What Makes a Cult a Cult?

Hough spent the first fifteen years of her life in the Children of God, a Christian cult in which pedophilia was understood to have divine sanction and women members were enjoined to become, as one former member recalled, “God’s whores.” Despite Hough’s enduring contempt for those who abused her, her experiences as a minimum-wage worker in mainstream America have convinced her that what the Children of God preached about the inequity of the American system was actually correct. The miseries and indignities that this country visits on its precariat class are enough, she claims, to make anyone want to join a cult. Yet people who choose to do so are not necessarily hapless creatures, buffeted into delusion by social currents they do not comprehend; they are often idealists seeking to create a better world. Of her own parents’ decision to join the Children of God, she writes, “All they saw was the misery wrought by greed—the poverty and war, the loneliness and the fucking cruelty of it all. So they joined a commune, a community where people shared what little they had, where people spoke of love and peace, a world without money, a cause. A family. Picked the wrong goddamn commune. But who didn’t.”

People’s attachment to an initial, idealistic vision of a cult often keeps them in it, long after experience would appear to have exposed the fantasy. The psychologist Leon Festinger proposed the theory of “cognitive dissonance” to describe the unpleasant feeling that arises when an established belief is confronted by clearly contradictory evidence. In the classic study “When Prophecy Fails” (1956), Festinger and his co-authors relate what happened to a small cult in the Midwest when the prophecies of its leader, Dorothy Martin, did not come to pass. Martin claimed to have been informed by various disembodied beings that a cataclysmic flood would consume America on December 21, 1954, and that prior to this apocalypse, on August 1, 1954, she and her followers would be rescued by a fleet of flying saucers. When the aliens did not appear, some members of the group became disillusioned and immediately departed, but others dealt with their discomfiture by doubling down on their conviction. They not only stuck with Martin but began, for the first time, to actively proselytize about the imminent arrival of the saucers.

This counterintuitive response to dashed hopes animates Akash Kapur’s “Better to Have Gone” (Scribner), an account of Auroville, an “intentional community” founded in southern India in 1968. Auroville was the inspiration of Blanche Alfassa, a Frenchwoman known to her spiritual followers as the Mother. She claimed to have learned from her guru, Sri Aurobindo, a system of “integral yoga,” capable of effecting “cellular transformation” and ultimately granting immortality to its practitioners. She intended Auroville (its name alludes both to Sri Aurobindo and to aurore, the French word for dawn) to be the home of integral yoga and the cradle of a future race of immortal, “supramental” men and women.

The Mother does not appear to have had the totalitarian impulses of a true cult leader, but her teachings inspired a cultlike zealotry in her followers. When, five years after Auroville’s founding, she failed to achieve the long-promised cellular transformation and died, at the age of ninety-five, the fledgling community went slightly berserk. “She never prepared us for the possibility that she would leave her body,” one of the original community members tells Kapur. “I was totally blown away. Actually, I’m still in shock.” To preserve the Mother’s vision, a militant group of believers, known as the Collective, shut down schools, burned books in the town library, shaved their heads, and tried to drive off those members of the community whom they considered insufficiently devout.

Kapur and his wife both grew up in Auroville, and he interweaves his history of the community with the story of his wife’s mother, Diane Maes, and her boyfriend, John Walker, a pair of Aurovillean pioneers who became casualties of what he calls “the search for perfection.” In the seventies, Diane suffered a catastrophic fall while helping to build Auroville’s architectural centerpiece, the Mother’s Temple. In deference to the Mother’s teachings, she rejected long-term treatment and focussed on achieving cellular transformation; she never walked again. When John contracted a severe parasitic illness, he refused medical treatment, too, and eventually died. Shortly afterward, Diane committed suicide, hoping to join him and the Mother in eternal life.

Kapur is, by his own account, a person who both mistrusts faith and envies it, who lives closer to “the side of reason” but suspects that his skepticism may represent a failure of the imagination. Although he acknowledges that Diane and John’s commitment to their spiritual beliefs killed them, he is not quite prepared to call their faith misplaced. There was, he believes, something “noble, even exalted,” about the steadfastness of their conviction. And, while he is appalled by the fanaticism that gripped Auroville, he is grateful for the sacrifices of the pioneers.

