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Types of Cults, and How They Attract / Hold People

Updated on June 5, 2020
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Few cults are as extreme as the People's Temple or Branch Dividians. They invade people's minds in the most insidious way.

Heaven's Gate!

What drives people to commit such outrageous acts?  Love bombing.
What drives people to commit such outrageous acts? Love bombing. | Source

What is a cult? Basically, it is a mind control vehicle. It operates by presenting a set of beliefs that don’t work, yet traps members into continuing to believe in a system that has proven false. They usually continue to cling to such a system because they fear significant consequences if they admit it’s not working, and quit.

In my hub, “How Cults Work”, I focused on religion in general, and Christianity in particular. In my other hub, “My Experience in a Cult”, I pointed out that not all cults are extreme like the infamous People’s Temple or the Branch Dividians. “Cult”, ultimately, is a state of mind. How many people would willingly go off with some stranger to an isolated compound and drink poison Kool-aid? No one. You have to be brainwashed into it first, and that is a very gradual process.

Here’s an experience my brother had in the mid-seventies. He often hung out at UC Berkeley campus, hoping to attend college there someday. Once, some really nice people invited him to their house for dinner. It was a huge mansion, which turned out to be a commune. The delicious meal was vegetarian. Everyone was extremely warm and friendly.

After dinner, they had a talent show, where everyone performed terribly, but was enthusiastically applauded. They asked my brother to play guitar. Since he’s really good, he was too embarrassed to do so, but they kept urging him, so he finally played something really simple – and knocked their socks off.

They heartily encouraged him to return. Since they were so warm and loving, of course he did.

This is called love – bombing. It is a common practice among cults.

After returning a few more times, they told him of a seminar they were holding in the north woods. It was a place they called “Bambiland”, and they went there to “grow”. This is another common tactic cults use; isolate and trap people, then brainwash them. The purpose of the baby talk is to lull college freshman intimidated by newly acquired adulthood into a false sense of security. “I’m not sure I can handle being a UC Berkeley student, but I can certainly handle Bambiland!”

Fortunately, my brother is very much turned off by baby talk (it may have helped that he was also still in high school, and not yet intimidated by new adulthood status). He declined. So they said, “Think about it. While you do, here’s our Bible,” and they gave him a red book titled, KARP.

“You guys are Moonies,” he said, recognizing their bible.

“No we’re not,” they answered.

Here’s what’s really scary. They were Moonies; they just didn’t know it!

Ignorance, as well as vulnerability, plays a large part in recruiting cult members.

Many people are bitter against Christianity; however, it is extremely important to realize that rebelling against it is NOT the answer! If a particular religion, or set of beliefs, doesn’t work for you, feel free to walk away and investigate others. Rebelling against the church is actually a form of admitting you believe they’re right (after all, do you rebel against Santa Claus?). It actually takes FAR more courage to calmly disagree and walk away than to rebel! Fortunately, for most people, leaving a religious cult is just a matter of making up one’s mind. It may not be easy because of losing the social structure the cult provided, plus lingering fears the guru could be right, but it is possible. Ultimately, no one has any right to claim they have The Answer.

Whirling dervishes from the Sufi denomination of Islam. They take vows of poverty and humility, dedicating their lives to good deeds.
Whirling dervishes from the Sufi denomination of Islam. They take vows of poverty and humility, dedicating their lives to good deeds. | Source
A float displaying Muslim suicide attackers. Though most Muslims are peaceful citizens, those few make Islam greatly feared today.
A float displaying Muslim suicide attackers. Though most Muslims are peaceful citizens, those few make Islam greatly feared today. | Source

In the past, cults were found mainly in countries with multiple ethnicities such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, but the internet has made it easy to recruit people from anywhere; as a result, they are now pervasive throughout the world. Often a cult will take out a page on social media, inviting people to join, and indoctrinating them that way. From there, local groups form where the new members meet. When it is discovered they are a cult, undergoing investigation by authorities as a result, they often deceive the public by changing their names.

While those based on religion are the most well known, other types exist that can be just as damaging:

Psychology: some primal therapy, designed to call up repressed memories, have been known to produce false ones, thus doing psychological damage and possibly ruining the reputations of innocent people.

Political: Many small extreme left or right wing political movements, which demand money, time, and absolute devotion of its members, are cults.

