Who Joins Cults — and How and Why?

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by Neil Godfrey

We must remember an old adage: no one joins a “dangerous cult” or a “terrorist cell.” Converts invariably see the act of joining in positive terms, as beneficial for both themselves, their society, and the cosmos (literally), and the process is far more gradual than it appears. — (Dawson 2010, p. 7)
Lorne Dawson, whose article is the basis of this post.
I am drawing heavily on a 2010 article by Lorne L. Dawson, “The Study of New Religious Movements and the Radicalization of Home-Grown Terrorists: Opening a Dialogue“, published in Terrorism and Political Violence, 22:1-21, 2010, for this post. The research findings point to other factors associated with those who do join religious cults (and Dawson suggests it might be worthwhile examining to see if they are also applicable to those who join terrorist groups.)

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Christian sects like the Mormons, Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses were known to draw most of their followers from poor or underprivileged sectors of society. So it was easy to explain their attraction as offering converts a reversal of their fortunes: from being nobodies to being “the elect”. In the apocalyptic scenarios they all preached, those who were the least in this world would become the first in the next. The meek were to inherit the earth. The rich and powerful of this world would be brought down and the poor exalted.

(Similarly with Palestinian terrorist groups: the most obvious explanation appeared for many to be that they preferred a rich symbolic life, a reward of honour in the memory of their people, to continuing to be subject to extreme economic hardships and political and personal humiliation.)

The above explanation for why Christian cults exercised such a strong pull on the “lower classes” was overturned in the 1960s and 70s with the emergence of a plethora of New Religious Movements (NRMs) — or cults — that attracted youth from well-to-do families, highly educated, with excellent career prospects, and generally of secular upbringings. Even established Christian cults like the Mormons were also found to be becoming increasingly populated by members belonging to the higher socio-economic rungs of society.

So what was going on?

New theories of “relative deprivation” emerged in the literature. Perhaps people were attracted not because of the objective fact of their lower economic and social status, but because they perceived that they were disadvantaged in some way, whatever their real status. And maybe the perceived lack was not only economic, but also moral, social opportunities, psychological . . . .

The idea of relative deprivation seems very plausible; in many ways it conforms to our personal experience. But in the end it allows for too much interpretive flexibility. Almost any action could be explained by reference to some hypothesized sense of lack of respect, inadequate love, or ethical frustration. The theory explains everything and yet nothing because it cannot discriminate effectively between those who think this way and those who choose to act on their perception in some radical way, especially becoming violent. (Dawson 2010, p. 5)

Compare those joining new cults in the 60s and 70s with the 9/11 hijackers. The latter were also from well-adjusted middle class families. They were not oppressed or impoverished in any conventional sense. They had not been particularly religious. They had good opportunities to do well in careers in many countries.

An NYPD report Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat concluded that most individuals who had been involved in terrorist plots had had quite unremarkable backgrounds, no criminal history, ordinary jobs and lived ordinary lives. They were fluent in English, were Western educated and familiar with the Western lifestyle. They had opportunities to do well in both their countries of origin and in the USA.

There is no clear profile of a potential terrorist and they are, like those who come to join religious cults, largely indistinguishable from anyone else.

“Converts to NRMs are more likely to have fewer and weaker social ties.”

Since cults are in conflict in significant ways with society, it stands to reason that they are more likely to draw their recruits from those who have “fewer social attachments” and consequently “lower stakes in conformity”.

This datum explains why it is so often the young (and students) who are attracted. “They can afford to experiment with alternative ways of living.”

“Converts also tend to have fewer and weaker ideological alignments”

As I have noted in recent posts, research shows that people with strong attachments to their mainstream faith (whether Christianity or Islam) are not likely to join cults or terror cells. It is the “unchurched”, those with weak, non-existent or troubled religious backgrounds, or the rootless “seekers”, who are the more likely to join cults.

But there is a balance. Complete loners or those with no interest at all in spiritual and religious questions are not likely to join.

That’s the “who”. What about the “how”?

“The leading studies of conversion to NRMs stress the role played by social networks, affective ties, and intensive interaction . . .”

“Positive interpersonal experiences are crucial to conversion.” The process of becoming a member is a very social one, involving a negotiation of an exchange of interests between the two parties. And the quality of early relationships is one of the most significant factors in persuading a person to join.

