I've been reading a lot about cults lately. First I read Dear Leader and Escape from Camp 14, about the cult of Kim in North Korea. Then I read Prophet's Prey, about Warren Jeffs and his branch of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints. I've previously read The 19th Wife, about polygamy in early Mormonism. Now I'm finishing up Going Clear, a critical look at Scientology. I did online research and learned about the Order of the Solar Temple, which should be cited more often here in North America. And Eastern Lightning. And a whole bunch of other cults.
Years ago, I used to joke that I should start my own religion. I said, "I write science fiction. Wouldn't it be nice to have thousands of worshipers who sell my books for me?"
I was joking, of course. The only way to describe someone who fakes being a messiah is a con artist. And the only way to cement an unquestioning congregation is to do immoral things. It's not just a matter of telling a couple of lies. It entails a lifetime of false promises, threats, and backing up those threats. A fallible human can't have a live pipeline to the Truth without a team to confirm it. Over decades of working together closely and secretively, the team develops in-fighting. One member who defects with the cult's secrets can ruin everything. So they need to be bound by a web of threats.
After all this reading, I've come to realize that starting a cult is much more difficult than it appears. Even if we leave aside morality, there's decades of very dedicated work involved. Cult leaders have specific personal traits in common. Those traits include megalomaniacal ambition, and ignoring family in favor of work. Running the cult is their life. We hear about cult leaders who are middle-aged or older because it takes decades for a cult to grow to a degree where news media picks up on it. Even leaders who inherit a cult, such as Kim Jong Il and Warren Jeffs, worked behind the scenes for decades in order to wrest power away from competitors and cement their absolute authority. (Kim Jong Un is an exceptionally young leader, but there is doubt that his authority is absolute.)
People quibble about how to define a cult, and indeed, the definition is fuzzy. The Raelians and the Unification Church are considered cults, but over the decades, they've proved to be mostly harmless. It should be noted that they're spread out and don't have an isolation policy. Some religions have a prophet/Pope, or several such prophets--but mainstream religious sects don't have a leader with absolute authority. The dangerous cults all seem to have a leader whom members can never question or challenge. Members who try to quit are punished, and secrecy is enforced in order to hide crimes. That's the sort of cult I'm talking about in this article.
Many mainstream religions incorporate guilt and atonement, but dangerous cults take this to an extreme. Members are encouraged to atone for the slightest infraction, as often as possible, and remain in a constant state of guilt. Studies on sociology confirm a human instinct: Guilt and shame are crucial to resolving conflict in a healthy society or relationship. If one partner feels no remorse while the other partner always takes the blame, the relationship turns abusive. Religious cults replicate an abusive relationship on a massive scale. The leaders of the cult feel no remorse while the larger membership is constantly atoning.
Cult founders seem to share traits in common. Some of those traits are no surprise: Minor criminal charges prior to starting the cult, narcissism, a history of mental illness, and a history of making grand claims. I was surprised by other traits that kept showing up among these infamous men. Most cult leaders have a history of multiple sex partners or wives, and a great many children. They claim to value family and marriage as holy, yet neglect their own families. They marry underage girls. They have one long-term wife or partner who enables their tycoon lifestyle and whose support is vital. You might expect a cult founder to have been abused as a child, but many seem to come from stable or privileged homes. They downplay their parents and sometimes banish them from their lives. They were mediocre students who had trouble making friends or dating when they were young. They tend to be writers or painters, on top of being spiritual philosophers. No matter how much sex, material assets, or worshipers they gain, they grow increasingly hard to appease. They demand impossible projects and punish faithful members on a whim. Outsiders describe them as pathetic and sullen, while worshipers describe them as grandfatherly or jovial. They're distrustful of everyone and are often described as paranoid.
I wonder if they're on a quest for people who respect them without enabling their sociopathic behavior. Many cult founders seem to have been disparaged by teachers or classmates when they were kids. Typical cult founders seem to have malignant narcissism; they might grow up believing that teachers and classmates were too stupid or self-absorbed to recognize a true genius. The future cult founder gains respect when he makes grandiose claims, such as "I heard God talking to me." Untroubled by a sense of morality, he spends decades honing his ability to make grandiose claims. His burgeoning confidence allows him to attract friends. But he's troubled by his own lack of morality. He observe morality in friends and know something is amiss. So he explores spirituality. After decades of soul-searching, he's convinced that he has gained True Wisdom and he alone has the One True Answer. He believes he's figured out how to be happy and moral. His certainty draws people on a similar spiritual quest. Surrounded by awe-struck sycophants, his immoral nature and predatory instincts leads to temptation. He caves into temptation and commits a crime--child molestation or adultery--and rationalizes it by assuming it's what God wants. After all, he's already established his own wisdom. Now he has a perfect excuse to avoid feeling guilt or remorse. So he does it again. And again. Inwardly, he's terrified that his congregation will call him out and accuse him of being a criminal, but the congregation is taken in by every lie and excuse. So the 'messiah' loses respect for his congregation and grows bolder.
There's my unofficial criminal profile of a cult founder. I'll use it in a future novel! My fictional cult leader will be female, like they almost never are, but what the hey.
The other half of the cult equation--the faithful congregation--should not be ignored or excused. Adults who join a cult of their own free will are enablers. It's easy to see them as victims, since they often give away all their worldly possessions and endure torture. Some cults commit mass suicide, or force members into labor camps or terrible living conditions that lead to death. But it should not be forgotten that faithful members will give away their own children to be raped by a cult leader, believing it will lead salvation. They're desperate for someone they trust to control their lives and make all their important decisions--because deep down, they don't trust themselves.
A rare cult member will break away when pushed to an extreme. For instance, a pregnant Scientologist left when her punishment led to her baby nearly dying from lack of care. A polygamist Fundamentalist Mormon left when his wife and children were reassigned to someone else. North Koreans risk their lives to escape starvation and death camps. Yet the overwhelming majority of cult members will put up with all this and more. They'll become a living bomb, or feed toxic Kool-Aid to their kids, if their cult leader demands it.
The victims are the world governments--taxpaying citizens--who unwittingly or unwillingly support a cult. Most cults have a pool of eager slave labor, so wealth is easy for them. They have systematic approaches to any legal trouble they run into. They're more like governments than corporations; founded on ideology and protected by a militia. They win in courts, they win welfare aid, and sometimes they win sympathy from the general population by owning the news station or selling propaganda. They're more powerful than most organized crime rings, and more of a resource drain on the nations that shelter them.
Children raised in a cult should also be considered victims. Everyone deserves basic human rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Children in cults don't get the latter two. Little girls in cults tend to be married before they're old enough to know what sex is. If they try to escape, they're kidnapped, and their family is threatened with bankruptcy, ostracism, or torture. Child brides are basically slaves. Boys in cults tend to be forced into child labor, which is also a form of slavery. They're not given a choice. They cannot grow up to fulfill their human potential to pursue happiness. Liberty is a foreign concept to them.
Religious tolerance is an important principle, necessary for freedom; the basic human right of liberty. I'm all for allowing Wiccans to call the four corners. Satanists can have their private nude rituals with consenting adults. But basic human rights must take priority over religious status. If a religious organization kills or enslaves its members, or anyone else, then it ought to lose its status as a protected entity, and be considered hostile and criminal.
Cults rarely cross the murder line, although some indirectly kill members through neglect or mistreatment. If legal action against cults is to succeed, it should probably focus on enslavement: child brides, child labor, and unpaid adult laborers. Basic human rights violations should prove that the organization does not deserve legal protection.