The Seven Habits of Highly Efficient Cult LeadersWednesday, December 15th, 1999
15 December 1999
by Dan Geddes
Techniques for creating successful religious cults have changed dramatically since the cult heyday of the 1970s.
Millions of people are desperate to find the definitive “answers” to life’s big questions—even if incorrect answers—that religions and cults have always supplied.
The new millennium has opened up lucrative opportunities for cult leaders with the boldness and vision to exploit others. The rise of cable television and the Internet provide rich media to supplement the word-of-mouth buzz upon which cult formation has always relied.
Your personal appearance must be polished, at least at first. Only later can you degenerate into bad hygiene. But be careful! If you “go natural” too early in the cult’s development, you will just be smelly, and will destroy your cult in its infancy.
It is wise to be physically stronger than everyone else in your cult. This gives you the appearance of vitality and makes others look up to you. It’s also helpful in case of an emergency, e.g., if you are unmasked as a fraud and must run for your life or fight a gang of outraged cult members. To help preserve your relative strength, keep your followers on a low protein diet. Very low. This will affect both their muscle mass and brain function.
Delegate all undesirable tasks. Learn to extract the most work from your disciples with the least effort. Find reliable people to manage daily operations.
Do not waste time on trivial personages within the cult, especially time burglars, who ask annoying questions about the holes in your philosophy. Buy The Cult Leader’s Day Planner™ to help schedule only the most crucial meetings (such as with your first disciple and your accountant).
You must maintain the illusion that you are the meekest, kindest, godliest person in your flock, despite the fact you drive the most expensive car—bought with their money. Some cult members may well be cleaning up your very excrement for you as well. Do not let that trouble you! You deserve it!
Create a sense of fellowship by scheduling small treats as if they are a big deal. Few things can create a sense of community more than gelatin desserts, which are always comforting. Stock up on crackers as well.
Make your followers sleep to the piped-in sounds of your own television infomercials. Controlling your followers’ thoughts while they sleep is an important tool in maintaining your position.
Beyond the Seven Habits: How to Establish a Successful Cult
Establishing a successful cult demands tremendous effort by the cult’s founder, just as with any successful start-up enterprise. Many people have tried to start their own cults without proper training, often with disastrous results. Such ill-starred attempts are characterized by total disdain for human gullibility and a lack of appreciation for the subtleties required for deception on a mass scale. Human history teaches us the critical role played by dynamic individuals in teaching these false “truths” to millions in order to control their lives and take their money.
Indeed, most people do not believe in specific religious ideas—which when analyzed often lead to hopeless contradiction or confusion. Instead, people believe in other people whom they believe have greater powers of understanding than themselves. People depend on the conviction of others, and this is precisely what you need to supply.
First you must choose your target demographic and formulate the theme of your cult.
Few cult leaders have enough originality to start their own belief-systems totally from scratch. Instead, you will probably have to copy some ideas from established belief-systems, such as the Christian or “countercultural” traditions. But be creative! During this time of idea-formation, it is important to let your ideas flow freely. America is all about diversity, and your freedom of self-expression includes creating a cult that reflects your own sense of style. Never forget that.
Consider your own intellectual strengths and religious training. If you frequently attended church during your youth, you should work within that tradition, as it will give you invaluable experiences to draw from. But if you have rarely or never attended church, you should attend a few times, at least to learn just how ecumenically lax on moral issues most religious denominations have become. Alternatively, you should attend some leftist gatherings if you intend on working the countercultural angle, or at least study some Eastern religions as fodder for your new syncretic religion.
Of course, you could also create your cult from your own ideas, but this requires the hard work of writing down your “beliefs” in order to garner publicity. If you are intellectually strong, this approach has some merit. If you word your tract carefully, it will be vague enough to withstand the test of time. Besides, you are the ultimate authority anyway. Many people are drawn to a brand “new” philosophy.
Once you have decided on a tradition to work in, you need to develop your “hook,” the unique selling point of your cult compared to your competition (i.e., other cults, organized religion, everything else). This idea should be short, memorable, and non-falsifiable. In the golden years of the 1970s anything with “love” in it was a good bet, such as “Share the Love” or “Love is All,” but these are now somewhat hackneyed.
Play to your strengths. If you have a business background, you could build a theme around “the Lord’s Blessings” or “Pray for Success.” Invoke the time-honored scripture about the Lord repaying you one hundred fold for whatever you give to the Lord. Many people take this literally, and will see your collection plate as an extremely efficient mutual fund. Do not divest them of these notions.
