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What Exactly is a Cult and Who Is Susceptible to Them?

Updated on June 30, 2021
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Brenda Thornlow is an author, animal advocate, & certified Reiki Master from NY. Her books can be found on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, & iTunes.

Some of you who are reading this are familiar with my previous hub, Life as an Outcast which chronicles my experience growing up in what many people recognize as a cult. While writing that piece, I deliberately refrained from using the word "cult" since Life as an Outcast was my first attempt at putting my experience down in writing for all to see and, in all honesty, I was very nervous. (Although, My Life As I Knew It is a fictional piece of work based on true events I don't mention the name of the religion in which I grew up so I do not go into great detail.) Since I am new at sharing my writing with others, I was concerned about what kind of reaction I would receive as religion is such a hot button subject with many. Not to mention, in my personal experience, using the word "cult" to classify a particular religion has led to very heated arguments.

Since posting Life as an Outcast, I have received interesting and positive feedback that has made me realized that there is a strong interest among many regarding the phenomena of cults and the control these groups can have over people of all different backgrounds. What is it about these groups that cause there followers to abandon free thinking, and many times abandon family, careers and possessions?

What is a Cult?

Before answering the question as to why anyone would join a cult it is important to first understand what is a cult. The first image that comes to a lot of people's minds are groups such as the Manson Family, Jonestown and the Branch Davidian in Waco, Texas. When the average person takes an interest in the teachings of a cult, most of the time it is not immediately apparent that the group they are looking into is a cult. The followers of the groups mentioned above as well as modern day cults are lured in very subtle ways, appealing to a side of that person that is vulnerable at the moment. When looking into the belief system of a religious group, it is important to note the following:

Does this group claim to be the only ones who possess the truth about God and consider anyone who rejects their "truth" to be an apostate (dissenter or heretic)?

Are their teachings relatively new and established by a person who claims to have received this special revelation directly from God?

Is this group led by an individual or small but powerful leadership that holds control of the group’s teachings and practices?

Does this group send to its members an apocalyptic message claiming that their religion or group is the only one that can protect them from the "end of the world."

Does this group possess methods to reinforce their beliefs and standards where opposing views are ridiculed and often misrepresented?

These are some of the main characteristics of a cult. Religious cults are primarily religious groups that have been established by an individual who claims to have direct access to God and for some reason God has chosen him or her to be His mouthpiece in order to communicate with this individual's followers. A couple of examples of this would be Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah's Witnesses and Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormons/The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Both groups teach their followers beliefs that are relatively new in comparison to traditional belief systems such as Christianity.

The leaders of these groups also teach that their belief system is the one and only that will lead to salvation. They discourage or at times outright tell their followers that research into teachings of other religions or beliefs can lead to spiritual darkness or even demonic possession. If you are interested in what another religion believes, the leaders of these groups will provide the information for you. Research into any other belief system must be monitored by them. The Jehovah's Witnesses are a prime example of this as many of their publications attempt to teach what other religions supposedly believe yet their followers are discouraged from reading literature from other religions, especially if that literature contains information about their own religion. Anything about their own religion that is written by someone else is strongly prohibited especially if it is anything negative.

One would have to ask, if a religious group believes, beyond a doubt, that they are teaching the truth, why discourage your followers from reading or listening to other information from other religions? If a religion has nothing to hide regarding their background or their leaders, why prohibit your followers from reading or listening to critics of their religion? Logic would seem to do dictate that when one has nothing to hide, one has nothing to fear.

Who is Susceptible to Joining a Cult and What are Their Recruitment Techniques?

Cults attract people of many different backgrounds: rich, poor, educated, uneducated, young, old, previously religious and atheist. However, there does seem to be a general profile of those who do join cults. Typically they are people who are disenchanted with conventional religious establishments and confused over religious and/or philosophical issues. Sometimes, due to personal problems or traumatic experiences they may be disenchanted with society as a whole and have a need for encouragement, support and are looking for a purpose in life. A classic example of this would be the Manson Family. If you look into the background of Charles Manson's followers you will find that most of them came from troubled backgrounds and were runaways. They had in common a mistrust and disdain for authority and convention and Charles Manson made them feel loved, special and secure.

When approached by a member of a cult, the person experiencing some or all of the above can be susceptible to what this person or group is presenting. One technique used by cults is called "love bombing." Love bombing is constant positive affection in word and deed. Lending emotional support to new members, complimenting and reassuring them, making them the center of attention. In turn, the new member becomes indebted to the cult.

Claiming that their group are the only ones who understand the Bible and apply it in their everyday lives is common in trying to add validity to their system. Repeated teaching (brainwashing) is utilized in order for misinterpreted Bible verses to fit that religion's teachings and philosophy. Their teachings may come across as a complex puzzle and are unverifiable, yet you must accept these teachings as the truth and they are accepted as the truth by other members. Since these are accepted by the other members, the new member may start to feel that he or she should accept this as truth as well and maybe there is something wrong with them if they do not understand and accept.

From here, the new cult member becomes more and more isolated from the outside world including their family members. The cult and cult leaders start taking the place of family members and former friends creating a dependence in the new member. Soon any activities, even those outside the church, should only take place with other members of the cult. Because of this, members who may start to doubt the teachings of the group and have thoughts of leaving face the threat of losing those they now know and love. By no longer attending the church of that cult and denying their beliefs the member risks being classified as an apostate or dissenter and can possibly risk being ostracized by everyone who was initially love bombing them.

How Do You Help Someone Leave a Cult?

Because of the repeated teaching or brainwashing, it is not easy and takes a lot of time and patience to help someone one trapped in a cult to leave. The best thing you can do is if you see someone starting to get involved in a cult, do what you can to prevent them from continuing in that direction. Encourage them to research all aspects that group's background and teaching; remember, if there is nothing to hide then there is nothing to fear. Calmly discussing the cults religious and philosophical inconsistencies; questioning them on it can get that person thinking and questioning things themselves. However, try to refrain from attacking the leader or the group. Generally, when the new member becomes involved in a cult they are usually told to expect that tactic from people outside their group and are told this is a form of "religious persecution."

As I mentioned in my previous hub, there are many resources out there to help a person when they leave a cult such as F.A.C.T.net - Fight Against Coercive Tactics Network (http://www.factnet.org) and Freedom of Mind (http://freedomofmind.com) as well as many more. When a person you know is already involved in a cult and is conflicted about leaving, it is important to help the understand that they have your emotional support and they are not doomed nor will they have to face God's wrath when and if they leave. This is a very real fear they have and should not be taken lightly; they will need your emotional support.


© 2014 Brenda Thornlow

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