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Charismatic Movements

Charismatic movements are small social groups that seek to isolate themselves and their members from mainstream society. Up through the 1970s (and in some quarters today) these groups are called cults. However, there are two reasons not to use the word cult to label an isolated extremist group.

First, anthropologists use the word to label any religious group in any culture, and they do not intend to be insulting. For example, scholars refer to the "Cult of the Virgin" when discussing main­stream Catholic beliefs about the Virgin Mary.

Most people regard the word "cult" as a pejorative (insulting) term. A more neutral label is charismatic group. However, that label has its own problems.

To people familiar with many varieties of Christianity, charis­matic refers to a particular style of worship with open displays of emotion, such as that endorsed by Pentecostals. This is not what psychologists and sociologists mean by a charismatic movement.

What are problems with the word "cult" and "charismatic"? What is an NRM?

A value-neutral label for cult-like religious groups is New Religious Movement (NRM). That gives a pass to older religions (avoiding debates about whether they are cult-like), while NRM is understood to refer to the same sorts of tightly knit, exclusive communities of believers called cults in the 1970s.

J. Gordon Melton was a founding director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion and held positions at the University of California and Baylor University, as well as being an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. He is famous for saying, "Cult is a four letter word for a religion you do not like."

However, Melton was criticized for paid work on behalf of NRMs (a label he helped to promote). Melton received $10,000 for his work on behalf of the Children of God, a group accused of systematic child sexual abuse that used prostitution for fundraising.

Melton also defended "Ramtha," a 35,000 year old spirit from the Lost Continent of Atlantis channeled by Judy Z. Knight. He traveled to Japan by invitation to defend Aum, a Japanese NRM that released poison gas into a subway. declared that Melton "can be counted on to defend virtually any group called a 'cult' no matter how heinous or harmful."

There is no agreement about whether some NRMs are dangerous or should be left in peace. The word cult contin­ues to be used by those who dislike NRMS and do not want to use a label that sounds approving.

In psychology or sociology, a charismatic movement need not be religious, and the word charismatic does not refer to a style of worship. It refers to an organi­zation formed around a strong leader, without whom the group might not exist.

In the context of psychology or sociology, charismatic groups are marked by these features:

–They are based on a strongly held belief systems.

–They provide comfort and sometimes ecstasy.

–They were started by a highly revered leader whose thoughts continues to guide the organization.

–They maintain strong social cohesion, often physically isolating themselves from outside influences in a culturally homogeneous neighborhood, isolated area, or communal dwelling.

–They use techniques to weaken ties to competing social organizations, including a new member's family or friends if they remain outside the group.

–They place heavy demands on members, asking them to devote most of their time, labor or money to the group.

–They use a belief system to induce anxieties that the group itself offers to relieve.

The first three characteristics are found in many benign social organizations. The last four distinguish charismatic move­ments, whether they are called cults, NRMs, or something else.

What features are typical of cult-like charismatic groups?

Sometimes a large movement such as a political party or national identity move­ment takes on characterisics of a charismatic group, especially if it involves a cult of personality. That is the label com­monly given to a group dominated by a leader who is treated like a god.

Kings often claimed to be gods in antiquity. Ramses, with his obsessive monument-building, his ubiquitous images, and his carefully managed legends of conquest (sometimes falsified) resembles more recent dictators described as leading cults of personality. Alexander the Great claimed godly status, and so did Napoleon.

Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin were regarded as god-like by many of their followers. Hitler and Mussolini used the same approach. The leader of North Korea is the god of a state religion..

In The True Believer (1951), Eric Hoffer pointed out that mass movements in a revolutionary or fanatical phase tend to be anti-family. This is particularly true when members are recruited away from a family culture, religion, or political tradition.

The family is seen as an antagonistic social force competing for the loyalty of a new member. Charismatic movements, when new and growing, often encourage new members to cut off ties with friends and family members.

How did families fight back in the 1970s?

Families fought back in the late 1970s. Some used a legal mechanism called conservatorship whereby a person who has lost control of their mental faculties could be placed into the care of respon­sible relatives.

Conservatorship was a legal power of super­vision granted to the family of an adult in California and several other states, when needed. In the late 70s it was used to remove adult children from cults using so-called deprogramming.

Deprogramming was the term used by Ted Patrick and others who specialized in kidnapping people from tightly knit religious groups and persuading them to leave the groups and return to regular society. Sylvia Buford, who worked with Patrick on deprogramming, described five stages:

  1. The deprogrammer discredits the figure of authority: the cult leader.
  2. The deprogrammer presents contradictions (ideology versus reality): "How can he preach love when he exploits people?"
  3. The breaking point: When a subject begins to listen to the deprogram­mer; when reality begins to take precedence over ideology
  4. Self-expression: When the subject begins to open up and voice gripes against the cult
  5. Identification and transference: when the subject begins to identify with the depro­grammers, starts to think as an opponent of the cult rather than as a member (Stoner and Parke, 1977)

What was "deprogramming"?

