This is not an argument that everything is a cult. This is an illustration that the tools of authoritarian mind control are so widespread and ubiquitous that we have no leg to stand on when we try to argue against cults. Others are doing what cults do and are revered for it.
There is no ultimate definition of a cult.
The reason is simple. Put it too abstractly and no one will recognize it. Put it too concretely and everything that’s not a 100% match will be dismissed. But that’s only a problem if we want to prepare people for them or try to tell the victims that they are in a cult.
The other problem with a definition is stickier. Authoritarian control is widespread and its elements are so ubiquitous, we can find aspects of it everywhere: in families, corporations, yoga groups, the military, not to mention your favourite traditional church that you really don’t want to be a cult. It just does things the same way.
We only seem to get upset by certain incidents of authoritarian mind control. When it deprives us from the resources of a relative who chooses a cult over his family. When it is not something we are used to, like old churches, political ideologies, traditional family patterns that display every aspect of a cult definition – but we really don’t want to address them.
Maybe it is a better question to ask: What is wrong with a cult?
In short, it uses the members’ resources (time, love, attention, labor, money) excessively, and in a way that others who claim the victim’s resources can’t access them anymore.
But this is too abstract.
The problem with cults, the reason we start using the C-word on them, is their end result: that the group or its leader for all intents and purposes enslaves the members. And by enslavement I mean the usage of the victim’s resources: her body, her money, her inheritance, her reputation, her position and status, her labour, her children, her children’s body, not to mention all her time, attention and emotions.
The two most important factors about cults are: 1) What they do to their victims and 2) how they achieve it. And the answers to those questions are – in a nutshell – 1) they harvest the victims’ resources 2) by making them want to do it. The first part is the ‘authoritarian’ part, the second is the mind control.
Authoritarian mind control also means that the victims want to give up all these things, even their lives. They really do. (This is why enslavement definitions will probably won’t stand.) It is thus not a useful rule of thumb to say that as long as they are there voluntarily, everything is fine. The word voluntary loses its meaning in authoritarian high control situations.
For an outsider the degree of sacrifice might seem excessive and the cause obviously silly. That’s not reason enough to intervene though.
An ex-scientologist, for instance, recounted the story of how the FBI asked him to guide them in case of a raid on one of the cult’s compounds. He said absolutely, but be ready to find a lot of men and women who will forcefully insist that they are there on their own volition and wish to stay there. They are imprisoned, tortured, isolated from the outside world and not allowed to leave, sure. But they are there willingly. (They don’t want to miss the return of L Ron Hubbard, their messiah and the originator of the nonsense.) What does the FBI do then?
The fact that the victim’s life forces are sucked out of him is thus not enough to constitute a criminal case. But the victim’s families’ righteous claim to get hold of their relative again just might.
Cults remind us that we are used and we expect to use others – often on the basis of the accident of birth. Without saying that out loud and denouncing it, we have no leg to stand on against cults.
Not even a victim can assert his or her claim for freedom without understanding that he owns his own resources. That is why those who escape often just go from one cult to another, a less frowned upon one. Ex-scientologists enter an older church and feel normal simply because the old church has the inestimable benefit of being accepted as a way of life and a part of history. It has been there longer, its mythology more widely known and accepted as a part of culture, but it works the same. It is more familiar, your family is more likely to accept your membership in an older church, but an older church is just as happy to accept the resources of new members. May be it is not as nasty about it as a cult. If you are not in the inner circle of the older church, it is less suffocating and demanding.
For the outsiders, scientology still doesn’t enjoy the status of traditional churches, even if it is in its second generation, meaning that masses of children are born into the cult.
And old church can brag about how many members are put into high positions and sit on the supreme court – from a new church it sounds like hostile penetration. But if we think about it, it should be a worrying concern that any church can even claim that a member who gained high office will represent his cult/church, rather than his office and the law.
For an outsider a cult member’s sacrifices look pointless and excessive. For the cult member, however, they look like something else entirely. They are proof of his obedience, and they are even heroism, if the sacrifice is heavy enough. In other words, he accepts a “good boy” or a hero’s empty status in exchange for things he gave up. His money, his life, his time, his limbs in a war.
