The Psychology of Cultism

Along with years of experience as a hospital emergency department physician, Dr. Barker recently completed a psychiatric residency at Camarillo State Hospital in California. This article, from a speech prepared for medical staff personnel, bears a wider hearing.

Cults are not a new phenomenon: they may be as old as man—or even animal herds. Cults may form around an individual, an object, an animal, or a concept. Invariably, the members of the cult ascribe magical powers to their object of worship—powers to manipulate the environment to protect the cult members against evil spirits, the devil, natural disasters, bankruptcy, illness, or whatever.

The core concept in cultism is a followership dependent upon someone or something outside itself to assist it in coping with a threatening external environment. The more inadequate and inferior the follower feels himself to be, the more magical and mystical the omnipotence projected onto the leader. However, it is a mistake to focus on the leader or object of veneration. The leader is usually merely a resourceful individual perceptive enough to recognize the varied types of helplessness in those about him who offers to take away those feelings. That his offer is frequently overstated and illusory is beside the point. The point is that the followers willingly take the bait—hook, line and sinker.

Many were shocked by the submissive, dependent, compliant followers of Charles Manson who carved x’s in their foreheads and chanted on the Los Angeles County Courthouse steps. They were even more shocked to learn that some men and women had brutally annihilated other human beings on Manson’s satanic command. Then there were the ill-fated followers of Jim Jones whose beliefs led them to a rotting death in the steamy jungles of Guyana. Numerous other examples could be cited. Where do they all come from? We shake our heads and wonder, while physicians and other societal leaders continue to reinforce exactly the type of behavior that will produce more cultists.

The Roots of Dependency

What are the roots of dependency in human behavior? The answer should be obvious. Each of us began life as a totally dependent parasite encased in a constant-temperature liquid environment with our nutritional needs satisfied effortlessly. Through some miracle, the maternal host does not set up an appropriate foreign body rejection reaction and the fetus enjoys this total dependency state for some 40-odd weeks before expulsion.[1]

It is presumptuous to assume that this experience precedes awareness. Single-cell living forms demonstrate avoidance behavior to noxious stimuli. Are they aware? If they are, then is it not reasonable to suppose the fetus to be at least as aware? For me, though, the strongest evidence that the intrauterine life is experienced as pleasurable is the sustained effort adults make to recreate a similar experience through environmental manipulation. “To be waited on hand and foot” by spouse, servant, child, and others has long been associated with “all the things money can buy.”

Once expelled from the uterus, the infant must struggle to meet some of his own needs. The struggle is multi-faceted, beginning with an immature autonomic nervous system which must stabilize his internal environment in the face of a shifting external environment. Mother assists in this process by attempting through appropriate nurturing techniques to minimize the fluctuations of heat, cold, air circulation, and the like upon the infant. He remains extremely dependent upon her even though the biological umbilical cord has been ruptured. A more profound attachment persists which defies logical analysis.

In a slow, incomprehensible, years-long process, mother gradually weans the infant from his dependence on her. One of her tools is to promote his interaction with other adults, sibling and peers. Obviously, no two parents accomplish this task in exactly the same way nor do any two individuals react identically to the same stimulus. However, there are cultural similarities in the process which conspire to create more than surface similarities in the same generation of offspring.

Herein rests the central point of my thesis: the cultural factors which have produced so many dependent, submissive followers among our youth are also behind the decline and fall of the United States as a force of geopolitical significance. Excessive dependency is endemic in our society and those who are in positions of power and prestige—including many in my profession—encourage and perpetuate this dependency.

An Age of Specialization

We live in an age of specialization so extreme that most of us are truly helpless outside our specialties. Our “system” thus has become an incredibly complex web of interacting specialties which provides great comfort when all is going well but reduces us to extreme helplessness in times of crisis. Examples abound: Supermarkets are very convenient unless trucks step delivering. Automobiles are a nice way to get around unless there is no gasoline. Washing machines are dandy unless yours breaks down and the repairman has a two-week waiting list.

The trade-off in our age of technological marvels is this: We gain convenience and security but may sacrifice self-reliance and independence. For example, antibiotics are available over-the-counter in many countries and individuals are free to take the responsibility for the management of their own illnesses. But here in the United States, we do not have that freedom. In fact, patients here have been so programmed to depend upon physicians that we must take responsibility for all their bumps, bruises and sniffles—hardly leaving us with adequate time to care for those who truly require our skilled services.

