(This is a slightly revised version of material from Chapter 9 of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? We’ll post the rest of the chapter’s material on cult characteristics tomorrow.)
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20. Possessiveness. For financial and other reasons, cults will often go to great, sometimes illegal, lengths to retain members. The most extreme example of this tendency was provided by the People’s Temple Jonestown gulag, where members were physically prevented from leaving by Jim Jones’ heavily armed good squad.
Less sinister examples are provided by the Mormons and Scientologists. When a Mormon leaves the fold, the LDS Church never gives up its attempts to recover its lost sheep. It will trakc the apostate for decades, and it’s not unusual for LDS representatives to contact former members 30 or 40 years after they left the church in an effort to talk them into rejoining.
Similarly, the Church of Scientology apparently tracks its former members for decades and barrages them with promotional/recruitment materials. One former administrator at the Celebrity Center (who has never gone public) told me that more than three decades and moving ten times after she “blew,” the Scientologists still inundate her mailbox with glossy church promo materials.
21. A Closed, All-Encompassing Environment. Again, the classic example of this is Jonestown. A more current example are the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) settlements in the geographically very isolated cities of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah. These nearly 100% FLDS settlements, whose “prophet” is imprisoned child rapist Warren Jeffs, sit across the Arizona/Utah border from each other, and church elders routinely follow any “gentiles” driving through the towns and go to lengths to “shield” members from the “corrupting” influence of television and the Internet.
But there’s nothing unusual in all this. Almost all cults attempt to provide a closed environment for at least some of their key members, and some attempt to provide it for all of their members. The less contact that members have with external reality, the more natural the hothouse atmosphere of the cult seems, the more natural the the very peculiar beliefs of the cult seem, and the more natural it seems that everyone should follow the orders of the charismatic leader or the controlling hierarchy. A closed all-encompassing environment also makes members totally dependent upon the cult for social support, economic support, and a sense of identity; and this tends to make leaving the cult a terrifying prospect. To put it another way, cults are like anaerobic bacteria–they thrive in the absence of cleansing breezes.
22. Millenarianism. Many cults, especially Christian fundamentalist cults, prophesy that the world is coming to an end. One of the most prominent millenarian cults, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), is, however, secular in nature. Rather than prophesying a biblical Armageddon, the RCP in the 1980s and 1990s prophesied a nuclear Armageddon unless, of course, it achieved power. And at least they had the good sense, unlike the Jehovah’s Witnesses, not to announce a doomsday date. (Of late, they seem to have toned down their rhetoric a bit; a brief perusal of their web site revealed no apocalyptic predictions, just an exhortation to readers to join the RCP and become “emancipators of humanity.”)
Millenarianism also provides a powerful insight into the hold of cults over their followers. As mentioned above, some cults, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, have had the bad judgment to prophesy the date of doomsday, yet almost all such cults have managed to retain a majority of their blindly believing followers despite their failed predictions. The Witnesses had predicted in the 1980s that doomsday would arrive with the new millennium. But, having been burned many times by their false predictions, they backed away from that particular one. So, Witness faithful no longer have a year-specified doomsday to look forward to. They simply have the assurance that doomsday is coming soon.