Tuesday 8 – Friday 18 February 2011
I’ve been fascinated by all things dealing with psychology for years. In particular, and along side my interest in the psychology behind things such as serial killers, I am quite intrigued by the notion of cults, their leaders, and why people submit to such propaganda. It’s important to note, that the word ‘cult’ actually refers to a specific system of worship, and denotes a devotion to a person, idea, or activity. It does NOT necessarily denote Satanic, or inherently evil worship.
This is not a definitive collection of the rites and workings of cults. It’s simply an opinion piece on a topic that interests me.
Okay, I just don’t get it. I fail to see how anyone, in his or her right mind, could get suckered into it. This is one of those few times when I’m going to be serious, because it totally and utterly baffles me, as to why a seemingly intelligent human being could fall for the verbal diarrhoea of a cult leader.
I’ve never been able to wrap my brain around the concept of submitting your free will to a ‘religious’ leader. And please understand that I use the term ‘religious’ very, very loosely. As far as I’m concerned, these are not religions. They are scams, led by manipulative, narcissistic, arrogant, little people who have some over-exaggerated need for power and control, most of whom are using ‘religion’ as a medium for creating harems.
I could go on about all manner of alleged charismatic cult leaders, and I could dissect each cult individually, but I won’t. I find it infuriating that a) these ‘groups’ are allowed to get away with such things under the guise of being a religion, or legal standpoints that entitle them to operate, and b) that people will accept and believe that what these guys are saying is gospel.
One of the most talked about cult leaders is Charles Manson, who in his own words, is a nobody, a bum, a hobo, and who also proudly claims that he has never killed anyone, but could if he wanted to. And to some extent, he’s correct. Charles Manson never killed anyone that he was convicted of murdering. He didn’t need to. He had manipulated members of the ‘Manson Family’ into doing it on his behalf. In reality, Manson himself never committed anything other than petty theft, however, the hold he had over his ‘Family’ was extensive, and many of those who are still alive today continue to be fervent followers.
There are a number of clips of Charles Manson that can be found on YouTube and various news websites. I’ve watched a few of them in an attempt to try to get a feel for why someone would blindly follow him. Maybe it’s because I know what the outcome of the situation is, but for the life of me, I cannot comprehend why anyone at all would believe a word that came out of his mouth. In the most non-psychological terminology that I can come up with to describe Charles Manson, this is the conclusion I’ve come to: the guy’s a fruit loop. He talks utter rubbish, and is rarely lucid. He is, however, a very good manipulator. So, I expect that’s how he ended up with so many mindless followers.
Then, of course, there’s Jim Jones and The People’s Temple, and we all know how that one turned out. For God’s sake, don’t drink the kool aid! Another deluded guy who thought he was linked to something universally greater than anyone else was. And the words that Jim Jones will most likely be remembered by come from his final taped ‘sermon’ as he spoke to the masses of people who believed that he was something special: ‘Mothers you must keep your children under control. They must die with dignity.’
Now, I’m not a mother, but I’m pretty sure that on some fundamental level, if some guy had me locked in a place of worship and started spouting that from his insane mouth, I’d be up and out of there, kids in tow, telling him where he could put his kool aid. But some of these women, hearing what he was saying, stayed put with their children, forced their babies to drink drugged and poisoned kool aid. Sadly, others who refused to drink the kool aid, were executed. In all, 917 bodies were recovered at the Jonestown massacre.
But the clincher in the Jonestown episode was the discovery that Jones had squirreled away multimillions of dollars in bank accounts in Switzerland, Panama, and Rumania, to the tune of between ten and fifteen million dollars. His personal fortune at the time of his death was around five million dollars. At the scene of the massacre, investigators discovered a cache of US and Guyanese currency to the value of about two and a half million dollars. And this was all amassed under the guise of running a ‘church’.
More recently, we’ve seen Shoko Asahara and his Sarin gas attack on the subways of Japan in 1994, and 1995. This cult leader admits that his beliefs are crazy, but continues on to say that sometimes crazy beliefs are needed in order to obtain freedom and happiness. Okay, Shoko, tell that to the relatives of the people who died in the Sarin gas attacks. I’m feeling confident that they’re going to disagree with you, and will settle for saying that you’re just plain crazy. Crazier still, in 1996 Japan had at least one hundred and eighty thousand registered cults, according to Michael Jordan (no, not the basketball player), author of Cults: Prophecies, Practices & Personalities, (The Book Company, 1996). Side note: Jordan’s book is one of the first I owned about cults, and is an incredible read if you want to learn more about a wide variety of them.
