Updated: Apr 20
Comparing Only Gets Us So Far
In part 1 of this article, I outlined the differences between a negative cult and a community. And whilst this is helpful, it is certainly not enough. Understanding what lies beneath the surface of these groups, the people behind them and what is at the root cause of the issue is ultimately what will help us to go beyond a subjective or vague comprehension of what is or isn’t a cult. It also highlights the important opportunity for a wider conversation on the necessity to address toxic pathologies wherever they are present in our lives and the lives of people around us. We must learn to understand the dark character traits of human beings, their root pathologies and how these manifest themselves in people’s egos and behaviours to understand what causes someone to become a cult leader and a community to become a cult. Ignorance of this leaves us vulnerable and susceptible to their underlying damaging and malignant effects both on ourselves and people we care about. If we want to protect ourselves, our families and our communities from this then we cannot afford to remain ignorant or be naive to the dark side of human pathology and how to identify that, not just in others, but in ourselves too.
For example, in part 1, I showed how you can compare two very different forms of leader, both possessing a great deal of charisma; one who uses theirs for good and the other who uses theirs for their own narcissistic gain. Saying that cults have charismatic leaders is absolutely true, but leaders of healthy communities can be very charismatic too. It's not charisma that is the issue, it's the pathology driving that charisma and its intentions that differentiate the two. It's the toxic and damaging pathology of a cult leader that makes their influence so damaging and destructive. This is what we need to understand, so we need to go deeper, beyond the superficial and into exploring the pathology underneath.
Dr Stephen Hassan, the renowned cult and mind control expert, makes this distinction that techniques themselves are not good or bad but how they are used and what the intention is matters more than the technique itself. Dr Hassan created the BITE model, which stands for Behaviour, Information, Thought, and Emotional control, to understand the different forms of mind control used by destructive groups and leaders. He also created the Freedom Of Mind Resource Centre which lays out the BITE model and beneath it states:
Destructive mind control can be determined when the overall effect of these four components [Behaviour, Information, Thought, and Emotional] promotes dependency and obedience to some leader or cause; it is not necessary for every single item on the list to be present. Like many techniques, it is not inherently good or evil. If mind control techniques are used to empower an individual to have more choice, and authority for their life remains within themselves, the effects can be beneficial. For example, benevolent mind control can be used to help people quit smoking without affecting any other behaviour. Mind control becomes destructive when it undermines a person’s ability to think and act independently.
This article will explore further some of the ways in which the old infant ego (explained below) and its dark character traits, when left unaddressed, will twist and warp reality and exploit someone or groups of people for their own gain. Ultimately by understanding how the underlying pathology operates, it will reveal to us greater insights of whether a group is dangerous or not, regenerative and healthy or not and trustworthy or not.
The Old Infant Ego
First and foremost, when speaking about pathology in a psychological, emotional, mental and spiritual plane, it’s important to first understand the human ego and its development.
The human ego is formed in infancy and is completely reactive to what its immediate wants and needs are; it is addicted to the needs, wants and desires of the body. When a person grows out of physical infancy into physical adulthood but they have not matured emotionally and spiritually, this is known as the old infant or ego and will throw tantrums like someone stuck in the terrible twos. As an infant, you can test out loads of options, good and bad, sweet and nasty because you haven’t yet understood the world’s rules, and that’s what infants do when they are trying to understand the world and its limitations when they are young. That kind of person is prime to become a cult leader because they are driven purely by desire and wants, addicted to finding ways of using other people to satiate their desires, whether that be power, significance, sex, alcohol, drugs, violence, whatever it might be. If a child is never properly coached, counselled, mentored and socialised by their parents, however, they will invent a warped understanding of the world, as a coping mechanism. That becomes part of their subjective understanding and justification of themselves; that is their ego.
A warped sense of self and an immature, undeveloped, unhealthy ego leads to narcissism. Narcissism is characterised, according to Psychology Today, as a grandiose sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy for others, a need for excessive admiration, and the belief that one is unique and deserving of special treatment. Another character trait that can be present in an undeveloped and corrupt ego is psychopathy, sometimes considered synonymous with sociopathy, characterised by persistent antisocial behaviour, impaired empathy and remorse and bold, disinhibited, and egotistical traits. Also present might be the third element of the dark triad, Machiavellianism, a personality trait centered on manipulativeness, callousness, and indifference to morality.
