Are We All Cult Members Now?

cult leaders, Adolf Hitler, David Koresh, Jim Jones, David Berg, Marshall Applewhite, Rev. Sun Myung Moon
dolf Hitler (top left), David Koresh (top center), Jim Jones (top right), David Berg (bottom left), Marshall Applewhite (center bottom), and Rev. Sun Myung Moon (bottom right). Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from German Federal Archives / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE), McLennan County Sheriff's Office / Wikimedia, Nancy Wong / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0), Vice / Wikimedia (CC0 1.0), Heaven's Gate / Wikimedia , and Everyguy / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).
Reading Time: 19 minutes

Every day there are stories about how interactions between people have become increasingly tribal — prompting individuals to trash facts, science, and objective reality in the service of a cause or a set of beliefs.

It’s almost as if society has been taken over by cults.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, we talk to Dr. Janja Lalich, professor emeritus of sociology at Cal State University, Chico, and one of the nation’s leading authorities on cults.

Lalich talks about the recent and dramatic increase in cults. What are the characteristics that define all cults? What are the uses of paranoia? What is the appeal of the charismatic and highly narcissistic leader who demands total loyalty while promising some kind of salvation, framed in an us-vs.-them message?

She details how citizens are most susceptible to large-scale cults when a nation is in turmoil and ideology becomes sharply defined — as it has been historically by Hitler and Mao, as well as by the religious cult leader Jim Jones.

Successful cults, Lalich tells us, create an entire belief system, which is why they are so difficult to escape from: to leave means renouncing everything one has developed faith in.

She explains that when individuals try to leave cults they need the support and intervention of family and friends who are understanding, non-judgmental, and provide an emotional safe haven.

On the other end of the spectrum, for large populations or even whole nations that have been taken over by cults, the job of deprogramming millions of people usually requires a significant outside force — something that can be more dangerous and destabilizing than the cult itself.

Unfortunately, the law provides very little protection against the power of cults, most of which grow by word of mouth in a kind of ideological pyramid scheme. Based on her personal experience with cults, and years of academic research, Lalich provides a new framework for looking at the current political landscape.

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host Jeff Schechtman.

As a nation we’ve certainly gone through difficult times, times that as Thomas Paine said, try men’s souls. We’ve been divided as during the Cold War and the Civil War. But rarely have we been as tribal as we are today. Rarely have we been as willing to throw off facts, science, and reality, in the service of a cause. It’s almost like we’ve all joined cults. Little by little we’ve been encouraged to issue our faith in institutions and believe in nothing, which makes us more vulnerable to be made to believe anything.

