[Epistemic status: Retrospective on 6-year-old actions]

Back in 2017, there was Rationalist Tumblr, which I participated in; then Discord came along. A number of regulars from Rattumb created a server and started to hang out.

It was a lawless hive of scum and villainy at the time. It has since died. Names of moderators and members deliberately left out. At the time, I was very into hypnosis - so, naturally I seized the opportunity to rant about my special interest on the server. I had pet theories at the time about hypnosis (which need serious re-examination now) and I used them as a party trick to attract social attention and relationships. It was good clean kinky fun, except for the part where I was providing a mysterious answer to a mysterious question. I did not realize this at the time.

Anyway, I hung out on this server for a while and wrote a CYOA about serving a goddess of love, desire and devotion because I kinked on that. I was kicking around ideas about what my ideal religion was like - purely on a kink basis of course, I considered myself an atheist. (Despite styling myself as a witch at the time.) I was already plural at this time, though with a more restricted set of personae than I would eventually develop. One of my personae was a kitsune priestess named Kumi, who worshipped a goddess that I had also made up whole-cloth.

All of this would have been something I'd have forgotten, if there had not been an incident of drama on the server that led to the server owner (whom I disliked) styling themselves as a god-monarch.

I was annoyed by this. I didn't think they had the qualities of a proper deity, and were clearly taking the role far less seriously than they ought to. So I decided that I was going to make my own server, where I was a goddess, and run it properly and not have any of the problems of the main server.

So, pretty much completely as a joke, I started a cult.

The Kitsune Temple

I created a discord server, and roped in a couple friends of mine who were also vaguely interested in spirituality, hypnosis, and kink. I set down the temple laws, which have been lost now but were heavily based on the following set of commandments from my CYOA:

Goddess' Code:

  • Laws:
  • Always get consent.
  • Never cheat.
  • Never ignore a safeword.

Principles:

  • Share love, devotion and desire with the world.
  • Be unashamed of your body and your sexuality.
  • Find beauty in everyone and everything.
  • Be truthful, especially with those you love.
  • Find many loves and many lovers.
  • Be kind to those who adore you.
  • Serve me as you would those you love.
  • Serve those you love as you would me.

I took on the role of a goddess, the server became a temple, and the people who responded the most and were most enthusiastic about it became priestesses. I focused mainly on recruiting fellow trans women who were kind of subby and that I felt needed a safe and secure place in their lives. (At the time on the main server there was a kind of underclass of this kind of person, who were assigned nicknames by the moderators and locked out of changing them back again. Often the nicknames were not very kind, in my view.)

In all, the temple server acquired about 18 members, of which 3-4 became priestesses. I posted three discussion topics daily - one "cold", about beauty or truth, one "warm", about relationships, and one "hot", about sexuality. The intent was to help everyone get to know everyone else on an intimate level. It worked. Many people spoke up about deep values they held, or shallower preferences of theirs that were nonetheless intimate due to being involved with sexuality or romance. I actively encouraged relationships between the various members of the temple, and actively encouraged treatment of the space as a sacred retreat where people should not be dragging in drama and should treat everyone else with utmost respect. Where necessary I used my authority as goddess to shut down conversations that I disliked and promote discussion I liked. Everyone had already implicitly agreed that they were there to worship me, so I took the role and used it as best I could to try and help everyone develop and grow.

Despite my intentions of this being a jokey ha-ha organization between a lot of people who didn't really believe in anything, the temple quickly started to feel like a genuinely sacred space. People used a high degree of charity, relationships bloomed, serious topics were discussed. Many good and beautiful things happened which I am not at liberty to relate because they're other people's secrets. To this day, all my priestesses remain at least loose friends with me.

The Bad Parts

Eventually, the temple had a Problem. Specifically, one of the priestesses Did A Thing That Was Bad. It was fundamentally interpersonal drama between two of my priestesses, and it seemed clear to me that one of them in particular was in the wrong. (As, I will stress, a moral judgment, which destroyed significant nuance to the situation.)

But... I didn't have a specific rule against it. So (anxious to preserve my authority) I declared that the Bad Thing violated one of the Temple Laws even though it pretty clearly was an edge case at best. I excommunicated my priestess over this and banned her from the server.

Note that choice of words, "excommunicated." By this point I had started to believe my own hype to some extent - and at the same time, I was feeling the strain of continuously keeping up a perfect, goddess-like persona day-in-day-out for months. The server was still fun to me, but I stood on a pedestal of clay and I knew it. So when there was a minor incident, I overreacted.

As a result of the drama, activity died off. I made some attempts to revive it, but eventually the server slid into silence and obscurity.

