Objectivism: The Cult Comparison

Objectivism, or specific groups associated with Objectivism, are sometimes described as being a cult. However, those who make such charges rarely bother to explain what they think the characteristics of a cult are, and how Objectivism (or the specific Objectivist group being discussed) has these characteristics. This naturally makes their claims more difficult to evaluate than if this information was spelled out clearly. This page attempts to evaluate these claims by looking at how experts define what a cult is and what characteristics cults have, and comparing these explanations to contemporary Objectivism.

The Meaning of 'Cult'

The word 'cult' has a variety of meanings, so it is important to distinguish which meanings are relevant to the claim that Objectivism is a cult. For example, one of the meanings of cult given in Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary is "great devotion to a person, idea, or thing, esp: such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad." In this sense, Rand and her ideas clearly have a cult. But in this same sense, many other artists and popular figures have cults. We have "cult movies" and "cult tv." A web search for the word 'cult' produces a website called "The Cult of Macintosh" high on the list of hits. "Cults" in this sense are common and not especially disreputable.

The typical claim that Objectivism is a cult does not intend this type of innocuous definition of 'cult.' The intended meaning is a much more sinister one. The claim is that Objectivism is what some cult experts refer to as a "destructive cult" or a "mind-control cult." When a layperson thinks about "cults" in this sense, they think about groups like the "Moonies" or the Heaven's Gate suicide cult -- a group of people irrationally devoted to some bizarre and unfamiliar ideology, usually a religion.

To evaluate claims of this type, comparison to an entry from a general-purpose dictionary will not be sufficiently precise. Experts on the subject typically distinguish cults (or "destructive cults" or "mind-control cults") from other religious and ideological groups by applying a series of descriptive criteria. A group that meets most of the criteria on the list is considered to be a cult. A group that meets only a few of the criteria is not. The need for such extensive criteria is driven by the desire to avoid mislabeling non-cultic activities with the "cult" designation, which has very negative connotations in the minds of most people. A loose or poorly-worded set of criteria could end up designating all sorts of things as "cults" that no one would normally consider to be such. If matching to just one of the criteria were sufficient, then college fraternities, political parties, and the enthusiasts of The Rocky Horror Picture Show could all end up labeled as "cults."

To avoid a potential mislabeling of Objectivism, this essay will attempt to evaluate it against the more detailed criteria used to identify "cults" in the more notorious sense of the word.

Objectivism Compared to Expert Definitions

When researching the subject of cults, of the interesting things one finds is that there is no one standard definition of list of characteristics for what is a cult, perhaps because the term is emotionally loaded and has many negative associations. Instead, each group or authority has a specific variation, often depending on what their own agendas are. For example, many Christian anti-cult groups include characteristics on their lists that represent deviations from standard Christian doctrine. Because of this, many of the definitions are inapplicable to Objectivism simply because it is atheistic.

These religion-based definitions aside, there are some general explanations of what a cult is that can be evaluated against all types of groups, religious or not. In an effort to make the criteria used both objective and verifiable, I did some searching to find accessible definitions of what a "cult" is from various websites devoted to the subject of cults. (For what it is worth, most of these sites are strongly opposed to cults.) I have prepared comparisons below that recount two relatively concise explanations from anti-cult websites, with a side-by-side evaluation of whether the listed characteristics apply to Objectivism.

The tables currently available provide comparisons only for Objectivism as it is currently practiced by the apparent majority of Objectivists. It is entirely possible that comparisons for more specific groups or subgroups, either currently or historically, would produce different results. As time permits, this page may be expanded to include more different definitions of what a "cult" is, and/or more comparisons for specific groups.

First Comparison

Source: Kevin Crawley, at www.ex-cult.org

General Definition: An organization that uses intensive indoctrination techniques to recruit and maintain members into a totalist ideology.

