Posts Tagged ‘Cult Characteristics’


Recently Rick Ross, one of America’s leading expert on cults and author of Cults Inside Out, who has long performed a major public service via his sites cultnews.net and cultnews.com (probably the best online sources of news and information on cults), addressed the question of whether Donald Trump and his followers constitute a cult. Ross’s conclusion is that no, Trump and his movement do not constitute a cult.

While I share that conclusion, I believe that some of Ross’s specific reasons for reaching it are debatable. For example, “Trump is not an absolute authoritarian ‘cult’ leader like a Jim Jones, Charles Manson or David Koresh. He was democratically elected and is subject to congressional oversight, judicial review by the courts and must run to be reelected. The President of the United States is also constitutionally limited by law to no more than two terms (eight years) as president.” This ignores that Trump wants to be an absolute ruler and is doing everything in his power to destroy the constitutional and institutional limits on his power, and encourages his followers to support him in doing this.

Rather than go over the other points I consider debatable, I’d encourage those who have the time to read Ross’s article before reading the following, which is a lightly edited and slightly expanded version of a post I published last year.

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Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? front coverby Chaz Bufe, author of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?

Of late, critics often accuse Donald Trump and his followers of being a cult. The problem is that they seemingly never define what a cult is, never define the characteristics of a cult, and of course never see how well Trump & co. match such characteristics. It’s time to do so.

Before I began writing AA: Cult or Cure?, I spent well over a year on research, much of it involving religious and political cults. I discovered that all cults, whatever their nature — religious, political, commercial (e.g., multi-level marketing scams) — have many characteristics in common. By the end of my research, I had discovered 23 separate characteristics common in cults; some cults exhibit almost all of them.

(Robert Jay Lifton in his groundbreaking and influential Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism lists eight cult-like characteristics; while I included Lifton’s characteristics in the list I compiled, I strongly believe that his book would have been better if he had included more such characteristics — ones I believe are obvious. The same goes for Rick Ross’s discussion of the cultlike aspects of the Trump movement.)

Let’s see how many of the 23 cult characteristics Trump and his followers exhibit:

1) Religious orientation. Are Trump and his followers religiously based? Yes.

Trump’s core followers are conservative evangelicals. He received the votes of 81% of them in the 2016 election, and that level of support remains virtually unchanged. As well, Trump — who’s about as religious, and has about as much knowledge of the Bible, as the average poodle — routinely panders to evangelicals, flattering them endlessly and doing his best to ram through anti-choice, anti-LGBT judges and repressive, religiously inspired laws. Of late, Trump and his followers have even taken to describing him in purely religious, messianic language, as “the chosen one.”

2) Irrationality. Are Trump and his followers irrational, do they discourage skepticism and rational thinking? Emphatically yes.

Trump and his followers are characterized by their ignorance of and contempt for science and rationality. The examples of this are manifold, with climate-change denial being the most obvious and dangerous. Climate scientists — who arrived at their conclusions through massive, decades-long research and application of the scientific method to the data they’ve gathered — are virtually unanimous in the conclusions that climate change is due to human activity (especially the burning of fossil fuels) and that it’s a dire threat to humanity. Trump and his followers irrationally and dangerously deny this.

3) Dogmatism. Are Trump and his followers dogmatic? Yes in the case of Trump’s followers, no as regards Trump himself.

Trump’s most fervent followers, evangelicals, Bible literalists, are by definition dogmatists. They believe (or at least insist that they believe) that a 3,000-year-old book written by Iron Age slaveholders is inerrant, true in every respect. This leads them to insist on absurdities, such as that the Earth is only 6,000 years old; that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time (or that the devil placed fossils in the earth to mislead humans); that, for that matter, the devil actually exists; that the sun stood still; that a dead man arose after three days and walked out of his tomb . . . The list of dogmatic absurdities goes on and on. In contrast, Trump himself is an amoral opportunist with no apparent beliefs who will say and do anything as long as he thinks it’s in his self-interest to do so.

4) “Chosen People” mentality. Do Trump and his followers have such a mentality? Yes.

Trump’s evangelical supporters routinely and self-flatteringly refer to themselves using terms such as “God’s people,” “the elect,” and “the righteous.” They also consider themselves above other people, especially atheists and muslims, with a great many evangelicals (and other conservative religious folk) saying they would never vote for an atheist or muslim for public office. Trump himself is a very privileged rich kid with a massive sense of entitlement. He was a schoolyard bully as a child; he believes he has the right to grope women — and has bragged about that groping; and seems to abuse almost everyone unfortunate enough to come in contact with him. Only someone who thinks he’s better than other people, who thinks he’s entitled to do such odious things, would do them. One might also mention “American exceptionalism” here, a belief apparently held by almost all of Trump’s followers and, perhaps, by Trump himself.

5) Ideology above all else. Do Trump and his followers elevate their ideology over experience, observation, and logic? Yes, absolutely.

Again, the most obvious example is climate-change denial. But other examples abound, such as the insistence that grossly ineffective abstinence-only sex “education” is the only type that should be taught in public schools; that a few cells the size of a pinhead are, somehow, a “person” (apparently in the same manner that an acorn is an oak tree); that massive tax cuts for the top 1% are somehow good for the bottom 99%; and that America is the land of “equal opportunity” in the face of gross inequality in wealth and income and equally gross inequality in the quality of education for the rich and poor.

6) Separatism. Are Trump and his followers separatists? No.

We might be better off if they were. Instead of being separatists, they want to impose their beliefs on the rest of us through the coercive apparatus of the state.

7) Exclusivity. Do Trump and his followers present themselves as the exclusive holders of the truth. Yes.

Trump has been quite explicit about this. At a VFW convention on July 24, 2018, Trump said, “Just remember, what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening. Just stick with us . . .” As well, Trump’s core evangelical followers, biblical literalists, by definition consider themselves the exclusive holders of the (religious) truth. (The same holds for his Mormon and conservative Catholic backers.)

8) Special knowledge. Do Trump and his followers claim to have special knowledge that will only be revealed to the initiated? No.

Not unless you count Trump’s for-profit “university” scam, and that would be a stretch.

9) Mind control. Do Trump and his followers employ mind-control techniques? No.

Even Trump’s most hardcore followers don’t employ mind-control techniques such as sleep deprivation, deliberate near-starvation, hypnotic chanting, and thought-stopping techniques (e.g., reciting a mantra over and over again to ward off unwanted thoughts).