Our cult of dependency medicine has been so successful that disenchanted followers are literally suing us out of business. They are impatient and demanding that all diseases be cured—and cured now! In turning over the responsibility for their health to us, they gave us an illusory omnipotence. Our fallibility crushes this illusion and their response is vindictive anger. Discredited cult leaders are adjudged harshly by their disappointed fol lowers.

The Drug Cult

Perhaps the largest cult of all that our profession has had a hand in is the drug cult. By that, I don’t mean the “Superfly” white E1 Dorado Cadillac jockey who drives his exotic automobile through Harlem or Watts nor do I refer to the Mafia Godfather, the French Connection mystery men or the Colombian cocaine millionaires. I’m talking about the “drugstore cult”—the widespread dependence of American citizens on the soothing syrups and pills available on the shelves of drugstores, supermarkets, newsstands and elsewhere. It is the cult that has pushed Valium into the number one all-time best-seller spot.

Our undergraduate, professional and post-graduate medical education is drug oriented and drug saturated, hence our primary weapon against illness is, of course, pharmacological. Was it not fitting and symbolic that so many at Jonestown were put out of their misery by an injection from a doctor? They trusted him to do the right thing.

Not only medicine but many other careers and skills have enthroned science and the scientific technique. Our educational systems perpetuate the myths of science ad nauseam. How much of the science and math shoved down your throats in high school, college, and medical school were really useful to you either in specialty training or in practice? Admit that much of your schooling is pure ritual and you will see that “education” itself has become a cult. College graduates enter the real world with magical expectations, waving their hard-earned degrees in the wind. When their skills are not snapped up, they are disillusioned and angry.

Schooling as Religion

In attempting to achieve power over the environment, students have literally endowed the schooling process with the status of religious veneration and plugged themselves into it. The teachers and professors are the high priests and the process is supposed to mystically and mysteriously protect the follower from risk or harm if the prescribed rituals are followed. Believe it or not, many who educate themselves into overcrowded fields simply return to school for another degree. Others of the educated cultists simply change cults.

Basically, then, we see that the psychology of cultism is simply the persistence of the parent/child relationship beyond an appropriate time. Followers or members feel helpless or overwhelmed by an environment they perceive as threatening and respond to this feeling by embracing a concept or leader to whom they ascribe magical power.

This is a sign of excessive dependency; and excessive dependency in a society can come either from inadequate parental directing toward self-reliance, individual rejection of such directing, or programming from external sources which directs towards dependency. Additionally, the environment may become truly so threatening that dependency upon an authority or higher power source may be appropriate, in war, say, or in specific subcultures as depicted in the film, “The Godfather.” Modern technology also shares the guilt, for it has contrived to capture a formerly active and mobile social order and transformed it into a sedentary spectator society.

The principal villain in this transformation process is television. By and large, it is a dehumanization process which tends to dull the senses and produce emotional zombies who respond primarily to subliminal and repetitive advertisement slogans. What then occurs is much akin to disuse atrophy: the spirit within dwindles like melting wax and the mind dulls. The products of this process suffer endemic obesity and emotional indifference to their actual environment.

What Jim Jones and his ilk have offered to these unfortunates is an antidote to the poisonous, dehumanizing processes induced by the age of technology. Few who leap for the bait really care that the antidote itself is toxic, for what they have been experiencing is a living death and any escape hatch is acceptable, even if it leads into an endless maze. The visible result is the phenomena of cults so alive in the land today.

In a society of people programmed almost from birth to follow-the-leader, it is inevitable that some will fall into the clutches of mad leaders. That is but one of the many consequences of the loss of self-reliance and of independent judgment in American citizens. Before joining in an emotional condemnation of “cults,” perhaps it would be best to understand that a cult is but a system of worship or ritual. It is a system of belief gone pathological, to be distinguished from religious beliefs which inculcate independence.

Freedom of Worship

The freedom to worship God aider your own manner of belief is as valuable to the spirit of independence as is freedom of speech. These freedoms, guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, are about all we have left of the dream of the Founding Fathers and should not be carelessly dismissed.

