On cults.. and cult leaders

The Irish Times has an excellent article by Dennis Tourish, co-author of On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, in which he, [perhaps] ostensibly, asks, “How could such [seemingly ordinary] people have callously bombed dozens of their fellow citizens into oblivion?”.. and his answer – “The surprise, really, is that we can be so easily surprised.”

He, firstly, addresses the impression that psychological disorder might be a factor [all emphasis is added] –

In truth, throughout history ordinary people have believed and done extraordinary things. The key to understanding why is to recall that they do so when driven by two things – intense commitment to a powerful ideology and when they join a high control group environment whose every ritual is designed to reinforce their ideological commitment. Groups of this kind are generally known as cults.

Most people assume that, since what cults do is mad, the members must be mad to join. But in fact researchers have found no correlation between cult membership and psychological disorder.

Counterintuitively, most cult members are of at least average intelligence and have perfectly normal personality profiles. It is this which makes them valuable to the cult’s leaders – those who are certifiable would be useless at recruiting others, raising money or successfully engaging in terrorism. Consistent with this, a recent analysis of 500 al-Qaeda members found that the majority of them had been in further education and were from relatively affluent families.

And the role, and certainty, of the cult leader is deliberately emphasised and exaggerated –

Cults promote a message which claims certainty about issues which are objectively uncertain. Despite this logical flaw, the message is alluring. Most of us want to believe that the world is more orderly than it is, and that some authority figure has compelling answers to all life’s problems. An individual who claims to have “The Truth” is more convincing than someone who announces “I don’t know”.

We should never underestimate the power of ideology. Cult leaders know this. They invest their ideology with extraordinary power by exaggerating the extent to which they are confident in its precepts. Conviction becomes faith.

Since we can’t see into their heads, we take their public performance of certainty as more authentic than it probably is. And by virtue of their skill as interpreters and purveyors of the chosen ideology, the leader also becomes a powerful authority figure, whose pronouncements are taken very seriously by his or her followers, however strange they seem to outsiders.

More on the role of the cult leader, and the reinforcing of ideology –

Cults, whether secular or religious, generally go to great pains to project their leaders in a semi-divine light, blessed with uncommon insight, charisma and dedication to the cause. Convincing messages from such sources, cloaked in the language of ideology, have a powerful effect.

The ideology is therefore critical, and cults are adept at reinforcing its power. Members spend more and more time talking only to each other. They engage in rituals designed to reinforce the dominant belief system. Language degenerates into a series of thought-stifling clichés which encourages other actions that are consistent with the ideology of the cult.

The world becomes divided into the absolutely good and the absolute evil, a black and white universe in which there is only ever the one right way to think, feel and behave. Members are immunised against doubt – a mental state in which any behaviour is possible, providing it is ordained by a leader to whom they have entrusted their now blunted moral sensibilities.

And he makes some important points on dissent and ridicule –

Ridicule is a powerful social force. It strengthens people’s faith in their belief system. Rather than risk becoming marginalised, most of us wish to affiliate even more closely with those groups that we have come to regard as important.

Secondly, when no one is openly critical we tend to imagine, wrongly, that those around us are more certain of their views than they are. The absence of obvious doubt from anyone else quells any reservations that we ourselves may be harbouring, and tempts us into ever more enthusiastic expressions of agreement with the prevailing orthodoxy.

His concluding paragraph offers some important advice.. and you can draw your own [local] parallels at this point –

We must become suspicious of those who claim certainty, we must challenge all authority figures and we must cherish dissent: it is these responses that diminish the leaders of cults, rather than the society in which we live.

  • Gerry Lvs Castro

    An interesting piece, and one which highlights not only the problems of relatively small cults, but also the delusions of organised religion in general. Whether it’s the US Religious Right attempting to turn back the clock on issues such as evolution vs creationism, abortion and gay marriage or the Roman Catholic church burying it’s head in the sand over condom use in Africa, there are no shortage of religious ‘fanatics’ prepared to push their ‘certainties’ onto the rest of us.
    I would hardly be expected to be taken seriously if I started the Church of the Loch Ness Monster, or proclaimed the literal truth of Santa Claus, but apparently we are supposed to respect ‘sincerely held beliefs’ which treat women as second-class citizens, preach hatred against other beliefs and deny the most basic fundamental — life — to African citizens.
    Everyone should of course be free to believe in whatever deity or life-theory they choose, but when such unproveable myths are allowed to permeate to governmental level, we are asking for trouble.

  • Wichser


    It’s an apt time to place all of the childish silliness of the mainstream religions under the microscope and hold them up to the light for the suspension of reason it takes for adult minds to believe in them and the obvious dangers of indoctrinating innocent little children in the lies and fears and nonsense at their respective cores.