Jeff Schechtman: As we throw off critical thinking, as we look for order out of the chaos of creative destruction, as we deal with the consequences of a rapidly changing and technological world, we exhibit so many of the signs of those that fall into cults. That’s our focus today as I’m joined by our guest, Dr. Janja Lalich. She’s a researcher, author and educator specializing in cults and extremist groups with a particular focus on charismatic relationships and political and other social movements. She was a Fulbright Scholar and is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Cal State University, Chico, and the founder and director of the Center for Research on Influence and Control. It is my pleasure to welcome Dr. Janja Lalich to the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Janja Lalich: Oh, thank you for inviting me, Jeff. It’s my honor.
Jeff Schechtman: Well, it’s a delight to have you here. What defines a cult? Is there a sort of accepted definition of what a cult is?
Janja Lalich: Yeah, I think that most people would agree that a cult it’s a group or a social movement that has a charismatic leader. It has some form of indoctrination program that requires the person to, as you were saying earlier, give up their critical thinking and be a loyal, true believer. It generally exploits the members in some way, whether that’s financial, physical, or sexual. So I think those are the main characteristics.
Jeff Schechtman: Does the cult need to have some kind of extreme ideology to be effective?
Janja Lalich: Well, it doesn’t necessarily need to be extreme. The charismatic leader will for some kind of promise of salvation, again, whether that’s financial or spiritual, they’ll say that they have the only true path. So it may not be necessarily extreme, but it’s all encompassing and it’s all inclusive. It offers you an answer to everything. Gets you to believe that if you stray from that path, then you lose your chance at salvation.
Jeff Schechtman: Is there a point the cults become unwieldy? Is there a size limitation to cult? I mean, can they embrace large, large groups of people or do they have to be more confined?
Janja Lalich: Well, no. They can be of any size. I mean, if you think of countries like China under Chairman Mao, where he was leading these, what he called thought reform programs throughout the country, and the entire country was involved in basically his belief system and honoring him. So we’ve seen it on a national scale. Hitler is another example. So cults can be very large as we’ve seen, like with groups over the years, like the Moon organization, Reverend Moon’s group sometimes called the Moonies or the Hare Krishnas, some of these groups that got very large. As back in the 70s and 80s, the Children of God. But groups can also be very small. I mean, you can actually have two or three people be involved in a cultic relationship. So it really depends on sort of the hold that the leader has on his or her followers.
Jeff Schechtman: What role does secrecy play in this? Because particularly with the larger ones, it seems like there’s less secrecy, but they’re still just as effective and just as powerful.
Janja Lalich: Well, yes. Secrecy is very important because people get led to believe that they’re part of a special elite. And so there are things that they don’t know about what might be going on at the top level, but then there’s also things that they’re supposed to hold secret and not divulge, and that creates what we call as ‘us versus them’ mentality. That, “We’re special, we’re the elite and everybody else is really stupid and messed up. We either have to recruit them so that they see the light or we can get rid of them, we can ignore them or we can even kill them,” as we see with some of the extremist groups.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about your experience, how you got involved in this whole area of studying cults. Really it came out of your own personal experience.
Janja Lalich: Yes, that’s right. I joined a political cult in the mid-70s. I was 30 years old. I had already graduated from the university. I had traveled in different countries, lived in different countries. But it was at the end of the Vietnam War, and I moved to San Francisco and I got involved in leftist politics. I ended up joining a group. Obviously, I didn’t know it was a cult, but the story was that we were going to bring about changes in America, social change, fight racism, fight sexism, to have social justice. But really it was, what I now see is, was a political cult.
Janja Lalich: The leader was a woman and everything we did was about making her appear as this grand individual. We spent most of our time doing things that aggrandized her, and we worked long hours, 20-hour days, seven days a week. We mostly sat around and criticized each other in these circles. It was a very harsh environment and ultimately it had nothing to do with bringing about social change. So when I got out of that, and we actually, eventually we all got out, we finally had our revolution and we overthrew our leader, which is very unusual as far as cults go.
Janja Lalich: And so when I got out, I moved to New York and I got my head back together and tried to figure out what had happened to me, and got a job, worked, went into therapy, got myself healed, so to speak. And then at some point I decided to go to graduate school and get my PhD. Interestingly, while I was in graduate school, the Heaven’s Gates suicides happened, which people might remember was in the mid-90s, the group that committed suicide in this mansion outside San Diego.