Table 1: Comparison Using Crawley's List
Attribute Does It Apply to Objectivism?
Intensive indoctrination techniques include:
Subjection to stress and fatigue No. The most "intense" methods commonly used to study Objectivism are ordinary teaching environments, such as conferences and lecture series, which are no more stressful or fatiguing than similar events on other topics. Most Objectivists learn the philosophy by reading books, magazine articles and websites.
Social disruption, isolation and pressure No. Objectivism does not require or suggest cutting off ties with friends or family. The vast majority of Objectivists live and work in a predominantly non-Objectivist environment. Participation in organized Objectivist activities (where those are available) might lead to spending more social time with Objectivists, but exclusivity is neither required nor encouraged.
Self criticism and humiliation Perhaps partially. Some Objectivists and former Objectivists say that self-comparison to Rand's fictional characters caused them to be excessively self-critical. There is no formal encouragement of this attitude, and external humiliation is not involved.
Fear, anxiety and paranoia No. Self-criticism of the type described above might cause some individualized anxiety, but this is not encouraged or pushed on individuals from outside sources.
Control of information No. Objectivists are not prohibited from reading, viewing or discussing any information they wish. Increasing one's knowledge of the world is generally considered a virtuous activity. Some critics have suggested that the catalog of The Ayn Rand Bookstore (formerly Second Renaissance Books) acts as an "approved reading list," but there is no evidence to support this claim. Most organized Objectivist groups are student clubs at colleges and universities, where an attempt to exclude outside information would be laughable.
Escalating commitment No. No commitment of any kind is required.
Use of auto-hypnosis to induce 'peak' experience No. Objectivism does not involve chanting, prayer, or any other activity that could be considered auto-hypnotic.
A 'sacred science' -- an ideology that is held to be true for all people at all times. This ideology generally claims to be inspired and scientific at the same time. Partially. Objectivism does hold that certain philosophical truths apply to all people at all times. It does not claim to be "inspired."

In addition to the above, Crawley cites eight "'psychological themes' that can be found in totalist groups, according to psychiatrist Robert Lifton":

'Milieu control,' the control of human communication, not only over our communications with others, but also with ourselves. No. See answers above regarding control of information and social isolation.
'Mystical manipulation' -- including deception and 'planned spontaneity' which seeks [to] limit self-expression and independent action. No. Objectivism encourages self-directed action and opposes mysticism. Objectivism is presented very openly in books, essays and public appearances.
The demand for purity, the notion that absolute purity exists, and that anything done in the name of this purity is ultimately moral. Partially. Objectivists do believe in the possibility of moral purity, and behaving morally is by definition the right thing to do. However, the claim "that anything done in the name of this purity is ultimately moral" does not apply to Objectivism. On the contrary, an Objectivist would say that it is the doing of what is moral that makes one "pure."
'The cult of confession' -- "There is the demand that one confess to crimes one has not committed, to sinfulness that artificially induced, in the name of a cure that arbitrarily imposed." (Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism) No. Confession is not required and there is no system or process to make confessions.
'Loading the language' -- redefinition of language, with an emphasis on moral polarization, and thought terminating cliches. Yes. Objectivists would undoubtedly object to the phrase "thought terminating cliches," but in general it is true that Objectivism does use some terms in non-standard ways. This includes important moral terms such as "selfishness" and "altruism." However, it should be noted that many (non-cultic) philosophies and religions have specialized uses of some terms.
'Doctrine over person' -- the subordination of personal experiences to the doctrines of the sacred science. No. In Objectivism, experience is held to be the source of science (and knowledge in general).
'Dispensing of existance' -- the doctrine that the group can decide who has the right to exist, and who does not. No. This attitude is totally contrary to Objectivism, which is an individualist philosophy.

