Religious Cults: What Are They? Who Is Involved in Them?
Derived from the Latin “cultus,” meaning care, cultivation, reverence or adoration. In the 1600s used as “worship,” “homage,” or "a particular form or system of worship." In modern times, the word cult has evolved to take on a connotation of extreme beliefs and excessive devotion.
We have all heard the story of the anguished parents who try to rescue children who they feel have been stolen by a cult. Or perhaps the middle-aged children who complain their elderly parents have been turned into “zombies” by a religious group which has totally taken over their lives. A group that not only attempts to control their actions and dictate who they can have as friends but one that goes as far as taking over their finances.
Before these people’s lives were upended by these groups, their loved ones complain, they were happy, fairly well-adjusted members of society; intelligent; completely normal. Now, they sit in amazement, wondering what happened.
Deprogramming and Exit Counseling
Oftentimes, family members consult the clergy for spiritual guidance. Sometimes lawyers. In the '70s and early '80s, deprogrammers were relatively common. This was a drastic approach involving an initial kidnapping to get the family member away from the cult, after which many hours of intense “debriefing” would follow.
Today, deprogramming has fallen out of favor, partly because of its financial cost but also due to its use of kidnapping and imprisonment which can lead to lawsuits as well as other legal ramifications. Most families now turn to “exit counselors” who employ proven psychological techniques but do not use kidnapping. Instead, they guide the family in the most effective ways to get the cult member to communicate with “outsiders”, consequently convincing them to participate in the type of debriefing that occurs during typical deprogramming sessions.
Spiritual and Philosophical Cults
Cults represent both a terrifying and interesting phenomenon. Some researchers define cults as a system of religious adoration and devotion directed toward a particular figure, person or object. Typically, they represent a relatively small group of people whose religious beliefs and practices are well outside social norms. Members mostly exhibit a misplaced and excessive admiration for a particular person or small group of persons.
Other experts describe cults as a social group sometimes defined by spiritual and philosophical beliefs or by members’ common interests in a particular personality, object or goal. In some cases, cults represent less organized groups that arise spontaneously around new beliefs and practices. Sometimes these groups range in size from local groups with few members to international organizations with millions of affiliates.
New Religious Movements
In recent years the definition of what constitutes a cult has been challenged by some academics and researchers who at times have been members of similar groups themselves. They have made the argument that the words “cult” and/or “sect” are subjective terms often used pejoratively as an ad hominem attack on groups with differing doctrines or practices. They have proposed “new religious movement” (NRM) as a more neutral and more politically correct term, especially as relating to non-secular groups.
In today’s vernacular, the word “cult” can be broadly defined anywhere from an unorthodox religious group that venerates a person to a movement in popular culture devoted to an actor, movie or fictional character, i.e., Star Trek (Trekkies), Elvis Presley or Barbie Dolls. Even political movements that are based on a personality cult can be included in this category. These movements arise when a political leader uses techniques of mass media, propaganda, patriotism, the big lie, and government-organized demonstrations to create an idealized, heroic image for the population to worship.
Considering the broad spectrum of groups that can be considered cults, most sociologists also attempt to make a distinction between groups that are harmful or dangerous and the ones that are more benign in nature. In his seminal book Thought Reform and Psychology of Totalism, published in 1989, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton described three primary characteristics as the most common features shared by destructive cults. (Wikipedia – Thought Reform and Psychology of Totalism)
- A charismatic leader who becomes the object of worship at the expense of the principles originally held by the group. Additionally, an unaccountable leader who becomes not only central to the group but also its defining element and source of power and authority.
- Indoctrination, education and coercive persuasion must be discernable. This is also known as “brainwashing.” This molding process becomes obvious when members of the group engage in activities that are not in their own best interest, rather in the best interest of the group and its leader.
- Economic, sexual and other forms of exploitation of group members by the leader as well as those in his/her inner circle.
In his book, Dr. Lifton also described eight criteria for thought reform (thought control or brainwashing) used by cults. The following are common techniques used.
- Milieu (Social Environment) Control: Involves the control of internal and external information and communication. This implies cult members must maintain a significant degree of isolation from society.
