Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Culture of Cults: 10 Cult Warning Signs in Any Group

In an earlier post, we dealt with the 5 Characteristics of a Cult Leader. In this post, I want to look more specifically at the warning signs within a group.

The gang over at SOS has provided a helpful and interesting list to think about when evaluating a religious group (or even a church) that you - or a loved one - consider joining.

The following characteristics of cults and sects are based upon the cult classification systems of the world’s leading cult experts like, Singer, Langone, Lifton, and Hassan.

  1. Obsession about group or the leader, putting it above most other considerations.

  2. Member’s individual identity becomes increasingly fused with the group, the leader and/or God followed by the group. Cloning of the group members or leader’s personal behaviors.

  3. Emotional overreaction when the group or leader is criticized. Seen as evil persecution.

  4. Belief that the group is "THE WAY" and they have a mission

  5. Increasing dependency upon the group or leader for problem solving, explanations, definitions and analysis, and corresponding decline in real, independent thought.

  6. Excessive hyperactivity and work for the group or leader, at the expense of private or family interests. Drifting away from family and old friends

  7. Preparedness to blindly follow the group or leader and defend actions or statements without seeking independent verification.

  8. Demonization of former members or members of alternative groups.

  9. Desire to be praised for doing the right thing and fear of public rebuke

  10. Unhealthy wish to be seen with or aligned publicly with the leader(s) of the group

The site points out that:

An organization doesn’t have to have all of these characteristics to be a cult, and variations on the characteristics are many, it just has to have a good number of them to be a cult or moving in the direction of becoming one.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Culture of Cults: Why People Join

In any discussion of cults, the question inevitably arises: Why do people join them?

Could it be that cult members are simple-minded, weak-willed people? Let Us posts an interesting statistic on this (emphasis mine):

According to one research, 48% of cult members had been between the ages of 19 to 25 years old when they joined. 35% had been between the ages of 26 to 35. They are looking at those fresh out of high school or in college that are targeted. 26% were Protestant Liberals and 28% were Catholic. Many three years of college. This dispels the myth that cult members are uneducated and don’t know any better. Many are educated, but na├»ve to the religious world and its deceptions.

Rod Benson with John Mark Ministries posted a sermon he preached on the subject in which he lists the following 6 reasons he believes people join cults:

  1. Unfulfilled expectations of traditional churches. Benson calls cults "the unpaid bills of the church". Where the traditional church has failed to maintain and teach biblical doctrine, or where it's become ineffective, cults rush in to fill the vacuum.

  2. A sense of love and affection. We all need to experience a sense of love and care from friends and loved ones. Cults excel in this crucial area, because they know that meeting felt needs pays great dividends.

  3. A sense of belonging. People - especially young adults - increasingly join cults in order to find a family that gives them a sense of belonging they lack in their biological family due to the prevalence of divorce, single parenthood, generational conflict and child abuse.

  4. A sense of acceptance and self-worth. People who feel for one reason or another that they don't 'belong' in society (or in the church) are especially attracted to cult organisations - because they feel alienated, or isolated, or they lack a positive and healthy sense of personal identity. Cult members may believe the lie that they're now on God's side, or that they have "found the truth," and they develop contempt and resistance toward orthodox churches. Cults also encourage a high degree of lay-involvement, elevating the importance of the individual member, which many adherents find attractive.

  5. Idealism. Some people are attracted by the enthusiasm and personal sacrifice of cult members, or by their wholesome lifestyle in contrast to the relatively worldly lifestyle of the major culture and the traditional churches; the strict regimen and discipline of some cults is also attractive.

  6. Spiritual fulfillment. All people hunger for spirituality - for something beyond the material and the tangible. As our society becomes more technologically advanced and more secularised, that spiritual hunger becomes more apparent and focussed, and cults tap into that lack, filling the void.