Second Comparison

Source: reFOCUS: Recovering Former Cultists' Support Network

Table 2: Comparison Using reFOCUS List
Attribute Does It Apply to Objectivism?
Authoritarian pyramid structure with authority at the top No. There is no specific structure or organization that defines Objectivism or Objectivists. During Ayn Rand's lifetime, it could be said that there was a "top authority" on Objectivism, but Rand has been dead for 20 years.
Charismatic or messianic leader(s) (Messianic meaning they either say they are God OR that they alone can interpret the scriptures the way God intended.....the leaders are self-appointed.) No. Leaving aside the religion issue (Objectivists do not believe in God), the only Objectivist "leaders" who could be described as charismatic were Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden. Rand died in 1982 and Branden has been only marginally involved with Objectivism since 1968.
Deception in recruitment and/or fund raising No. Objectivism is presented very openly in books, essays and public appearances. There is no esoteric doctrine or hidden agenda.
Isolation from society -- not necessarily physical isolation like on some compound in Waco, but this can be psychological isolation -- the rest of the world is not saved, not Christian, not transformed (whatever) -- the only valid source of feedback and information is the group No. As discussed in the previous table, Objectivism does not require or encourage social isolation.
Use of mind control techniques (the same 8 techniques from Lifton listed above) See responses to each item in the table above.

Based on the analysis above, Objectivism as it is typically practiced today does not appear to qualify as a cult. Out of nineteen distinct characteristics of cults described by these two experts, Objectivism fully matched only one, with partial matches on three others.


Walker vs. Objectivism

I am not the first person to think of comparing Objectivism to a list of characteristics used by experts to describe what a cult is. In his book, The Ayn Rand Cult, Jeff Walker compares Objectivism with a list of characteristics for a "destructive cult" taken from a magazine article by Eric Merrill Budd. It is not clear from Walker's text whether he is following Budd's descriptions exactly, or is paraphrasing them. The table below lists the characteristics as Walker describes them and how Walker says these characteristics apply to Objectivism. Then I provide my own assessment of whether they actually apply. All text in the first two columns is quoted from Walker's book.