After all this, one of my priestesses decided to go become an actual Christian. I still feel guilty about whatever contribution to that I gave.

Aftermath

A few years later, when I got psychosis, I attempted to revive the temple but as a place that was actually dealing out secret knowledge of the cosmos and Real Enlightenment and Real Magic. (Which I thought I had evidence of, because I was psychotic.) Nobody involved bit, and I did damage to the place in everyone's memory as well. In a sharp mood swing of despair, I permanently deleted the entire server, and now it is just a memory.

So what have we learned?

Well, there were some upsides - relationships, intimacy, care for one's fellow human being, a sense of shared purpose - and some downsides - as soon as there was drama, it turned into a Challenge To The Goddess' Authority and that could not be stood for. Not only that, but some years later the good experiences I had had here encouraged me to join another cult, which was less kind to me. While the benefits in the short term were immediate and obvious, a real kind of long-term damage to my epistemics and worldview had been done, which would ultimately become a contributing factor to my psychosis.

It's not good enough to engage kindly and do your best interpersonally; you also have to hold yourself to a degree of epistemic rigor, or else you risk doing subtle damage that you only see the results of many years later.

I stopped here, originally. But then I brought this to a rationalist friend of mine, and they pointed out some things. Can you see the errors in the above conclusions?

To be blunt, I got incredibly lucky. Yes, I got psychosis and lost several years of my life. But both the cult I led and the cult I joined remained benign for the length of my stay in them. If things had turned out slightly differently, I could very well have been frogboiled into signing away my life and ethics to the worst kind of people. I know that I'm deeply loyal to people I love, having done real work to help multiple trans women escape their abusive families; in a situation where loyalty and ethics were in opposite directions, ethics very well could lose. In fact, I was close friends with another individual (who was not involved with the Kitsune Temple) who then went on to become involved in exactly this way with another cult, which used them nastily and caused them to do unconscionable things and face serious criminal charges. I had a very near miss. And I know that I'm vulnerable to the exact same kind of playbook in the future if I don't get better at the Way, and fast. It's worked on me twice before already. Once I even did it to myself.

This is the point at which a reasonable degree of fear is involved. The consequences of poor epistemics on this can be genuinely catastrophic, and have been to people in my position - even to people I know! (Availability heuristic, btw, though this did help me grok it.) Calm is not a rational emotion here. Feeling like "some bad things happened and also some good things, I guess it was sort of okay" is based on false facts - it ignores the real risks involved with this kind of behavior. It's like saying it's okay to have sex with strangers without a condom based on a sample of two times you did not get pregnant and/or HIV. The longer pattern inevitably leads to doom as more and more chances are taken.

In short: The proper reaction is "Holy shit!"

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5 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:46 AM

Maybe the real lesson all along is that power-exchange relationships and mentally unstable people are not a good mix. 

Reasonable in retrospect, but not available to me at the time. However, having read the Sequences I should have known better to even play-act at religion. This was practically a classic case of belief in belief.

Belief in disbelief, perhaps.

While normal from a normal perspective, this post is strange from a rationalist perspective, since the lesson you describe is X is bad, but the evidence given is that you had a good experience with X aside from mundane interpersonal drama that everyone experiences and that doesnt sound particularly exacerbated by X. Aside from that you say it contributed to psychosis years down the line, but its not very clear to me there is a strong causal relationship or any. 

(of course, your friend's bad experience with cults is a good reason to update against cults being safe to participate in)

I am not really a cult advocate. But it is okay (and certainly bayesian) to just have a good personal experience with something and conclude that can be safer or nicer than people generally think. Just because you're crazy doesnt mean everything you did was bad.

Edit: This is still on my mind so I will write some more. I feel like the attitude in your post, especially your addendum, is that its fundamentally obviously wrong to feel like your experience was okay or an okay thing to do. And that the fact you feel/felt okay about it is strong evidence that you need to master rationality more, in order to be actually okay. And that once you do master rationality, you will no longer feel it was ok. 

But "some bad things happened and also some good things, I guess it was sort of okay" is in fact a reasonable way to feel. It does sound like some bad things happened, some good things, and that it was just sort of okay (if not better). There is outside view evidence about cults being bad. Far be it from me to say that you should not avoid cults. We should certainly incorporate the outside view into our choices. But successfully squashing your inside view because it contradicts the outside view is not really an exercise in rationality, and is often the direct opposite. Also, it makes me sad.

I strong downvoted because the style in the beginning felt sort of like it was glorifying the whole thing to me, even if the takeaway at the end was "that was dumb", so I think it's sort of a dangerous post.