Now, none of us received perfect upbringings because we are all imperfect people, including our parents and teachers, so we will all have varying degrees of these traits conditioned into us. But to what extent and to what degree? What level of awareness do we have of our old infant ego, to the degree that it is there and of its traits that can be so destructive because of a warped sense of reality? And what is our attitude towards learning about that?
Understanding what is at the root
Preparing research for this article didn’t feel complete, especially after reading extensively about cults and their leaders, without mentioning the concept of human evil, for which I reference the work of M Scott Peck in his book, The People Of The Lie, as it holds up psychologically according to a review in the Journal Of Humanist Psychology.
Simply put, if we have a weakness in our character, like narcissism - and we all do - but then we don’t work on that weakness by taking responsibility for it, we ignore it and make an excuse for it instead; that is called wickedness. When we justify our wickedness in the name of good, it then becomes evil. The most basic wicked thing that exists is the lack of self honesty, self examination and self regeneration. So this shows us that narcissism itself is not the whole problem, it is the attitude to our narcissism and how much that attitude branches into evil. Narcissism is a weakness we all have to varying degrees in our psyches, but if we take a healthy attitude and work to manage and reduce it, then narcissism does not degenerate into wickedness but instead becomes healthier through regeneration.
Another example is if we didn’t get the upbringing we needed and we’re ignorant of that, that is one thing. But it's a willful ignorance which we make excuses for, it’s an ignorance that gives birth to wickedness and eventually evil, if the excuses continue. This is where you see cult leaders making excuses, being a law unto themselves and not holding themselves accountable; it is because of their evil and wicked attitude towards their weaknesses and their regeneration.
Manipulating Love to Bomb You and Build the Ego
I write this with a bit of tongue-in-cheek because genuine love can’t be manipulated. It just is. Corrupted love can be non-love (the absence of love) or anti-love (the antithesis of love). Narcissistic, toxic and psychopathic people love to abuse the word love because it forms part of the justifications and excuses they have for their own weaknesses where they did not receive love.
In episode 1 of 2 on cult psychology by Actualized.org’s Leo Gura, he discusses numerous tactics used by cults and makes particular emphasis on the role of the human ego in the forming of a cult - that the ego is immature and seeks only for itself and its own gain at the expense of other people. When people are not aware of their ego, the group they have brought together can very easily become a cult. In relation to the manipulations used by cults, Gura talks specifically about love bombing, the showering of disingenuous "love" and praise from a person or group in order to make you feel "loved", but is in fact a technique intended to manipulate you. Gura discusses how a lot of vulnerable people might not have experienced true volitional love before, so love bombing deceives them by appealing to their emotional centre which has been deprived. He continues:
Now when you come into a community that love bombs you, you’re so susceptible to that. But it never lasts because they don’t really love you, they’re just manipulating you to serve their ego. The ego is not capable of love, the only thing the devil loves is himself. And even that, he can’t really fully do, he loves himself in a neurotic sort of way.
Cults will manipulate positive and healthy things like love into love bombing to keep you subordinate, dependent and conformed within the cult. But it is the same tactic used by abusive and violent partners and families, or by pimps and prostitutes because without the love bombing, there would be nothing keeping the victim where they are. If the victim's idea of love is twisted, however, such that they don't recognize its disingenuousness, then it makes it harder for them to leave or they feel a deeper sense of guilt for wanting to leave.
So how can you avoid the pull of a love bomb if you have never known genuine love in your life? Get to know yourself and take responsibility for your own weaknesses and then learn what love is, know what the ego is and know what evil is and where it comes from. If you understand your ego, that part of you making excuses and even evil justifications, you can take responsibility and you will understand other people’s too, and you’ll know whether the love you are receiving is egoic or a whole-souled extension and volitional choice to truly love and care for you. Real love is invested, grown and nurtured responsibly, not bombed.