Corporate and Commercial: Several multi-level marketing companies are cults. They may hold seminars where members get hyped up emotionally to go out and make sales. In reality, very few people are successful in these ventures, since anyone can go to the nearest store and buy laundry detergent, vitamins, and makeup.

Scientific: These cults either use unethical means in their research and experiments, or steal the work of others and claim them as their own. The results, rather than presenting the truth, are skewed to suit their interests. An example is the recently popular low carbohydrate diet fad.

New Age: They promote expensive seminars that use deceitful means of recruitment, then brainwash people. EST from the early 1970s is a perfect example of this. It has since changed its name to The Forum, then Landmark Education; currently, it is called Landmark Worldwide.

Hate Groups: These proliferate in financially deprived sectors of society. During times and places of severe economic turmoil, such as pre-World War II Germany, they can take over entire countries. They function by blaming a certain group of people, based on ethnicity, social status, sex orientation, etc., for their troubles, believing that attacking them will improve their status.

Drug Cults: an example is Timothy Leary conducting his experiments with LSD in the 1960s. People involved in drug cults turn their bodies into laboratories, even chemical waste sites, without realizing what they’re doing. The result is ruined health; it can also damage the brain to the point of being in a perpetually vegetative state. Total destruction or even death can happen the first time they try, depending on the drug, the substances mixed in, and the physical makeup of the user.

Cults based on religion, besides being the most well known, are also by far the greatest majority. An example of a religious cult is the Children of God (also known as The Family, or Family of Love). What makes joining such a cult particularly harmful is at the very least, it can waste valuable months or years of life, leaving former members disillusioned. With many, citizenship requires surrender of all money and worldly possessions to work for free (making the guru rich in the process – though the members don’t know that). It is common for the cult master to have sex harems, including underage girls. If a severely restricted diet is one requirement (addling followers’ brains so they can’t reason correctly, which keeps them in the cult), it can threaten health. It can even put their lives in danger, if they’re being enlisted or observed covertly by a criminal.

The most destructive cults are hate groups (examples are the Ku Klux Klan and inner city gangs). People who are lonely misfits or come from abusive backgrounds are most likely to be drawn to them. The cults come across as offering warm camaraderie, brotherhood and empowerment. They tend to be very sexist; they attract males through tactics such as video games with subliminal hate messages, relying on them to bring along their girlfriends (whose sole purpose is usually to breed for the cult). However, once the new initiate is trapped and vulnerable, they unleash a slew of abuse. They often require the convert to commit crimes to maintain membership; anyone who tries to leave is brutally murdered.

Currently, the cults that attract most media attention are extremist Islamic groups like ISIS and the Taliban. Fitting into both categories of religion and hate, they use techniques from the two camps; they approach disenfranchised people, discover what is important to them, and offer them just that. Often it is a humanitarian job, appealing to their idealism of making a world a better place. Women are lured with the possibility of dating and marrying a “good man”. If the potential recruit is Muslim, they are told this is the true version of the religion, and currently they are at war with the corrupt variations of it. Once exposed to the cult’s violent aspects, they are offered promises of elaborate rewards in the afterlife if they die for the cause; for instance, the Al Quaeda suicide attackers of the World Trade Center were told they would go to paradise and forever enjoy sensual pleasures with 72 vestal virgins. Martyrdom is hyped to the point where they can be classified as death cults; members are more interested in the afterlife than this one. Those who see through their guiles find it virtually impossible to escape, since they’re most likely trapped in an isolated compound, often in a foreign country.

What makes cults especially insidious is that they are poorly understood. According to the dictionary, a cult is a religious group with practices that depart from what that particular faith considers the norm. How much they deviate is left up to interpretation, so this description is quite vague. It is commonly assumed that all cults consist of people who live restricted lifestyles in isolated communes under the rule of a harsh leader; in reality, most cult members live in their own homes, hold jobs, and visit church a few days a week. Another popular misbelief is that the only difference between a cult and a religion is about a million members. This came about because most religions got their start as tiny congregations that were suspected, even persecuted, by the majority. Judging a cult by its size is dangerously misleading, because some are very large with worldwide operations, while small but sincere worship groups are forced to deal with unmerited harassment.

To gain insight regarding cults, one must first understand religion, since the bulk of them spring from that base. The dictionary’s definition of religion is a culture’s system of social organization, practices, and world view. Religions are attempts to figure out how the world works, how to live the best life while here, and to explain the unexplainable such as what happens to us after we die. Thus, it provides civilization with a code of ethics. Superstitions develop when people don’t understand the laws of Cause and Effect; an example is the Jewish / Islamic custom of avoiding “unclean” meats such as pork.

