Book: Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion

I read this as a PDF on an iPod. The average eBook review is one-and-a-half stars lower than the average hardback review. The paperback version would probably therefore earn four of jameskennedybeijing's stars instead of three.

Lesson: How to recognize cults.
Thesis: Cults are everywhere and they’re mostly beneficial.
304 pages, ★★★ (probably four stars in paperback)

Cults” is an inaccurate title. This book instead refers consistently to “charismatic groups” with flattering prejudice as the nomenclature suggests. The author mostly analyses “Moonies”, the People’s Temple and Alcoholics Anonymous. Admittedly, it seems inappropriate to lump the outrageous (Moonies), the demonic (People’s Temple) and a recovery group (AA) under one category. The thesis of “Cults” is that cults are everywhere and they’re not all bad.

According to page 4, for a group to qualify as a “cult” (or, “charismatic group), it must:

  1. have a shared belief system
  2. have a high level of social cohesiveness
  3. are strongly influenced by the group’s behavioral norms
  4. impute charismatic (or sometimes divine) power to the group or its leadership

Using the definitions outlined in this book, I could qualify just about any group as a cult. Using these definitions, the Armed Forces, Scientology, Goldman Sachs, Catholicism, Apple, the Hell’s Angels and book clubs all qualify as “charismatic groups” too. And they’re not all bad.

The University of Cambridge, too, satisfies all the four requirements of a “charismatic group”:

  1. they believe they are better than non-Cambridge people, and a high grade will bring satisfaction (a high salary, a PhD, etc.);
  2. they are extremely cliquey;
  3. they have “formal hall”, “bops”, “balls” and other strange rituals found nowhere else;
  4. they boastfully impute charismatic power onto themselves (but not to the leadership).

In my view, universities are definitely “charismatic groups”. When approaching the end of their educational railroad (high-school, graduation, etc.), students panic and apply for a continuation of the same meaningfulness that their old schools used to provide. These people go on to study BA, masters, a second masters, a PhD, and so on. They love the titles, the rituals and the sense of purpose these educational ladder-rungs (and their diplomas) give them. I read Cults book to understand this phenomenon.

The book tells us that charismatic groups (such as universities) provide a “set meal” of meaning to people who lack it. People are likely to turn to such groups when at a “nadir” resulting from sickness or trauma (see my Fight Club review) and embrace the spiritual element that such groups provide them. Surveys show, like the protagonist of Fight Club, that most people try many different groups before settling into one.

Charismatic groups are like spiritual buses: they take you close to your destination, even if it’s not exactly where you wanted to be. The best places are off the spiritual bus-routes, so the last part of the spiritual journey involves leaving the “charismatic group” and going alone.

It teaches you not how to recognize and avoid “charismatic groups”, but how to recognise and use “charismatic groups” safely. Give this book to help anyone who’s been brainwashed and it’ll help them start thinking for themselves. ★★★

7 thoughts on “Book: Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion

    1. Excellent idea… I was thinking about this today, and realised that basically every organisation in human history would end up going onto that mind map. A “charismatic groups” mind map would be so enormous! I will look into doing something along those lines, though…

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      1. That would be very cool. Maybe “charismatic group” definition needs a bit of refining. Right now it’s (esp 1-3 in your list) pretty much a definition of culture. Needs something to narrow the scope and 4 is not doing enough work on that front. Not sure what to suggest, not having read the book, but perhaps a variable that defines the group as marginal to society in some way (excluding the military [sadly] and Cambridge and main stream religions. Otherwise you might as well be using the Human Relations Area Files and classifying the world’s cultures. Which is not a bad idea, but a different one.

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      2. Thank you for introducing me to the “Human Relations Area Files”! I’m looking at their website now. There’s a trove of information in there that would produce beautiful infographics. I wonder how I can access it…

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      3. HRAF is an amazing resource. It you have some kind of university affiliation, you should be able to access it via their on-line library services. Otherwise, if you are like me without such access, then it is harder. I used to use it as a microfilm file, with a printed version of their data definitions, and that worked very well for the time. The way it was originally set up (in the 40’s) was that recently graduated PhD’s in anthropology would code published references for (randomly?) selected cultures based on a set of variables – the would mark each page of the reference in the margins with a numerical code, and the each page of each reference for a culture would be photographed and combined on the microfilm under each number. So, you could find all references to mining, or capital punishment, or fishing in one place for each culture. Hundreds of cultures coded the same way. A terrific resource. I have not used it in the digital form as I sadly don’t have access to it, but I imagine it is that much more powerful.

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