There are three forces, the only three forces capable of conquering
and enslaving forever the conscience of these weak rebels in the
interests of their own happiness. They are: the miracle, the
mystery and authority.
F. Dostoyevsky The Brothers Karamazov
Cults promise salvation. Instead of boredom - noble and sweeping
goals. Instead of existential anxiety - structure and certainty.
Instead of alienation - community. Instead of impotence - solidarity
directed by all-knowing leaders.
Too good to be true? In 1978, 912 men, women and children died
in the People's Temple murder/suicides, culminating prior practice
suicide drills. In 1984, the European Parliament's Cottrell Resolution
called on member states to pool information about cults as a prelude
to developing "ways of ensuring the effective protection
of Community citizens." In 1987, the Israeli Knesset issued
a 500-page report on cults.
Contemporary Cults: Why Now?
Cults sprout up when traditional values and structures of a society
are weakened. The 1960s spawned a counterculture that romanticized
drug usage, revolution in general (the sexual revolution in particular),
and retreat to communes. As baby boomers entered their teens,
America's fertility rate plummeted, while the rate of divorces
and adolescent suicides began to climb.
During the 1980s, the counterculture mainstreamed; drug use continued
unromanticized, now at high school level. The sexual revolution
became legitimized through legislation and "safe sex"
education. People lost interest in family: marrying less and
later, cohabiting more without marriage, and having increased
Western European societies with similar trends have been marked
by cultic activity. West Germany is in a phase of negative population
growth, and cohabitation with out-of-wedlock childbearing is up
markedly in Sweden.
What Cults Want
Cults want wealth and power for the leadership, to be supplied
by members. Wealth may include:
Power may include:
Leaders exhort members to proselytize; predictably, more members
mean more wealth and power for the leaders.
What Cults Don't Want
Cults are uninterested in altruism as a moral imperative. Most
have self-serving moralities to benefit the organization and its
leadership in particular. Individual fulfillment is irrelevant.
Pseudoaltruistic activity helps image building.
Cults don't want high overhead. Members in cult enterprises may
be underpaid or unpaid, work in unsafe environments, or have no
provision for medical care.
No cult wants its inner workings exposed, although sophisticated
cults may curry media interest or even employ public relations
consultants and ad agencies to manage their image.
Cults do not want to be called "cults." Thus, a definition
is proposed to clarify the discussion in this article.
Cults and Thought Reform: Definitions and Studies
Cults are groups using thought reform to recruit and control members,
by employing the following:
Thought reform is a hyperefficient indoctrination achieved when
secrecy impairs indoctrinees' awareness of what is happening to
them and what they are becoming - thus, there is no full, informed
consent. Brainwashing or mind control are popular terms for thought
Dostoyevsky's "Grand Inquisitor"
Dostoyevsky's novel The Brothers Karamozov includes a
chapter entitled "The Grand Inquisitor" that presents
an image of mass psychological enslavement. This chapter contains
a "poem" wherein Jesus returns during the Spanish Inquisition
and is jailed by the Grand Inquisitor. The Inquisitor informs
Jesus that mankind has been unable to tolerate freedom, thus freedom
is now "ended and over for good" so that men may be
Today, people are more persuaded than ever that they have
perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and
laid it humbly at our feet.
The "mystery" is that the Inquisitor and his company
are secretly atheists with no interest in miracle at all. The
Inquisition will burn Jesus too, and no one will protest, so great
is its authority.
Many writers have commented on this chapter, which has been published
independently of the novel. They see it as an uncanny prophecy
of the totalitarianism of the 20th century.
Lifton's Study of Thought Reform
Robert Lifton published extensive research findings on Maoist "brainwashing"
following the Chinese Civil War. The Communist government interned
"counterrevolutionary" citizens and non-Chinese residents
in "reeducation centers." Inmates were forced to write
and rewrite autobiographies to document "crimes" of
which they may or may not have yet been accused; they underwent
prolonged interrogations, scrutiny by peers, work details, compulsory
ideologic discussion groups, and exercise. Their conditions improved
if ideologic mentors decided they sincerely adopted the "correct"
viewpoints; physical discomfort and subjection to peer criticism
increased if they clung to "reactionary" views. Doctrine
was presented as a "sacred science" through "mystical
manipulation" in a controlled, pseudo-spontaneous environment.