Janja Lalich: I knew quite a lot about that group and had been working with families and some former members. And so at the time my advisor for my dissertation said, “Well, obviously this is what you’re doing your dissertation on.” I was like, “Oh dear.” So that became my focus. And then when I graduated, I got the job at Chico State and taught regular sociology courses. But also I’ve written a number of books about cults in it. It really kind of became my life’s work to, as I see, turn a bad thing into a good thing, and try to educate the public about these groups and what the risks are.
Jeff Schechtman: With respect to the risks. One of the things you talk about is that the cult isn’t limited to people that are just clueless. That sometimes the best and the brightest can become part of cults.
Janja Lalich: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Cults want people who can perform for them, right? They want people who can run their businesses, who can bring in money, who have good connections, who can basically keep the thing going. The cult leaders are usually pretty lazy and they don’t do very much. So it’s really their lieutenants and all the people around them who do everything. So if… cults don’t want lazy people, they don’t want sick people, but … They’re not there to take care of you. You’re there to take care of the leader.
Janja Lalich: So it’s often as we say, the best and the brightest. I think that’s because, people with some experience and some intelligence tend to be more curious and so they’ll tend to check things out or look for solutions or want to contribute in some way. These cults will present this facade that you’re actually doing something for the social good. So it’s easy to get caught up. And of course cults want people with money. So people from wealthy families are also targeted.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about the nature of causes around which cults are formed. Certainly religion is a big one. A lot of cults have this religious underpinning. What about politics? What are the other causes that generally hold cults together?
Janja Lalich: Well, it can really be any cause. I mean, most people just think that cults are religious, and that’s why they tend to get away with a lot. Because people don’t want to, especially the courts don’t want to mess with religion. But there are all kinds of cults, right? There are UFO cults and therapy cults and martial arts cults. I always say there’s probably a chocolate chip cookie cult, right?
Janja Lalich: So they really can form around any ideology and it’s basically how that ideology or that belief system is used to con people into thinking that they’re doing something, to better themselves or better the world or make more money or whatever it is. And then once you’re in, it’s too late. You don’t figure it out that you’ve gotten yourself trapped into an exploitative organization. There are also a lot of business cults and a lot of what we call these New Age training programs that are very cult-like and use the same techniques. They’re everywhere in the business world.
Jeff Schechtman: You talk about both formal and informal systems of control within cults. Tell us a little about that.
Janja Lalich: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. So a cult has to have a structure, even the large ones. So they have to have the formal methods of control, which will be the rules and regulations, the very obvious things like maybe you have to dress a certain way or maybe you have to eat a certain way or not eat a certain way. Or they may instruct you on how many children to have or not to have, or how to raise your children or take your children away from you. So there are these obvious rules and regulations, but then there are the more subtle informal influences which are really in a sense more effective in holding the group together.
Janja Lalich: These are things that are common everyday social-psychological instruments such as guilt and shame and love and fear, and certainly peer pressure. I think not enough attention is given to peer pressure when we think about cults. Because people after a certain age, we tend to pay much more attention to and heed what our friends are doing or what our mates are doing. So when you’re in a group like that, you have the other members around you, and you don’t want to let them down and people are reporting on each other. And so all these more subtle ways that get you to conform and comply with the rules and the norms of the group are really very effective.
Jeff Schechtman: It also works to separate people from others, really to create separation. Talk about that.
Janja Lalich: Yes, absolutely. I mean, cults will, as I said, they’re going to get you to believe that you’re part of this special would-be group, and that the nonbelievers are in a sense not worthy of your attention. Which is why people tend to be split off from their families or split off from their friends who they’re not able to recruit. So it creates this sense of superiority and this sort of demonization of everyone who’s in the “outside world.”
