The word cult is often thrown around in todays society as a derogatory term towards religions that are not well known or have aspects that are contrary to mainstream religions. According to mainstream media, cults have been responsible for massive pact suicides, and their followers are incestual and polygamous. The mass media shows the leader as a manipulative person who controls his/her believers as they blindly follow, not knowing the trouble that will certainly find them ” . cult’ has become little more than a convenient, if largely inaccurate and always pejorative, horthand for a religious group that must be presented as odd or dangerous for the purpose of an emerging news story. “(3) Douglas Cowan and David Bromley show the harsh reality of the way the majority of the media likes to portray cults, probably for better ratings. There are several main cults that are often referenced when researching the topic. The first being The People’s Temple, the founder Jim Jones had a following of 912, that all died (including him) by cyanide laced drinks in 1978.
This was known as the Jonestown Massacre, controversy surrounds it as it is debated hether or not it was a mass suicide or murder. Another commonly referenced cult is Heaven’s Gate, a UFO doomsday religion that ended in a 39 member suicide in 1997 when the group was attempting to leave earth because they believed it was about to be “recycled”. To learn and understand what a cult is, I will be define a cult, what features make a cult and who the people are that Join them, as well as discuss the founders of these religions.
What is the definition of a cult? Depending on the intent of the author defining the word cult proves a difficult task. The scholars on the ubject of cults seem to have two different approaches when studying this topic. There are those who are a part of the anticult movement and often use the word “cult” in a negative fashion towards any religion that has formed in recent history. Those apart of the anticult seem to skirt around the subject of defining a cult or explaining what a cult exactly consists of.
We are given the feeling as though they do not want to define it as they may cast an umbrella over other mainstream religions that have a similar form. It is even often used to describe popular trends that will upposedly not last, veganism is a term that has been described as a cult fad. You can see how it is almost always used negatively, or as something that has no real substance and will not stand the test of time like other religions have. In contrast, there are those who do not use the word cult but prefer the term “New Religious Movements”.
These scholars have a more objective opinion, and use New Religious Movements to “… represent fascinating glimpses into the way human beings construct religious meaning and organize their lives to give shape to religious experience. ” (Cowan, Bromley, 3). It is important to be subjective when using the word cult and for purposes of this paper I will define cult in my own words and state that there is a difference between cults and New Religious Movements. A cult is a form of religion that is deceitful towards its own members with the leader abusing their powers.
Although there have been many mainstream religions that have had a leader abuse their powers, it is necessary to point out the ditterence, which is that in a cult the head of the religion is the source of all their religious knowledge and do not have other ways of getting to know the religion without them. In comparison, mass religions have many leaders, many forms of knowledge and you can attain religious beliefs through many forms, not only the one source.
Keeping in mind that using the word cult subjectively is imperative to this process, it is still easy to find movements that can be categorized under my own definition of the word cult. These would include the previously mentioned religions of The People’s Temple and Heaven’s Gate. When looking at these and other cults there are often many characteristics that they do have in common. It is typical for the cult to have only one leader, “.. ho claims divinity or a special mission entrusted to him from Above. ” (Harrison, 19) A lot of cult leaders use the money from the followers for personal profit.
There is a major sense of belonging that comes along with being a part of a cult. There are many religions that also share this but cults often want their members to have this feeling with them alone, and discourage involvement with others who are not in their religion. One author that I found that was willing to at least describe a cult relationship for the purposes of her book was Singer. SHe says there are three actors to cultic relationships, using that term better describes his viewings of interactions that go on in cults. The three factors are as follows: 1. The origin of the group and role of the leader 2. The power structure, or relationship between the leader (or leaders) and the followers 3. The use of coordinated program of persuasion (which is called thought reform, or, more commonly, brainwashing)” (7) You can see from the quote that this cultic relationship isn’t Just solely related to religion alone, Singer includes cults that are formed around doctrines, theories and practices, but states that other esearchers may not identify this exactly as she does. According to the scholars of new religious movements, “.. roups that are labeled “cults” often closely resemble a variety of conventional organizations in which these same characteristics are accepted as legitimate or necessary: communes and intentional communities, convents, monasteries, and other high-commitment religious societies, multilevel marketing organizations and armed forces training and combat units… ” (Bromley, Cowan, 5). There could be many reasons why a person would Join a cult, they could e the same reason’s one Joins any faith based group; a person is looking to belong, or meet others with similar morals.