Evil Will Call Itself Love
The word “love” is a very powerful tool for someone who wishes to use it for their own gain. In the NXIVM trial, after the victim statements about being beaten, raped, violated and branded with Keith Raniere’s initials, Mr. Raniere’s lawyer, Mr. Agnifilo, argued that his client never intended to hurt any women, saying he was in love with them and simply had trouble dealing with breakups. See the justification in the name of good here? Evil takes something good, like love, twists it and defiles it with an apparently well-meaning excuse or an explanation where responsibility ought to have been taken. As an example, David Berg from the Children of God cult created doctrine which would promote paedophilia and the raping of children some as young as TWO YEARS OLD. You know what the doctrine was called by Berg? “The Law of Love”. Now THAT is evil!
Someone who does not have self-honesty about their intention to harm and is not aware of themselves cannot love and won’t know how to either, because love is an extension of the self and the act of loving is a self-actualising and regenerative act. As M Scott Peck put it in The Road Less Travelled:
Love is a strangely circular process. For the process of extending one’s self is an evolutionary process. When one has successfully extended one’s limits, one has then grown into a larger state of being. Thus the act of loving is an act of self evolution, even when the purpose of the act is someone else’s growth.
The ACTUAL (and true) law of love is a universal, eternal, infinite, inexorable law, and its governing principles dictate why genuine love is one thing and not another. Rape is never an application of love, for instance. Why? Because the act of objectifying a person and violating them against their will goes against the principles that fall under the law of love including the principles of consent, respect and trust, to name a few (although I can’t think of a principle of love that isn’t violated by rape, hence its atrocity).
To go against a principle and try to call it a principle is evil and a form of gaslighting, aimed at tampering with someone’s understanding of words, associations, natural laws and principles by trying to normalise something atrocious, abusive or wrong. For instance, a leader in a cult beating its members and raping them whilst telling them that love is pain, like in NXIVM, is gaslighting and a violation of the law of love. Although love can be painful, as anyone with a bad breakup in their past, or who has lost a child would know, the association is that having pain inflicted upon you for the pleasure of a psychopath and narcissist is absolute and total abuse.
If you are being told by someone that they love you, anyone, and that person has no understanding of their ego and does not take responsibility for it, how can you trust that love is genuine? Because you don’t know the intention, THEY don’t know the intention, they don’t even know their ego is running them and they’re not taking responsibility for it. They’re not choosing to love you; the feeling of loving you is either a fabrication or a flurry of oxytocin, or their own subconscious projections onto you.
The Psychology of the Rumour Mill: Taking Responsibility for our Pathology
Being aware of our egos and our own proclivities towards narcissism and psychopathy is what will keep us from becoming a cult leader or cult enabler ourselves, as well as make us more acutely aware of what to look out for in other people. When I learned about how narcissistic I can be, it allowed me to see it more in other people, or where I was accusing others of being judgemental, I was being incredibly judgemental myself. When we become more aware of our biases, it allows us to choose with more consideration, empathy and with a greater dedication to reality. Before you read on, take a moment to consider your biases and prejudices.
In 2015, a man named Ricky was accused by his own children, eight and nine years old, of sexually abusing them as part of a “satanic cult”. The children were filmed giving their testimony and attended two police interviews in which they spoke about all of the ways he had allegedly hurt them, and there was a website and a lot of online content that named 60-80 other people involved in a 'cult' that would kill infants and drink their blood. What sort of father would do that?! Can you even imagine? You call that a father?! That’s not a father, that’s the devil! I get angry and petrified at the thought!
BUT WAIT, do you know what actually happened? The allegations were made after the mother of the children and her new boyfriend were physically abusing the children and were forcing them to make these accusations against their father. An article about the case in the Independent said:
Through the course of the case it was discovered that the children’s claims had “come about as the result of relentless emotional and psychological pressure as well as significant abuse,” Justice Pauffley said at the time, which Ricky said he found the most difficult part of the whole ordeal.
A 77-page judgement in March 2015 found the allegations against Ricky and the other 80 people to be “baseless”, “evil and/or foolish”. Ricky and all those mentioned were acquitted of the allegations by the judge. Ricky however still received death threats afterwards as the videos of his children forming the smear campaign were still being shared online and has been viewed 4 million times worldwide, despite the allegations being false. Justice Pauffley estimated that the lasting impact on the children would be considerable. Ricky spoke to Victoria Derbyshire, in tears, in an incredibly moving video, about how he had to endure levels of character assassination that most people could not even fathom being on the receiving end of.