Again, if your strengths are intellectual, you are probably shooting for a disaffected countercultural demographic, which remains a large cluster even to this day. Christianity is usually spurned by this group, so try Buddhism, or some form of mysticism. This is also an ideal group if you want to start a belief-system from scratch. But be sure to include references to literary figures like Blake, Rilke or Allen Ginsburg, or to musicians such as Jim Morrison.
Exercise: Formulate the theme of your cult, paying special attention to your target demographic. If you are working within a conservative Christian tradition, be sure you are ready to field questions about such “Christian” topics such as abortion or gun control. If you are working in a vaguely “leftist” tradition, you could try to dismiss all political questions as pointless, but will have to be well-versed in countercultural claptrap such as the writings of the Beats, Carlos Castaneda, or Fritjof Capra.
It is absolutely essential that you devote at least three months of your life to your training, without which you are beginning your cult on a shaky foundation.
Let us assume you will be working within the “countercultural” tradition.
After you have formulated the theme of your cult, you must undertake some field research. In other words, you should join a cult.
Some would-be cult leaders have skipped this vital step to their own detriment. Joining a cult gives you a view of the inner workings of an existing cult, its leaders, and his or her followers. You can learn much by watching a practicing cult leader in action. If the cult is at all successful, you will see a highly developed theme used to good effect.
I recommend joining a cult near its prime, when it has entered its “isolation phase,” in which a self-sufficient compound has already been erected to ensure minimal contact with “outsiders.”
Joining a cult has its dangers—you may well end up losing your senses and becoming brainwashed yourself. If this happens, face it: you were obviously not cult leader material anyway. Or perhaps, as has happened, the cult leader identifies you as a mole or a spy. If you suspect that cult members are suspicious of you, you must leave immediately. Your field reconnaissance is a dangerous but necessary part of your training. Other cult leaders are correct in wanting to stamp you out.
After a few weeks or months, it will be time to leave the cult. This may well be the most important lesson, for one day you will need to figure out how to stop people from leaving your own cult. Some underdeveloped cults let people leave at any time, no questions asked. Others may ask for a steep “exit donation” until they can find someone to “replace” you in your demeaning manual labor. There are many policies on this. After your escape, formulate a policy that will work for you.
Creating your aura isn’t difficult once you understand your target demographic.
· Hair. To lead a countercultural cult, grow your hair long. If working within the more traditional Christian tradition, cut it very short. Or make it big and poofy in the televangelist style, but not long.
· Eyebrows are also crucial. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then the eyebrows are the curtains to the drama raging in your eyes. It is essential to develop absolute control over your eyebrow muscles. Highly developed brow muscles are required for “browbeating” skeptics into submission, or to otherwise mesmerize follows with your “intensity.”
· Physique. For a countercultural style cult, you should ideally be either very thin (the emaciated wise man) or well-built (physical vitality is an essential part of convincing others of your own health and dynamism). Even portly individuals can lead cults, but this is usually due to believers unconsciously associating you with the Buddha. You should encourage such comparisons.
· Speaking. For a countercultural cult, you should probably adopt a soft, soothing speaking voice, as if you have already discovered the great truths of the beyond. Strident, powerful speaking is reserved for leftist political activists who are angry about things. You are selling peace, tranquility and “dropping out” from the world, not political activism.
· Infallible Pronouncements. Once you are established, you will have to adopt an oracle’s tone of voice. It is essential for you to develop a high tolerance for contradiction early on. Contradictions may be noted by some of your brighter followers, who must be silenced or removed from the group. Thus, it is important to have ready answers like: “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” (Emerson) or “I contain multitudes” (Whitman)—best said in a bellowing voice. If you’re working within the Christian tradition, you can use the ever-handy “The Lord works in mysterious ways” to explain away any contradictions.
Early in your practice, even perhaps before your first public appearance, you will need to discover the one person who believes in you implicitly. This person must be willing to walk through fire for you, and will hopefully be unfazed by the frequent contradictions you will be uttering. Such a person may seem like an unlikely, even ridiculous choice (a former convict, a fallen minister, a recovering drug addict still on the brink), but he or she will prove handy in convincing others you are a worthy cult leader. He or she can also perform countless thankless tasks on your behalf.