And, of course, it’s impossible not to mention alleged charismatic cult leader of the Branch Davidian based in Waco, Texas, Vernon Howell a.k.a David Koresh. Call me weird, but if the leader of whatever church I chose to attend suddenly told me it was a brilliant idea to stockpile as many automatic weapons, and hand guns as we could get a hold of, I’d be very, very worried. But no, not all of the members of Branch Davidian thought the same way as me. No, some of them agreed, thought it was a neat idea, and probably enjoyed getting their hands on all of those weapons. What the Hell did they think was going to happen when the SWAT team arrived? They’d all sit around, have a cup of coffee, and shoot the breeze? Ummm, surprise!! Someone’s going to die in this situation, and you can bet your ass it’s not going to be too many of the SWAT guys.
Koresh preached that an apocalypse was imminent, and based his ‘message’ on the Books of Daniel, and Revelation. Outside of the cult, Koresh was viewed by the public as a megalomaniac, another ‘charismatic leader’ fuelled by satisfying his sexual urges. Yes, you’re right – another fruit loop. He insisted that cult, or as he referred to it ‘commune’ members were to separate from their partners, and were to lead celibate lives. Every one except he. Koresh bestowed the right on himself to engage in sexual relations with any of the female cult members, under the pretext of procreating the children of God. Oh, let’s not forget that at the time of the Waco stand-off, Koresh had a large number of wives (the exact number is not known), and one of them he married when she was, wait for it, twelve years old. Yes, you read correctly. David Koresh, a thirty something year old man married a twelve year old. Hold on, there’s more – she bore him a son. Yeah, that’s a perfectly sane idea.
How did Koresh justify all of this clearly insane behaviour? Oh, that’s simple . . . he told his followers that he was the seventh messenger of God. Another perfectly sane idea. For the record, Koresh, like many other cornered cult leaders, committed suicide rather than face justice for his actions.
But how could I not mention the cult formed in 1968 – the Children of God, founded by a former Methodist preacher turned nomadic Jesus-spruiker, David Berg. If you have the opportunity to view a picture of Berg, he is the least likely looking guy to run a cult, but had cultivated a following by encouraging the playing of pop music, and offering an environment filled with drugs, sex, and anarchy.
In Berg’s cult, he also preached of Doomsday, but went a little further with the sex angle. In the early seventies, he established his ‘Hookers for Jesus’. That’s right – Hookers for Jesus. The young women of the cult, single and married, were sent out to lure men to the cult. Berg liked to call the activity ‘Flirty Fishing’ or ‘FFing’ for short . . . kinda makes you rethink the whole Twitter #FF, doesn’t it?
Ready to amp up the ‘ick factor’? Berg proudly proclaimed that there were no laws against incest in the kingdom of God. Think about it for just a moment . . . one more fruit loop for the cereal box, and some major ick when you consider what he was implying was the norm for the minors in the Children of God cult. This infers that parents willingly submitted their children to child abuse. Who does that?
So, why do people join cults? Why do they submit to the demands of these alleged charismatic leaders? A variety of reasons come to mind, one of which is based in psychology, one of my favourite subjects. One school of thought says that some people join in order to find some sense of psychological stability, others because of physiological manipulation, and/or stress. Michael Langone, Ph.D. suggests there are three models, which explain why people join cults, which he calls the three models of recruitment.
The first is the deliberative model, which suggests that people join because of what they believe about the group. The second is the psychodynamic model, where people join because of what the group does for them. The third and final model is thought reform, which suggests that people join because of what the group does to them. Langone believes that conversion to a cult involves components of all three models, not just one. The following are my interpretation, my understanding, of Langone’s models.
