I have been asked to recommend 10 books which are either directly about cults, or are about subjects related to the phenomenon of cults. After much soul searching, I composed a list of 10 books, and here they are:
Books about the cult phenomenon and “brainwashing”:
1. Cults in Our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace (1996, 2003) by Margaret Thaler Singer and Janja Lalich
This book is a fantastic introduction to cults. Singer, a clinical psychologist and a pioneer in the study of undue influence, wrote the quintessential work about cults. This book, (which is a revised edition of a 1996 book by the same name), is concerned with what cults are, and how they function, but it does not give an account of what it is like to be in a cult, or what to do if a loved one has joined a cult.
2. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China (1961, 1989) by Robert J. Lifton
Robert J. Lifton is one of the giants of the field. This book is a landmark in the field of cultic studies, establishing much of the theoretical groundwork of the field. Most of the book is about thought reform in communist China, based on interviews with returning U.S. soldiers who had been taken prisoner during the Korean War as well as priests and students who spent time in Chinese prisons after 1951.
3. Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults, and Beliefs (2012) by Steven Hassan
While the first two books are focused on understanding the phenomenon of cults and undue influence, this book is much more practical. Drawing on his own involvement with the Unification Church, or Moonies, Steven Hassan gives a highly readable account of the phenomenon of cults, as well as a practical guide to helping people get loved ones away from the influence of such groups. It is important that family members of a person involved with a cult read this book early, since many people make matters worse when communicating with loved ones in cults.
4. Feet of Clay: a Study of Gurus (1996) by Anthony Storr
While cult members are more fundamental to understanding the cult phenomenon in general, cult leaders also deserve attention. In this book Storr offers an analysis of a number of figures he considers to be gurus. Some are classic cult leaders such as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later known as Osho) but others such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung are not the first people one thinks of when considering gurus. While the book is focused too much on the psychology, and not enough on the neurology, of such figures, it nonetheless offers an important analysis of gurus and cult leaders.
Great books which have not made the list include: The Manipulated Mind: Brainwashing, Conditioning and Indoctrination (1983) by Denise Winn; Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse (1993) edited by Michael Langone; and Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control (2006) by Kathleen Taylor.
Books about specific cults:
5. Let’s Sell These People a Piece of Blue Sky: Hubbard, Dianetics and Scientology (1990, 2013) by Jon Atack
This book is a well-written, thorough account of the fascinating history and nature of Scientology. There are many great books about specific cults. Some focus on what it was like to become and be a cult member, others are focused on the biography of a cult leader, and some concern the history of a specific group. Because I do not have room on this top 10 list, only Jon Atack’s wonderful account of Scientology represents this genre of important books (the fact that the author heads the Review Board at the Open Minds Foundation had nothing to do with my choice).
Books which have not made the list, but are nonetheless highly reccomended are: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (2013) by Lawrence Wright; The road to Xenu: Life inside Scientology (2010) by Margaret Wakefield: My billion year contract: Memoir of a former Scientologist (2009) by Nancy Many; Blown for good: Behind the iron curtain of Scientology (2009) by Mark Headley. There are many others.
Books on subjects adjacent to cultic studies
6. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (1974) by Stanley Milgram
Many people have heard of the infamous Milgram experiment, where subjects were instructed by an authority figure to administer electric shocks to an innocent person. Nobody was actually being shocked, and the experiment was designed to test people’s obedience to authority. In this classic book, Milgram offers an account of the 16 different variants of his famous experiment. His analysis of the subject gives an insightful look at the nature of authority specifically and human nature in general.
7. Contemporary Theories of Religion: A Critical Companion (2009) Edited by Michael Stausberg
This book is a collection of 15 articles, each giving a summery and a review of a book about a theory of religion. It offers a good introduction to different views in religious studies in general and evolutionary accounts of religion specifically.
8. The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, & Critiques (2008) Edited by Joseph Bulbulia, Richard Sosis, Erica Harris, Russell Genet, Cheryl Genet, and Karen Wyman
This is a collection of 50 short essays about various theories concerning evolutionary accounts of the phenomenon of religiosity. Some of these are better than others, especially since some of the authors come at the subject from the problematic point of view of the “cognitive science of religion”. Nonetheless, the book offers a good overview of the subject, as of 2008.
