Posts Tagged ‘Robert Jay Lifton’

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.


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.

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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11. Manipulation Through Guilt.  Many cults expertly manipulate their members through arousal of guilt feelings. Guilt is created, according to [Robert Jay] Lifton [in Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism], by the setting of impossible-to-meet “demand[s] for purity”:

By conducting an all-out war on impurity, the ideological totalists create a narrow world of guilt and shame. This is perpetuated by an ethos of continuous reform . . . Since each man’s impurities are deemed sinful and potentially harmful to himself and to others, he is, so to speak, expected to expect punishment . . . Similarly, when he fails to meet the prevailing standards in casting out such impurities, he is expected to expect humiliation and ostracisim. (p. 424)

As one might expect, in addition to proscribed actions, proscribed thoughts also give rise to guilt. Any attempt at individual assertion or resistance to the demands of the cult’s leader or hierarchy–including even the smallest reluctance to enthusiastically parrot every assertion in the group’s ideology–is attacked as selfishness and lack of devotion to The Cause.

So, guilt-tripping attacks are especially effective when made in public. They serve as powerful spurs to orthodoxy in thought and action, and also as powerful goads to members to “donate” their assets to the cult and so prove devotion through self-sacrifice.

But with truly successful indoctrination, guilt is internalized. The simple surfacing of proscribed thoughts–let alone the carrying out of proscribed actions is sufficient in itself to arouse intense guilg feelings in indoctrinated cult members. To make these feelings bearable, to preserve their self-images as good persons trying to live their lives in accord with revealed Truth, cult members [according to Lifton] “must also look upon their impurities as originating from outside influences, that is, from the ever-threatening world beyond the closed, totalist ken.” Thus cult members escape responsibility for their sinful thoughts and actions, at least in part. They’re just weak individuals dealing with powerful, insidious forces, which they can successfully resist only with the help of the cult.

12. The Cult of Confession. Lifrton explains the mechanism as follows:

It is first a vehicle for . . . personal purification . . . Second, it is an act of symbolic self-surrender, the expression of the merging of the individual and environment. Third, it is a means of maintaining an ethos of total exposure . . . The milieu has attainsed such a perfect state of enlightenment that any individual retention of ideas or emotions has become anachronistic . . . More than this, the sharing of confession enthusiasms can create an orgiastic sense of “oneness,” of the most intense intimacy with fellow confessors and of the dissolution of self into the great flow of the Movement. (pp. 425-426)

Thus confession serves the purpose of fostering identification as a member of the cult rather than as an individual human being. It also serves the purpose of alleviating guilt, thus making the confessor dependent on the cult for that alleviation.

A great many cults and religions–the lines are often blurry–have used confession, both individual and public, for these dual purposes. The Catholic Church is, of course, the prime example of an organization that uses individual confession to these ends. The Chinese Communists are the prime example of an organization that uses public confession to these ends.

As well, there is always the possibility that cults will use information revealed in confessions to threaten, manipulate and control their members. The Church of Scientology, for example, supposedly maintains extensive files on individuals’ “auditing” sessions–therapeutic/confessional sessions in which a great deal of potentially embarrassing information is often revealed; one former Scientologist told me that the Church of Scientology records and retains every minute of every auditing session. The ChChurch’s retention of the information disclosed in auditing sessions, and the possibility of its being publicly revealed, could well contribute to the reluctance of some disaffected ex-Scientologists to speak out against the Church of Scientology.

Far worse, the hold of some cults is so intense that they intimidate their members into making false confessions, which they then dangle over their members’ heads as a means of controlling them. Perhaps the worst example of this was provided by the People’s Temple, in which parents were routinely forced to sign false confessions stating that they had sexually molested their own children.

If confession is good for the soul, it’s even better for helping cults cement their control over their members.



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? )

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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.”


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?)

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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.


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)



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.