Table 3: Walker vs. Objectivism
AttributeWalker SaysMy Appraisal
Control of communication with the outside world, an attempt to cut off contact with conflicting ideas and with criticism. In Objectivism, it was: don't buy books contradicting or criticizing Rand, thereby helping your enemies profit from their own evil and your destruction. Who supposedly said this? Walker doesn't specify. In fact, it is common for Objectivists to own and read books, articles, etc., that contradict or criticize Rand. Obvious examples can be culled from public discussion groups where individual Objectivists discuss their own counter-criticisms of critical works that they have read. Nor does Walker describe any other means of controlling communication, other than this vague command about not buying critical books. (It is perhaps worth noting that even if some Objectivist did decide not to buy critical books, for the reason indicated by Walker, it would not prevent that Objectivist from borrowing those books, reading them at a library, discussing their contents with non-Objectivists, etc. So even taken at face value, Walker's claim about Objectivism doesn't match Budd's criterion especially well.)
Claims of special knowledge by the leader, who is the focal point for enlightenment or salvation, and to whom members are expected to pay homage.Rand was "the greatest mind on the planet," according to her protege Nathaniel Branden, a view naturally shared by other Objectivists.Rand did not claim "special knowledge" in the form of mystical insight or revelation, as is typical of cults. She made arguments for her positions in various books and essays, and she never asked anyone to accept these arguments as "homage" to her. In any case, Rand died 20 years ago, so how she can be "the leader" of contemporary Objectivism is unclear. No one is claiming that any of the leading Objectivists still living is "the greatest mind on the planet."
Demands for perfection and purity, and an inordinate number of rules to follow. Thoughts and actions must be directed completely toward the purpose of the group and its ideology.Perfectly true of Objectivism, as I show throughout this book.Where Walker shows this is not specified beyond this general claim, and I couldn't find it. As indicated in table 2 above, this point applies partially, insofar as Objectivists do believe in the possibility of moral purity. However, there is not "an inordinate number of rules," nor are individuals subordinated to the group.
Continual disclosure to group superiors of wrongful thoughts or actions. While self-criticism is encouraged, not so criticism of the cult, which is met with shunning.Objectivism's sanctioned psychologists served as confessors and secret police for the movement at large, Nathaniel Branden for the Collective. ... The shunned would be put on trial, put on probation or, more dramatically, designated as irrational enemies of Objectivism, and officially excommunicated ... .Most participants in "the movement at large" have never even seen a therapist, much less an Objectivist therapist, and still less one who then acted as "secret police." What Walker refers to as "excommunications" occurred in the inner circle around Rand and Branden in the 1950s and 1960s, which Walker fails to distinguish from the many past and present-day Objectivists who have never met Rand or Branden and have no personal experience of "excommunications."
Elitism and separatism from family and friends who do not understand. Members are led to believe they are spearheading a great effort to save the world.All true of Objectivism, which also devalues prior family ties, those ties being as 'unchosen' as identification with the cult's mission is chosen.As is typical for him, Walker makes this claim without providing evidence for it. As indicated in previous tables, Objectivism does not require any type of social isolation or separation from friends and family.
A black-and-white view of the world, the notion that the forces of good and evil are sharply and definitively divided. Everyone disinclined to favor the cult's views is written off as evil. The world at large is depicted as evil, violent, decadent and as nearing a state of collapse. ... However, once it dawns on the group that humanity is too blind or dumb to acknowledge the guru's wisdom and transcendent authority, the party is over and the apocalyptic phase ensues.Peikoff felt this way back in 1957; the whole country would soon be converted by Atlas Shrugged. For Rand, all states with any degree of government intervention beyond her permissible bare minimum were sliding toward fascism or communism - this was not an uncommon view in the 1940s. The cure was laissez faire, but a laissez faire mandated for purification by the Randian rational self-interest epitomized by the heroes of Atlas Shrugged. At the personal level, an unextinguished iota of altruism would put one on the slippery slope to unforgivable evil.Once again, Walker is manufacturing a caricature of Objectivism. Yes, some enthusiasts think Rand's ideas will soon sweep the world, and some pessimists think collectivism will drag it into a new dark age. Neither extreme is particularly typical, and Objectivists as a whole are not involved in a "phase" of cultic progression of the type described by Budd. The only aspect of this description that truly applies is that Objectivism does present a "black-and-white view" of morality.
Unquestioning obedience and total commitment, making one's other concerns secondary, with harsh reproaches or sanctions for doubt or disobedience. Individual well-being becomes subordinated to maintaining the ideology that justifies the hierarchy.Absolutely true of Nathaniel Branden Institute and later of Ayn Rand Institute, as I show in the previous chapter and the following one.Once again Walker claims to have shown something that he hasn't. Moreover, he again fails to distinguish among various time periods and groups.
Special, loaded terminology deployed to control communication and separate members from the outside world via buzzwords and code terms. The most complicated of human problems and relationships are often simplistically reduced to a single phrase or word.Even ex-Objectivists can be heard mouthing such Randianisms as "holding the full context", "A is A", ... and of course "moocher", "looter", and "witchdoctor". For Objectivists, such words included "rational", "irrational", "evil", and "altruism".As indicated previously, having special terminology is the one attribute that can truly be said to apply to Objectivism, although the suggested motivation of trying to "control communication and separate members from the outside world" is probably not accurate. The fact that Walker can ascribe a long list of "Randianisms" to ex-Objectivists suggests that the specialized terminology has use and meaning beyond any supposed cultic purposes.
Deceptive and manipulative techniques of recruiting.This is the feature of destructive cults least applicable to official Objectivism ... Walker is too begrudging: this feature doesn't apply to Objectivism at all.

In short, Walker stretches the facts quite a bit to get matches on most of his own list of cult attributes. A more realistic appraisal shows a couple of partial matches, plus a couple of items that might have applied to Rand's small circle of intimates during the 1950s and 60s, but do not apply to Objectivists in general.


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