Welcome to the third instalment of a series I hate writing. But this topic needs to be talked about – rationally, objectively, and accessibly. Because we are living in an age where anyone can pronounce themself a guru, and anyone with a slick hand at PR and the gift of the gab can amass a following fast. Cults can be religious groups, fringe groups, self-help groups, eastern-new age groups and even some multi-level-marketing initiatives. They can be harmful or not so harmful. There’s a regular Heinz variety of possibilities here. So lets talk about what they have in common. Once again, I’ll say this is about giving information about cults to anyone who may be concerned. It is not about branding a specific group a cult unless it has already been done so by mass media.
Ok now! Let’s kick off with quote that encapsulates the whole kit and kaboodle.
A cult is a group or movement that, to a significant degree, (a) exhibits great or excessive dedication or devotion to some idea or thing, (b) uses a thought reform program to persuade, control and socialize members (i.e. to integrate them into the groups unique pattern of relationships, beliefs, values and practices), (c) systematically induces states of psychological dependency in members, (d) exploits members to advance the leaderships goals, and (e) causes psychological harm to members, their families and the community.”
Michael Langone, “Recovery from Cults”
Could any single quote capture the essence of cults and the things they hold in common better than that one? It’s a bloody good mic drop by Mr Langone. Cults are complex, a bit sensational for the curious outsiders. But at the heart of each cult are some remarkably similar themes.
The points I’m raising here are not an exhaustive list, because I’m just a blogger who researches stuff, and not an expert. They are in no particular order and each matters as much as the other. Now. On with the show.
Cult commonality #1: They all believe they possess some unique truth that the rest of the world doesn’t have and/or needs – that their group is special, and purposed with something unique and even grandiose. The degree to which they will want to propagate, advance and protect that “truth” varies. The degree to which they will do irrational things to follow and protect that “truth” also varies. Strict adherence to this special doctrine or way of life is paramount.
Example: The Heavens Gate cult believed that the passing of the Hale-Bopp comet on March 26, 1997 would bring an extra-terrestrial space-craft and the closing of Heavens Gate. 39 members of the group suicided on that day to meet the spacecraft and level up from their human evolutionary level.
A less extreme example: a cult may demand certain sexual practices or abstinences, control the use of money, or demand certain other lifestyle (or actual style) changes from members. They may demand strict adherence to a certain doctrine. In fact, just go read my post on 8 characteristics of cults. That spells it out!
Cult commonality #2: Love Bombing is a part of the entry process. Love-bombing is thought to have originated with the Moonies and also been used by the Children of God cult and many others. Basically it means you get showered with love and attention. Imagine a time in your life where you are lonely, heart broken, having faced a loss or a challenge that rocked you. Then a person you meet introduces you to their group and you have instant friends. So much love. Its unconditional. Its intoxicating. You are on a high. Your loneliness and heartbreak is buried by “unconditional” acceptance and love. It might take a while for you to see there is an ulterior motive – conversion to the groups thought process. That realisation may, in fact, take years.
As a Christian, I wrestle with this. Does Jesus want us to show love to the broken hearted? Does He give us the Great Commission and tell us to go into all the world and make disciples? Yes and yes. Perhaps the love-bombing isn’t the problem. Perhaps its what comes next that is? I don’t know. But never-the-less, love-bombing, a person luring another person into a group through love, attention and affection in order to influence them towards a group objective, is the first step in a cult entry process.
So what is the cult mindset here? “I must shower people with love in order to gain new converts/recruits.”
What do you watch for? Did you have a sudden group of unconditional, life-long friends who promised you the world, and offered entry to a group so privileged with a profound and unique truth that it would change your life for the better? Ummm, that sounds too good to be true. And most things that sound too good to be true, are.
Cult Commonality #3: It usually centres around a personality – a charismatic leader who may exhibit narcissistic tendencies. Here’s a quote from a criminal justice school that I found quite interesting: “According to the Cult Hotline & Clinic in New York City, a charismatic leader of a destructive cult “claims divinity or special knowledge and demands unquestioning obedience“. The Clinic adds that, “Doubting or questioning the leader’s authority is not tolerated – Leaders live a life of privilege and often one of wealth”. A destructive cult may have one or several leaders that are generally concerned with their own visions and needs and not those of their followers. (While moral or good charismatic leaders are concerned with the needs of all members of their group). Robert N. Lussier et al. (in their book Leadership: Theory, Application, & Skill Development) state that negative charismatic leaders are driven by narcissism, meaning they are striving to largely enhance their confidence and are driven by self-glorification and power. In fact these destructive leaders are more concerned with being valued themselves more so than the ideologies or beliefs that form the basis of the group. In some cases, these leaders are driven by material or sexual desires and will exploit their followers to achieve these ends.” End quote.
