Cults as Power Structures

The following article has been excerpted from Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias (Bay Tree Publishing). It is posted at Apologetics Index by permission.

Four interlocking dimensions make up the framework of a cult’s social system and dynamics. You can use this framework to examine your own cult experience. These four dimensions are clearly separated so that former cult members (whose memories of cult experiences are often confused and conflicting) can more easily deconstruct and understand each phase of indoctrination and control:

  • Charismatic authority. This is the emotional bond between a leader and his followers. It lends legitimacy to the leader and grants authority to his actions while at the same time justifying and reinforcing followers’ responses to the leader and/or the leader’s ideas and goals. Charisma is the hook that links a devotee to a leader and/or his ideas.

    The general purpose of charismatic authority is to provide leadership. The specific goal is for the leader to be accepted as the legitimate authority and to offer direction. This is accomplished through privilege and command. The desired effect, of course, is that members will believe in and identify with the leader.

  • Transcendent belief system. This is the overarching ideology that binds adherents to the group and keeps them behaving according to the group’s rules and norms. It is transcendent because it offers a total explanation of past, present, and future, including the path to salvation. Most importantly, the leader/group also specifies the exact methodology (or recipe) for the personal transformation necessary to travel on that path.

    The goal of the transcendent belief system is to provide a worldview that offers meaning and purpose through a moral imperative. This imperative requires each member to subject himself to a process of personal transformation. The desired effect is for the member to feel a sense of connection to a greater goal while aspiring to salvation. This effect is solidified through the internalization of the belief system and its accompanying behaviors and attitudes.

  • Systems of control. This is the network of acknowledged or visible regulatory mechanisms that guide the operation of the group. It includes the overt rules, regulations, and procedures that guide and control members’ behavior.

    The purpose of the systems of control is quite simply to provide organizational structure. The specific goal is to create a behavioral system and disciplinary code through rules, regulations, and sanctions. The effect is compliance, or better still, obedience.

  • Systems of influence. This is the network of interactions and social influence that resides in the group’s social relations. This interaction and group culture teach members to adapt their thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors in relation to their new beliefs.

    The purpose of the systems of influence is to shape the group culture. The specific goal is to create institutionalized group norms and an established code of conduct by which members are expected to live. This is accomplished by various methods of peer and leadership pressure, and through social-psychological influence and modeling. The desired effect is conformity and the self-renunciation that is required not only to be part of the group but also to achieve the professed goal.8

This combination of transcendent belief systems, all-encompassing systems of interlocking structural and social controls, and highly charged charismatic relationships between leader(s) and adherents results in self-sealing systems that exact a high degree of commitment (as well as expressions of that commitment) from its core members. A self-sealing system is one that is closed in on itself, allowing no consideration of disconfirming evidence or alternative points of view. In the extreme, a self-sealed group is exclusive and its belief system is all inclusive, in the sense that it provides answers to everything. Typically the quest of such groups is to attain a far-reaching ideal. However, a loss of sense of self is all too often the by-product of that quest.

Over the years, some people have used alternative terms or adjectives to identify cult groups, such as high-demand, high-control, totalistic, totalitarian, closed charismatic, ultra-authoritarian, and so on. In academia, some rather acrimonious debate has arisen over the use of the word cult, with some academicians and researchers using their influence to dissuade scholars, legal and helping professionals, the media, and others from identifying any group as a cult.

Frankly we prefer to use the term cult because we feel that it has historical meaning and value. Whatever one decides to call these groups, one must not ignore the structural and behavioral patterns that have been identified through years of study and research, or through the voluminous accounts of people who successfully escaped cult groups and relationships. To sweep cults under the rug or to call them by another name won’t make cults go away nor will it aid us in understanding these complex social systems. Most importantly, cover-ups and whitewashing won’t help former cult members evaluate or recover from their experiences in a whole and healthful manner.

This article has been excerpted from Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias (Bay Tree Publishing). It is posted at Apologetics Index by permission. More information available at

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This post was last updated: May. 26, 2006