attracted to bad leaders. This book issues a warning that is needed now more than ever, and will therefore appeal to scholars, as well as families and others who lose a loved one to such groups.

Publishing this book is a milestone for Benjamin, since it is the culmination of his nearly forty years of writing about alternative spiritual organizations. In essence, he is an unapologetic cult-hopper, revealing in Chapter Five his disappointment with the Jewish religion of his ancestors and the loss of his father at the age of two as factors that may have led him to search for meaning through new age group involvement. He also admits that he joined particular groups after falling in love with women involved in the groups. After describing and rating all of his group experiences, the book seems to point to the need for a creative non-fiction rendering. It would be refreshing to read a memoir by him that goes in chronological order, offering selected scenes from his journey. He has already told us what he really thinks. Now all that is left to do is to show us the worlds he has discovered sans any further analysis.
Nori Muster Nori Muster, M.S., is an author living in Arizona. She loves sharing stories about her life and visiting with friends. Her first book, Betrayal of the Spirit (1997), is her memoir of ten years in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). Former ISKCON members worldwide have accepted her book as a mind-opening narrative of a critical decade in the group's history. She has written nine books that promote rational thinking and recovery from systemic abuse, which are available on Amazon.com.

Notes and References

1) See Brad Reynolds (2016), The Pandid: Standing on the Shoulders of the Sat-Guru: The Influence of Adi Da Samraj on the First Books of Ken Wilber; and Defending Adi Da Sam Raj: Transcending the Cult of Guru-Haters; Elliot Benjamin (2016), Gurus and Ivory Towers: Adi Da Full Spectrum. Retrieved from www.integralworld.net

2) See David Lane (2016), Adi Da and the Devotee's Defense: The Art of Deflecting Criticism. Retrieved from www.integralworld.net

3) Nori Muster's review of my Modern Religions book appeared in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology [2012, Vol.44 #1], and is also currently available on my website at www.benjamin-philosopher.com

4) See Brad Reynolds (2016), True Meditation: Evolution's Tool for Ego Transcendence. Retrieved from www.integralworld.net





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