Cults, and the Cult-Antidote: Why Cults are Scary but Worth Studying
NXIVM, Dilbert, and why good people do weird things
People are often terrified of cults.
This fear isn’t entirely unjustified.
Nobody wants to wind up spiritual cannon-fodder for some slick-talking guru on an ego trip.
But it happens. Not often. But when it does, we hear about it.
In this way, cults are sometimes like plane crashes: we only hear about them when they go wrong. Few people are experts in cults. (We aren’t.) But many people throw the word around. But many potential “cults” are simple, everyday “groups” or “organizations.” They’re generally harmless, until they take a strange turn for the worse and become something else. What’s the exact difference between a “cult” and, say, a really tight group, anyway?
The line is often blurry.
But there is a line.
(The difference between encouraging people to think for themselves, on the one hand, verses telling them what to think, one the other, is one example. But that kind of thing can be hard to see from the outside.)
Point being, that line becomes extremely clear when they implode spectacularly.
When that happens - like with NXIVM, for example - it gets attention.
There are powerful forces at play here.
These are often forces that even charismo-narcissist cult leaders themselves don’t always entirely understand.
Cults can destroy lives, ruin relationships and careers. They can result in bankruptcy, emotional trauma, and even death. At their worst, they’re bad, bad things.
They’re also weird in a way few things are today.
They aren’t “scary” in the way bears or snakes are “scary.” We understand snakes and bears pretty well. Cults, though, are unsettling on a deeper level. They don’t really fit in our domesticated, mass-produced, shrink-wrapped modern world. For this reason, they’re often hard to talk about in polite society. They’re raw. They touch on levels that are deeply personal in our weird and increasingly impersonal modern environment. Because of all this, they’re almost taboo, just like other deeply personal topics like addictions, suicide, and therapy. This recipe of being deeply personal and yet taboo can combine to make them mysterious and fascinating.
What lies at the bottom? It’s often a fear of something we don’t really understand well. It’s the trusty old “fear of the unknown.”
It’s also unsettling.
After all, when we hear about cults like NXIVM, we instinctively ask: how and why do seemingly ordinary, sane, rational people wind up doing such obviously crazy things?
That can be a truly unsettling question.
And if we follow the thread of clues surrounding this unsettledness, it can lead us to even more potentially unsettling questions – but this time, about ourselves.
Questions like this: “If I see myself as relatively sane and rational, does that mean I could wind up doing crazy things under certain conditions, too?”
There’s often good reason to be unsettled about this line of thinking.
Because there’s often truth to it.
For many of us, these are doors we’re simultaneously fascinated by and afraid to open.
“The Push,” a show by Derren Brown currently on Netflix, asks a question: can we take a seemingly ordinary, well-adjusted person, drop them into certain circumstances, and get them to knowingly and deliberately commit murder?
To be clear: these aren’t just getting punk’d or “candid camera” pranks. It’s about a person deciding to commit murder. (Or at least, what they think is murder.)
Spoiler alert: the results aren’t exactly reassuring about human nature.
And it gets worse: this isn’t an outlier. Other research such as the Stanford Prison Experiment, the Blue Eyes Brown Eyes exercises, the Milgram research, and so on, confirm this. It all takes us into Heart of Darkness territory, pretty quickly.
There’s plenty of debate about how much “progress” psychology has really made – or not made – when it comes to making people happy and healthy. But when it comes to bringing out the darker dimensions of human beings – well, we seem to have gotten a pretty good handle on that.
All of this can raise serious questions about do-it-yourself spirituality, the Church of Oprah, and some “just tell ‘em what they want to hear!” approaches like “The Secret.” The whole business can all start looking dangerously naïve. We’re all Sorcerer’s Apprentices now.
But there’s also another side to this.
There are ways that, whether it’s your cup of tea or not, we need to learn about it.
At this point, it might just be a matter of self-defense.
The basic idea is to safeguard our sanity and psychological health.
If we want to protect our minds, hearts, emotional lives and our ability to make sense of life, then it might be a good idea to learn at least a few things about cults and how they operate.
There’s reason for caution here. Even learning can carry risks. There’s such a thing as “dangerous knowledge.” We can “learn” about heroin, for example. But that “knowledge” can come at a steep price. Some lessons, it seems, are best left unlearned. Or at least, it’s much better to learn them the easy way than the hard way.
We can unpack this a little more.
