Posts Tagged ‘Religious Cults’


A few months ago, we ran a series of ten posts on characteristics of religious and political cults. Due to the way this blog is indexed, it’s a bit of a chore for readers to find those posts, and when they do find them (under the “cult” category in the sidebar) they appear in reverse order.

So, for those interested in reading the series, here are links to all ten of the posts:



Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? front cover
(This is a slightly revised version of material from Chapter 9 of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?)

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 16. Self-Absorption. The primary focus of a cult is the cult itself. Whatever its ostensible aims, in reality a cult is overhwelmingly self-absorbed. Cults are prone to extreme gradiosity, to what could be termed organizational narcissism; and so a cult’s primary concerns are its own survival and expansion, with the ends justifying the means.

As an example, the Mormon Church, according to Robert Bridgstock in The Youngest Bishop in England: Beneath the Surface of Mormonism, spends approximately 1% of its estimated $5 billion to $6 billion per year annual income on “actual charitable giving.” (p. 184) The situation is similar in many, almost certainly most, other cults and mainstream religions, though a good many of these tax-exempt (in the U.S.) organizations  do no “charitable giving.”

17. Dual Purposes. This extreme self-absorption leads to what Margaret Singer [author of Cults In Our Midst] terms dual purposes–in other words, cults have their stated purposes and their real purposes. As regards individual members, cults present themselves as ways for members to meet their own needs, grow personally or spiritually, and/or to realize high social or spiritual goals. In reality, Singer notes, the purposes of cults is to subject their members to mind control techniques in order to control and exploit them.

The dual-purpose aspect of cults is also noticeable in their dealings with outsiders, and it’s particularly noticeable in their fundraising activities. Cults frequently raise huge sums of money which they allege will be used to alleviate social problems such as alcoholism, drug abuse, homelessness, and abandoned or abused children, when in relaity they spend all, or nearly all, of the money raised to support the cult. For example, in its fundraising materials, the People’s Temple routinely represented itself as a do-good organization caring for abandoned children.

Secular cults are every bit as self-absorbed as religious cults. Political cults have long been notorious for infiltrating social change groups and manipulating them for the benefit of the cults (usually for the purpose of recruitment), often destroying the social change groups in the process. In the 1960s, the trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (itself heavily infiltrated by the FBI) and the stalinist Progressive Labor Party wreaked havoc in the anti-war movement through this tactic; in the 1970s, the International Socialists and other sects targeted the women’s movement; and in the 1980s and 1990s, the New Alliance Party and the Humanist Party infiltrated environmental and other progressive groups. More recently, the LaRouche cult infiltrated the Tea Party disruptions of congressional town hall meetings in 2010 prior to passage of the Affordable Care Act; the LaRouchites were not there out of altruism.

Whether religious or political, the stated purposes of cults are not their actual purposes.

 

All Posts in this Series

  • Characteristics of Cults (part 1)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 2)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 3)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 4)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 5)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 6)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 7)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 8)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 9)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 10)

 

 



Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? front cover
(This is a slightly revised version of material from Chapter 9 of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?)

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11. Manipulation Through Guilt.  Many cults expertly manipulate their members through arousal of guilt feelings. Guilt is created, according to [Robert Jay] Lifton [in Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism], by the setting of impossible-to-meet “demand[s] for purity”:

By conducting an all-out war on impurity, the ideological totalists create a narrow world of guilt and shame. This is perpetuated by an ethos of continuous reform . . . Since each man’s impurities are deemed sinful and potentially harmful to himself and to others, he is, so to speak, expected to expect punishment . . . Similarly, when he fails to meet the prevailing standards in casting out such impurities, he is expected to expect humiliation and ostracisim. (p. 424)

As one might expect, in addition to proscribed actions, proscribed thoughts also give rise to guilt. Any attempt at individual assertion or resistance to the demands of the cult’s leader or hierarchy–including even the smallest reluctance to enthusiastically parrot every assertion in the group’s ideology–is attacked as selfishness and lack of devotion to The Cause.

