Is James Arthur Ray a cult leader?

I don’t watch Oprah and I try to avoid New Age books, particularly the ones that tell me how I can attract wealth by using my mind to alter reality, because “thoughts create the world.” New Thought isn’t particularly new anymore–it’s been around since the mid-nineteenth century and it spawned both Christian Science and Charles Filmore’s Unity Church, which in turn has spun off a number of New Age stars, like Marianne Williamson. New Thought is also the progenitor of Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking and Divine Science. Emmet Fox came out of New Thought–his Find and Use Your Inner Power and The Sermon on the Mount: The Key to Success in Life were big bestsellers in the first half of the last century, as was Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich. Hill’s catchphrase was “What the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” As William James wrote in Varieties of Religious Experience, Mind Science may be bad philosophy and more than a little vulgar, but it seems to work for some people, who credit it with seemingly miraculous cures from terrible diseases, an improved attitude, and a sense of mastery in the marketplace.

James Arthur Ray’s books Practical Spirituality: How to Use Spiritual Power to Create Tangible Results, The Science of Success: How to Attract Prosperity and Create Harmonic Wealth Through Proven Principles, and his forthcoming The Seven Laws of True Wealth: Create the Life You Desire and Deserve seem to fit right into this paradigm, except that he jazzes it up with a lot of the trappings of Eastern and, to his grief, Native American religion. Ray is the guy who held a weekend retreat (that he charged $9695 for) that closed with a sweat lodge ceremony that proved fatal for two of its participants. He stands likely to be indicted for negligent homicide at the very least (as of yesterday, Arizona’s Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh was treating the case as a homicide investigation).

Joseph Bruchac, author of The Native American Sweat Lodge: History and Legends, told CBS News that the number of participants in the lodge was “appalling.”

“If you put people in a restrictive, airtight structure, you are going to use up all oxygen,” he said by phone Saturday from his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “And if you’re doing a sweat, you’re going to use it up that much faster.”

Judging from Ray’s website, he is a first class charlatan, a huckster par excellence. But does he lead a cult?

Yesterday The posted the transcript of a conference call James Arthur Ray held with survivors, and suggested that
it evidenced signs of cultic “mind control” or “coercive persuasion.”

The call started with Greg (a staff member) explaining the purpose of the call was to bring closure to the retreat and to give James Ray a chance to interact with everyone. Next, Greg introduced Katie Carlson as an international follower of James Ray and strongly urged everyone to seek guidance about this tragedy with her, even though she is not certified as a counselor. I’d like to repeat that because of the crazy factor – he urged people to consult someone who is in no way certified in the fields of therapy. Why would he refer trauma victims to a non-professional to cope with this tragedy? Because James Ray and his staff kept stressing the importance of turning to others in the James Ray community for support, or as James Ray kept referring to his followers “Harmonic minded individuals”. This is a huge warning sign of cult activities – turning to unqualified people for help only because they are members. Cults focus their members inwards in an attempt to cut off outside influences.

I read the transcript and found it really distasteful–but rather than cultism per se what I saw was egomania, grandiosity, and a really unsubtle effort at damage control. Ray is trying to inoculate himself against civil law suits; he is also attempting to influence future witnesses in the criminal case that will likely be brought against him, by inducing Stockholm Syndrome ex post facto. My gut sense is that Ray has the personality profile of a Cult leader but doesn’t precisely lead a cult. But there’s a fine line, and ugly rumors are beginning to be aired; as the police investigation proceeds, we’ll probably learn a lot more about him than he’d like us to know. His World Wealth Summit is being held in San Diego this weekend. I wonder how many people will attend?


16 thoughts on “Is James Arthur Ray a cult leader?

  1. Unfortunately as you’ll understand, this will have very little impact on the true believers. They will continue to see this as they need to in order to continue to follow their anointed leader. I wrote a post here discussing how a charismatic leader could persuade someone to death. For me one of the real questions most people have is how does someone convince another to do something so extreme without questioning them at some point. And, how do they get them to ignore logic and their bodies warning mechanisms.

    Cult leaders, charismatics, and any successful leader share many character traits, it is their intentions that often lead them down a dangerous path.

    Dave Lakhani
    Author: Persuasion The Art of Getting What You Want and Subliminal Persuasion: Influence and Marketing Secrets They Don’t Want You To Know

    1. It’s interesting…

      In other posts about the whole cult thing on the Internet, you are often listed as being part of it all.

      According to Webster’s, all religious or socially encompassing movements can be called cults.

      I’ve read your books. (Didn’t buy them; got them at the library.)

      You, Kevin Hogan, David Lieberman, others. Pretty much the same.

      Still, I hope you had some success with your books. I know the others did.