I like this list and agree with his conclusions. It was interesting to me how all but #1 are also true of why people join legitimate, traditional churches. In fact, there seems to be a fine line between the true church and cults - much like there is a fine line between legitimate currency and a really good counterfeit. That's why it's important to know the truth and be ready to discern the false.

Heb 5:14 NIV
(14) But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

I also think it's a legitimate argument that some cults are simply good groups gone bad. It's very possible that a cultish group started out as a legitimate, Bible-believing church that lost its moorings somewhere along the way. It may be that people entrenched in such a church are blind to its condition because the deterioration has happened so slowly, much like the analogy of the frog in a slowly-heated pot of water. Or maybe they've invested so much time and personal resources in an organization, they are loathe to admit the truth.

In addition to learning the truth of Scripture, lists are helpful in discerning. You can find the 5 Characterisitcs of Cult Leaders by clicking here. And in the next post, I'll share 10 things to look out for in a particular group.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Culture of Cults

Recently a friend called to ask me about cults. Her daughter had moved several states away and was looking at different churches. My friend was concerned that she might get involved in something that would alienate her from her family and “zap her personality”, as she put it.

I've been interested in the psychology of cults for quite a long time. Umpteen years ago I wrote a college research paper on the subject because I wanted to understand how in the world reasonably intelligent people could become caught up in mind-warping, will-breaking cults.

I shared with her some things I'd discovered on the topic, and I thought I'd post some of my findings over the next several days. I hope you find it interesting as well as helpful and informative.

In this first post on the subject, I want to quickly point out a very important distinction. posits that the term 'cult' can be defined either theologically or sociologically.

  • Theologically deals with doctrine and ". . . the reasons why a particular group's beliefs and/or practices are considered unorthodox - that is, in conflict with the . . . teachings of the movement the group compares itself to." In other words, the Mormon church may call itself Christian, but even a cursory comparison of its teachings with orthodox Christianity will reveal serious conflicts (to put it mildly!), thus landing it squarely in the 'cult' category (sorry, Mr. Romney . . .).

  • Sociologically deals with behavior, and ". . . considers such factors as authoritarian leadership patterns, loyalty and commitment mechanisms, lifestyle characteristics, [and] conformity patterns (including the use of various sanctions in connection with those members who deviate)." This is to say that a group or a church can be orthodox in its doctrine, but still exhibit cultish tendencies in the way it handles criticism, demands loyalty, or manipulates decision-making processes.

For more information, check out the site by clicking here. In the next post we'll look at 5 characteristics of cult leaders . . .

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Culture of Cults: 5 Characteristics of Cult Leaders

I wonder sometimes if people would just rather have their lives governed by someone else. Every year at tax time, I think it would be a lot easier if I just dropped out of society, grew a ponytail, and sold flowers in the airport. Come on, when the stress levels peak, who hasn't considered the value of moving to South America and living in a commune where you grow hemp in neat little farms? Anyone else? Nah, me neither . . .

But I've long been fascinated by the psychology of cults. In a previous post we looked at a helpful definition of cults and a distinction between theological and sociological cults.

The alarming thing is how easily devout, intelligent people can get caught up in a cult without even knowing it.

So, how do you discern the good groups from the bad? How do you know if the church you're attending, or the Bible study a member of your family is attending, is safe?

The folks over at have posted a helpful checklist suggesting 5 things to look out for in any group leader(s). This is not an exhaustive list and it's far from perfect, but it serves as a springboard for discernment:

  • [The leader(s) demonstrate an] authoritarian approach and intolerance of questioning or criticism. Lies about and insults opponents.

  • Leader(s) shows anxiety about the world, speaking of threats or conspiracies against the group or its leaders.

  • Leader(s) regularly accuse(s) dissatisfied members who leave of having something wrong with them, having personality disorders or being transgressor and deserters.

  • Ex-members have similar stories of abuse and ill-treatment by the leader(s).

  • The group/leader(s) is always right and followers never feel they can be "good enough".

Next we'll examine the appeal of cults - why do people join them?