It is not enough to blame leadership for the power dynamics and destructive nature of cults and religions. Members play an important and symbiotic role.
A “cult” is defined as:
A cohesive group of people devoted to beliefs or practices that the surrounding culture or society considers to be outside the mainstream.
Every religion once began as a cult. As the saying goes, the only thing that separates a cult from a religion is popularity and longevity. The most important and defining time in a young cult’s life is immediately following the demise of its founder. If a cult successfully navigates this transition, and the successor leadership is able to maintain their authority in the eyes of members, they are well on their way to becoming a religion. (And boy, do they hate to be called a “cult.”)
So to understand the beast that is religion, we must understand its organizational ancestor. Having said that, it seems cult psychology is present in many human endeavors, not all of them totally destructive. So an understanding of the process can help even those who find themselves in the orbit of powerful people, whether in business, politics, or in other social groupings.
Cults can spring up around anything, they can be overtly religious or political, they can be based on personality, they can even be financial.
Examples of financial cults are things like multi-level marketing programs, pyramid schemes, and “gifting circles.” In the late 1990s, I was referred by a “friend” to a recruitment meeting at Primerica Financial. While I’m sure their financial products were probably fine, the sales pitch was mainly about getting me to sign up other people. It didn’t sound so bad. After all, everyone needs credit, investments, and life-insurance. I stayed after the meeting to ask some questions. The presenter was well versed in cult-like recruiting techniques. When I expressed reservations and made motions to leave, he began what I can only describe as the most blatant flattery session I’d ever experienced. He said he could “tell” that I was smarter than average, that I had “leadership potential”—how could I turn down the opportunity to make “$100,000 plus” a year in my spare time? Having been raised in a cult, I was gone practically before he could finish his sentence!
Political cults include proponents of often racist conspiracy theories, (Skull and Bones, the ‘Order,’ 9/11 conspiracy, etc.) terror cells (Islamic or otherwise), radical social activists who advocate the use of violence, or criminal gangs.
Personality cults can be as harmless as movie star fan clubs, or as sinister as the cults of the Charles Manson family or Stalin, for example.
Totalitarian governments (especially the communist regimes of the 20th century), installed by violent ideological revolutionaries, represent the end product and the combination of political and personality cults. Since they often use military force against their own populations, they are the exceptions to the rule of member complicity. So to be clear, the focus of this article is religious, financial, and personality cults operating in free and democratic societies.
What do all cults have in common, to varying degrees?
- A strong central leader or founder.
- Belief that the leader has access to special and exclusive information or has special authority. (In the case of financial cults, it’s the illusion the leader provides of freedom from the laws of economics. The “mark” is vulnerable because of their desire for a quick buck.)
- A demand for loyalty oaths and obedience.
- High initiation fee or other renunciative action geared toward making withdrawal difficult, such as a requirement to cut off contact from one’s family.
- Rings and rising levels of membership, which reward strong commitment.
- Intensive, often confrontational–yet uncommonly intimate social relationships.
- Reinforcement of in-group and out-group differences. External threats actually benefit the cult by amplifying and solidifying interior control.
- Make people feel special, loved, and accepted.
- Often attract lonely or confused people who need direction and may have trouble fitting into typical career paths.
But the most important characteristic of cults, without which they could not exist is:
THEY NEED MEMBERS
Members provide the power. They are the cult’s life blood.
Without members, a cult leader would be just another delusional nutjob or con man. Without followers, the leaders’ loyalty demands or financial appeals would sound downright creepy or fraudulent. Their wacky extremist philosophies would be seen in the same category as a homeless person shouting on the street corner. Early members provide the opportunity to hone and polish a more skilled presentation, develop wider legitimacy, and an illusion of popular support to budding sociopaths.
The first thing a burgeoning cult leader has to do is:
- Create a mythology or backstory. In the financial cult, it’s fake case histories and success stories.
- Create a mission to give the work a sense of exclusivity and desirability (the way Tom Sawyer got the other boys to paint the fence).
- Establish an inner circle willing to reinforce their authority (at least until the membership grows).
- Acquire the skills to fend off challengers (as soon as members of the inner circle see the power or money start to flow, they will begin vying for it).