That was certainly my own experience. The first day I was invited to attend a Church service and meet “the brethren” for the first time was a day that never left my mind. I felt as if I had found a new, accepting, warm and loving family.

It seems that the studies of radicalization realize this in many ways. It is the primary thrust of Marc Sageman’s influential study Understanding Terror Networks, and is more specifically aligned with a theory of radicalization by McCauley and Moskalenko. The latter state:

‘‘Trust may determine the network within which radicals and terrorists recruit, but love often determines who will join. The pull of romantic and comradely love can be as strong as politics in moving individuals into an underground group.’’

I have been posting a chapter by chapter series on McCauley and Moskalenko’s book Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us on this blog. More to come.

“The onset of ‘group think’ and the presence and influence of ‘charismatic leaders'”

The report can be downloaded from https://publicintelligence.net/nypd-radicalization-in-the-west-the-homegrown-threat/

Similarly the NYPD report mentioned above also describes the way individuals seek out like-minded others and the way the resulting clusters are appear to be essential for moving the individual to the radicalization or jihadization stage. The associated group-think and presence of both spiritual and operational charismatic leaders are also of critical importance.

At the time of the article (2010) Dawson explains how detailed studies of the specifics involved in these latter processes are still in their infancy. The data show that of those who join religious cults over 90% leave of their own accord within two years.

This means that much hinges on understanding how the personal bonds are formed and sustained, the bonds that help to create the group loyalties which in turn motivate the self-sacrifices required to meet the objectives of radical religious and political leaders.


Thus far the who and the how.

What about the why?


Identity and the Sacred

Again Dawson finds a convenient summary in the NYPD report:

Individuals most vulnerable to experiencing this phase are often those at a crossroads in life—those who are trying to establish an identity, or a direction, while seeking approval and validation for the path taken. Some of the crises that can jump-start this phase include:

Economic (losing a job, blocked mobility)
Social (alienation, discrimination, racism—real or perceived)
Political (international conflicts involving Muslims)
Personal (death in a close family)

Political and personal conflicts are often the cause of this identity crisis.

Dawson follows this with a paragraph that is chock full of significant detail and needs to be quoted here in full, though I break up the formatting for easier identification of each point:

The two most comprehensive, and as yet unsurpassed studies of why people join NRMs, Eileen Barker’s The Making of a Moonie and Saul Levine’s Radical Departures, offer perspectives that are convergent with each other and this view.

The key for most of these young people is indeed the struggle to find themselves (i.e., identity) against the backdrop of tension between their personal life in their family and the ‘‘realities’’ of the world.

Simplifying a more complex explanation, Barker and Levine both found that ‘‘joiners’’ tend to come from fairly stable and respectable families, where they were encouraged to be public-minded and often became over-achievers. They tended to have good relationships with their parents, in fact Levine, a psychiatrist, thinks the root problem is they identify too much with their parents.

In any event, in adolescence or young adulthood they fail to adequately negotiate the transition from the parental household to an independent life in the larger society, in part because they cannot shape an identity that is satisfying and sufficiently different from that cultivated by their parents, and in part because the outer world proves to be too amoral and apathetic.

They experience a profound disappointment with themselves and with others around them, though this will be hidden from view, since they tend not to release their feelings in the more conventional acts of adolescent bonding, self-exploration, and rebellion. In the midst of this turmoil a crisis, real or perceived, may happen, setting off what Levine aptly calls a radical departure—a seemingly sudden conversion to a NRM. In fact the trouble has been brewing for some time and in some respects the act of joining a NRM is almost coincidental. (p. 8, my own bolding in all quotations)

Three things the NRM or cult provides that make it very attractive:

  1. a sufficiently stark contrast to the parental identity and expectations — thus providing both symbolic and physical separation needed to forge their own identity
  2. a protective environment, a surrogate family, in which one can continue to search for one’s “true self”
  3. an “environment suffuse with a larger sense of purpose, of cosmic significance, that actually represents, ironically, a continuation or even fulfilment of the social and moral ideals to which they were socialized, but which their parents failed to actually embody.”

