Frequently Asked Questions
By Rick Ross
- Isn't the word "cult" a pejorative label used to discriminate against new religious movements?
No. It is disingenuous to ignore the historical significance and modern day applications of the word
cult. Today many controversial groups, that have been called "cults", are seeking to either eliminate
the word, or create through fear of litigation a reluctance to use the term. Some cult apologists have
literally said that "'cult' is a four letter word"--and should be replaced by the politically correct title "new religious movement" (NRM). However, historically cults have always been with us and they continue to be a part of the world today.
- How is the word "cult" defined?
Webster's Dictionary defines a cult as:
"1. A formal religious veneration 2. A system of religious beliefs and rituals also its body of adherents; 3. A religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious: also its body of adherents; 4. A system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator; 5. a: A great devotion to a person, idea, thing; esp.: such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad, b: A usually small circle of persons united by devotion or allegiance to an artistic or intellectual movement or figure."
This definition obviously could include everything from Barbie collectors to old "Deadheads" and Elvis fans. American history might also include within such a definition the devoted followers of Mary Baker Eddy the founder of Christian Science, or the Mormons united through their devotion to Joseph Smith. Both these religious groups were once largely regarded as an "unorthodox or spurious". However, the most important concern today is not simply who might be somewhat "cultic" in their devotion now or
historically, but what groups might represent potential problems regarding personal or public safety. That is--groups that are potentially unsafe and/or destructive.
Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who wrote the definitive book about thought reform (often called "brainwashing") also wrote a paper about cult formation. Lifton defined a cult as having the following three characteristics:
1. A charismatic leader--who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose power.
2. A process [is in use] call[ed] coercive persuasion or thought reform.
3. Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.
- Don't some groups once seen as "cults" often move more into the mainstream, becoming generally respected sects or religions?
Yes. There are certainly examples of groups that were once perhaps thought of as "cults" that have evolved into relatively mainstream sects or religions. Such examples as the Seventh Day Adventists once led by Ellen White, or the Mormons officially now known as the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.
But it is also important to note that some groups, which may have once been labeled as "cults" continue to be controversial due to their unsafe or destructive practices. Two examples of groups that continue to be problematic and often destructive are the former Russellites, now known as "Jehovah's Witnesses"--who have prohibited organ transplants and blood transfusions resulting in numerous deaths. And the Christian Scientists founded by Mary Baker Eddy who often reject medical treatment--again resulting in the loss of life. Some groups may say they have renounced unsafe or destructive practices--only to be exposed later as guilty of the same extremes and abuses.
- Are all so-called "cults" unsafe and destructive?
No. Just because a group is "cultic" and its adherents are focused on unusual leaders and/or ideas is no reason to call them unsafe or destructive. There are groups centered on seemingly strange spiritualists, radical political concepts, the supposed power of crystals, UFO's, witchcraft or "Satanism"--that may appear eccentric, but most often don't harm anyone. An unsafe or destructive group is not defined by what it believes, but by what it does. That is--the behavior that causes harm and injury to the members of
the group and/or others in society.
- What are the characteristics of a destructive "cult" or group?
Margaret Singer, a noted clinical psychologist and emeritus adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has counseled and/or interviewed thousands of people affected by controversial groups often called "cults". Ms. Singer offers meaningful definitions of unsafe groups or "cults" in her book Cults in our Midst.
According to Singer, unsafe groups or cults can generally be defined by three factors:
1. The origin of the group and role of the leader.
2. The power structure, or relationship between the leader[s] and the followers.
3. The use of a coordinated program of persuasion, which is called thought reform [or more commonly, 'brainwashing'"].
- What typifies an unsafe group or "cult's" leadership and structure?
Again, a good working understanding is offered by Margaret Singer: "In most cases, there is one person, typically the founder at the top decision making centers in him or her". Illustrating the structure Singer says, "imagine an inverted T. The leader is alone at the top and the followers are all at the bottom". There is little if any accountability and as Singer says, "the overriding philosophy is that the ends justify the means, a view that allows [such groups] to establish their own brand of morality, outside normal society bounds."
