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The Nature of Cults
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The Nature of Cults
Academic and professional research into new religious movements and cultic groups began to develop seriously in the 1960s and 1970s, intensifying after the tragic deaths of members of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, in Guyana, South America in November 1978. This has been noted by a number of people, including sociologists Robbins and Anthony (1982). The Jonestown tragedy proved a changing point in my own life, after ten years in pastoral ministry as an ordained clergyman.
Having studied religious groups since my teens, I discovered, after the Jonestown deaths, that people began asking serious questions and were wanting accurate information on numerous groups - questions not really asked or information not really sought, before that event. As more and more people sought my help in this it became apparent that I needed to deepen and professionalise my research. This also led to the founding of Concerned Christians Growth Ministries in October 1979.
Cults come with a wide variety and diversity. The very term, ’cult’, has its own problems of diversity of interpretation and perception. Groups which may legitimately be referred to as cults, often protest noisily that THEY are NOT cults, even if some other named groups ARE. In popular perception the word, ’cult’, may have derogatory connotations, or even be confused for the occult, or as something evil and totally destructive.
The whole issue of a balanced perception and understanding of the cults is further complicated by the emotional elements of parents and families devastated by the loss of loved ones to cultic groups, as well as the personal feelings and hurts of those who have left groups, either voluntarily or through some form of intervention.
Some academics have been very dismissive of the expressed perceptions of parents and ex-members with negative experiences, and, in their supposed efforts at being objective, have actually been favourably biased towards the cults. Some seem to forget, or ignore, the fact that cults involve people at deep personal and emotional levels, and don’t exist for the purpose of interesting academic exercises in research.
This, in part relates to the philosophy and methodology of the particular academic discipline. In sociology, as well as religious studies (which is heavily influenced by sociological models), the phenomenological approach is paramount. Religious groups are phenomena to be observed as objectively as possible without any personalisation or value judgements.
Generally the related methodology is the participant-observer approach.
The notion is: that by being friendly and openly asking groups to let you participate, and by asking them to answer questions and provide you with literature, you will not be treated suspiciously as an enemy but as a friend, and will therefore observe and learn the truth about the group. This then leads to a greater understanding of the group and how it functions, what it really believes etc.
The fundamental flaw with this approach is: the group will generally ensure that you will only see, read, hear, and observe the best that they want you to see and observe. Very rarely do participant-observer sociologists and religious studies scholars acknowledge that their very presence has a known affect on the observable behaviour of those they are studying (as has been acknowledged in the field of anthropology). Even rarer is any serious discussion or treatment of group behaviour modification techniques, deception, isolation through keeping members busy ’studying’ and other activities. Any claims of deception, manipulation or other unacceptable elements seem to be regarded as someone else’s incorrect perception.
These academics seem to actually believe the propaganda and PR perspectives given them by the various groups they study, as if it is the whole picture, or the only valid picture/perception.
They are generally very suspicious/distrustful/disbelieving of all negative criticisms made by others - especially former members [some academics even use the typically emotive cultic jargon of calling such people ’apostates’], parents and relatives of members, counsellors and other professionals involved with members/ex-members/their families - because they have not personally observed such things! (Because the group did not blatantly carry out any negative activities in their presence!)
As a result of this approach and attitude some sociologists and religious studies professionals are seen as apologists and friends for/of groups like the Moonies/Unification Church, the Hare Krishnas, the Children of God, Scientology - and many others. A number of these academics have had some of their activities funded by such cultic groups. Their supposed objectivity and lack of bias becomes very questionable.
While I am involved in participant observation , to some degree personally but usually through others on our behalf, our organisation believes such an approach alone is inadequate for gaining an accurate overall perspective or understanding of a group. We also listen to members and ex-members, families and relatives of members, and then seek confirmation in print/audio/audio-visual evidence from the group itself (primary source material) as well as from elsewhere.
