Part XIV – What is a Cult?
Posted by thegonetwork on March 23, 2008
The term “cult” is one of those words that gets filled with meanings that vary widely depending on who is using it and in what context. Although some have used the term as simply a way of labeling those on the fringes, I believe that there are important sociological and spiritual patterns that form a true cult.
First off, let me say that being in a cult is not about doctrine, and it’s not even exclusively religious in nature. Being in a cult is about being robbed of personal freedom and morality by a demonic system. In fact, I would go so far as to say that a cult is simply a manifestation of the devil’s Kingdom on earth. The devil will try to set them up wherever he can and make them as large as possible. Therefore the the demonic patterns described by the word “cult” apply regardless of scale.
- The cult could be national: Both Communism and Nazism were cults which robbed entire regions of personal freedom and morality.
- The cult could be a relgious group within a free society.
- Abusive/Dysfunctional families are microcosms of a cult. Personal abuse lacks many of the larger sociological elements of cults, the basic psychology of fear is the same.
The goal of any of these situations is to isolate, control, and destroy people, and the same psychological levers are used to make it happen. Here are some features that I see as indicative:
- A militant corporate goal. The physical establishment of the “Kingdom” is a key uniting feature. Even political cults are based on some kind of millennial vision. Hitler wanted to restore the German people and purge the earth from what he saw as everything impure. Communism was to free the workers around the world.
- Elitism. The cult believes they they are the best of any comparable group because they are the ones who are really pursuing the pure vision that no one else is. Religiously this leads to doubting the salvation of other more mainstream groups and eventually moves from thinking they are just the BEST to thinking that they are the ONLY group with the truth.
- “Enemies” — associated with its elitism and corporate goal, every cult must have enemies. These enemies are often phantoms of the imagination of the leadership, and when they are not, they are enemies created by the sinful behavior of the leaders. These “enemies” serve as the explanation for bad things that happen, as well as why everyone must stick closer and closer together and only obey the leader.
- It’s own historiography. The cult will have its own version of history to support both it’s future goal and its elite status. The radical fundamentalist Baptists for example have a story which explains why they are the only true church.
- Exaltation of a single person. Within a cult, although it may start around an ideal, a single person always gets more and more power, and this power is used to implement the other aspects.
- No Freedom of Speech. In a cult there are always things you are not allowed to say or talk about. Sometimes pastors use sermons on “gossip” to shut down the freedom of speech of the parishoners. A pastor has a sin and it has been discovered, so rather than repent, he admonishes the people not to gossip. In the meantime he gossips by gathering all of his allies together to support him and attack those who are bothered by the situation. If they accept it, it sets up a culture where people are not comfortable with telling the truth.
- Inability to leave. This develops over time. Sometimes the barrier is physical, but often times it is mostly psychological: If you leave you will lose your salvation, your family relationships, your friends, etc.
- Summary Excommunication. Those who they cannot keep silent or who refuse to obey must be either killed or disfellowshiped immediately. So basically the plan is to keep you from leaving, and if you cause trouble take you out.
Many Christian groups that are not cults exhibit some degree of this behavior in the early and milder stages. If you are in a position to influence the direction away from these tendencies you should do so before things get worse, otherwise take it as a warning and get out. There are always several groups of people associated with the cult:
- The committed. The core of the cult is those who have no morality except advancement of the cult. This minority is what makes it work.
- The promoters. Unlike the committed, the promoters are not “in on” the sin in the system, and unlike the compromisers, they are not particularly bothered by what is going on. Instead they are tied in because of relationship. They “trust” and “believe in” the leader or leaders in the committed circle and that is enough for them to basically be blind to anything that occurs. When a victim raises their hand, the promoters basically rally to the defense of the committed almost in spite of any evidence that can be presented.
- The compromisers. This is a group who sees flaws with the cult but are still proponents because of what they see as the good things about it. These people can be some of the most dangerous because they form an important link between the committed, and the victims.
- The validators. These are people outside the system who are used or manipulated by the committed to legitimize the activity of the cult. They are not exposed to all of the problems but are deceived by the leaders into thinking everything is OK. They might be brought into participate in some way or just referenced as a sympathetic voice.
- The victims. Every cult has victims. The system is designed such that the victims cannot speak out. Their testimony may be discredited, or their abuse is legitimized, or they are just reduced to non-human status.
- The escapees. These people have managed to escape the power of the cult and are calling it out for what it is. They fight it from the outside. They can come from either the compromisers or the victim groups originally. Compromisers reach a point where they “see the light,” and victims reach a point where they have had enough. When a committed person defects it is almost always to take over the cult or start a new one.
- “Persecutors” — The often imaginary people who are “out to get” the cult because they have some kind of “agenda.”
Basically the way the devil takes people out is by isolating them. Start with the weak, and blame them for their faults. They “deserve it” for some reason. In the process everyone else in the system becomes more corrupt. Deceive, Isolate, and Destroy.
My wife made an interesting point too about how this happens invisibly The deeper you are in the cult (the higher on the list) the more layers you are aware of. The people at the bottom tend to see everyone above them on the list as a monolithic group. The people near the top tend to realize that there are other groups less committed than themselves.