10) Thought-stopping techniques. Do Trump and his followers employ thought-stopping language? Not really. 

The childhood indoctrination of Trump’s religious-believer backers (evangelicals, conservative Catholics, Mormons), in which children are routinely warned that doubt comes from the devil (and, from my childhood, that you should pray the rosary to ward off doubt), is as close as you’ll get to thought-stopping language in the Trump movement.

11) Manipulation through guilt. Does Trump manipulate his followers through guilt? No.

Rather, Trump manipulates his followers through fear, hate, bigotry, and scapegoating. His appalling attacks on Mexicans and his fear-mongering about an “invasion” of immigrants is only the most obvious example.

12) The cult of confession. Do Trump and his followers use confession for purification and to tie believers to the movement? No. 

The closest any of Trump’s followers come to this is the practice of conservative Catholics who use that “sacrament” for purification and to tie themselves to the church.

13) A charismatic leader. Is Trump a charismatic leader, and do his followers treat him as one? Clearly, yes. 

I’d use many other terms in place of “charismatic,” but the adoration of the Dear Leader by his glassy-eyed followers is all too obvious. The fact that by their own lights he’s moral garbage matters not a whit to them. Nor do his constant, obvious lies and boasting, frequent self-contradiction, bullying behavior, and shameful self-serving. All too many of Trump’s followers worship him no matter what.

14) Hierarchical, authoritarian structure. Do Trump and his followers belong to a hierarchical, authoritarian structure. Yes, more than one.

First and most obviously, the Republican Party has been on a decades-long crusade to restrict individual rights (notably reproductive and LGBT rights) while simultaneously expanding the wealth and power of the rich and the corporations, and has likewise been on a decades-long crusade to entrench itself in power via gerrymandering and voter suppression — that is to entrench itself in power by destroying what passes for American democracy. As well, Trump’s conservative Catholic and Mormon followers (and to a lesser degree the evangelicals) belong to clearly hierarchical, authoritarian — “thou shalt”; “thou shalt not” — religious structures.

15) Submission of the individual to the “will of God” or God’s appointed representatives. Do Trump and his followers insist on such submission? Yes.

Trump, hypocritically so. But all too many of his followers are sincere in wanting to use the coercive apparatus of the state to force everyone to submit to that “divine will” (as they define it). Trump is only too happy to oblige.

16) Self-absorption. Are Trump and his followers self-absorbed? Yes.

Trump’s narcissism and self-absorption could hardly be more obvious. It’s almost equally so with his Republican Party, with its phony, preening nationalism, and its amoral, ends-justify-the-means mentality that pursues permanent entrenchment in power no matter how foul the means nor how much damage to the country.

17) Dual purposes. Does the Trump movement have dual purposes, are its real purposes other than those it presents to the publicYes, absolutely.

This is very obvious in very many ways. Trump — who received over $400 million from his dad — presents himself as the champion of the working man, yet he’s intent on squeezing money from the poor and working classes, and what’s left of the middle class, and transferring it to the top. He recently gave the largest tax cut in history to (primarily) the top 1%; he opposes raising the federal minimum wage; he opposes labor unions; he and his minions in Congress have partially dismantled Obama’s (grossly inadequate) healthcare plan and have offered nothing to replace it; and he opposes extending Medicare to all Americans, thus ensuring that tens of thousands of poor and working class Americans die from medical neglect annually. All of these things hurt working people, who he pretends to represent.

18) Economic exploitation. Does Trump economically exploit his followers? Yes.

Sometimes directly, as with Trump “University,” more often via government economic and taxation policies which work to the advantage of Trump and his billionaire buddies and against the rest of us. Trump’s tax scam (touted as tax “reform”), which will give close to two trillion dollars to corporations and the top 1% over the next decade, is the most obvious example of this.

19) Deceptive recruiting techniques. Do Trump and his Republican Party use deceptive recruiting techniques. Yes.

In addition to hypocritically presenting himself as the working man’s champion, Trump presents himself as the embodiment of patriotism in order to attract those who fancy themselves patriots. But his “patriotism” is the exact opposite of real patriotism, which is trying to do what’s best for the country and following one’s own conscience, doing what’s right in the face of disdain and abuse. For Trump and his followers, patriotism seems to consist of making a fetish of the flag (instead of honoring what it supposedly stands for), military worship, “patriotic” bumper stickers and hats, and engaging in domination/submission rituals at the beginning of ball games. One might also mention that Trump and other Republicans attempt to appeal to Christian moralists by posing as guardians of morality, when they themselves are moral sewers.

20) Possessiveness. Does the Trump movement go to great lengths to retain members? No.

Cults often go to great lengths to retain members, doing such things as threatening permanent disconnection of family members who leave the cult. Trump doesn’t do this nor does he advocate it.

21) A closed, all-encompassing environment. Has the Trump movement created such an environment? No.

Many cults (e.g., Rajhneeshees, Branch Davidians, People’s Temple, FLDS) set up isolated environments in which they control all aspects of members’ lives. The closest Trump’s followers come to this is having a single primary news source (Fox News for 60% of them) and being immersed in the Facebook echo chamber where they hear almost nothing but views they already agree with. But this is a far, far cry from Jonestown.

22) Millenarianism. Does Trump prophesy the end of the world? No.

The closest he comes is dire warnings about what will happen if the Republicans lose power. But some of his followers, hardcore evangelicals, do prophesy that the end is near and are actively trying to bring it about, to bring about Armageddon (through enthusiastic support of Israeli militarism and expansionism, and encouragement of American military interventionism in the Mideast) so as to usher in “the rapture.” Still, Trump is definitely not a millenarian himself.

23) Violence, coercion, and harassment. Do Trump and his followers engage in or encourage these things? Yes.

Recall Trump’s remarks that some of the murderous neo-Nazis in Charlottesville were “very fine people.” Then recall his attacks on the press as “enemies of the people” and his encouragement of violence against protesters at his rallies. Then recall the huge uptick in racist and anti-semitic violence by his alt-right/neo-Nazi supporters since he took office. Finally, let’s not forget that some of Trump’s “right to life” supporters routinely stalk, harass, threaten, and occasionally bomb or shoot abortion providers.