Janja Lalich: Especially in the extremist groups, that can create a lot of trouble where we see it with the white supremacist groups, right? Where it’s okay to bomb abortion clinics or it’s okay to go attack gay bars or it’s okay to kill somebody who’s black or brown because it doesn’t matter. They’re not really human. They’re not like us. Cults also use paranoia as another way to control people. They’ll convince you that, either the authorities or the outside world is persecuting us and they’re coming to get us. And so people are living in this sort of constant state of anxiety and fear. That’s just another way that keeps people in check.
Jeff Schechtman: And there’s this obedience. You mentioned it before, obedience to charismatic leaders who tend to be really narcissistic. Explain that.
Janja Lalich: Absolutely. Yes. Well, first of all, charisma is this misunderstood concept. People think of charisma as these traits that are inherent in an individual, right? But in fact, charisma is a social relationship. Charisma is about how you respond to a person. So for example, someone may think that President Obama, as an example. Someone may think President Obama was incredibly charismatic, while other people obviously saw nothing in him or absolutely despised him. Or you may go to an event with a friend and the guru shows up and everybody’s oohing and aahing over the guru, and you’re sitting there thinking, “What the heck? This guy seems like a con artist to me.”
Janja Lalich: So charisma is a very personal relationship. But once you have attached yourself in what I call this charismatic relationship, you’ve basically given power to that person. That person then has a hold on you. And that charismatic hold is very difficult to break, and it’s very demanding. The charismatic leader demands all obedience, all devotion. And so you become entrapped in this relationship where you basically, after a time through the indoctrination, you learn to sort of punish yourself if you have any doubts or you certainly can’t question the leader. There’s no give and take, there’s no checks and balances. So it becomes a very powerful one-sided relationship.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about recruitment, because in many ways it’s like a pyramid scheme.
Janja Lalich: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yes. So recruitment happens in phases and interestingly the studies have shown that more than two thirds of people who get in a cult are recruited by a friend, a family member or a coworker. So this is very important because it’s difficult to say no to someone you know. Right? So if your coworker keeps inviting you to some seminar day after day, and finally you’ll break down and say, “Okay, I’ll go.” Just because you don’t want to make waves with your coworker or your uncle Charlie or your brother or whoever it might be, who’s inviting you to something.
Janja Lalich: So people in cults are basically trained how to recruit. When I was in my cult, I actually led recruitment and advised everybody like how to go about asking the right questions to get someone to want to get involved in our group. So recruitment goes in phases, you’ll get invited to something. When you’re there, you’ll get surrounded by people, what we call love bombing. You’d think you’ve suddenly met these most wonderful people. They’ll ask you to come back. Once you come back, you’ve taken that first step, you’ve made that first commitment. Then it’s easier to get you to make the next commitment. So recruitment is obviously a very important part of the process.
Janja Lalich: Today because of the Internet, things have changed a little bit, but people do get recruited over the Internet, although generally at some point it does take some kind of personal connection. They’ll get you to come somewhere and actually meet people. But the Internet has been quite effective for some groups to be able to recruit. On the other hand, the Internet’s been very important because there’s so much information out there that if you are thinking of going to something or someone’s inviting you to something, you can go on the Internet and check it out, see what the critics are saying, see what former members are saying. I always say be a good consumer before you jump into something. Check it out like you would if you were buying a car.
Jeff Schechtman: Are we seeing in your view, an increase in the number of cults these days?
Janja Lalich: Yes. I would say there’re absolutely many more cults today than ever before. That’s because some cults got very large and people broke off and started their own thing, because of what they learned from that group. Because of the influence of what we call the New Age Movement from the 70s and 80s, where everybody got into crystals and seances and talking to dead people, and ascended beings and channeling and all this kind of stuff that got very popular from through the New Age Movement. That became very fertile ground for more narcissistic con artists to start some kind of group. So we’re definitely seeing a surge. And also when times are rough, when countries are in turmoil, that’s a time when cults can recruit very successfully because people are at a loss, and looking for answers and looking for solutions.
Jeff Schechtman: Is there a cycle, a life cycle to cults?
Janja Lalich: Well, it really depends. I mean cults, they obviously start up small. You’ve got this one person, who all that one person needs to do is get one other person around them, and then that person recruits a couple more people. So cults will grow, they’ll go through different phases. Some cults don’t get too big, they don’t want to get too big. Like again, even in my group when we got too big, our leader would order a purge and we’d get rid of a bunch of people. Because I think she figured out she couldn’t control more than a couple of hundred full-time members.