  • Gerry Lvs Castro

    Well said Wichser. The disturbing thing is that the most fundamentalist wings of Christianity and Islam appear to be in the ascendant these days. Rather than retreating from mythical beliefs, they seem intent not only on defending their ‘positions’, but imposing them on the rest of us, via doses of extreme violence. If God really approves of illegal wars and suicide bombers, we’re all doomed.

  • peteb

    Before the thread gets too far into a discussion solely on the religious angle.. I’d just remind everyone of the title of Dennis Tourish’s book On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left

    ..and one of the highlighted quotes from the article – “Cults, whether secular or religious, generally go to great pains to project their leaders in a semi-divine light, blessed with uncommon insight, charisma and dedication to the cause.”

  • Gerry Lvs Castro

    ”a semi-divine light, blessed with uncommon insight, charisma and dedication to the cause.”

    This description could equally apply to the Pope, Bin Laden or President Blair.

  • bertie

    The dangerous part is where people actually stop listening to what their heros are saying with any kind of critical facility and what they say must be right by reason of the fact that they say it and therefore them must now beleive it.

    A says it, I support A, therefore it must be true therefore I believe it.

    it should be

    I beleive something to be true, A says it too, therefore I support A (in this instance).

  • martin

    I agree with you, there is nothig more dangerous than a cult-of personality, I have always despised any form of hero worship.

    On the subject of cults– I worked in the USA a few years ago and came across some of the new- agers , found them a harmless enough bunch,didnt buy their lost civilisation of Atlantis theory though–I do have to say though that they seemed to be a pretty weakminded bunch–I just got the impression that they were easy prey to the powers of suggestion and brainwashig –i think part of the appeal of this cult is that members are privy to lost ancient knowledge that no-one else knows about except them—–load of rubbish,

  • Moderate Unionist

    Would you consider Ian Paisley (DUP) to be a personality or a religous a cult?

  • Mick Hall

    If my memory serves me correctly, Tim Wohlforth used to be Gerry Healy’s man in the USA. For those who have not heard of Mr Healy he was from Ireland and the leader of the British based Workers Revolutionary Party, which recruited many middle class leftists to its ranks included Vanessa and Corin Redgrave. Like many of the Trotskyist groups it was a sect like organisations, although in fairness to the SWP, far worse than them. Healy was finally expelled when it became public knowledge the old goat had been bedding scores of the organizations female members. If you new the man you will understand why even all these years later this brings a grin to my face. Although on a serious note it does highlight the dangers of these sect like groups. Especially for the well educated but gullible. A group of people bin Laden sadly it seems has also got eating out of his hands, does guilt play some sort of role of here.

    Healy was im sure for the average man[including myself] totally non charismatic although an able guy. Physically he was short, fat, and well passed middle age, yet intelligent people fell at his feet both in fear and respect. when the WRP imploded sadly none of those who allowed him to take advantage of them told there reason for doing so, presumably because they were embarrassed, which was a great pity as we perhaps may have learned something useful.

    Regards to all, nice to see Slugger back.

  • Wichser

    Paiselyism is a cult.

  • aquifer

    and provisional republicanism could not possibly be one.

  • bertie

    From what I hear Paisley quite likes people to disagree with him. That’s just hersay. I don’t really know the man myself. Are there people who beleive what he says because he says it, I don’t know. Although I have heard people say that he is an electric preacher.

    I would have to say that another of the tihings I had against some pro agreement people in the UUP, their rationale went along the lines of David Trimble is for it and he’s quare n’ smart. Sam Foster continued statements about loyalty to the party and to the leadership, when questioned about the principle or the policy actually reminded me of the blind loyalty which is the hall mark of a cult.

    Re religious cults sometimes the leader ends up as being one of the victims, when they beleive the hype themselves. What is it about cult leaders that they all seem to turn out a sexually unsatiable. Or is it just the fact most people would carry on like that is they could get away with it. Or is power an aphrodysiac for the powerful too

  • Wichser

    Provisional republicanism or elements of it could be described as cult-esque, certainly the more right of centre rosary-bead swining elements are probably Pearse-ist and as such part of a cult of martyrdom. This wouldn’t represent mainstream republicanism by any means but it could be attributed to part of it and/or the ideology of part of it.

  • aquifer

    The tendency, driven by global economic competition, to downsize the size of the public sector and to embrace international trade rather than national autonomy, may also increase the role of cults rather than nations in supporting human identity. The USA, which is both economically deregulated and without national churches or aristocracies, seems to be full of them. The rise of the global media may also inform you that your nation don’t cut it, so join a cult instead?

  • aquifer
  • Dessertspoon

    “Paiselyism is a cult.” are you sure you spelt that correctly Wischer??

    I would like to apologise for lowering the tone there but I just couldn’t help myself.