Deprogramming was controver­sial from the beginning. There was a thin line (if any) between deprogramming and depriving people of their freedom to believe in religious or political systems of their choice.

The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) came out against deprogram­ming in 1977. Several court cases went against deprogrammers who had kidnapped cult members.

The Cult Awareness Network, an anti-NRM organization, was bankrupted by a million dollar punitive judgment. After that, their name and assets were purchased by the Scientology organ­ization, who thereby eliminated a persistent opponent.

Conservatorship and deprogram­ming became less common after the widely publicized court cases. Gomes (2009) in the book Unmasking the Cults argued that deprogramming was unnecessary anyway.

Why did Gomes suggest deprogramming was unnecessary?

People leave NRMs at a fairly high rate without deprogramming, Gomes pointed out. In fact, "natural attrition rates actually are higher than the success rate achieved through deprogramming."

The Positive Side of Charismatic leadership

Max Weber, one of the founders of socio­logy, wrote in 1913 that charisma was a word "applied to a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with super­natural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or exemplary."

To sociologists following Weber, charis­ma was not positive or negative in itself. Hansen (2001) pointed out "both Hitler and Gandhi were charismatic leaders."

Weber thought that charismatic leader­ship was aided by "disenchantment of the world" or "the elimination of magic from the world." The charismatic leader brought back some of that magic, but at a cost. One of the synonyms Weber suggested for charismatic leadership was "domination."

What was a "cost" of charismatic leadership?

Business leaders can be char­acterized as charismatic if they have a transform­ational effect on their employees. This can happen if a leader asserts strong values that shape an organization and inspire loyalty. Steve Jobs and Elon Musk both had this effect.

In the non-religious, business context, charismatic leaders provide inspiration alongside with the usual functions of a CEO: setting agendas and making decisions. Cicero and Pierro (2007) gave a Max Weber inspired definition of charismatic leadership:

Charismatic leaders are able to formulate and articulate an inspir­ational vision and behaviours that foster an impression that they and their mission are extraordinary. Individuals choose to follow such leaders not simply because of the formal authority of the leader but also on the basis of the perceptions of the leader's extraordinary character.

What distinguishes a charismatic leader?

Cicero and Pierro (2007) pre­sented survey data suggesting charismatic leadership is correlated with group identification and pride in collective action throughout an organization. That shows up on a small level as individual employees' identification with work-groups.

The definition of a work-group depends on the organization, but it consists of a person's immediate working partners. That might consist of five people working together in an office or clinic or store or church or volunteer organization or club or any other social organization.

The number five is arbitrary, although an old joke says every organization is actually run by no more than five people. Assemble a group of ten to work together, and five will actually do the work.

Cicero and Pierro suggest that charis­matic leadership, by infusing an organ­ization with meaning and purpose and a feeling of magic, creates a ripple effect. Members of work groups feel common identity and purpose, leading to group cohesion and a sense of belonging.

What effect of charismatic leadership was predicted by Cicero and Pierro?

To use a non-religious example, you might work in the office of an athletic department at a school with a charis­matic or even "legendary" football coach, as the very best coaches are often described. Everybody affiliated with that team would feel they were part of something special.

The magic would rub off on them, so to speak, and they would feel proud of their work-group, the department, the school, and the coach. They would also report relatively high job satisfaction, if Cicero and Pierro are correct.

Ecstatic Followership

Why do people join "cults" or radical, isolated groups, when severe demands are made upon them, and they may be pressured to cut off contacts with family and old friends? One might think they are promised a lot, and they are.

If the group is religious, they are offered a solution to all life's prob­lems, now and forever. Even a political or cultural group offers identity, a feeling of partnership with like-minded individuals, and a sense of self-righteousness and purpose.

Group activities can facilitate great happiness or ecstasy. For an example, see YouTube videos about followers of the group Insane Clown Posse which peaked around 2003-2008. Some wore demented-clown make-up, like the group itself, and they had a special name for themselves ("juggalos").

On the videos (there are several from various years and festivals) juggalos admit to being losers by the criteria of conventional society. However, among their own kind, they felt acceptance and common identity, and that brought a deep sense of satisfaction.

What produces great satisfaction in group activities?

The sense of in-group identity and companionship in an insular group can be strong. Perhaps it is in proportion to a group's sense of rejection by others.

It is no coincidence that cultural groups that see themselves as despised or apart from society will adopt terms of derision as group names, deliberately. That happened with Quakers; originally they were insulted as "quaking before God," so they said, Sure, that's us.

What commonly happens to "terms of derision" applied to disapproved groups?