I believe that while it is very important to be as scholarly and objective as possible, we cannot simply be totally neutral. This was brought out by some penetrating observations from American religious studies professor in Japan, Richard Young. Writing in Japanese Religions (Vol. 20 (2) July 1995, pp.230-245) about the AUM Supreme Truth cult (Aum Shinrikyo) he commented:
’Reconstructing what went wrong with AUM will take time and tax our resources as scholars. All my models have so far proved inadequate....Around the middle of 1990 I first learned to see AUM Shinrikyo through the eyes of a bright, young student of mine. I shall call him Nagasena....Back then, however, AUM was barely a ripple upon the placid surface of my liberal-academic consciousness....What I took as phenomena to be observed, he regarded as the raw material of experience, not simply for its own sake but as a springboard for self-discovery and personal authentication. I excused my failure to imbue him with an appreciation of the principles of my craft with the thought that I am not a therapist or a counselor but a professor....I accompanied Nagasena to an AUM dojo in Yokahama, a copy of Supreme Initiation by Master Ashahara tucked under my arm for easy reference....The message of AUM in these early years of its formation was not unlike that of other Japanese new religions....That night I left the dojo thinking there was probably no real cause for alarm at the rumours that were then rife about AUM’s abuses....Next I learned to see AUM Shinrikyo through the eyes of Nagasena’s parents...[who] were devastated by their son’s announcement of his impending initiation as a [AUM Shinrikyo] monk...I was pleased with myself and thought the compromise I worked out was Solomonic: Encourage him to work for six months, I said, and if it doesn’t pan out, let him go his own way with your blessing....The last time I saw Nagasena, until a week or so after the tragic affair on the Tokyo subways, was shortly before he was to go to Moscow and help establish AUM there....Since I was trained in the field of religious studies, the necessity of epoche, suspension of judgement, was drilled into me by my mentors. This of course is indispensable if we are to enter deeply into the phenomena we observe and understand them as believers do. But do we stop there? What if we stumble across evidence of manipulation and oppression, whether technically criminal or not? Obviously I am prompted to pose these questions because I let Nagasena down when I should have seen the clear and present danger he and others faced in consorting with a guru gone badly wrong. Our lack of social responsibility as scholars, especially those of us who are on the field and engage in participant-observer studies, does not speak well for our vocation.
’Talk of this kind will inevitably stir up controversy. We are scholars, not ayatollahs. Anyway, how could we have known what was really going on in AUM unless we had access to the highest echelons of leadership where the mischief was brewing? A self-abnegating, sackcloth-and-ashes apology seems uncalled for. But when concerned social scientists and other academics engage themselves actively as persons and not just as scholars in drawing public attention to nuclear, ecological, gender, and human rights issues, we in the field of religious studies seem strangely passive and inclined to dehumanize the individuals we study by treating them as objects rather than subjects.
’I, for one, got worked up intellectually when I saw Master Ashara’s Declaring Myself the Christ (Kirisuto sengen), thinking what fine material it offered me for my on-going study...it should rather have hit me right between the eyes that this was a guru with a very nasty persecution complex and delusory notions of grandeur. My reflex, however, was to shelve it away for future use in up-dating a previous study. Nagasena gave me the book, and I was glad to have an informant who knew the kind of material I collect, like some people collect stamps or coins.
’Scholars who are fascinated with religion and concerned with its potential for inciting violent behavior, can of course be of service to our constituents by simply doing the research, writing, and teaching we have been doing all along. But our concerns seem misplaced if our field or discipline as such is what we endeavor to promote...when the tape recorders and cameras are whirring away and the media calls upon us to explain what happened in a case such as the AUM Affair, expending our energies on terminological subtleties is a withdrawal into pedantry....While one part of me is instinctively averse to criticism masquerading as scholarship, and while I am committed to dialogue as a way of fostering solidarity with the people who seem to belong to a different species of humanity, another part of me senses we need to reflect more deeply on our isolation from the concerns that society naturally has whenever religion turns ugly and violates our peace, freedom, and safety.’