IN CONCLUSION

So, do Trump and his followers constitute a cult? Many of the cults I studied while researching AA: Cult or Cure? exhibit almost all of the above characteristics: the Moonies 22 out of the 23; the Church of Scientology and People’s Temple 21 of the 23; and Synanon 20 of the 23. In contrast, community-based Alcoholics Anonymous only exhibits 11 of the 23, “institutional” AA  (the 12-step treatment industry, which I dubbed “Cult Lite”) exhibits 16 of the 23, and the Trump movement exhibits 13 of the 23, so it’s not accurate to say that the Trump movement is a full-blown cult, though it does have distinct cult-like tendencies. However, and disturbingly, almost all of the cult-like tendencies exhibited by Trump and his followers are also characteristic of fascist movements.


Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? front coverby Chaz Bufe, author of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?

Of late, critics often accuse Donald Trump and his followers of being a cult. The problem is that they seemingly never define what a cult is, never define the characteristics of a cult, and of course never see how well Trump & co. match such characteristics. It’s time to do so.

Before I began writing AA: Cult or Cure?, I spent well over a year on research, much of it involving religious and political cults. I discovered that all cults, whatever their nature — religious, political, commercial (e.g., multi-level marketing scams) — have many characteristics in common. By the end of my research, I had discovered 23 separate characteristics common in cults; some cults exhibit almost all of them.

(Robert Jay Lifton in his groundbreaking and influential Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism lists eight cult-like characteristics; while I included Lifton’s characteristics in the list I compiled, I strongly believe that his book would have been better if he had included more such characteristics — ones I believe are obvious.)

Let’s see how many of the 23 Trump and his followers exhibit:

1) Religious orientation. Are Trump and his followers religiously based? Yes.

Trump’s core followers are conservative evangelicals. He received the votes of 81% of them in the 2016 election, and that level of support remains virtually unchanged. As well, Trump — who’s about as religious, and has about as much knowledge of the Bible, as the average poodle — routinely panders to evangelicals, flattering them endlessly and doing his best to ram through anti-choice, anti-LGBT judges and repressive, religiously inspired laws.

2) Irrationality. Are Trump and his followers irrational, do they discourage skepticism and rational thinking? Emphatically yes.

Trump and his followers are characterized by their ignorance of and contempt for science and rationality. The examples of this are manifold, with climate-change denial being the most obvious and dangerous. Climate scientists — who arrived at their conclusions through massive, decades-long research and application of the scientific method to the data they’ve gathered — are virtually unanimous in the conclusions that climate change is due to human activity (especially the burning of fossil fuels) and that it’s a dire threat to humanity. Trump and his followers irrationally and dangerously deny this.

3) Dogmatism. Are Trump and his followers dogmatic? Yes in the case of Trump’s followers, no as regards Trump himself.

Trump’s most fervent followers, evangelicals, Bible literalists, are by definition dogmatists. They believe (or at least insist that they believe) that a 3,000-year-old book written by Iron Age slaveholders is inerrant, true in every respect. This leads them to insist on absurdities, such as that the Earth is only 6,000 years old; that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time (or that the devil placed fossils in the earth to mislead humans); that, for that matter, the devil actually exists; that the sun stood still; that a dead man arose after three days and walked out of his tomb . . . The list of dogmatic absurdities goes on and on. In contrast, Trump himself is an amoral opportunist with no apparent beliefs who will say and do anything as long as he thinks it’s in his self-interest to do so.

4) “Chosen People” mentality. Do Trump and his followers have such a mentality? Yes.

Trump’s evangelical supporters routinely and self-flatteringly refer to themselves using terms such as “God’s people,” “the elect,” and “the righteous.” They also consider themselves above other people, especially atheists and muslims, with a great many evangelicals (and other conservative religious folk) saying they would never vote for an atheist or muslim for public office. Trump himself is a very privileged rich kid with a massive sense of entitlement. He was a schoolyard bully as a child; he believes he has the right to grope women — and has bragged about that groping; and seems to abuse almost everyone unfortunate enough to come in contact with him. Only someone who thinks he’s better than other people, who thinks he’s entitled to do such odious things, would do them. One might also mention “American exceptionalism” here, a belief apparently held by almost all of Trump’s followers and, perhaps, by Trump himself.

5) Ideology above all else. Do Trump and his followers elevate their ideology over experience, observation, and logic? Yes, absolutely.

Again, the most obvious example is climate-change denial. But other examples abound, such as the insistence that grossly ineffective abstinence-only sex “education” is the only type that should be taught in public schools; that a few cells the size of a pinhead are, somehow, a “person” (apparently in the same manner that an acorn is an oak tree); that massive tax cuts for the top 1% are somehow good for the bottom 99%; and that America is the land of “equal opportunity” in the face of gross differences in wealth and income and equally gross differences in the quality of education for the rich and poor.

6) Separatism. Are Trump and his followers separatists? No.

We might be better off if they were. Instead of being separatists, they want to impose their beliefs on the rest of us through the coercive apparatus of the government.

7) Exclusivity. Do Trump and his followers present themselves as the exclusive holders of the truth. Yes.

Trump’s core evangelical followers, biblical literalists, by definition consider themselves the exclusive holders of the truth. (The same holds for his Mormon and conservative Catholic backers.) Trump, with his constant blather about “fake news,” insistence that he’s the only source of the truth and should always be believed (despite his near-constant and blatant lying), and his bald-faced statement to his followers, “don’t believe what you’re reading or seeing,” is equally if not more guilty of this.

8) Special knowledge. Do Trump and his followers claim to have special knowledge that will only be revealed to the initiated? No.

Not unless you count Trump’s for-profit “university” scam, and that would be a stretch.

9) Mind control. Do Trump and his followers employ mind-control techniques? No.

Even Trump’s most hardcore followers don’t employ mind-control techniques such as sleep deprivation, deliberate near-starvation, hypnotic chanting, and thought-stopping techniques (e.g., reciting a mantra over and over again to ward off unwanted thoughts).

10) Thought-stopping techniques. Do Trump and his followers employ thought-stopping language? Not really. 

The childhood religious indoctrination of Trump’s religious-believer backers (evangelicals, conservative Catholics, Mormons), in which children are routinely warned that doubt comes from the devil (and, from my childhood, that you should pray the rosary to ward off doubt), is as close as you’ll get to thought-stopping language in the Trump movement.

11) Manipulation through guilt. Does Trump manipulate his followers through guilt? No.

Rather, Trump manipulates his followers through fear, hate, bigotry, and scapegoating. His appalling attacks on Mexicans and his fear-mongering about an “invasion” of immigrants is only the most obvious example.

12) The cult of confession. Do Trump and his followers use confession for purification and to tie believers to the movement? No. 

