Miracle, Mystery and Authority: The Triangle of Cult Indoctrination

Psychiatric Annals / April 1990
By John Hochman, MD

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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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.

Future Trends

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 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.

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