Cults and Cultism in American Religion (Dr. Joseph Miller)

NOTE: The following are excerpts of an article from Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XVIII (2001), pp. 27-36. The Rev. Dr. Miller is Professor Emeritus and Former Dean of Student Services, Central Washington University, Ellensburg, Washington.

The Wall

Cultists and cultic behavior have the following characteristics:

1) The most common feature—the trait of cultists most commonly observed—is the apparently insatiable desire to control, amounting to a compulsion, to control everything; people in particular, of course, adults and children, but also money, property, animals, automobiles, toys, the weather, society, and everything else. One man or one group of cultists, however, can only control within the limits of his or its energy and attention, and those limits are usually the limits of the cult. The great need to control is for the sake of power. Power attracts great temptations and is hence a danger to the cultic personality, something usually not realized by the cultic personality. No matter how philanthropic or God-loving a person may appear or think himself to be in such instances, this is still cultic behavior.

1984 - Brave New World

2) Persistent, systemic anger—anger displayed openly—is a certain sign of cultic mentality. This use of anger, sometimes simply careless and sometimes deliberate, is also related to other passions, usually fleshly passions, not under good control. The cultic personality cannot tolerate anything he cannot control, and in the presence of things he cannot control, his inner frustration comes out as anger. Anger, of course, is the primary and certainly most primitive means of control. It is primitive especially for Christians. The Apostle James tells us how to regard anger: …for the wrath [anger] of man worketh not the righteousness of God. (St. James 1:20). Angry people often take deluded refuge by a self-serving interpretation of what righteous anger is, that is, a spiritual trait that belongs to God and which has nothing to do with human anger or wrath.

Tips for Anger Management

3) Adherence to and dissemination of a particular doctrine, enunciated and interpreted by the cultist idiosyncratically. The cultic personality says, and this is my paraphrase, I alone possess the real, the whole truth. I have truth that will lead you to your best destiny. I have truth or a true explication of the truth that you cannot otherwise obtain. I alone can interpret this doctrine accurately. All others are impostors or renegades, or at least much inferior to me even if they agree with me, and I rightfully have dominion over them. There is continual self-justification. We impute this characteristic, by the way, to individual cult leaders, not to their followers.

Cult of Christianity

4) Ancillary to the foregoing is a decided appetite for money. Money, as you know, equates to power and to control. It is always necessary to understand that both good and bad cults rest on money and economics. All organizations need support. I am speaking here of the cult leaders love for money and misuse of it. The Church of Scientology and the Moonies are particularly clever, insidious, and aggressive about this. A man I know was asked to contribute heavily toward the publication of a book, whereupon he was forgiven for transgressing some rule of the cult—in his case for having an independent thought. That particular cult, not incidentally, was self-described as an Orthodox Christian group.


5) Discounting, demeaning, denigrating, dismissing, and patronizing the rationality of followers, creating and exploiting self-doubt. The success of the cult leader depends on two elements: a) convincing people that their own rationality is insufficient, inadequate, or simply wrong; and b) finding insecure, emotionally needy people looking for certainty. Here also may enter the phenomenon known as ego destruction, so much used in extreme situations like prisoner of war interrogation, brainwashing, sensory deprivation, and induced stress. Your leaders have abandoned you, etc. Your friends no longer care about you. Your friends have given up on you. I am the one who truly cares about you, and Im the only one. The cult leader, by the way, will usually describe all possible rivals as brainwashed, ignorant, or spiritually inferior—if not directly, then often by innuendo. Ego destruction, let me hasten to add, is entirely perverse by definition to the Christian askesis of obedience.

Ego destruction and the breaking of the will, the cornerstone of monastic life, are conceptually and practically antithetical to each other. They are two entirely different things. Moreover, the breaking of the will is appropriate to monastic therapeutic protocols, not to the life led by laymen in parishes.

In Orthodox Christian religious life, voluntary submission is a fundamental and essential element of the breaking of the will, understood entirely within the context of the pleroma of Holy Tradition. Cultic ego destruction, as the term is used these days, is heavily coercive and dehumanizing, attacking the very soul itself.

Methods of Manipulation

6) The cultist arrogates to himself authority and powers which have no basis in commonly understood reality. The cultist perceives or feels threat, or experiences jealousy, in the presence of any other authority whatsoever, and will go to great lengths to circumvent, discount, or simply ignore other authority figures. The cultist, as you can understand, may have colleagues, but no friends who are peers. The cultic personality cannot tolerate true intimacy or equality.

7) Cultists want to isolate their devotees, so that their sources of information are more and more confined to the cultist. When you have questions about anything at all, come to me for the right answers. Avoid those outsiders. They don’t care about you the way I do. This refers to the insatiable need for power and control. Jim Jones moved his people finally to South America, so that they would not only feel, but be, dependent on him for everything, including daily subsistence. But he told them he was moving them away from pernicious influences. Any religious leader should warn others to avoid salacious and unhealthy contacts, of course; however, this is not in the context of making himself the only source of news and information.

