Article

The Complicity of Members in Cultic Social Manipulation

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It is not enough to blame leadership for the power dynamics and destructive nature of cults and religions. Members play an important and symbiotic role.

A “cult” is defined as:

A cohesive group of people devoted to beliefs or practices that the surrounding culture or society considers to be outside the mainstream.

Every religion once began as a cult. As the saying goes, the only thing that separates a cult from a religion is popularity and longevity. The most important and defining time in a young cult’s life is immediately following the demise of its founder. If a cult successfully navigates this transition, and the successor leadership is able to maintain their authority in the eyes of members, they are well on their way to becoming a religion. (And boy, do they hate to be called a “cult.”)

So to understand the beast that is religion, we must understand its organizational ancestor. Having said that, it seems cult psychology is present in many human endeavors, not all of them totally destructive. So an understanding of the process can help even those who find themselves in the orbit of powerful people, whether in business, politics, or in other social groupings.

Cults can spring up around anything, they can be overtly religious or political, they can be based on personality, they can even be financial.

Examples of financial cults are things like multi-level marketing programs, pyramid schemes, and “gifting circles.” In the late 1990s, I was referred by a “friend” to a recruitment meeting at Primerica Financial. While I’m sure their financial products were probably fine, the sales pitch was mainly about getting me to sign up other people. It didn’t sound so bad. After all, everyone needs credit, investments, and life-insurance. I stayed after the meeting to ask some questions. The presenter was well versed in cult-like recruiting techniques. When I expressed reservations and made motions to leave, he began what I can only describe as the most blatant flattery session I’d ever experienced. He said he could “tell” that I was smarter than average, that I had “leadership potential”—how could I turn down the opportunity to make “$100,000 plus” a year in my spare time? Having been raised in a cult, I was gone practically before he could finish his sentence!

Political cults include proponents of often racist conspiracy theories, (Skull and Bones, the ‘Order,’ 9/11 conspiracy, etc.) terror cells (Islamic or otherwise), radical social activists who advocate the use of violence, or criminal gangs.

Personality cults can be as harmless as movie star fan clubs, or as sinister as the cults of the Charles Manson family or Stalin, for example.

Totalitarian governments (especially the communist regimes of the 20th century), installed by violent ideological revolutionaries, represent the end product and the combination of political and personality cults. Since they often use military force against their own populations, they are the exceptions to the rule of member complicity. So to be clear, the focus of this article is religious, financial, and personality cults operating in free and democratic societies.

What do all cults have in common, to varying degrees?

  1. A strong central leader or founder.
  2. Belief that the leader has access to special and exclusive information or has special authority. (In the case of financial cults, it’s the illusion the leader provides of freedom from the laws of economics. The “mark” is vulnerable because of their desire for a quick buck.)
  3. A demand for loyalty oaths and obedience.
  4. High initiation fee or other renunciative action geared toward making withdrawal difficult, such as a requirement to cut off contact from one’s family.
  5. Rings and rising levels of membership, which reward strong commitment.
  6. Intensive, often confrontational–yet uncommonly intimate social relationships.
  7. Reinforcement of in-group and out-group differences. External threats actually benefit the cult by amplifying and solidifying interior control.
  8. Make people feel special, loved, and accepted.
  9. Often attract lonely or confused people who need direction and may have trouble fitting into typical career paths.

But the most important characteristic of cults, without which they could not exist is:

THEY NEED MEMBERS

Members provide the power. They are the cult’s life blood.

Without members, a cult leader would be just another delusional nutjob or con man. Without followers, the leaders’ loyalty demands or financial claims would sound downright creepy or fraudulent. Their wacky extremist philosophies would be seen in the same category as a homeless person shouting on the street corner. Early members provide the opportunity to hone and polish a more skilled presentation, develop wider legitimacy, and an illusion of popular support to budding sociopaths.

