I got very interested in hypnotism after my 8th grade grad-night party. We had a hypnotist come in and put on an amazing show that really opened my mind regarding the ease of manipulation of the human brain.
As any hyper-inquisitive atheist-since-the-3rd-grade kid would do, I read all about hypnotism and learned how to do it myself. In high school and college, I enjoyed putting on “shows” of my own — hypnotizing friends and planting all sorts of post-hypnotic suggestions for fun. It was always voluntary and in the spirit of fun, but it was quite an enriching learning experience about how the human mind works.
I also studied a lot about cognitive psychology while in college — both as formal elective courses outside of my physics/electronics degree, and in my personal studies. I was also required to take religion courses in college *sigh*, so I focused on cults, obscure religions, and more abstract classes like “Faith and Belief” to further understand the underlying psychology.
Through this path, I formed an understanding of how cults and to a larger extent how religions form and propagate.
First, I should clearly distinguish how I view the difference between a cult and a religion. The underlying mechanisms are very similar — almost indistinguishable, but the names are separated by timelines, volume of acceptance, and self-propagating momentum. Essentially all religions are time-evolved versions of cults. The bigger a cult grows, the more accepted it becomes, and thus the public reference morphs from cult to religion. There is another key distinction as well, which is that the term “cult” refers to an intentional (often nefarious) psychological manipulation of a group of people. A religion has surpassed this “seed” stage, and is essentially self-replicating without any intentional psychological manipulation. In other words, once a cult progresses to religion status — everyone on the inside is just enjoying the snowball ride, including the highest ranking folks.
So, what are these underlying mechanisms?
First of all, any successful cult has what I like to call a golden egg. This is the nugget of truth or value that a person involved in the cult gets to enjoy as a member. Some examples of golden eggs are “personal strength”, “financial independence”, “peace of mind”, “an expansive business contact network”, “the ability to attract the opposite sex”, “life after death”, “re-incarnation”, “eternal happiness”, “re-unification with dead relatives”, “a spaceship ride to Hoofula”, and so on. Some of these sound silly — but the idea is that there is some underlying key benefit attributed to membership in the cult. Often there are several golden eggs, but usually one is the primary focus.
The presence of a golden egg itself does not define an organization as a cult, however. If that were the case, then pretty much any organization of people would be labeled as such. This is just the first important piece of the formula.
The “bizarreness” of a cult can be gauged by how outlandish the particular golden egg seems to the casual observer. A cult that promises “personal strength” can be quite innocuous, while one that promises “a spaceship ride to Hoofula” might raise a few more alarms. One might imagine that a golden egg like “life after death” would be considered bat-shit crazy if it wasn’t so prevalent in modern evolved religions. Seventy virgins for your martyrdom, anyone? Over 2 billion people. Seriously.
The next two important mechanisms for a cult work in tandem. These are a custom vocabulary and in many cases rituals to wrap what might otherwise be described as simple lessons into cult-specific attributions. Cults tend to name things using unique wording, so the “credit” for the information gained is inextricably linked to the cult itself.
For example, from a specific cult (which shall remain nameless here), the phrase “make it mine” is used instead of “remember”. Rather than saying “I remember X”, the member would say “I made X mine”. This is done during a recalling ritual where the member tells a story about an impactful personal experience. The idea is for a member to re-learn the process of recalling incidents in their past — to learn that they can decide for themselves what that incident did or did not do to the person that they are. This is part of the process to “realize” that one has complete control over their own destiny if they reject the notion that their past experiences dictate who they are today. This is extremely effective for post-traumatic experience sufferers looking to re-gain control of their own lives.
The key cult-point here is that this very beneficial process has been “wrapped” into a custom vocabulary and ritual that a member believes cannot be attained by any other means. Common language and verbose descriptions of the psychological process would dull the cult-attribution, and the member could walk away believing that anyone could do this — without the cult’s involvement. The hook is set. There are usually many hooks, and they’re as interwoven as possible to keep the simple external path to the golden egg as obscured as possible.
Another example — probably more familiar in this country — is Catholic confession. Go to a church, tell a priest your “sins”, and you will be forgiven. The ultimate get-out-of-jail card results in peace of mind and restful sleep. One could just tell a psychiatrist and get it off their chest, but that would leave the Catholic Church with no credit for the effect. In fact, the litany of formal religious rituals are all examples of this.
Indoctrination is the process used to “implant” the cult seeds into the mind of a new member. You can think of this a bit like the movie Inception, without the blaring horns or slo-mo footage of people falling. This process can take many forms.