So, guilt-tripping attacks are especially effective when made in public. They serve as powerful spurs to orthodoxy in thought and action, and also as powerful goads to members to “donate” their assets to the cult and so prove devotion through self-sacrifice.

But with truly successful indoctrination, guilt is internalized. The simple surfacing of proscribed thoughts–let alone the carrying out of proscribed actions is sufficient in itself to arouse intense guilg feelings in indoctrinated cult members. To make these feelings bearable, to preserve their self-images as good persons trying to live their lives in accord with revealed Truth, cult members [according to Lifton] “must also look upon their impurities as originating from outside influences, that is, from the ever-threatening world beyond the closed, totalist ken.” Thus cult members escape responsibility for their sinful thoughts and actions, at least in part. They’re just weak individuals dealing with powerful, insidious forces, which they can successfully resist only with the help of the cult.

12. The Cult of Confession. Lifrton explains the mechanism as follows:

It is first a vehicle for . . . personal purification . . . Second, it is an act of symbolic self-surrender, the expression of the merging of the individual and environment. Third, it is a means of maintaining an ethos of total exposure . . . The milieu has attainsed such a perfect state of enlightenment that any individual retention of ideas or emotions has become anachronistic . . . More than this, the sharing of confession enthusiasms can create an orgiastic sense of “oneness,” of the most intense intimacy with fellow confessors and of the dissolution of self into the great flow of the Movement. (pp. 425-426)

Thus confession serves the purpose of fostering identification as a member of the cult rather than as an individual human being. It also serves the purpose of alleviating guilt, thus making the confessor dependent on the cult for that alleviation.

A great many cults and religions–the lines are often blurry–have used confession, both individual and public, for these dual purposes. The Catholic Church is, of course, the prime example of an organization that uses individual confession to these ends. The Chinese Communists are the prime example of an organization that uses public confession to these ends.

As well, there is always the possibility that cults will use information revealed in confessions to threaten, manipulate and control their members. The Church of Scientology, for example, supposedly maintains extensive files on individuals’ “auditing” sessions–therapeutic/confessional sessions in which a great deal of potentially embarrassing information is often revealed; one former Scientologist told me that the Church of Scientology records and retains every minute of every auditing session. The ChChurch’s retention of the information disclosed in auditing sessions, and the possibility of its being publicly revealed, could well contribute to the reluctance of some disaffected ex-Scientologists to speak out against the Church of Scientology.

Far worse, the hold of some cults is so intense that they intimidate their members into making false confessions, which they then dangle over their members’ heads as a means of controlling them. Perhaps the worst example of this was provided by the People’s Temple, in which parents were routinely forced to sign false confessions stating that they had sexually molested their own children.

If confession is good for the soul, it’s even better for helping cults cement their control over their members.

 

 

All Posts in this Series

  • Characteristics of Cults (part 1)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 2)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 3)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 4)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 5)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 6)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 7)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 8)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 9)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 10)

 

 



Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? front cover
(This is a slightly revised version of material from Chapter 9 of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? )

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8. Special Knowledge. This is closely related to the concept of exclusivity. Many cults claim that they are the route to personal and/or social salvation, because they hold special, extremely valuable knowledge that’s unavailable to the uninitiated. As well, many cults only gradually reveal that “knowledge” to members in order to avoid early defections. (A great deal of this “knowledge” is so absurd that most people would walk away immediately were it to be revealed to them all at once.) As an example of this cult tendency, Margaret Singer, in Cults in Our Midst, cites a researcher who quotes L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, as follows: “[N]ew followers or potential converts should not be exposed to [the language and cosmology of Scientology] at too early a stage. ‘Talking whole track to raw meat’ is frowned upon.” (p. 71)

9. Mind Control Techniques. These involve such measures as keeping members malnourished and in a state of exhaustion. The classic example of this was the conduct of Jim Jones’ cult in its Jonestown settlement in Guyana prior to the mass murder/suicide in 1978. More sophisticated methods are also used, examples being “self-criticism” (in political cults), the use of chanting and various forms of “sensory overload” in groups like the Hare Krishnas, and the use of “therapy,” as in the New Alliance Party.