After emerging, many adopted the world view of their captors.
They affirmed Communism with newfound shame for their prior "exploitation
of the people." However, on leaving China, most lost their
enthusiasm for Communism, decided they were innocent of crimes
which they had learned to feel guilty, and returned to beliefs
they held prior to "reeducation."
Heller's Study of Thought Reform
Mikhael Heller, a Soviet émigré historian, views Communism as a mass psychology. He cites Lifton as the sole psychiatrist to have contributed in this area:
Lifton draws attention to a fact of exceptional importance: The
effect of "brainwashing" and its methods is felt even
by those who he calls "apparent resistors," those who
seem not to succumb to the intoxication
This intensive mentality
is especially effective because it is carried out in the closed
territory of a country cut off from the rest of the world by strictly-guarded
Despite the fact that according to statistics the
Soviet population has become literate
propagandists and activists
continue to read newspaper articles aloud at factories and offices
during the lunch hour
.In 1979 alone, more than 26 million
lectures were given to audiences totaling 1.2 billion people.
The lecturers-agitators trained in special courses at universities
of Marxist Leninism and give their talks at work places and even
Cliché-ridden remarks on the inscrutability
of the Soviet Union continue to fill the pages of historical monographs
and spy novels, political memoranda and economic analyses. As
a rule, these studies ignore the crucial question of the formation
of homo sovieticus, a new type of man who has turned the Soviet
system (created for him and by him) into a phenomenon unprecedented
in world history.
Heller finds psychological literature on mass indoctrination to
be wanting and turns to insights from literature - Orwell, Zemyatin,
and Dostoyevsky. He describes elements of the Grand Inquisitor's
trial within the Soviet state using the triad of miracle, mystery
Heller dismisses glasnost as a political stunt to increase
authority. By allowing discussion of problems, such as shortages,
that are already universally known (but undiscussed because of
fear), Gorbachev discredits political rivals.
Miracle, Mystery and Authority in Contemporary Cults
The suspension of "natural and "ordinary" routines,
to produce an atmosphere of awe, is implicit in the ideology of
every cult. Leaders may prophesy, be masters of dematerialization,
communicate with the dead, possess superhuman strength, or have
unprecedented intelligence. Transformational groups imply one's
life may be completely transformed in only several days. Lyndon
LaRouche's political cult followers see him as the only leader
who can unerringly understand world events and perceive hidden
conspiracies. Therapists (not always licensed) who have found
the ultimate theory and unfailing psychotherapy lead psychotherapy
cults - a miracle, indeed!
In the 1970s, cult capitalized on the counterculture, emphasizing
transcendental experiences, social action, and communal living.
Today, some cults offer "instant enlightenment" while
others obscure spiritual doctrine to attract the secular-minded
People who harbor secrets can find this exciting or gratifying,
particularly if done for a "higher purpose." Cults
are riddled with secrets. Secrecy in recruiting hides unattractive
aspects of cult routine. Front groups purportedly crusading against
Communism or world hunger may "funnel" potential new
members into a cult. Fronts may promise tutoring, drug abuse
counseling, political action opportunities, or management consulting
to big business or to small dental offices.
Belief systems may discourage or forbid discussion of any doubts
new or old members might have. Members must keep full knowledge
from the less initiated, purportedly so as not to damage their
spiritual progress. Secrecy is heightened if there are real or
imagined battles with nonmember "enemies." Secrecy
can hide sexual exploitation or financial excesses of the leaders.
Members may fear verbalizing criticisms of the group. Thus,
members spend much time living and working in close proximity,
but know surprisingly little about one another's thoughts or feelings.
Secrecy allows the moral banality of cults to fester, but cults
want to maintain it at all costs. Synanon perfected the art of
threatening media with libel suits to forestall all adverse publicity.
Jim Jones directed his followers to relocate to Guyana after
being unable to kill publication of an article entitled "Inside
People's Temple" in a regional magazine (New Magazine.
August 1, 1977).
