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Do Cult Leaders Realize That They Are Cult Leaders?


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I am not certain if this is the right place on the forum to post this. If not, then one of the moderators can feel free to move it wherever it belongs.

 

I received an email from a pastor that I perceive to be very much a cult-like leader. One of the first things he said as something like: You may think I am a cult leader ...

 

This got me thinking (and, yes, I realize that I am dangerous when I try to think ;) ): Do cult leaders realize that they are cult leaders? Or do they actually believe that what they are doing is real, right and proper? I would guess that there are some that are pulling the wool over everyone's eyes in order to achieve their own goals, but I seem to think that would be the minority. Did Jim Jones believe what he taught? Did he drink the poisoned Kool-Aid because he honestly believed it was the thing to do or for some other reason (like to just end his own miserable life)? Did David Koresh believe what he taught and actually think his actions were right? Or was he just on a power trip and enjoyed the sex he was getting as a result of it? Did these men start out "faking it" and later come to believe in their own trash?

 

The pastor that contacted me, I don't believe that he thinks he is a cult leader. I honestly believe that he believes what he teaches. I honestly believe that he would go down with the ship should the need be there. However, his actions are indeed cult-like. Many who have left the church have used the term "cult" when talking about the church and its pastor. So, when he says that I think he is a cult-leader (and I do) and he says that he is not, I think he is being honest in that he just does not see himself in that light.

 

So, are there any studies on this? What are your opinions? Do most cult leaders know what they are?

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Seems odd to deny it before being accused of it...

 

I think most (knock on wood) pastors are just as mislead as the flocks they lead.

 

A guy like Benny Hinn...he's gotta know he's a huge faker and just in it for the cash.

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To me that's like asking if certain heads of state like George W. Bush or Silvio Berlusconni (PM of Italy, the closest thing western Europe has to a dictator) believe their own propaganda that they and their minions pile on people's heads.

 

It's probably a bit of both. Both those guys probably thought/think they and their ruling parties (the GOP and Forza Italia, respectively) were/are the best thing to ever happen to their respective countries, but at the same time, there was/is certainly a fair amount of cynicism behind their M.O.

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I think some do and some don't. It's like psychics. Some are deliberate scammers, and some really believe they have the "gift."

 

The result is the same.

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I think I have to echo Florduh. Some know and simply enjoy the power, others really believe it. There are several I could point to that definitely believe (or believed) that they were:

1. The Son of God or something similar (Wayne Bent, aka Michael Travesser of the Strong City cult in New Mexico; Vernon Wayne Howell, aka David Koresh of the Branch Davidians; Charles Manson)

2. An alien (Marshall Applewhite)

3. God, and the Holy Spirit (Sun Myung Monn and his wife)

4. A prophet (leaders of thousands of tiny cults, and leaders in many legitimate churches)

5. A conduit for spirits (Judy Knight who claims to channel Ramtha "a Lemurian warrior who fought the Atlanteans over 35,000 years ago"; tons of New Age type religious followers claim to channel spirits. My opinion is that most really believe it, others see a lucrative business opportunity in those that believe it.)

 

Jim Jones' obsessive nature was probably fueled by abuse of prescription medicine, so he wasn't just inventing doctrines in a ego trip or plain mental illness.

 

Then there are the semi-cults like the one you refer to. I followed a man for 9 years, trusting that he was telling the truth about raising the dead and healing every kind of disease. I never once saw it, but I kept believing, mostly on the basis of the guys that followed him who also testified to seeing these things. I figured that one guy might lie, but not a whole bunch. I still want to talk to one that left the group and really get him to spill the beans, not for others so much as myself to know. This guy wields a bit of power in the charismatic movement, and some of his ex-followers are a bit timid about trying to prove he is a liar. And a lot of his ex-followers are still believers, so they see his evangelism of indigent peoples as a good thing that most are not willing to do. But the fear that he uses to control his men is nasty. I may do something with the hundreds of hours of recordings I have of him someday, but then again, I'm just as happy tossing it all in the trash and moving on. I'm liking my new freedom and I don't feel any need to pursue him, and I may open up a can of legal worms that I don't want to deal with. Bah! Religion.

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I think like others before said, some do believe, some are just in it for money, power, whatever floats their crazy boats. But I also believe someone can start off knowing its a lie, and lie to themselves so long their warped psyche begins to realize it as truth. I've seen it happen in many instances, far less drastic but still. Someone who sticks with their lie long enough eventually gets that look in their eye when they tell it that says they really believe what they are saying.

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I think like others before said, some do believe, some are just in it for money, power, whatever floats their crazy boats. But I also believe someone can start off knowing its a lie, and lie to themselves so long their warped psyche begins to realize it as truth. I've seen it happen in many instances, far less drastic but still. Someone who sticks with their lie long enough eventually gets that look in their eye when they tell it that says they really believe what they are saying.

