It is interesting how the word ‘cult’ seems to have a particularly negative meaning, indeed it is often spoken with a vocal intonation which suggests ‘disgust’ or ‘hate’. In fact the word can be used in a religious and a sociological sense.
One meaning of the word is “a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also: its body of adherents”. In this usage we could describe any ‘flavour’ of a particular religious dogma as a cult if it moves away from or adds to the basic tenant of the original religion, i.e. if it makes changes to the essential doctrine of the parent doctrine.
In sociological terms a ‘cult’ can be suggested as being any group with a defined set of practices which seek to impact a person’s health, wealth, and/or personal relationships. In this sense then ‘cults’ need not be religious and of course need not be destructive. In common usage, however, the word cult implies something clandestine, divisive and, by assumption, harmful to the individuals wellbeing within it.
Recent conversations with several ‘spiritually minded individuals’ has reminded me of how lax we are in using words and how emotionally charged some of them are. Use the term Ouija Board in some social circles and the looks of horror and highly charged anecdotal storytelling inspired by the words is remarkable. Similarly the word OCCULT (which simply means ‘hidden’ and therefore implies ‘secret’) and CULT are words that are used in the same breath and generally with the same degree of distaste.
Groups are defined by the practices. Hence it follows that there are probably a series of behavioural markers that can be used to consider whether a group is a cult or ‘cult like’. Wikipedia, a resource we know to use with care, contains the following points…
“The word cult pejoratively refers to a group whose beliefs or practices are considered strange.The word originally denoted a system of ritual practices. The narrower, derogatory sense of the word is a product of the 20th century, especially since the 1980s, and is considered subjective.”
Further noting that..
“It is also a result of the anti-cult movement which uses the word in reference to groups seen as authoritarian exploitative and that are believed to use dangerous rituals or mind control. The word implies a group which is a minority in a given society.”
So a cult will have an ‘authoritarian’ structure and use ‘mind manipulation’ and ‘rituals’ to keep its members ‘in check’. Almost by definition ‘cult members’ will have access to and be given ‘secret knowledge’ which sets them apart from others in society. In general terms cults are normally build around some charismatic leader or founder. By this definition all of the World’s major religions have a ‘cult’ like basis.
Perhaps the key issue, as mentioned elsewhere, is that cults, in the pejorative sense, actually do little to promote and develop the ‘free will’ of the individual. Of course such negative cults may start out by promising personal liberation and access knowledge that increases personal power, but in exchange may require total subjugation to the cult hierarchy, their practices and beliefs.
In The Real Twilight Zone (TRTZ no 6: 11th Jan 2011 available from iTunes) we talked about mind control.
One of the things that cults are accused of is mind control. Psychologists and Therapists who specialize in ‘cult deprogramming’ have worked with individuals who have tried to extricate themselves from the vice like grips of certain cult groups. They have noted that an individual’s ‘free will’ is slowly eroded by mind control techniques familiar to all those who are aware of the CIA/MK ULTRA techniques developed from the 1950’s onward. In essence…
The ‘group’ present themselves has having something to make the individual happier, healthier, wealthier or more successful.
The individual offers personal information, and gradually discloses personal problems, fears, past misdeeds and yearnings
The group reduce the individuals problem to one simple explanation, which is repeatedly emphasized;
They individual receive unconditional love, acceptance, and attention from a charismatic leader or group
They individual gets a new identity or role based on the group’s structure
They individual, progressing through the upper stages of the cult hierarchy are isolated from friends, relatives and the mainstream culture (anyone who is not part of the group) and their access to information is controlled.
By these last stages the individual may well have become financially as well as socially and emotionally dependent upon the group.
Many groups operate by either sharing of ‘wealth’, ‘tithing’ (giving a percentage of your earnings to the group’s work) or by ever increasing costs of training courses which will take you to ‘the next level’ or ‘reveal an even higher truth’.
F.A.C.T. (the Fight Against Coercive Tactics) has a list of groups it claims uses mind control tactics to ensure its followers ‘keep the faith’.
We obviously can’t look at them all in detail, but let’s explore one or two that are interesting for different reasons whilst bearing in mind that existing groups and religions who are cults are very litigious often with deep pockets to match. Actually this last point is worth reflecting upon. For me if a group has nothing to hide, is acting for the best interests of people, knows that its ‘truths’ are sound and has a creedo about freedom of expression being aggressively litigious of those who criticize or ask questions must say something.
Heaven’s Gate was a UFO cult based in California and run by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles. The group was said to have its origins in the 1970’s when Applewhite whilst recovering from a heart attack had ‘near death experience’. He became convinced that he and Nettles, his nurse, where the ‘2’ spoken about in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 11:3).
They developed a mythos related to apocalyptic Biblical teachings, salvation and science fiction. Before the ‘Heaven’s Gate’ name ‘stuck’ the group was referred to as the Human Individual Metamorphosis movement. Applewhite preached that he was “Evolutionary Kingdom Level Above Human” in that he was directly related to Jesus Christ.
