Reflections on The True Believer

Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer makes several observations that are specific to religion that were not covered in the previous post. This post will mention some observations about what he says and does not say about religion, Christianity, and cults. Some of the material toward the end goes beyond what was discussed in the group and includes my own further reflections about helping cult members get out.

Probably the most important point Hoffer makes is that the process of creation, sustaining and normalizing (making the social changes permanent and stopping the “revolutionary fervour”) is the same in both religious and secular mass movements. This (along with some of his pithier statements) is sometimes interpreted to suggest a basically negative evaluation of religion.

Part of this impression comes because he thinks that the mass movement was first invented by the Jewish resistance to efforts to wipe out Judaism. Because of this, he is sometimes seen to think it was a “religious” invention. He also links the expansion of Christianity, Islam and the Crusades to the mass movement phenomenon, giving people the impression that it is primarily a religious phenomenon.

While there is a great deal of truth to the notion that those religious conquests owed a great deal of their success to the fanaticism generated by mass movement dynamics, it would be a mistake to assume that mass movement psychology applies only to “religious” groups or phenomena.

Nationalist movements in the last couple of centuries were also permeated by mass movement dynamics. Hoffer names and analyzes both Nazi and Russian Communist movements in his book. The French Revolution and Russian Communist movements were motivated, at least in part, by anti-religious sentiments.

As a thought-experiment, try to imagine any empire built on conquest that does not have to indoctrinate its people to accept the rightful place of their nation at the top of the food chain. Ancient societies deified their leaders when they proved successful in conquest. Their success becomes the justification for further conquest and further honour for their chieftain, warlord, king or emperor. I suspect that the line between religion and nationalism blurred earlier on in history than Hoffer suspected.

Hoffer’s observations about the nature and interchangeability of mass movements actually seem to suggest that the problem is one of human nature (psychological) rather than the nature of religion or nationality as such. Thus it is possible to be a fanatic follower of a mass movement whether you are religious or an atheist. Only human beings who are secure in their being seem to be immune to the power of persuasive leaders under certain fairly well-understood conditions. This is where his observations overlap with the phenomenon of cult psychology.

At the time he wrote The True Believer Hoffer was studying mass movements (large, socially transformative movements). He was not specifically studying its small-scale counterpart, the cult. There are, however, many points at which understanding Hoffer’s ideas help us understand how cults recruit and function.

Because Hoffer notes that many people likely to be attracted to mass movements seem to be troubled or may have personality or maturity issues, it may be easy to conclude that only the worst or most unstable of people would be attracted to cults.

Hoffer does not make that kind of facile judgment. For instance, his list of the sorts of people vulnerable to mass movements includes youth. Youth are especially vulnerable because their personalities have not yet fully formed. They are only temporarily misfits, unless the movement itself “locks in” their immaturity. The same goes for people who have lost ground economically. Once they gain back their status, they are far less vulnerable to persuasive speakers with a simplistic agenda. In short, almost anyone can be recruited to a mass movement or a cult under the right circumstances. In fact, the more certain one is that one cannot be lured, the less likely one will be to resist.

According to Hoffer, the key to resisting mass movement propaganda and brainwashing is to have a confident self-esteem that is based on something real, such as actual ability and real accomplishment. An alternative might be a realistic assessment of one’s self that is neither grand nor self-deprecating. Having creative and enjoyable hobbies or social activities might be a way of developing a confident self-concept. Stories abound about how people in concentration camps or prisons endured loneliness or torture by imagining rebuilding their motorcycle from scratch, improving their golf game, or playing an imaginary piano.

The reason it makes sense to apply Hoffer’s ideas to cults is that no mass movement starts its life as a large-scale movement. Invariably, they begin as small groups that gather, socialize and strategize without attracting much attention until the times become ripe for their simplistic ideas to grab hold of a larger portion of the society at large. Usually, several cults emerge with significant followings, until the strongest and/or most ruthless one wins out.

Cult leaders make use of many of the same techniques to brainwash their followers as do leaders of mass movements. They minimize the present in favour of the possible future. They reframe the life story of the individual as participants in a heroic effort to save the future or themselves. They usually do so by deceptive statements about the current reality or their own role in creating the future. For instance, Bible-based cults might make up alternative histories about how their group originated as a resistance to the established church hierarchy, and how they will re-establish the true faith. Every news report about moral failures or catastrophic events is interpreted as a sign of the “end times” or of God’s wrath on the nation. (Wascana Fellowship members had an easy time remembering such things from their experience with their former “church.”)

