Religious Cults

Narrowly defined, a cult is a set of religious practices. For example, Roman citizens of all religions were required to perform the cultus of the Roman gods (a ritual of offering) as an act of political obeisance. In modern colloquial use "cult" can also imply extreme veneration of a leader (for example, Stalin's "personality cult" ) or a group organized around unusual or extreme beliefs and practices (as in UFO cults). Some scholars distinguish religious cults from sects by defining cults as organizations built around a novel spiritual or ethical belief, and sects as groups that hold heretical or unorthodox beliefs derived from established religious doctrines.

Many modern religions began as cults before becoming social institutions, and some writers suggest that today's cults are merely in the first stages of development into mainstream religions. However, not all cults cause controversy and not all religions started as controversial cults. Sometimes leaders call their groups religions to make them harder to regulate.

In the United States attention to cults increased during the early 1970s when some groups began aggressively recruiting young people and others became centers of controversy. In 1978 the death of more than 900 members of Jim Jones's People's Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, focused international attention on the influence of cults. Other groups, such as the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon, the self-described religious order Synanon, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON, or Hare Krishnas), the followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and Scientology drew either theological criticism over their beliefs or criticism because of the controversial or even criminal activities of leaders and members. Most recently, in 1993, the Branch Davidians gained worldwide attention because their leader and self-styled "Messiah," David Koresh, plunged his followers into armed conflict with agents of the U.S. government in Waco, Tex. The result was nearly 100 deaths.

Dynamics of Conversion and Control

Controversial cults are usually based on an identifiable ideology (belief system) and are internally authoritarian; they are characteristically dominated by a powerful leader and employ intense interpersonal influence techniques to recruit and control members. The substance of the cult's ideology is not particularly important for understanding its ability to manipulate members.

Typically, cult leaders maintain power by claiming that they are the only authority to which members are accountable--by specifying precise rules for members' behaviors and proper attitudes, by controlling communication among members, and by punishing members for any rule breaking. The group's ideology justifies the leader's authority and facilitates the leader's inducing followers to tolerate their own exploitation.

During recruitment newcomers often form strong attachments to long-term members. These friendships permit members to collect information useful in manipulating recruits' feelings of guilt about mistakes they have made, unhappiness with their lives, and distress over aspects of themselves about which they feel inadequate. The group's principal focus during recruitment is to get newcomers to believe that allowing the group to direct their lives will solve their problems as well as relieve their feelings of guilt or inadequacy.

Acceptance of the group's ideology and rules is first a requirement for maintaining friendships and eventually becomes necessary to avoid psychological or physical punishment. Punishment can include public humiliation, rejection by peers, hard labor, excessive workloads, or even physical abuse.

Having joined and accepted the idea that membership will solve their problems, members experience intense social pressures to conform to whatever the leadership of the group demands. Members may be required to demonstrate their commitment by rejecting family and outside friends, giving up outside jobs, or donating financial assets to the group.

Common Attributes

Controversial cults tend to share specific attributes. First, the techniques used to gain commitment from and control over members are psychologically coercive. They can result in substantial, but temporary, belief change. These techniques can be compared to BRAINWASHING.

Second, controversial cults are often alleged to systematically exploit members financially or sexually. For example, the Children of God developed a policy--"flirty fishing"--under which members provided sexual services in order to attract potential recruits to the group. David Koresh convinced his followers that it was permissible for him to have sexual relations with female children as young as ten.

Finally, some cults generate violence or criminal conduct from members. Violence is frequently directed at nonmembers or ex-members who are labeled as threats to the group's leadership. At the direction of Synanon's leadership, some members attempted to murder a lawyer who had sued the cult by placing a rattlesnake in his mailbox. In 1989 followers of Jeffrey Lundgren were persuaded to help Lundgren execute a family of 5 (2 adults and 3 children) who were members of Lundgren's cult of disaffected Mormons. Lundgren convinced his followers that God required the execution.

Controversial cults illustrate how difficult it is for society to balance preservation of religious freedom with the requirement of lawful conduct. The powerful effects of group membership on individuals can lead to behavior that creates this societal dilemma.

Appel, Willa, Cults in America (1983)
Bromley, David, and Shupe, Anson, Strange Gods (1982)
Fitzgerald, Frances, Cities on a Hill (1986)
Galanter, Marc, Cults, Faith, Healing, and Coercion (1989; repr. 1990)
Lewis, I. M., Religion in Context (1986); Wilson, Bryan R., The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism (1990)

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