Some of the more obviously-cult-like-cults have an explicit indoctrination process. This often leverages many of the same psychological techniques used in hypnosis to implant a pattern of re-programming into a person’s mind. These often take place over a two to three day period and leverage sleep deprivation or physical exertion to soften the mind. This extreme process is also commonly referred to as “brainwashing”.
Obviously, not all cults/religions employ such a time-compressed process, but the same mechanisms are used in all of them. If a new member enters a cult indoctrination with a pre-existing world view, there is typically a tear-down stage where the person’s world view or self-perspective is placed into extreme disarray. This is usually accompanied by mental anguish, a heightened emotional state, or by physical exertion. This can also be accelerated by using sleep-deprivation.
Once properly “broken”, a new member passes into the rebuild stage where they are reprogrammed with a new set of fundamental principals to replace whatever they used to believe. This is where the real foundation is laid for the mechanics of the cult to be self-perpetuating. This is the master-stroke.
This process is used in many places beyond cults/religions. Other examples include military training to produce hardened soldiers (boot camp), or fraternity pledge induction hazing. Reprogramming humans is a very well understood science, just not widely known.
The most common indoctrination, however, is far more subtle. It is accomplished by parents lovingly teaching children with no scare tactics or manipulation. Most indoctrination is wonderfully peaceful.
The next piece of a successful cult is well-planted propagation motives. If a cult does not have a sharp focus on membership growth, the cult will not grow and will not survive. Ironically this is the same for any species, so in many ways this is just an element of natural selection that must be present in these organizations.
Note that we’re not just talking about the propagation rituals here: Hare Krishnas pass out flowers in airports. Jehovah’s Witnesses knock on your door. Mormons send their children across the world to knock on your door. All of them have special schools for their children to become indoctrinated before they’re intelligent enough to think on their own. Missionaries. Crusades. These are the rituals and the mechanical processes behind propagation, but the key is the propagation motives behind these rituals. To draw the natural selection analogy a bit closer — sex is the ritual, the desire for sex (chemical) is the motive. A successful cult has planted the inherent need for these people to spread membership. They want to save you. They need to save you. They really have to save you from yourself because you just don’t see the world the way you will when you join their group.
The process for planting these propagation motives tend to be very carefully wrapped in the fabric of the cult. Custom vocabulary, custom rituals, great benefits — all attributed to membership in the cult. You must join to get the golden egg, and each member shares a deep desire for outsiders to gain access to the golden egg.
We’ve all heard the sports phrase that a great offense starts with a solid defense. A successful cult also integrates very intricate psychological defense mechanisms. Many of these are more obvious than you might think — because they are so extremely prevalent. Ostracism, physical threats, death threats, apostasy. Those are the super-obvious defense mechanisms. The more subtle ones are in the realm of family and kinship.
Without going into great depth here — as I will in a future essay — most religions are passed from generation to generation. Most of the indoctrination work is done at an early developmental stage in a child’s life so there is very little (if any) resistance. Children generally don’t question their parents — especially if doing so results in extreme anger and intolerance. This is not the fault of the parents, but the programming of the cult. Early indoctrination is the most deeply-seated, and generally the most difficult to un-seat. This indoctrination results in the fundamental fabric of a child -> person -> adult’s world view, so everything else they learn will be built on top of the fundamental “truth” of the cult/religion.
There are many more defense mechanisms, including relationship and marriage controls, as well as ex-communication to prevent a “bad seed” from infecting other members. There are even examples of specific poison vectors, such as a certain popular cult’s programmed aversion to psychiatrists (safely not naming this one — look it up) to prevent folks from being dissuaded.
The final puzzle piece to establish the truly break-away status of a cult to a religion is full self-compliance. This is the point where each member of the cult — from the top to the bottom — is fully indoctrinated themselves, and the psychological mechanisms are functioning well enough to maintain momentum. Growth is strong. Churn is low. Geography is expanding. Everyone is on board with the program. Go team go!
To close with a biological analogy — a cult/religion has a lot in common with a virus or bacteria. A very key point one must also realize — is that with any virus or bacteria, the relationship with the host can be either symbiotic or parasitic. Do not discount the value of the golden egg. It may be very worth all of the potential negatives to successfully spread the great positive of that golden egg. Viruses are used as vector hosts for vaccines. Some bacteria are required for human digestion. Some combinations are even required to keep certain species alive.
Just because something is a cult or a religion does not make it a bad thing. It is just something that is best understood from a clear perspective. If/when a person decides to leave a cult, they only need unravel the “golden egg” from whatever labyrinth of twine the cult wrapped it in to claim it as their own. They need only describe it in plain english and strip away the ritual to understand what value the cult was truly providing them with. Generally, a person gets to keep the golden egg for themselves, if they want to.
Next essay: Math and Nature