The EZ Guide to Becoming a Cult Leader

I hope that these guidelines will help people to recognize the insidious, manipulative means by which the evil scam artists who run cults operate. Just about all cults rely on these means of manipulation. DON’T FALL FOR THEM!

Make a Promise that gets at something people really want and don’t have, such as community, wealth, happiness, sex, mental or physical health, and/or freedom from anxiety or worry.

Explain that The Promise will be realized in a Transformation into a Higher State of Being, a Return to a [Mythical] Golden Age, or a New Order of the universe or the world.

Lure Disciples in by withholding the truly crazy stuff at first. Begin with vague babble about negative and positive energies, empowering yourself, healing, realizing your potential, removing obstacles, restoring the family, making America (or wherever) great again, etc. Hint about greater revelations to come. Oh, the suspense! Gradually, ever so gradually, introduce crazier and crazier ideas as Disciples progress, but make sure that Disciples have become emotionally dependent on the group before introducing any of the really crazy stuff. It’s important for the potential convert’s initial exposures to the cult to be extremely affirming. Oh! These are people who really care about me! I’ve never felt such love! Use group pressure and Normalizing Testimonials (see below) to get people to accept the crazier ideas. After people have come to accept some of the crazier ideas, they are hooked because shedding these would mean facing the idea that they were duped. That’s why you MUST introduce–slowly–ever crazier ideas. Those aren’t optional to a well-functioning cult. Accepting that you’ve been duped takes enormous courage and humility, both difficult, and it creates shame, which people want to avoid. [Of course, the last thing that people who have escaped the clutches of a cult should feel is shame, for what they have done is incredibly brave.] So, once you get recruits to the point where they believe something really crazy (the world will end on December 28, 2033; invisible space aliens are setting up bases in China; the Master can levitate or do spirit travel to the Mother Ship; the orientation of The Stone of Foretelling determines events across the world; etc.), you’ve got them.

Create an Impending Calamity (the End of the World has typically been the staple here) that can be avoided through membership in the group, achievement of The Promise, and possession of The Secret Knowledge. The supposed Secret Knowledge can be simply a mash-up of pop psychobabble, medical pseudoscience, political ideology, New Age notions, traditional religious ideas, or some combination of these, augmented by Guided Apophenia–encouraging Disciples to perceive patterns in the world (in popular culture, for example) that aren’t really there, especially patterns involving the Adversary (see below). Btw, the story one tells about how things are going to end is technically called an eschatology. The story itself–how to use the Secret Knowledge to avoid the Impending Calamity–is technically called an apocalypse (from the Greek apokaluptein, “to uncover or reveal”), though that term is sometimes used now to refer to the calamity itself.

Make use of Normalizing Disciples and their Testimonies. Once people are hooked by emotional ties to the group, you need at least a couple Normalizing Disciples to introduce the crazier ideas and testify to their truth. If you don’t have some really gullible people available for this purpose, you can start with one co-conspirator who will testify to the crazy idea (“and that’s when I witnessed the levitation of The Master”; “and after that, he took me to the top of the mesa, and there, below, I saw laid out, the New City in Its Glory”; “that’s when I realized the secret meaning of the routing numbers on bank accounts–the meanings THEY don’t want you to know”).

Create and present, optionally in some Sacred Text, a Foundational Mythos, an Epiphany of the Master Story, a Backstory of The Revelation of The Secret Knowledge or Hidden or Esoteric Teachings being communicated by The Messenger to The Master or Great Leader (that would be you), who becomes the embodiment of The Secret Knowledge on Earth. You know the drill: the angel shows Joseph the golden tablets and gives him special glasses that enable him to read the Reformed Hieroglyphics, The Master (that would be you) enters The Cave of the Ancients and falls into a seven-month sleep in which all is revealed, etc. A child can make up one of these stories. Have fun with it!

Create Stages of Development toward acquisition of The Secret Knowledge, aka, The Path, and Testimonials from Normalizing Disciples further along The Path toward Mastery of The Secret Knowledge. Name these stages, creating ranks within the group of Disciples. Charge people increasing amounts of money (and/or other services) for training to reach these ranks. This enables Disciples to feel more and more special the more brainwashed and hooked in they become.

Create an Other–an Enemy or Adversary–that wishes to destroy the group, and include among these anyone from outside the group (e.g., friends or family members) who might attempt to keep the Disciples from drinking the Kool-Aid. Isolate Disciples as much as possible from competing ideas and from the society at large. Make sure that people understand what they have to lose–the love and affirmation and acceptance of the group, the ability to progress on The Path, escape from The Calamity.

Create community-binding Rituals involving Sacred Movements, Procedures, Objects or Talismans, and/or Symbols or Icons, including both Bonding Rituals (to the leader and to other members of the group) and Private Rituals (to carry the activities of the cult into the Disciple’s private life). In the early stages, physical bonding rituals (synchronized movement, laying on of hands, affirmations and listening exercises, shouting and singing, massage, group hugs, etc.) work well. Later, after people are hooked, you can add disincentive rituals such as confessions to the group of transgressions or failures to conform, with promises to do better). Alternately extend or withhold the approval of The Master (that would be you) because intermittent reinforcement is powerful. NB: the essential, defining characteristic of a cult member is that he or she is not swayed by any amount of evidence. This apparent gullibility comes as a result of careful conditioning that meets fundamental human needs, such as approval by others and feeling special.

This bears repeating: build community and immunity within the cult by warning Disciples on The Path that exposure to the ideas of those outside the cult, such as other belief systems, can lead to ostracization from the group, prevent acquisition of The Secret Knowledge, and bring about The Calamity.

Engage group members in Proselytizing and Recruitment. That’s how you grow.

Oh, and sell lots of those “trainings” and “healings” and “auditings” and merch. That’s how The Master (that would be you) grows powerful and rich.

Copyright 2020, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved. This material may be shared if this notice is retained and the material is shared in unedited and complete form.


About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
This entry was posted in Epistemology, Philosophy, Religion, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The EZ Guide to Becoming a Cult Leader

  1. rcharvet says:

    True dat! I love your thoughts. Do you have a contact email?


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