The closest any of Trump’s followers come to this is the practice of conservative Catholics who use that “sacrament” for purification and to tie themselves to the church.

13) A charismatic leader. Is Trump a charismatic leader, and do his followers treat him as one? Clearly, yes. 

I’d use many other terms in place of “charismatic,” but the adoration of the Dear Leader by his glassy-eyed followers is all too obvious. The fact that by their own lights he’s moral garbage matters not a whit to them. Nor do his constant, obvious lies and boasting, frequent self-contradiction, bullying behavior, and shameful self-serving. All too many of Trump’s followers worship him no matter what.

14) Hierarchical, authoritarian structure. Do Trump and his followers belong to a hierarchical, authoritarian structure. Yes, several of them.

First and most obviously, the Republican Party, which has been on a decades-long crusade to restrict individual rights (notably reproductive and LGBT rights), and which has likewise been on a decades-long crusade to entrench itself in power via gerrymandering and voter suppression on a mass scale — that is to entrench itself in power by destroying what passes for American democracy. As well, Trump’s conservative Catholic and Mormon followers (and to a lesser degree the evangelicals) belong to clearly hierarchical, authoritarian — “thou shalt”; “thou shalt not” — religious structures.

15) Submission of the individual to the “will of God” or God’s appointed representatives. Do Trump and his followers insist on such submission? Yes.

Trump, hypocritically so. But all too many of his followers are sincere in wanting to use the coercive apparatus of the state to force everyone to submit to that “will” (as they define it).

16) Self-absorption. Are Trump and his followers self-absorbed? Yes.

Trump’s narcissism and self-absorption could hardly be more obvious. It’s almost equally so with his Republican Party, with its phony, preening nationalism, and its amoral, ends-justify-the-means mentality that pursues permanent entrenchment in power no matter how foul the means nor how much damage to the country. The current attempt to steamroll the installation of a blustering, bullying, highly partisan, alleged (have to get that alleged in there) sexual predator and apparent perjurer on the Supreme Court is only the latest instance of the Republican Party’s self-absorption.

17) Dual purposes. Does the Trump movement have dual purposes, are its real purposes other than those it presents to the publicYes, absolutely.

This is very obvious in very many ways. Trump — who received over $400 million from his dad — presents himself as the champion of the working man, yet he’s intent on squeezing money from the poor and working classes, and what’s left of the middle class, and transferring it to the top. He just gave the largest tax cut in history to (primarily) the top 1%; he opposes raising the federal minimum wage; he opposes labor unions; he and his minions in Congress have partially dismantled Obama’s (grossly inadequate) healthcare plan and have offered nothing to replace it; and he opposes extending Medicare to all Americans, thus ensuring that tens of thousands of poor and working class Americans die from medical neglect annually. His “family values” followers by and large support his vicious policy of ripping apart immigrant families at the border and throwing children into cages. And Trump and those same followers demand “religious freedom” which really means the “freedom” to discriminate against LGBT people in public accommodations. The hypocrisy of Trump and his followers, their “dual purposes,” is simply nauseating.

18) Economic exploitation. Does Trump economically exploit his followers? Yes.

Sometimes directly, as with Trump “University,” more often via government economic and taxation policies which work to the advantage of Trump and his billionaire buddies and against the rest of us.

19) Deceptive recruiting techniques. Do Trump and his Republican Party use deceptive recruiting techniques. Yes.

In addition to hypocritically presenting himself as the working man’s champion, “Cadet Bonespur” Trump presents himself as the embodiment of patriotism. But Trump’s “patriotism” is the exact opposite of real patriotism, which is trying to do what’s best for the country and following one’s own conscience, doing what’s right in the face of disdain and abuse. For Trump and his followers, patriotism seems to consist of making a fetish of the flag (instead of honoring what it supposedly stands for), robotically engaging in submission rituals at the start of baseball and football games, military worship, impugning the patriotism of those with opposing political views, bullying dissenters, and, of course, “patriotic” bumper stickers. One might also mention the deception of Trump and other Republicans in posing as guardians of morality when they themselves are moral sewers.

20) Possessiveness. Does the Trump movement go to great lengths to retain members? No.

Cults often go to great lengths to retain members, doing such things as threatening permanent disconnection of family members who leave the cult. Trump doesn’t do this nor does he advocate it.

21) A closed, all-encompassing environment. Has the Trump movement created such an environment? No.

Many cults (e.g., Rajhneeshees, Branch Davidians, People’s Temple, FLDS) set up isolated environments in which they control all aspects of members’ lives. The closest Trump’s followers come to this is having a single primary news source (Fox News for 60% of them) and being immersed in the Facebook echo chamber where they hear almost nothing but views they already agree with. But this is a far, far cry from Jonestown.

22) Millenarianism. Does Trump prophesy the end of the world? No.

The closest he comes is dire warnings about what will happen if the Republicans lose power. But some of his followers, hardcore evangelicals, do prophesy that the end is near and are actively trying to bring about Armageddon (through enthusiastic support of Israeli militarism and expansionism) so as to usher in “the rapture.” Still, Trump is definitely not a millenarian himself.

23) Violence, coercion, and harassment. Do Trump and his followers engage in or encourage these things? Yes.

Recall Trump’s remarks that some of the murderous neo-Nazis in Charlottesville were “very fine people.” Then recall his attacks on the press as “enemies of the people” and his encouragement of violence against protesters at his rallies. Then recall the huge uptick in racist violence by his alt-right/neo-Nazi supporters since he took office. Finally, let’s not forget that some of Trump’s “right to life” supporters routinely stalk, harass, threaten, and occasionally bomb or shoot abortion providers.

IN CONCLUSION

So, do Trump and his followers constitute a cult? Many of the cults I studied while researching AA: Cult or Cure? exhibit almost all of the above characteristics: the Moonies 22 out of the 23; the Church of Scientology and People’s Temple 21 of the 23; and Synanon 20 of the 23. In contrast, community-based Alcoholics Anonymous only exhibits 11 of the 23, “institutional” AA  (the 12-step treatment industry, which I dubbed “Cult Lite”) exhibits 16 of the 23, and the Trump movement exhibits 13 of the 23, so it’s not entirely accurate to say that the Trump movement is a full-blown cult, though it does have distinct cult-like tendencies. However, and disturbingly, almost all of the cult-like tendencies exhibited by Trump and his followers are also characteristic of fascist movements.


We started this blog in July 2013. Since then, we’ve been posting almost daily.