A leader's allegedly immense intellectual, spiritual, or even
physical powers may rationalize whims and doctrines to hold sway
over followers. While many leaders are intelligent and articulate,
often their biographies and abilities are puffed up.
Public corporal punishment (particularly of children), humiliation,
and confession may become routine. A few groups have applied
terrorism against nonmembers, which serves to remind members that
leadership means business. If members have previously lost contact
with family and prior friends, threats of expulsion or shunning
may be powerful.
Cult ideology may attribute all individual suffering to misapplication,
misunderstanding, or even casual doubting of the group's unfailing
teachings; Lifton calls this "doctrine over person."
The Presence of One or Two Elements
Fortune tellers and Horoscope purveyors. Fortune tellers and horoscope purveyors simply advise and do not try to control the lives of their clients.
Spiritual dabblers. Spiritual dabblers invoke magic rituals, attempting
to control the environment. Some band together to swap spiritual
books or study crystals, but without authoritarian structure or
Secret societies. These groups contain private rites; prestige in the groups' hierarchy is not accompanied by control over lives of subordinates.
Professional magicians. Magicians guard their secrets, which
produce feats of incredible skill, but not "miracles."
Military organizations. These groups inform recruits that they will undergo strenuous basic training; for example, prior to being indoctrinated into the Marines, recruits know they will undergo strenuous exercise, get little sleep, and receive verbal abuse.
Psychiatric hospitals. These organizations may temporarily treat
patients involuntarily; this is documented and done under supervision
of civil authorities.
Miracle and Authority
High-intensity religious sects/subgroups. These groups are sometimes
perceived as bizarre, fanatic, or "cultish" because
authoritarian encouragement to hold group norms results in behavior
very different from secular norms. Members may engage in frequent
prayer, atypical dress and diet, altered states of consciousness,
homage to a living leader, or live in separatist communities.
However, these groups lack the secrecy of cults - potential members
or the curious may freely learn about doctrines and practices;
new members are not encouraged to break ties with families or
to disappear with no forwarding address. Also, leaders derive
little material and no sexual benefit from members' activities.
Authoritarian Islamic states. These groups make no effort to
hide their reliance on their interpretation of the Koran, thus
no deception is involved.
Liberal churches and synagogues. These groups invoke lower levels
of miracle and authority, making a greater appeal to conscience
and encouraging members to participate in fellowship and social
Self-help groups. These groups teach of "a higher power"
but confine their authority to helping members control binges.
Members study the founders' lives as positive role models, not
as miracle men. Some members attend open meetings frequently,
even daily; however, this is not required.
Mystery and Authority
Convert political corruption. Covert political corruption can
be flushed out when secrecy is broken by media scrutiny or whistle
Authoritarian dictatorships. This type of dictatorship lacks
a cosmic ideology and thus tolerates independent intellectual
and religious activities - as long as they do not directly challenge
the regime's power.
Organized criminal bands. These groups rationalize their conduct
without resorting to a transcendental belief system. Thus, some
drug baron terrorists and sophisticated juvenile gang members
may aspire to "going legitimate" when they accumulate
enough wealth. By contrast, cults may engage in criminal activity
for a "higher purpose" and may mold idealists into breaking
the law in the name of "transcendental trickery" or
Miracle and Mystery
Faith healers. Faith healers exhort, conjure, or simply defraud.
Many ride a circuit soliciting small contributions from many
passive spectators. However, some establish cult-like organizations
promoting long-term dependency on expensive "alternative
treatments," and frighten followers from seeking conventional
Televangelist para-churches. These groups use mass media, religious
sentimentality, and purported healings to inveigle legions of
followers to give money, sometimes in good-sized chunks. The
Jim and Tammy Bakker ministry fraudulently amassed a fortune.
This type of group is primarily interested in obtaining contributions.
The Triad in action: The People's Temple
The People's Temple started as a Christian church but evolved
into exclusive worship of Jim Jones. His status as a font of
miracles rested on charisma, verbal skills, ingenuity, and lack
of integrity - qualities of high-functioning sociopaths. Spies
and informers supported an illusion that he had supernatural knowledge
of followers' personal lives. He relied on special effects to
diagnose and then "cure cancer." Isolated in the Guyana
jungle, with no one to contradict him, he posed as the repository
of wisdom to save followers from a hostile world.