Most people don’t have the skills to manage a relationship with even one other person. We only have to look to the high divorce rate to verify this fact. Imagine what it’s like for a leader to meet daily challenges to his authority (without the normal reward/punishment system of money/loss of job). This is why a cult leader has to get used to saying “because I said so” with a straight face. He has to get used to doling out stern summary justice in the form of ostracism and outright dismissal. He has to learn to use member peer pressure to humiliate and corral troublemakers. It also helps to appeal to supernatural beings and endless divine missions. But it’s not absolutely necessary. The most important skill is an uncommon ability to connect with people (on whatever terms), and to attract and control members.
MEMBERS PROVIDE THE POWER
- The Jesus character with no disciples.
- Mark Prophet as a door-to-door salesman, Elizabeth Clare Prophet as an office clerk at the U.N.
- L. Ron Hubbard as a struggling sci-fi writer.
- Adolf Hitler as an aimless bohemian who couldn’t get into architecture school.
- Joseph Smith as a charlatan ‘psychic treasure hunter.’
Before these future cult leaders were able to accomplish anything, they had to figure out how to convince others of their grandiose visions. They had to become, first and foremost, salesmen.
Almost all cults are, in effect, scams. Prospective members can be viewed as “marks” (in carnival parlance). But there’s a symbiosis. It’s not just the leader taking advantage of his “marks.” The cult member’s psychology undergoes a radical shift as they give up their autonomy. A prospective member has been made vulnerable by their own insatiable desire for answers. They would rather accept the cult leader’s simple back story and mythology (even if false) than the messy and often futile confusion of their own lives. This “peace” and “meaning” has become something the prospective member literally lusts after. And–nothing is free–the illusory “peace” and “meaning” carry a high price.
Joining the cult, the new member enters a bubble of reduced anxiety, in exchange for loss of control. This power exchange, whether conscious or unconscious, is what lends mystique to the leader. The members effervesce with gratitude and mutually reinforce each other by the power of suggestion. The larger the membership, and the more they exude happiness, the more attractive the cult becomes to future members. Sociologically, the more members close ranks with the leader, the harder it is for individual members to rise up and dispute his authority, and the more the cult becomes resistant to change.
Therefore, while they may be blissfully unaware of their insidious role, the cult member is not simply a victim–they have become an enabler. They provide the labor and intellectual capital for the vague delusions of the leader to crystallize into practical everyday rules, as well as scripture and dogma. They provide the power the leader needs to convince others and expand.
Everyone thinks they are much too smart to get caught up in a cult. How and why would an intelligent and independent person fall for such a scheme?
Recapping the three main benefits:
- Reduction in anxiety—return to a childlike state, clear simple concepts and black and white thinking can put existential questions on the shelf.
- Avoids personal responsibility. If you let someone else make your life decisions, you can blame that person when things don’t work out. Your destiny becomes tied up with the cult. You might not rise as high, but you won’t fall as low as “outsiders.” Besides, the “ultimate reward is in heaven.”
- Sense of superiority over the “un-initiated.”
When the leader dies or becomes incapacitated:
- Many people leave, and re-establish their lives.
- Some insiders hang on, can’t believe the leader wasn’t infallible, can’t believe it didn’t last forever, try in vain to restore the glory days.
- Splinter groups spring up to provide the illusion of continuity–splinter leaders were often waiting in the wings for years, studying the methods of crowd control, and biding their time for the original leader to get out of the way. [For CUT, the splinter groups are the Temple of the Presence, The Hearts Center, the New Wisdom University, and Shangri-La]
- Members demonize and rhetorically ‘murder’ those who leave or denounce the group.
- Some members also become disillusioned and bitter, leaving in disgust, blaming their own failures and choices on the leadership. They have a difficult time re-establishing their lives outside the group. Since they long ago abdicated their decision-making and critical-thinking skills while in the cult, even years later, they play the victim and fail to accept their own co-dependent role.
Many people also leave cults and simply move on to larger more established religions to feed their “spiritual” hunger and anxiety. They tell themselves that the problems were with the personality of the leader, or some other specific factor. Rarely do ex-cult members get the whole picture and understand that the essence of the problem lies in the psychological process of giving up one’s autonomy to any other person or belief system.
