What is a cult, and how is it different from a religious group? I will seek to answer this and discuss what the cults believe and what it is that motivates people to enter these groups.
What is it that makes people stay in cult groups and sometimes be willing even to die for their group? We think immediately about the Heaven's Gate cult and the 39 otherwise bright people who recently killed themselves so they could supposedly be transported to a UFO trailing the Hale-Bopp Comet. Or we think of David Koresh and the Branch Davidian cult near Waco, Texas in 1993, who barricaded themselves at their Mount Carmel headquarters and died in the flames. An even more dramatic memory is Jim Jones and his 911 followers, members of the People's Temple, who in 1978 committed mass suicide by drinking poison in Jonestown, Guyana.
First I will define the characteristics of a cult. Secondly I will present their methods, and thirdly I will look at their beliefs.
A cult is not just a religion. The major religions of the world are not cults. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism are not cults. As a Christian, I have major differences with the other religions and I believe they have missed God's unique revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ, but they are not cults.
Some people say, "The only difference between a cult and a religion is a hundred years," but they blur a vast distinction between the two. There is a sizable body of literature on cults, so I will attempt to summarize the defining characteristics under four headings, using the acronym CULT:
|C||Cut off from the world. Cult leaders and followers are isolated and cut off from normal interaction with people outside the group. They do not have the corrective influence of other perspectives. They lose their ability, and their desire, to verify information the cult gives them. They become alienated from family and friends and have an unhealthy need to belong to the cult group.|
|U||Undernourished--poor nutritional intake and sleep deprivation often characterizes cult members. They are near exhaustion and their resistance is low, so they can be easily manipulated, deceived, and exploited. Inadequate nutrition and sleep is disguised as a special practice or diet to improve health or advance spirituality.|
|L||Leadership is authoritarian and coercive. The leader claims divinity or special knowledge and authority from God, and often uses deception and has hidden objectives. Unquestioning obedience is expected. This leads the cult follower into total dependence upon the cult for belief, behavior, and practice. He or she loses personal freedom and the ability to make choices.|
|T||Theology or beliefs of a cult always involve some unique or new perspectives, and they claim that truth is only found in what the cult says. Cults often promote the "we/they" syndrome, which also keeps members dependent and loyal to the cult.|
Obviously, these are generalizations and not every cult exhibits each of these characteristics at all times. And, the major religions of the world, including Christian churches, sometimes express some of these traits. Corporations even exhibit some of these traits! The difference is that the cults practice far more of these traits, and at a far greater intensity and frequency level, than do religions or other non-cult groups.
So, cults are characterized by (1) their methods, and (2) their beliefs. I will look first at these methods, which basically involve manipulation, and then look at their beliefs in more detail.
The questions addressed in this section are: How do the cults lure and deceive their followers? Do cults really engage in coercive conversion and brainwashing? Can their approach be successfully resisted? To answer these questions we need to look at the procedure cults use to win converts. The following four elements are common to most cults. These four steps draw a person deeper and deeper into the cult:
To determine whether the techniques employed by the cults would be best described as super-salesmanship or whether cults really engage in coercive conversion and brainwashing would require a cult-by-cult and case-by-case analysis. It is clear, however, that many of the techniques closely parallel those described by Edgar Schein, Robert Lifton, and others, who have studied brainwashing techniques used on American soldiers captured during the Korean War. These techniques included efforts to undermine physical resistance, removal of all social and emotional supports, mortification exercises, and intensive indoctrination procedures. Moreover, the results are sometimes similar to brainwashing in that converts experience altered personalities, altered world views, and partial or complete loss of the ability to think clearly and abstractly.
In commenting on the beliefs of various cults, I have to have a standard by which to compare them. As I mentioned earlier, I am a Christian, which means I have trusted Christ to forgive my sins and to accomplish His will and purposes in my life. So I will be describing briefly what Christians believe about major issues and then showing that the cults depart from these beliefs.
Christians also believe two other things very strongly about Jesus Christ. One, He was resurrected from the dead after three days and that He ascended to heaven where He now intercedes for us. Secondly, Christ is coming again to judge all people living and dead. At His second coming, Christ will establish God's kingdom and rule.
The cults almost always de-emphasize Christ's deity and the effectiveness of His death. They say he was godly but not God, and that we have to add our work to His work in order to please God.
The cults, by using techniques of manipulation, deface and devalue God's image in people. They attack the dignity and worth that each individual has in God's image. The eastern and new age cults underestimate the sinfulness and fallenness of people by urging us to seek "the god within you".
You can resist the cults and help your friends to resist. The greatest command in the Bible, according to Jesus Christ and the Jewish rabbis, is to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength. Don't surrender your mind or soul to the undue control of a cult group. You have a choice; God created you with the ability to be responsible for your own actions and destiny.
You, like all other humans, are wonderfully made and greatly loved by God, and deeply fallen from God. But you also are faced with a choice: you can establish a relationship with God by accepting His offer of forgiveness and eternal life, or you can ignore or reject His offer. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die to pay the penalty for your sins. Open your life to Him. Turn from your selfish desires to Him, and ask Him to come into your life, forgive your sins, and make you the kind of person He wants you to be. Then find a church that helps (not coerces!) you to obey Christ, worship God, and learn His Word, the Bible.