In my world, everything was ruined. Global Thermonuclear War wiped out billions, and now, only a small smattering of post-apocalyptic survivors remain.

In one bunker out in the Wasteland, a well-armed, prepared, and slightly psychotic survivor plans to make a religion! Calling themselves the Children of the Radiance, they worship the nukes and the radiation as a “Great Cleansing Flame” of the world, and are generally just a cult.

While writing them, I had a question: How exactly could you recruit members for a cult in the post-apoc Wasteland. It can’t be the same as it is in the ordinary civilized world, so I ask: how could it be done?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ It fundamentally depends on how the "post apoc Wasteland" world works; which is not explained at all. For example, why wouldn't the methods used by a the famous Yeshua son of Yosef of Nazareth work? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Nov 13, 2020 at 21:26
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    $\begingroup$ More focused on survival etc. that in dirt-poor rural Palestine in the first century CE? How much more focused on survival can they possibly be? "And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers; and he saith unto them, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men: and they straightway left their nets, and followed him." (People in extreme poverty, focusing on bare survival, are the easiest to convince to follow a cult leader; exactly because they have just about nothing to lose.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Nov 13, 2020 at 21:32
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    $\begingroup$ Short answer: easy. In a post-apocalyptic world, people would jump over each other to join a cult that offer them some hope of sanity and order. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Nov 13, 2020 at 21:56
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    $\begingroup$ The best part is that the cult doesn't have to offer actual sanity and order. Just the credible hope... because where else can they go? Some other guy's cult? $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Nov 13, 2020 at 23:50
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    $\begingroup$ Cults in a post-apocalyptic world will use the same methods to induct people into their cult, what they need to do is find ways of inducing them to join the community. They use basic techniques of psychological manipulation and social isolation. Things like never change. In fact, a post-apocalyptic world will make the social & political (never forget that) isolation easier. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Nov 14, 2020 at 7:30

4 Answers 4


If he's well prepared, he has his lure: food, safety, shelter. He explains that he received advanced warning of the disaster, which is why he is prepared so well. He understands the necessities, and when the new recruits depart from his rule, disaster ensues. (Because they are not familiar with roughing it.) He can make other predictions without realizing they are based on his long familiarity with the region, and awe those less familiar.

Charismatic is necessary, but there are probably a lot of people who would leap at a chance to make sense out of the horror of their new life.

  • $\begingroup$ Should be noted that "charismatic" does not necessarily mean silver-tongued or alluring, someone who is very intimidating or has a "command presence" can also be considered highly charismatic $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Nov 14, 2020 at 20:33

You have 3 main steps.

  1. Offer them materialistic things upfront so even the most skeptic person sees the value of following your rules, even without believing.
  2. Engage in long term brainwashing and social engineering complete with spying and elevating those who obey you
  3. Go for the second generation of the original patch and control their culture. Those 2nd gen kids would be your absolute most fervent followers because basically you had them from birth.


The first thing is obvious. History is full of city or country or group A that joins religion X just for the cool stuff they give out and overtime they are converted. Yes violently forcing people to follow you exists. But you don't have to and honestly with a PA setting you really need just about all humans you can.

So. Focus first on helping people. Be kind and gentle. Provide all the helpful things people need while ever so gently nudging them to follow you.

People feel gratitude towards those who help them and many confuse material power for being right.


The next thing is what I think is missing from answers so I will try to cover it but also not drown you in details.

Machiavelli was clear that you need the power of the state to keep people following your ideas. He gave examples and I agree. The USSR would not have lasted even a decade without a lot of the practices, good or bad, of Stalin and overall dictatorship.

So. History is your friend here. First reward those who obey you. Then reward those who inform on people that have impure thoughts of doubt it. I read that in the USSR 1/3 was an informant. Now be careful and filter the info from people who want to exploit the system. So. If someone comes with information that another person is doubting your ideas double check it first. And if the informant lies then you know what to do.

Speaking of that prison, hard labor, torture...etc all work as strong deterrent. People are less likely to practice their freedom of speech if they know that your own Lubyanka is up and running and welcomes all.

Constant pressure.

Here you also constantly indoctrinate people with stuff like: mandatory weekly meetings, controlling the entertainment, testing people in your dogma...etc

Basically you are looking to not only introduce people you your ideas but keep them practicing it and at least knowing about it for survival.

Now people are very different and I know for a fact that many would resist.

But let me ask you this: How many people you know will continually reject a dogma after 20 years of continues practice?

This is I think the most critical step. Keep the people doing it long enough and they just forget or don't care. Your mind is only concerned with survival and as that dogma is the only way for survival it would probably push all others.