      1. Part of the “cult thing”? Pretty much the same as David Lieberman (GET ANYONE TO DO ANYTHING) and Kevin Hogan (THE SCIENCE OF INFLUENCE)?
        This is ISMS & OLOGIES and THE BELIEFNET GUIDE TO KABBALAH that you’re talking about? And you say you read them? Bizarre….

  2. I immediately wondered the same thing.

    An extended quote from Bruhac about sweat lodges said that there should have been no more than 12 people in a space that size, that the materials used to build it were wrong, & that it was designed with inadequate air flow.

    Of course none of this is evidence that Ray is a cult leader, but it demonstrates pretty appalling ignorance.

  3. Also, I’d read that the partcipants in this “retreat” had paid $9000 – $10,000 to attend, & that they’d fasted for 36 hours before a morning meal & then the sweat lodge. These items certainly seem to smack of cultism.

  4. Interesting comments–and Lakhani’s link is well worth following; it’s an extensive and fascinating post.

    I guess the bottom line is that the question of whether Ray is a cult leader or not is pretty academic. What’s undeniable is that he marshals all the techniques that cult leaders use, and puts them in the service of his narcissism (and bank account).

  5. Very good piece by Dave L.

    An additional point that occurred to me while reading the news accounts was that the price tag on the event, in addition to conferring an aura of exclusivity as he perceptively notes, also creates an atmosphere of self-fulfilling expectation: I’m laying down ten grand for this experience, therefore it’s absolutely going to be life-transforming in a major way.

    Now I’m wondering whether that kind of price tag tends to attract people who have a predilection for self-fulfilling expectations & exhibit that sort of magical thinking in other areas of their lives.

  6. Dave and you at right on track.
    Call it what you want cult self help church politics. All the same really
    It Is truely incredible the power that can be wielded by shaping the words you use.
    I love this quick story.
    Grandpa use to tell me don’t pay attention to money seek joy and find hapiness so I didn’t pay any attention to money and it was all stolen (By grandpa)
    I never fully trust anyone with an offering plate.
    Funny how they are always the ones insisting you call the something bigger than yourself by the same name they call it.
    What happened to the good ol days when spiritual leaders lived in the desert and ate locusts?
    Todays gurus are pansies by comparison
    Alex Alexander
    Author of
    The Great Big Boook on Twitter
    Featuring a chapter of thoughts from Dave Lakani’s stream

  7. Most of his followers will not see Ray for the con-man he is. That shows the effect of thought reform and coercive persuasion. Google “Lifton’s criteria”. Not all of the criteria are necessary to create a totalistic cult group.

    1. Or you can look in CULTS, CONSPIRACIES AND SECRET SOCIETIES, on pages 5 & 6: Robert Lifton, the distinguished psychologist and author of such well-known books as The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (1986) and Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of ‘Brainwashing’ in China (1961) defined cults in a 1981 article in the Harvard Mental Health Letter as an “aspect of a worldwide epidemic of ideological totalism, or fundamentalism.” Cults, he continued, can be identified by three characteristics: 1) A charismatic leader “who increasingly becomes an object of worship”; 2) A process of “coercive persuasion or thought reform” (brainwashing, in other words); and 3) Economic, sexual, or psychological exploitation of the rank and file members by the cult’s leadership. The chief tool of “coercive persuasion,” Lifton writes, is “milieu control; the control of all communication within a given environment.”

  8. i have read all your quotations, i have follow james for a year and it make a great impact in my life, i hv photocopy his book harmonic wealth for 5usd and download his speach for free. knowledge should be for free in this world.
    all the best…

  9. Webster’s Ninth defines “cult” in this way: 1) formal religious veneration; 2) a system of religious beliefs and ritual–also its body of adherents; 3) a religion regarded as unorthodox; 4) a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgators; 5) great devotion to a person, idea, or thing.

    Seems any religious group, mainline or otherwise, can be considered a cult. And in 5), you could include Masons, Rotary, politics, the Rosary, democracy, the United States itself. Perhaps, even science/evolution/Big Bang/quantum what-itz…

    Fact is, every group has a leadership that wants to take its adherents in certain directions. Even the anti-cultists have an agenda, don’t you agree?

    New Thought may indeed be a cult. I’m a New Thought minister (17 years) and I know that it has its cultish moments and diversions, even its silliness at times. But I also know this: New Thought will never tell you you’re going to hell, that the god of creation sees you as a fallen sinner, or that poverty is necessarily a virtue. Jesus said the Kingdom is within, which is exactly where I would expect a truly involved Creator to place it.

    And if you think for a moment that science isn’t a cult, explain this: First there was Nothing; then rocks turned to meat and started to think.

    Now, that’s a bizarre belief system!

    Thank you for hearing me out.

  10. When the suckers have something substantial to chew on, perhaps they won’t be suckers anymore. But so far, nothing substantial within the ranks of religion or even science. Buddhism comes as close as anything and even it often steps into the ranks of superstition. Oh, well. Keep searching, eh?

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