Here Dawson makes an interesting observation tying the above explanation with what we see among children of the Muslim immigrants joining extremist groups and why a disproportionate number of Jews appear to be drawn to groups like the Moonies:

If there is merit in this view, then perhaps it explains why some of the children of the Muslim diaspora are drawn to groups offering what is supposed to be a purer expression of Islam, one that transcends the culturally parochial or the nominal piety of their parents. A parallel exists in the disproportionate number of young Jews who joined such seemingly alien NRMs as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and the Unification Church. The evidence suggests there is a significant continuity between the voiced yet never really lived moral and communal aspirations of their Jewish heritage, in the modern American context, and the new and more demanding and prescribed life offered in the NRMs. (p. 8)

The religious experience

Lorne Dawson’s comparison with certain types of monks of another age reminds me of Vardis Fisher’s novel Peace Like a River, part of his “Testament of Man” series. See Earl Doherty’s review. (The cover is part of Vridar’s logo header.)

Dawson’s studies and professional dealings with cult members have persuaded him that the main reason why people are drawn to cults (and also why some are drawn further to extreme behaviour including violence) is a lack of sense of purpose or a “moral deprivation”. Some people are more sensitive to this than others. He sees the potential converts as seeking a “sacralized” existence.

Like the monks and other religious virtuosi once revered in our societies they wish, most profoundly, to live sub specie aeternitatis, in ways our mainstream traditions no longer really support.

So perhaps in another age instead of joining a cult I would have made a great monk!

Dawson suggests that earlier grievances or personal problems are catalysts (or “excuses”) to turn away from society, “but the real cause is the abiding sense of some kind of moral deprivation.”

The process is no less ‘‘religious’’ because in many cases there are mixed motives involved, political, psychological, economic, or whatever.

The turn to extremism, including violence

Why some individuals, or even whole groups, turn to violence — suicidal, murderous or both — is another question for another time. Dawson explores the question in the second part of his article.

Till then I will just mention that the overwhelming majority of persons who do join or begin to join cults (including extremist political groups) do leave within two years. They were “seeking”, they were working out certain identity issues for a time, they moved on, no long term harm done.

But a few stay. And some of those turn to extremist and violent acts. The path that leads to this destination is paved with certain ideologies, especially apocalyptic beliefs, and charismatic leaders.

Dawson quotes Sageman‘s testimony before the U.S. Senate (June 27, 2007):

My continuing research into Islamist extremism shows that terrorists are idealistic young people, who seek glory and thrills by trying to build a utopia. Contrary to popular belief, radicalization is not the product of poverty, various forms of brainwashing, youth, ignorance or lack of education, lack of job, lack of social responsibility, criminality or mental illness. Their mobilization into this violent Islamist born-again social movement is based on friendship and kinship.

And again from an MI5 briefing note titled “Understanding Radicalisation and Violent Extremism in the UK”

The briefing concludes: there is no typical profile of a British terrorist, they are “demographically unremarkable;” recruits tend to be young and are reflective of the communities in which they live; they are not necessarily loners and “personal interaction is essential, in most cases, to draw individuals into violent extremist networks;” they are not unintelligent or gullible and their educational achievement levels range from a total lack of qualifications to university degrees; far from being religious zealots, they are more likely to come from backgrounds of relative religious illiteracy; and the process of radicalization “takes months or years.” (p.9f)

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Neil Godfrey

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13 thoughts on “Who Joins Cults — and How and Why?”

  1. If I may be the first to comment on my own post — this as an Afterword:

    Dawson emphasizes the gradualness of the process in radicalization and even in initially becoming a part of a cult. While in the Worldwide Church of God many of us would comment on how long it took us to finally become bona fide (that is baptized) members. The organization itself made sure of this. For most of its earlier years at least it had a strict policy on not publicizing where its congregations met and interested persons would almost always be required to go through a lengthy screening process before being even allowed to attend a church service. And even after that first attendance it would sometimes take weeks, months or even years before they were baptized.

    The irony was that we claimed to be true to the original New Testament “Church of God”, yet I could see there in the Book of Acts that that original church did not exercise any such gradual process towards membership. In Acts people would hear the word preached and be persuaded on the spot and be baptized immediately.

    I think I once might have asked the ministry about this, but I cannot recall the response now. It was something I did wonder about from time to time. I should have been alerted from this discrepancy that we weren’t really following the “original church” at all and were nothing like it as it is portrayed in Acts or even in any of Paul’s letters (except perhaps for some of the Pastorals that go under Paul’s name and that indicate an authoritarian control of the flock.)

    (The policy of careful and protracted screening by the WCG in its earlier years probably accounts for a lower rate of defections than the 90% within two years that Dawson informs us applies more generally to cults.)

