Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Profile of a prophet

I think I'm losing readers.  At any rate, I haven't had a lot of comments lately, and that's discouraging me so I don't feel like posting, which of course only makes things worse.  I think people don't like reading the sort of stuff I've been posting lately.

But you know what everybody loves?  Cult stuff!  Admit it, you do.  That's why Sister Wives is popular despite being weird as heck.  You would think I would hate it, that I'd find it triggering or depressing, but actually I eat it up.  Half guilty pleasure, half scientific curiosity.  I'd love to study group psychology -- though we don't know a whole lot about why groups of people act the way we do, it's possible to see all kinds of patterns across different groups, despite different ideology and the varying motivations of the people inside the groups.  Surely there's a dissertation to be written there.

Anyway, I've been realizing that all cults -- in fact, all new religious movements, even ones that later grow into more impressive churches like the Mormons -- seem to have the same cast of characters.

First is the prophet.  This is the charismatic guy that the whole cult is built around.  I haven't heard of a cult that didn't have one.

Sometimes this guy is larger than life -- there are stories of him performing miracles, pictures of him on all the members' walls, a conviction he's the reincarnation of somebody special like Buddha or Jesus.  Fr. Maciel noticeably imitated the style of St. Paul in his letters, and we were often told he was very much like Paul, the same personality type and so on.

But often the hero-worship is hidden behind a heavy curtain of humility.  For instance, L. Ron Hubbard often said he was just an ordinary guy who happened to have discovered a science which unlocked the secrets of everything.  No magic, no prophetic powers -- except, of course, what his science gave him, but anybody could do that if they just knew how.  There was one prophet I read about recently who claimed that he'd gotten all his revelations from a homeless guy who was 1000 years old and really was from outer space.  The idea is that we shouldn't focus on the prophet, because he himself is just a humble servant of whatever.  Or that he's the forerunner or successor of someone more important -- Warren Jeffs started out as just the assistant of his conveniently-disabled father.

But, being the only one on the scene, he is the closest to the secrets of the universe of anyone available, so it's really not so bad if his followers would like to build him a gorgeous throne room, offer to sleep with him, or whatever.  It's really just honor given to the amazing things and people beyond him.

And here's the interesting part -- the followers take over from there.  They're the ones who heap honor on him, feed his megalomania, and vouch for his honesty.  You see, once the group gets big enough to have an inner circle and an outer circle, people realize that the way to power is by propping up the leader.  They have a vision or a prophecy about him, confirming him in the sight of outer-circle members.  In return, the prophet elevates them to power within the cult.

At this point, it is possible that everyone believes the charade.  The cult leader may have some doubts that he's really a prophet, or maybe he straight-up knows he isn't.  (It's often hard to tell with these guys -- they are so convincing and sincere sounding that reporters who know the prophet's a fraud from their independent research find themselves tempted to believe.  So the prophet type is either a great liar or good at convincing himself of his own delusions.  Sometimes both.)  But even if he had his doubts about his ideas, those doubts are undermined when followers start coming to him saying they've had visions about him.  "I guess it's not just me," he might think.  "Here are all these other guys have visions too!"  Meanwhile the followers "having visions" know they're faking theirs, but they assume they are faking a real thing that the prophet and other members are really experiencing.

But it is also possible that none of the inner circle is really convinced -- when the gullible followers are around, they play their parts, and then take the mask off in private.  Some cults certainly do have evidence that this is the case, but oddly enough, most don't.  You can have members get to the very top before leaving, but still their testimonies written afterward don't include any mention of the prophet admitting his cult is a scam.  So we have to leave room for the possibility that the prophet really is that delusional.

And this is why ex-members often report being sidelined in a cult.  True believers who aren't hoping for glory, who have a love of honesty, aren't going to say the right things to propel them to success.  They won't fake a vision or prophecy, and when they are told that the prophet is humble, they believe it and don't flatter him.  The development of a cult is a sorting process -- the most ambitious and duplicitous rise to the top.  That always puzzled me when I was in Regnum Christi -- I knew scads of super-holy people, but Fr. Maciel's inner circle wasn't at all like that.  They were kind of rude and full of themselves, despite the many stories within the movement of how holy they were.  I couldn't reconcile my experience with the legends.