When considering the popularity of the posts, one thing stands out:  in all but a few cases, popularity declines over time.

As well, the readership of this blog has expanded gradually over time, so most readers have never seen what we consider many of our best posts.

So, over the next week or two we’ll put up lists of our best posts from 2014 and 2015 in the categories of atheism, religion, anarchism, humor, politics, music, science fiction, science, skepticism, book and movie reviews, writing, language use, and economics.

We’ve already put up the best posts of 2013. Because there were considerably more posts in 2014 and 2015 than in 2013, we’ll be putting up several posts for those years divided by category. Here’s the first of them, the best 2014 posts on religion and atheism. We hope you  enjoy them.

Atheism

Religion



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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23. Violence, Coercion, and Harassment.  Coercion is routine in cults. Many cults, such as the People’s Temple and Synanon maintain(ed) goon squads to control their own members; and many, including Synanon, The Peoples Temple, and the Church of the Blood of the Lamb of God, have employed violence and even killings to intimidate and silence critics.  The most famous example of such violence was the 1978 rattlesnake attack on attorney Paul Morantz by members of Synanon’s goon squad. (They placed a rattler with it’s tail cut off in Morantz’s mailbox; it bit him, but he survived.)

Other cults, such as Scientology, utilize legal and (wtihin the law) physical harassment.  The within-the-law physical harassment the Church of Scientology employs involves sending private investigators to follow high profile critics, and members with video cameras to film them. Such harassment is sometimes a 24-hours-a-day affair. But in at least one case, that church has gone beyond lawsuits and within-the-law harassment.  In that case, Church of Scientology members, including very high ranking memvers of the church’s hierarchy, attempted to frame a critic, journalist Paulette Cooper, on felony bomb charges and very nearly succeeded. According to L. Ron Hubbard, Jr. and Bent Corydon (in L. Ron Hubbard: Messiah or Madman?), a Scientology agent who “befriended” Cooper during her ordeal reported to his superiors: “She can’t sleep again . . . she’s talking suicide. Wouldn’t this be great for Scientology!” (p. 170) Fortunately, Cooper escaped the Scientologists’ plot–after years of torment–and several of those responsible for the conspiracy against her were eventually sentenced to prison terms.

But the use of violence against nonbelievers is hardly a new phenomenon. Well over 100 years ago, John Doyle Lee, the Mormon elder who was scapegoated in 1877 for the 1857 massacre of 120 settlers (including many women and children) at Mountain Meadows, Utah, stated, in “Being the Confession of John Doyle Lee,” shortly before his execution:

[T]he people in Utah who professed the Mormon religion were at and for some time before the Mountain Meadows massacre full of wildfire and zeal, anxious to do something to build up the Kingdom of God on earth and waste the enemies of the Mormon religion . . . The killing of Gentiles [non-Mormons] was means of grace and a virtuous deed . . .

The Mormons believed in blood atonement. It is taught by the leaders, and believed by the people, that the Priesthood are inspired and cannot give a wrong order. It is the belief of all that I ever heard talk of these things . . . that the authority that orders is the only responsible party and the Danite [member of the Sons of Dan, the Mormon equivalent of the KGB] who does the killing only an instrument, and commits no wrong . . .

An even older example of the bloodthirstiness of some cults was provided by theologian and papal agent at the Beziers massacre of Albigensian heretics in 1209: “Kill them all. God will easily recognize his own.”

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)

 

 



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

* * *

 

20. Possessiveness. For financial and other reasons, cults will often go to great, sometimes illegal, lengths to retain members. The most extreme example of this tendency was provided by the People’s Temple Jonestown gulag, where members were physically prevented from leaving by Jim Jones’ heavily armed good squad.

Less sinister examples are provided by the Mormons and Scientologists. When a Mormon leaves the fold, the LDS Church never gives up its attempts to recover its lost sheep. It will trakc the apostate for decades, and it’s not unusual for LDS representatives to contact former members 30  or 40 years after they left the church in an effort to talk them into rejoining.

Similarly, the Church of Scientology apparently tracks its former members for decades and barrages them with promotional/recruitment materials. One former administrator at the Celebrity Center (who has never gone public) told me that more than three decades and moving ten times after she “blew,”  the Scientologists still inundate her mailbox with glossy church promo materials.

21. A Closed, All-Encompassing Environment. Again, the classic example of this is Jonestown. A more current example are the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) settlements in the geographically very isolated cities of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah. These nearly 100% FLDS settlements, whose “prophet” is imprisoned child rapist Warren Jeffs,  sit across the Arizona/Utah border from each other, and church elders routinely follow any “gentiles” driving through the towns and  go to lengths to “shield” members from the “corrupting” influence of television and the Internet.

But there’s nothing unusual in all this. Almost  all cults attempt to provide a closed environment for at least some of their key members, and some attempt to provide it for all of their members. The less contact that members have with external reality, the more natural the hothouse atmosphere of the cult seems, the more natural the the very peculiar beliefs of the cult seem, and the more natural it seems that everyone should follow the orders of the charismatic leader or the controlling hierarchy. A closed all-encompassing environment also makes members totally dependent upon the cult for social support, economic support, and a sense of identity; and this tends to make leaving the cult a terrifying prospect. To put it another way, cults are like anaerobic bacteria–they thrive in the absence of cleansing breezes.

22. Millenarianism. Many cults, especially Christian fundamentalist cults, prophesy that the world is coming to an end. One of the most prominent millenarian cults, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), is, however, secular in nature. Rather than prophesying a biblical Armageddon, the RCP in the 1980s and 1990s prophesied a nuclear Armageddon unless, of course, it achieved power. And at least they had the good sense, unlike the Jehovah’s Witnesses, not to  announce a doomsday date. (Of late, they seem to have toned down their rhetoric a bit; a brief perusal of their web site revealed no apocalyptic predictions, just an exhortation to readers to join the RCP and become “emancipators of humanity.”)

Millenarianism also provides a powerful insight into the hold of cults over their followers. As mentioned above, some cults, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, have had the bad judgment to prophesy the date of doomsday, yet almost all such cults have managed to retain a majority of their blindly believing followers despite their failed predictions.  The Witnesses had predicted in the 1980s  that doomsday would arrive with the new millennium. But, having been burned many times by their false predictions, they backed away from that particular one.  So, Witness faithful no longer have a year-specified doomsday to look forward to. They simply have the assurance that doomsday is coming soon.