 

That's actually what happened to L. Ron Hubbard. By every reliable account he was concocting a blatant scam.

 

But by the end, he had only his followers left, because the rest of the world shunned him. Negative reinforcement from the outside world and positive reinforcement from his followers basically made him buy into his own scam! Of course, the cognitive dissonance led to the pill-popping that eventually killed him. They say he was really cracking up towards the end.

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I think the relatively sane ones (aka not like Charles Manson) know that they're in it for the money, but the insane ones really do believe what they're saying.

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I think the relatively sane ones (aka not like Charles Manson) know that they're in it for the money, but the insane ones really do believe what they're saying.

 

Great point.

 

I have often thought how easy it would be to get rich as a preacher. I'm a good public speaker. I can read the babble and put together a sermon as mindnumbing as any preacher out there. I guess as an atheist, I'm just too "moral" to prey upon weak people for personal gain.

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However, the pastor in question (the one that contacted me) appears to be a sane individual when you speak to him. However, having been a part of his church for several years (when I was a Christian), he is very controlling. So much so, that the church is known in the area and many use the word cult when referring to it. Many members who have left the church also claim the church is a cult or cult-like in its behavior. Frankly, I don't think that this pastor believes he is a cult leader. I think he believes the messages he brings to his congregation and the counseling he gives to those that come to him for it. I believe that he views his control over his people as a means of ensuring their success with god. So this man is a fairly sane (and likable) individual, yet he and his church has, at the minimum, cult-like tendencies.

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It sounds like you've already got it worked out, but I will add this: most of the famous cult leaders believed they were special, chosen, above the rest in some way.

 

So I think that if they realize they have a following, they don't think "I am a cult leader," just "I am a leader."

 

This guy may be uncomfortable with how his group is seen, but he's obviously all right with how he's running it, so I wouldn't exclude the idea that he just thinks he's meant to lead and however he does it is okay. I am all for healthy suspicion while dealing with him.

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So, are there any studies on this? What are your opinions? Do most cult leaders know what they are?

 

It all depends on the culture. Because of the negative stigma on cults in America today, it is unlikely any cult leaders want the tag. So I would expect a person who leads a cult following here to rationalize out the negative connotations to his or her work if operating here. But in other places such as India where there are literally thousands of offshoots from the major religions of the area, if a person is considered a guru, saint, or teacher, having a cult following isn't considered a bad thing and you might hear them describe their following as a cult.

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Great point.

 

I have often thought how easy it would be to get rich as a preacher. I'm a good public speaker. I can read the babble and put together a sermon as mindnumbing as any preacher out there. I guess as an atheist, I'm just too "moral" to prey upon weak people for personal gain.

 

Most preachers ain't rich.

 

My senior pastor was one of the slickest talkers I've ever known. He once said "I could have gone into sales and become a millionaire. I'm dead serious. But instead I chose to do what God has called me to do, and there were times were I almost couldn't buy groceries to feed my family."

 

And it was all true, except for maybe the "calling" part. He really could have been a millionaire selling tangible shit (well, maybe the shit they were selling on Wall Street recently ain't so tangible) to people. And he really was having massive financial difficulty because the congregation totally fucked him over for stupid bullshit reasons, and his family suffered as a result. In fact, it was his Wall Street savvy that kept them from losing their house, their car, etc. etc., and is probably the reason he's even been able to stay in ministry all these years.

 

Saying you're going to be a preacher so that you can strike it rich is like saying you're going to start a rock and roll band in order to strike it rich. Vast majority of the time it don't happen like that.

 

Also, in most denominations, except in Catholicism and mainline Protestantism, many if not most pastors have day jobs.

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But in other places such as India where there are literally thousands of offshoots from the major religions of the area, if a person is considered a guru, saint, or teacher, having a cult following isn't considered a bad thing and you might hear them describe their following as a cult.

 

I believe in the ancient/classical world, cults were often quite elite and prestigious. Not just anybody would be let in, and their esotericism and alleged powers made common people as well as kings go "oooooh" and "ahhhhhh." The word "cult" comes up a lot in studies of ancient religion.

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Most folks think they are "called." So it appears to be a sort of "divine right" type of thing. This would indicate a control issue. So whether it leads to money it is about power and influence. Telling people what "god" really means is a very influential position to be in. What direction that ultimately takes would depend on the person and those who follow him. The ability to give up that position of power and influence, without any "problems," would really show what kind of people are involved. From my limited experience few go down without a fight. Only they "believe" that they can do their job that they were "called" to do. All they need to do to become a "cult" is slip off to the fringes a bit but it's really a minor point I think.