Cults create a theological or ideological system that is impenetrable to logic. Hoffer found his main examples in religion. An example that comes to my mind is that some very strict Fundamentalist churches teach that the minister or pastor is “God’s anointed,” and therefore must be obeyed. (They take this out of context from David’s refusal to kill King Saul.) Any reasonable person might ask who anointed the pastor as king, but nobody does. A reasonable person might ask why refusal to kill a king has anything to do with mindless obedience to a pastor, but nobody does. A person more conversant with the Scriptures might ask why prophets were constantly being sent to protest that God’s laws were not being kept if the king was always right. People who ask that kind of question are usually quietly (sometimes less quietly) excommunicated.

In the end, The True Believer is not about religion or politics. It is about human nature. Hoffer includes himself as one capable of the most horrifying cruelty under the right circumstances. Without any kind of theology of “original sin” or “total depravity” I can honestly add myself to the rolls of those capable of monstrous behaviour in the service of fanatical devotion. I could do so in a heartbeat if the right cause came along at the right time in my life. Knowing this is being armed. Not being aware of the possibility or of how one’s own heart and mind operate under stress is exceedingly dangerous.

I have seen many otherwise rational people turned into obedient slaves of a system that does not deserve their devotion. It is greatly tempting to become fanatically devoted to tearing down the remains of that system. To dehumanize the remaining members for being blind to their own captivity and blaming them for turning over their minds and obedience to an undeserving and exploitative system.

Both Judaism and Christianity have had a category for this type of slavery for millennia: slavery to sin.

I believe that blame and attempts to shame are not the solution, at least for rank and file members of a mind-controlling cult. Jesus’ contemporaries had been trying those things for centuries with very little success. In my experience, they just shut the minds of the listener and reinforce the system’s built-in defenses.

Guilt and shame do not work precisely because they are the tools of control already being used by the cult or mass movement. (This is not to say that there must not be a change of heart and restitution. Those are necessary for healing, but those can only come after liberation from mind control.)

What Jesus brought was liberation of mind and heart from the oppressiveness of human systems. Liberation from sin is about liberation from the control of others, whether “mythological” talking serpents or fellow human beings. After an actual experience of being set free from sin, guilt and shame, nothing else even compares. The natural response is to seek to make things right with those we have wronged if at all possible. Religious language calls this “repentence.”

It is not a freedom from responsibility, but rather the discovery of a true vocation of making the world a better place for oneself and for other creatures and other people. It is the discovery that we are truly responsible for being at peace with one another and with the world of living organisms around us. Every decision we make has consequences, and we begin to learn to monitor those consequences in order to learn from our inevitable mistakes. Sometimes we even get to fix our mistakes.

Jesus’ strategy of liberation seems to be rooted in an understanding of the innate “image of God” in which humankind (both male and female, as suggested in Gen. 1:26-28) are made. That story conveys the deep truth that every human being has innate value, and is necessary to the functioning of the whole world. The story grants human beings creative dominion over the entire cosmos (though not over each other!). The story democratizes both creativity and dominion for all of humanity. Any religious system that claims ultimate control of some human beings over other human beings directly contradicts the command for human beings to exercise dominion. (The rest of the story indicates how human beings undermined this intent throughout history and how God has to intervene to restore His initial vision and mission for humanity.)

I think that if we really grabbed hold of that story and made it real in our lives, we would have a much better chance of resisting the cunning manipulations of self-styled hierarchical leaders, whether religious or political. If only fanatics can really resist other fanatics, perhaps we need to be the fanatics that fight for human life, freedom and dignity. We will need to fight discrimination and dehumanization in every form.

To fight dehumanization, we will need to fight without degrading or putting down the personhood of those we confront. The way to confront is to point out the hypocrisy and contradiction of the means they use to get to their ends.

Therefore, the goal of liberation from mind-control of cults is not slavish conversion to our brand of Christianity, Islam, or atheism. The goal of liberation is exactly that: liberation! Freedom from any outside control by the strengthening of the personality and critical thinking of the cult member. Yes, confront the contradictions of the belief system, but do so initially from within – where they are starting from.

Use the Socratic method of asking questions that help your friend clarify meaning and reasonableness. Help them find the contradictions between what the leaders say and what they do. Help them evaluate whether the system is doing what it says it is doing. Then help them evaluate whether the system logically would ever be able to do what it claims it is doing. In other words, be an insightful, helpful resource without doing their thinking for them.

Do so from a position of sympathy with their plight. Find out about what kind of person they were before the cult, and help them become the best aspects of that person again by encouraging a return to healthy patterns of doing enjoyable and creative things.

Help them get back the dominion over their lives that is both their birthright and responsibility. If you must fight, fight for their freedom!


About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
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