 

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)

 

 



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

* * *

 

19. Deceptive Recruiting Techniques Some cults routinely deceive potential recruits, which is understandable: most potential recruits would not find attractive the prospect of slavishly following the orders of a guru-figure while working 16 to 18 hours a day for little or no pay. The Unification Church in particular is notorious for deceptive recruitment tactics. The primary recruitment targets for the Moonies are unattached young people. They usually have a member of the opposite sex approach the target and invite her or him to dinner. According to those who have attended such dinners, no mention of Moon or the Unification Church is made. Rather, there is general talk of a “family” and improving the world. Next follows an invitation to spend a weekend at a retreat. Those who accept are “love bombed” (showered with attention) by members and are invited to a longer retreat. If they accept, they’re again “love bombed,” kept constantly occupied, accompanied by a Moonie at all times (even while going to the toilet), and denied adequate sleep. And before they know it, they’re selling flowers 18 hours a day for room and board.

Another tactic of the Unification Church is the setting up of front groups, such as the Collegiate Association for the Research of Principles (CARP), and having members like about their association with the Unification Church if asked. In the late 1970s, CARP appeared on the campus of Boise State University, and I investigated it for the school newspaper, the BSU Arbiter. Even though CARP’s address was the same as that of the local Unification Church, and its literature was distributed by members of that Church, the Moonies staunchly maintained that there was “no connection” between the Unification Church and CARP.

Other cults also employ front groups. The LaRouchites in particular are notorious for this practice. This amoeba-like cult spawns front groups so often that it’s difficult to follow its permutations. Some of the names it has operated under include the U.S. Labor Party, National Caucus of Labor Committees, International Caucus of Labor Committees, Fusion Energy Foundation, the Schiller Institute, the National Anti-Drug Coalition, the National Democratic Policy Committee, Executive Intelligence Review Press Service, and at least three dozen other names.

Since the 1990s, this political cult, which continues to operate largely through front groups,  has turned its attention to both of the major political parties. In 2010, it took part in the Tea Party disruptions of congressional town halls, and was responsible for the iconic image from those infamous episodes: the widely distributed doctored photo of Obama with a Hitler mustache. Its primary major-party target, however,  has been the Democratic Party;  it sometimes runs candidates in Democratic primaries, especially in solidly Republican districts where its candidates occasionally nab a nomination because they’re unopposed.

 

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)

 

 



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

* * *

 

18. Economic Exploitation. Cults not only exploit their own members, but, when they can manage it, nonmembers as well. Some, such as the LaRouchites, Synanon, and the People’s Temple, have extensively targeted nonmembers.

Cults which target nonmembers solicit money by presenting themselves–or their front groups–as doing good works, such as fighting drug addiction, when in fact virtually all of the money that they raise is spent on their own operations and, often, on enriching their leaders. Synanon fundraisers, for example, routinely represented Synanon as a drug rehabilitation program for years after it had effectively abandoned working with drug abusers. The LaRouchites have gone further and have engaged in criminal fraud–under the guise of fighting drugs and other good works–on a massive scale. A a result, many of the top members of the cult, including founder Lyndon LaRouche, Jr., were sentenced to lengthy prison terms in the late 1980s. Drug addiction programs remain a fundraising/recruiting tool with cults today, and the Church of Scientology’s Narconon program is currently engulfed in a sea of lawsuits filed by former clients and public agencies.

Direct economic exploitation of members by their cults is often even less subtle. Many cults, such as the People’s Temple, strip their members of assets. In the People’s Temple, the technique was crude: members were pressured to “donate” their possessions to the church. The Scientologists have taken a more sophisticated approach–potential members are lured by street recruiters and advertisements to take a “free personality test,” which, of course, shows personality defects, for which help is available. “Raw meat,” those who bite, then take low cost introductory courses leading to much higher priced courses, with many expensive “auditing” sessions along the way. The total Scientologists pay to go up “The Bridge” (to total freedom) commonly costs up to and over one hundred thousand dollars.

Another way in which cults exploit their members is by having them work long, exhausting hourse for little or no pay. Cults which employ(ed) such tactics included Synanon, the People’s Temple, the Unification Church, the Church of Scientology, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishnas).

Finally, lest we forget, a good majority of cults in the United States are religious organizations, and enjoy all of the many public benefits showered on religious groups.  One of these benefits is exemption from paying property taxes. So, in a very real sense, all other Americans–through the taxes they pay–are picking up part of the tab for the Church of Scientology, Moonies, FLDS, Church Universal and Triumphant, and other cults.

 

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)

 

 



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

* * *

 16. Self-Absorption. The primary focus of a cult is the cult itself. Whatever its ostensible aims, in reality a cult is overhwelmingly self-absorbed. Cults are prone to extreme gradiosity, to what could be termed organizational narcissism; and so a cult’s primary concerns are its own survival and expansion, with the ends justifying the means.

As an example, the Mormon Church, according to Robert Bridgstock in The Youngest Bishop in England: Beneath the Surface of Mormonism, spends approximately 1% of its estimated $5 billion to $6 billion per year annual income on “actual charitable giving.” (p. 184) The situation is similar in many, almost certainly most, other cults and mainstream religions, though a good many of these tax-exempt (in the U.S.) organizations  do no “charitable giving.”

17. Dual Purposes. This extreme self-absorption leads to what Margaret Singer [author of Cults In Our Midst] terms dual purposes–in other words, cults have their stated purposes and their real purposes. As regards individual members, cults present themselves as ways for members to meet their own needs, grow personally or spiritually, and/or to realize high social or spiritual goals. In reality, Singer notes, the purposes of cults is to subject their members to mind control techniques in order to control and exploit them.

The dual-purpose aspect of cults is also noticeable in their dealings with outsiders, and it’s particularly noticeable in their fundraising activities. Cults frequently raise huge sums of money which they allege will be used to alleviate social problems such as alcoholism, drug abuse, homelessness, and abandoned or abused children, when in relaity they spend all, or nearly all, of the money raised to support the cult. For example, in its fundraising materials, the People’s Temple routinely represented itself as a do-good organization caring for abandoned children.

Secular cults are every bit as self-absorbed as religious cults. Political cults have long been notorious for infiltrating social change groups and manipulating them for the benefit of the cults (usually for the purpose of recruitment), often destroying the social change groups in the process. In the 1960s, the trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (itself heavily infiltrated by the FBI) and the stalinist Progressive Labor Party wreaked havoc in the anti-war movement through this tactic; in the 1970s, the International Socialists and other sects targeted the women’s movement; and in the 1980s and 1990s, the New Alliance Party and the Humanist Party infiltrated environmental and other progressive groups. More recently, the LaRouche cult infiltrated the Tea Party disruptions of congressional town hall meetings in 2010 prior to passage of the Affordable Care Act; the LaRouchites were not there out of altruism.

