What is a Good Cult? David Allen, GTD, and New Religious Movements

Among the most interesting things that came out of my research on GTD was the program’s roots in the human potential movement of the 1970s, and the role David Allen played in one of its most vivid chapters. He was involved in the creation of a new religion.


The religion is called the Movement for Spiritual Inner Awareness, but it is better known by its initials, MSIA. (In earlier days, this acronym was pronounced “messiah,” but this may have seemed a bit like over-reaching, because it soon fell by the wayside.) In the story, I describe Allen’s life with MSIA and the concern this causes some GTD users when they learn about it. (Here is a link to a rather intense discussion of David Allen and MSIA at 43 Folders.)

One of the interesting moments in editing the piece came in a discussion with Angela Watercutter, a research editor at the magazine whom I like and respect. Angela objected to my using the word “cult” in connection to MSIA, pointing out that it was disparaging, and passing on a cautionary notice from the magazine’s legal staff that use of the word cult in connection with Scientology had embroiled Time in a painful lawsuit.

One possible response to this sort of thing is to point out that Time won the lawsuit.

But what interests me more is disparaging. Many of the poisonous associations we have with the word cult connect with the very period in which MSIA was flourishing. These associations, while understandable, also hide something. The ruthless techniques of manipulation seen in the seventies’ cults were intermixed with accurate intuitions, some of which even rose to the level of ideas, about how humans could change. The cults were popular test beds for the application of these techniques, and the intoxicating effect of discovering how well they worked may have been partially responsible for the ruthlessness on display.

The anti-cult and deprogramming movements were one reaction, a kind of convulsive and paranoid counter-attack, against the success cults were having. (There’s a great, short essay on this in Andreas Killen’s book 1973 Nervous Breakdown.) But there was another reaction, whose effects have lasted longer and are still being felt. That is, to try and identify the valuable components of the cults, to extract them and, if not exactly purify them, at least to amalgamate them into less toxic compounds. This reprocessing of cult knowledge is part of the formation of civilization; in the past it was how we got our religions.

In a few days, when I have a chance, I’ll post some of the sources on the cult influence in the productivity movement.

One Response to “What is a Good Cult? David Allen, GTD, and New Religious Movements”

  1. Robert Says:

    Hi Gary,

    It seems to me that the only reason the term “new religious movement” is not used more often is that the term “cult” is much more effective for selling magazines. After all, the idea of a new religious movement is more congruent with your belief that they are “part of the formation of civilization; in the past it was how we got our religions.”

    Labeling a group a cult is like labeling an individual a pervert. The allegation is so horrific in itself that somehow people tend to assume that there must be some compelling evidence behind it — other than further emotional appeal and generalization.

    For example, you seem to imply that MSIA, like other groups gaining popularity in the ’70s who were later called “cults”, employs “ruthless techniques of manipulation.” A fair amount of outside research by new religious scholars indicates otherwise. None of it, however, makes it into glossy magazines, or convinces those who have already made up their minds in a forum or discussion group.

    Fundamentalists tend to disparage of any non-traditional religion; atheist tend to think all religions are about manipulation. Which means, especially in this country, a lot of people back the term “cult” as a convenient means to dismiss anything they are unwilling to take time to more fully understand.