The first thing a burgeoning cult leader has to do is:

  1. Create a mythology or backstory. In the financial cult, it’s fake case histories and success stories.
  2. Create a mission to give the work a sense of exclusivity and desirability (the way Tom Sawyer got the other boys to paint the fence).
  3. Establish an inner circle willing to reinforce their authority (at least until the membership grows).
  4. Acquire the skills to fend off challengers (as soon as members of the inner circle see the power or money start to flow, they will begin vying for it).

Most people don’t have the skills to manage a relationship with even one other person. We only have to look to the high divorce rate to verify this fact. Imagine what it’s like for a leader to meet daily challenges to his authority (without the normal reward/punishment system of money/loss of job). This is why a cult leader has to get used to saying “because I said so” with a straight face. He has to get used to doling out stern summary justice in the form of ostracism and outright dismissal. He has to learn to use member peer pressure to humiliate and corral troublemakers. It also helps to appeal to supernatural beings and endless divine missions. But it’s not absolutely necessary. The most important skill is an uncommon ability to connect with people (on whatever terms), and to attract and control members.

MEMBERS PROVIDE THE POWER

Imagine:

  1. The Jesus character with no disciples.
  2. Mark Prophet as a door-to-door salesman, Elizabeth Clare Prophet as an office clerk at the U.N.
  3. L. Ron Hubbard as a struggling sci-fi writer.
  4. Adolf Hitler as an aimless bohemian who couldn’t get into architecture school.
  5. Joseph Smith as a charlatan ‘psychic treasure hunter.’

Before these future cult leaders were able to accomplish anything, they had to figure out how to convince others of their grandiose visions. They had to become, first and foremost, salesmen.

Almost all cults are, in effect, scams. Prospective members can be viewed as “marks” (in carnival parlance). But there’s a symbiosis. It’s not just the leader taking advantage of his “marks.” The cult member’s psychology undergoes a radical shift as they give up their autonomy. A prospective member has been made vulnerable by their own insatiable desire for answers. They would rather accept the cult leader’s simple back story and mythology (even if false) than the messy and often futile confusion of their own lives. This “peace” and “meaning” has become something the prospective member literally lusts after. And–nothing is free–the illusory “peace” and “meaning” carry a high price.

Joining the cult, the new member enters a bubble of reduced anxiety, in exchange for loss of control. This power exchange, whether conscious or unconscious, is what lends mystique to the leader. The members effervesce with gratitude and mutually reinforce each other by the power of suggestion. The larger the membership, and the more they exude happiness, the more attractive the cult becomes to future members. Sociologically, the more members close ranks with the leader, the harder it is for individual members to rise up and dispute his authority, and the more the cult becomes resistant to change.

Therefore, while they may be blissfully unaware of their insidious role, the cult member is not simply a victim–they have become an enabler. They provide the labor and intellectual capital for the vague delusions of the leader to crystallize into practical everyday rules, as well as scripture and dogma. They provide the power the leader needs to convince others and expand.

Everyone thinks they are much too smart to get caught up in a cult. How and why would an intelligent and independent person fall for such a scheme?

Recapping the three main benefits:

  1. Reduction in anxiety—return to a childlike state, clear simple concepts and black and white thinking can put existential questions on the shelf.
  2. Avoids personal responsibility. If you let someone else make your life decisions, you can blame that person when things don’t work out. Your destiny becomes tied up with the cult. You might not rise as high, but you won’t fall as low as “outsiders.” Besides, the “ultimate reward is in heaven.”
  3. Sense of superiority over the “un-initiated.”

When the leader dies or becomes incapacitated:

  1. Many people leave, and re-establish their lives.
  2. Some insiders hang on, can’t believe the leader wasn’t infallible, can’t believe it didn’t last forever, try in vain to restore the glory days.
  3. Splinter groups spring up to provide the illusion of continuity–splinter leaders were often waiting in the wings for years, studying the methods of crowd control, and biding their time for the original leader to get out of the way. [For CUT, the splinter groups are the Temple of the Presence, The Hearts Center, the New Wisdom University, and Shangri-La]
  4. Members demonize and rhetorically ‘murder’ those who leave or denounce the group.
  5. Some members also become disillusioned and bitter, leaving in disgust, blaming their own failures and choices on the leadership. They have a difficult time re-establishing their lives outside the group. Since they long ago abdicated their decision-making and critical-thinking skills while in the cult, even years later, they play the victim and fail to accept their own co-dependent role.