There’s the “evolution of human knowledge.”
We often assume our acquisition of knowledge always progresses in a positive direction. That is, “learning is always a good thing,” and “any new knowledge is progress.”
But this view might be naïve.
Chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons are good examples. We’ve “learned” how to create and deploy these. If possible, in a fantasy world, we might want to rewind the tape, go back in time, and un-invent them.
But we can’t. At this point, we just know: “we’ve discovered and invented these dangerous things. Maybe they can be used to do good things. But they can most definitely be used to do bad things.”
This parallels some developments in psychology.
Human beings have now discovered some pieces of what is essentially the scientific discipline of persuasion.
Some individuals spend decades studying this in universities, and then sell this knowledge to the highest bidders. These “high bidders” might be corporations and politicians, just to name two examples. Corporations and politicians (do we need to say this?) don’t always have the highest ideals of humanity – or your or my best interests – in mind.
That seemingly obvious point needs to be said out loud. Why? Because they’re apparently so good at convincing us otherwise. “I’m selling this to help you.” The best persuasion is invisible. The most brainwashed person never suspects any “brainwashing” has ever taken place. They just “know how it is.”
All to say, this knowledge can be dangerously effective. At one point in time, this was possibly “secret” knowledge. Maybe it was kept secret for good reasons. But today, much of it is more or less out in the open. Whether you are aware of it or not, it’s probably being used on you. It’s probably been used hundreds of times, just today. The extent of its influence often depends on the amount of media you consume, and how critical you are (or aren’t.)
This means anyone who wants to put in the time and effort, generally speaking, can learn a number of things about manipulating and exploiting other people. “Influence” as a kind of dark science has made some genuine “progress,” for better or worse. (Often worse.)
This points us in a certain direction.
One good reason to understand this more deeply is to defend yourself.
It’s becoming more of a necessity for anyone who wants to maintain their psychological health in today’s often toxic environment.
Yet few who have this knowledge want to teach it.
Why? Obviously, they want to keep it to themselves. Revealing it would mean giving up their game. A magician who reveals his tricks soon puts himself out of business. His entire business model depends on fooling people, and when people can’t be fooled anymore, he’s done.
One counter-example of this dynamic is Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip. Adams understands the game, but instead of merely using it against others for his own gain, he exposes the game. He’s built a small cottage industry pulling the curtain back on the techniques others use to play people.
Unfortunately for us, for every Scott Adams who reveals the magicians’ tricks, there are thousands who prefer to use them on others.
This means cults might become more popular, not less.
Advanced persuasion and influence skills might not wreak too much havoc in themselves. The average baloney-detector serves as a kind of immune system against some of this stuff. But another key piece of the puzzle lays the groundwork for these dynamics to become increasingly effective, and common.
This involves widening our view a bit to focus on the bigger picture.
In a nutshell: right now, we’re living through “The Death of God.” It’s what Nietzsche was trying to warn us about a century and a half or so ago. Many individuals – including several Christians – agree that we’re now living through the “Post-Christian” age.
It’s now starting to ramp up and hit its stride. It’s part of why things seem a little weird these days (or more than a little.) And it’s part of why it’s probably going to get more weird.
The basic idea, to be clear, isn’t that a literal bearded sky-Santa literally bought the farm. The actual idea is that we humans are increasingly abandoning traditional organized religion and instead opting for The Way of the Spiritual Rogue. Either that, or deciding that spirituality itself is basically nonsense or unnecessary, which sometimes leads to becoming a dogmatic apatheist.
Some applaud this “Death of God” development as progress. Others see it as a slide into a new Dark Ages.
Wherever you stand in that discussion, this basic dynamic has been under construction and gathering momentum for centuries.
It’s led to at least two key developments.
These are 1) secular humanism, and 2) the “Spiritual but Not Religious.”
This worldview generally depicts religion as a group of premodern, irrational superstitions that we’re often better off abandoning. It sees science, reason, and technology as where the real action is. Religion, at best, is a set of platitudes that are usually an afterthought, a hobby, or a nagging chore we rarely seem to get around to. (When we do get around to it, it’s often done reluctantly, out of guilt and obligation.) In this worldview, religion lives at the periphery. If life is a party, religion is sitting in the corner. Life is really about the tangible and the concrete: relationships, money, status, careers, the day-to-day grind, whatever pleasures we can muster, maybe doing good deeds every so often, etc. “Just do what you want,” basically, just don’t be mean to anyone else.
