Opening Our Minds – on Predators and Prevention with Jon Atack

Jon Atack’s Opening Our Minds is quite simply the best new book on authoritarian cults. It digs into the reasons why authoritarianism is ruining the world and what we can do about it. Jon and I first met over thirty years ago; I was the “go-to” guy on the Moonies, and Jon was the “go-to” guy on Scientology. However, we found more in common than our expertise on cults–we hit it off immediately and have been fast friends ever since. There is much to admire about Jon: he is an artist, a musician, a writer, a historian and biographer, a scholar-practitioner, and a truly grounded, authentic individual. Despite decades of exploring the worst aspects of human behavior, he is also thoroughly life-affirming and believes that we have the tools to save the future from the human predators who are so intent on wrecking it.

Jon’s first book, Let’s Sell These People a Piece of Blue Sky, is a bestseller and the seminal history of Scientology; however, just as my focus has moved from the Moonies to the problems created by all authoritarian cults, Jon’s focus has moved away from Scientology and cults to the wider issue of authoritarianism itself–not only in groups identified as cults but in multi-level marketing, pedophile grooming, terrorist radicalization, and even spousal abuse. Jon’s approach is preventative: “an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure,” he says, adding, “It can take years to recover, but it takes only a few hours to proof people against recruitment.”

The Importance of Prevention

It was with this idea of prevention that he wrote his most recent book, Opening Our Minds: avoiding abusive relationships and authoritarian groups. This book is, in my opinion, the best new book about cults–and so much more. The central theme of Opening Our Minds is the idea of the human predator–that troublesome individual that Jon Atack maintains is at the heart of every abusive relationship, every authoritarian group, and every scam or fraud.  At the outset, he gives us a list of characteristics–red flags that everyone should know and watch out for:

A predator:

  • is mean,
  • is outwardly charming and pretends friendship,
  • likes to humiliate others,
  • enjoys pushing others into risks,
  • brags about hurting others,
  • thinks life is a game that they must win.

Jon has compiled the full list into a one-page poster, available as a free download here. Jon knows that we learn best from stories, so the book is packed with fascinating and at times startling narratives that bring clarity and make the complex subject matter easy to understand. Jon’s book takes the reader on a journey through the history of human manipulation–from the earliest advertisements on Sumerian beer-bottle tops, through wartime propaganda, to 21st-century concerns about authoritarianism in education and maintaining democracy in the age of social media and widespread online disinformation.

Jon Atack and I both focus on authoritarianism–the tendency of humans to defer to a leader who claims to have simple answers to all our problems–a fundamental obstacle to peace and environmental security. Jon affirms that we live in a society of “nested cultic shells,” pockets of tribalism and groupthink that affect our views. Whether these views are spiritual, political, or philosophical, we are all prone to “my side” or confirmation bias and Jon shows how to become aware of this and overcome it.

Jon disputes the simplistic idea that we are inherently authoritarian, herd animals biologically hard-wired to follow the leader. He has long been interested in societies that have survived without warfare and points to Graeber and Wengrow’s Dawn of Everything, a ground-breaking book that disproves many of our assumptions about early society. Archeologists have shown that egalitarian societies flourished in the past–notably in the Indus Valley, which enjoyed 700 years of civilization uninterrupted by wars, without temples or palaces set apart from the homes of the “common” people–truly an egalitarian society! Discoveries of a similar society in Ukraine were interrupted by the Russian invasion. As Jon asserts, we can achieve a bright future by identifying human predators and removing them from power,

Bad Actors for Good Causes

Most recently, Jon is studying “hatemongers” – people who hijack well-meaning causes and twist them towards anger and aggression. Such people create hatred and spread misinformation to feed polarization and impede healing dialogue. They damage good and righteous causes. People who might have been sympathetic towards a marginalized group are put off by the rage and aggression of these “hatemongers” who can attach themselves to the best of causes and bring chaos.

Jon gives the example of recent news footage where protesters on opposing sides of a controversial issue yelled hateful catchphrases at each other through megaphones only a few feet apart and without ever stopping to listen or enter into dialogue. Jon believes, as do I, that this does nothing to solve the problems of our society. He warns us that if we are ever going to achieve a pro-social civilization, we must identify those who distort the truth and sway our opinions by manipulating our emotions and undermining our critical thinking – and learn how to listen to contrasting viewpoints with respect.

Opening Our Minds is an important step toward a true civilization based upon tolerance and humanity; it is available in print, as an e-book, and as an audiobook read by the author himself. I recommend it unequivocally. 

Click here to listen to a sample from the audiobook.

Additional resources:

Jon’s “essential” video collection

Opening Our Minds

Let’s Sell These People a Piece of Blue Sky

Jon Atack, Family and Friends YouTube Channel

Jon’s paintings and writing