Many people also leave cults and simply move on to larger more established religions to feed their “spiritual” hunger and anxiety. They tell themselves that the problems were with the personality of the leader, or some other specific factor. Rarely do ex-cult members get the whole picture and understand that the essence of the problem lies in the psychological process of giving up one’s autonomy to any other person or belief system.

Still others become utterly consumed by their hatred and sense of injustice. They can’t accept that they’ve been had. They can’t accept they made a wrong choice. They don’t know the meaning of “live and learn” and they have no means to make sense of their experience other than to mount an all-out attack on whoever they feel is responsible—even if their targets have moved on and have no association with their former cult. They often fail to engage in the only thing that can ever bring them true healing and peace–the all-powerful medicine of introspection. And–maybe some therapy.

The only way for a former member to cope with the incredible sense of grief and loss involved in years-long cult membership is to accept responsibility. They must go through the stages of grief over their lost years. They must come to terms with what attracted them to the cult in the first place. They must learn how to meet those same needs internally or from their creative or career pursuits which over time engender a healthy and normal interaction with society.

I’ve been hit from both sides. I get hate mail and harassment from both the true believers and the bitter rejects. Here’s an excerpt from a comment from ‘RDF’:

You make it sound like ECP was just misguided and not actually evil. She knew exactly what she was doing as did you father and together they created a monster which destroyed countless lives. EXP and MLP deserve absolutely no pity whatsoever. The whole lie that was called Summit Lighthouse and then CUT was begun BY them. They invented it all. They stole and regurgitated info from past liars including the Ballards, so PLEASE be honest with yourself at least (if you will not be honest with us) and stop perpetuating the lies you grew up with by trying to make all of us feel sorry for your poor little mommie who miraculously came to the conclusion that she had done wrong to so many people over so many years….

Anyhow Seam, do you have more stories about your mom feeling sorry about all the crap she piled on people’s heads over the years? I for one would like to hear more about how bad she REALLY felt; especially around those same years in the late nineties, just as she was telling everyone to build bomb shelters and buys guns. Poor thing she must have been soooo troubled and not have a sngle person in her own church in whom to confide since she had trained them all to lie so well and to care less about people’s feelings. Sean, Sean, Sean, how CAN you sleep at night!?

Contrary to RDF’s assertions, I harbor no illusions about what my parents did. It was in many ways cowardly and despicable. They took advantage of the power they wielded and often enjoyed it. (I’m still convinced they really thought they were doing ‘god’s work.’) To the extent I went along with it, I have accepted responsibility for my mistakes. For 5 years, I’ve spent an awful lot of time trying to convince people of the folly of religions and cults. It’s hard to see how much more I could conceivably do.

From my response to RDF:

It WAS a sham. But it only got started because there were gullible people like you around to support my parents in their cosmic delusion. Yeah, I went along for a while, but I’ve thoroughly repudiated it, and I’ve also taken responsibility for my actions and apologized many times to many people.

As far as my mom is concerned, I consider her admission of fault to be one of the bravest things I ever saw her do.

I’m driven to tell this story because I watched my parents use the Machiavellian laws of power (Law 27: Create a Cultlike Following) to maintain control over their cult for 30 years. And I also watched how their enablers’ fawning delusions contributed to their authority and sense of infallibility. I watched how they became corrupted by the power their followers gave them. I watched what started as clear authoritarianism devolve into a destructive symbiosis. I watched a human tragedy unfold that ended up consuming both their lives, and decades of the lives of countless thousands of followers, myself included. We will never learn from the experience unless we recognize the full complicity of the membership.

