The best book I’ve read on cults is Steven Hassan’s “Releasing the Bonds: empowering People to Think for Themselves” but there are a lot of good books because cults tend to prefer to bring smart capable people under their thrall and some of these escape and respond by writing books. What makes Hassan’s book helpful is how it provides a model. You can map various examples cults into it. The cults described in the other books all fit his pattern very nicely. I’ve been reminded of all this over the last month because the press keeps saying we have no idea what’s up with the Bathe Party loyalists in Iraq. Each time I hear that I think “piffle.”
Cults are, to simplify somewhat: extremely authoritarian, and hierarchical. Members of the cult are tightly controlled by three elements: those above them in the hierarchy, close and controlling observation by the other cult members, and careful control of the information available to the members. That is all mixed in with a healthy dose of paranoia about those outside the cult.
The paranoia is a particularly key. Most cult survivors report being told stories of others who had left who then died in plane crashes, got horrible afflictions, or were hunted down as traitors. Many cults spend a great deal of time demonizing those outside the cult which only helps to reenforce the risks of exiting the cult. Those horrible stories about Sadam’s tortures have all the marks of the kind of things that a powerful cult would do to manufacture just this kind of paranoia.
This isn’t just about control. It’s also about building loyalty to the cult. If all your information supports the cult’s world view, and all your fears are constructed to make exiting the cult a horrific prospect that creates very high loyalty.
This is why Jim Jones’ followers drank the koolaid. They knew it was going to kill them. He told them. They could see others dying who were nearer the front of the line. They were loyal and the alternative – leaving the cult – was worse. Sadam didn’t serve koolaid.
There are a number of stories in the literature about doomsday cults where the day came and went with no doom. Most folks would assume that would kind of pull the rug out from under the project; but apparently not. What seems to happen at that point is that the group’s responses to this crisis. They draw more tightly together. They redouble their efforts. They often decide that their faith has granted them a reprieve, or it is a sign and they are being tested.
Many people assume that since a cult has a firm hierarchy that if you discredit or remove the leader the whole thing will collapse. In some small cults this does indeed happen; but for larger cults you either get a replacement leader or you get a bunch of smaller little cults.
That’s kind of obvious, each branch in the tree is tends to be pretty self contained. Each member knows who his authority figure is. When the leader disappears (as for example L. Ron Hubbard did) the thing just keeps chugging along. Again, like the embarrass dooms day cult, the natural solidarity of the group treats the event not as an opportunity for doubt but as one for increasing their solidarity.
So what’s the deal in Iraq?
First you have all these middle manager authoritarian leaders. They are all now running little mini-Bathe Party despotic cults. Their subordinates who were always scared of ‘others’ are now scared too death – the demon is at their door. This only increases their solidarity. These middle managers all need to show leadership, and what better than a little occasional resistance? You take a few thousand of these groups and even a tiny bit of resistance looks like a gorilla war. But notice that you don’t need any overarching hierarchy to get there; all you need is the cult mentality and techniques. Each one of these is a potential terrorist cell.
Second you have a huge number of individuals who were in the Bathe Party cult and are now cut loose of any support network. These folks have nothing. They have been taught for years and years that should this day come they will suffer a horrible fate – damnation, ruin, torture, you name it. These are desperate people. A few of them are sure to act out. When they do you can call them lone terrorists. This is a different kind of gorilla war. Well maybe not since these cult techniques for controlling the members of the group are also common in well organized gorilla forces.
The media’s tendency to treat this as a game of capture the flag – get the airport, get the statue, get the deck of cards, get Sadam – misses the point and just plays to our dumb sports metaphors. De-programming members of the entire Bathe Party cult is necessary, and tedious, before that nation will be free of a huge population of desperate gorilla fighters.