In Retrospect (aka Feelin' Rather Cult-ish)

Cult.  A word that evokes shudders of the religious and eye rolls from the secular.  Images of kool-aid poisoned victims or strangely clad followers driven to do things outside the norm of the mainstream pops into our minds.  I have never considered myself vulnerable to being a part of a cult, and have at many times felt pity and sadness for those caught up in such brainwashing. However, in retrospect of my recent experiences, I absolutely must reconsider.  A cold, hard and objective view of the situation may be in order.

First, let's define cult:
1. a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies.

2. an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers.

3. a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.

4. Sociology . a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols.

5. a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader.
While the first definition is the most benign, oldest and original meaning of the word, in our times the word cult is most used as a pejorative.  Often we look for the defining clues of a cult, instead of defining the word itself,  especially when observing religious groups outside our own.  I have heard it said that a group is a cult if you cannot leave.  Well, I think it's a bit more broad and complex than that simple definition.

In poking around on the web, I came across some interesting information about and written by an individual named Mr. Steve Hassan:
Hassan was himself a member of the Unification Church (better known as the "Moonies") for several years. After being taken from them and deprogrammed, he was motivated by the experience to make an exhaustive study of what he calls the "cult phenomenon" and has since become a prominent exit counselor and authority on the subject in America.  He notes:

"Over nine hundred people--men, women, and children; white and black--lying face down in the mud at Jonestown, Guyana. Mention "cults" to someone and these are the image you'll evoke. Yet these images do not represent the overall destructive cult phenomenon as it has become today.  ...A destructive cult distinguishes itself from a normal social or religious group by subjecting its members to persuasion or other damaging influences to keep them in the group."

Hassan identifies four qualifying components of mind control and stresses the point that "mind control is not brainwashing." Below he outlines four components of mind control:

"Behavior control, thought control, emotional control, and information control: each form of control has great power and influence on the human mind. Together, they form a totalistic web, which can manipulate even the strongest-minded people. In fact, it is the strongest-minded individuals who make the most involved and enthusiastic cult members."
Mr. Hassan also goes on to say that people under the influence of mind control are not aware of it.  Wait a minute...intelligent people not aware of mind-control?  Well, honestly, I completely agree.

Behavior and thought control is easily accomplished through teaching and peer pressure. Everyone wants to not only fit into a particular group of their choosing, but desires to be identified with them through their lifestyle.  From my own experience, it was very easy to take on behaviors, culture and lifestyle edicts when I was convinced they were 'right' and justified.  I completely agreed with the Scriptural tenets and readily took on the culture of my chosen group.   I was completely unaware that I was falling under mind control...

Once well ensconced and totally 'on board' with the doctrines of the chosen sect, the emotional control easily falls into place.  The need to be accepted and pleasing to the group is a strong pull; members are more than eager to spend time and effort sharing gifts and talents with the group.  Emotional bonds are formed, loyalties defined and relationships highly valued (often above others outside the group).  Yes, very emotional.  And once those bonds are secure*, the thought of losing the 'community' is a constant thought...perhaps even a fear.  (*Well, sometimes secure, sometimes not-so much; relational abuse is an oft-used tool of manipulation keeping sect members wondering if they really are 'in' the group, and can further foster a desire to be part of the inner circle.)

The last type of control is with information.  People kept in the dark about situations, (usually related to the disgruntled or those brave enough to speak out), requires members of the sect to make decisions based on little or no information.  This demands that they completely rely upon and trust their 'leaders' to make decisions for them.  Dangerous business, this is.  Secrets are the mainstay of controlling sects and is definitely a form of mind control and manipulation.

Another piece worth mentioning is the well-embedded idea that there is no other place to go outside the group or sect.  This sets up a situation where even if members witness things they don't agree with, or are even downright unrighteous, they feel that they cannot speak out or leave.  Oftentimes members opt for looking the other way or choosing to not get involved.  The thought of not being a part of the group is just too painful, not to mention if the entire family is involved and don't want to leave.  Separate from the group and lose your culture, relationships, history, place of worship...your identity.  Better to be in ignorance than have to do something due to conscience.  

Teaching in a group such as this would have to be very engaging to attract and maintain intelligent members, it is true.  However, once respect and admiration is afforded to a teacher, I have seen it to be rather easy for a teacher to then define things in any manner they deemed necessary or advantageous to keep control of the group.  Ever changing definitions of important concepts (gossip, for example) or sins (such as idolatry) keep members just a little confused as to what their behavior should be to stay accepted within the group.  I probably don't need to say that confused members are definitely easy to manipulate.

One last hallmark of a cult-ish group, in my view, would be the protection of the leader by those chosen to be closest to them.  Sometimes referred to as 'guardians', these trusted ones have absolutely no problem protecting and defending the leader at all costs, regardless of the behavior.  They have determined that without the leader, their way of life - their identity - will be lost.  To that end, they will do whatever is necessary to maintain the reputation and position of the leader, including covering up sin and/or moral failure.

So all this leaves me with one question:  Why?

Why would anyone want to control and manipulate others?  Especially in a religious context where the greatest command is to love?  What is the benefit?  Sadly, I don't have any answers - only experience...and a painful one, at that.

Most importantly, people are told to avoid contact with ex-members or critics. 
Those who could provide the most information are the ones 
to be especially shunned.
~Steve Hassan

The tendency to turn human judgments into divine commands makes religion one of the most dangerous forces in the world.”
~Georgia Harkness

More information on Steve Hassan
Article, What is a Cult?
Don't Drink the Kool-Aid (defined)
Cult Awareness & Library - Leaving a Cult

You can discover what your enemy fears most 
by observing the means he uses to frighten you.

~Eric Hoffer, 


Jedi-J said…
I feel like this has to do with our Jedi cult. I mean you know how we brainwash people to do good deeds for the community and make children smile right? :)
Netanya said…
Wow, Eye opening information my friend. Too much Kool Aid! So thankful for God's mercy and cleansing and most of His love which brings us out.
pappabell said…
Excellent, informative piece! I would add that the leaders of a cult also warn their followers to "shun" or "make a clean break with" with anyone who has left. Been there, done that, won't be doing it anymore, Baruch HaShem.
Ari C'rona said…
Wow! My eyes are opened even more! Our G-d is so merciful... Well researched, my friend!
asl4god said…
I know how hard an experience this has been, hon. I'm grateful for your transparency as you go through the healing process and use your intelligence and research skills to educate others. I love you, my sister and will continue to be here for you and with you.
Sven said…
This is along the same lines I was thinking when I left. I went back this week after not being there for a while and saw all the problems I saw before, but in a much sharper relief. Excellent posting.