Some are totally fine with this worldview. Secular humanism “works” for them, it seems.
For others, though, this basic approach doesn’t really work so well.
Secular humanism has genuine benefits. It often gets credit for science and technology (although others describe these as the trust fund babies of religious traditions.) Either way, most of us agree that smartphones, for example, are generally pretty great. Science? Great. No religious groups killing each other? Also great.
That said, there’s also something missing.
Some sense this. But not all, it seems.
For the ones that do sense it, “normal” secular life offers its benefits. Rollable luggage, for example. Great.
But for some, it’s not enough.
It’s one thing to enjoy rollable luggage. It’s another thing to see it as the point of life.
Creature-comforts can be good things. For some, the right cocktail of creature comforts and status symbols eventually add up to something that seems like happiness. Sometimes, this version of happiness is enough that they aren’t searching for more. They see themselves, in so many words, as satisfied. Or at least satisfied enough.
Others aren’t so easily amused.
The buzzkill for them is the human condition itself.
Despite a nonstop stream of hype that continually dangles the promise of pleasures, status symbols, wealth, and so on as The Implied Answer To It All, many are aware of an underlying and inescapable reality that we’re all fundamentally living on The Titanic. However you slice it, life is short, full of struggle, and it ends with a dirt nap. Whatever happens on stage, the basic parameters of the play are fixed. There’s the dimming lights, the spotlight, and the Final Curtain, and these fixed anchors frame anything and everything that happens onstage during the drama of life.
This knowledge can throw a shadow across everything else.
Some acknowledge this existential plight, and their response is to say, basically, “ignore it.” “Enjoy yourself with the most pleasant distractions you can get during the brief time you have. Death could come at any moment. Nothing is certain. Everything seems pointless. Now go enjoy yourself.”
But for some, this outlook leaves a chill in the air that’s hard to ignore. For those who feel this, it can be hard to really “Enjoy that cocktail!” on the deck of the Titanic, in full view of those cold and impersonal icebergs looming on the horizon.
Sometimes, in the chill and shadow of those menacing icebergs, the nonstop parade of continual singing and dancing and costuming can look increasingly silly, ridiculous, and even absurd. The question hangs precariously over it all like the Sword of Damocles: “Do you understand the reality of your actual situation?” Much of modern life, based on the denial of this, can seem hollow, meaningless, and headed precisely nowhere at great speed and with maximum confusion. Not to put too fine a point on it.
Some describe this kind of thinking as “negative.” It’s not cool to be a “downer.” (And being seen as “cool” is what’s important, right?) So, get back to work. Get back to the grind of pretending to have a great time, drinking and dancing on the deck, while you can. If my individuality is an extension of a fancy handbag, so be it.
But for those hearty souls who resonates with these kinds of sentiments, the secular humanism outlook isn’t enough. It just doesn’t satisfy. It’s life in the shallows. Life offers pleasures, but in the long run, they’re petty and fleeting, and they don’t balance out the pains.
Much of this can be summarized in six words.
“There’s a hunger for something more.”
Some recognize, quite clearly, that much of the frenzy of the hurricane of modern life has precisely nothing at the center. The word is “meaningless.” Climbing the ladder leads to the discovery is that there’s nothing at the top. It’s entirely predictable, and it’s been “discovered” too often to count. After reaching the long-elusive goal, the realization dawns that it’s not “The Answer.” After living The Dream (or, the opposite – The Dream collapsing in a smoking pile of rubble), the awareness sometimes comes that the whole thing was all a strange spell, anyway.
The result is disillusionment. It’s a literal “loss of illusion.”
This raises the question: if that wasn’t “IT,” what is?
At this point, traditional religions often step in and offer solutions. “If you’re looking for answers, this is what you’re looking for.”
Yet traditional religions today also fail to satisfy a number of individuals, in some cases, for several reasons. For many, they just don’t work, or don’t make sense.
So, what does a person do when on the one hand, the day-to-day grind of life seems like a pointless, overhyped rat-race – yet on the other, organized religions seem just as off in the opposite direction? The mundane isn’t the answer, but the supernatural isn’t either?
The answer lies in the increasingly popular route of going existentially rogue, or “Spiritual but Not Religious.”
And this - paradoxically - can open the door to cults.
We might thing that by abandoning organizations, we’re moving in the opposite direction of cultiness.