Billy Graham, world-respected Christian theologian whose ministry spans over 6 decades, meets with President Obama.
Billy Graham, world-respected Christian theologian whose ministry spans over 6 decades, meets with President Obama. | Source

An estimated 4200 religions exist in the world today. The largest and most widely practiced ones are either Abrahamic or Hindu based. As scientific studies advance, many rationales behind religious practices are supported while others are proven obsolete. Example; pork can be safely consumed if cooked thoroughly to kill the cause of trichinosis, thus doing away with the belief that it is “unclean”. Some religions readily accept scientific discoveries that go contrary to their teachings, while other cling tightly to tradition, fearing nasty repercussions from a mysterious cosmic source for deviating from age-old conventions. Many faiths forbid its members to learn about other modes of worship; some even frown on associating with another denomination!

This is why religion lends itself so well to cults. While all world religions have cult offshoots, Christianity and Islam, due to their belief that they have Absolute Truth, produce the most. A cult is basically a mind control vehicle. It lures followers by preying on their insecurities, presents them with an instantly formed family and community, and charms them with the belief that they are a special elite group as opposed to the “sinful world”. They provide a pseudo-shelter in an environment that seems terrifying. They feed their congregation false promises of prosperity in the next life for obeying its outlandish rules, threatening them with horrific consequences if they don’t comply.

Jim Jones, founder of the cult Peoples Temple, accepts the Martin Luther King award less than 2 years before his death in the largest mass suicide in American history.
Jim Jones, founder of the cult Peoples Temple, accepts the Martin Luther King award less than 2 years before his death in the largest mass suicide in American history. | Source

Who joins cults? What’s really scary is that enlistees are not feeble-minded or lacking in intelligence. They are perfectly normal; what makes them different is that they had the misfortune of coming across a particularly seductive recruiter at a critical time in their lives. People are most vulnerable to joining cults when they are experiencing a major transition, such as moving out on their own, which is why most cult neophytes are in their late teens / early 20s. However, everyone experiences a major life change at one time or another, whether it be relocating hundreds of miles away, altered health or financial status, getting married / divorced, even aging. Also, coming from a dysfunctional family can drive a young person to seek acceptance and love by joining a cult. Some, like the late River Phoenix, were raised in one, having no choice in the matter.

So how can you avoid being hoodwinked?

First, be aware of religion’s true role. As I stated earlier, ethnicities all over the Earth built their belief systems on their understanding of how the world works. In other words, all creeds are a form of ancient science. Their purpose is to enhance the lives of followers. Any restrictions it places on them are supposed to be for their own good. It is one thing to frown on adultery; it is quite another to force people to suppress sexuality altogether. Forbidding wasted time in idleness is understandable, but when they demand devotees work constantly, never taking time out for harmless pleasures, this is when the religion becomes over-controlling. If it fills up with lots of superfluous rules with no solid reasoning supporting them, this is a sign the religion itself could be a cult.

Would you give up your life savings to join a doomsday cult?  How about your iPod music library?  Or submitting to censorship of innocent pastimes like dancing, movies or reading fantasy novels?
Would you give up your life savings to join a doomsday cult? How about your iPod music library? Or submitting to censorship of innocent pastimes like dancing, movies or reading fantasy novels? | Source

Second, recognize what a cult looks like. Cults tend to have 3 traits. They are 1) exclusive; “We’re the only ones with the Truth; everyone else is misinformed” (how likely is that with the world population topping 7 billion?): 2) secretive. Few people in the cult know what’s really going on; only the ones in the upper echelons of the society know (greatly enabling corruption!): and 3) authoritarian. You obey the leader without question. The worshipped Deity could be a currently living person, or someone from the distant past for whom the guru serves as a “spiritual messenger”. Commonly cults have strict rules regulating behavior, dictating what emotions to feel, labeling some (usually erotic desire, skepticism and anger) as “evil”, and requiring followers to contort themselves to doing something unrealistic such as instantly forgiving someone who molested them as a child. Many control what types of literature members may read and music / shows to enjoy. Some go so far as to place tremendous pressure to marry in haste and have large families the couples can’t afford (though they use flattery towards this end, the real goal is to enlarge the cult through breeding). Almost universally, they use hypocritical means to mislead: for example, they will come up with arguments that have pre-set answers, giving the illusion of allowing questioning; they tell you they accept all religions, while either bashing the others or declaring themselves superior; they point the finger at other creeds that either have worse reputations or more oppressive regimes (“We’re not a cult; they are!”); or they may break their own rules by severely restricting sexual activity, yet allow for “flirty fishing” (attracting new converts by having sex with them). Anyone who sees some things that are amiss is admonished to not point them out. If they do, they will either be told to ignore it, given some vague answer or scolded for being “apostate”.

