A lot of articles online attack cult leaders and say that they’re psychopaths who are one hundred percent evil, but taking the “all cult leaders are psychopaths” route is too easy. What if most people become cult leaders by accident?
Take Shoko Asahara for example. He started out teaching a yoga and meditation class and it got away from him. People started pouring in and begging him to teach them, so of course he wanted to capitalize on it. His group eventually turned into a terrorist organization and they ended up gassing some Tokyo subways. From meditation and yoga school to crazy terror cult, now that’s a stark transformation, but I don’t think the people knew what was happening. The cult transformed slowly over about 20 years and developed a culture. If the change happened gradually enough, I’m not surprised members got convinced to be terrorists.
But if his members are just victims of a cult, what about Asahara himself? If you say that the leader is a maniac, are you not also saying that he planned to make his yoga school into a terrorist organization the whole time? Who has that kind of foresight? What if cult leaders are pushed by their members to move in new directions?
Imagine you’re Shoko Asahara for a second. You started this nice small business, you have a steady stream of customers, and people are listening to you for the first time in your life. That sounds pretty good, right? Alright now move forward in time three years: your school is growing larger but people want more expansive teachings from you. It’s not like you just keep repeating yourself over and over again expecting them to stay, no, you need to write new sermons.
Where are these ideas supposed to come from? Talking about peace and inner serenity exclusively is starting to get boring, so you branch out a bit. You talk about your childhood and how it influenced you and your followers eat it up, but you need something more reliable. Then you find the holy grail. It’s a topic that constantly changes and it’s completely open to religious riffing: the activities of Japanese society. Think about it, culture changes and shifts naturally, and all you have to do is use it to guide your teachings.
The problem is your group wants more; they don’t just want a teacher, they want a guru. They keep asking your opinion on controversial things like the Holocaust and whether Jews deserve to die. They ask you about world events like Darfur and follow your suggestions blindly. At first, you tell them to wait while you research the topic and form an opinion, but eventually you start to think that reading and research makes you seem weak. After all, the best teachers know what to say naturally.
So you start to lie a little bit. You start to talk about topics you’ve only heard about in passing and you start coming up with opinions on the fly.
Nobody likes being ignorant, so in order to save your ego you convince yourself that you’re the smartest man alive, and that any opinion you come up with is correct. This is where morality starts not really mattering. The more you talk about your opinion, the bigger your group grows, and at some point your subconscious realizes that people like your hateful slip-ups more than your preaching of the good and holy. Now, it doesn’t happen all at once, it’s not like one day you’re talking about world peace and the next about killing businessmen, but subtly hate speech starts creeping in, and your group keeps growing.
By now you don’t see much wrong with the hate and your team seems to love it, so you keep talking. Hate and destruction now take up about 80% of your sermons but hey, as long as your opinions are correct (and they always are) who cares about whether you preach hate or love?
After talking like this for a few years, your members want to take action and you start hearing some complaints from the group. They say it’s not enough to just talk about hating other members of society, no, their group needs to get out and do something!
As a cult leader you’re torn. You don’t want to lose members, and it looks like if you don’t do something, everyone’s going to leave. So you ask the group for feedback, find out that one of the members makes gas bombs, and after a few weeks of meetings mixed with your newfound hate speech, end up placing one of the devices on a Tokyo subway.
I’m not saying this is actually how it happened with his church, just understand that sometimes it’s not the leader’s fault. Sometimes he’s as much of a victim as his disciples, so think twice before calling all cult leaders evil.