It happened to hippy freaks. Originally, in the early 1960s, freak was a term of derision. So it was converted into a term of pride. In 1967 Jimi Hendrix sang that he would "hold his freak flag high." The same thing happened to black. "Black" started as an insulting term but became a source of pride with Black Pride and Black Power.

Group Celebrations

Festivals, marches, and mass meetings can be times of group re-affirmation and togetherness, with an atmosphere bor­dering on ecstatic excitement. Joseph Campbell told this story in a lecture (Transformations of Myth Through Time lecture 1):

I have a couple of friends who were in concentration camps, and when Hitler was to give a speech... they were brought out and had to stand at attention while he gave the speech. And one of them told me that he had all he could do to keep his right hand from going up and saying, "Heil." The power of a well-constructed ritual to move from centers that are beyond those of your personal intentions and control is terrific.

Campbell refers to the power of group celebrations "to move from centers that are beyond those of your personal intentions." In other words, a group can evoke or bring out behaviors that are different from an individual's will, for better or worse.

Erich Fromm made a similar point, mentioned in Chapter 16 (Sex, Friendship, and Love). Fromm said that "orgiastic states" were one "solution to the problem of existence" because they break through the barrier between the ego and the outside world. This seems to be one major function of group celebrations.

An evening at an Irish pub, or a night at a disco, or at a Karaoke bar in Japan, may resemble an ecstatic celebration. There may be no political or religious agenda in this case, but there is group identification, plus a lowering of inhibitions enhanced by alcohol.

Trance festivals are a sort of group mystical state, often accompanied by widespread use of MDMA (ecstasy). Thousands of people are synchronized in their movements and feelings by the powerful, repetitive synthesized beats.

Dancing is associated with religious and social celebration all over the world. In some cultures it is restricted to particular, approved times and places. It brings a physical expression of togetherness and joy into a group.

In the U.S. jazz culture of the early to mid-20th Century, dancing was a powerful mode of celebration and group identity. The celebrants were a despised minority to some in mainstream society, but when they were together the problems of the world receded.

When interviewed decades later for documentaries about the jazz era, the (now aged) celebrants commented on how these events were validators and high points of life. When jazz evolved into the BeBop stage after World War II, the music became undanceable and the dance-hall culture faded.

Demonizing the Enemy

One way to maintain strong cohe­sion within a tightly knit, insular group is to portray anyone outside the group as evil. Hoffer argued in The True Believer (1951) that radical movements are energized by hatred for their enemies.

This is not seen in more benign mass movements. Hoffer had a particular interest in fanatical mass movements during their growth phase. He defined fanaticism as willingness to die for the cause.

Demonization of enemies is common in this type of intensely oppositional in-group. It provides cohesion: the glue that holds a group together, as the group can define itself against hated enemies. Hoffer wrote:

How does hatred provide cohesion to a group?

Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil. Usually the strength of a mass movement is propor­tionate to the vividness and tangibility of its devil.

Like an ideal deity, an ideal devil is omnipotent and omnipresent. When Hitler was asked whether he was not attributing rather too much impor­tance to the Jews, he exclaimed: "No, no, no!...It is impossible to exaggerate the formidable quality of the Jew as an enemy." Every difficulty and failure within the movement is the work of the devil, and every success is a triumph over his evil plotting. (p.87)

Hoffer noted that righteous hatred for the enemy was commonly used in a religious context. Hatred promotes group solidar­ity, enthusiasm, even love and charity. In the case of Martin Luther, the demons were Catholics. Luther wrote:

When my heart is cold and I cannot pray as I should I scourge myself with the thought of the impiety and ingratitude of my enemies, the Pope and his accomplices and that my heart swells with righteous indignation and hatred and I can say with warmth and vehemence: "Holy be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done!" And the hotter I grow the more ardent do my prayers become. (quoted in Hoffer, 1951, p.92)

Fortunately, these forces are seldom unleashed in commercial organizations that deal with the public. Hatred can be bad for business.

However, exclusionary groups that trade in hatred have a powerful attraction for some people. Hoffer believed a certain personality type was attracted to fanatical mass movements: people who felt frustrated, helpless, or powerless.

What sort of person was attracted to hate groups, according to Hoffer?

Hatred provides a powerless person with meaning, purpose, and solidarity. This feels like strength to a person who other­wise lacks that feeling, Hoffer suggested.


Cicero, L. & Pierro, A. (2007) Charismatic leadership and organizational outcomes: The mediating role of employee's work-group identification. International Journal of Psychology, 42, 297-306.

Gomes, A. W. (2009) Unmasking the Cults. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Hansen G. P. (2001) The Trickster and the Paranormal. Philadelphia, PA: Xlibris.

Hoffer, E. (1951) The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.

Stoner, C., & Parke, J. (1977). All God's children: The Cult Experience–Salvation or Slavery? Radnor, PA: Chilton.

Weber, M. (1947) Max Weber: The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. New York: Press Press.

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