Robert Todd Carroll
The term 'cult' expresses disparagement and is usually used to refer to unconventional religious groups, though the term is sometimes used to refer to non-religious groups which appear to share significant features with religious cults. For example, there are some who refer to Amway and est as cults, but I think the terms is best reserved for groups such as Scientology, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, Aum Shinrikyo, the Hare Krishnas, David Koresh's Branch Davidians, the Order of the Solar Temple (74 suicides in 1984), Elizabeth Clare Prophet's Church Universal and Triumphant, the Unarians, Heaven's Gate (39 suicides in 1997), and the group that followed the Rev. Jim Jones to Guyana where more than 900 of them joined in a mass murder/suicide ritual in 1978.
Three ideas seem essential to the concept of a cult. One is thinking in terms of us/them with total alienation from them. The second is the intense, though often subtle, indoctrination techniques used to recruit and hold members. And the third is the charismatic cult leader. Cultism usually involves some sort of belief that outside the cult all is evil and threatening; inside the cult is the special path to salvation through the cult leader and his teachings. The indoctrination techniques include
Of course, there is a positive side to cults. One gets love, a sense of belonging, of being special, of being protected, of being free from the evils of the world, of being on the path to eternal salvation, of having power. If the cult did not satisfy needs that life outside the cult failed to satisfy, cults would not exist.
One common misconception about cults is that their members are either insane or brainwashed. The evidence for this is pretty slim. It consists mainly of the subjective feeling that no one in their right mind could possibly choose to believe the things which cult members believe. For example, the 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult believed a space ship was coming to get them to take them to a "higher level." They believed that their leader, Marshall Applewhite (aka Do), was Christ coming to take the chosen few to a better life somewhere in outer space, perhaps to work on a starship like the Enterprise one sees in movies and on television. They believed they would be given new bodies in the new world, asexual bodies with no hair or teeth, but vestigial eyes and ears, not those gross bug eyes one sees in so many alien pictures. To many people, these beliefs sound like the delusions of lunatics and it seems inconceivable that anyone in his or her right mind would accept such beliefs unless they were crazy or brainwashed.
Examined closely, however, the beliefs of Heaven's Gate or Scientology are no stranger than the beliefs which billions of "normal" people hold to dearly in their sacred religions. As has been noted by others, delusions held by one is insanity, by a few a cult, and by many a religion. To ask why anyone would believe such non-sense as the Scientologists or Heaven's Gate cult believe regarding alien beings and space ships, fallen angels, thetans, etc., but not ask why anyone would believe in heaven and hell, angels, devils, crucified gods, resurrections, messiahs, transubstantiation, the trinity, etc., seems inherently self-deluded.
It is true that the cult leader or religious founder usually shows signs of brain disease, such as hearing voices or having delusions of grandeur. But the followers need not be mad. Some are undoubtedly deranged, but the vast majority are not likely to be crazy or the cult would not function. The cult leader must be extremely attractive to those who convert. He or she must satisfy a fundamental need, most likely, the need to have someone you can totally trust, depend on and believe in: someone who can give sense and direction to your life; provide you with purpose and meaning. But above all, life with the messiah and the other cult members must fill you with bliss. It should be obvious that people stay in cults because they feel better in the cult than they did outside the cult. Some studies have found that a significant number of cult members are depressed before joining and the cult lifts their spirits, makes them feel much better. Even if they aren't depressed, cult membership must be more satisfying than life in the real world with one's real family and real friends.
Why do people stay in cults? To do so gives them pleasure. They may be deluded and manipulated. Severe control tactics may be used to keep them in the flock, like cutting them off from the rest of the world, especially from their family and friends, communally reinforcing the cult's dogmas, and inculcating paranoia. Isolation, communal reinforcement and the inculcation of paranoia as a control tactics are used by some parents over their children, some political leaders over their citizens, and even some therapists over their patients. So, cults are not unique in attempting to control people using these tactics..
Cult members may gradually become paranoid and be led to believe that the government, their family and former friends can't be trusted. They may gradually become more isolated and militant. They may even begin to stockpile weapons for the coming Armageddon. They may turn themselves over completely to their savior and be willing to kill or die for him or her. But they stay because they like it. That is not to say that they are leading meaningful lives, but they are not lunatics, morons or zombies. They are deluded and misguided, to be sure, but they are not stupid or crazy. When they commit crimes in the name of their leader we should not treat them as insane but throw the book at them. When they commit suicide we should be thankful that they turned their hatred of the world against themselves rather than against the rest of us.
Conway, Flo and Jim Siegelman. Snapping (Sonoma, CA: Stillpoint Press, Inc., 1997)
Martin,Walter. The Kingdom of Cults, revised and expanded (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1985).
Martin,Walter. The New Age Cult (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1989).
Singer, Margaret Thaler and Janja Lalich. Cults in Our Midst (San Francisco : Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995).
Robert Todd Carroll