Need A Recommendation for a Book on How Cults Work
March 4, 2012 7:33 PM   Subscribe

Need A Recommendation for a Book on How Cults Work.

I really want to learn about cults: the different types, the methods they use, maybe a little bit about the history, etc. Anyone have a good book recommendation on this topic?

Super Bonus Points if you have one that also comes in Audiobook format! :D

posted by AZNsupermarket to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Cults in Our Midst by Margaret Thaler Singer was for a long time the gold standard in the US anti-cult movement.

Rick Ross's website has a lot of useful resources.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:41 PM on March 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding the Rick Ross suggestion. The guy is an anti-cult legend.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:18 PM on March 4, 2012

This article, 'Cultic Study Resources', lists three articles and two books in its references.
posted by X4ster at 8:28 PM on March 4, 2012

I always recommend reading Robert Jay Lifton's book Destroying the World to Save It. I think it is a great introduction to his work, engagingly told through the Aum Shinrikyo story. It won't give you the history of cults generally, but the book provides you with a tool set you can use to think critically about other groups.
posted by postel's law at 8:34 PM on March 4, 2012

To clarify, Lifton is particularly concerned with the methods groups use to establish and maintain control. Ross' website recommends four of Lifton's books, but I think Destroying the World is the most approachable.
posted by postel's law at 8:50 PM on March 4, 2012

If you want a religious studies perspective (e.g. not anti-cult), the term you want to use is "new religious movement." It usually includes the more 'typical' cults (e.g. The Family) alongside syncretic or fairly recent religious movements that are not generally called 'cults' (Wicca, Santeria).

Saliba's "Understanding New Religious Movements" is fairly accessible in terms of writing, but kinda pricey and very, very detailed.

You will probably quite like Eileen Barker's chapter in "New Religious Movements: Challenge and Response." It covers a lot of the who/what/when/where/why. The rest of the book is good, too.

I REALLY recommend Lorne Dawson's "Cults and New Religious Movements: A Reader." It answers pretty much every question you have. Of course, since it's an anthology (most of the books I'm recommending are), it varies in accessibility from chapter to chapter.

Skip Enorth's edited collection--mostly NRM, not 'cults'. (That said, if you're interested in 'non-cult' NRMs, pick this one up).
posted by flibbertigibbet at 8:53 PM on March 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

@flibbertigibbet - you know it's funny that you mention The Family. Not only did I read that one, but I've got to hang out with the author, Jeff Sharlet when he came to lecture at my school for a event my roommate was hosting. After the lecture, we ended up swapping stories over burgers and beers. Really nice guy.
posted by AZNsupermarket at 10:15 PM on March 4, 2012

If you are interested in cults at all you must read The True Believer. It doesn't discuss specific cults, and, as the name suggests, is more about the psychology of the true believer. It is thoroughly unscientific, but very well-written, insightful, and a pretty short read.
posted by Idle Curiosity at 10:23 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Combating Cult Mind Control is insightful on this topic. Its author has first-hand experience, he applies Lifton's criteria, and provides a good list of resources.
posted by partner at 7:46 AM on March 5, 2012

I think flibbertigibbet was probably talking about this Family, not the C Street Family (though they're creepy too).
posted by Beardman at 9:17 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is all very fascinating to me because I'm a non-believer who can't figure out why I don't believe, but also I can't figure out why anybody does. Anyway---question hijack for the OP or any responder, is there a great "Noob's guide to spotting a cult"? This stuff here is nifty, but maybe is a little more advanced?
posted by TomMelee at 10:20 AM on March 5, 2012

Beardman is right--I meant The Family as in the Children of God, the group that used sex and pregnancy to try to get people into the group and has a lot of controversy over its abusive schooling system by ex-Family members. I'm not American, so I forgot that the C Street Family even existed.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 1:19 PM on March 5, 2012

Is there a great "Noob's Guide to Spotting a Cult?"

Again, I refer you to Lifton. Destroying the World to Save It really is an easy read. but the analytical toolbox I was talking about earlier boils down to looking for eight methods which he says are used to change people's minds without their agreement. From Wikipedia:
  • Milieu Control – The control of information and communication. [Read only our literature or watch only our TV show, don't talk to friends or family who disagree, etc.]
  • Mystical Manipulation – The manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated. [Faith healing or other "miracles" that confirm the authority of the leader, for example]
  • Demand for Purity – The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection.
  • Confession – Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. [Scientology is a good example of this]
  • Sacred Science – The group's doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. [Not uncommon in non-cult groups, but necessary for cults]
  • Loading the Language – The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand.
  • Doctrine over person – The member's personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group. [Eventually you can't tell what's real and what isn't, so you have to depend on the leader to tell you. Have fun working that out in therapy in 20 years]
  • Dispensing of existence – The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. [This might mean outright killings, as in Aum's case, or more passive means, such as disapproving of health care]
When looking at a group try to determine whether or not any or all of these methods are being used. I would argue that not all methods are required in order to qualify as a cult, but most of them should be present.

This can sometimes be hard to do if you don't already have a pretty good grasp of religion as a topic. Loading the Language is probably the hardest to parse, because you might reasonably interpret what the group is saying using standard definitions, but the group has chosen different definitions for those words such that the statement in question means something completely different to those in the know (i.e. members).

I sometimes wonder if I should try applying this framework to political parties (dog whistle politics, anybody?)....

For me, the TL;DR version reduces to 1) are members consenting before, during, and after their involvement, and 2) are they harming non-consenting people. The right answer (meaning they probably aren't a cult) is yes to the first question and no to the second.
posted by postel's law at 5:08 PM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

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