Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File); Dec 1, 1978; ProQuest Historical Newspapers Los Angeles Times (1881 - 1986)  pg. 1A

The Cults - From Benign to Bizarre

Times Religion Writer

Back in 1952, a rabbi named Maurice Davis sold his synagogue in Indianapolis to a young, idealistic preacher who wanted to build an integrated church that would truly serve the people.

Nearly 25 years later, Davis organized a nationwide network of groups composed of former cultists and parents of present members called Citizens Engaged in Reuniting Families.

And the Rev. Jim Jones - who turned the Indianapolis synagogue into his first Peoples Temple - led 910 followers into a paranoid suicide pact in the steamy jungle of Guyana at a cult compound called Jonestown. That twist of irony illustrates the tangle of relationships between cults and established religion, out of which cults either emerge or against which they rebel.

Attempts to categorize cults or to neatly separate cults, sects, denominations and churches break down because there are no universally accepted definitions.

Cults range from the benign and beatific to the bizarre and brutal.

They tend to thrive on a charismatic, authoritarian leader who provides an all-encompassing communal home for followers and answers their religious, social and political questions.

Cults give simple answers to complex problems at a time when simple answers seem desirable.

Cult leaders establish strong discipline and a frightening obedience that can lead devotees to break the law or even kill.

Cults can mature into mainstream institutions. Or disintegrate into jungle horror stories.

Little specific research has been done on the history of cults, and there is a lack of hard statistics on the number of cults or their followers.

Informed estimates put the number of recently organized cults anywhere from 2,500 to as high as 5,000, most with only a handful of members: The largest have hundreds of thousands of followers, often living in communes or colonies and making forays onto campuses and into the streets to garner converts.

Large numbers of Americans today are attracted to interests that border on cultism, if not the more radical forms of cult living.

Pollster George Gallup has found that 32 million Americans believe in astrology, including a large number of those in the mainstream of American religious belief. Another 10 million Americans, according to Gallup, are into Transcendental Meditation, various forms of Yoga and other expressions of mysticism and Eastern religion.

These are frequently described as cults because of their break with Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism, the three major U.S. faiths. Scholars estimate the numbers in all such cult and fringe religious groups - including those that offer meditation techniques and self-fulfillment methods for set prices - at 20 to 30 million Americans.

Although Gallup's survey indicates most participants in the "new religions" are 18 to 25 years old, more members now are staying with the groups into their later years.

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Cults Offer Followers Simple Answers to Complex Problems

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"The new religious movement, in its broadest sense, can no longer be taken as a transitory cultural aberration," observes Jacob Needleman, a San Francisco State University professor who has studied the trend. Today's cult, of course, can become an established religion for the next generation.

Christianity, most religious scholars agree, had its origins as a cult - a persecuted one - in societies that favored Judaism and pagan emperor-worship.

"Cults are little groups which break off from the conventional consensus and espouse very different views of the real, the possible and the moral," says sociologist John Lofland.

Traditional understanding of "cult" meant a form of ritual worshop emphasizing devotion to a god or person and the formation of a group of initiates around the figure.

In ancient times, such cultic expression involved a priesthood and sacred lore, with secret rites. Examples include the Egyptian cult of the dead, the Greek cult of Dionysus and the worship of Mithras.

Anthropologists have observed that cults flourish in times of social stress and upheaval, often when a primitive culture is subjected to the influence of a more advanced one.

Cults abounded everywhere, Joe Hough, dean of the school of theology at Claremont, points out, at the time of the disintegration of the Roman Empire, after the French Revolution and again during the Industrial Revolution.

James Bradley, professor of church history at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, also noted the rise of cults in America during the stress of scientific modernism in the 19th century.

Sometimes, as in the earlier case of the dissident Puritans whom Roger Williams led into Rhode Island, or the Mormon followers of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, cults have in time achieved popular acceptance. "Some of these sectarians, such as the New England Puritans, conformed at one time to the norms of a harsh age by imprisoning and torturing their own dissidents," notes Robert S. Ellwood, professor of religion at USC. "Yet they have given us an invaluable heritage of freedom and the love of freedom."

Walter Martin, a professor of comparative religions who has spent 27 years investigating cults, traces development in U.S. cults last century through an interest in "last

They can mature into the mainstream or disintegrate into murder.

things," or doomsday fascination - spawning the Millerites, and then the Second Adventists, and the Russellites, leading to the Jehovah's Witnesses.

During the late 1840s, Kate and Margaret Fox performed their "spirit rappings" and Americans generally became aware of mediums and trances.

New Thought, Mind Science, Christian Science and Theosophy followed, although popular acceptance trailed far behind.

Throughout the nation, narrowly based religious groups have built up - then usually lost - followers for dogmas ranging from free love and snake handling to utopian societies. Hindu mystics have seemed to do well, too, especially since the early 1960s.

California has witnessed the founding of more cults and utopian societies than any other state in the Union. One of the most colorful, the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society at Point Loma, was founded on a February afternoon in 1897 when nearly a thousand residents of San Diego ascended the bluff where Point Loma juts into the sea.

