Religious and Secular Cults: Leaders and Followers

May 13, 2009

I had the opportunity to see a PBS documentary not long ago on Jim Jones and the People’s Temple. (It was broadcast in February—I’m behind in my TV viewing as much as I’m behind in my reading.) Very chilling. It’s amazing how people are willing to be led like sheep to their own slaughter. The story of People’s Temple is a disturbing reminder of the power of a cult leader.

How is it that otherwise normal people—some of them intelligent—can be persuaded to follow blindly some “visionary”? There is no simple answer, not even one set of answers that applies to all cult followers. People are too complex to be reduced to a formula. However, there appear to be at least four critical psychological mechanisms at work.

Emotional Connection

The follower has found the leader inspiring for some reason. Perhaps the follower loves the leader at some level. This love blinds the follower to the leader’s flaws once they manifest.

Dependency

The follower, because of her or his adoration for the leader, builds her/his life around the leader. Given the follower’s emotional, and at times financial, investment, it is actually psychologically easier for the follower to deny the accuracy of clear evidence that reveals the leader’s flaws than it is to accept reality.

Suspension of Critical Thinking

This dependency ultimately leads to a near total suspension of the follower’s ability to analyze objectively and critically the leader’s pronouncements. Anything the leader says—even if it is contradicted by verifiable data—must be true. And instructions must be obeyed. To do otherwise would betray the leader—with whom the follower has now completely identified.

Dismissal of Dissenters

Just as everything said by the cult leader is accepted as “gospel,” those who do raise questions or objections are dismissed peremptorily. Because these concerns often have merit, the typical approach is to avoid dealing with such concerns on their merits, and instead to attack the character or motives of the person presenting concerns. The dissenter is labeled disrespectful, a “troublemaker,” a liar, someone out for her/his own power, or someone in the pay of some outside interest. In Jim Jones’ case, the “CIA” was often identified as the malignant outside influence.

We at CFI are often accused of being overly critical of religion, so let me add that the cult leader/follower phenomenon can be found in secular contexts as well. One particularly poignant example is that of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Mugabe was, in some ways, the founder of modern Zimbabwe and deserves recognition for his achievement. However, in the last decade, he has clung desperately to power, utilizing his cult of personality as a potent weapon and tolerating no criticism. His devoted followers still accept, unquestioningly, everything he says, while critics are demonized as agents of British imperialism. Meanwhile, the country has devolved into near chaos, financially ruined.

CFI emphasizes the importance of critical thinking, and rightly so. The ability to analyze facts objectively and make judgments based on careful consideration of the evidence is important in many aspects of life—in religion, politics, and elsewhere. No true humanist or skeptic should ever be found standing in line for cyanide-laced punch.

We hope.