Today, Elizabeth Clare Prophet suffers from late stage Alzheimer’s disease. She has been unable to recognize her family since 2000. Before she lost her faculties, she had started to acknowledge her abuses of power and tried to make amends. Sadly, her condition prevented her from fully doing so. She is dying and soon will be gone. RDF, what more do you want??

In the end, we can only fight cults and religions by refusing to join them. We fight cults by keeping them socially unacceptable, creating a climate where this type of organization is seen for the insidious threat that it is. No more Hollywood glamour for the Scientology freaks. Boycott their movies instead. Refuse to take seriously anyone who professes patently outlandish and false beliefs. This includes the Abrahamic theists, with the possible exception of the least problematic reformed Jews. (Most of the Buddhists aren’t so bad either.)

Starve the rest of the cults and religions of membership, support, and respect. Without followers or believers, cults and religions would exist only as a historical oddity of really bad literature–and abandoned buildings.

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Comments (17 comments)

Bob Davis / June 8th, 2007, 4:38 am / #1

Your comments about Primerica Financial Services are so off the wall….without distribution the company cannot reach the people who need it the most…to refer to a business that helps the cancers of debt and income protection and on and on…is down right stupid. So, I say to you….you are not smarter the most people and futhermore, I don’t think you would qualify for a postion with Primerica Financial Services..

Hold your toungue, you will find out someday that we are right….

BlackSun / June 8th, 2007, 8:03 am / #2

Bob, if you read what I said, “While I’m sure their financial products were probably fine.” I’m speaking about their recruitment methods. It happened exactly like I described, and there was quite a bit of pressure to join. How is it that dozens of other financial services companies manage to do just fine without using multi-level style techniques to reach their customers?

Doris Tracey / June 9th, 2007, 6:27 am / #3

Good Morning Sean,

I like your article very much and I would like to know if you considered yourself raised in a cult or culture shock, which creates in the extreme disorientation experienced by exposure to an unfamiliar environment; or culture, which is characteristic of a society or religion encouraginging enlightenment and refinement? Yes, all religions were considered cults, but true religion undefiled is considered a cultivation or culture of the soul. Do you believe you were raised in a religious com’mune or a cult?
I observe nothing disoriented about you.

BlackSun / June 9th, 2007, 8:20 am / #4

Doris,

I think the article speaks for itself. CUT did not encourage enlightenment or refinement, but rather the focus on an elaborate supernatural fantasy.

There is no such thing as “true” religion. Because by its very nature it relies on falsehoods, invisible beings (who only speak through certain people, or wrote texts of dubious origins long ago), and unprovable assumptions. Worse yet, faith it seems–to the faithful–is made more virtuous the more outlandish and ridiculous the claims which are believed.

“I observe nothing disoriented about you.”

Thank you. But can you say the same about the “true believers?”

Doris Tracey / June 9th, 2007, 9:10 am / #5

Sean,

The “true believers” were not raised in that environment and had to go through alot of soul purification to become true believers. You can only believe what you have become. As the saying goes, The pure in heart will see God. I do not believe the true believers are disoriented.

BlackSun / June 9th, 2007, 11:05 am / #6

As the saying goes, The pure in heart will see God. I do not believe the true believers are disoriented.

Doris, you clearly do not have the objectivity to judge, since you yourself contain strong elements of “true belief.” It colors everything, including your perception of what is ‘real’ vs. ‘unreal.’

I’m not starting from ground zero again with you with the subjective / objective question. I redirect you to the credo of this blog, which will serve well when evaluating so-called ‘faith’ claims:

“The quest for empirical knowledge and reason gives purpose to life. Supernaturalism, mysticism and religion take it away. The best anyone can do is to attempt to eliminate all beliefs and subjective biases.”

You are also coming perilously close to violating the clearly posted comment guidelines which say: “Comments witnessing or proselytizing for religion will not be published…subjective justifications for why religious mythology or the supernatural “must be” real from the author’s personal experience will not be accepted.”