You have to be discerning to pick this up. No cult leader is going to stand on a podium and say “Hi! I’m Bob, but you can call me God. I’m a dangerous cult leader, with narcissistic and psychopathic tendencies. I don’t care about you. Only me.” Thankfully, Psychology Today has a great checklist on what to look for. You can find it here. It’s well worth a look.
Cult commonality #4: Control is a big factor and there are usually four areas of control – behaviour, thought, information and emotion control. This comes from Steve Hassan’s brilliant work “Combatting Mind Control.” Its a huge area. What can undue influence or control of behaviour look like? Think environment, living arrangements, career, finance, relationships, routines, clothes etc. Undue influence or control over thoughts may include indoctrination, stopping negative thoughts, using other thought-stopping techniques like excessive chanting, speaking in tongues, humming, focusing on the guru (these are all examples cited in Hassan’s work). As a Christian who believes in the gift of tongues, I must emphasise “excessive” on that one, as I do believe this can be valid if performed within Biblical parameters.
Excessive control over emotions can involve “attempts to narrow the range of a persons emotions [“Cults, too good to be true”].” Guilt and fear are often used. Now this quote I found fascinating. “Hassan points out that cults create an enemy who is persecuting you.” (So it’s worth noting that the persecution complex is quite common, but that’s a whole post on its own.) “The creation of phobias, or phobia indoctrination is a powerful technique of emotional control. For example, members are warned that if they leave the cult they will experience disaster, get killed in plane crashes or die prematurely [Cults, too good to be true].”
Finally, controlling information refers to restricting access to information that isn’t conducive to cult adherence, or “spinning” other information (selectively presenting it) to members. Often, according to the experts, cults can be quite good at maintaining a polished exterior. It all looks so good from the outside. The inner circles, however, can be quite another story.
Example: Scientology starts with a chat, a book perhaps, reading rooms, then audits to help you progress to higher levels of enlightenment. More money is invested as more audits are performed. Eventually so many personal secrets are kept by the group. If an individual attempts to leave, this can be leveraged against them. If they raise concerns, or exhibit behaviour not-approved by the group, they may be punished or labelled a suppressive person. Ever had a person use your personal information against you? Not cool. Not okay. Awkward. Humiliating even. But if a group has that power over you, and can twist information or use their powers of public relations against you, it can be downright terrifying. (Check out “Going Clear” if you want more on that.)
I think there’s a flip side that needs to be acknowledged here, and that’s the lengths that cults will go to in order to silence members who have left. An expert once told me it was a common thing for threats of defamation to be made against exiting members. Fun fact: if its true, of public interest, or personal opinion given in an honest conversation, it isn’t defamation. More details here. I.e. Your story is yours, not anyone else’s.
Cult commonality #5: The inner circle can look very different to the outer circle. When you read story after story of cult survivors, you see people seduced by a beautiful idea – purpose, significance, unconditional friendship, a cure to your heartache, self-improvement, a doctrine or truth the rest of the world doesn’t get. Wow.
But the outer circle can be tied up with wrapping paper and pretty bows while masking a nastier, more coercive, deceitful interior. Some cults have been known to encourage devotees to lie when asked about their actions or motives to protect “the greater good.” The more control devotees have given over to the group or central figure, and the more of the thought reform process they’ve been on, the harder this is to identify as problematic or even to question.
You must be thinking “what the heck?” Let me give you an example: the Rajneesh Purim movement. (If you have the stomach and time for it, watch Wild Wild Country on Netflix). On the surface, it was Osho’s teachings on meditation, mindfulness and love that drew people in. It seemed freeing. In the inner circles, things were quite different. There are videos of very strange behaviour in their “meditation” sessions, sure. But there was an inner circle obsessed with taking over a town. So obsessed that they shipped in at-risk homeless people so they could stack a vote, and drugged them without their permission when they became problematic.
They tried to poison the water supply. They couldn’t because there was a grate over the top of it so, and I swear I’m not making it up, they poisoned beavers, blended them, and put the blended, poisoned beavers through into the water supply to make the non-Rajneesh townspeople sick. Totally rational, right?
In the documentary, there is this beautiful, soft-hearted older lady who actually volunteered to attempt an assassination for the cause. For a ‘peaceful’ cause.
I’ll give you a moment to utter your expletives here.
I’ll give you another example: This one hit home for me a bit. As a kid, I used to watch these Christian videos with cutesy little sing songs about always giving love and being obedient. Two such songs were “Do cause Daddy says so” and “Long live love.” Imagine my absolute horror when I was watching a Netflix documentary about the “Children of God” cult and it turns out THEY WROTE THOSE SONGS! As a child, I watched cult propaganda, my poor mother probably thinking this was pure as the driven snow, teaching Christian values.
Pioneered by David Berg, and taking on various names over the years “The Children of God” cult used sex (called flirty fishing) to bring in new members. According to the Netflix doco, and numerous other sources, the cult encouraged (demanded?) sexual “sharing” where members would have to sleep with each-other. David Berg was referred to as “Daddy” by members, and the cult was rife with child abuse and child pornography.