Auroville ultimately survived its cultural revolution. The militant frenzy of the Collective subsided, and the community was placed under the administration of the Indian government. Kapur and his wife, after nearly twenty years away, returned there to live. Fifty years after its founding, Auroville may not be the “ideal city” of immortals that the Mother envisaged, but it is still, Kapur believes, a testament to the devotion of its pioneers. “I’m proud that despite our inevitable compromises and appeasements, we’ve nonetheless managed to create a society—or at least the embers of a society—that is somewhat egalitarian, and that endeavors to move beyond the materialism that engulfs the rest of the planet.”

Kapur gives too sketchy a portrait of present-day Auroville for us to confidently judge how much of a triumph the town—population thirty-three hundred—really represents, or whether integral yoga was integral to its success. (Norway has figured out how to be “somewhat egalitarian” without the benefit of a guru’s numinous wisdom.) Whether or not one shares Kapur’s admiration for the spiritual certainties of his forefathers and mothers, it seems possible that Auroville prospered in spite of, rather than because of, these certainties—that what in the end saved the community from cultic madness and eventual implosion was precisely not faith, not the Mother’s totalist vision, but pluralism, tolerance, and the dull “compromises and appeasements” of civic life.

Far from Auroville, it’s tempting to take pluralism and tolerance for granted, but both have fared poorly in Internet-age America. The silos of political groupthink created by social media have turned out to be ideal settings for the germination and dissemination of extremist ideas and alternative realities. To date, the most significant and frightening cultic phenomenon to arise from social media is QAnon. According to some observers, the QAnon movement does not qualify as a proper cult, because it lacks a single charismatic leader. Donald Trump is a hero of the movement, but not its controller. “Q,” the online presence whose gnomic briefings—“Q drops”—form the basis of the QAnon mythology, is arguably a leader of sorts, but the army of “gurus” and “promoters” who decode, interpret, and embroider Q’s utterances have shown themselves perfectly capable of generating doctrine and inciting violence in the absence of Q’s directives. (Q has not posted anything since December, but the prophecies and conspiracies have continued to proliferate.) It’s possible that our traditional definitions of what constitutes a cult organization will have to adapt to the Internet age and a new model of crowdsourced cult.

“I’m leaving office to spend more time with my family of meerkats.”
Cartoon by Michael Shaw

Liberals have good reason to worry about the political reach of QAnon. A survey published in May by the Public Religion Research Institute found that fifteen per cent of Americans subscribe to the central QAnon belief that the government is run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles and that twenty per cent believe that “there is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders.” Yet anxiety about the movement tends to be undercut by laughter at the presumed imbecility of its members. Some of the attorneys representing QAnon followers who took part in the invasion of the Capitol have even made this their chief line of defense; Albert Watkins, who represents Jacob Chansley, the bare-chested “Q Shaman,” recently told a reporter that his client and other defendants were “people with brain damage, they’re fucking retarded.”

Mike Rothschild, in his book about the QAnon phenomenon, “The Storm Is Upon Us” (Melville House), argues that contempt and mockery for QAnon beliefs have led people to radically underestimate the movement, and, even now, keep us from engaging seriously with its threat. The QAnon stereotype of a “white American conservative driven to joylessness by their sense of persecution by liberal elites” ought not to blind us to the fact that many of Q’s followers, like the members of any cult movement, are people seeking meaning and purpose. “For all of the crimes and violent ideation we’ve seen, many believers truly want to play a role in making the world a better place,” Rothschild writes.

It’s not just the political foulness of QAnon that makes us disinclined to empathize with its followers. We harbor a general sense of superiority to those who are taken in by cults. Books and documentaries routinely warn that any of us could be ensnared, that it’s merely a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, that the average cult convert is no stupider than anyone else. (Some cults, including Aum Shinrikyo, have attracted disproportionate numbers of highly educated, accomplished recruits.) Yet our sense that joining a cult requires some unusual degree of credulousness or gullibility persists. Few of us believe in our heart of hearts that Amy Carlson, the recently deceased leader of the Colorado-based Love Has Won cult, who claimed to have birthed the whole of creation and to have been, in a previous life, a daughter of Donald Trump, could put us under her spell.

