Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? front cover
(This is a slightly revised version of material from Chapter 9 of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?)

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13. A Charismatic Leader. Present in almost all cults, the leader can be living (Revolutionary Communist Party, FLDS, Larouchites) or dead (Synanon, Scientology, Unification Church). In cases where the leader dies, the cult either fades away (The Source, Synanon), is taken over by a direct relation of the deceased charismatic leader (Unification Church), or is taken over by a member of a pre-existing hierarchy (Scientology).

14. A Hierarchical, Authoritarian Structure. While this is a very common feature of cults, it should be noted that relatively new cults often have little structure. But as time passes, hierarchy and bureaucracy usually arise, as is to be expected in authoritarian setups. If a hierarchy does not arise–this sometimes happens because of the charismatic leader’s fear of take-over attempts–the cult will probably disintegrate upon the leader’s death, unless a new charismatic leader quickly arises to take his or her place.

15. Submission of the Individual to the “Will of God” or to some other abstraction, such as the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” This means abandonment of individual decision making in favor of obeying the “will” of the abstraction as interpreted by the cult. In practice, this means obeying the orders of the charismatic leader or the hierarchy which controls the group.

One outward sign of individual submission to the charismatic leader is the infantilization of members. In many instances, the People’s Temple and Unification Church being examples, members very often refer to and address the leader as “Father.” (In the relatively few cults with charismatic female leaders, such as the Church Universal and Triumphant, members often refer to the cult leader as “Mother.”)

In many cults the submission of the individual is so complete that the charismatic leader and/or hierarchy make all significant life decisions for the individual, up to and including choice of sex and marriage partners. In Synanon, the control of its founder, Charles Dederich, was so complete that he forced all of the male members of his cult, save himself, to undergo vasectomies. He later forced all members to switch sex partners. The leader in “The Source” cult, “Father Yod” also assigned new sex partners to members. And in the Unification Church, the hierarchy picks the marriage partners of members. In that church, it’s common for brides and grooms to meet for the first time at their weddings.

But perhaps the ultimate expressions of the submission of the individual to the “will of God” (that is, the cult) are mass murder, mass suicide. and self-mutilation. The prime example of mass murder and suicide is, of course, Jonestown. The Order of the Solar Temple provided more recent, though smaller scale, examples of such murder and suicide.

As for self-mutilation, the most memorable example was provided by the Heaven’s Gate cult. In it, a majority of the male members of that severely anti-sexual religious group–in order to remove themselves from temptations of the flesh–“voluntarily” submitted to castration prior to the cult’s mass suicide in 1997, in order to somehow join the (of course nonexistent) UFO that cult leader Marshall Applewhite said was in Comet Hale-Bopp’s tail.


All Posts in this Series

  • Characteristics of Cults (part 1)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 2)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 3)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 4)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 5)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 6)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 7)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 8)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 9)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 10)



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