The group came to believe that:
The Earth was about to be ‘recycled’ and the only option was to leave it immediately.
Human bodies were only vessels which helped them on their journey
There were several paths by which they could leave the Earth prior to its recycling
Group members had to shed their attachment to the planet by giving up friends, family, possessions, money and sexuality.
Living a strictly ascetic lifestyle resulted in seven of the male members, including Applewhite, undergoing voluntary castration.
The Heaven’s Gate community settled in San Diego and earned money from the website development business Higher Source. Group members added the suffix “ody” to their first names in order to indicate that they were “children of the Next Level”.
On March 26 1997, 39 members of the group committed suicide. Applewhite had convinced the group that within the tail of the Hale-Boppe comet was a spaceship which was coming to take them to the next level.
Authorities found the dead lying in their own bunk beds, bodies covered by a square, purple cloth. Each member carried a five dollar bill and three quarters in their pockets.
All 39 were dressed in identical black shirts and sweat pants, brand new black-and-white Nike athletic shoes. They were also wearing an armband reading “Heaven’s Gate Away Team – a direct reference to Star Trek the language of which featured in much of their literature.
The Peoples Temple – Jim Jones
Jonestown was the name for the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Northwester Guyana.
The Peoples Temple was founded by Jim Warren Jones (born and lived in Indiana, USA for much of his life) who himself had a colourful and dynamic personal history including active involvement with communism, the Methodist Church with whom he became a student pastor but left when the Church leaders barred him from integrating Black people into his services.
Sometime around 1952 Jones witnessed a Faith-Healing service and apparently noted that the money and following such services attracted would help him achieve is social goals – which included integration. He set up his own Church, which he eventually called the Peoples Temple Christian Church Full Gospel.
It is suggested that the funds for this Church not only came from healings and healing services but through Jones’ own door to door selling of pet monkeys. Jones was a passionate integrationist and one would argue a social revolutionary. Indeed he was appointed by the Mayor of Inidanapolis as Director of their Human Rights Commission.
Often refusing to follow the party line he urged human rights activists to become more and more militant. There is so much more to Jim Jones than one would first imagine, but throughout his years of campaigning, the adoption of mixed race children by he and his wife, which he called his ‘Rainbow Family’, he was slowly building a set of personal beliefs that would lead him to establish an independent community in Guyana.
Building in Jonestown started in 1974 as a way to create a “socialist paradise” and as a “sanctuary” from the media that he and his Human Rights Activism attracted. Once in this isolated, ideal setting, things began to fall apart. It is suggested that Jones had a drug addiction and in the small community this was something that was difficult to hide.
To make matters worse Jonestown was attracting more and more people who wanted to share in what they believed was some kind of Utopia. The reality was one of a grueling schedule of work, followed by hours of ‘lessons’ on the nature of socialism a la Jim Jones. Internal pressures from his within his ‘sanctuary’ and concerns from families in the US who had lost contact with children and relatives who had moved to Jonestown were fast becoming a major issue.
On April 11, 1978, a group of “concerned relatives” distributed documents, including letters and affidavits, that they titled an “Accusation of Human Rights Violations by Rev. James Warren Jones” to the Peoples Temple, to the media and members of Congress. In June 1978, ex Temple member Deborah Layton provided the group with a statement detailing alleged crimes by the Peoples Temple and substandard living conditions in Jonestown.
In November 1978 Congressman Leo Ryan agreed to visit Jonestown to assess the situation. As he was leaving for his plane members of Jim Jones so called “Red Brigade” shot at and killed Ryan and his party supposedly in fear of what he would report when he arrived back in the US.
Later that same day, 909 inhabitants of Jonestown, 303 of them children, died of apparent cyanide poisoning. The FBI eventually recovered a 45 minute audio tape. This recording includes Jones urging the members of the Jonestown community to come forward to receive the poison – first for their children, then for themselves – as Jones describes the horrors of what would await those who did not commit what he described as “revolutionary suicide”.
Of all those we could talk about why these?
Well in both cases the demonstrate the key elements of cult profiles and behaviour.
A Charismatic Leader with an apparently meaningful and relevant message.
A doctrine or mythos that evolves around a key idea or principle
A way of engaging followers with a specific message and a promise of something better
A system which ensures that the followers are isolated or self-supporting
Restriction of influences and information from outside the group
A hierarchy which brings the most militant and evangelical of members close to the leader
A sense that their behaviour, their solution, their inner secret must be protected. If we consider other cult groups, The Branch Davidians (David Koresh), The Unification Church (Reverend Moon – hence Moonies), The Manson ‘Family’ perhaps we can see the same patterns.
As for some of the others we could mention – well it looks like a cult, behaves like a cult and thinks like a cult then…..