Western society has a fascination with cults. The word itself conjures up imagery of a seedy leader sporting dark aviator sunglasses and captivating a group of conservatively dressed people with his every syllable. The word brings a subtext of utter devotion but also absolute brainwashing or mind control.
They may also call to mind images of groups and stories from places all around the world, far from where we live. But while cults have gained notoriety overseas, they aren’t as distant as one might think.
Unease about fringe religious groups has stemmed from a rise in cult activity during the 20th century. These include the 1969 “Manson family” murders in Los Angeles, which included the slaughter of nine people including pregnant actress Sharon Tate; and a 1997 mass suicide by San Diego-based “Heaven’s Gate”, whose leader Marshall Applewhite claimed his followers would follow the comet Hale-Bopp to the next level of existence.
There has also been a resurgence in interest with the Branch Davidian cult, led by David Koresh until their fiery death during a 1993 siege in Waco, Texas.
More recently, Russian mystic and self-proclaimed “Jesus” Sergei Anatolyevitch Torop was arrested on charges of physical and psychological violence to his members. In the United States, personal development company NXIVM has been uncovered as a pyramid scheme including forced labor and sexual slavery. Its co-founder and leader Keith Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison in October 2020 with charges including racketeering, sex trafficking and child pornography.
Adherents and survivors of Heaven’s Gate, the Branch Davidians and NXIVM cults all still meet in smaller capacities to this day.
Perhaps the most well-known cult was that run by alleged psychopath Jim Jones, who would’ve turned 90-years-old this month. The self-professed preacher and faith healer manipulated 918 people to escape “anti-communist” sentiment in California and join him in Guyana. There, the adherents of his “People’s Temple” group ran “Jonestown,” a community living in deprived conditions which included hard labour amidst difficult weather conditions. Jones convinced his followers that the government would eventually seek war with them, and to prepare for martyrdom if this ever ended up being the case.
On November 18th 1978, after a visit by congressman Leo Ryan and resulting shootout at the Port Kaituma airstrip, Jones made one final address to his followers that evening before guiding 901 men, women and children to drink Flavor Aid laced with multiple poisons. Jones himself was found dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The tragic mass suicide remained the largest loss of American civilian life until the September 11 terrorist attacks.
What is a cult?
Cults have been defined as “new religious movements,” and though the word cult was initially used to refer to branches of various religions, the term has taken on sinister connotations about abuse and manipulation in the last century. Cults (or new religions) never define themselves using the term cult, often using words such as “sect,” “group” or “community”. However, several shared features amongst cultic groups that make them identifiable—including incorporating parts of Christian faith, religious beliefs or theology—have people concerned whether mainstream Christian churches may also in fact be cults. While the common thread between all the aforementioned cults was certainly a background in some sort of religious ideology, how they contrast against mainstream Christianity goes darker than that.
1. Preying on the vulnerable
Recruitment is a key part of how many such groups grow. However, it’s their target demographic that causes alarm. Researchers have found cult groups often target those with “generalised ego-weakness and emotional vulnerability . . . tenuous, deteriorated or nonexistent family relations and support systems . . . history of severe child abuse or neglect . . . and intolerable socioeconomic conditions”.
Many Christian organisations often help people in these categories out of genuine care, leading by the example set by Jesus in Luke 14:13,14: “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed”.
Studies have also shown that many cult members had previous experiences with religion but rejected it. To discern whether an organisation is either preying or genuinely providing care requires exploring other facets of what constitutes a cult.
2. Love bombing
Once a cult group has found a target, they will then begin to appeal to that person’s sense of validation through calculated use of affection, affirmation and attention. “It’s about really getting the other person,” psychotherapist Ami Kaplan told Cosmopolitan magazine. “Then, when they really got the person and they feel secure in the relationship, the narcissist typically switches and becomes very difficult, abusive or manipulative.”
A telling feature of a cult group is how they are structured. Is the group democratic or ruled by a dictatorship? The latter is an instantly recognisable feature of many groups, including the aforementioned examples of Charles Manson from the “family,” David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, Jim Jones of the “People’s Temple,” and Marshall Applewhite of “Heaven’s Gate”. “Probably every cult leader is a narcissist,” cult researcher Janja Lalich told Live Science. The authority figure in a cult group are often described as “charismatic leaders”. They appear initially charming and are able to make a person feel understood. “Charismatic leaders tend to be intuitive. They’re able to read people. They thrive on chaos. They’ll create crisis situations,” Lalich said.
A key feature of narcissism is the inability to relinquish control in a democratic way. If the authority figure in a Christian group claims to be Jesus, it elevates them within a group to the point where they will be respected without question. This abuse of power has also often included physical, mental and sexual abuse. Writer Ed Dickerson referred to this as the “Messiah complex”. It also simultaneously contradicts the biblical account of Jesus’ Second Coming.
When the Bible details the circumstances of Jesus Christ’s second coming, it doesn’t describe anywhere that He will exist again on earth by starting a closed-knit group. Indeed, the Bible says that during His Second Coming, “every eye will see Him” (Revelation 1:7). The Bible also suggests that Jesus will not be walking around on earth after His return, but rather that “then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven . . . And He will send His angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather His elect from the four winds” (Matthew 24: 30,31).