 

mwc

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However, the pastor in question (the one that contacted me) appears to be a sane individual when you speak to him. However, having been a part of his church for several years (when I was a Christian), he is very controlling. So much so, that the church is known in the area and many use the word cult when referring to it. Many members who have left the church also claim the church is a cult or cult-like in its behavior. Frankly, I don't think that this pastor believes he is a cult leader. I think he believes the messages he brings to his congregation and the counseling he gives to those that come to him for it. I believe that he views his control over his people as a means of ensuring their success with god. So this man is a fairly sane (and likable) individual, yet he and his church has, at the minimum, cult-like tendencies.

 

He has something that these people want, and that is what gives him the inroad to control them. With my guy, it was power and great stories. People wanted to see and experience the power of God as something real and not just a story. So he tells them story after story and then does the prayer line where people really do feel something. I certainly felt power course through me (though not when he touched me). I saw a guy that was mentally retarded and didn't understand why this guy was putting his hand on his head, then the retarded man crumpled to the ground astonished. Something was happening, and I still don't know how to explain it. However, now that I'm on the outside looking in, I want to understand even more. I can demonstrate that the Bible isn't true, and I can show when a man lies to build up his reputation. I could call it group hypnotism, or something else, but at this point I don't know. My wife thinks that there may be a deity that responds to worship despite the fakery and lies. But each one of these cultic types have some thing that draws in followers.

 

Herbert Armstrong was one that didn't see himself as a messiah type, but was convinced that what he was saying was true. Most cults will take a mainstream message and tweak it so that they are presenting the real truth, the whole truth, the restored truth, the right name of God, the right commandments of God, and so on.

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When I started this topic, I was not thinking about the word "cult" as it might, in today's terms, refer to ancient sects. I had in mind the way we look at Jim Jones and his people, the Branch Davidians, Rev Moon and on and on. So the question remains (for me): did these people, and others like them, realize they were leading a cult or did they believe their own crap? Is there any research on this anywhere?

 

I realize there are those that are in it for the money (Benny Hinn, etc) and I would suppose that people like Hinn know full well what they are doing (duping people in order to ultimately get more of their cash). But people fall to hucksters every day. I don't know if I would classify Hinn as a cult leader, despite the following he has.

 

Did Joseph Smith believe his own crap? Do those currently at the top believe the crap as well? What about Charles Taze Russell? Did he believe in the stuff he created? Do those that lead the Watchtower believe?

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If you claim to be xtian and you preach that you are lead by the spirit and that jesus has come in the flesh, then sooner or later someone will claim you are a prophet of the new age. After a while, they will all start yammering at how much you are lead in the spirit, etc., I've seen the monkey act a lot. But the lure is hard to ignore especially a young and growing ministry. You grab onto the tail and ride it as long as you can. After a while you will believe the press that you circulated but you will not acknowledge who started the rumors anyway! I know it is not in your case or mine, but that is how people get started, they only need one to claim god has revealed to them that brother X speaks with the purposeful voice of god. Then it grows. All you need is one person that claims to follow jesus to claim you are a prophet. Two people are really great, two witnesses!

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Saying you're going to be a preacher so that you can strike it rich is like saying you're going to start a rock and roll band in order to strike it rich. Vast majority of the time it don't happen like that.

 

Also, in most denominations, except in Catholicism and mainline Protestantism, many if not most pastors have day jobs.

That is true! Running a ministry is not a get-rich-fast scheme. It takes years in many cases for the suckers to come together to support a minister they like to listen to. Glad tidings don't cut it, scream and rant with fire and brimstone, promise a crusade to unite or something else. It does take time. I ran a ministry that raised support from churches for other churches, and people donate to church charities like they donate to Unicef. They want one corporate headquarters to send money to and that person better be just as holy as they are! They want to hear biblical jargon with a new twist, 'what would jesus do' is a money maker! It is of public domain and anyone can create anything with it. WWJD. Many pastors go in and out of business as preachers because they burn out and many quit altogether or some do get hired as pastor at the local nondenominational church. The elite of the self-righteous like a good show and they expect one for their money. Oral Roberts said as much, years ago in an interview.

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But in other places such as India where there are literally thousands of offshoots from the major religions of the area, if a person is considered a guru, saint, or teacher, having a cult following isn't considered a bad thing and you might hear them describe their following as a cult.

 

I believe in the ancient/classical world, cults were often quite elite and prestigious. Not just anybody would be let in, and their esotericism and alleged powers made common people as well as kings go "oooooh" and "ahhhhhh." The word "cult" comes up a lot in studies of ancient religion.

 

 

My former group was a "cult" in this sense of the word. It was also a couple of other things, come to find out.

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