Still others become utterly consumed by their hatred and sense of injustice. They can’t accept that they’ve been had. They can’t accept they made a wrong choice. They don’t know the meaning of “live and learn” and they have no means to make sense of their experience other than to mount an all-out attack on whoever they feel is responsible—even if their targets have moved on and have no association with their former cult. They often fail to engage in the only thing that can ever bring them true healing and peace–the all-powerful medicine of introspection. And–maybe some therapy.
The only way for a former member to cope with the incredible sense of grief and loss involved in years-long cult membership is to accept responsibility. They must go through the stages of grief over their lost years. They must come to terms with what attracted them to the cult in the first place. They must learn how to meet those same needs internally or from their creative or career pursuits which over time engender a healthy and normal interaction with society.
You make it sound like ECP was just misguided and not actually evil. She knew exactly what she was doing as did you father and together they created a monster which destroyed countless lives. EXP and MLP deserve absolutely no pity whatsoever. The whole lie that was called Summit Lighthouse and then CUT was begun BY them. They invented it all. They stole and regurgitated info from past liars including the Ballards, so PLEASE be honest with yourself at least (if you will not be honest with us) and stop perpetuating the lies you grew up with by trying to make all of us feel sorry for your poor little mommie who miraculously came to the conclusion that she had done wrong to so many people over so many years….
Anyhow Seam, do you have more stories about your mom feeling sorry about all the crap she piled on people’s heads over the years? I for one would like to hear more about how bad she REALLY felt; especially around those same years in the late nineties, just as she was telling everyone to build bomb shelters and buys guns. Poor thing she must have been soooo troubled and not have a sngle person in her own church in whom to confide since she had trained them all to lie so well and to care less about people’s feelings. Sean, Sean, Sean, how CAN you sleep at night!?
Contrary to RDF’s assertions, I harbor no illusions about what my parents did. It was in many ways cowardly and despicable. They took advantage of the power they wielded and often enjoyed it. (I’m still convinced they really thought they were doing ‘god’s work.’) To the extent I went along with it, I have accepted responsibility for my mistakes. For 5 years, I’ve spent an awful lot of time trying to convince people of the folly of religions and cults. It’s hard to see how much more I could conceivably do.
From my response to RDF:
It WAS a sham. But it only got started because there were gullible people like you around to support my parents in their cosmic delusion. Yeah, I went along for a while, but I’ve thoroughly repudiated it, and I’ve also taken responsibility for my actions and apologized many times to many people.
As far as my mom is concerned, I consider her admission of fault to be one of the bravest things I ever saw her do.
I’m driven to tell this story because I watched my parents use the Machiavellian laws of power (Law 27: Create a Cultlike Following) to maintain control over their cult for 30 years. And I also watched how their enablers’ fawning delusions contributed to their authority and sense of infallibility. I watched how they became corrupted by the power their followers gave them. I watched what started as clear authoritarianism devolve into a destructive symbiosis. I watched a human tragedy unfold that ended up consuming both their lives, and decades of the lives of countless thousands of followers, myself included. We will never learn from the experience unless we recognize the full complicity of the membership.
Today, Elizabeth Clare Prophet suffers from late stage Alzheimer’s disease. She has been unable to recognize her family since 2000. Before she lost her faculties, she had started to acknowledge her abuses of power and tried to make amends. Sadly, her condition prevented her from fully doing so. She is dying and soon will be gone. RDF, what more do you want?
In the end, we can only fight cults and religions by refusing to join them. We fight cults by keeping them socially unacceptable, creating a climate where this type of organization is seen for the insidious threat that it is. No more Hollywood glamour for the Scientology freaks. Boycott their movies instead. Refuse to take seriously anyone who professes patently outlandish and false beliefs. This includes the Abrahamic theists, with the possible exception of the least problematic reformed Jews. (Most of the Buddhists aren’t so bad either.)
Starve the rest of the cults and religions of membership, support, and respect. Without followers or believers, cults and religions would exist only as a historical oddity of really bad literature–and abandoned buildings.