9. Varieties of Anomalous Experiences (2000, 2013) edited by Etzel Carde–a, Steven Jay Lynn and Stanley Krippner
This collection of essays is concerned with strange experiences. It includes chapters on Near-Death Experiences, Past-Life Experiences, Hallucinatory Experiences, Lucid Dreaming, Alien Abduction Experiences, Mystical Experience and others.
The (objective) study of subjective experiences is largely neglected in books about cult involvement. Most of them focus on doctrines, behaviors, group dynamics, and other important aspects of the phenomenon, but the subjective experiences people have, especially anomalous experiences, is not given the serious attention it deserves.
10. The Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs (1987) by Michael Persinger
While the previous book concerns experiences from a psychological point of view, this book tackles them from a neurological perspective. Even though the book is almost 30 years old, and its opinion regarding the function of religion is wanting, it is a very thoughtful and highly readable introduction to the neurology and nature of what the author calls “god experiences”.
Persinger describes patients with neurological impairments, particularly temporal lobe epileptics, that cause them to become “hyper-religious”. Through understanding the hyper-religiosity that can come about after a specific brain injury, Persinger offers a fascinating theory of religiosity and religious experiences.
Another good book about the religiosity of temporal lobe epileptics is Seized (2000) by Eve LaPlante.
Books which have not made the list include: The Origins of Totalitarianism (1973) by Hannah Arendt; Crowds and Power (1962) by Elias Canetti; The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976) by Julian Jaynes; Changing Expectations: A Key to Effective Psychotherapy (1990) by Irving Kirsch; How Religion Works: Towards a New Cognitive Science of Religion (2003) by Ilkka PyysiŠinen; A Sociology of Religious Emotion (2010) by Ole Riis and Linda Woodhead; and, finally, the hilarious The Savvy Convert’s Guide to Choosing a Religion (2008,) which has been written anonymously.
Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Which books on your shelf should we include in future lists? We’d love to hear from you!
Arendt, H. (1973). The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
Atack, J. (2013). Let’s sell these people a piece of blue sky: Hubbard, Dianetics and Scientology. River Forest, IL: Richard Woods.
Bulbulia, J., Sosis, R., Harris, E., Genet, R., Genet, C., & Wyman, K. (Eds.). (2008). The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, & Critiques. Santa Margarita, CA: Collins Foundation Press.
Canetti, E. (1962). Crowds and power. London: Gollancz.
Carde–a, E., Lynn, S. J., & Krippner, S. (2000). Varieties of anomalous experience: examining the scientific evidence. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Hassan, S. (2012). Freedom of mind: helping loved ones leave controlling people, cults and beliefs. Newton, MA: Freedom of Mind Press.
Headley, M. (2009). Blown for good: Behind the iron curtain of Scientology. Burbank, CA: BFG Books Inc.
Jaynes, J. (1976). The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Kirsch, I. (1990). Changing expectations: A key to effective psychotherapy. Pacific Grove, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.
Langone, M. D. (Ed.). (1993). Recovery from cults: Help for victims of psychological and spiritual abuse. London: W. W. Norton & Co.
LaPlante, E. (2000). Seized: Temporal lobe epilepsy as a medical, historical, and artistic phenomenon. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Lifton, R. J. (1989). Thought reform and the psychology of totalism: a study of “brainwashing” in China. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Many, N. (2009). My billion year contract: Memoir of a former Scientologist. La Vergne, TN: CNM Publishing.
Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Persinger, M. A. (1987). Neuropsychological bases of God beliefs. New York, NY: Praeger.
PyysiŠinen, I. (2003). How religion works: towards a new cognitive science of religion. Leiden: Brill.
Riis, O., & Woodhead, L. (2010). A sociology of religious emotion. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Singer, M. T. (2003). Cults in our midst (Revised edition). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Stausberg, M. (Ed.). (2009). Contemporary Theories of Religion: A Critical Companion (1 edition). London; New York: Routledge.
Taylor, K. (2006). Brainwashing: The science of thought control. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
The Savvy Convert’s Guide to Choosing a Religion. (2008). Venice, Calif.; Hove: Knock Knock Books.
Wakefield, M. (2010). The road to Xenu: Life inside Scientology. Lexington, KY: lulu.com.
Winn, D. (1983). The manipulated mind: brainwashing, conditioning, and indoctrination. London: Octagon Press.
Wright, L. (2013). Going clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the prison of belief. New York, NY: Knopf.