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
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
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 out-of-wedlock births.
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
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 reform.
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 "happy."
…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
frontiers…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 people's
homes…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
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 and authority:
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
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 seeking self-improvement.
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
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 secrecy.
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
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
Authoritarian Islamic states. These groups make no effort to hide their
reliance on their interpretation of the Koran, thus no deception is
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 action.
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 blowers.
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 "heavenly deception."
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 medical care.
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
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
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
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
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
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 in secret.
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 devoted.
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 proselytize.
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
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.