As described by Robert V. Hine in a Huntington Library publication, Katherine Tingley, dressed in a purple gown with embroidered emblems, sprinkled corn and oil and wine on a cornerstone surrounded by ropes of cypress as banners and flags waved and a band played "Intermezzo." Juxtaposing humanitarianism with occult wisdom, Mrs. Tingley read from the Bhagavad-Gita, the Upanishads and the Orphic Mysteries, dedicating the settlement that was to endure for 50 years.

Several years later, Mrs. Tingley tangled with the press. Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of The Los Angeles Times, disapproved of fanatical sects, which, in his view, included the Point Loma Theosophists.

An Oct. 28, 1901, Times account appeared by an "escaped" member of the colony. The story was headlined, "Outrages at Point Loma … Startling Tales Told … Women and Children Starved."

Otis described the colony as a "place of horror" surrounded by armed guards under the "strong hypnotic power" of Katherine Tingley, and a "spookery" where "gross immoralities are practiced."

Though U.S. cults are not new, the current rash of insular cults began in the 1960s. Experts disagree whether cult activity in the United States peaked about three years ago or has, in fact, not yet crested.

"They may have peaked in publicity," says cult specialist Walter Martin, "but there is a steady growth. Cult and occult books now occupy special sections in every major bookstore in the country. This never happened before the 1960s."

Hough, the dean at Claremont, sees the present appeal of cults based largely on the upheaval of the times: "The U.S. consensus of values has broken down. There is, in some respects, an undermined authority of philosophy and theology. There is the demise of metaphysics … There is no 'rock in a weary land' that gives a certainty to grab onto. So people are reaching out to grasp at anything - an idea or an organization."

When traditional answers seem inadequate in a violence-prone era, people are ripe for cults that promise a prescription for a better life. Most offer three benefits: ultimate meaning, a strong sense of community and rewards either in this world or in the afterlife.

"When you put that prescription together with the authoritarian style of a charismatic leader you have an

Christianity, most scholars agree, started as a cult.

extremely powerful antidote to the cultural malaise or what sociologists call anomie" (rootlessness, aimlessness), Hough said.

A commom thread through most of the cult groups is this total allegiance to a dominant leader who demands unswerving loyalty.

This would be true of the modern day cults of Scientology, founded by the scientifically cool L. Ron Hubbard; the Worldwide Church of God (Herbert Armstrong); the children of God (Moses Berg); the Unification Church (the Rev. Sun Myung Moon); Divine Light Mission (Maharaj Ji); Eckankar (Paul Twitchell and Darwin Gross); Synanon (Chuck Dederich ) and the Peoples Temple (Jim Jones).

Bill Evans, a Marina del Rey clinical psychologist who specializes in criminal justice and was consulted by investigators about the psycho-dynamics of Patricia Hearst's abduction, has a theory about authoritarian leaders and the reinforcing dynamics between them and their followers. In time, each needs the other in order to withstand what both perceive as a hostile, unbelieving outside world.

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Religious Cults Spanning the Spectrum From Benign to Bizarre

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Evans, 48, is president of Changes Unlimited, a research and program organization for large groups desiring change. He has received $160,000 in grants to study criminal populations and design prison reforms.

Human beings feel vaguely guilty about the fact that they don't know the "Truth" (capital "T"), Evans reasons. When a gifted, persuasive leader comes along who says he knows the Truth - and puts it into an understandable presentation ( ven if it's a delusional system) -people will listen. They will accept some things they may have reservations about because they perceive that the leader has some "good" answers.

Usually, according to Evans, the charismatic leader uses psycho-dynamics such as healing, group hypnosis and well-choreographed speeches.

The leader becomes addicted to the adulation of his followers just as they become dependent upon him to fill their needs.

"There is an exchange, of energy going on," says Evans, a former minister who is well acquainted with "big name" religious leaders. "A cycle goes from the leader to the listeners and back again. Every good public speaker and every good actor knows that rush and exhaustion and that feeling of total immediate significance."

Strangely, however, the more excited followers get about what the leader is saying, the less he trusts them, Evans believes.

Why? The leader realizes that his followers' enthusiastic response is inappropriate at times when he knows his performance is not up to par. But the leader is "trapped" because he has to keep up the show, even if what he is saying is not adequate for his own life.

Paranoia sets in. In order not to let his followers down, the leader resorts to unethical ways to "help" them. Because he cannot share his inner self with his followers any longer, he becomes "functionally schizophrenic," according to Evans,

Finally, the leader reaches a point where he feels "God and I agree. And if you disagree with me, you disagree with God, and I have to persuade you I am right or I have to fight you - even destroy you."

Paranoia needs an identified enemy - the devil or nonbelievers. As a last resort - as in the Jim Jones Guyana massacre, when the "fortress" against the outside world collapsed - martyrdom is the final solution.

At the same time, notes USC's religion professor Ellwood, a situation

He said humans feel guilty when they don't know the "truth."

arises in which the true believers become excessively protective of their master's prestige and power.