It looks stupid, but we all regard laying down resources to our groups as heroism. If a young man gets spun by fundamentalist brainwashers, joins the Islamic state and kills himself in a suicide attack we regard him as misguided. When a man of our own country joins the army and gets killed for the glory and for the leader – we celebrate him. The double standard is deeper than just pointing out that one is for the good and the other is the enemy. Whether a heavy sacrifice is heroism or irrational self-destruction can only be decided from the perspective of one’s group belonging.
The uncomfortable truth is that laying down our resources for our group is applauded so we would do it more. We all accept the “good boy” in exchange for real resources of our own that we could have spent on ourselves and our future. We all choose to do things for the glory, to look good. So we have very little in the way of principled resistance to becoming cult members. Replace ‘cult’ with any authoritarian control group and you will see what I mean.
It starts within the family, but it happens in our chosen political tribes, in our ethnic group, in our religious group and yes, in our chosen groups as well.
So when people join cults, they really just change allegiance from their usual owners, their churches, their parties, their spouses, girlfriends, parents and children – to the cult. And that is what upsets those around them. That a cult asks for exclusive access to the victims’ resources and doesn’t leave any to the other claimants. Nobody regards individuals as their own property so nobody has a principled argument against cults. The pattern is the same with political parties, with old-fashioned churches, with possessive families. The degree of the ownership of the group may vary but the essence is the same.
Rick Alan Ross lists a range of things as cults in his 2014 book Cults Inside Out: How People Get In and Can Get Out. Examples include classic examples like Jonestown, Scientology, Rajneeshpuram (Osho), the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, the Kabbalah Centre, Landmark Education, Falun Gong, the Reverend Moon‘s Unification Church, Children of God, the Manson Family. He also included some less obvious groups like the Al-Qaeda, Amway, various kidnappings during which the victims experienced brainwashing, child sexual abuse groups, faith healing sects, abusive relationships and families operating as cults.
We are only talking about cults when authoritarian mind control is so odd, so unusual, so out of place, we can’t just ignore it or call it tradition. When it has been happening for a long time, we can no longer tell it is even happening. When it appears to serve the interest of those in it, or at least they are not crying to get out, we tend to revere them.
When a man is enslaved by his own family, when all his resources, his time, his reputation, his workforce, his attention, his money, his wealth is put to use by his family, we have no mental framework to call is enslavement – and perhaps neither does he. But when the same amount of resources are claimed by a bunch of non-relatives and the man chooses to give up those resources by choice, we see the enslavement, because we are allowed to.
Ask a wife and mother whether she is enslaved and she will tell you that she is not and she choses to give up all her time, resources, emotions, desires, efforts and attention in the service of the members of her household. If the cause someone is sacrificing himself is equally sacred for us, we don’t question it.
When people are called to lay down their aspirations, their wealth, even their lives for the nation, the religion, the party – we have no tools to call BS. When they do that for a guy or group of their own choosing, a first generation religion, a group of non-relatives, we suddenly see more clearly and we are more skeptical about his cause. When a soldier dies for our group, we call it heroism. When he dies for the enemy, it is a suicide attack.
This is also why every single cult calls themselves a family. They want to get under the same consideration as family members: unquestioning loyalty and the complete sharing of our resources. And if we want to find the roots of authoritarian control, we only need to look at families. Loving families – and not so loving ones.
The point is not that everything is a cult. The point is that we have no argument against cults because we all accept their premises. And we all belong to an authoritarian control group or two, no matter how independent we consider ourselves or how weakly we are attached. Their point is to use our resources, to make us want to give our resources up -even if they don’t have a charismatic leader, even if they don’t have a defined outline, even if the person who implants the hooks in us is not the same person who harvests us.
The Vow (2020) on HBO
The Lost Women of NXIVM (2019) on Amazon
Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath (2016-19) docuseries
Rick Alan Ross: Cults Inside Out: How People Get In and Can Get Out (2014)
My Scientology Movie (2015)
Holy Hell (2016) Buddhafield, a West Hollywood cult around a charismatic and horny failed ballet dancer.
The Source Family (2012) a lifestyle commune in Los Angeles in the early ’70s
Children of God (1994) on Netflix A documentary about the child rapist cult established in the 60s and later rebranded – resulting in the suicide by hundreds of victims who survived it as children.
Wild Wild Country (2018) Six-part documentary about Osho, the world’s most controversial guru, who buildt an Utopian city in Oregon in the 1980s,
Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator (2019)
Robert Jay Lifton: Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (1961)
Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults (2020) on HBO
Q: Into the Storm (2021) HBO