Updated: Apr 15, 2021
Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists the definitions of “cult” in this order:
1. a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious
2. great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work
3. a system of religious beliefs and ritual
The adherents to any of the above are also referred to as a cult. Obvious examples of unorthodox religious groups are Rajneeshees, the Unification Church (Moonies), and the People’s Temple (followers of Jim Jones). Each of these revolved around an authoritarian leader who espoused a path to a better life/world through their teachings.
“I drank the Kool-Aid” is a commonly used phrase to indicate one’s once wholehearted (and perhaps naïve) support of an idea or person. Younger generations may not be aware of its origins from the 1978 Jonestown Massacre in Guyana. Nine hundred and eighteen people died after following their leader’s command to drink a cyanide-laced fruit-flavored beverage. The death toll included children, murdered by parents who were powerless to stand up to Jim Jones.
Political leaders who cultivate adoring masses are ubiquitous world-wide. US Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and both Roosevelts were all accused of creating cults far before our 45th president. Ronald Reagan’s cult status was established after he left office, while John Kennedy received his after assassination. Of course, there is never unanimous adoration.
Joe Navarro, MA and a former FBI counterintelligence agent, wrote an article Dangerous Cult Leaders in Psychology Today (August, 2012) in which he says that cult leaders’ commonality is their pathological narcissism.
“They all have or had an over-abundant belief that they were special, that they and they alone had the answers to problems, and that they had to be revered. They demanded perfect loyalty from followers, they overvalued themselves and devalued those around them, they were intolerant of criticism, and above all they did not like being questioned or challenged. And yet, in spite of these less than charming traits, they had no trouble attracting those who were willing to overlook these features (emphasis mine).”
What hooks someone so powerfully when the revered person possesses such odious qualities? That’s a complicated question requiring more than one post. You may think you could never fall for a cult but no one is immune from manipulation. I was sucked in by a “guru” whose philosophy I admired and for the good he promised the world—until the day I woke up to the lies. He alone had the answer and wasn’t interested in collaboration, no progress was being made on his lofty goals, and he was living quite nicely off other people’s money. (Greed is often in the mix.) And it’s not just me. I’ve known other reasonable, rational people who have fallen down a rabbit hole of the cult of personality, one degree at a time—until some action or conversation snapped them out of an alternate reality.
Although my break-through was a result of getting back into my logical mind to analyze the situation, others arrive at their epiphany more emotionally. Quite possibly the result of a cult figure’s challenge to someone's core values can break the spell. It may be a false accusation, poor treatment, or unfair application of rules—or by watching others treated inhumanely. A self-preserving moment of, “I am not that person,” can cause the veil to fall.
Departure from a cult is primarily an inside-the-individual job. Facts, pleas, or condemnation from others don’t move the needle nearly as well as one’s own internal “bullsh*t” alarm. Outside attempts (such as deprogramming methods) can be morally and ethically questionable and they don’t consistently deliver results. In fact, they can drive the person in deeper.
I remember speaking with an older middle-aged white woman who was raised in the deep South and taught white supremacy was the natural order of things. One day she was watching the news and something snapped. “No human being deserves to be treated like this.” That was the day she turned away from her former religion and life.
Questioning deeply instilled values as a mature adult is unusual, but it’s not completely unknown. There are stories of people who have been up to their necks in a cult—sometimes for their entire lives, yet something finally clicks and makes them question. Then they depart. Stay tuned for more on that subject...