Another important mind control technique is the destruction of personal privacy. The Moonies, for example, normally do not even allow potential recruits at their retreats to go to the bathroom unless accompanied by a member of their cult. This is a way of never allowing new or potential recruits to regain their mental balance.

Still another important mind control technique is the humiliation and intimidation of members. In Synanon, this took the form of “the game,” a warped encounter session in which individuals were attacked by other members of the group. In the People’s Temple the technique was cruder, with members being, among other things, sexually humiliated in public.

10. Thought-Stopping Language. This is another mind-control technique, but [Robert Jay] Lifton considers it so important that he made it one of his eight criteria of “ideological totalism” [in Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism]. As Lifton puts it, the way that these “thought-terminating cliche[s]” operate is that “the most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.” (p. 429)

Put more broadly, thought-stopping phrases include any use of language, especially repeated phrases, to ward off forbidden thoughts. One common example of this is the admonition given to Catholic school children to recite the Hail Mary or rosary to ward off “impure thoughts.” The use of repetitive chanting by the Hare Krishnas serves the same thought-stopping purpose.

Another aspect of thought-stopping terms is that, as Ken Ragge points out [in More Revealed], “Loaded language, the language of non-thought, entails more than cliches. Individual words are given meanings or shades of meanings entirely separate from their normal usage.” (p. 136) To cite the most obvious example, the use of the word “Father” by members of many cults does not refer to a biological parent, but to the cult leader. These alternative meanings to common words serve to accentuate the separateness of cult members from “outsiders” or “normies” and–in the particular case cited here–infantilize members and discourage them from criticizing their “parent.”

 

All Posts in this Series

  • Characteristics of Cults (part 1)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 2)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 3)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 4)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 5)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 6)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 7)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 8)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 9)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 10)

 

 



Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? front cover
(This is a slightly revised version of material from Chapter 9 of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?)

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5) Ideology Over Experience, Observation, and Logic. Cults not only demonize doubt and doubters, but they are also nearly immune to experience, observation, and logic that contradict their claims. Cult leaders claim to have The Truth–and their followers believe them– so anything that contradicts that Truth must be wrong. The Catholic Church’s insistence that the Earth is the center of the universe, coupled with its persecution of Galileo and Giordano Bruno, and its attempted suppression of the Copernican view of the solar system (well supported by observational evidence, even in the early 17th century), provides but one famous example of this phenomenon.  To cite another, the leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses–claiming inspiration directly from God–stated that doomsday would come in 1914, and then in 1925. Yet when the appointed days came and went, the Witnesses suffered relatively minor defections. When their claims are proven false, cult leaders normally either ignore the contradictory evidence or invoke the fathomless Will of God to explain the turn of events. Their flocks never seem to notice this.

6. Separatism. Cult members almost always view themselves as outsiders, as different from the rest of society. This sets up an “us versus them” mentality, and it’s common for cult members to believe that only they and their fellow cult members can understand each other.

One manifestation of separatism is the use of specialized terms; almost all cults develop a jargon peculiar to themselves. Another, though less common, manifestation of separatism is the abandonment of “old” personal names and the taking (usually the assigning by cult leaders) of “new” ones, as was done by The Source cult in Southern California. A third is the adoption of distinctive dress and/or other alterations in personal appearance. The practice of head-shaving among the Hare Krishnas and in Synanon, and the required wearing of read and orange hues by the Rajneeshees are examples of this.

And then there’s the matter of physical separation from the outer world. Many cults isolate their members in remote areas, making it physically difficult for members to leave. The People’s Temple Jonestown settlement is but the most lurid example of this. Other cults that have set up compounds in isolated areas include the Rajneeshees, the FLDS and other Mormon polygamous cults, the Moonies, Synanon, and the Church Universal and Triumphant.