When you read that, did you remember your biases and prejudices? Were you able to respond rather than react? When reading something like this or anything like this we need to look at our own pathology. Are you sitting there thinking “poor man, that must be awful to be falsely accused of that”, or are you sitting there thinking “there’s no smoke without fire! There must just be a really clever cult under there”? If it’s the latter, this is an opinion led by bias and not by truth. This man was completely acquitted of a false allegation, and yet to some, he will still be a satanic cult leader who abuses his kids. But it’s been proven he’s not, so why would someone perceive him like that?
Because, to some people, it suits them. They twist and distort reality into something it isn't. They’d rather believe their own version of the story and convince everyone else of it than face the truth. They have someone to hate, to bully, to revile, to feel superior over - they’re all set! For some people, when that rumour mill goes or when they have an ideology in mind, no amount of truth and reality to the contrary will keep them away from their opinions. Ironically, this is how cult leaders think - they have a conflict of interest with reality and the truth. And this same pathology is present in people who are not cult leaders but have a cultish level of thinking justified as “my truth”. M Scott Peck calls people with this kind of thinking The People Of The Lie because of the lies and stories they create. They think what is true for them must be true for everyone else around them, which is inherently narcissistic and wicked, if not evil.
Making Financial Agreements and Investments Does Not Equal A Cult
Here’s a hypothetical: if someone you trust is starting a company and you make a handshake agreement with them that you are going to make an investment because you believe in their vision and you are invited to become a part of it on a win/win or no deal basis, are you in a cult of two? Of course not. Depending on the particular situation you could call this anything from a business deal to helping out a friend to angel investment.
Or another example. Imagine a situation where you have been coerced by your friends and family, or you feel socially obligated and pressured to involve yourself in an institution where, before you arrive, you sign a piece of paper which says the institution will take money from you for the next 30-40 years of your life, around £50k-£60k in total, whilst you spend only a few years living in a commune of organised and systemised indoctrination for which you will be thrown out if you don’t follow their rules or fit within the designed construct. Cult? Yes or no? Well, guess what, I've just described a university. So this is far from being black and white.
If you don’t know about scams and have not built a long-term trusting relationship with the person you are investing with and you don’t understand narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism, then you could be susceptible. For instance, an elderly couple claimed they were impoverished after donating their life savings to the House of Prayer, a prophetic religious cult in the Republic of Ireland, at the request of the leader’s associates. This combination of elderly (aka vulnerable) plus life savings is one that cults like to use.
Money runs deep with people and, like religion or love or education, people have extremely strong views on how it should or should not be handled. Because of that, we each bear an enormous responsibility to be aware of how we view money and people can treat it however they wish. But because it is also a tool of power and is the linchpin of survival for many people is a source of great anxiety, it can be used for the personal gain of the cult.
Simple question: what is the intention of the person asking you to make an investment? What is their character? What is your relationship to them? Are you able to make a Win/Win Or No Deal agreement with the person in whom you are investing? Do you know where your money is going, have you asked? The simple exchange of a large sum of money however does not make something a cult or inherently narcissistic. After all, if my family member wants to buy their first house and I give them money for a deposit and for some living costs whilst they get set up, I’m not funding their cult. This is about situation, discernment, intuition and trust in the character and pathology of the person you are transacting with.
Predators Hunt The Vulnerable and Sensitive
The vulnerable need to be protected but yet, every day, narcissistic people exploit the goodness of the vulnerable for their own gain because, to them, why would you not? But no one is going to serve you and your ego if you say you’re looking for world domination and you look like a Disney villain. No. Instead, you’re going to use lies, puppies and rainbows, pleasure, cheer and the promise of nirvana to seduce others into following you. You might talk about saving the world, but the intention behind that might be that you want the glory and credit for saving it, not because it’s the morally right thing to do and really you care more about your own glory, by any means necessary, than the world. People who are conscientious about the world and the environment could become ensnared by that very easily if they don’t know what is at the root. After all, if someone asks you for help in the street, how do you know whether they genuinely need help or whether they are going to murder you or abduct you whilst you’re helping them to their car. That’s exactly what Ted Bundy the serial killer did. He often had a sling or a crutch that he would use to feign a fragile and helpless state before luring women into his car to kill them.
