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

Updated on June 30, 2016

Book trailer for Brenda Thornlow's latest novel Life, As Is!

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?

The Kingdom of the Cults

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.

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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.


(C) 2014 Brenda Thornlow

Brenda Thornlow was voted one of the 50 Great Writers You Should Be Reading for 2015. She is the author of the new fiction series My Life as I Knew It; The Revolving Door; A Godless Love and her memoir, My Short-Lived Life at Being Perfect. Available at Amazon. (Link below)

© 2014 Brenda Thornlow

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    • Bk42author profile image
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      Brenda Thornlow 3 years ago from New York

      Good point, Say Yes! For years I called myself an atheist and the reason I did so was because of disillusionment with Christianity. In all honesty, during that time I never really stopped and thought about whether or not there was a God, I simply was so angry that I didn't want to think about it, which in turn means that at that point in my life I wasn't ready to start evaluating where I was spiritually and needed live in that mindset at that moment (for lack of a better expression). Though, at that time in my life I wouldn't admit that to myself.

    • Say Yes To Life profile image

      Yoleen Lucas 3 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

      tsadjatko - I'd like to comment on what you say about atheism. Atheism in and of itself is not necessarily a religion (though it can be). It is merely a point of view. Some Eastern religions, like Confucianism, are atheist. Buddhism supports both belief and disbelief in a Supreme Deity.

      Many people disillusioned with their monotheistic religion (Christianity) declare themselves atheist, but that's not entirely accurate, because they're often in rebellion - and why would anyone rebel against something that doesn't exist?

      Richard Dawkins is promoting his understanding of the universe and how it works - but that is merely his opinion, which is no more Absolute Truth than anyone else's. History's greatest philosophers have been inconclusive regarding this issue, so we're free to choose whatever works for us.

    • Bk42author profile image
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      Brenda Thornlow 3 years ago from New York

      Thank you, Say Yes To Life!

    • Say Yes To Life profile image

      Yoleen Lucas 3 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

      Having been in a cult myself, I can say this is well researched. Thanks for this hub - voted up!

    • Bk42author profile image
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      Brenda Thornlow 3 years ago from New York

      Very true, ologsinquito. I'm also a firm believer in not being afraid of questioning everything.

    • ologsinquito profile image

      ologsinquito 3 years ago from USA

      It is good that we educate ourselves about cults and try to educate others.

    • tsadjatko profile image

      TSAD 3 years ago from maybe (the guy or girl) next door

      Undercoveragent, if you are wary of organized religions I suggest you think twice about atheism - it has all the characteristics of a religion.

      It really does take more faith to believe in Atheism than to believe in Christianity (and after all aren't religions called faiths?) so just based on that Atheism should qualify as a religion.

      Not only is Atheism a religion because it requires (enormous) faith to believe in it, it is idol worship. Atheists worship materialism or naturalism. What started as random chance chemical reactions are their basis for existence of all living things and as religious people worship a God or gods they worship materialism as their "creator".

      Granted, their religion offers no hope whatsoever for humanity since they believe when the chemical reactions that are YOU cease there is nothing beyond and it is as if you never existed at all. So why should anything matter?

      Granted that to believe in Atheism you must forsake the notion of absolutes as how can the results (values, beliefs, morals) of any system of chemical reactions be more or less valid than any other?

      Granted that Atheism can therefore have no basis on which to justify any universal punishment or reward, in other words it is void of the concept of justice because matter, which atheists BELIEVE is all that we are, is incapable of abstract principles, absolutes or morality.

      Of course, if you believe Richard Dawkins, all humanity has evolved to be prone to delusion, with the exception, naturally, of him and anyone who thinks like an atheist does - sounds a lot like a cult to me, doesn't it?

    • Bk42author profile image
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      Brenda Thornlow 3 years ago from New York

      Thank you so much, UndercoverAgent19! So glad you enjoyed and got a lot out of it. Have a great day!

    • UndercoverAgent19 profile image

      Jen Corrigan 3 years ago

      This was incredibly informative. As someone who identifies as an atheist, I'm wary of all organized religions. Your hub illustrated to me that there are very big differences between cults and "credible" religions, for lack of a better term. Thanks for sharing this information!

    • Bk42author profile image
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      Brenda Thornlow 3 years ago from New York

      Thank you, Jodah! So glad you enjoyed this and my previous hub. Have a great day!

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Thank you Bk, I read your previous hub, and this is a great follow up. Very good information about what a cult is and how to deal with someone contemplating joining or already a member. Voted up.

    • Bk42author profile image
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      Brenda Thornlow 3 years ago from New York

      Thank you so much for your comment, THarman7! Have a great night!

    • THarman7 profile image

      Terry Harman 3 years ago from Lacey Washington

      An informative piece, I understand a little more about cults, and why people have a hard time getting away from them.

      Thank you!

    • Bk42author profile image
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      Brenda Thornlow 3 years ago from New York

      Thanks so much for your comment, tsadjatko! That's great that you always ask them that...you never know if you'll get at least one person thinking. Even growing up in the JW religion I always thought it strange that they never wanted us reading their old, original publications. In my teens I got hold of one their old books and was flat out told by someone in the congregation to stop reading it. It's a shame that so many turn a blind eye and don't allow themselves to question their leaders. Thank you, again and have a great night!

    • tsadjatko profile image

      TSAD 3 years ago from maybe (the guy or girl) next door

      A lot of good information here that can all be summed up in one or two sentences.

      The theological definition of cult is and has always been:

      A cult is a perversion of the gospel, based upon an unholy devotion to a person, a principle, or both. A cult of Christianity is a group of people, which claiming to be Christian, embraces a particular doctrine system taught by an individual leader, group of leaders, or organization, which (system) denies (either explicitly or implicitly) one or more of the central doctrines of the Christian Faith as taught in the sixty-six books of the Bible.

      Great hub and kudos to you for seeing the truth and acting upon it. Jehovah's Witnesses come to my door every year and my first question to them is:

      Have you ever researched the information about the JWs being a cult? Invariably they always say no. I then ask if they ever searched the internet for "Jehovah's Witnesses, cult". So far I have not yet found one who has done that. I tell them to do that, write down all the reasons why it is not a cult and comeback, I will be glad to have a discussion with you...they never come back.