Kinda makes “Do ’cause daddy says so” creepy as hell. The front was harmless. Love. Communal living. Nice music about nice values. Inside, unquestioning obedience to David Berg, child pornography, few personal freedoms or boundaries. Yuck yuck yuck.
Cult Commonality #6: Virtually all cults have a thought reform thing going on. This is where it gets tricky. Once the love-bombing stage is entrenched, and the friendships normalise, the person is impressed or in awe of the central cult figure and becomes committed to the group, they begin on a thought-reform journey. They devote themselves to the teachings of the guru/pastor/prophet/person claiming to be the voice of God. At the beginning, this might seem great! They might commence a self-help program, a program of advancing enlightenment or discipleship. In Christian circles, discipleship can be very healthy and valid. But in others, the word can be used to masquerade as a program of thought reform that breaks a person down rather than building them up, and makes them more dependant in the group rather than more personally empowered.
So there are a couple of cautions here and a couple of questions you can ask yourself: does the groups inner circle have a vastly different energy to its outer circle? Are people lured in by the promise of something wonderful that never materialises? And is information used against people? Often, once someone has gone on this thought reform journey, the group now possesses deeply personal information that can make it hard for a person to leave.
What is the cult mindset in action here: “I must change, become better, and give more of my mind/resources to this cause.” Gradually, it can become harder to see what is good and bad, as the leaders objectives become so important and questioning them becomes so hard (as it can compromise your standing within the group).
Sometimes, I wonder if it might be harder to think about the consequences of leaving than to turn a blind eye to the problematic aspects of the group and just stay. You’ve been love-bombed. If you leave, you’ll lose those friendships. You’ve been audited, or your personal secrets given across in a thought-reform program. You could be shamed and humiliated. You’ve invested money into this. It will all have been wasted.
So are cults really that bad? Well that varies. They can be huge. They can be tiny. They can have noble aspects or be completely twisted. I’ve just used the big name ones to get the point across, but these groups exist in all shapes and sizes. I think its important to keep the term “high demand” in mind too. Cults are called “high demand” groups in modern literature for a reason. One of those reasons is that they demand a lot from members. It seems too simplistic to me, to just call them that, but its a thing.
For me, in my opinion, it all comes down to peace, freedom and the ability to have agency in your own life. This begs an important question:
Can’t free, consenting adults can do as they please, within the bounds of the law?
Ignoring the plight of children in cults, I’m going to quote Aron here again in light of the points raised above. “It is difficult to support the notion that a cult member has made an informed decision if the relevant information was not available at the time of joining.” In his book, he questions whether, after love bombing, thought reform and other cult processes, freedom of choice is legitimate at all for members.
He also says,”The suggestion that people join cults is as absurd as the idea that people decide to become drug addicts.” He goes on to say “Cults are massive, enduring cons. Although individuals may join cults during periods of stress and demoralization, most cult joiners are more or less within the normal range psychologically. They do not join groups because they have made a rational decision that these groups will benefit them. They join because they are seduced through a gradual step-by-step process of deceit and manipulation designed to advance the leaders objectives, regardless of the harm caused to members.”
In light of all this, you have to deduce that leaving cults would be hella hard. Facing up to the harm can be difficult. Lost years. Lost money. Lost relationships. I get that leaving can involve fear. If you love someone in a suspected cult, don’t go gung ho on confronting them unless you have no other option. Consult an expert. Try to stay in contact with your loved one and just show them real unconditional love.
If you are the one in a cult and you want to get out, don’t rush unless you are in immediate danger. Plan. Access help. Even domestic violence services may be able to help you here as there are some commonalities. I’m posting the list of resources below. There are experts there. There is hope ahead. Life can be good again. Life can be wonderful. Hurts can heal. Genuine relationships can be built. And you’ll always have one heck of a story to tell around the bonfire. I’m not saying it won’t be hard. I’m saying it will be genuinely freeing.
Once again, here’s how you clear your browser history. Until next time – Good luck.
I hyperlinked the heck out of this article to make it easier. But here are a couple of extra’s. Stay safe people – in body, mind and spirit.
- How do I know if I’m in a cult? https://kitkennedy.com/2018/09/06/how-do-i-know-if-im-in-a-cult/
- 8 key characteristics of cults https://kitkennedy.com/2018/09/06/8-key-characteristics-of-cults/
- Cults: Too Good to Be True – Raphael Aron – https://www.amazon.com/Cults-Too-Good-be-True/dp/1863717609
- A handy checklist about dangerous traits of cult leaders https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/spycatcher/201208/dangerous-cult-leaders
- Why cults and domestic violence aren’t so far removed from each-other http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-04-12/life-in-a-cult-how-i-escaped/9641852
WHERE TO GO FOR HELP