Cults: Why Even Smart People Fall Prey

Warning: This may be a sensitive topic depending on the reader’s religious membership. I did not say ‘religious views’ because if the reader has any real views of his/her own not based on dogma, this is actually a very enlightening article. Moreover, as much as this is my personal blog and I am like a god here who can say anything he wants, I am a kind and loving god to my readers and so I’ll try to write this as gently albeit objectively as possible so as not to offend anyone. Of course, I’m not omnipotent so please forgive any shortcomings.

First things first. To avoid confusion from mere semantics, let us try to define the word ‘cult’. While there are different, often contradicting meanings (you can google all you want), for the purpose of this article I will be using M. Scott Peck’s ‘characteristics of a cult’ from his book Further Along The Road Less Traveled. I wanted to abridge it by taking out the less important parts but it turns out I can’t do that without compromising neutrality – I told you I wasn’t omnipotent. But for your convenience I highlighted key phrases so you can just scan through the whole thing:

1.) Having a charismatic leader demanding total authority. Destructive religious groups almost invariably center around a living, self-appointed leader. This leader is generally esteemed as God’s representative on Earth, as God Himself, or as one who has the sole right to interpret the scripture of an established religion. The cult doctrine is based on his revelations or ideology. Because of his position of divine enlightenment, the cult leader exercises tremendous, and often absolute, authority over his followers. Individual cult members surrender their wills and their lives to the responsibility and authority of the leader. Additionally, since no large organization can be run by one individual, the cult leader generally has a “revered inner circle” or a group of loyal helpers appointed by the leader, who, to a lesser degree, share the prestige and power of the cult leader. Also, there are often serious ethical violations committed by the cult leader: the leader claims to be chaste and then impregnates a follower, the leader preaches against drugs or wealth yet buys expensive cars — and often drugs — with the cult members’ money. It is important to note, however, that it is not the mere presence of a leader that differentiates destructive cults from non-destructive religious groups; rather, it is the fact that this leader is plagued by ethical questions and demands total authority over his followers. This authority is derived through practicing “brain washing” techniques, isolating the cult followers, demanding fanatical practices, and using deception.

2.) The Use of “Controlling” Techniques. A large part of what makes a cult “destructive” is its use of fear or guilt-based “mind control” techniques. In order to indoctrinate and reinforce the follower, various forms of physical deprivation, social and physical isolation techniques, hell and salvation-based fear techniques and, most commonly, guilt-based, ritualistic confession of sins is used. In the cult environment, this confession goes far beyond its normal religious function. A follower’s thoughts are no longer his or her own — every past and previous thought and action now becomes the property of the group. The group and its leaders use this information — extracted in long confession sessions — to manipulate and shame the individual. Also, critical thinking and views that differ from those of the group are highly discouraged or actively suppressed and, as a general rule, the cult community does not permit questioning of any sort. The net result of these controlling techniques is a shift in the followers’ locus of control and responsibility. Followers lose the ability to think and act independently, and develop a tremendous and harmful dependency upon the cult group and its leader.

3.) Social and Physical Isolation. Cult members normally live in some form of isolation from the greater society. Almost invariably, cult members experience some form of social isolation — i.e. they have very little meaningful interaction with non-cult members. This occurs in large part because virtually all of their time, effort, and finances are devoted to the cult and its leader, leaving little time for family, old friends, and their jobs. A sharp we/they distinction is drawn between members and those outside the cult, and a pervasive distrust for everyone except the “saved” cult members is fostered by the community. Though not quite as common, destructive cults often require physical isolation as well. Cult members live in communes, and often cannot leave without permission. This serves to further isolate the cult member from those who would support his or her original belief system.

4.) Extremist or Fanatical Behavior. One of the true defining characteristics of a destructive cult is its pervasive fanaticism — i.e. when a behavior or practice that is not necessarily harmful (such as confession) is taken to a tremendous and unhealthy extreme. Members often neglect or abandon their families, jobs, schools, possessions, and lives to protect the cult leader and community. One area where unhealthy excess is clear is in the dangerous or ascetic rituals of a destructive religious group. Excessive praying, chanting, fasting, and sleep deprivation can cause anxiety, exhaustion, illness, and eating disorders. Other dangerous rituals such as snake handling can prove lethal. A second area where fanaticism appears is in the way believers “witness” their beliefs and attempt to convert new followers. The believers are compulsively and constantly witnessing beliefs to everyone, often in an extreme or confrontational way. This aggressive, high-pressure proselytizing can involve door-to-door recruiting, daily calls to potential converts, or threats of eternal damnation. A final area where cults manifest an unhealthy excess is in the endorsement of various forms of violence when used for or by the cult. This can translate into a stock-piling of arms in Waco Texas, or a “spare the rod, spoil the child” abusive mentality in Jonestown.

5.) Secrecy and Deception. Another part of what makes cults destructive forces in peoples lives is the fact that the followers are often unaware of certain cult activities, or are blatantly being deceived. Cult leaders often issue a “Sicilian Code of Silence” about their unethical conduct. Also, there is often “secret doctrine” reserved only for cult members, and levels of “secret doctrine” as one goes up the hierarchy of leaders within the cult structure. Destructive cults are often characterized by financial secrecy and deception as well, including the selling of indulgences, unethical fund raising, and a refusal to produce financial records. Additionally, “miracles” are often staged at “revivals,” in the form of phony faith-healings. Finally, cults such as the Boston Church operate using “front groups” — subsidiary groups which use a different name, but in reality are a part of the same destructive group. Cults often use this method to penetrate college campuses.

Okay, now we have a rough idea of what a cult is. While it doesn’t say that all of the above must be present, it’s only logical to presume that the more of these characteristics a certain organization has, the more likely it is to be a cult.

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Attempts at uncovering the underlying simplicity beneath apparently complex concepts as well as the core complexity within seemingly straightforward issues


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