I'm fascinated by the phenomenon of cults, and our inherent vulnerability to the influence of charismatic leaders. The topic also touches on another personal interest, the human desire and ability we have to embrace supernatural and unsubstantiated beliefs.

My personal definition of the term cult is:

A derogatory term for any religious or philosophically-based minority group whose core beliefs and values you don't personally agree with.

Yes, I know it's a little different from the wiktionary definition, but I want to emphasise that cultness is in the eye of the beholder. It's a derogatory term, rarely used by the members of the cult in question, although they may use it freely referring to other cults; just not their own. When you're in a cult, you don't see that it's a cult. So when someone else uses the word cult, what they really mean is that they don't like the other group and don't agree with their beliefs or values. And they probably aren't that happy about the whole mind-control thing, indoctrination processes, people devoting their lives to lost causes or cult leaders getting rich and/or famous at the expense of their members. I get that.

So why do people join cults, and why do they stay?

Successful cults seem to have these attributes:

  • A charismatic leader
  • A belief system that offers hope
  • A strong sense of community
  • Disincentives for leaving

Despite the emphasis our society places on rational thinking, we are emotional creatures deep down. We make all our decisions based on how we expect the outcome will make us feel, then we create rational justifications for why we've made a good choice. People join cults because it makes them feel good; at least initially. Once they're there, they may stay because they think they will feel bad if they leave. Which is probably true. I felt pretty bad when I gave up Christianity; and then there's the whole deprogramming and admitting you got it wrong thing. The fear of feeling bad if you leave is quite well-founded.

Take as an example Harold Camping from Family Radio. It would be easy to write people like him off people as nutcases, but he's hardly an isolated incident. This guy has made millions from his prophetic pronouncements of doom and it doesn't matter that he said the world would end on May 21, 2011 and yet it clearly didn't. He just makes a new pronouncement that reinterprets this apparent failure as if everything is still going to plan for the real end of the world, on October 21 when:

“...we can be sure that the whole world, with the exception of those who are presently saved (the elect), are under the judgment of God, and will be annihilated together with the whole physical world on October 21, 2011”.

As a retired engineer, he gets rich and feels powerful like never before spouting this kind of crap. People listen to him. They pay attention to his every word. Engineers don't normally get that kind of respect. I'm a retired engineer too, so I can relate. I want people to listen to me too. But is the world really going to be annihilated later this month?

Yeah, right. I'll stick my neck out and prophesy that absolutely nothing out of the ordinary will happen on October 21, and come October 22 or so we'll have a new pronouncement from Mr Camping claiming that the world actually did end but we just didn't notice. Along with a new end date. Of course if you keep prophesying disaster long enough, eventually you'll land a date where some natural disaster actually happens by sheer coincidence and ignorant people will think you foretold it, because matching coincidences is how our brains work. The interesting thing about failed prophecy is that some followers actually strengthen their faith and allegiance to the cult leader in an attempt to avoid their uncomfortable feelings of having obviously backed the wrong horse.

People inside cults are always the last to acknowledge that it's a cult. Scientology is a classic example. I have to be careful what I say, because Scientoligists are litigious and have no sense of humour. I bet they try to prove me wrong with a lawsuit, forcing me to explain the concept of irony to them. Anyway, their religion is the perfect example of how people are willing to follow a leader without questioning or researching the basis of his teachings. All it takes is a quick trip to your local library or Google search to discover that Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard, was a science-fiction writer. So he creates a religion using the latest teachings of the human potential movement mixed with some loopy alien schtick, and amasses mega-rich followers. He makes a fortune and a few hundred lawsuits later, his cult is well established. Clearly what Scientology teaches works to some degree; the Dianetics audit process sounds like cross between hypnosis, Rogerian and Narrative therapy. But you can learn everything you need to know about healing the emotional baggage from your past down at the local library without buying expensive Scientology training packages.

Mormonism is another great and relatively recent example than reeks of being made-up. The story of Joseph Smith acquiring the Book of Mormon has holes in it you could drive a Mach truck through; yet millions believe it without question. Another fun thing about cults is the way they point fingers at each other, without noticing the flaws in their own belief system.

People's Temple leader Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre is a frightening reminder that our vulnerability to cult leaders can end horribly. The Branch Davidians and the Waco seige is another. Need I mention Charles Manson or Heaven's Gate?... Hey, who did they leave behind to keep the website running? It would be easy to write these off as isolated incidents only affecting very vulnerable people, but they keep happening. A lot of it comes down to the hypnotic effect that charismatic leaders can have on any of us. Adolf Hitler managed to hypnotise millions of ordinary Germans into supporting unspeakable violence against marginalised people. Unless we acknowledge our personal vulnerability to this kind of influence, we remain vulnerable too.

I've been interested in personal development for a long time, searching for some kind of cure for the low self-esteem and anxiety that seemed to cut right to my core. One of the most powerful courses I've done is The Landmark Forum, which often attracts the cult label. Landmark's teaching is based on taking full responsibility for your life, creating amazing possibilities for yourself, inspiring other people and then using peer pressure to keep you accountable for making it happen. It's pretty amazing stuff, and I still use some of the distinctions I learned there from time-to-time: Am I a spectator, or am I in the game? Am I being responsible here? Am I blaming others and running a racket on them? I'm currently doing their Living Passionately Seminar to get a sense of purpose and to live my life with ease and grace. It's only week 1 but I'm starting to feel more excited about life already. And I can relax now because I even just did this weeks homework!