Sometimes I tell stories of the amazing success cults have, and someone invariably says, "Well, I'm in the wrong line of work!  I should go start a cult!"  Not that easy.  First, you need to be extremely charismatic.  Could be a down-home sort of charisma, you can pretend to be plainspoken, but you have to be the sort of guy (and it's pretty much always a guy) that people are drawn to.  If you're not cool enough to win an election, you're not cool enough to start a cult.

Second, you have to be a little unbalanced.  If you weren't, you'd go be a politician or a great salesman, right?  The prophet has delusions of grandeur and not much of a conscience -- a classic narcissist.  He knows how to boast and be believed, probably because he easily convinces himself of any story, provided he's the star of it.

Part of it is the sort of personality that you sometimes see in conspiracy theorists or mystics.  You know the person who will take you aside at parties and rant about some crazy notion for an hour?  I once knew a guy who thought he could read souls.  I'm pretty sure he couldn't, but because he was humble and a decent guy, it didn't much matter.  He wasn't a cult starter, just a person capable of believing strange things.

The cult leader has the crazy ideas and the charisma to make other people believe them too.  On top of this, he's usually extremely bright and a natural at manipulation.  He knows how people tick and what will get each individual to sign on.  If you've read any Lois McMaster Bujold, he's Miles Vorkosigan -- the guy who leaves home to visit his grandma and comes back the admiral of a space navy, using his people skills alone.  (Miles even starts a cult in one story!  And I would believe it.)

Sometimes it's hard to get through to this picture because the cult mythos covers over the prophet.  There will be stories of how he was incredibly holy from a very young age and spent his early years searching for the truth.  In reality, in his pre-cult life he may have been a salesman, con artist, or even nobody in particular.  Joseph Smith dug up Indian mounds, L. Ron Hubbard was a novelist.  Maybe they're raised in a religion where they realize it's their best road to success -- like Warren Jeffs, son of the previous prophet (but not the eldest -- he probably isn't who his father would have chosen to succeed him) or Maciel, whose uncle was a bishop.  Oddly, they may not even really mean to start a cult.  Some of the less-well-known prophets I have read about simply were super excited about some nutty idea, and found that people were gravitating to them.

However, in most cases a cult starts within a pre-established religion.  Gnosticism grew from Zoroastrianism and Platonism, Islam from Christianity.  There are no end of weird Mormon sects -- it sort of lends itself to that, because it's mutated since its founding and you can claim to be a return to its roots.  But there are Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and Buddhist cults too.  Anything will do, provided it's respectable enough that you can mask your weirdness in it.  It will provide a ready stream of converts for you.

You see, respectable religion is low-demand: that is what distinguishes it from a cult (also called a high-demand group).  It doesn't expect you to spend that many hours a week on it, and it's assumed that you'll mostly make your own decisions without asking your priest.  This is satisfactory for most members, because they don't want to give too much to their religion.  But there will always be those (cough, cough, like me) who can't see a justification for acting that way.  There's eternity on the line, right?  So why are we ranking our religion somewhere between mowing the lawn on Saturdays and Monday night football?  They want to get serious.  They want to give everything.

And there's this earnest holy man who's there ready to take everything!  It all fits together.  The prophet can construct a justification, using scripture verses or a new revelation to himself, for his version of the religion being the Real Deal.  Easy enough to do, because most religions fudge some bits or have changed something over the years.  Fundamentalist Mormons point to polygamy, fundamentalist Catholics go for the Latin Mass, fundamentalist Protestants focus on spanking and wifely submission, and fundamentalist Muslims ... well, you know that one.  The believers are told, "Your religion is lax and corrupt.  People are lazy about it.  They gloss over teachings they don't like.  But we're going to go back to the original form."

And that's why cults have such amazing energy, why they grow in leaps and bounds while respectable religions have trouble coaxing new members in the doors.  They're composed entirely of the people who couldn't be content with one-hour-a-week religion.  Cults often demand hours of your time every day, either on group activities or personal growth.  The true believer is likely to say, "Finally, people who take religion seriously!"  And there are benefits -- if religion provides structure and a supportive community, cults provide ten times the structure and community.  If you talk to a cult member, they will tell you their fellow members really do pitch in and help them out.  However, they don't benefit all that much, considering what they sacrifice.  The cultist usually lives a life that would not make a whole lot of sense outside of the cult's beliefs.  That's the whole point -- they don't want to live a life that would be just the same without their religion.  They want to gamble for high stakes, and sadly they lose.