That’s true. But that said: are we really going solo? Or are we hopping around to various groups and teachers? If we go this latter route, we might surprisingly find ourselves in the east by heading west.
We often have a simplistic view of the cult dynamic. We often experience it all from the sidelines, in documentaries that serve the story up with 20/20 hindsight. With hindsight, any stock picker could be a trillionaire. But as Kierkegaard said, life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backward.
The key ingredient our approach in this fashion often misses is the “bait.”
The cliché is that rat poison is 90% food.
It’s the other 10% that the rat has to worry about.
It’s the same with cults.
We all have genuine and powerful needs.
Cults flourish by addressing these needs.
They sometimes even – quite clearly – meet these needs for some, to a degree, and at a price. They often include that extra 10% that we don’t want.
But cults flourish by addressing the needs that the rest of society often either ignores or addresses inadequately. In this sense, cults thrive when the larger society consistently fails to offer answers to meaning, deep relationships, and an outlet for genuine spirituality.
A shallow, celebrity-driven, consumerist culture could be described as one of “soft nihilism.”
It’s essentially life in a giant casino. It means living in an environment surrounded by metaphorical flashing lights, clanging bells, and the glitter of potential fulfillment (aka, “bait.”) We navigate the scene using an undefined amount of credit we’ve been allotted. The object of the “casino owners,” is to play until all your credit has been transferred into their accounts. Then you’re thrown out.
It’s essentially a big human strip-mining operation. It’s been engineered precisely for the purpose of surgically removing you from your valuables just before pocketing your valuables and discarding you. In this scenario, your valuables are the baby, and you are the bathwater.
More and more of modern life is being deliberately constructed along these lines, it seems. It becomes increasingly hard not to play along. It’s a Matrix pod we voluntarily climb into.
But genuine spirituality offers an escape.
When it works, genuine spirituality doesn’t want your money, or even your time, energy, attention, or all the rest. It wants you to flourish. And that’s it. It wants to help you become you. There’s no other ulterior motive. End of story.
It wants you, to use a cliché, to reach your fullest potential. It has no other motive but to help you live the best possible life you can live so you won’t have regrets later. For lack of better words, the sole objective is genuine spiritual awakening. And that’s the only objective.
This can be rare. (And it can also be, by some measures, a thankless task.)
Pretending to be that can become the bait cults use to lure people in.
But if we want the real thing instead, we can walk a different line.
We can reverse this, and turn the tactic against itself.
After all, even discovering this much so far is a kind of “tell” (as in "poker tell.")
How? It can reveal what’s actually going on in the game. And in doing that, it can reveal how to win against it.
Which is to say: the best defense against cults is a healthy spiritual life.
What makes us truly vulnerable to cults? The lack of a healthy spiritual life.
If this is the case, it doesn’t really matter what we “believe.” We might have decided at some point that all spirituality is a load of bull. (If our only experience came from cable television televangelists, that conclusion might not seem entirely unfounded.) But we can compare it to gravity. Gravity “works” whether we believe in it or not. If we declare that “we no longer believe in gravity,” and step off a cliff, we might soon get what they called back in the old days “a lesson.” There are clearly some ways that we don’t “create our own reality.”
If we’re spiritually repressed – if we lack a healthy spiritual life – we can make ourselves vulnerable to anyone who knows the rap and can speak on this level.
Which brings us back to the slick-talking charismo who wants to turn us into spiritual cannon fodder.
So, what can a person do to immunize themselves?
If someone is a seeker, but doesn’t want to wind up as one of those “good person who did some crazy things” stories, what can we do?
Again, the single best defense is a healthy spiritual life. But what, exactly, is a “healthy spiritual life,” and how do you get one? In a nutshell, that can’t be put in a nutshell. Shrink-wrapped, pre-packaged answers don’t really do the trick here. It’s a way of life. It involves asking Big Questions and pursuing answers, to the maximum limits of your ability.
A healthy spiritual life also just gets us on first base. It gives us the ability to walk away from something sketchy, understanding that it isn’t “the only game in town.” It isn’t inoculation. Cults feed on spiritual seekers by promising spiritual growth and delivering something else entirely. So in a way, it’s a double-edged sword. In this sense, it gives you the ability to walk away, but it can also make you a target.
What about something a little more concrete?