A prime reason why a person would Join a cult is that they are not doing this knowing that what they are becoming apart of is in fact a cult. Cults often are established off of a Christian based structure with similar values, and practices. A person may attend a cult thinking it is another sect of Christianity. Members of a cult learn ways to recruit new members, a typical form of recruiting is called “love-bombing”, where members seek out non-members and shower them ith many forms of attention and affection. Basically, being extremely nice to others with the intent on conversion.
Anticult members are quick to let the public know that recruiting for cults can happen anywhere, on campus, on buses and trains, or on the street, letting us know that we can be recruited literally everywhere. In actuality it looks as though most “recruitment” for cults is done through family members or close friends. When seeing that it is family and friends who do the majority of converting it is easy to see now people would Join. It is not as though the trusted group are trying o harm others by recruiting, they are trying to help and see that others are also going to “find the truth” in a sense.
It is similar to the common practice of missions trips that many Christian religions take part in where they travel to underdeveloped parts of the world, converting people to Christianity and also helping the community in some way. The difference being, hopefully no abuse of power or deceitfulness by the religion. It isn’t always understood why one does Join a cult but it is probable to say each individual has their own personal reasons why, and somehow in a way that eligion is giving them whatever it is they may be looking for. Friends?
Belonging? Maybe they don’t agree with morals of other religions and this cult matches up with the lifestyle that they lead. There is a lot of information pertaining to the large numbers of youth attending cults and New Religious Movements, particularly between the ages of 18 and 22. Lorne L. Dawson describes the demographic of youth as the typical “All American boy or girl”. “A profile of the typical cult member reveals that he or she is white, middle or upper class, with at least some college education and nominally religious upbringing. 85) It might seem surprising that a lot of followers come from this kind of back round, but when looked at a little more in depth you see that often these young adults have either parental issues or have had some sort of middleclass failures. Those with problems in communicating with their parents often look to the leader of the cult for guidance and use them as a parental fgure. Those have failed according to middle class norms seem to be searching for validation. A lot of followers Join the cults in times of vulnerability and much needed support from others.
While you can say that almost everyone has come from back ounds where they have felt vulnerable at points and needed the support of others, it seems imperative that cults cling on to those who have these types of issues going on as well as the added factor of age to convert potential members. The time of young adulthood is when most people are beginning the process of learning who they are and to have a supportive, flattering, group surround them can be very influential to their life.
For most cults there is only one leader although this is not always true, using the examples from earlier, Heaven’s Gate had two leaders; Marshall Applewhite nd Bettie who liked to be called Ti and Do. Often the leader(s) starts this religion after some form of miraculous religious conversion where they may have had a near death experience or a vision, there are many different stories of leaders getting the “call to prophecy’. The leaders of cults are always charismatic, and seem to have all the answers.
In a time in peoples lives when they are looking for affirmation it is easy to be drawn to someone who knows it all, and can give the yes and no answers. The leader forms very personal relationships with his followers, which sometimes turns sexual. As cults grow the leader is not always able to be so intimate with each member, and this can become problematic for the cult. In response when cults’ members become larger, the leader will start to segregate himself from the following, only allowing access to certain members who have earned that right.
The leader becomes a sort of local celebrity in the eyes of the followers, and like celebrities, their fans stand by them even when arguments against their religious beliefs become even more valid. It is hard to say why a person may start a cult, money could be a huge contributing factor. Or the idea of a group of followers hanging onto every word d by the tounder may be exactly what a true narcissist is looking tor.
Out ot all the New Age Religions it is hard to exactly pin point out which ones can be classified as a cult, in history, different Christian denominations have been labelled as cults and paid a price for it. In the nineteenth century The Salvation Army was labelled as a cult and its members were stoned, now it is viewed as a respected and legitimate faith base. So to stamp a religion that hasn’t been researched to its full extent can be harmful, and not fair to its members.
To be close minded to the idea of new religious movements could erase the idea of religion altogether, as many religions are stuck in the past and not embracing the progressiveness of the times. If a religion is not abusing their powers or being harmful to its members who is to say that it cannot be fulfilling for someone who is looking for more in their life and doesn’t connect to mass religions? It is important to teach people to be able to question ideas and to critically think on new and old perspectives, hopefully by doing so people will not so easily be a part of such self-destructive religious groups.
I work in the field of homeless and mental health and have met many clients who see themselves as closer to God than the rest of humankind so it is very plausible to me for cult leaders to truly believe that what they are doing is the right way to live, and the only way to live. All religions have outsiders who will say anything to bring that religion into a bad light, it is with great importance that we carefully and kindly dissect the true intent on all religions, not Just new age religions.