Whether religious or political, the stated purposes of cults are not their actual purposes.

 

All Posts in this Series

  • Characteristics of Cults (part 1)
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  • Characteristics of Cults (part 7)
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Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? front cover
(This is a slightly revised version of material from Chapter 9 of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?)

* * *

 

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.

 

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  • Characteristics of Cults (part 1)
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  • Characteristics of Cults (part 7)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 8)
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  • Characteristics of Cults (part 10)

 

 



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

* * *

8. Special Knowledge. This is closely related to the concept of exclusivity. Many cults claim that they are the route to personal and/or social salvation, because they hold special, extremely valuable knowledge that’s unavailable to the uninitiated. As well, many cults only gradually reveal that “knowledge” to members in order to avoid early defections. (A great deal of this “knowledge” is so absurd that most people would walk away immediately were it to be revealed to them all at once.) As an example of this cult tendency, Margaret Singer, in Cults in Our Midst, cites a researcher who quotes L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, as follows: “[N]ew followers or potential converts should not be exposed to [the language and cosmology of Scientology] at too early a stage. ‘Talking whole track to raw meat’ is frowned upon.” (p. 71)

9. Mind Control Techniques. These involve such measures as keeping members malnourished and in a state of exhaustion. The classic example of this was the conduct of Jim Jones’ cult in its Jonestown settlement in Guyana prior to the mass murder/suicide in 1978. More sophisticated methods are also used, examples being “self-criticism” (in political cults), the use of chanting and various forms of “sensory overload” in groups like the Hare Krishnas, and the use of “therapy,” as in the New Alliance Party.

Another important mind control technique is the destruction of personal privacy. The Moonies, for example, normally do not even allow potential recruits at their retreats to go to the bathroom unless accompanied by a member of their cult. This is a way of never allowing new or potential recruits to regain their mental balance.

Still another important mind control technique is the humiliation and intimidation of members. In Synanon, this took the form of “the game,” a warped encounter session in which individuals were attacked by other members of the group. In the People’s Temple the technique was cruder, with members being, among other things, sexually humiliated in public.

10. Thought-Stopping Language. This is another mind-control technique, but [Robert Jay] Lifton considers it so important that he made it one of his eight criteria of “ideological totalism” [in Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism]. As Lifton puts it, the way that these “thought-terminating cliche[s]” operate is that “the most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.” (p. 429)

Put more broadly, thought-stopping phrases include any use of language, especially repeated phrases, to ward off forbidden thoughts. One common example of this is the admonition given to Catholic school children to recite the Hail Mary or rosary to ward off “impure thoughts.” The use of repetitive chanting by the Hare Krishnas serves the same thought-stopping purpose.

Another aspect of thought-stopping terms is that, as Ken Ragge points out [in More Revealed], “Loaded language, the language of non-thought, entails more than cliches. Individual words are given meanings or shades of meanings entirely separate from their normal usage.” (p. 136) To cite the most obvious example, the use of the word “Father” by members of many cults does not refer to a biological parent, but to the cult leader. These alternative meanings to common words serve to accentuate the separateness of cult members from “outsiders” or “normies” and–in the particular case cited here–infantilize members and discourage them from criticizing their “parent.”

 

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  • Characteristics of Cults (part 10)

 

 



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

* * *

 

5) Ideology Over Experience, Observation, and Logic. Cults not only demonize doubt and doubters, but they are also nearly immune to experience, observation, and logic that contradict their claims. Cult leaders claim to have The Truth–and their followers believe them– so anything that contradicts that Truth must be wrong. The Catholic Church’s insistence that the Earth is the center of the universe, coupled with its persecution of Galileo and Giordano Bruno, and its attempted suppression of the Copernican view of the solar system (well supported by observational evidence, even in the early 17th century), provides but one famous example of this phenomenon.  To cite another, the leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses–claiming inspiration directly from God–stated that doomsday would come in 1914, and then in 1925. Yet when the appointed days came and went, the Witnesses suffered relatively minor defections. When their claims are proven false, cult leaders normally either ignore the contradictory evidence or invoke the fathomless Will of God to explain the turn of events. Their flocks never seem to notice this.

6. Separatism. Cult members almost always view themselves as outsiders, as different from the rest of society. This sets up an “us versus them” mentality, and it’s common for cult members to believe that only they and their fellow cult members can understand each other.

One manifestation of separatism is the use of specialized terms; almost all cults develop a jargon peculiar to themselves. Another, though less common, manifestation of separatism is the abandonment of “old” personal names and the taking (usually the assigning by cult leaders) of “new” ones, as was done by The Source cult in Southern California. A third is the adoption of distinctive dress and/or other alterations in personal appearance. The practice of head-shaving among the Hare Krishnas and in Synanon, and the required wearing of read and orange hues by the Rajneeshees are examples of this.

And then there’s the matter of physical separation from the outer world. Many cults isolate their members in remote areas, making it physically difficult for members to leave. The People’s Temple Jonestown settlement is but the most lurid example of this. Other cults that have set up compounds in isolated areas include the Rajneeshees, the FLDS and other Mormon polygamous cults, the Moonies, Synanon, and the Church Universal and Triumphant.

7) Exclusivity. Cults invariably view themselves as the only path to salvation. Normally that salvation is spiritual, though, as with the LaRouchites and other political sects, it can be secular. Again, this leads to arrogance, dehumanization of nonbelievers, and an “ends justif the means” mentality. The Moonies have even adopted a “spiritual” term (for internal use only) for lying and cheating in pursuit of Church goals: “Heavenly Deception.”

 

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

* * *

 

There are almost as many definitions of the world “cult” as there are experts on the subject. One thing virtually all definitions of the word have in common is that they’re quite broad.

Two of the definitions given by the Random House Unabridged Dictionary are fairly typical: “a group of sect bound together by devotion to or veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.”; and “a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols.”

Such definitions–as opposed to lists of attributes–could well apply to a great number of groups, many of which most people would never consider cults. Thus, the crucial question becomes what are the specific characteristics that distinguish cults, especially cults that are dangerous both to their own members and to society?

