Cult (kŭlt) – Noun: A group misled from truth, often by a charismatic leader.
Cults come in many shapes and sizes, and some of their tell-tale attributes may not be immediately apparent. They tend to be easy to enter and hard to leave, and use techniques such as mind control and friend bombing to persuade new people to come into their sphere of influence. They tend to prey on the vulnerable, so be informed. Knowledge is power. A familiarity with cult attributes can not only protect us from their influence, it can also help us to minister to those who have fallen prey to a cult or have lost a family member to a cult group.
Cults are excellent at hiding their true colors, but it experts agree that seven attributes are common in cults. Look for these, as red flags: 1) mind control, 2) elitism, 3) alienation, 4) exclusivistic idolotry, 5) trumped up group history, 6) expunged personal history, and 7) bleak world outlook. Let’s take a look at each of these, more closely, using our Spiritual Holistic Inquiry Analysis process to examine the seven domains of wellness (in, on, around, above below, behind and before):
Spiritual-Holistic Inquiry into Cults…
- IN: Mind Control – You must believe a certain way, and this way is typically introduced gradually. Hype, deception, punishment/rewards, honor/shame, guilt/pressure, and/or mind-altering techniques such as sleep deprivation can all be part of mind control. There is a marked absence of open debate and dialog, with questions discouraged. Logic is flawed or eschewed, either with exaggerated claims or by hiding behind a sacred and ineffable aura of so-called “sacred science.” Doctrine is favored over personal experience, and experience itself is manipulated. Mystical manipulation of the environment, so that events occur seemingly spontaneously, providing experiences that seem transcendent but are, in fact, well planned. Insider language and clichés or slogans may be used in what is sometimes termed “loading the language.” From outside, members seem unnaturally, uniformly happy. In our S.H.I.P. process this area is known as “IN” and relates to the mind/body wellness.
- ON: Elitism – If the group has received a “cult” label by the greater society, they’ll have a well rehearsed way of discounting why society is wrong and they are right. They may tell you Satan is trying to dissuade you, or that they are the chosen few. In our S.H.I.P. process, this area is known as “ON” and relates to role, and relationship to society.
- AROUND: Alienation – An atmosphere of “us versus them” paranoia regarding the outside world, together with the instant friends that arise in a process known as “friend bombing” and perhaps an admonition against fraternizing with outsiders. Friendships can lack depth, as everyone defensively hides true thoughts and feelings, for fear of being reported or being seen as falling short. In our S.H.I.P. process, this area is known as “AROUND” and relates to connectedness with others.
- ABOVE: Exclusivistic Idolotry – Exclusivism (claims of exclusive access to the “truth”) means everyone else is wrong, and may also mean financial charges for “rising” to the next level. A charismatic leader allows him- or herself to be placed at the top of this idolotry, rather than at the bottom, where Jesus was careful to stay, washing the feet of his disciples and carrying his cross. Unlike military officers, political leaders, monks, priests, and clergy, this leader is both intolerant of criticism and not accountable to a hierarchy of others. In our S.H.I.P. process, this area is known as “ABOVE” and indicates relationship to the divine.
- BELOW: Trumped up Group History – May claim lineage with one of the great faith traditions, yet somehow to also be the only wing of that tradition that is correct. In our S.H.I.P. process, this area is known as “BELOW” and relates to roots.
- BEHIND: Expunged Personal History – The personal past of individual members is not celebrated. Instead, members may be encouraged to reject their past lives or may be kept so busy, in a process known as time control, they have no time to dwell on their past. The idea that a person’s “real” life began when entering the group, and that nothing (and nobody) before that moment is to be given attention. It is as if a person’s existence prior to membership could be annihilated. The disconnect, while maintained, allows the group great control of its members. In our S.H.I.P. process, this area is known as “BEHIND” and relates to one’s personal past. A healthy acceptance and understanding of one’s personal past is protective against cults.
- BEFORE: Bleak Outlook – From the outside, the group may display a uniformly happy face. Dig depeer, and the future may be painted as bleak, with doomsday end-of-the-world predictions. When the predictions fail to materialize, the beliefs may be changed and a new scenario presented. Or, the future may be painted as rosy, as long as a member stays within the fold. Members who move on are never celebrated for doing so. Those who consider leaving the fold face the real prospect of ostracism, shunning, reprisal, bodily harm and worse. In our S.H.I.P. process, this area is known as “BEFORE” and relates to how all of the six other areas, taken together, work to foster resilient hope and positive outlook.
Often, people run from organized religion after a negative experience. They saw a lack of Godliness in one or a number of people and made a blanket indictment of an entire denomination or faith. What may take time to emerge is that people are a mixed bag everywhere. The problem is, after entering a cult and learning this truth, exiting can be difficult. Many people have successfully exited cults. Exit is definitely possible, and worth the effort. If you or someone you know is involved in a cult, do not give up hope. With prayer and effort, a brighter future is indeed possible. There exist support groups and resources both on the web (e.g.,Cult Watch, Cult Education Institute) and in books. Do not give up hope. Remember Psalm 31:24, “Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen your heart, all ye that hope in the LORD” and “(Jesus said) Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” – Matt 28:20
What are WebDefs?
WebDefs – simple definitions of key terms relating to ministry and healing arts – are a regular feature of NHM Ministrants. Offered in conjunction with select key scriptural passages and analysis, WebDefs can be a useful starting place for exploring a topic of interest.