Black Sun Journal » Archives » The Humanist Symposium #3 / June 9th, 2007, 8:10 pm / #7

[...] There are also plenty of destructive beliefs which have absolutely nothing to do with religion. (Since I was raised in a religious cult, I’m greatly familiar with that paradigm.) But there are plenty of other motivators for sinister cultish behavior. These include financial, political and personality cults. As humanists, we should consider the formation of cults as one of the ultimate enemies of individual responsibility, and one of the biggest threats to a stable humanistic society. Until and unless something changes, cult leaders will always arise and cult-members will always look to be led. It’s an area which warrants intensive study to see why this tendency is so strongly present in our species. My contribution to this symposium is an exploration of the symbiosis between cult members and their leadership. [...]

Black Sun Journal » Archives » Hate Video: The ‘Gay Atheist’ / June 17th, 2007, 1:15 am / #8

[...] Another important goal of starting BSJ was to dig into my own shadow. It was also a big part of my coming to terms with my past, the mistakes I’d made, and the people I hurt. I’ve also been quite clear all along that my mother indeed believed in the work she was doing, as I did at the time. I can bear witness to the fact that she justified her methods in the name of “the greater good.” (Which is why I have such a problem with most forms of utilitarianism–but that’s a story for another post.) Believing you have a mandate from god has led to some of the worst abuses in all of history. CUT under Elizabeth Clare Prophet was no exception to that rule. It happened “in the name of God.” And like religious corruption everywhere, it couldn’t have happened (previous post) without the symbiotic support of the believers. [...]

One of your old buddies on staff Sean! / June 28th, 2007, 7:23 am / #9

SEAN PROPHET: As far as my mom is concerned, I consider her admission of fault to be one of the bravest things I ever saw her do….Today, Elizabeth Clare Prophet suffers from late stage Alzheimer’s disease. She has been unable to recognize her family since 2000. Before she lost her faculties, she had started to acknowledge her abuses of power and tried to make amends. Sadly, her condition prevented her from fully doing so. She is dying and soon will be gone…what more do you want??

We don’t want her death, we want the truth.
As her son you can go ahead and feel sorry for ECP.
We have no need to feel sorry for her or for anyone
who covers for her.
Hitler may also have felt sorry towards his last days;
that does NOT excuse his brutal actions nor should it
have been used as a reason to absolve him from
punishment, had he lived. Try watching both feature
films about the Nuremburg trials . The German population
was NOT on trial, only the select few at the top who
knew exactly what evil they were perpetrating.

BlackSun / June 28th, 2007, 8:05 am / #10

Hitler may also have felt sorry towards his last days; that does NOT excuse his brutal actions nor should it have been used as a reason to absolve him from punishment, had he lived.

Hello, RDF from Edmonton with IP address 68.148.5.59.

To address your point about Hitler, as I clearly stated in the article:

Totalitarian governments (especially the communist regimes of the 20th century), installed by violent ideological revolutionaries, represent the end product and the combination of political and personality cults. Since they often use military force against their own populations, they are the exceptions to the rule of member complicity. So to be clear, the focus of this article is religious, financial, and personality cults operating in free and democratic societies.

No one forced you to be there on staff. You could have left at any time. So could anyone. You stayed because you feared eternal damnation, loss of ascension, etc. This is no different than the threats that religions have been peddling since time began. Now you don’t believe that anymore. Instead of railing on about how unfair it all is, you could take the lesson and apply it to how you live today. Hopefully we’re all a little less gullible than we were before. If there was a point to the whole mess, I think it’s that realization.

My mom’s not on trial here. You and the rest of the members made a free will choice to work for her and believe what she said. You might want to look into that follower psychology and see what’s up.

morgaine / June 28th, 2007, 9:15 am / #11

I’ll say it one last time;

Anyone who is OBSESSIVELY pointing the finger of blame exclusively at others in situations in which they freely took part, is using their anger as an avoidance mechanism.