- Mystical Manipulation: Seemingly spontaneous spiritual experiences that are in reality planned and orchestrated by the group or its leader. These are typically done as a way of demonstrating divine authority, spiritual advancement, special talent or insight that sets the group apart from the rest of the world. These special gifts allow the leadership of the group the ability to interpret historical events, scripture, omens or uttering of prophecies.
- Demand for Purity: The membership is not only exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group but also to strive for perfection. View the world in terms of black and white. Guilt and shame are used as a powerful tool for control.
- Confession: Sins, as defined by the group must be confessed to a personal monitor or directly to the group. Confidentiality is not allowed. Attitudes, sins, and faults are discussed openly and exploited by the leaders.
- Sacred Science: The group’s credo or ideology is considered the undisputed ultimate and only truth. Truth is never found outside the group. As the spokesperson for God, the leader is above all criticism.
- Loading the Language: The group creates words and phrases only understood internally and meant to not allow the outside world to understand. The usage of jargon consisting of thought-terminating clichés (thought-stopper or cliché thinking) intended to dismiss dissent or instill faulty logic. All to conform to the group’s way of thinking. Examples include: “Everything happens for a reason”, “Why? Because I said so”, “I’m the parent, that’s why”, “To each his own”, “It's a matter of opinion!”, “You only live once”, and “We will have to agree to disagree”.
- Doctrine over person: Members’ personal experiences must be within the reality of the group and within the confounds of its ideology. Personal experiences that do not conform must be reinterpreted or denied.
- Dispensing of existence: Those outside of the group are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and must be converted to the group's ideology. If they are unwilling to join or are critical of the group, they must be rejected by the members. The outside world loses all credibility. Members who leave the group must be rejected.
Why Do People Join Cults?
With thousands of cults around the world and an innumerable number of members, the reasons why people make the decision to join them can at times seem complicated to understand. Most psychologist point to many reasons why people join cults and how they are lured in to joining these groups. The following are some of the reasons experts offer:
Illusion of Comfort: As humans, we seek comfort and assurances especially as we face an uncertain world. Cult leaders often exploit these feeling by making promises that while totally unattainable strike a chord with those in society seeking these assertions. These promises might include financial security, health, peace of mind, eternal life and success in life.
Absolute Answers: Today we live in a world full of paradoxes and abstractions. We are bombarded by an overload of contradicting information coming from media sources including television, radio, newspapers and the ubiquitous internet. As humans, we often seek answers to perplexing issues that are black and white. Many people join cults as a way of receiving absolute answers such as good vs. evil, the meaning of life, politics and religion. Cult leaders offer simplistic solutions to complex problems in a way that makes sense to those seeking binary choices.
Low Self-Esteem: Low self-esteem is a subjective evaluation of one’s own worth. Typically, people with this mindset question whether they are loved or have any worth. Research has found that people with low self-esteem are at risk of being recruited by cults. Cults often use a technique called “love bombing” in which members are overly loving and complimentary to prospects. Those who suffer from low self-esteem react positively to this approach. Cults also attempt to break down people with low self-esteem and then build them back up as a way of showing them the importance of the support-environment the group represents.
Need for Validation: It is natural for humans to seek approval from family, friends and at work. We also want to be liked as well as belong. While having these feelings does not necessarily mean any of us will join a cult, those in dire need of approval, validation and to be liked are particularly at risk to fall prey to one of these groups. Cults are able to provide these unmet needs by welcoming and making newcomers feel good about themselves. Additionally, cult members emphasize these traits when they are out seeking new members.
Followers, not Leaders: Cults are typically centered around a strong and dynamic charismatic leader. These are traits that can be extremely attractive to someone who tends to follow rather than lead. Charismatic leaders’ captivating and magnetic personality draw people in creating large number of admirers. Followers desire to be associated with these leaders, eventually accepting being told what to do by them. These leaders also represent a degree of predictability that those who are followers by nature crave.
To Seek Meaning: Some profoundly philosophical questions with which humans grapple are: “What is the meaning of life?” “What is my purpose in life?” “Where do I find truth?” Unfortunately, those who seek answers to these questions are more likely to be caught up in a group that offers quick answers to their questions. Especially, when they promise a future full of meaning and fulfillment. A charismatic leader offering simplistic answers to profound questions attract people who seek meaning and answers to complex issues.
