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Monday, February 17, 2014

How to Start Your Own Cult

Every year in a Humanities course I teach, I present a unit titled, “How to Start Your Own Cult.”  Naturally, it isn’t designed to encourage real cult-building.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  It’s designed to make students immune to the manipulation that can lead to cult-like membership of any kind.

My unit focuses on modes of social discourse, primarily how unscrupulous people with a knack for language, social coercion, and psychological manipulation can subtly pressure us into buying an appliance we don’t need, donating to a cause we don’t care about, or, yes, even turning our free will over to a dynamic cult leader.

Even my naming that school unit the way I do is an example of subtle coercion, piquing the interest of students by sounding like forbidden fruit.  Inevitably, one or more students will ask me: “Are we really allowed to be learning this?  How to make a cult?”

I invariably reply: “Yes.  But you must swear only to use your powers for good.”


That’s a good question.  I won’t answer it to your satisfaction.  That’s because no one can answer it satisfactorily.  The word “cult” has come a long way since its early use as a positive term signifying a religious group with a particular focus.  Within early Catholicism it was almost the equivalent of our current terms “sect” or “denomination.”  In the latter half of the 20th century, however, the word developed a universally negative connotation in English.  It became vogue to apply the damning term to anyone with whom we disagreed theologically or philosophically.  In under five Google minutes of what I’ll laughingly call research, I managed to find:
  • Protestants calling Roman Catholicism a cult
  • Calvinists calling the Word of Faith movement a cult
  • Evangelicals calling Calvinism a cult
  • Republicans calling the Democratic Party a cult
  • Democrats calling the Tea Party a cult
  • Mean people calling the My Little Pony craze a cult

Don’t like something?  Call it a cult.  By applying that name, the implication is that right thinking people … you know, rational, sober people like you and me … wouldn’t give in to the lies and manipulations of a group that embraces heresy and falsehood.  The leaders of those groups (we tell ourselves) are already too far gone to help, but we can still rescue the unwitting victims, the weak of mind who were tricked into believing the lies thrust upon them through brainwashing or worse.  If we could reach them … break them off from the cult, make them see reason, even deprogram them while keeping them in isolation for a time … we’d be doing them and the world a great service!

And acting a little, um, cult-like ourselves, I guess.

And scattered therein are the elements of my not-very-satisfying definition of a cult, for the purposes of this blog post: It is an organization that knowingly uses mental and social manipulation and coercion to make you dependent on their ideas, their society, their worldview, and their leaders.  I’ll be the first to say that that definition is overly broad, maybe even unfairly so.  But as a starting point, it helps focus us on the path toward a much more interesting question:

If you were a member of a Christian cult, would you even know it?

By learning the steps of cult-building, you have a tool that might open your eyes to manipulation you hadn’t noticed before.


Any decent salesperson can tell you that the key to closing a sale is to lead a prospect to a point where you ask, “What one thing is keeping you from buying this product?” When you get the prospective customer to verbalize that one thing, you sell against that single objection, showing how it isn’t as much a barrier as the customer thought.  Objection answered, the prospect has no other hurdle, and the sale is that much nearer.

Cult leaders are more than decent salespeople.  They’re masters.  The best of them can give you the feeling that an objection has been answered long before you’ve verbalized it.  If I were designing my own cult, here are some of the steps I’d take to add members to my growing cult empire.

CULT BUILDING STEP 1: I’d Create and Define an Enemy

Nothing unites like opposition.  Consider, for example, the rise and fall of the Baha’i religion.  Viewed as a heretical cult in Persia (Iran) of the mid-1800s, the faith suffered over 20,000 martyrdoms in its first decade … and, having the common enemy of Islam as the force uniting them, grew dramatically in the following half-century.  That time of persecution represented their greatest growth spurt; once they came to the United States, growth stayed tepid except for a brief increase in the 1970s, when society itself was cast as the enemy.  Since those days, little has happened.  Without a defined enemy, the faith languishes with a U.S. membership under two hundred thousand.  By way of comparison, that’s fewer people than those who signed petitions last month to have Justin Bieber deported back to Canada.

As an Alpha Cult Leader, my first job would be to clearly identify something that my people can be against.  And I mean vehemently against, something that embodies pure evil.  I can do this by pointing my finger at something that exists – Big Pharma, the Government, Evolutionists, Born Agains, White People – or, failing that, I can invent an enemy who doesn’t exist in any organized manner, but who’ll embody whatever attributes I prefer to oppose – a Secular Humanist Cabal, the Illuminati, a Post-Modernist Agenda, the Liberal Media, Lizard Overlords, The Bush 9/11 Conspiracists.  The point is this: In the absence of any actual persecution, I need to make my first followers feel keenly that they are being oppressed by a force they have no hope of overcoming.  Banding together as victims of the common Enemy is their only option.