The real children of Radiance

Even with all that the first generation is not pure. The second one is the purest. Those whom you shaped from birth. You controlled their entertainment, their daily practices, their education, their entire life...etc.

The most fanatical of the bunch are those. In fact from what I know about the human mind those after a certain age are difficult to brainwash. But if you get kids young enough it's free real state.

Obviously you can control the first gen, examples are plenty, but the total control and indoctrination is the 2nd gen.

They would be loyal to your ideas or your own self beyond even that of their own families. Again drawing from the USSR family members informed on each other.

And here is a little interesting anecdote. This is from memory so bear with me: Basically a devout party member imprisoned. She was totally pure but as the men came to take her she was not interested in saying goodbye to her children and kept defending the party and ideals. They even told her that just say goodbye to your children instead of this rubbish. Anyway in prison her own children were shocked and basically were accusing her of being impure and all that rubbish, but also wondering how can she do that so that to them because with a political prisoner mom they had no life in the system and were denied many things.

Again sorry for butchering the story but the moral is this: She did not doubt for a second that they system could be corrupt or even wrong, she blamed herself. Her children blamed her and had no petty for her. That is next level social control right there.

Solzhenitsyn says in his The Gulag Archipelago that the worst type of prisoners and those who suffered the most were not the political ones but those pure communism believers. Yep. You read that right. Many kept denying that the system was flawed even if they were in the f**king Gulag and wrongfully imprisoned. I mean if I tried to write that in a story people will call me crazy.

Yes. It's easy for you and me to look back at those things and judge, but life is not really that easy.

And for extra points in controlling the people just read on China, RIGHT NOW!

P.S. I don't mean to make it political or anything like that. Just drawing inspiration from history and what is done.

  • $\begingroup$ In the Republic, Plato proposed that, to create a utopia, you would need at least one generation of citizens brought up in its ideology, with no exposure to other cultures. There's no reason a dystopia wouldn't work the same way. $\endgroup$
    – Karst
    Jan 16, 2021 at 0:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Karst, Agreed. Machiavelli also says something similar about change. $\endgroup$
    – Seallussus
    Jan 16, 2021 at 17:02

I basically wrote a whole story about this trying to explain it, but realized it was too much, so here's the short of it:

  1. Establish a scapegoat. Listen to the people and see who they blame for all the destruction, then feed on their hate and fear. Basically tell them what they want to hear.
  2. Denounce your detractors as sharing the scapegoat's traits, or somehow being sympathizers and co-conspirators. Really set up a culture of fear, mainly fear of being ostracized.
  3. Identify and pacify your key supporters. Basically anyone who can have a mob show up at your doorstep needs to get into your circle of elites.
  4. Have your elites engage in rituals like a fraternity, but turned up to 100. Really heinous stuff is best. Not only does it serve as blackmail, but they'll get a taste for it and know they won't be able to do it if they're outside the circle. Plus your circle will turn on them if they don't toe the line. This starts cohesion.
  5. Have your elites teach the regular people watered-down versions of your rituals. When the people perform these rituals, it's like signing the social contract all over again. It binds people together and provides social proof. If someone refuses to do rituals whole-heartedly, it paints a big sign on their back as a troublemaker. Just hammer that nail down, if the people don't do it themselves.
  6. Make sure to reward people who do the things you want. Preferably social rewards. Did someone have a third child? Give them a medal and make sure the whole crowd applauds after you wax on about how special they are for doing their duty to the community.

One idea for a ritual is to force a prisoner to drink water contaminated with radioactive materials, claiming it will cleanse their soul as the sacred flames cleansed the wicked of the previous world. Maybe have them vote on someone to do it to every few months, like a holiday. Just make sure you aren't chosen.


Promise victims food, safety, and salvation.

Food and safety would be the biggest attractors of potential recruits, allowing you to hook them in and preach to them. Orient most of the preaching to cultivate "us vs them" mentality, with emphasis on "them" being the enemy and the reason the world went to shit. Your goal is to create a deep tribal feeling among your cult members, in order to help that unity lure in others and to prevent those who had already joined from leaving. Like for example how the real-life cults do it - their tactics of "spreading the word" is designed to be as obnoxious and annoying as possible - so that they feel rejected and hated when they do that, after which they are returning to the warm and accepting "tribe" to share the stories about how cold and alien the outside world is. For more info on that, check this quora answer screencap (I was unable to find the original question) https://www.boredpanda.com/religious-people-converting-rejection-brainwashing-technique/

It's quite flexible and can be applied not only to religion, TBH.


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