When cults become a perversion of commerce

First published in the Financial Times on 17th June 2014.

Rather than sell products that people choose to buy, it can be easier to bamboozle the vulnerable

George Orwell once wrote: “I have always thought there might be a lot of cash in starting a new religion.” Over the years a number of entrepreneurs have clearly listened to the great author of Animal Farm – often with sinister results.

For example, it appears a company with links to a religious cult operated the South Korean ferry Sewol, which sank with the loss of more than 300 lives in April. The boat was owned by I-One-I, seemingly run by the two sons of Yoo Byeong-eon. He is currently a fugitive, accused of embezzlement, negligence and tax evasion, and there is a bounty of half a million dollars for his capture. He founded a “religion” called the Evangelical Baptist Church in Seoul, but was jailed for four years for fraud in 1992. Mr Yoo was also investigated in 1987 when 32 members of his church were found dead, bound and gagged in a factory near Seoul – but he was never charged. These days Mr Yoo claims to be a photographer called Ahae, and appears to extract money from his followers by selling them overpriced pictures.

Most cults are really businesses dressed up as spiritual organisations. Beneficial tax statuses of such bogus churches may act as an extra incentive. They are invariably created by hugely charismatic leaders, as portrayed by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie The Master. Founders discover that rather than start a conventional company by selling the public products they choose to buy, it can be easier to bamboozle vulnerable people into becoming devotees, who then hand over a tithe. Cults take many aspects of traditional faiths such as Christianity, and then distort them. Recurring themes within cults are nepotism, byzantine hierarchy, secrecy, the hunger to own lots of property and commercial incompetence. But the nastiest characteristic of all is the abuse and brainwashing of adherents.

I remember staying in New York in 1980 and witnessing hundreds of identically dressed, just-married couples streaming out of a Moonie-owned hotel. They had all just met, and had volunteered to participate in a mass wedding held by the so-called Unification Church, founded by the late Reverend Sun Myung Moon in 1954. Moonie ventures have included construction, schools, ski resorts, newspapers, pharmaceuticals – and real estate, of course. They are also estimated to own 1.7m acres of land in Brazil and Paraguay. Moon was a self-proclaimed messiah; his various children now run the church, although they only consider themselves apostles.

Even established branches of the Christian church that are clearly not cults can be badly distracted by commerce. A Benedictine monastery called Buckfast Abbey in Devon licenses a tonic wine, colloquially known as Buckie, which has developed a reputation as the drink of choice for many Glaswegian hooligans. It costs just £7 a bottle, but apparently contains 15 per cent alcohol and the equivalent caffeine to four espressos. It was mentioned in almost 6,500 crime reports between 2010 and 2012 held by Strathclyde police. The monks deny that their profitable booze business should be blamed for social misery among Scotland’s delinquents; but it is hard to see how profiting from the production of Buckfast Tonic Wine is really carrying out God’s work.

Certain genuine companies engender almost cult-like loyalty among staff and customers. Obsessive devotion to particular brands such as Apple or Harley-Davidson is exhibited by users who feel the need to be part of a community. Many people feel the need to belong – and some companies, whether by design or accident, exploit that deep urge.

Cults are perversions of both genuine religions and capitalism. They dupe gullible people into becoming virtual slaves, exploiting their labour and savings to enrich the controllers of the cult. Capitalism is the free exchange of services for reward – not the coercion of disciples being manipulated by tinpot dictators. But as with so many oppressive institutions that thrive in the absence of truth, the explosion of online information is undermining their power and appeal. Blogs, images and video recordings are being disseminated everywhere, explaining to the world what really goes on in covert sects. Moreover, brave journalists are becoming much bolder in their investigations into cults: such work is to be applauded.