    1. Off topic, but Acts as “original church”? We know that Paul is opposed to the Jerusalem movement and Acts is possibly a response to Paul (Galatians); thus, 2 steps removed from “the original church” -itself a sectarian offshoot of the whole Messianic ideal.

      Restorationists have been “reforming” Christian sects since the period between the Jewish War and Bar Kochba. Now we have a pile of moldy paper obscuring the founding thoughts.

      Educational posts; I am more flexible about Islamist radicals now in regards to motivations, but still, the religion itself is without rational justification in how its founders revelations cannot be verified.

      1. Agreed. The Acts’ portrayal of the first church is certainly fictional. See, for instance, Earliest Christians fulfil Plato’s Utopia. Acts (and the idea of a history of the church to begin with) came about in the midst of “a riotous diversity” (Doherty) of movements and served sect that determined to present itself as the “one true original”. But of course such analytical approaches to the texts are not part of cult thinking.

        I’m glad you’ve gained something at least from the posts — I’ve been astonished somewhat at how much there is to learn each time I read a new major work on this topic. The pity is that those who have appeared hear as the most entrenched in their views appear to have no interest in reading them or in only glancing at a few points without any interest in following the details of the argument. Recently someone said Vridar was a good place to air this discussion but sadly he has not responded to any of these recent posts. I guess no one is persuaded against their will.

        1. I am happy to digest what is offered in the series -cults are very interesting- but religions have serious problems at their roots which eliminate need to give them more power than they deserve. A crazy uncle in the back bedroom has only so much political capital in a household before being sent off to the old folks home.

          I see how the causes are complex, but which one is the dominant trigger?

          Paradise is a dumb reason for personal commitment to martyrdom or coercing others to that mode of sacrifice. So, yes, there has to be a psychological/material benefit now that the modern age has evaporated monotheistic cosmology and eschatology. Extremist ideologues may use “paradise” as a proxy for preservation of the martyr’s deeds in the community, knowing that few believe in eschatological claims.

          1. I suspect our wish for a “dominant trigger” is a hope for a solution that is simpler than reality permits.

            A number of mainstream academics who have been deeply offended by criticisms of their core assumptions and methodologies some coming from outsiders like me have seized upon my past experience with a cult and cynically dripped the words “once a fundamentalist always a fundamentalist”. But serious studies of those who have done the real research into fundamentalists and cults and such groups demonstrate how difficult it is for many to understand the dynamics involved.

            That point does not only apply to cults and extremist movements but probably to most contra-social behaviours. When you personally know someone who has been branded a murderer, a baby kidnapper, a murder-suicide (of spouse, of children….), you begin to appreciate the gulf between public perception and reality.

            1. One thing I learned while drying out in AA is that cults, and cultish environments, are a mix of benign/malignant. AA is mostly benign, but there are certain meetings where a “sponsorship family” runs the business meetings and is likely to decide the format. Each meeting attracts different classes of people with embedded “old timers” who insist upon protocol and interpretation of the literature.

              I don’t need support in keeping the cork in the bottle, so I don’t need AA. Some folks are unable to break out when they are strong enough to consistently meet challenges without drinking.

              Empty minds which were once filled with grandiosity, selfishness, resentment and angst are taught to align with “group conscience”, the “higher power”, lifelong step work , service -the alternative being jail, institutionalization, or death.

              The causes are connected to the hooks, and they must be related to primal fears. What else could create a fanatic?

              “Public perception” is “reality” in how consensus is formed (group conscience). But yes, those of us who have made serious mistakes know the outer boundary of emotions and why transcendental redemption is so appealing. Eventually though, we see how small our offenses are, but how large they will be in the judgement of moral realists.

  2. John Lee Anderson, who spent time with various “terrorist” organizations, concluded “Guerrillas: The Inside Stories of the World’s Revolutions” (1994): “In the end, all guerrillas are crusaders, people imbued with a belief that there are things worth dying for….Islam, Christianity, ‘democracy,’ Marxism-Leninism, or simply, a world where things are either good or evil – they are fighting to fulfill ideals greater than themselves…as they fight on, the guerrillas have themselves become larger than life figures, the saints, gods, and martyrs, in a world of their own creation” (p.267).

    1. This is the same point I have made several times with reference to serious works on both terrorist and religious extremists. But note that it describes how the cult member identifies him or herself and does not address the prior conversion process. People don’t just decide one day to become a crusader to right the wrongs of the world.

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