The Bible goes further to say that anyone who claims to be Jesus Christ before that time is looking to deceive people. “At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah! or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.” (Matthew 24:23,24).
4. Change of identity
A study of cult members in Psychiatry Research volume 257 noted that 19.4 per cent experienced an “identity change experience” during their time in the cult. Such groups aim to achieve obedience by tearing away a person’s former structure to replace it with a new one. This method has been known as brainwashing, though it’s not always easy to identify.
“Drinking the Kool-Aid” is one colloquial term that has come out of the Jonestown massacre as the public have grappled with why Jones’ followers willingly surrendered their lives. Similarly, Marshall Applewhite’s adherents in the Heaven’s Gate cult recorded lengthy “exit statements” where they appeared willing, and sometimes happy to die in order to reach a “higher dimension”.
According to Oprah Daily, cults use behaviour control, information control, thought control and emotional control. This includes isolating a person, feeding them lies, discouraging and punishing critical thinking and manipulating emotions. This large-scale “gaslighting” tears down a person’s identity structure and makes them more willing to accept the teachings of a cult leader.
“Brainwashing presents what scientists call an “untestable hypothesis,” writes Rebecca Moore, an Emerita Professor of Religious Studies who had two close family members involved in the Jonestown massacre. She outlines how brainwashing has become an overused expression when referring to cult followers, when in fact “True believers certainly exist. My sisters fall into that category. They sincerely promoted the cause of the People’s Temple—no matter how misguided it was under the leadership of Jim Jones—because of their deep commitment to its ideals” she said.
She does, however, criticise the manipulative tactics that shape one’s involvement in such a group—including conversion, conditioning and coercion. She adds, “we find that people frequently abandon their beliefs as soon as they leave coercive environments.”
The Christian experience also includes identity change; but unlike those undergone by cult members, a life with Christ results in positive change. The Bible describes it as such in 2 Corinthians 5:17—“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old is gone, the new is here!” Galatians 2:20 also details this process: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Surrender is not a bad thing; in fact, it’s what the Bible describes as connecting us more deeply with God. However, unlike cult mentality, the Bible does encourage critical thinking. “Come now, and let us reason together,” it says in Isaiah 1:18 (KJV). The most important thing to note is this does not include surrender to a sinful earthly human or organisation, but rather surrendering to God himself through prayer. Here, God invites us to reason and be changed through faith – He does not coerce or condition us into doing so. Following Him is a choice, and not a command.
5. The power of fear
Fear of Armageddon or an apocalyptic event is often used by cult leaders to control their followers. It also leads them to prepare for those events and has created some tense situations, including stand-offs with authorities. When the ATF and later FBI entered the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, the group was already primed for a confrontation as preached by David Koresh and his interpretation of the Bible’s “seven-seals”. Similarly, Jim Jones spent a considerable amount of time preparing his followers for a time when they would be persecuted and made them practice “white nights” to prepare for a mass suicide if this ever happened.
Cult leaders pander to anxiety about the end of the world. They use Bible verses to justify fear and control. This again contradicts the Biblical account of the purpose of end of the world passages or descriptions in Scripture. The Bible notes among some of the signs of the end times, “see to it that you are not alarmed” (Matthew 24:6).
The Bible message about the end is not intended to entrap or to frighten, but to inform and illuminate events that will happen. “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” (Jeremiah 29:11). Jesus’ message in the Bible is not based around fear, it speaks about hope.
Test it for yourself
It is true that manipulative people have often used Christian beliefs as a means of asserting power and control. While on a surface level, their teachings seem to come from the Bible or provide new insight, their actions are telling.
The Bible itself teaches how to test a person or organisation’s integrity. “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious. By their fruit you will recognise them” (Matthew 7:15,16). The Bible also describes that fruit in another book. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22,23).
Does a cult that promises acceptance, insight and understanding—while also using manipulation, abuse, and coercion—seem like an organisation that has the fruit of the Spirit?
Certainly, there are people who exist within any organisation that exhibit traits that contradict the fruits listed here. The Bible describes sin as a daily battle, so to completely dismiss a repentant person on sinful journey is not Jesus’ intent. Yet very often cults are built on the very flawed personality of one individual and the group as a whole demonstrates some of these concerning control and coercion tactics that we’ve outline.
It can be discouraging to see the actions of individuals lead people away from God and the Bible encourages a personal relationship with Him without the need to go through self-professed authority figures. The type of community that the Bible promotes is one of equality, service and compassion, and while individuals in the community sometimes feel short of those ideals, communities that are striving for those principles are worth belonging to.
Cult groups, however, lead down people a destructive and sometimes dangerous with a negative impact on finances, relationships; sometimes even threatening out lives. Organisations that display these tendencies do not represent Christianity and should be avoided.
Daniel Kuberek is a journalist and assistant editor for Signs of the Times magazine. He lives in Sydney, Australia.
This article first appeared in Signs of the Times Australia.