We may fool ourselves into thinking that we belong to a democratic political party or a church when in essence we belong to a cult whose practices negatively impact on our emotional, psychological and social lives.
The word cult derogatively refers to groups whose beliefs and practices are deemed unusual or bizarre.
Studies have shown that one of the central practices of cults is mind control. People in a cult are brainwashed to the extent that their beliefs become exclusive to the group and they operate under the myopic “us- versus-them” attitude.
Let Us Reason Ministries, on their website, write: “They (the converted) become convinced and are led on a course that affects them on every level, emotional, psychological, the heart and mind, soul and spirit. From this they are taken captive replacing critical thinking . . . with the ways the group wants them to think in. Destructive cults are basically pyramid-shaped with a person or group of teachers that have domineering control over their lives.”
Cults come in various forms: they can be political, violent or religious, but they have a salient, common characteristic; they are pyramid-shaped with a charismatic leader at the helm who gradually becomes the object of worship and they embark on a series of campaigns that are aligned to coercive persuasion and thought reform.
Madeleine Landau Tobias and Janja Lalich in Captive Hearts, Captive Minds, say there is “the tendency toward manipulation from above . . . with exploitation — economic, sexual, or other — of often genuine seekers who bring idealism from below”.
Scholars have also established how leaders of cults manipulate people’s minds.
These men and women are masters at creating their own social reality through elimination of all sources of information except that they provide. Creating what the movement Why We Protest calls “a cult’s eye view of the world”.
The leaders create what is termed as a “granfalloon” — defined in the Urban Dictionary as “A false karass; that is, a large yet meaningless association of human beings”.
The trick here is for the leader to create a group of followers vis-a-vis an outside group of non- followers.
The followers are persistently ordered to behave like the chosen ones. The members are then used to proselytise the “unredeemed” ones and this brings in new converts.
The converted preach the importance and advantages of belonging to the cult. Whyweprotest.net also says that members’ vision is fixed on a phantom: “The successful cult leader is always dangling a notion of the promised land and a vision of a better world before the faithful.”
But the leaders do not stop there; they create their own type of credibility and attractiveness through mythical stories and legends about them that cascade to all members of the group. But these leaders are frighteningly self-centred.
Rod Keller, in Grandiose Sense of Self, says the cult leader “believes everything is owed to him as a right. Preoccupied with his own fantasies, he must always be the centre of attention. He presents himself as the ‘Ultimate One’: enlightened, a vehicle of god, a genius, the leader of humankind, and sometimes the most humble of the humble. He has an insatiable need for adulation and attendance”.
Why do people join a cult? Scholars have argued that it is a question of logic versus social acceptance. Human beings have an instinctive need to connect to society, to be part of a group. This innate tendency is stronger than logic and unethical people exploit it to enslave people into a cult.
Let Us Reason Ministries has this to say: “Some like others to make choices for them so they join abusive groups. Some like being part of a group that offers purpose in place of their having none. Some are naïve and know no better since it sounds good and they like what they see. It can be for any one of a multitude of reasons, but mostly for the wrong reason.”
Cults appeal to the empty spaces in people’s lives and repeated teachings from the cult will ultimately make sense to such people.
The cults also target the vulnerable because they are most unlikely to see through the veil of deceit.
“Cults target friendly, obedient, altruistic and malleable people because they are easy to persuade and manage. They do not deal with the disobedient or self-centred type, as they are too hard to mould.” — http://cultzbiznatch.tripod.com/id4.html
Perhaps it is Angus Hall in the book Strange Cults who aptly summarises the appeal dangled by cults: “Most cults promise their members knowledge, enlightenment, and power denied to the uninitiated and it is this, combined with a sense of identity membership of such groups provide, that attracts so many to their ranks.”
So it is important to interrogate whether the groupings we are in are cults or not, be they social, political or religious. The appropriate question to ask is: What do I belong to: a church, a political party or a cult?