One small adjustment that’s relatively easy to make is an attitude adjustment. More specifically, fire up your baloney-detector. This means assuming a position of skepticism. These are mental habits that don’t always come naturally. But the basic strategy looks something like this: Doubt. Verify. Get second and third opinions. Run certain ideas by your hard-nosed, hard-headed friends or family, anyone with no skin in the game aside from your own well-being.
For example, it could be helpful to think – at least sometimes – roughly like this: the world is a jungle. This might seem harsh, but think of it as an antidote to naiveté. To be naïve is to be vulnerable. If you don’t see it that way, it might mean that in the Sahara of the world, you’re a gazelle. Everything seems just dandy until a lion shows up. (To be fair, this might not mean that it’s only a jungle. But – can we be honest here? – a lot of people in the age of lattes seem to have gotten pretty soft.) This means deliberately working to become skeptical, ideally without becoming cynical. Learn to spot ulterior motives and hidden benefits. So, if you haven’t already, a good course is to learn to question motives, follow the money, and spot “what’s in it for them.” This applies especially if you’re naturally a trusting person who looks for the good in others, which can put you at a disadvantage.
Another good route worthwhile defensive measure is to study cult dynamics. This means understanding high-pressure tactics, manipulation and coercion, emotional blackmail, and gaslighting. The more you learn the tricks, the better armed your defenses are against them. If you can spot them, they don’t work on you nearly as well. This takes work. You’d want to avoid becoming cynical and paranoid. But for some, this kind of study really beefs up the immune system.
Yet another good route is psychological literacy. Many cults employ a kind of “therapy lite.” It can be part of what seems legitimate at first. It’s a relatively simple but powerful technique of conditioning and de-conditioning based on past experiences. It can be effective. It roughly parallels what mainstream psychology calls cognitive-behavioral therapy. Wannabe cult leaders, though, combine it with NLP and hypnosis techniques in order to amplify the coercion factor. To any brand new to the entire realm of psychology and therapy, it can seem like a revelation. Those who have been around the block a few times are much more likely to spot them, and to realize that someone is using someone else’s discoveries for their own benefit.
Part of psychological literacy means the ability to endure an existential crisis. An “existential crisis” happens when a worldview collapses. A worldview is, essentially, our personal philosophy of life – and we’re all philosophers. This can be terrifying. It’s the threat that underlies our experience of cognitive dissonance, which drives much more of our behavior than we often suspect. Yet the ability to question our own beliefs can be the road to sanity and clarity. The assumption that “we have life completely figured out” is the stuff fanaticism is made of. Nietzsche said it well: “A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather, it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions.”
Psychological literacy also requires a good understanding of group dynamics, and the dangers they can pose. Peer pressure is incredibly powerful. The word “mob” often means “I don’t think clearly” in three letters. Plenty of history can testify to this. An easy answer here, then, is to just avoid groups, especially mobs. This isn’t always a perfect solution, but it can be a simple and easy way to bypass a whole lot of trouble. Genuine therapy can be good. Group therapy can be extremely risky. And therapy in high-pressure, coercive situations that employ group dynamics can often be downright dangerous. If you find yourself participating in any kind of crowd scene, cheering an booing on cue, like the opening scene of 1984 (the movie), this should ring some alarm bells. If “mob” is the diametric opposite of clarity, a calm, stable, emotion-free center of clarity should be an important reference point to measure the rest by.
The most powerful cultbuster practices are open dialogue, free inquiry, rigorous questioning, and non-coercive, free-spirited, non-pressured conversation. Secrecy should be a red flag. Lack of dialogue should be a red flag. “Explaining away” should also be a red flag. When genuine dialogue is rare and questioning is discouraged or received with ridicule, it’s time to walk the other way. When all potential objections get explained away as symptoms of problems that the cult offers the solution to, it’s time to walk.
Finally, again: the best defense is to have a healthy spiritual life.
This, of course, is no small task, especially in today’s environment. But it’s an ideal to aim for. If you aren’t hungry, you aren’t vulnerable to anyone offering food.
In two words: “Know yourself.”
Easier said than done. Fair enough.
But sometimes, the most dangerous “cult leader” is yourself.
Sometimes, the most toxic head games and emotional traps are the ones we inflict on ourselves.
The deeper challenge, then, sometimes, isn’t just to avoid becoming involved in some group with weird head games.
It’s breaking out of any head games we might be playing with ourselves.
For anyone currently involved in a cult,
one potential resource is CultRecovery101.com