CULT BUILDING STEP 2: I’d Declare, “Act Now, Seats Limited!”

Infomercials underwent an interesting development in our lifetime.  Gone (nearly) is the assurance that “Operators are standing by!” and in its place is the advice, “If you get a busy signal, try again!”  The change was a conscious one.  The idea that operators were standing by led, inadvertently, to mental images of vast phone banks peopled by bored operators who were getting very little business.  The replacement phrase, encouragement to keep trying when phones were busy, painted a different picture in the consumer’s mind – active phone banks, many calls, and should you get through … well, hey, you’re one of the lucky few!  You made it!

To make your purchase feel special, marketers set artificial limits.  That limit might be time (“Call within the next 30 minutes for your discount!”), quantities (“Due to high demand, a maximum of 4 items per caller!”), or both (“Jesus is coming within the next 3 years, and only 144,000 will be saved!”)

Yes, that last example jumped from sales to cults.  The Catastrophist Christian Cults of the mid-1800s and later used this sales technique to great effect.  Accepting Christ and their leader wasn’t an open-ended deal.  Time was limited.  At any moment, the Second Coming could occur and those not accepted to the in-group might not be part of the exclusive club that escapes the Enemy’s wrath.  Hey, we don’t take just anyone!  But we might take you.

As an Alpha Cult Leader, I want a similar effect.  Not just anyone gets to wander up to my place of cultifying and grab a seat.  My invitations would have a cap (“We only have ten extra seats tonight”), and I’d require admission credentials (“You’re with Karen?  Good; we prefer to seat those who come with one of our members!”)  I’d imply a time limit (“We had to turn away a couple groups of people last week because they arrived too late.”)  And I’d make use of that enemy I conjured up in step one (“We’ve had a few cases where atheists [or government agents, or PETA activists, or global warming deniers] tried to sneak in here so they could spy and disrupt.  You don’t seem to be one of those sorts.”)

Letting you into our exclusive club doesn’t just make us look special.  It makes you feel special, and that’s the point.  We’re winning you.

CULT BUILDING STEP 3: I’d Play “The Humble Confessor”

Nobody likes perfect people.  Oh, we claim we do, especially here in America.  We love our heroes.  But you know what we like more than that?  We love to see our heroes fall, because it reminds us that nobody’s perfect … and if even the best people aren’t perfect, then there’s an outside shot for the rest of us poor slobs.

As an Alpha Cult Leader, I will not allow you to discover accidentally that I’m imperfect.  Instead, I’ll be the one to tell you.  I will stand up in front of my growing congregation and declare, “Remember, you’re not here for Reverend Yolanda.  You’re not here because Reverend Yolanda has anything special to offer you.  You’re here because there’s something bigger than all of us!  And it’s a good thing, too, because if you knew the weaknesses of Reverend Yolanda, the faults in her heart – how she can sometimes become angry at a moment’s notice in the face of cruel unbelievers; how she sometimes feels too tired to go on and has to turn to the Mighty Power to lift her weak self; how she sometimes doubts and says, Is this marvelous ministry what you want me to do, Oh Power, is it really this wondrous thing you’re calling me to?” … well, if you could see those faults clearly, you’d know that whenever Reverend Yolanda lifts her hands to the sky, it’s so she can get one small, meager use from this sinful body, and that’s to point to the Power Above!”

How honest I sound!  How willing to open my soul!  How inspiring to those who are also weak!

Notice, though, a couple things.  First is the distancing trick of referring to myself in the third person … not saying “I” but instead saying “Reverend Yolanda.”  If you listen closely to your favorite preachers, you’ll hear that technique used a lot.  The trick simultaneously (1) keeps you a little distanced from me, so you remember I’m a touch higher; (2) distances me from the faults I’ve listed for myself, discretely creating the impression I’m above the sins as well; and (3) creates a “second” me who is standing there next to you, as human as you are, and simultaneously admiring me from beside you.

