“I think you’re in a cult”, my grandfather said to me one day. It was the 1980’s, and I was attending Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia during Jerry Falwell’s reign. I enjoyed coming home to my grandparent’s house for holiday breaks. They were both secular but my grandfather was especially so. When asked about his religious views, he said that he was agnostic but in the 1980’s, hardly anyone wanted to admit being atheist.
“I’m not going to contribute monies to a cult. You’re on your own”, he told me. At 18, I didn’t really have much comprehension of student loan debt nor its future impact, but like so many I became a borrower.
But a cult? Christianity is a cult? “No”, I thought to myself. I remember wishing that my grandfather would just repent and believe so that it would all become clear to him. After all, the Bible says “the natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness to him.” (1 Cor. 2:14).
In my later adult life, the topic of cults became of greater interest to me. But let’s define our terms. What is a cult? Here are three brief definitions:
- A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.
- A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.
- A misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.
Those dictionary definitions are a good start but they are certainly incomplete. What are the major characteristics of a cult?
Exclusivity: The leadership declares that their group is the only true religious system, or that they are one of the few true remnants of God’s chosen people. Followers are encouraged to join this exclusive group. Related to this, the leader(s) often claim special knowledge from God through dreams, visions or special interpretations of religious text.
Submission: There’s a complete adherence to the leadership which often extends to an unquestioned trust in the leadership. A title of prophet or apostle might be used and such titles imply that there’s a special connection to God and thus the followers are more apt to give themselves over psychologically. Often, submission to the leadership is rewarded which perpetuates their control over followers.
Control: Related to submission, the leadership exercises control of its members’ actions and thoughts via repeated indoctrination. This often includes the use of fear through threats to a person’s eternal security (i.e., loss of salvation), or a threat to their place to live. Appearance standards are often instituted (particular dress and/or facial hair requirements). Specific gender roles might be stipulated and in severe cases, sexual exploitation of younger children can result. Another control tactic used is to show excessive love to a person by others in the group with the intent to create emotional dependence to the group.
Isolation and Shunning: By minimizing contact with those outside of the group, the leadership can exert further control over the thinking and actions of members. ‘Group think’ becomes the norm with isolation. There’s security and comfort in sharing the same beliefs no matter how bizarre they might be. Even when one individual experiences cognitive dissonance regarding the teachings, group think compels the individual to disregard any critical thinking. The act of shunning and/or expelling those who fail to keep in step with the group provides additional control through shame.
Persecution complex: The leadership encourages and/or perpetuates an “us against them” mentality. If anyone who is outside of the group attempts to contradict the leadership, it is expressed as persecution which helps to strengthen and/or validate the original doctrine. Quite often, followers remain on edge and see even the most trivial circumstance as potential persecution (think Starbucks red coffee cup).
If you see yourself or your religion in many of the characteristics above, please give it serious pause. While we’re in fundamentalism, it’s easy to see the cult-think in others, but not in ourselves. I would encourage you to compare and contrast your current belief system with that of other religions. Write down why your beliefs are legitimate but their beliefs are not.
A truth that requires its followers to isolate themselves is likely not truth. A truth that requires submission to leaders who encourage isolation and/or shunning is likely not truth. A truth that dictates appearance standards or that exploits children is not truth. Truth will stand on its own. Reality is that which when you stop believing in it, still exists.
[Addendum, 12-31-2015] Please visit my friend Victoria’s blog and see her post entitled, Are Brainwashing Techniques in the Bible and Strategically Used in Churches? It’s a related and fascinating read.