Women Join Cults More Than Men: According to research, women make up 70% of cult members worldwide. According to Dr. David Bromley of Virginia Commonwealth University, women simply attend more social gatherings than men. Subsequently, from a statistical perspective, women are more likely to join groups that will ultimately victimize them. Other sociologists claim that in many countries women are less educated and less empowered than men, therefore more attracted to the illusion of security offered by cults. Others claim that women have a greater need for spiritual fulfillment as shown by their higher attendance to church services. Emma Cline, the author of The Girls, a cult theme novel, theorizes that young women are taught to seek the attention of men and express a desire to be rescued by them. Joining a cult, cline says, is a way for many young women to feel as if they are “seizing their destiny.”
Rejection of Religion: Tufts University psychology professor Dr. Stanley H. Cath states that many people who join cults have experienced religion at some time in their lives and rejected it. Although this may sound counterintuitive since most cults claim to be religious, he claims many of these same young people come from sheltered lives and religious families. However, many have a history of failing to achieve intimacy, blaming others for their failures and of perfectionistic goals. These characteristics making them prime targets for induction into cults.
Cult Leaders and Mind Control: Cult leaders have the ability to convince people to not only separate themselves from friends and relatives but also from personal possessions as well as hard earned money. They are able to accomplish this through their expert use of mind control.
- They use techniques such as ‘public humiliation’ in which once a cult member has become established in the group they are openly shamed or embarrassed in front of others. This typically happens after a new prospect or member is ‘love bombed’ by the cult or the leadership as a way of gaining or solidifying their membership. One technique is in which someone sitting in a chair is surrounded by other members and forced to admit recent failures, negative thoughts or shortcomings.
- ‘Self-incrimination’, used by infamous cult leader Jim Jones, requires cult members to provide the leader with written statements detailing their fears and mistakes. These statements are later used by the cult leader to humiliate individual members publicly.
- ‘Brainwashing’ is used by cult leaders through the repetition of various lies and distortions until members find it difficult to distinguish reality from what the group teaches.
- ‘Paranoia’ is used as a tactic in order to maintain control. This is done by the cult leader convincing members that family, government or the ‘establishment’ is out to get them. However, the cult can provide safety for them. Once the cult member comes to the false realization that they cannot rely on anyone or organization outside of the cult, they begin to worship and put all the faith on the cult leader.
Not Knowing It’s a Cult: Although obvious to family and friends, some people often don’t realize they are part of a cult. Psychologist Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer who has closely studied cults and brainwashing claims that most people enter cults willingly, without realizing the powerful influence these groups will eventually have on them. She theorizes that people are more willing to see perceived benefits than potential dangers. Additionally, she asserts that most people assume cults are only religious; however, the truth is that these groups can be political, business groups or lifestyle-related. Hence, people can find themselves in a non-religious group that uses similar mind control methods as religious ones.
Drinking the Kool-Aid
The often-used phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” refers to a person who believes in a possibly doomed idea to the point of dying for the cause. It originated from the events in Jonestown, Guyana of November 18, 1979 during which over 900 members of the Peoples Temple movement died by committing suicide. This occurred after U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan and others in his entourage were murdered by people associated with Jim Jones, the leader of the Peoples Temple movement.
Congressman Ryan had traveled to Guyana to investigate the claims that people were being held against their will by Jim Jones’ group. Immediately after Ryan’s murder, Jim Jones called a mass meeting of all the members and proposed a “revolutionary suicide” by ingesting a powdered drink laced with cyanide.
Consequently, the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” has been used to describe either blind obedience or loyalty to a cause considered wrong, offensive, or damaging.
Notorious Cults in Recent Years.
While cults have been around for thousands of years, it is only in the last few decades that some of these groups have become notorious for the danger they have represented to their members as well as to society at large. The following is a list of some of these groups:
Manson Family (1960s)
Charles Manson had a small group of followers living on a ranch outside of Los Angeles. His followers killed actress Sharon Tate and four other guests. The following day they killed Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Manson convinced his followers to commit the murders by claiming a race war between America’s black and white population that he called “Helter Skelter.” He wanted the murders to seem racially motivated.