Take a look, too, at the faults I assign myself.  I have a temper (in the face of evil); I get tired (because I do so much for all of you); I doubt (in the face of the marvels the Power does through me).  In effect, I’m saying I’m wonderful to a fault.  You have simultaneous feelings that I’m open about my humanity and frailty, but also that I’m the most amazing person you’ve ever met.  Let’s face it, that’s something that can’t be achieved by confessions like, “When I finish preaching, I do five shots of Grey Goose and find me an orgy to relax.”  There are confessions … and then there are confessions that help grow the cult.  As your Alpha Cult Leader, I am careful to reveal the latter only.

CULT BUILDING STEP 4: I’d Make You Secretly Special

Once you’ve come to my cult meeting a few times … once I’ve made sure you have the sense of how wonderfully human and stunningly above you I am … I will find the perfect moment to get you alone.  I’ll keep you in the crowd, since I want the buzz of the congregation serving as background sound while I speak to you.  You’ll be surprised that I waved you over to the side.  As far as you could tell, I didn’t even know you existed!  But here you are, being called over by the Reverend Yolanda!  For a second you feel panic.  Did you do something wrong?  Is this a bad thing?

“Hey,” I say to you, putting a hand on your shoulder and looking around to be sure no one is overhearing us (a trick that makes you keenly aware that the whole place probably notices I’ve called you aside).  “I have to tell you … I get such a powerful feeling of the Mighty Power when I see you worshipping here.  It’s as if you really have a direct connection to the Mighty Awesomeness.  I envy you.  It took me so many years to find that state in myself, and I can’t tell you how inspiring it is for me to see you clicking with it immediately, as if you have a special calling on your life.  I just felt I had to tell you that.  Thank you for inspiring me.”

Boom.  Did you just hear that?  Did that just happen, here, in front of everyone, you and the Reverend Yolanda sharing a secret … a secret that you inspire her?  That you have a gift?  That you connect to the Mighty Force of the Cult?  Holy moley!  That Reverend Yolanda … she is so insightful!

CULT BUILDING STEP 5: I’d Have You Do Me A Favor

Now that I have you coming to the cult, and I have you admiring the cult leader, and I have you feeling important in the cult, I have one more thing to do to make you feel obliged to us.  I’ll ask you for a favor, preferably something that inconveniences you a little.  Or even a lot.

You might think I have that backwards.  Wouldn’t you feel more indebted to me if I did you a favor, instead of asking you to do me one?  Believe it or not, no.  According to research summarized by Noah J. Goldstein in his book Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, the key to remembering a favor is to be the one to do it, not to be the one to get the benefits.  If I ask you to drive me to a charity event one Sunday, you will remember doing that favor for a lot longer than I’ll remember having received it.

Goldstein tells the story of how Ben Franklin was disliked personally by a member of the Continental Congress.  Franklin solved that problem by asking to borrow a rare volume from the man’s library, and asking that the man put himself out by delivering it personally to Franklin’s home.  Franklin held on to the book for a while, returned it with copious thanks, and the two became fast friends for the rest of their lives.  Franklin knew the trick: If I ask you for a favor, you begin to redefine yourself as the sort of person who’s nice enough to do me a big favor.  You feel better about yourself, you remember doing your favor for a long time, and you begin to see me in a more favorable light as well.  After all, you wouldn’t do favors for just anybody.

As your Alpha Cult Leader, I would wait until you were just beginning to feel comfortable at my cult meetings, and then I would hit you up for a favor.  The favor wouldn’t involve money.  It would involve your time and effort.  Would you be able to pick up three youths who come to our sessions and need a ride weekly?  Or would you be interested in helping out on our Kitchen Cult Yummy Squad?  Or would you lend your building talents to the new addition on the Cult Cave?  I’d pick the favor that best matched your talents, I’d make sure it actually cost you time and effort.  I would be ever in your debt, as you grew to find yourself more and more in my pocket.  After all, you’re the sort of person who does favors for the Alpha Cult Leader.  That’s who you are.  That’s how you see yourself.


As I said at the beginning, I obviously don’t want you to go out and start your own cult.  The purpose of thinking in these terms is to train your mind to see the manipulations.  Any one of these steps, when considered in itself, is harmless and healthy.  But when you start seeing clusters of manipulative language and behaviors, it’s time to pause and consider the spirit behind the organization and its leaders.

Just maybe, if you find yourself a member of a Christian Cult, you’ll be able to spot it in time.

Marana Tha,
Cosmic Parx


  1. Your a cult leader and you know it, lol! Oh by the way can you come pick me up in Florida? I want to go skiing!

    1. No skiing for you until your donations are up higher!

  2. Eep, i thunk you meant to reveal, the former in step 3 :-) then I'll sign up