Deliberative model: a person might affiliate him/herself with a cult because of what they perceive as shared beliefs. Perhaps they have read the literature of the group and found that their thoughts are aligned. As such, they deliberately choose to join the cult; to some extent it is voluntary, however, there is little doubt that members of the cult do firmly encourage anyone even remotely interested in joining. One would imagine that the chances of being recruited via this model alone would result in low numbers of new followers.
Psychodynamic model: the cult does or provides something for the person. They appear to provide something that’s missing from the life of the recruit. Langone refers to this as: ‘unconscious psychological needs are met’.
Thought reform model: the cult does something to the potential follower. This is hard-core manipulation, what many of us might term ‘brainwashing’. The recruit believes all their pain, vulnerability, loss, confusion, anger, whatever, will go away if they join the group. They are manipulated into believing that the cult is the solution to all of their problems.
As far as my understanding goes, it seems that every model, in some sense, offers a level of security that the potential recruit is lacking. Is it this sense of loss, of missing something that might be the reason behind why a lot of people join cults? I guess that it’s possible. But then why are some people more susceptible to the tactics employed by cults and their members? I’m sure a lot of people feel a sense of loss, or feel as though something is missing in their life, and yet they do not join cults.
And if I’m to be objective about this, cults have been around for thousands of years. Some of the earliest date back to Ancient Egyptian times, and include cults dedicated to the likes of Osiris, the Dead, and of course, one of the most famous Egyptian cults, that of Akhenaten and the Aten (the disc of the Sun). Throughout history, practically every religion has had off-shoot cults: Essenes from Judaism; Gnostic and Christian cults; ancient orgiastic cults such as the Dionysiac cult, and the Bacchanals (the Roman rip-off of the Greek Dionysiac cults – but then, that’s nothing new. Everything fabulous about early Roman culture essentially originates from Greek culture. The Romans were brilliant at stealing from the Greek – everything from architecture to literature to land to people. Hey, I studied Theatre at uni, so whilst I enjoy the odd piece of Roman theatre, I’m acutely aware they plagiarised all the good stuff from the Greeks.); the Cult of the Bull; Mithraism from Persia; death cults from Mexico’s and Southern America’s pre-Hispanic era, e.g. Aztecs, Mayans, Incans; Druids from the Celts – yes, think the wicker man.
As we move closer to our current cult history, we see cults, in no particular chronological order, such as: the Catharists; the Rosicrucians; Knights Templar; Voodoo; the Freemasons; Quakers; Mormons; the Plymouth Brethren; Exclusive Brethren; Christian Scientists; Opus Dei; the Blue Army of Mary (or, its correct title, the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima); Knights of Columbus; Knights of St. Columbus; Wicca; modern Druids. Most of these are solidly rooted in worshipping God, and following the word of Christ.
Then, of course, we move to those we are more aware of now, such as those I mentioned at the beginning of the post; the Temple of the Sun; Rajneeshis; the Militia; the Nine O’Clock Service; the Moonies; Scientology.
As I stated in the introduction, it’s important to note, that the word ‘cult’ actually refers to a specific system of worship, and denotes a devotion to a person, idea, or activity. There is nothing in the definition of cult that specifically implies that it refers to anything evil. In simple terms, every world religion is a cult; it is a specific system of worship. Unfortunately though, recent examples of cults have all pointed to groups that have leaders of the completely insane, and narcissistic variety, thus giving rise to the idea that cults are inherently bad. Consider your own religion. Does it not have a set of rites that point to a certain way that you are expected to worship your deity? Of course it does. Is your religion inherently evil? Most likely, no. The word ‘cult’ is harmless. It is the people behind the concept that are the problem.
However, some ‘religions’/cults go to great lengths to protect their reputation, and to alienate those who have left and are speaking out against them. I’m sure you can all take a good guess at which ones I’m specifically referring to.
I don’t think I’ll ever understand why people give up their free will to follow the rubbish that is spewed out of the mouths of cult leaders like Manson, Jones, Koresh, or Berg. I expect that’s because clearly, these guys were and are more than a little nuts. It probably also has a fair bit to do with the fact that I don’t subscribe to the notion of organised (or disorganised) religion. I don’t begrudge anyone’s basic human right to religion; I just don’t share those beliefs. And maybe, that’s the one thing that would actually prevent me from ever joining a cult. Of course, starting up my own is a whole other story.