The Family (1960s)
The group teaches an eclectic mixture of Christianity and Hinduism with other Eastern and Western religions based on the idea that spiritual truths are universal. It originated in Australia by Anne Hamilton-Byrne (born Evelyn Grace Victoria Edwards) who claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Within the inner circle of the church exists a group who justify their actions by claiming to be reincarnations of Jesus' twelve apostles. Hamilton-Byrne lived from December 30, 1921, until June 13, 2019. Hamilton-Byrne and her husband William were charged in 1993 with conspiracy to defraud and to commit perjury by falsely registering the births of three unrelated children as their own triplets. There were also allegations of mental and physical abuse perpetrated upon some members.
Peoples Temple (1970s)
Led by Jim Jones, a one-time communist, American civil rights preacher, faith healer, and cult leader who moved his group to Jonestown, Guyana, as a way to scape U.S. government scrutiny. After murdering U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan who visited his camp in Jonestown to inspect for human rights abuses, he coerced his followers to commit mass suicide and murder of 918 commune members, including 304 children. Almost all died by cyanide-poisoned Flavor-Aid.
Unification Church (1980s - now)
Sometimes pejoratively referred to as “Moonies” began in South Korea by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon in 1954. Known for its mass weddings of more than 2,000 couples at a time, the church teaches a unique Christian theology in which the purpose of creation is to experience the joys of love. Through mass-arranged marriages it uses strict guidelines on sexual behavior and infiltrates every aspects of members’ lives, demanding complete submission to the organization. The church identified Moon as the messiah who would implant God’s love in his followers and complete Jesus’ work. Moon died on September 3, 2012.
Buddhafield (1980s - now)
Established in Hollywood, California, in the 1980s by Jaime Gomez, (also known as The Teacher, Michel, Andreas or Reiji) is now based in Hawaii and recruits through yoga studios. Buddhafield uses New Age ideas and proclaims Gomez as God, while also encouraging followers to think of themselves as God as well. Gomez has been accused of sexual abuse of male followers. Followers are made to make confessions during weekly hypnotherapy sessions that are later used against them. Other allegations of brainwashing and attempts at totally controlling members have been leveled against Gomez.
Branch Davidians (1990s)
An offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventist Church was led by David Koresh (born Vernon Wayne Howell) who claimed to be the ‘Messiah.’ Koresh took over the group when its leader George Roden was jailed for murdering a rival. The group occupied a compound in Waco, Texas. In April of 1993 the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms served arrest and search warrants to compound leaders for illegal possession of firearms and explosives. This led to a siege and firefight between members of the cult and government agents which resulted in the death of four ATF agents and 85 members including Koresh. Later stories of child sex abuse and multiple marriages between Koresh and single as well as married women emerged. One such marriage included an underage girl.
River Road Fellowship (1990s)
An offbeat Christian sect established by Victor Barnard who convinced 150 members to sell their homes and move to a commune on an 85-acre campground in Minnesota. Barnard wore robes, carried a staff and made claims that he represented Jesus. In 2000 he assigned 10 firstborn virgins to be his maidens. They were to devote their lives to serving him, including providing sexual favors. He was eventually charged with 59 counts of sexual assault.
Heaven’s Gate (1990s)
The cult was founded by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles in 1974. Its members were followers of science fiction, castration and cleaning the body of impurities. In 1997, 39 members of Heaven’s Gate committed suicide in San Diego, California with the goal of boarding a UFO purportedly following the comet Hale-Bopp.
Ted Talk: Why do People Join Cults?
Ex-cult members are a traumatized segment of society often in need of psychotherapy in order to deal with years of physical, sexual and psychological abuse. They often spend years recovering from the physical and emotional damage experienced during their time spent in a cult.
Many cult members have suffered from exploitation at the hands of the cult leader who might have forced them to work for low wages or to turn most of their earnings over to the group. In many cases, their careers have been ruined as the cults require ever-increasing time dedicated to them.
While many ex-cult members experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), fortunately not all do. However, depression, anxiety, guilt, anger, and low self-esteem are common ailments among those who suffered through years of exposure to unscrupulous cult leaders.
Reference and Further Reading
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.