The following list of 23 cult characteristics are based in part on Robert Jay Lifton’s list in Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (see Some Notes on Cults for the full list), to a much lesser extent on Margaret Singer’s list in Cults in Our Midst, and to a large extent on my own research into cults preparatory to writing this book, direct contact with several cults (Church of Scientology, Unification Church, Kerista Village, and the chameleon-like Larouche political cult), and considerable contact with ex-members of cults (primarily ex-members of the Church of Scientology and Transcendental Meditation). I would note, though, that not even the most obviously dangerous cults always exhibit all of the following characteristics, though a few do. (The most dangerous cults typically exhibit roughly 80% to 95% of these characteristics.)

1. Religious Orientation. Cults are usually centered around belief in a higher power; they often have elaborate religious rituals and emphasize prayer. Current and recent religious cults include the People’s Temple, Branch Davidians, International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishnas), Church of Scientology (which is primarily a therapy cult), The Way International, Children of God, Unification Church (Moonies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, the numerous Mormon polygamist cults (Church of the Blood of the Lamb of God, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, etc.), arguably the Mormon Church itself, Islamic religious cults, such as ISIS (ISIL), Al Nusra, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al Shabab, the Moro Islamic Libertion Front, and arguably Islam itself.

While secular cults also exist, they are not as numerous as religious cults. The most obvious example of a secular cult is the Larouche organization (the group which in 2010 was responsible for the Obama/Hitler photo during the turmoil leading up to the Affordable Care Act; the oft-renamed group goes back to the 1970s). Another obvious example is the puritanical, dictatorially controlled Revolutionary Communist Party. Other examples include, arguably, multi-level marketing (MLM) organizations, though some, notably Amway, are religious and have a specifically Christian-conservative orientation. (Whether Amway, Herbalife, and other similar  MLM companies are commercial cults, pyramid schemes, or legitimate businesses is an open question.)

2. Irrationality. Cults discourage skepticism and rational thought. As James and Marcia Rudin note in Prison or Paradise: The New Religious Cults:

The groups are anti-intellectual, placing all emphasis on intuition or emotional experience. “Knowledge” is redefined as those  ideas or experiences dispensed by the group or its leader. One can only attain knowledge by joining the group and submitting to its doctrine. One cannot question this “knowledge.” If a follower shows signs of doubting he is made to feel that the fault lies within himself, not with the ideas… (p. 20)

It’s also common for cult leaders to tell their followers that doubt is the work of the devil. The Unification Church in particular has institutionalized the practices of equating doubt with sinfulness and satanic influence, and of attempting to stamp out independent thought. Some of the Church’s most common slogans (for internal use) are “Your Mind Is Fallen,” “Stamp Out Doubt,” and “No More Concepts” (cited in Crazy for God, by Christopher Edwards).

If members of cults persist in having doubts, they’re accused of being under satanic influence and excommunicated or, in extreme instances, murdered, as in Ervil LeBaron’s Lambs of God.

3. Dogmatism. Cults invariably have The Truth and are highly antagonistic to to those who question it. The Truth is invariably revealed in a cult’s sacred texts or in the pronouncements of its leader(s). It is beyond question, and to voice doubts is seen as, at best, a sign of being under satanic influence. This is clearly the case in the Unification Church, where doubts invariably come directly from Satan, and it’s common in secular cults. In Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Robert Jay Lifton notes that Chinese Communist true believers attribute deviation from revealed Truth to “bourgeois influence.” (p. 432).

4. A Chosen-People Mentality. Given that cultists are alone in possessing a very precious commodity, The Truth, they almost always view themselves as better than other people, which means that nonbelievers and members of rival sects are frequently seen as less than human, if not outright tools of the devil. This attitude of superiority often manifests itself in an “ends justify the means” mentality and in the use of violence against outsiders or against heretics within the group. The most lurid examples of such violence are currently provided by Islamic cults such as Boko Haram and ISIS, though violence also occurs in both Christian and Mormon cults, such as The Church of the Blood of the Lamb of God.

 

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  • 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)

 

 


At a time when ISIS (or ISIL–Islamic State in Syria or Islamic State in the Levant–take your pick) is committing mass murder and beheadings in the name of Allah (specifically citing Islam while doing so), certain liberal and PC types are insisting that ISIS (and sometimes Islamo-fascism in general) has “nothing to do with Islam,” to cite President Obama’s remarks in September. The level of double-think necessary to utter such words is awe inspiring–at least if those making such utterances believe them.

But one strongly suspects that many of the PC types making such assertions (including Obama) don’t believe what they say, and are doing so for any of several reasons, including: 1) they’re multiculturalists and are terrified of being labeled “islamophobic”; 2) (as in Obama’s case) they have political or economic reasons to deny obvious facts; or 3) they’re religious believers and simply don’t want to admit that conventional religions have cult-like tendencies, spawn innumerable outright cults, and in some cases are outright cults themselves.

Regarding cults, ignorance about them isn’t confined to religious believers. For instance,  New York Times columnist Ross Douthat ‘s September 28th column, “The Cult Deficit,” claimed that cults have all but disappeared. In response, Tony Ortega (whose Underground Bunker is the  best online site for Scientology news) wrote an acidic piece for Raw Story titled,   The same week the U.S. goes to war with one, NYT’s Douthat asks, where are the cults? And Rick Ross of the Cult News Network (the go-to site for news about cults) wrote a less provocatively titled, though equally acerbic, piece titled Have destructive cults declined?

In his piece, Ross cites a boiled-down list of the eight cult characteristics defined by psychologist Robert Jay Lifton in his classic, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.  The list in full is as follows:

  1. Milieu Control. This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.
  2. Mystical Manipulation. The manipulation of experiences that appears spontaneous but is, in fact, planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority, spiritual advancement, or some exceptional talent or insight that sets the leader and/or group apart from humanity, and that allows reinterpretation of historical events, scripture, and other experiences. Coincidences and happenstance oddities are interpreted as omens or prophecies.
  3. Demand for Purity. The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.
  4. Confession. Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members’ “sins,” “attitudes,” and “faults” are discussed and exploited by the leaders.
  5. Sacred Science. The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.
  6. Loading the Language. The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating clichés, which serve to alter members’ thought processes to conform to the group’s way of thinking.
  7. Doctrine over person. Members’ personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.
  8. Dispensing of existence. The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group’s ideology. If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also.

This is a good, basic listing of cult characteristics, and it’s widely accepted by psychologists and cult researchers. There are many other characteristics common to cults, however, and we’ll publish a series of posts on them over the coming week.