A cult is defined as: “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object” or “a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister” (Merriam Webster Staff, 2017). Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who at one point was a professor at Harvard, wrote a paper titled Cult Formation.
He identified three characteristics, which are the most common features shared by destructive cults. The first characteristic is a charismatic leader, who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose power. That is a living leader, who has no meaningful accountability and becomes the single most defining element of the group and its source of power and authority.Next is a process of indoctrination or education is in use that can be seen as coercive persuasion or thought reform, commonly known as brainwashing. The culmination of this process can be seen by members of the group often doing things that are not in their own best interest, but consistently in the best interest of the group and its leader. The last is economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie. The destructiveness of groups called cults varies by degree, from labour violations, child abuse, medical neglect to, in some extreme and isolated situations, calls for violence or mass suicide.
The History of CultsDuring the 1970’s and 80’s, the cult culture was in the spotlight. Stories on cults such as the Manson Family took over newspapers and made headlines everywhere. Although throughout history, the cult culture has always been present, this is when nations truly began recognizing the effect that these groups are having on society. Historically, North America has seen a variety of religious movements. Since as long as records go back (specifically European colonization), tension has existed between members of churches and adherents of smaller and less empowered religious beliefs. Indeed, the same national guidelines that allowed nontraditional religious groups to establish themselves in the United States also created a climate favorable to religious expression and may account for the generally religious character of most Americans.
Religious groups identified as cults proliferated during the twentieth century. Decline of religious authority, increase in contact between people of diverse backgrounds, and development of mass communication allowed cult leaders to gain personal followings through newspapers and other periodicals, radio, television, and computerized mailing lists. Cults appeared in all regions of the United States, often in areas receiving an influx of migrants. In the early 1900s the West Coast, a region experiencing massive immigration, became known for religious experimentation. Mainstream religious denominations were not well established there, and migrants formed groups with beliefs reflecting their new lives.
Cults often arose from groups virtually excluded from mainstream denominations and even from society at large, such as people of color, women, the young, and the poor. Marginalized, they found strength through religious alternatives. Cults also appealed to people seeking to restore their physical and mental health, having found little hope from mainstream religion.The Impact of Cults Many social scientists have been involved in the study of cults, especially how to treat those who’ve escaped.
These scientists include John G. Clark Jr., Stanley H. Cath, Robert Jay Lifton and Margaret T. Singer. The Impact of Those Directly Affected by this Issue ”Many cult groups have developed basically similar and quite compelling conversion techniques for exploiting the vulnerabilities of potential converts,” This is a quote by John G. Clark Jr.
, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Harvard University Medical School.Dr. Clark and his colleagues have treated and studied more than 500 current and former American cult members since the 1970’s. “In some respects, the destructive effects of cult conversions amount to a new disease in an era of psychological manipulation.” (Clark, 1982).
Dr. Clark is one of the founders of the Boston Personal Development Institute, a nonprofit group that treats former cult members. This institute has treated former members of Scientology, the Unification Church, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Way International, the Divine Light Mission, the Children of God, and many smaller cults. Stanley H. Cath is a psychoanalyst and professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, who has treated and studied approximately 60 former members of cults.
He explains: ”When kids come out of cults, they have symptoms you just don’t normally see, but many practitioners are ignorant of this ‘disease,’ and don’t know how to treat it.” (Cath, 1982). These doctors believe that since cults have the power to completely change your mind and its inner workings, these members come out of these cults traumatized, and above all else, mentally unstable. Although the researchers said it is possible for those who have left cults to integrate their experience into their lives in healthy ways, many are unable to. Among the common negative characteristics exhibited by the former cult members studied, said Dr. Clark, are depression, guilt, fear, paranoia, slow speech, rigidity of facial expression and body posture, indifference to physical appearance, passivity and memory impairment.
Robert Jay Lifton, who is a professor of psychiatry at Yale University Medical School, said that many in the psychological professions may not be aware of, or deny the existence of, clinical difficulties posed by cults. ”There is a widespread misunderstanding of the phenomenon of persuasion that can bring about intense change in people” (Lifton, 1982). ”The techniques of many cults fall under the general rubric of brainwashing. Consciously and manipulatively, cult leaders and their trainers exert a systematic social influence that can produce great behavioral changes” (Singer, 1979).
Margaret Singer estimates based on her studies, that there are around 3000 to 5000 cults in North America. The majority of those studied by Dr. Clark were from the middle and upper middle classes and ranged in age from 15 to 31. Most of those treated by Dr. Cath range in age from 13 to the mid-20’s, but some are in their 50’s and older.
Their average age is 19 1/2. More are male than female. Frequently they are intelligent youths from sheltered environments who have had contact with religion but rejected it, Dr. Cath says. He believes that many have a history of failing to achieve intimacy, of blaming others for their failures and of constantly striving for perfectionistic goals.A typical manipulated conversion, Dr. Clark said, “involves a vulnerable person – a student leaving home, or at exam time, or someone who has lost a friend or lover – who is enticed by some reward: companionship, peace of mind, a place to stay or an implied sexual offering. Cult recruiters frequent bus stations, airports, campuses, libraries, rallies, anywhere that unattached persons are likely to be passing through” (Clark, 1980).
Research by the previously listed doctors states that many of those who had joined cults had simply chosen the lesser of two evils – especially teenagers who had escaped destructive family situations by joining cults.Dr. Cath said: ”Keeping devotees constantly fatigued, deprived of sensory input and suffering protein deprivation, working extremely long hours in street solicitation or in cult-owned businesses, engaging in monotonous chanting and rhythmical singing, may induce psychophysiological changes in the brain. The rhythmical movement of the body can lead to altered states of consciousness, and changes in the pressure or vibration pattern of the brain may affect the temporal lobe.”Cults Harming SocietyIn Dr. Michael D. Langone’s work titled Cultism: A Conference for Scholars and Policy, he outlines ways that cults can significantly harm society. Specifically, Government/law, business, education, and religion.
It reads as followed: Government/LawInfiltration of government agencies, political parties, community groups, and military organizations for the purpose of obtaining classified or private information, gaining economic advantage, or influencing the infiltrated organization to serve the ends of the cult.Tax evasionViolation of immigration lawsAbuse of the legal system through spurious lawsuitsBusiness Deceptive fund-raising and selling practices.Organizational and individual stress resulting from pressuring employees to participate in cultic management training and growth seminars.Misuse of charitable status in order to secure money for business and other non charitable purposes.Unfair competition through the use of underpaid labor or “recycled salaries.”EducationDenial of, or interference with, legally required education of children in cults.
Misuse of school or college facilities or misrepresentation of the cult’s purposes, in order to gain respectability.Recruitment of college students through violation of their privacy and/or deception.ReligionAttempts to gain the support of established religions by presenting a deceptive picture of the cult’s goals, beliefs, and practices, and seeking to make “common cause” on various issues.
Infiltration of established religious groups in order to recruit members into the cult.Cults also harm society in important indirect ways. Cults violate five interrelated values that sustain free, pluralistic cultures: human dignity, freedom, ethics, critical thinking, and accountability.
Because they “cheat,” cults are able to gain power far beyond their numbers.(Langone, 2007)The Government and Other Agencies Helping to Alleviate This IssueGovernments, such as the France and China, want to make society safe to practice religions by banning cults. This would let people who are strictly religious practice what they believe in, without having the unhealthy cult culture.