"The leader becomes, in the well-known manner of dictators, immoderately jealous of rivals and imperious against doubt or dissent. If a single strand breaks in the fabric of faith and group coherence, he or she and the true believers feel, the beautiful edifice will collapse," Ellwood said. The greater the hostility against the "holy community," the more justified cult members feel because they expect to be isolated and persecuted. After all, they have a "treasure" the outside world does not understand. Since the final unraveling of the tragic Jonestown affair, distraught friends and relatives of cult members have renewed efforts to "rescue" loved ones–or at least learn more about fringe groups.

The Spiritual Counterfeits Project in Berkeley, which makes available information about certain non-Christian cults, has had calls from around the world, according to director Brooks Alexander. The Times religion writers also have had inquiries.

Are there warning signs to help identify dangerous or potentially mind-bending cults?

One key seems to be whether the leader claims absolute authority or whether he willingly submits to "a transcendent source of authority" by which he and his actions may be judged, Alexander said.

Generally acknowledged danger signals also include total isolation from friends and parents, cessation of constructive thought by hypnosis, chanting or rote recitation of slogans and prayers, and demands to give up all money and possessions (including legal rights) to a cult.

Ron Enroth, professor of sociology at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, an expert on cults, suggests that a good test is to see whether those in a cult are allowed access to persons and materials that disagree with the position of the cult. And, he asks, is public criticism allowed within the group setting?

Cult experts also recommend scrutinizing the recruiting tactics of a group. Are concealment and deception used? When a recruiter neither informs a prospective member that he is being asked to a function of a religious organization nor advises him that the purpose is to begin a process that will change the prospect's mental processes and his relationship with the rest of the world, beware.

Cult indoctrination often leads to what psychologists, psychiatrists and religious counselors refer to as the "indoctrinee syndrome." This includes:

  • - Sudden, drastic alteration of the individual's value hierarchy, such as abandonment of previous academic and career goals.
  • - Reduction of adaptability. The victim answers questions mechanically, substituting stereotyped cult responses for his own.
  • - Narrowing and blunting of affection. The victim appears emotionally flat and lifeless,
  • - Regression to childlike behavior. (Cult leaders make all important decisions.)
  • - Physical changes including weight loss and deterioration in the victim's physical appearance and expression.
  • - Possible pathological symptoms of thought disorder.

USC's Ellwood suggests that the most likely time for "withdrawal" religious groups to "go bad" is 10 to 15 years after their founding. By then the initial euphoria felt when the movement held together and grew has worn thin.

There may be inarticulated doubts "raised by the fact that the first glorious dreams of changing the world have not been realized," Ellwood notes, adding that many of the new religious movements founded amid the flowers and spiritual highs of the 1960s are now at this precarious stage. Such a time calls for both understanding and reassessment, Ellwood believes.

On the one hand, he cautions, rumors of evil about new religions should be proved before believed. Several 19th-century American withdrawal groups mellowed with time and have enriched the culture, he points out.

"The industrious and celibate Shakers, once the victims of appalling cruelty from their neighbors and of attempted legislative vendettas, have contributed such practical inventions as the circular saw and made beautiful furniture …

"The Oneida utopian community at one time caused pious outrage by its unusual marriages, but has now been transformed into a prominent silverware manufacturer," he noted.

Ellwood is not unmindful of withdrawal groups that have ended in self-destruction or disaster. The new religious groups need to allow their members to maintain regular contact

Some cults have mellowed and enriched the culture, he said.

with their homes and the outside world, and avoid "irritating means of proselytizing," he advised.

In the wake of Guyana, pressures are building upon governmental agencies to "do something" about cult excesses. Fears of violating constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion have so far muted such efforts. Some religious leaders now fear an anti-cult "witch hunt" atmosphere may be generated. As Chicago psychologist Eugene Kennedy, a Catholic, put it: "Paranoid excesses can demand a response that could be fascistic."

Perhaps, though, there are ways to safeguard First Amendment provisions while also protecting persons from unwittingly becoming absorbed in cults that are mind-warping or violent.

Martin, the cults expert in Anaheim, believes Congress will try to draft legislation that won't conflict with the First Amendment along lines of the "truth in lending" concept. Such a law would require cult recruiters to clearly indicate the goals, beliefs and practices of their organization in any solicitation of funds or membership.

"If it can be worded so that it won't violate the intent of the Founding Fathers - so that it becomes a protective device rather than an investigative arm of the government - it might serve a very good purpose," Martin said in an interview.

He admitted, however, that such a measure would have to be delicately worded. From his perspective as an evangelical Christian, he said he would prefer that churches "do a better job of informing their members about the teachings of these groups."

If a cult claims it is in accord with Christianity, it should be measured against what Jesus taught, he said. "If it contradicts him, you know you have a counterfeit."

Most persons, personally religious or not, agree that religion should not be used as a shield for illegal activities. And that religious freedom should, not be a device to give cult leaders a haven to accomplish their goals of power or money.

Yet it is a basic American right for a person to choose - or change - his or her religion.

What would happen if the government defines what is and what is not "religion"? Can it sort out bona fide religious groups from those whose actions are violent and contrary to the concept of law and order?

There are few simple answers.