7) Exclusivity. Cults invariably view themselves as the only path to salvation. Normally that salvation is spiritual, though, as with the LaRouchites and other political sects, it can be secular. Again, this leads to arrogance, dehumanization of nonbelievers, and an “ends justif the means” mentality. The Moonies have even adopted a “spiritual” term (for internal use only) for lying and cheating in pursuit of Church goals: “Heavenly Deception.”

 

All Posts in this Series

  • Characteristics of Cults (part 1)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 2)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 3)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 4)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 5)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 6)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 7)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 8)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 9)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 10)

 

 



Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? front cover
(This is a slightly revised version of material from Chapter 9 of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?)

* * *

 

There are almost as many definitions of the world “cult” as there are experts on the subject. One thing virtually all definitions of the word have in common is that they’re quite broad.

Two of the definitions given by the Random House Unabridged Dictionary are fairly typical: “a group of sect bound together by devotion to or veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.”; and “a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols.”

Such definitions–as opposed to lists of attributes–could well apply to a great number of groups, many of which most people would never consider cults. Thus, the crucial question becomes what are the specific characteristics that distinguish cults, especially cults that are dangerous both to their own members and to society?

The following list of 23 cult characteristics are based in part on Robert Jay Lifton’s list in Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (see Some Notes on Cults for the full list), to a much lesser extent on Margaret Singer’s list in Cults in Our Midst, and to a large extent on my own research into cults preparatory to writing this book, direct contact with several cults (Church of Scientology, Unification Church, Kerista Village, and the chameleon-like Larouche political cult), and considerable contact with ex-members of cults (primarily ex-members of the Church of Scientology and Transcendental Meditation). I would note, though, that not even the most obviously dangerous cults always exhibit all of the following characteristics, though a few do. (The most dangerous cults typically exhibit roughly 80% to 95% of these characteristics.)

1. Religious Orientation. Cults are usually centered around belief in a higher power; they often have elaborate religious rituals and emphasize prayer. Current and recent religious cults include the People’s Temple, Branch Davidians, International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishnas), Church of Scientology (which is primarily a therapy cult), The Way International, Children of God, Unification Church (Moonies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, the numerous Mormon polygamist cults (Church of the Blood of the Lamb of God, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, etc.), arguably the Mormon Church itself, Islamic religious cults, such as ISIS (ISIL), Al Nusra, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al Shabab, the Moro Islamic Libertion Front, and arguably Islam itself.

While secular cults also exist, they are not as numerous as religious cults. The most obvious example of a secular cult is the Larouche organization (the group which in 2010 was responsible for the Obama/Hitler photo during the turmoil leading up to the Affordable Care Act; the oft-renamed group goes back to the 1970s). Another obvious example is the puritanical, dictatorially controlled Revolutionary Communist Party. Other examples include, arguably, multi-level marketing (MLM) organizations, though some, notably Amway, are religious and have a specifically Christian-conservative orientation. (Whether Amway, Herbalife, and other similar  MLM companies are commercial cults, pyramid schemes, or legitimate businesses is an open question.)

2. Irrationality. Cults discourage skepticism and rational thought. As James and Marcia Rudin note in Prison or Paradise: The New Religious Cults:

The groups are anti-intellectual, placing all emphasis on intuition or emotional experience. “Knowledge” is redefined as those  ideas or experiences dispensed by the group or its leader. One can only attain knowledge by joining the group and submitting to its doctrine. One cannot question this “knowledge.” If a follower shows signs of doubting he is made to feel that the fault lies within himself, not with the ideas… (p. 20)

It’s also common for cult leaders to tell their followers that doubt is the work of the devil. The Unification Church in particular has institutionalized the practices of equating doubt with sinfulness and satanic influence, and of attempting to stamp out independent thought. Some of the Church’s most common slogans (for internal use) are “Your Mind Is Fallen,” “Stamp Out Doubt,” and “No More Concepts” (cited in Crazy for God, by Christopher Edwards).