Returning to the cult leader's qualities, the last one he needs is a lot of good old luck.  He has to be in the right place at the right time.  Just like a politician will only get elected when his ideas are on the upswing (look at Trump -- that's not all Trump, that's a wave of Trumpishness he's surfing on, which was here before he arrived on the scene), a prophet will only be successful in proportion to how ready people are for his ideas.  There's a huge groundswell of fundamentalist Protestantism going around now -- why?  Well, a lot of churches have liberalized, allowing women ministers and gay marriage.  People leave those churches hoping to head rightward -- and there are Gothard, Phillips, Dobson, Pearl, and so forth, ready to meet them with exactly what they are looking for.  Cult leaders reap a rich harvest among people who feel disenfranchised or left behind.  Not all are conservative, either -- some are about bringing something fresh and new into the old, stale religion of the past, like much of Transcendentalism was.  Scientology and many other mid-20th-century cults had a harvest field among post-Christian liberals who needed something to replace the religion they didn't have.

End times prophecies are the cherry on top -- to those who feel everything's headed the wrong way, apocalyptic scares seem very credible.  And it gives a wonderful energy to any cult.  You can always find signs of the apocalypse -- if nothing else works, fall back on "everything's getting worse all the time," there are always people who agree with that.  Oddly, when the apocalypse fails to arrive, it doesn't end a cult.  Some members walk, but the rest, purged of the lukewarm, are even more galvanized.  (Remember the Millerites, who, when the world failed to end in 1830, became the Seventh-Day Adventists.)  They set a new date, or just say it's right around the corner, literally any day now.  No point in saving your money, donate it to the cult!  No point in going to college, get married at sixteen to the prophet!  It's pretty rare to see a cult that didn't profess to be living in the last days.  Listen to the Jehovah's Witnesses next time they visit -- "Do you know what times we are living in?  That's right!  The last times!"

What does the cult leader get out of it?  Money, power, and a volunteer army to build his pet projects are only side perks.  The real thrill, I think, is the attention.  It's like crack cocaine to a narcissist.  (Though plenty of them go for literal crack cocaine as well.  Drugs, adoring women, children to abuse, access to celebrities -- there's no end of rewards for the unscrupulous leader if he makes a real success of his cult.)  If he truly believes, it's sure to be wonderful to have all these people backing him up, instead of calling him a wacko like his friends and family used to do.  He eats up the praise and becomes ever more convinced that God (or whoever) loves him special.  His claims become ever more grandiose -- he's the reincarnation of Joseph Smith!  Of Jesus!  Of God!

When his back is finally against the wall, he usually does not recant.  Joseph Smith didn't; Jim Jones didn't.  Warren Jeffs goes back and forth, as he gets more and more confused in prison.  It's hard to say why that is.  In part, I think it's because the prophet really does believe his story.  He's often a bit delusional from the start, and the years of telling his story and being believed have to have an effect as well.  Partly, they just have their backs against the wall.  There's nothing to be gained by recanting -- is anyone seriously going to let them escape after all the crimes they've committed and the lies they've told?  And as long as they don't recant, they have their followers' loyalty -- perhaps they think their team will pull through at the last minute.  (Narcissists are known for extreme optimism; they can never quite believe they've lost.)  And if death is certain, better to be remembered as a prophet than as a con man, right?  There's no memory so glorious and certain as the founder of a religion -- your followers' descendants will be looking up to you as a hero for generations, if you are lucky.

It's only after the death of its prophet that a cult can become respectable.  The charismatic leader is replaced by a capable administrator.  It's often the guy who has kept the cult going despite its leader's increasing disconnect from reality and his unpredictability -- the guy who keeps the illusion of a saint going even as the prophet is lifting off in a gold-plated helicopter with half a dozen gorgeous acolytes.  Things stabilize, there are no wild fluctuations of dogma, no new revelations.  That heady feeling of starting something new and exciting fades, people are less committed, especially without the thrill of working for the charismatic prophet.  But very often the second leader of a cult is a smart guy who reached the number two spot for a reason.  He is able to organize his group into something durable -- if the cult is lucky.  If you don't have a guy like that, the cult dies; it was all about the leader, and with him gone (especially if he promised the end times in his lifetime) there's no reason to continue.  But if you do, the sky's the limit.  A really successful cult stays culty for another generation or two, especially if the conditions that got it going persist.  But eventually the energy starts to peter out; you get Sunday-only members and then Christmas-and-Easter members.  People talk about it as a respectable religion instead of a fringe group.  It's much more comfortable and healthy to be a member now, though how healthy depends on the structure of the organization and beliefs.

