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Cult, Gang, or New Religious Movement?

by | About Manipulative Groups, About Undue Influence

The Open Minds Foundation is not a counter-cult  group, though totalist cults are part of our purview. We are opposed to all forms of totalitarianism and seek to educate the public about the techniques these groups use. We also want to share what we have learned about the natural propensity to compliance in social settings. Totalist groups would fail if every child could see their lures for what they are.

Our remit is broader than ‘cults’; however, let us define a few terms to help us through the minefield of opinions surrounding this subject.

Sociologists often shy away from the term cult, because it has acquired a negative taint in the media. The proposed alternative – new religious movement (NRM) – is often inaccurate, because many contemporary cults have no religious pretensions, for instance, Landmark Forum or the Larouchies. Other NRMs, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which dates back to the 1870s, are not particularly new.

The term ‘cult’ is much debated. According to the Oxford Dictionary, a cult gives ‘devotion to a particular person or thing’, especially devotion by a ‘body of professed adherents’. The word has taken on a pejorative connotation in the media, but I accept the neutral dictionary definition, so my concern is for totalist or destructive cults where the leadership dictates and controls the behaviour of members without regard to their civil and human rights.

Wikipedia tells us that ‘Totalitarianism is a political system where the state recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life…’[1] The term was first used in the 1920s to describe Mussolini’s fascism. After WWII, the term was shortened to ‘totalist’ (not to be confused with the more recent musical school) and commentators such as Hannah Arendt and Robert Jay Lifton adopted it to describe the practices of totalitarian groups.

Soon after I left Scientology – over 30 years ago – I came to see that group as a microcosm of any controlling group. I identify totalist cults by their authoritarian nature and their deliberate use of methods of control.

A group of experts under the direction of Professor Louis Jolyon West, MD, arrived at this definition for a ‘totalist cult:

‘A group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethical, manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the possible or actual detriment of members, their families or the community.’[2]

Over the years, I’ve focused not only on religious cults – from ancient Greek mystes to Moonies – I’ve also looked at political cults, gangs and terrorist groups. I realized long ago that all such groups rely upon social compliance and ways of amplifying normal behaviour to entrap and control their  members.

I am often asked if a particular group is a ‘cult’. I always say that this is not the essential point. Instead, I want to know if the group is harmful to its members. Some ‘cults’ provide a refuge and society for their members. Devotion to a leader is not of itself harmful (though such devotion easily becomes excessive), but the devotion demanded by a totalist cult is always harmful. Where people sacrifice their health, their assets and every moment of their time to a group, we are probably looking at a totalist cult.

Reading about the English teenage gangs of the nineteenth century[3] or the Hell’s Angels, Crips or Bloods in our own time shows that such groups have the attributes of other totalist cults, most especially in their contempt for the rest of humanity and their anti-social behaviour. The Mafia fits well into the definition of a totalist cult too. In criminal gangs, phobia is based upon the threat of bodily harm, rather than emotional or spiritual deprivation .

Racist ‘Supremacist’ groups also fit the profile; as do Islamist terrorists. It is shocking to see how easily suicide bombers are recruited. In a society where hope is lost, and injustice is sorely felt, it is easy to recruit teenagers and within a few days deploy them as living weapons .[4]

Recruiters make the recruit feel powerful and important: a heroic contributor to a godly society. They induce phobia, guilt and/or disgust and the dynamics of normal social compliance.

It is vital to understand that members of totalist cults – including suicide bombers – are not suffering from depression or any other mental illness. If anything, they suffer from idealism, and that idealism is perverted in the service of an anti-social leadership. While followers are not mentally ill, the leaders all too often suffer from anti-social personality disorder. They lack fellow-feeling and are self-involved narcissists.

We sincerely believe that children should be educated so that they ask questions rather than simply complying with orders. We sincerely believe that courteous assertion is preferable to aggression, so we argue for agreeable disagreement. We sincerely believe that a better world will result with a more general understanding of the tricks and traps of manipulation. Please join the debate!

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s new book? Do you have a story about manipulative groups that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!

[1] Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Totalitarianism

[2] Definition formulated, in 1985, at a Conference on Cults and Society arranged by the American Family Foundation, chaired by Professor Louis Jolyon West, M.D., cited by Singer & Addis, Cults, Coercion, and Contumely, published in eds. Kales, Pearce & Greenblatt, The Mosaic of Contemporary Psychiatry in Perspective, Springer-Verlag, NY, 1992. Also cited in West & Martin. See Singer & Lalich, Cults in Our Midst, for a thorough definition of ‘cult’ attributes.

[3] Andrew Davies, Gangs of Manchester

[4] Ariel Merari, Driven to Death