Cults: Faith Gone Awry


September 13. 2019

Cults arise when people become fearful, want immediate and simple answers, and lose contact with genuine faith. They thrive on what can be called a kind of cultural fatigue and profound ignorance. Historically, for example, when Moses went up into biblical Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:12-18), he left the Israelites for forty days and forty nights. The Israelites became restless and fearful in his absence. Turning away from God, they directed their devotion to worshiping the Golden Calf. It was immediate, provided simple answers, and required no thinking.

There are of course more contemporary examples, where people become fearful, want immediate and simple answers to life’s big issues and problems. They stop thinking. Their critical faculties decline and they surrender to the simple but phony propaganda of cultic leaders. And they are usually supported by far-right movements with strong racial supremacy. Sometimes the beginning of these movements tends to be relatively quiet and gradual; but they remain sinister red flags nonetheless.

Quite often the line between conventional religion and a cult is not so clearly defined. Cults are exclusive, highly secretive, and authoritarian. Some religions of course are that way as well. Some cults even proclaim Christianity, but bear no resemblance to anything truly and authentically Christian. There are as well political cults, which attract and control because they act like captivating religions, whose only demands are obedience and unquestioned loyalty.

A typical cult has a somewhat theatrical and unaccountable leader, who persuades by coercion and exploits the cult’s members economically, sexually, or in some other way. Cult leaders often get people to react to what they are doing by saying something they don’t really or fully believe. Cultic leaders shun and ostracize members who don’t accept the cult’s exclusive claims to truth. When it comes to truth, cult leaders gradually turn fantasy and fiction into accepted truths by continually repeating false statements in rhetoric, propaganda, and the media.

The ninety-three years old American psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton, known for his studies of the psychological causes and effects of war and political violence, delineates three characteristics, which are the most common features of destructive cults:

(1) A living leader, who has no meaningful accountability and becomes the single most defining element of the group and its source of power and authority.

(2) A process of indoctrination, persuasion or thought reform, commonly called “brainwashing.” In this process, members of the group often do things that are not in their own best interest, but in the best interest of the group and its leader.

(3) Economic, sexual, social, and political exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.

The warning signs of cultic development are clear:

• It advocates authoritarianism without meaningful accountability. Leaders, if not downright evil are self-centered, mediocre, crass, and juvenile.

• No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry. Dissent and criticism are not permitted. Those who dissent are marginalized, excluded from decision-making, and labeled “troublemakers” or “dangerous,” or even demonic.

• No meaningful financial disclosure for the leader such as an independently audited financial statement.

• The leader promotes exaggerated and misguided fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophes, evil conspiracies, and persecutions.

• The group leader is always right. The leader becomes the exclusive way of knowing and passing on the “truth.”

• History and the past become malleable constructs that the leader can adjust to meet the needs and agenda of the cult. Genuine facts become fake news. Actual fake news becomes the new accepted truth.

• Members of the cult believe their leader was sent by God to change the world; and all must therefore be obedient and loyal to the leader.

We all need to be alert to cultic leaders and groups. They are unhealthy and pernicious. We need to have the courage to speak out. They are people who thrive on fear and fear of social change; and they take advantage of people by controlling information and promoting fear. In the process, they support a very unhealthy kind of religion.

Healthy religion builds bridges between people. It strengthens a basic sense of trust and inter-personal relatedness to people and promotes personal responsibility. It encourages intellectual honesty and does not run away from questions or doubts. It does not oversimplify the human situation or its sometimes tangled complexity. And yes: it emphasizes love and growth not fear.

Take care,

Jack

5 thoughts on “Cults: Faith Gone Awry

  1. Be happy you’re in Belgium the majority of your time. It is so tiring being vigilant and enduring this in America. Thanks for your thoughts, Jack.

    • Thanks Patricia. The social-cultural galactic plates are shifting. Around the world actually. We need to strengthen our bonds with people who are alert, pro-active, and still optimistic.

  2. Thanks so very much, Jack, for your timely and necessary warning against cult leaders. May we all have the courage to speak out and, instead, embrace healthy religion that emphasizes love and growth.

  3. Do these leaders make phonecalls to leaders of other cults, forbid any record of what was said, redirect criticism or questioning to the leader’s enemies, and make statements blaming others?

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