Note that it is vital that your first disciple actually believe in you. Former cult leaders who have allowed a trusted confidante to play the part of first disciple have usually met with disaster. The cult leader and first disciple were sometimes caught gloating together, often seated before a table loaded with cash. The secret they share is too irresistible. No, the cult leader must walk a solitary path, and trust no one; that is his strength.
It is also dangerous to use your spouse/partner as a first disciple, unless he or she is also a very gullible creature. Note too that if your spouse is the first disciple then you might end up sharing the spotlight, which is not to all cult leaders’ tastes.
After one person has been genuinely convinced of your powers, then the precedent has been set. Other people can always point to the first disciple’s conviction—and then each other’s—as evidence of your authenticity.
Now that you’ve completed your training, it’s time to get your cult off the ground.
College campuses are excellent places to begin cults, as there are so many young people searching for the answers to life’s questions. College students are still at an age when they are open to new ideas—as they must be to join your cult. If your marketing budget is small, you may start with posting flyers in the student union. But be sure to include a picture of yourself on the flyer—not just text. This is a cult after all. This is about you. If you are photographed at an oblique angle sitting insouciantly, students will understand the message that you have new ideas.
During the first meeting, do not let on that it is the first meeting. Say that you’ve just been hanging out in Madison, Wisconsin, or Athens, Ohio, where they loved you. Say that you didn’t want to leave, but you were “called” to this town. Don’t specify whether it was God or your old college roommate who called you.
This is your big chance, so don’t blow it. Hopefully you have carefully planned the format of your cult’s “meeting” or “service” or “gathering.” Music is essential, but you should get someone else to play guitar or piano for you, even if you can do it yourself. Although singing along is OK during the early days of the cult, eventually you will outgrow the need to lend your own precious voice.
Your “message” will probably be some variation on the theme that “society” has deteriorated, and that only grassroots movements such as your own can recapture authentic spirituality. Organized religion is an obvious and easy target and one of your main competitors—after all, you are not yet organized. Other familiar targets include the government, the media, and big business.
Your cult should provide promising answers to some of life’s most vexing questions, including:
· The Afterlife: You should absolutely promise one. You lose nothing. It is the ultimate post-dated check.
· Good vs. Evil: It’s clear who is who here. You and your followers are the elect, the good; the rest of the world is deluded or riddled with evil. But it is wise to blame the evil on the Devil, or someone else similarly unaccountable. The world is misguided, not willfully evil, but you and your group have all the answers.
· The Meaning of Life: Clearly the meaning of life is to serve God, or whatever you call your particular absolute end. Earthly considerations (including responsibilities to family, friends, and society) are not so important.
After preparing the soil of your followers’ minds by attacking common enemies, you are ready to share your own “testimony.” This has got to be good. Your testimony should include such classic themes as abusive parents, broken homes, drug abuse, and your own personal struggles with evil itself. You were a normal person once, too, before your calling. Perhaps you had a mystical experience, after which you understood the interrelatedness of all things, or the cosmic oneness. It is helpful to coin a new phrase here, or else people might question your originality.
Remember that your testimony may be your greatest single asset. It is an enriched version of your life-story. It is vital that it is memorable and easy to summarize. It should be a good meme. People with fascinating life-stories have started all successful religions. Learn from them.
In an age of cynicism, your most difficult task is generating enthusiasm. People must leave your gatherings muttering that you are “amazing” or “incredible.” If they do not, then you just may not be cult leader material and should consider finding a less inspiring vocation. You could become a Congressman instead.
Like any good marketing campaign, your cult must focus on certain demographic clusters. Although you may already believe that you are universally charming, in reality you will never appeal to all people.
Be selective. Follow these two cardinal rules:
· Target the vast oceans of gullible people out there. (Don’t waste your valuable time on skeptics.)
· Target people with low self-esteem.
Starting a profitable religious cult takes research, field work and preparation. Many would-be cult leaders blithely underestimate the skills and talent required to convince other people that they are the messiah and to swindle them out of their money. Some would-be cult leaders have even become brainwashed themselves or have been exposed and then beaten by an outraged mob of once docile followers.
Still others have made the classic blunder of choosing their spouse or best friend (people who know the would-be cult leader too well to have blind faith in him) to serve as their first disciple.
By following the steps outlined above, and by buying some of our associated products, you too can avoid these traps and establish your own highly profitable religious cult.