The New Yorker wrote in their article “What Makes A Cult A Cult?” about Lauren Hough who wrote a series of essays following her involvement in the Children of God cult, now called The Family International. It depicts more of what people were searching for in themselves which left them open to choosing a cult.
Despite Hough’s enduring contempt for those who abused her, her experiences as a minimum-wage worker in mainstream America have convinced her that what the Children of God preached about the inequity of the American system was actually correct. The miseries and indignities that this country visits on its precariat class are enough, she claims, to make anyone want to join a cult. Yet people who choose to do so are not necessarily hapless creatures, buffeted into delusion by social currents they do not comprehend; they are often idealists seeking to create a better world. Of her own parents’ decision to join the Children of God, she writes, “All they saw was the misery wrought by greed—the poverty and war, the loneliness and the fucking cruelty of it all. So they joined a commune, a community where people shared what little they had, where people spoke of love and peace, a world without money, a cause. A family. Picked the wrong goddamn commune. But who didn’t.”
Dr Steven Eichel, psychologist and cult expert, says in The Behavioural Corner Podcast that “the single biggest factor in cult recruitment is bad luck”.
So how do you know if you are forming a healthy commune or a cult? Are you helping out a person in need get into their car, or are you helping Ted Bundy? Are you saving the world and empowering people, or are you recruiting for a psychopathic leader?
The good intentions of a person are what cults prey on to bring people into their cause where their own depraved, narcissistic and psychopathic egoic desires could then be fulfilled at the expense of others. But that doesn’t mean that all communes or all groups will do that, and it doesn’t change the fact that there ARE indeed a huge number of problems in the world that need addressing. Part of our responsibility if we want to have an impact in the world is to overcome the challenges and obstacles in building a community challenging their own narcissism enough to become a true community that CAN genuinely help, rather than become a cult. Because people still need help, and there are still people suffering who ought not to be, people who DESERVE for those who can to come together and help them.
We Need Empathic Communities, Not Psychopathic Cults
We need those ambitious communities who will push the boundaries of what we think is possible in terms of helping the world who are educated, who are healthy grown adults, emotionally mature and making a deliberate effort to confront their own shadows and take responsibility to heal. These will be the people who will be much better placed to build a true community that stands a better chance of alleviating suffering in the world, because it is done, not according to some doctrine, but to universal and eternal principles and laws. For them, the ends do not justify the means if those means are unprincipled and evil. And they are realistic, not idealistic that this will be an organic process that will take time, commitment, evaluation, planning, building, getting it wrong, trying again, sacrifice and nurturing. Just as there is a psychopathic side in everyone, there is also an empathic side, and the capacity to do good and build something good without the corruption of our narcissism and ego is possible and therefore ought to be within our aspiration to do so.
This article is about learning about the pathology of cults and what precisely makes them so dangerous, to know that those same traits and characteristics exist in all of us. We all want belonging, meaning, purpose and self-actualisation to reach one’s full potential - why wouldn’t you? Anything that is evil, narcissistic or psychopathic will destroy all of those things in a variety of ways for varying reasons, and that same evil and narcissism exists within ourselves because we are imperfect beings. So what is the one thing we can do to keep ourselves safe and free from that? Simply: know your enemy.
Parents Against Cults
If you are interested in learning about the pathology of narcissism and psychopathy behind toxic people, toxic organisations and cults, or if you are studying cults and would like to comment on anything in this article, please get in touch by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org, I would love to hear from you, or alternatively, on our contact page.
Lighthouse International is launching Parents Against Cults, an initiative aimed at educating people about the pathology of cults and to teach how to build strong, healthy communities. As a result, we as an organisation hold an open door to anyone who is an expert in cults to come and contribute towards our ongoing research.
We know that there will be a lot for us to learn as a community and there always will be, so we invite anyone who has observed or experienced anything “cult”-like with us to come and help us to learn, grow and improve from that. We have no interest in being a cult and we encourage mutual cooperation to learn more about the reality of building community to share the findings of Lighthouse International in the best and healthiest way.
We give every opportunity for anyone who has studied and researched cults or has concerns to sit down with us to deepen our understanding of cults and cult-like pathologies in order to learn, take responsibility and most importantly to protect the innocent and vulnerable. To learn more about Parents Against Cults, please get in touch.