Janja Lalich: Some cults get very huge. And then what’ll happen over time is, if the leader dies, that may lead to some kind of dissolution. There might be a power struggle amongst some of the top lieutenants. The groups may splinter off. Some groups may actually dissolve when that happens. So it depends on what kind of internal structure the leader set up. If the leader is getting elderly and wants to set up people who can basically carry on ‘charisma-by-proxy’, we call it, and carry on the group after his or her death. So they’ll go through a life cycle like anyone else. But certainly there are some groups now that have been around for decades and decades, and they become intergenerational.
Jeff Schechtman: You mentioned white supremacists before. As you look out at the political landscape today, do you see this cult-like aspect of it with a narcissistic leader, with the lack of critical thinking, with so many of the qualities that we’ve touched on here?
Janja Lalich: Yeah, I think you’re talking about our current president.
Jeff Schechtman: Yes.
Janja Lalich: Yes. I think, there’s definitely a cultic surge going on certainly with things on the right taking hold and acting out. Not so much on the left. Unfortunately, I guess the left has never been quite so organized. I don’t know if it’s fortunately or unfortunately. And certainly around our president and his cabinet, and his administration. He has created this environment where he can do no wrong. I think we see these current examples with the felt tip pen on the map of where the hurricane is going to go. It’s just, he has set himself up. I mean, he’s even called himself a godlike figure.
Janja Lalich: And then we’ve got these people, several millions of people who absolutely have total faith in him. He can do no wrong. They’ll follow him to the ends. As he said, he could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and his followers won’t care. I think we’ve seen plenty of examples of that. And so, I find it to be a very troubling time for our country.
Jeff Schechtman: I mean, one of the things we hear over and over again, and it’s hopeful in a way. People say, “Well, eventually the fever will break.” But that isn’t the way it normally plays out with cults.
Janja Lalich: No. I think when you get something like this on a national scale, it’s very difficult to see how to confront it. I think we saw that with Nazi Germany. So it takes a national movement to confront a national cult, so to speak. At this point the country is certainly not organized in that way. The Democrats in the government seem to be kind of a bit flummoxed about how to proceed. I think it’s quite scary because there are many people who are out there with them, that are at a loss about what to do. And there are many friends and families who’ve sort of given up on even trying to talk to their friends or relatives who’ve become Trumpers, so to speak.
Janja Lalich: And so even though dialogue is probably one of the best ways to try to get people to see the wrongness, I don’t know if that’s a word, the wrongness of their thinking, or the dangers of their thinking, but that hasn’t happened on too much of a level. There’s a wonderful book called Rising Out of Hatred, that’s the story of a young man who was the son of the guy who started the Daily Stormer, which is this huge white supremacist website. He ended up going to a nice liberal college in the South and he met a lot of nice people, and he started dating a Jewish girl, and his friends were very patient with him and he eventually broke with his father and with the whole white supremacist ideology. It’s an incredible book. So you think about, if we can do that on a one by one basis, but how much would that take to be able to really bring about some counter influence to what’s going on right now?
Jeff Schechtman: Right. I mean, the deep programming aspect, the getting out of it aspect is the part that is hard to fathom with such a large framework. When you talked about your own personal experience and getting out of it and going through therapy, et cetera, et cetera, it was an individual experience. It’s hard to imagine, how do you deprogram 30 million people?
Janja Lalich: Exactly. Now you’re depressing me. No, it’s a conundrum. All we can do is hope that the tide will turn, and will turn in a more democratic, and I mean that in the broadest sense of the term, will turn in a more democratic way, and that we can really get rid of this authoritarianism that’s taking over our country and our administration.
Jeff Schechtman: What is it, if anything, that sometimes turns people, cult members away from a leader? What is it that they have to do in order to really alienate their followers? What does history of cults tell us about that?
Janja Lalich: Well, sometimes they can go too far with something and it may have an effect on some of the members. So for example, in the 70s and 80s, there was a group called the Children of God, which was led by this guy, David Moses Berg. He had a lot of sexual problems and he started having multiple wives, telling people they could sleep with each other, adults could sleep with whoever. And then he got to starting to say, children should have sex with each other and adults should have sex with children. And when that happened … and this was also the group that engaged in what we call flirty fishing.