As my first Landmark seminar leader said: “It'd be a weird cult that keeps telling you to get in touch with the people in your lives”. One of the most powerful things I learned at Landmark was to stop being defensive. When people start slapping derogatory labels like “cult” on your latest thing, don't get all reactive; just ask what they mean by that and look where else in their life cynicism, resignation and fear might be hurting them.

But some of the people I meet at Landmark act like robots; always busy applying distinctions and thinking thinking thinking. Totally out of touch with their emotions. Not really in the present, as Eckhart Tolle would say. Ultimately, the idea is to internalise the concepts and be responsible, be powerful, be present; not to think about it all the time. Depending on how you use them, the same tools that can make you more present and deepen your communication with others can also make you less present because you're thinking about the tools all the time. That leaves you more detached from your emotions, and hence your personal power.

Another amazingly powerful course I've done is called Path of Love. Their process is awesome for dealing with troubling emotions like guilt, fear, and shame. I've done it twice, and I highly recommend it. The process is heavily based on the teachings of Osho, previously known as the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. He had an amazing ability to mix Eastern and Western philosophy and teach it in a hypnotic manner that made many of his followers fall in love with him. His teaching contains much practical wisdom: he invented dynamic meditation, because he recognised that the Western mind was too busy to just sit and that we needed to move our bodies in order to break the constant cycle of nervous thinking. His advocacy of open sexual relationships also appealed to the generation who just missed out on the whole 60's free love thing. And he was funny. Everyone loves that.

Yet Osho's foray into setting up an ashram in the U.S. showed that all was not well and something had gone amiss, at least for some Sannyasins. Back when I was in high school, the Orange People scandal broke when his sidekick Ma Sheela ran off with buckets of the faithful's cash. You could blame her, but what on earth were said faithful thinking; didn't they notice their guru's penchance for expensive Mercedes' on his daily drive-bys? Why did they keep giving him money? When interviewed by Australian current affairs program 60 Minutes, Ma Sheela's response to the scandal was: “What can I say. Tough titties”. This legendary answer got a picture of her giving us all the bird plastered across the front page of the daily newspaper, and thence across the folder for my Year 12 Economics notes. I had no idea that 20 years later I'd come full-circle and find myself at a course inspired by the teachings of the very guru she betrayed. I don't care about Year 12 Economics now, but I sure wish I'd kept the folder. Yet despite the scandal, I find the process the Bagwan inspired tremendously powerful.

At one of the emotional healing bootcamps on the life coach training course I did run by Beyond Success, Paul Blackburn jokingly described the community surrounding his successful personal development company as “It's a cult, but it's a good cult!”. He probably also said we shouldn't quote him on that; I can't remember. Well at least he has a sense of humour about it.

Most recently, I've begun to start my day with a series of Yoga, Meditation and Breathwork that I learned from the Art Of Living foundation, in an attempt to deal with the stress and anxiety that I experience from chronic fatigue syndrome. I wouldn't say I enjoy it, but I do feel better afterwards and it seems to be helping. Art Of Living appears to be dedicated to noble goals like world peace through inner transformation, yet even it has its detractors. There's a charismatic leader, a belief system mixing Hindu & Buddhist ideas, a strong sense of community, and disincentives for leaving; like only being allowed to do the full Sudarshan Kriya in groups with other followers led by an officially sanctioned teacher.

Seems like just about any organisation can be considered a cult. Some people even wonder if public speaking and leadership training organisation Toastmasters is a cult.

Nowadays, I like to joke about the cults I join. Not take it all so seriously. Almost any group you hang out with has cult-like followers avoiding dealing with feelings like loneliness and powerlessness. Even the volleyball crowd I used to mix with had a coach with some followers who played and trained with religious zeal. Every major religion has teachings to help followers avoid anxieties like our primal fear of death, and religions share many of the cult attributes I mentioned earlier: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Catholicism, etc etc all have a charismatic leader, belief systems, communities and disincentives if you up and leave. But they're too mainstream to be considered cults by most people since they're not small minority groups.

I've decided to start my own cult. I'll be a witty, engaging, entertaining and charismatic cult leader. A cut above the rest. My followers will love me, and they'll know how to show it. Women will throw themselves at me, and men will throw their money as I dispense indispensable wisdom. I found this great video to help get me started:

Ultimately the thing that really interests me about cults is how the leaders became so persuasive that people were willing to follow them no matter what. I've just read The Complete Idiot's Guide to Persuasion for some tips, and it said that when our willingness and ability to think is low, people are easily persuaded by ideas that are fun, easy and popular. That must be what it is.


I combine trauma awareness, emotional healing and comedy to heal painful events from your past, so you can live a future life you love; and have fun doing it.


Deborah · June 11, 2015 at 10:24 am

Do you know a cult to join with sex involved.

    Graham · June 18, 2015 at 11:08 am

    Sure; get yourself to Poona and go visit the Osho ashram.

BruceCarson · February 26, 2013 at 5:01 am

Do you have a list of good cults to join? A lot of the cults you mention are no longer active, and some of the others, like Mormonism, aren't cults the way I like which should offer a communal living experience. I find a lot of information online about why cults are bad, but no review sites that compare and contrast them.

    Graham · February 27, 2013 at 10:37 am

    Let me see what I can come up with... 😉

Leave a Reply

You have to agree to the comment policy.