RDF ’s vitriol has been spewing non stop despite anything you’ve said in the way of apology Sean. He is redundant to the point of absurdity. There has been NO acknowledgement of that REALITY… or of the reality of his own complicity. And I for one, am getting sick and tired of hearing his rant.

I had held some tentative hope that perhaps he’d eventually hear you. But that has been proven impossible. For him to do so he’d have to take a look himself, which he clearly doesn’t have the emotional strength to do. He’s too busy having a temper tantrum. GET OVER IT.

IMHO I hope his airplay gets pulled. Enough already.

Black Sun Journal » Archives » Gwen Shamblin’s ‘Weigh Down’ gets a wet kiss from CNN / July 25th, 2007, 12:54 pm / #12

[...] Cult debunker Rick Ross has a complete profile on Shamblin. None of this is news to me. Cults take advantage of members’ legitimate needs which create their vulnerability (previous post). Unwittingly, however, such seekers contribute directly to building the very organization that feeds on their misery. It would be hard to imagine a worse predator than someone who plays on people’s desperate need to lose weight. The obese are quite literally fighting for their lives. [...]

anon / January 26th, 2008, 10:22 pm / #13

It always amazes me that people are so into labeling this or that group as a cult. I was on staff at the ranch for twelve years. Was I in a cult? Yes and no, to the extent I succumbed to the group-think yes; but when I made a stand and did not allow abusive supervisors and department heads to take my power, no. Ultimately, it seems to me our psychological vulnerabilities will be exploited by other people in church, the work place or any place where any group dynamics are in action. A strong individual will always cut through the garbage but we all have our shadows don’t we! I think if we just try and be authentic and true to ourselves we all should do o.k.
The hierarchy at the ranch is still in to their Machiavellian games with the membership; anyone who took a stand is now on the outside looking in. “Mums the word”, when it comes to surviving for the strong individuals who choose to remain. The Dilbert principle also has free reign, its quite hilarious watching people screw up and then tell everyone what a great job they did for the Masters. But having said all that I see the same principles in play in every place I have worked. Narcissists and power are like shit on an army blanket; they are very difficult to separate!
Narcissistic individuals inevitably gravitate to power and can’t stand flat organizational structures. I’m not saying everyone in power is a narcissist, but that people with narcissist personalities always gravitate to perceived loci of power outside of themselves; therefore there is a tendency to see that type in loving self adulation prancing around in front of the perceived faithful, employee, ________ (insert word here). When Gilbert Clairbeault tried implementing one at the ranch he was quickly shown the door once your mums’ Alzheimer’s kicked in and incapacitated her.
I perceive (totally subjectively of course) that one of the main subconscious motivations driving the church hierarchy is a fear of people’s intellectual and spiritual freedom from them! I have felt it; instead of been a church of love we are a crippled savant mendicant unable or unwilling to fully live the spiritual principles that have been taught to us for the last forty or fifty years. And whether you or I believe in the existence or non-existence of Ascended Masters is not really the point, all I would ever like to see in the church I love is: “Walk your fucking talk or piss off and leave me alone, I’m doing ok without your hierarchical garbage, after all Arthur’s table was round, with no head and no foot, and the only reason to play hierarchy games is to satisfy your own authoritarian cravings.”
Just sign me a member watching and waiting and thinking for myself!

Annette C. / February 22nd, 2008, 2:21 pm / #14

I thank everybody who has submitted articles like this, contributed, commented and discussed. I have found them very revealing, helpful, if at times confronting and uncomfortable.
I support the work. I’m not following anyones philosophy on BSJ either. I’m following ME. Thank you!

Annette C. / February 22nd, 2008, 2:28 pm / #15

PS: to clarify, I’m referring to the article above: The Complicity of Members in Cultic Social Manipulation, the other articles like it, all the resulting comments. Have been very helpful in bringing about positive change to myself personally. Just make sure BSJ doesn’t become a “cult” :) I am joking but…weirder things can happen.

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