Jim Jones and the People's Temple
Jim Jones and the People’s Temple

8) Manipulation of families and other emotional bond situations, inserting distrust into difficult family situations, not seeking to repair but to explore and exploit. Suggesting or encouraging divorces if there appears to be even a small rift between a husband and wife, for example. In Orthodoxy, this is a violation of the very sanctity of the Mystery of Marriage, even if the Church does grant, for very specific pastoral reasons, divorces—but again, not by the action of an individual Priest but a decision of the Bishop and a spiritual court.

Ecclesiastical Divorce

9) Manipulation of all followers, carefully designed use of disinformation, seeking out the vulnerable person and, in the vulnerable person, a precise weakness—casting doubt about other followers, setting one segment against another by Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass logic and semantics.

Alice entering the Looking Glass
Alice entering the Looking Glass

10) The cultist, in other words, seeks to weaken his followers, bend them to his will, and deprive them of their own wills, making them mindless automatons, puppets to the puppet master— Trilbys to Svengali—, by a variety of intentional techniques, thus intensifying their feelings of inadequacy and dependency on himself, building up his own ego at the expense of those who follow and support him. This is all done under the rubric of obedience, that supremely praised and much abused virtue. The Christian leader, on the other hand, seeks to strengthen in Christ those who follow him and are entrusted to him, to build up the sense of Christian self, so that they may be able to make informed, free, and self-responsible decisions, with his spiritual guidance, to follow the dictates of conscience and the love of God.

Svengali hypnotising the innocent Trilby
Svengali hypnotising the innocent Trilby

11) The cultist is insensitive and disdainful of followers, uncaring toward them, but zealous in defense of his own perquisites. He is openly scornful and punitive toward those who leave, becomes sarcastic and mean-spirited towards them, and even vengeful.

12) The cultist, having denigrated and dominated everyone into submission, has thereby arrogated to himself the power to make all decisions, thus effectively depriving his group of exercising any voluntary choice. Voluntary choice, as we know, is essential to our being able to choose virtue over vice, and hence the freedom to choose salvation  and Paradise over sin.

The cultic person or cult leader will, over just a bit of time, exhibit most of these behaviors—though not necessarily every one of them.

In this context, is there, or has there been, such a thing as an Orthodox cult with spiritually damaging consequences to its members? The answer is obviously, yes.

Icon given to monastics under Geronda Ephraim. There is a blessing to pray to this icon to ask for Geronda's help in times of need
Icon given to monastics under Geronda Ephraim. There is a blessing to pray to this icon to ask for Geronda’s help in times of need

Cults are harmful in these respects:

1) To the groupies, cult life erodes or destroys freedom or perceived freedom of choice, takes away responsibility for self-direction, destroys self-confidence in ones own rational thoughts, and corrodes or destroys the whole personality. It is the polar opposite of theosis, or divinization, since its focus is solely on the human cult figure or cult personality rather than on Christ. The personality, of course, is the visible aspect of the human soul. Thus, even a Christian-based cult can be soul-destroying.


2) It can lead the cult figure to prelest or plane (spiritual delusion or deception). Too often we think only of damage to cult members, whom we see as victims, without realizing that there is always damage to the cult leader also. Cult leadership makes for pride, a sense of infallibility, and opens the cult figure to many other temptations. It encourages him to think himself perfect, as the criterion of truth and the standard by which all others should measure themselves.

Who is susceptible to a cult? What one notices about those who agree to be in a cult is that almost certainly the individual has emotional or intellectual needs (or both) which have not been filled—some empty pockets. To speak of emotional needs frequently draws a frown from unlettered clergy or would-be theologians; but therein lies the key to understanding why cults are so attractive to some. This action of the mind is not unrelated to religious faith, because one always decides whether to believe or disbelieve, what to accept or not to accept. It is disheartening, sometimes, to realize how many presumed religious decisions are made on the basis of emotionality alone and without the moderating influence of rationality and cognition. It is disheartening, sometimes, to realize how many decisions are made by clergy responsible to and for the Church on a basis of emotion alone.

The desire (emotional need) for some structure for ones life, some sense of shared experience with others, some esteem, or love (or at least attention from others), for some experience which is transcendent or metaphysical, or that appears to be, some relief for the overpowering  Angst of meaningless existence—these things make one susceptible to cultishness. People who very noticeably and often painfully do not feel good about themselves suffer much from anxiety and loneliness, are depressed, dysfunctional to some degree, do not achieve what they might, have great difficulty setting a course in their lives, and do not use the personal gifts they have. What is so relevant, here, is that cult members almost universally come from among such people, from people who have never felt good about themselves. They are sitting ducks for a cult leader. They feel empty and unloved within. They are emotionally very vulnerable to anyone who is self- confident and appears to be a strong person, who has a program which will make them feel good about themselves, replacing some kind of uncertainty. Feeling good about oneself feels very good.