Janja Lalich: So the women would go out and basically pick up men. They were called Prostitutes for Jesus. They would pick up men and have sex with them, supposedly to bring them to Jesus. Many of the women in the group got involved in that, but when it got to the point where he said, “It’s okay to have sex with children,” for some members, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. For some members they said, “No, this is too much and I’m leaving.” So sometimes the cult leader can go a bit too far and they lose some members, as happened in our case, the whole group busted up because she became so out of control.
Janja Lalich: But really it’s an individual decision and it’ll take something … and again, it’s so personal. It could be, I mean, I know a woman I worked with years ago who got cancer. She was in a group, she got cancer and she sat down one day and thought, “I don’t want to die in this group.” And that’s what got her to leave. Sometimes it’s an age thing. People reach a certain age and they say, “What the hell am I doing with my life? I got to get out of here.” So what’s important is, if you know someone in a group, if you have friends or family, it’s always important to try to stay in touch with that person. It’s always important to let them know that you’re a safe haven. That if they ever want to leave, there’s someplace safe that they can come to, where they’re not going to be humiliated. They’re going to just be able to chill out and sleep and do whatever they need to do.
Janja Lalich: Because it’s the hardest thing someone will ever do, is leaving a cult. Because you’re basically throwing away an entire worldview, and it means starting your life all over again. And that can be incredibly frightening. So it really takes some kind of moment that … I always say when you’re in a group, even if you’re a true believer like I was, there are things along the way that bother you. Either things you are asked to participate in, or things you see happening in the group, and you can’t do anything about it at the time, because of the discipline and the structure. So all these things get shoved in the back of your head. They’re sitting on a little shelf in the back of your head.
Janja Lalich: And at some point, there’s going to be one thing too many and that shelf is going to break. That’s when you’re going to wake up and say, “I’ve got to get out of here.” Now, it doesn’t mean you can get out that day. You usually have to make a plan. And certainly it helps if you still have contacts on the outside.
Jeff Schechtman: Finally, to what degree is the law helpful in this regard? What legal mechanisms exist to help people that are in cults?
Janja Lalich: Not very many. It’s really been a difficult place to try to bring some kind of justice. I mean, I’ve been expert witness in a number of cases. It’s hard because as I said earlier, most people think cults are religious and the courts don’t want to deal with religion. They don’t want to touch it at all. So it’s difficult in that way. But if it is a religious group where you have a pastor or a guru or whatever, there are restrictions against religious leaders taking advantage of their followers. So if you have the evidence to show the kind of sexual abuse or financial abuse that may have happened, and if you can find an attorney who’s willing to take the case. There aren’t many attorneys who will, because they don’t know how to deal with it or they don’t think it’ll be successful, so they don’t take the case.
Janja Lalich: But there have been some successful cases. I mean right now, for example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, there are numbers of cases about the child sexual abuse that’s been going on in that group for decades. There’ve been some very big judgments against the organization. So you can’t go to court and say, “This is a cult.” It’s not illegal, so to speak, to run a cult, but you have to find some kind of other illegal activity that you can bring some kind of legal suit.
Jeff Schechtman: Dr. Janja Lalich, I thank you so much for spending time with us today.
Janja Lalich: Thank you. Thanks a lot, Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: And thank you for listening and for joining us here on radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast? I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from The Epoch Times / Flickr (CC BY 2.0) and German Federal Archives / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE).

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2 responses to “Are We All Cult Members Now?”

  1. olle reimers says:

    It is so predictable that all these parts from Jeff Schechtman end up with Donald Trump.

    The cult around the Trump haters is very solid. It will be interesting to see what happens when their great leader James Comey falls.

  2. Yoshimatsu says:

    Humans are hard-wired to join cults (tribes, churches, clubs, gangs, etc.) Apple users are a cult as are Linux aficionados and Starbucks drinkers. Is there any question the Catholic Church and Evangelical whack jobs are cults? As puny, thin skinned, slow, claw & fang-less critters at the bottom of the “badass” hierarchy, humans feel the need to belong to a larger group for protection. Eventually, we accept even the most ridiculous tenets of a cult in exchange for the “protection” afforded by the cult.

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