Look At It This Way

Seeing old things in new ways.

How to Start a Cult

Become a god by starting your very own religion

Do you remember that cult near San Diego that committed mass suicide? They were convinced that there was a space ship - hidden behind a comet that was then flying past the Earth - and that this space ship was there to pick up true believers and ferry them off to a better place. So one night they all took sleeping pills, packed their heads in plastic bags and drifted off to sleep. They never woke.

Interestingly enough, such weird groups are surprisingly common. It's just that this particular group carried their collective fantasy to an extreme and, as a result, made the news. But the rules for organizing such bodies of believers (including several A-List Hollywood stars) are well known and can be reduced to just seven simple steps.

Just seven simple steps? How do I know this? Several years ago, I was invited to speak at a convention sponsored by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry - the same group that publishes Skeptical Inquirer magazine. If you're not familiar with their work, I'd certainly suggest a visit to www.csicop.org. Anyway this particular event featured a number of fascinating presentations including one by Dr. Anthony Pratkanis, a professor from UC, Santa Cruz and the co-author of Age of Propaganda. His session involved Cults and the relative ease with which new ones can be started. Allow me to borrow from his talk and give you an idea of what he said:

To Create Your Very Own Cult
1) Begin by creating your own reality. You do this by keeping your members away from outsiders. An isolated farm in the middle of Idaho is good but if such a retreat isn't available, impose a form of self-censorship. If it's not of the cult, it's of the devil.
2) Next set the leader and his/her inner circle up as the only link to paradise...only they hold the keys to the kingdom.
3) Remember to make increasing demands. Start small but keep it going and eventually you'll have your followers standing in line to turn over all their worldly possessions.
4) Keep turning out stories about the greatness of the leader. The more unbelievable the more they will be believed. Your members have already been conditioned from the time they were children to accept things like coming back from the dead and walking on water.
5) Remember to use your converts to bring in still more converts. This has the double advantage of picking up new disciples and (even if that doesn't always work) the mere act of proselytizing will further cement the commitment of those already in the fold.
6) Keep everybody busy. This doesn't allow time for potentially critical thought. Let the minds of the masses wander and who knows, they might put two and two together. For this reason, long sermons - the longer the better - and interminable work shifts are essential. And when you aren't haranguing them and they aren't being kept busy...make sure they're at least singing.
7) And finally, keep your flock fixated on the carrot. The payoff is just around the corner and only they will be the ones paid off. The clouds will part and they will be raptured up and then, boy-oh-boy, won't all those non-believers be sorry.

And now for the best part! There are whole bunches of people out there - a truly surprising portion of the population - who will be eager to join your cult. They have, as I said, been conditioned since childhood to be believers. At this very moment, polls show that almost 50% of Americans believe a Second Coming is on the horizon while something like 20% (that's one out of five) are convinced it will happen in their lifetime. So be assured, there is no shortage of potential cult members...and they're not all in Hollywood.

Stephen Benedict-Mason is a psychologist, a former university professor, syndicated newspaper columnist and radio talk-show host.

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