- What specifically would define a group or "cult" as unsafe?
Unsafe groups or "cults" often abuse and exploit their members. This abuse may occur in the areas of finances, physical labor, child abuse and neglect, medical neglect, sexual exploitation and/or psychological and emotional abuse.
Extreme examples of destructive behavior have been historically recorded in such groups as the Waco Davidians, the cult suicides of "Heaven's Gate" and the Solar Temple of Switzerland and the suicide/murder of almost one thousand members of the Peoples Temple ordered by Jim Jones. In 1995 the Japanese cult known as Aum , the followers of Shoko Asahara, gassed the subways of Tokyo with the deadly poison Sarin--killing twelve and injuring thousands of citizens.
- Are all unsafe or destructive groups isolated in compounds?
No. Isolation can often be less obvious. Many destructive groups create isolation through their control of a member's associations with outside society. The group members may be discouraged from associating with outsiders--especially those who express a negative attitude about the group and its leader(s). Isolation can also be fostered by a kind of hyper-activity that allows little time for family, outside interests or friendships. Marshall Applewhite the leader of "Heaven's Gate" controlled his followers through carefully subscribed daily schedules and regimentation, though the members were seemingly free to come and go at anytime. This regimentation and control took place in a mansion within a plush California neighborhood--not an isolated compound.
- Doesn't the First Amendment protect these groups?
Yes. The First Amendment certainly protects all religious groups in the United States in the areas of freedom of belief and speech, but this is not blanket protection for any actions done in the name of those beliefs. If a group breaks the law they are accountable for their actions just like everyone else. Psychiatrist and cult expert John Clark once commented, "The First Amendment is not a suicide pact."
- Isn't criticism of so-called "new religious movements"--a form of religious bigotry, hatred and persecution?
Americans historically have been sensitive to the issue of religious intolerance since before the Revolutionary War. Roger Williams, a dissenter who disagreed with the Puritans founded Rhode Island as a safe haven for religious minorities. But the members of many groups called "cults" often characterize virtually any criticism of their behavior as religious "persecution" and "bigotry."
It seems that many cult groups have forgotten that the First Amendment is expansive and protects both their freedoms and their critics. Margaret Singer has said that "The conduct of certain cults, however, -- especially groups that tend to overtly exploit and abuse people and engage in deceptive, unethical, and illegal conduct --does provoke the surrounding society into a critical stance."
- What types of people become leaders of unsafe and/or destructive groups?
Many cult leaders seem to be narcissistic personalities often fantasizing about messianic visions that will change the course of human history, while appearing to have little if any conscience. Some make claims that they are the exclusive voice of God, "psychic" connections to historical figures, or aliens from outer space. Often these leaders seem deeply delusional and disturbed and some have been called psychopaths. Marshall Applewhite, the leader of "Heaven's Gate" was once confined to a mental hospital.
Extreme examples of destructive and delusional behavior by cult leaders such as Jim Jones, David Koresh and Shoko Asahara have caused many mental health professionals to question their sanity. Still others simply may be opportunistic con men or women--exploiting their followers for personal profit and self-interest.
- What kind of relationship do destructive group leaders have with their followers?
The leader(s) most often defines what is right and wrong and their followers are expected to essentially defer making value judgements of their own regarding any issue of significant importance. And any member of the group who questions or doubts the authority of the leader is likely to be labeled wrong, rebellious, suppressive, negative and in some situations even "demon possessed" or "satanic."
No area of a member or follower's life appears to be immune from such a group's scrutiny and/or criticism. A kind of learned dependency often becomes a pivotal factor in such relationships. Members or followers seem highly dependent upon their leaders to resolve their problems and provide them with clarity and purpose.
- Are cults and other controversial groups deceptive when they recruit people?