Careful public relations convinced outsiders that Jones was still
a Christian long after he became a self-styled demigod preaching
Marxism to his flock. Members screened the curious who came to
Sunday services and turned away those who asked too many questions.
Nurses guarded secrets of phony healings where animal gizzards
served as exorcised "cancers." Financial workers monitored
covert Swiss bank accounts. Outsiders were unaware of personal
deprivations and beatings that members experienced. Jones' vice
arrest in the men's room of a Los Angeles porn theater was covered
up, and the court records disappeared. Temple members secretly
migrated to Guyana. American officials who visited Jonestown saw
rehearsed joy and bountiful tables; there were no newspapers,
and there was only one radio under Jones' control. Ongoing mass
suicide drills were a secret.
The family unit was undermined - children informed on their parents,
parents turned children over to other families (purportedly to
break down racial barriers), and Jones summoned married women
to his "boudoir." Jones became everyone's "father."
Members typed reams of letters to politicians taking names from
telephone books; politicians, fooled that Jones had an enormous
following, curried favor with him, which in turn bolstered his
authority over his own followers.
Synergetic Effects of the Triad in People's Temple
People do not get up in the morning, decide to give up their independence,
and lose themselves in the hypocritical intrigue of a cult. Elements
of the triad, when present together, produce a synergy, each reinforcing
the power of each other, to enthrall members.
Miracle Reinforces Mystery.
Members were routinely deceived for a higher purpose, doing "father's
will," which outsiders could not be expected to understand.
Mystery Reinforces Miracle.
Jones' nurses did not reveal special effects they used in fake
cancer cures; intelligence gatherers kept their duties confidential
to maintain the illusion that Jones had ESP.
Miracle Reinforces Authority.
Magic tricks reinforced Jones' claim to special powers to guide
lives of followers. He convinced followers that the CIA was obsessed
with destroying his People's Temple (because it was so extraordinary);
this produced a siege mentality among members.
Authority Reinforces Miracle.
Unlike the tale of the emperor's new clothes, outspoken children
were subject to public corporal punishment. No public or private
expressions of skepticism would be tolerated. Jones' control
of information in Jonestown limited followers' reality testing.
Authority Reinforces Mystery.
Lapses of secrecy would risk punishment. Jonestown residents
were forbidden to write letters or inform visitors about harsh
conditions, deprivation, or suicide drills.
Mystery Reinforces Authority.
Information control safeguarded Jones' authority. Had members
felt free to talk of manipulations and duplicity they witnessed
or had Jones' arrest on a morals charge been publicized, his prestige
would have been shattered.
"We are not a Cult"
No group like to be called a cult. Some groups ignore being called
cults, others launch personal attacks on their critics. Some
have taken a more gentle approach, explaining that they are a
misunderstood new religion, as were the Christians martyred in
Rome. However, early Christians fully disclosed their scriptures
and practices to potential converts. When persecuted, Christians
did not resort to deceptive recruiting; they temporarily practiced
Some cults suggest their unpopularity reflects nativist prejudice
against minority groups. This may sometimes be true, but ignores
understandable disapproval to objectionable or illegal cult activity.
Applying the definition presented in this article, a cult may
function with members living in the community, wearing conventional
attire, and holding down jobs. However, closer examination would
show such members to be obsessively proselytizing or raising funds.
They would be systematically misrepresenting the nature of their
activities and their groups' activities to nonmembers or would
not be fully aware of the nature of the group to which they are
Cults are active throughout our "Global village," except
in static backwaters, and in Communist states which, until recently,
suppressed organizations that might compete with party activity.
With Communist Party power weakening in the Soviet Union and
central Europe, cults that are underground may begin to openly
As American society continues to be in ferment, cults evolve,
but are not disappearing. Attention-getting activities --mass
weddings and unusual costumes - are not emphasized, which has
led some to erroneously conclude that cults have vanished.
Anxieties about competition in the business world may continue
to encourage front groups promising to boost worker morale and
productivity through special "training sessions" or
"courses." With the year 2000 not far off, millenarian
cults will probably appear.