If members of cults persist in having doubts, they’re accused of being under satanic influence and excommunicated or, in extreme instances, murdered, as in Ervil LeBaron’s Lambs of God.

3. Dogmatism. Cults invariably have The Truth and are highly antagonistic to to those who question it. The Truth is invariably revealed in a cult’s sacred texts or in the pronouncements of its leader(s). It is beyond question, and to voice doubts is seen as, at best, a sign of being under satanic influence. This is clearly the case in the Unification Church, where doubts invariably come directly from Satan, and it’s common in secular cults. In Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Robert Jay Lifton notes that Chinese Communist true believers attribute deviation from revealed Truth to “bourgeois influence.” (p. 432).

4. A Chosen-People Mentality. Given that cultists are alone in possessing a very precious commodity, The Truth, they almost always view themselves as better than other people, which means that nonbelievers and members of rival sects are frequently seen as less than human, if not outright tools of the devil. This attitude of superiority often manifests itself in an “ends justify the means” mentality and in the use of violence against outsiders or against heretics within the group. The most lurid examples of such violence are currently provided by Islamic cults such as Boko Haram and ISIS, though violence also occurs in both Christian and Mormon cults, such as The Church of the Blood of the Lamb of God.

 

All Posts in this Series

  • Characteristics of Cults (part 1)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 2)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 3)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 4)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 5)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 6)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 7)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 8)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 9)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 10)

 

 


At a time when ISIS (or ISIL–Islamic State in Syria or Islamic State in the Levant–take your pick) is committing mass murder and beheadings in the name of Allah (specifically citing Islam while doing so), certain liberal and PC types are insisting that ISIS (and sometimes Islamo-fascism in general) has “nothing to do with Islam,” to cite President Obama’s remarks in September. The level of double-think necessary to utter such words is awe inspiring–at least if those making such utterances believe them.

But one strongly suspects that many of the PC types making such assertions (including Obama) don’t believe what they say, and are doing so for any of several reasons, including: 1) they’re multiculturalists and are terrified of being labeled “islamophobic”; 2) (as in Obama’s case) they have political or economic reasons to deny obvious facts; or 3) they’re religious believers and simply don’t want to admit that conventional religions have cult-like tendencies, spawn innumerable outright cults, and in some cases are outright cults themselves.

Regarding cults, ignorance about them isn’t confined to religious believers. For instance,  New York Times columnist Ross Douthat ‘s September 28th column, “The Cult Deficit,” claimed that cults have all but disappeared. In response, Tony Ortega (whose Underground Bunker is the  best online site for Scientology news) wrote an acidic piece for Raw Story titled,   The same week the U.S. goes to war with one, NYT’s Douthat asks, where are the cults? And Rick Ross of the Cult News Network (the go-to site for news about cults) wrote a less provocatively titled, though equally acerbic, piece titled Have destructive cults declined?

In his piece, Ross cites a boiled-down list of the eight cult characteristics defined by psychologist Robert Jay Lifton in his classic, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.  The list in full is as follows:

  1. Milieu Control. This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.
  2. Mystical Manipulation. The manipulation of experiences that appears spontaneous but is, in fact, planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority, spiritual advancement, or some exceptional talent or insight that sets the leader and/or group apart from humanity, and that allows reinterpretation of historical events, scripture, and other experiences. Coincidences and happenstance oddities are interpreted as omens or prophecies.
  3. Demand for Purity. The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.
  4. Confession. Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members’ “sins,” “attitudes,” and “faults” are discussed and exploited by the leaders.
  5. Sacred Science. The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.
  6. Loading the Language. The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating clichés, which serve to alter members’ thought processes to conform to the group’s way of thinking.
  7. Doctrine over person. Members’ personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.
  8. Dispensing of existence. The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group’s ideology. If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also.

This is a good, basic listing of cult characteristics, and it’s widely accepted by psychologists and cult researchers. There are many other characteristics common to cults, however, and we’ll publish a series of posts on them over the coming week.