Perhaps one way to attack our intellectual hubris on this matter is to remind ourselves that we all hold some beliefs for which there is no compelling evidence. The convictions that Jesus was the son of God and that “everything happens for a reason” are older and more widespread than the belief in Amy Carlson’s privileged access to the fifth dimension, but neither is, ultimately, more rational. In recent decades, scholars have grown increasingly adamant that none of our beliefs, rational or otherwise, have much to do with logical reasoning. “People do not deploy the powerful human intellect to dispassionately analyze the world,” William J. Bernstein writes, in “The Delusions of Crowds” (Atlantic Monthly). Instead, they “rationalize how the facts conform to their emotionally derived preconceptions.”

Bernstein’s book, a survey of financial and religious manias, is inspired by Charles Mackay’s 1841 work, “Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.” Mackay saw crowd dynamics as central to phenomena as disparate as the South Sea Bubble, the Crusades, witch hunts, and alchemy. Bernstein uses the lessons of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience to elucidate some of Mackay’s observations, and argues that our propensity to go nuts en masse is determined in part by a hardwired weakness for stories. “Humans understand the world through narratives,” he writes. “However much we flatter ourselves about our individual rationality, a good story, no matter how analytically deficient, lingers in the mind, resonates emotionally, and persuades more than the most dispositive facts or data.”

It’s important to note that Bernstein is referring not just to the stories told by cults but also to ones that lure people into all manner of cons, including financial ones. Not all delusions are mystical. Bernstein’s phrase “a good story” is possibly misleading, since a lot of stories peddled by hucksters and cult leaders are, by any conventional literary standard, rather bad. What makes them work is not their plot but their promise: Here is an answer to the problem of how to live. Or: Here is a way to become rich beyond the dreams of avarice. In both cases, the promptings of common sense—Is it a bit odd that aliens have chosen just me and my friends to save from the destruction of America? Is it likely that Bernie Madoff has a foolproof system that can earn all his investors ten per cent a year?—are effectively obscured by the loveliness of the fantasy prospect. And, once you have entered into the delusion, you are among people who have all made the same commitment, who are all similarly intent on maintaining the lie.

The process by which people are eventually freed from their cult delusions rarely seems to be accelerated by the interventions of well-meaning outsiders. Those who embed themselves in a group idea learn very quickly to dismiss the skepticism of others as the foolish cant of the uninitiated. If we accept the premise that our beliefs are rooted in emotional attachments rather than in cool assessments of evidence, there is little reason to imagine that rational debate will break the spell.

The good news is that rational objections to flaws in cult doctrine or to hypocrisies on the part of a cult leader do have a powerful impact if and when they occur to the cult members themselves. The analytical mind may be quietened by cult-think, but it is rarely deadened altogether. Especially if cult life is proving unpleasant, the capacity for critical thought can reassert itself. Rothschild interviews several QAnon followers who became disillusioned after noticing “a dangling thread” that, once pulled, unravelled the whole tapestry of QAnon lore. It may seem unlikely that someone who has bought into the idea of Hillary Clinton drinking the blood of children can be bouleversé by, say, a trifling error in dates, but the human mind is a mysterious thing. Sometimes it is a fact remembered from grade school that unlocks the door to sanity. One of the former Scientologists interviewed in Alex Gibney’s documentary “Going Clear” reports that, after a few years in the organization, she experienced her first inklings of doubt when she read L. Ron Hubbard’s account of an intergalactic overlord exploding A-bombs in Vesuvius and Etna seventy-five million years ago. The detail that aroused her suspicions wasn’t especially outlandish. “Whoa!” she remembers thinking. “I studied geography in school! Those volcanoes didn’t exist seventy-five million years ago!” ♦

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