Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.
Human Beings are social animals that have been banding together for hundreds of thousands of years. Archeological evidence shows that when a group got too large, a smaller group would break off and establish a new social hierarchy with a new set of rules and perhaps even a new language. In time, the original bond between the two would be diminished and their differences might lead to hostility and violence.
So how does all this relate to cults? A cult may be seen as a smaller group breaking off from a larger group to form anything from a free love commune to a terrorist jihad. Such choosing up of sides is natural and one of the first steps towards socialization that a child learns. Kids regularly form gangs and cliques that become problematic only when the rules of the smaller group conflict in some significant way with those of the larger group.
Consider the cult near San Diego that committed mass suicide. They were convinced there was a space ship coming to pick up true believers and ferry them off to a better place. So one night they all took sleeping pills, packed their heads in plastic bags and drifted off to sleep. They never woke up. Only because this resulted in 37 bodies did the larger group take notice of the smaller group and label it a cult. By comparison, there were only 13 bodies in the wake of Tokyo's subway sarin incident, but because they were innocent bystanders, the Aum Shinrikyo Doomsday cult was seen as being far worse than Heaven's Gate. But what is generally missed in such good/bad body counts is that one never knows where a nonsensical belief will lead. Illogical beliefs beget illogical behaviors. To say Christianity and singing Kumbaya around the campfire is just fine completely ignores the Thirty Years War and such affiliated fracases as the Crusades.
What's the difference between cults and religions? Mostly it's a matter of time and size. The longer a cult exists and the more followers it attracts the more legitimate it becomes despite its beginnings. The basic tenets of Scientology could only have been written by a science fiction writer... and indeed they were. Joseph Smith's golden tablets take a willing suspension of disbelief, yet a Mormon almost became POTUS. The Jesus story is a simple retelling of the Hours myth along with bits and pieces from a dozen other pagan persuasions.
So why do people flock to follow? Keep in mind that, as social animals, isolation is a form of punishment. A lonely individual soon loses any sense of purpose, any notion of meaning, any feeling of belonging. In such a state, a cult is seen as a cure. The warm fuzzy feeling that comes with being part of something bigger is certainly a draw. If it promises an after life, that's a definite plus. And because emotion precedes reason -- the latter used mostly to justify the former -- cults will continue to form, grow and flourish. In fact, it's remarkably easy to start one.
How do you do that? Starting with The Age of Propaganda by Anthony Pratkanis I've made a list of seven easy steps.
To start your very own cult:
1) Begin by creating your own reality. You do this by keeping your members away from outsiders. An isolated farm in the middle of Idaho is good but if such a retreat isn't available, impose a form of self-censorship. If it's not of the cult, it's of the devil.
2) Next set the leader and his/her inner circle up as the only link to paradise... only they hold the keys to the kingdom.
3) Remember to make increasing demands. Start small but keep it going and eventually you'll have your followers standing in line to turn over all their worldly possessions.
4) Keep turning out stories about the greatness of the leader. The more unbelievable the more they will be believed. Your members have already been conditioned from the time they were children to accept things like coming back from the dead and walking on water.
5) Remember to use your converts to bring in still more converts. This has the double advantage of picking up new disciples and (even if that doesn't always work) the mere act of proselytizing will further cement the commitment of those already in the fold.
6) Keep everybody busy. This doesn't allow time for potentially critical thought. Let the minds of the masses wander and who knows, they might put two and two together. For this reason, long sermons -- the longer the better -- and interminable work shifts are essential. And when you aren't haranguing them and they aren't being kept busy... make sure they're at least singing.
7) And finally, keep your flock fixated on the carrot. The payoff is just around the corner and only they will be the ones paid off. The clouds will part and they will be raptured up and then, boy-oh-boy, won't all those non-believers be sorry.
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