Cults & Cult-Like Organizations: Ideation, Identity, and Ostracism

When I left the cult called Ordo Templi Orientis and began to speak the truth of its dysfuntional leaders and internal problem, I wasn’t exactly stunned when people I’d never even known began to attack me personally. Threatening emails, random phone calls in the middle of the night, and even efforts to get me fired from my job all started when I spoke out. One night, my parents received a call from someone claiming to be a police officer who then told them I had been killed in a car accident. A young woman (always using the name “Agape-Satori” to make sure I knew who she was) even cyberstalked me for a decade and made baseless allegations against me, claiming I’d raped, molested, or seduced several young women in the cult (for the record, I’m gay and have never had any sexual interest in women–but to a blind and angry cultist, what does the truth matter?) The other day, I had a similar experience, yet I was unprepared for the cult-treatment from the circle from whence it came.

A PhD student in a popular online school’s psychology program, I recently attended a mandatory residency which left me cold. I felt that, for the time and effort I put into attending, the school had failed to make the residency intellectually profitable for me. After four days, I failed to gain anything truly useful from the experience and went home sick with the flu. Moreover, gaining access to the psychology faculty to discuss my research proposal was simply impossible. In short, I perceived the residency as nothing more than an over-rated cheerleading session designed to sell us on the school and create a false sense of community.

After three weeks of mulling it over, I decided to quit the program and seek another school. In a FaceBook group devoted to the school’s psychology PhD program, I made a very calm statement expressing my views about the ultimate worthlessness of the residency and how shallow the entire experience had been for me. Within moments, I felt as if I had left another cult.

One young woman immediately attacked me. She accused me of being a “negative person,” that I simply wanted someone to “hold my hand,” and that I wasn’t cut-out for graduate school (this despite having three master’s degrees in diverse areas of study including humanities, fine arts, and social sciences). Several other members of the group proceeded to like her post, passively supporting and endorsing her baseless ad hominem attacks. I simply quit the group, more resolved than before to find another program.

I mention this because cults and cult-like mentalities are significant tangents to my work in psychology. Creating identities based on defining an in-group and differentiating it from an out-group lies at the heart of cults, radical organizations, and terrorist cells. From the Ordo Templi Orientis to the KKK to Al-Qaeda, creating an insular group identity (a philosophical / rhetorical echo chamber that reinforces cult ideation) is critical for maintaining the authority of those at the top while seeming to offer a “path to glory” for those at the bottom. Challenge the path–or the validity of the echo chamber–and you become the enemy, the other, the “negative person” or “adult child” who is incapable of grasping the bigger picture the cultists insist they alone can behold.

It’s amazing how and where the in-group / out-group dichotomy can form. It’s amazing who can hold such a mindset and to what lengths they will go to defend it. I’ve experienced this phenomenon several times in my life, notably when I voice my disagreement with or displeasure toward those institutions that promise much and deliver little. And perhaps that’s what really resides at the heart of cults–precious little that must be puffed up and treated like a priceless jewel by those who, without it, would be just like the people outside the insular bubble of smug, self-righteous in-group certainty.

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