What you don’t know will hurt you.
by Janis Hutchinson
“To be forewarned is to be forearmed.” This wise admonition applies to cults.
According to Dr. Margaret T. Singer in her book Cults in Our Midst, everyone is susceptible to the lure of these master manipulators. “If everyone is susceptible,” one might ask, “what can I do to be on guard? Is there a list of characteristics that will help me recognize a cult?”
Yes, there is; but the list is not easy to apply because those involved in a cult always have a hidden agenda.
When individuals first investigate a cult, they know nothing about what will be required of them. They are unaware of the ban on free thinking, demand for obedience, rejection of their biological family, surrender of careers and employment, donation of all personal wealth to the group, sexual abuse, physical and psychological deterioration, or the possibility of taking their own life.
If new converts were told these requirements up front, they would be like the proverbial frog who, when put in boiling rather than tepid water, instantly jumps out. Knowing this, cults cleverly start members out in cool temperatures. Then, gradually turning up the heat, they begin a thought-reforming process so subtle, it goes unnoticed. Like the frog, individuals will stay in until it’s too late.
With these things in mind, here are seven of the more seducing characteristics of cults.
Sense of mission. Individuals are first attracted to a cult by its profession of altruistic goals. They believe they will be joining a select group intent on saving the world. If it’s a religious cult, recruits are told that the leader is a prophet and that their group is the only one God is working through. This kindles a sense of mission and induces individuals to join.
Caring and camaraderie. “Love-bombing,” or showering positive attention, naturally evokes a positive response in new recruits. The cult portrays itself as a loving family, and potential members are automatically drawn to the hugging, touching, and flattery. This does not mean that every group that exhibits love is a cult, but cults play upon this need.
Strict absolutes. In a cult, everything — diet, dress standards, ethics, food restrictions, morals — is either black or white; there are no grays. The recruit compares this with the world’s sliding scale of values and is convinced that the group offers more stability and a worthwhile lifestyle.
A leader. The cult’s leader is its main focus. He (though it can also be a female) is the hub around which all members and activities revolve. To maintain his following, the leader must portray himself as a unique individual with a special mission — or, if a religious cult, a prophet called by God. The public relations (PR) group elevates his status.
These highly educated PR people know how to play up the hero image and will even endow their leader with the role of divinity if necessary. They know that people want leaders to have extraordinary qualities. Therefore, similar to an aggressive political campaign, they promote the leader’s exploits, admirable ethics, superior standards, intense dedication, God-given mission, and do-or-die willingness to fight for his noble cause.
Embellishing and twisting awe-inspiring stories (more fiction than fact), the PR group succeeds in fascinating and captivating new members. Followers do not check out the stories because they want their leader to have these fantastic virtues.
Members’ attraction to these falsified ideals soon turns into an all-consuming love for the leader, comparable to the love one feels toward God. A male’s love turns into a devoted hero-worship, with a tunnel vision solely for the leader. A female’ love often leads to romantic fantasies, making her susceptible to the leader’s sexual advances.
Members’ subjection is so total, they will allow themselves to be beaten, isolated, abused, or demeaned if the leader requires it. Their devotion becomes so intense that they are willing to die for him.
Us-versus-them mentality. The leader will save his people from the enemy, whomever or whatever the leader declares it to be: a person’s biological family, other religions, the government, the world in general, a political faction, or a race. In The True Believer Eric Hoffer writes that some kind of opposition, real or imaginary, is absolutely necessary to hold a group intact. By creating an us-versus-them mentality, an “enemy” unfailingly promotes dedication and unswerving loyalty.
Indoctrination of beliefs. A cult’s more bizarre beliefs and practices are always hidden from new members. Therefore, when entering the group, recruits are placed at a beginner’s level and exposed only to the basics.
General beliefs are communicated through assemblies, classes, talks, songs, and personal testimonies. If it’s a religious cult, beliefs are falsely validated with Bible verses. If members hear them often enough, they will believe.
Once converted to the basic beliefs, members are enticed with opportunities to advance into the more elite levels of the group. There they will be privy to inside information, given a title, and promised more responsibility. In a religious cult, they will be set apart and/or ordained to a higher spiritual calling, given duties exclusive to that level, and taught deeper doctrines.
Restriction of free thinking. Members must not question the cult leader or beliefs. For example, the Mormon Church states:
Lucifer . . . wins a great victory when he can get members of the Church to speak against their leaders and to “do their own thinking.” . . . When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done! *
Mormons, however, are led to believe they are autonomous, and they would laugh if someone suggested otherwise. But their smiling faces would immediately change if they decided to become “free thinkers,” ask questions, or voice any doubts or concerns. If members of any cult violate this principle, they will face severe consequences and be reprimanded until they repent.
Be prepared. These characteristics forewarn a person. But he or she must also be forearmed with essential preparation.
Discern truth from error. In cults where leaders claim extra-biblical revelation, Bible verses are used out of context. Members can be easily deceived and struggle to discern the truth because they are not well versed in the Bible. Therefore, the best safeguard against this deception is to read and study the Bible.
Here are questions to ask and Bible verses regarding three major teachings on which cults are likely to be off-base. The biblically correct answer follows.
- Who is Jesus Christ? Jesus is divine (deity), God’s Son from heaven who become a man (John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:14-18; Hebrews 1:1-14).
- What is the gospel, or message from God? It is God’s favor shown to us through the death and resurrection of Christ, the only way we can be set free from our sins and gain the hope of eternal life (Ephesians 2:8, 9).
- What is the church? Contrary to what cults believe, God does not favor one Christian church or denomination over another, nor are other Christian organizations composed of false believers (Ephesians 2:19-22; 4:1-6).
- Is the Bible the sole authority? Unlike cults, Christianity accepts the Bible as the infallible, sole authoritative Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16, 17; 2 Peter 1:20, 21).
A general study of cults is also helpful (see recommended reading). Libraries in local churches often have books on cults, as do Christian bookstores. But a study of specific cults is even more advantageous. The Internet is an excellent tool, providing not only a cult’s doctrines and the basis for why they are false but also testimonials of former members (see Web sites about cults).
The deceptive seduction of cults became a major issue in the 1990’s. Under the instigation of the American Family Foundation, seventeen countries (including Japan, the United States, Canada, most of the western European nations, Australia, and Argentina) formed grassroots organizations to educate the public and help families and ex-cultists. They see how crucial it is that individuals be forewarned and forearmed. While most people insist they are completely autonomous and could never be influenced to join a cult, experience has proved otherwise.
The major key, then, to assure that one is not seduced into a cult is education. Learning about deceptive recruitment methods, manipulative and unethical techniques, as well as acquiring a knowledge of the Bible to test a cult’s doctrines, can help assure one of a safe, happy, and productive life.
*Improvement Era, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, p. 354