Third, remember you live in this world! Religion is suppposed to enhance your life, not confine you while waiting for the hereafter. Ultimately, beliefs regarding what happens when our time on Earth is through are mere speculations; the only ones who really know are those who have had near-death experiences, and even then, that is their individual adventure. Some cults, preying on people’s fear of living, encourage members to escape the world; they may require them to dress in outdated fashions, even banning technology, with the strong message that the “Good Old Days” were less sinful. They’re assured there’s no need for them to be aware of current events; it’s none of their concern. They can just float in this sanctified cocoon until Judgment Day. This may seem comforting, but it renders them ill-prepared for life; if they leave, either through their own volition or because the cult fell apart, it could have severe repercussions, to the point of becoming homeless. A religion with true wisdom will be a positive guide for the only existence you can know, which is the here and now. Any charlatan can promise pie-in-the-sky; in this case, if their assurances prove to be false, you may not be able to reclaim what you lost.

“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” ~ Thomas Paine
“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” ~ Thomas Paine | Source

Having a loved one in a cult is the acme of frustration. Because many cults discourage members from associating with outside family and friends, lest doing so causes them to “backslide”, the new recruit usually abandons them. Unfortunately, not much can be done about this, because the person is brainwashed. Definitely do not bluntly confront them! They have already been programmed to see this as “persecution”; they will give you a coded answer and cut you off. The only thing you can do is try your best to stay close, restricting your conversation to non-controversial subjects. If they try to convert you, calmly listen and ask questions that will guide them to see the faults in the cult’s logic. They must find out the truth for themselves; no one can tell it to them. The good news is, most cult recruits eventually discover it’s a farce and leave on their own; typically after a year. That is the time they will most need support from their loved ones; definitely be there for them then. Do not judge; remember, anyone can be enticed into a cult! The only difference between you and a cult member is circumstance!

This leads to the complication of how to escape a cult. Fortunately, for most people, it’s just a matter of making up one’s mind. It may not be easy because of losing the social structure the cult provided, plus lingering fears the guru could be right, but it is possible. The problem lies with those that belong to a cult that allows only one way out, which is a protracted painful death. Those cases usually require law officials knowledgeable about the situation to work with the person. Gang members who want to leave could get themselves arrested, transported to a jail far away, then released. In the case of an Islamic cult, more drastic measures have to be taken. In some cases, people have faked their own deaths.

Members isolated in a commune are very difficult to rescue; they may have to be kidnapped, which means if they don’t have outside friends and family members aware of their situation, they could be doomed. It is for this reason that, above everything else, you must never go to a “retreat” sponsored by a group you know nothing about! It is significant that Jim Jones of the People’s Temple cult waited until everyone was trapped in Guyana, South America, before launching his horrific abuse. Out of the near thousand people in Jonestown, only 87 escaped the mass suicide.

Whole books have been written on the nature of cults, but this should at least give you an idea of how they work. While it’s true that anyone can be vulnerable, your best defense is to be open-minded and tolerant. The easiest people to recruit into a religious cult are those who have determined there is only one way to think. If you’re convinced a church exists that has Absolute Truth, all a cult recruiter has to do is tell you he belongs to that church and extend an invitation; you attend a few meetings and are love-bombed into accepting their doctrine. If you’re already in “such a church”, a recruiter can agree with you, then say you need to tweak your program a bit; you can do that by joining his group; this is the way David Koresh of the Branch Dividians gathered members. It is also important to learn about other world religions, which will give you wisdom to recognize an imposter. With over 7 billion people on Earth spread out over 6000 languages and ethnic groups, there is no need for bigotry; any Deity worth worshipping will welcome the various styles of devotion from all of mankind. If you harbor any doubts regarding this, survey the state of the world and ask yourself what sort of parent you would be if you ran your home in such a chaotic, narrow-minded way.

Religious Pluralism – your best defense against cults!
Religious Pluralism – your best defense against cults! | Source

© 2013 Yoleen Lucas

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