Genuine religious beliefs have the special quality of satisfying intellectual and emotional needs simultaneously. They account for unequal life fates, promise release from illness and suffering, and offer hope for a better life. They are, indeed, a special, poorly understood, potentially adaptive set of ego defense mechanisms. Do we psychiatrists have a socially sanctioned right to intervene in religious beliefs, particularly when we know so little about the influence of religion on psychopathology?

If we deprive someone of his religion, what substitute do we have for him? And ought we to impose such a substitute? Physicians for years have ignored nutrition, exercise, and relaxation as techniques for combating or preventing illnesses. Indeed, we have ignored preventive medicine itself. We are, for the most part, disease-oriented high priests in a cult of science and technology which is leading us all into a fate which appears particularly unattractive. Chronic stress-related diseases plague both us and our patients (hypertension, strokes, heart attacks, colitis, ulcers, asthma, and so forth), yet we persist in disregarding the spiritual element in man and rely solely upon chemical potions and invasive techniques to combat diseases.

Perhaps God does exist. Perhaps He was around before Plato and Aristotle. Perhaps He spoke to Moses and Paul and many others. Perhaps His Holy Spirit is within each human being and resists the sadness of a mechanized, depersonalized, technological social order. Media manipulators who sensationalize the fates of unfortunate cultists cannot destroy the source of all life which beats within each of our breasts and breathes freely of the air that His plants provide.

The psychology of cultism is but one indication of an intrinsic desire in each of us to offer veneration to the Creator. This process becomes pathological only if the surrogate leader is mad, as with Jim Jones, or when the path followed leads into a blind maze, as with scientific technology. Almost every day another “accepted” scientific fact is discredited in yet another laboratory experiment. It appears, then, that science offers no final solutions or ultimate explanations. Is our own worship of the microscope and the wonders of microbiology, neuro-chemistry and physiology as misplaced as the blind faith that Jones’s followers had in him?

Blind Departures from Basic Principles of Freedom

This nation was founded upon principles taken from the Judeo-Christian ethic and as long as these prevailed, we grew and prospered. Now, there is no prayer in the schools and unionized, socialist teachers insidiously program our youth. Mindless violence and senseless trivia beam at us from the television, our newspapers are full of lies and scantily clad females posing for underwear ads. Heroin is the opiate of the ghetto, alcohol of the middle class community, and cocaine of the wealthy. Valium, which we supply, is abused by all social classes.

We correctly perceive the sea as a dangerous, hostile environment for man and few would attempt to navigate it for any significant distance without the benefits of a buoyant and protective superstructure. What many fail to realize is that man’s journey on dry land is at least as hazardous. In neglecting the spiritual aspects of our own existences, and of our patients’ as well, we are up a creek without either boat or paddles.

Cults, worthless dollars, gasoline shortages and dependent patients are the long-term consequences of too many of us learning to rely on Big Brother. The processed foods we eat and drink are as suspect as the poisoned potion was in Guyana—it simply takes longer for them to kill US.

Erich Fromm tells us that all human beings are religious in one way or another, religion being “any system of thought and action which . . . gives the individual the frame of orientation and object of devotion he needs.”[2] The psychology of cultism is all around us, as men elect to place their faith and trust in other men, their machines or their technologi cal products.

As long as we pass on shallow values to our youth and let them see us worshipping at the altar of science, or the government, or the dollar, or gold—they will do likewise.

As long as we promote dependency in our patients, we are reinforcing the psychology of cultism. The white coat and the stethoscope are counter-productive when used as talismans in a cult of science. We should learn and teach self-reliance and preventive medicine principles, for when these attitudes and values are mixed with genuine faith in the Creator, we may return to being a nation of healthy and sane individuals rather than a society of drugged, dependent sheep and we may finally reverse the decline of the United States as a force of geopolitical significance. []

1.   Cf. S. Ferenczi, “Stages in the Development of the Sense of Reality,” Outline of Psychoanalysis, by J. S. Van Tesslar, page 112.

2.   Ashok Rao, M.D., and Jennifer A. Katze, M.D., “The Role of Religious Belief in a Depressed Patient’s Illness,” Psychiatric Opinion, June, 1979, pp. 39-43.