If you reach this point, congratulations -- you played the cult game, a game with very long odds, and won.  You founded a lasting religion.

9 comments:

Belfry Bat said...

Well, I would comment more, but it often feels, from your responses (in comments and in later blog posts) that all I'm able to suggest is more things you want to disagree with. It does get a tad discouraging.

Sheila said...

BB, you don't owe me comments (though it's nice to see you are still reading) so if you don't enjoy contributing, you needn't feel obligated. I didn't mean to lay on the guilt, I'm just hunting for a topic you people would like to read about. I do tend to disagree with a lot that you say; not because I want to but because you don't convince me. That's okay, though -- I do seriously consider what you suggest and I enjoy the discussion all the same.

Belfry Bat said...

Well, I have to say, then, that I miss your writings on poetry!

(I do like contributing, when I can; whether I do so well, I can't tell...)

Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog for years. You're a great writer.

SeekingOmniscience said...

I should comment more on things I agree on. I enjoyed this cult post and the opposing sides post quite a lot; I'd actually never thought of that duality re. the opposing sides before, but that was a good point. And this post is really well-written. It describes... well, my own psychology at various points fairly well.

I'm currently in a discussion with someone about the early Church, which this post is also quite relevant to. He keeps maintaining that the phenomenon of the Early Church, and particularly the martyrs, is completely inexplicable without God existing. And, well, I'm obviously not maintaining that.

Have you read this account of a small cult? I haven't read that book, although I read about the cult in question from another psychology book I was reading. You might find it interesting.

Sheila said...

Whoa: " Festinger and his colleagues predicted that the inevitable disconfirmation would be followed by an enthusiastic effort at proselytizing to seek social support and lessen the pain of disconfirmation."

I had never thought of that! I'm sure I'd enjoy that book; I'll look around for it.

Anon, whoever you are, I'm glad you're reading!

BB, there's been a poem sitting in drafts for awhile that I'll go ahead and post. Sure, it's only by me, and you probably prefer commentary on "real" poems, but I'll throw it out there. :)

Anonymous said...

You write thought-provoking stuff I like to read and ponder....I just always chicken out on commenting. :)
- Baroness

The Sojourner said...

I gave up theological discussions for Lent.

(Wait, it's not Lent anymore? Huh. How time flies.)

On the cult topic:

Recently in my area there was an Ob/Gyn who was forced into "early retirement" because he'd been sexually abusing patients. (I read one of the news articles about the issue and was too squicked out to read more. His reaction to the whole thing was literally, "I knew it was wrong but I didn't think I'd lose my license over it." Seriously, dude. What did you think was a license-losing offense?) He had several patients who were ADAMANT that he was the most amazing doctor ever and his victims were lying liars who lie. And even people who weren't in the rabid defense camp were shocked and puzzled that such a kind, competent sort of person could do such a thing.

It's exactly the charming and competent ones who DO perpetuate systematic abuse, though. People who are assholes and losers might be abusive, but not in the same way. Because they can't get the level of power and influence necessary to be so.

I can't decide if being suspicious of popular people makes me cynical or smart.

Sheila said...

Smart! Because even if the popular person isn't secretly a douchecanoe, they still have way too many friends to have much time for you. Whereas the shy or awkward people often are gems that other people were too superficial to appreciate. I phrase it to John this way -- it's like a tiny restaurant off a creepy alley which looks like a dive but turns out to have the best food in the city, and best of all, it's never crowded because nobody knows about it! (For the record: he was not a popular guy when I fell for him. He kind of is now -- but at least I can be a hipster about it and say I was into him before he was cool.)

Baroness, I'm happy that you are reading! Thanks for de-lurking to let me know. :D

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