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. CultFAQ.org 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.