Yes, the often are. They may employ deception in the recruitment process by using front organizational names and/or not clearly identifying themselves or their purpose. For example, a religious cult may not even initially advise potential recruits that it has a religious agenda. Groups with controversial leaders may withhold that information and also keep their more radical beliefs hidden or secret until they achieve more influence and compliance thorough their indoctrination process.
- What types of people are recruited by cults and/or become involved in potentially unsafe or destructive groups?
All types. People from strong and troubled families, with and without psychological histories, those who have had and have not had drug problems, with a solid or weak religious background, the educated and uneducated, the wealthy, poor, middle class, intelligent and not so intelligent.
One of the myths about cult involvement is that a certain type of person is more vulnerable. Another myth is that healthy, strong, intelligent well-educated people from good families don't become involved. Or, that somehow if someone has clearly defined religious convictions they cannot be recruited. These theories have never been proven or substantiated through research. In fact repeated studies continue to indicate a wide and varied background for cult recruits.
Frankly, cults are quite good at persuasion and indoctrination; it's their stock and trade. And most people simply are not prepared through education and personal experience to be sensitive to the possible impact of cult methodology.
The truth is--almost anyone could potentially become involved with an unsafe or destructive group. We are all especially suggestible at certain times--when depressed, lonely, during an awkward transition, when within a new environment such as a college campus away from home, after a romantic breakup, death in the family or some other personal problem or ordeal. Since all people have such experiences--we all have periods of vulnerability. And destructive cults/groups have honed their skills, timing and
focused their programs to exploit such situations as opportunities for recruitment.
- But aren't these people just weak and stupid?
No. As previously mentioned cult recruits are often caught at a particularly vulnerable time and probably did not recognize the warning signs necessary to make a more balanced and informed decision. In everyday life this can be seen to some extent when people make poorly informed decisions largely based upon the influence of slick advertising and sales gimmicks. There are many examples of such successful, but often unethical, methods of persuasion through high-pressure car deals, land and stock swindles, misleading infomercials and boiler room phone solicitations.
Many intelligent and successful celebrities and stars have become involved in some groups that have been called "cults." Specifically because these well-known personalities are so strong and compelling--some have been used to promote controversial groups and defend them. Ironically, the very reason they are useful to such groups is the public admiration and respect they enjoy and the perception that they are role models and often trendsetters.
People are often frustrated and anxious about the world around them. And most of us seem to have a need for answers, security, a sense of control, a feeling of belonging and a desire for personal recognition. Today there are millions of "true believers"--who faithfully accept psychics, UFOs, angels, questionable multi-level marketing schemes, political extremism, conspiracy theories and demagoguery. People find things to believe in that fulfill a need for explanation about an increasingly complex world, and at times of personal crisis such beliefs may fill a personal void within. But personal voids, burning questions and the need for answers are not unique to any single type or group--instead they appear to be part of the human condition.
- If such a system exists to coerce, persuade, influence and control people--then why doesn't somebody use it to take over a nation or the world?
This has already happened. The politics of fear, control of information and the environment and the use of propaganda has been successfully employed to control nations. Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, Mao's China, the Ayatollah's Iran and Sadam's Iraq are just a few examples. Such intense influence and control allowed Hitler to set the stage for the Holocaust.
Copyright © 2000 Rick Ross.
Many dictatorial and extreme national leaders have historically been labeled as "megalomaniacs" and "psychopaths." They are not unlike destructive cult leaders, who often have messianic pretensions and delusions about world influence. In this sense, movements such as Nazism, Stalinism and Maoist philosophy can be seen as cults clearly fitting within the criteria advanced by Robert Jay Lifton in his paper on "cult formation". Hitler, Stalin and Mao were all "charismatic leader[s] who increasingly be[came] an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the[ir] group[s] los[t] power." These leaders also employed obvious thought reform techniques and exploited their followers.
In the United States during the "Red Scare" of the 50s there was a mindset that came to be known as "McCarthyism." This mindset produced overwhelming intimidation, information control, propaganda and unreasonable fear. During that bleak era of American history Senator Joseph McCarthy dominated and profoundly influenced the thinking of a nation.