It is not possible to find a complete consensus regarding definitions or listings of cult characteristics. As Lynne Hume (1996) observes: ’To classify a religious group under a specific category such as church, denomination, sect, cult or fundamentalist fringe movement is sometimes difficult, tends to lump a variety of groups together, and raises almost as many problems as it solves. Various scholars have attempted to give definitions of the term cult but there has been little agreement to date.’ In drawing up a typology of cults there is the danger of oversimplification and assuming a complete homogeneity that ignores the great diversity that exists amongst the cults. As Robbins and Anthony (1982) put it, ’Much of the writing on contemporary marginal religions implicitly attributes an illusionary homogeneity to “cults,” which are typified as authoritarian, centralized, communal and “totalistic” - on the model of Jonestown or Hare Krishna.’ While I believe Robbins and Anthony are in danger of overstating the situation to make their own particular points, it is certainly true that there are almost as many typologies as there are sociologists, psychologists and other professionals researching religious groups. Robbins and Anthony refer to the diversity of professional perceptions and opinions, and also refer to the fact that much of the literature available has focused primarily on groups that came to prominence during and since the 1960s, particularly groups like the Unification Church and the Hare Krishnas, with some limited work related to studies on Jonestown. Hard and fast typologies based on such groups only will be limited and inadequate, as some cults are quite different in a number of areas.
The professional and religious orientation of the cult researcher or typologist is also an important factor to consider.
Psychologist Marvin Galper (1982), in taking an overview of cults (again, particularly those that have emerged since the 1960s), states:
’Such movements seek to initiate sweeping societal structural change. They pose a challenge to conventional religion and to the biological family. Consequently, they inevitably mobilize conflict with the broader social milieu as a consequence of their (a) ideology, (b) organizational style, (c) economic resources, and (d) recruitment and socialization practices. Allegations of coercive brainwashing have been made by concerned parents whose children have been exposed to cult recruitment.’
Another mental health professional, Donald Ottenberg (1982), compares mental health therapeutic communities with cult groups. He sees distinct differences between genuine therapeutic groups and cults. In considering characteristics of the cults he notes those characteristics given in the 1978 report of The Special Committee on Exotic Cults of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia, and adds some others gathered from various sources. He believes that in order to have a thorough and sound understanding of cults:
’A description of a cult must use a composite of observations and interpretations of those who have experienced cult life and those who have studied the cult phenomenon over the past several years. These observers include psychiatrists, psychologists, and others in the health care professions who have treated disturbed persons who are current or past members of cults. Members of the clergy have become knowledgeable about cults. Distraught members of their congregations whose children have been alienated from the family by the cult experience have sought help. Some religious leaders have the additional motive of wishing to distinguish between the cult and organized religious institutions. From these sources; information made public at numerous trials in which cult leaders were defendants or plaintiffs; and from accounts published by persons who have broken away from cult membership, one can piece together consistent patterns of behavior and objectives that can be identified as the cult phenomenon.’
For Ottenberg, as a medical professional, there is a deep concern to discover the truth and details about cults very much at the personal affectedness and direct involvement level, rather than merely an academic theoretical perspective. He makes no reference in his paper to sociologists or other theorists.
Traditionally, amongst Christians (and religious leaders of other faiths), the issue of cults has predominantly been one of theological soundness verses extreme heresy. As sociologist, Ron Enroth (1983, p.15) points out:
’For the Christian the most significant component of a definition of a cult is theological in nature. This is so because the basic issues of truth and error are involved. Unlike the secular sociologist who is unconcerned about the truth of a particular belief and unlike the typical person whose religious naivete precludes any serious interest in doctrinal matters, the Christian must be able to distinguish truth from error.’
Enroth went on to point out the need for Christians, and others, to also consider other factors, including sociological ones. He then enumerated some nine characteristics common to most cults, making clear that, ’All cults have some of these features; not all cults have all of them’ (p.17).
This shows the complexity of the issues surrounding an understanding of the cults, and the fact that various professionals stress a particular approach and a particular bias. Theologians will emphasize the importance of religious and doctrinal orthodoxy, and use an educative, expository approach; psychologists and therapists will emphasize the importance of being free to make choices and decisions without manipulation or coercion, and will often use an interventionist approach; sociologists will try to remain ’judgment-free’ and focus on social aspects and interaction, and use a theoretical, phenomenologically analytical and descriptive approach. I believe a balanced approach and understanding of the cults, including formulating descriptive typologies, takes consideration of all three approaches.
Bainbridge and Stark (1979)/Stark and Bainbridge (1979) constructed a set of concepts for a theory of religious movements that went beyond the earlier and more traditional dichotomous ’church-sect’ theory presented by Weber and developed by Troeltsch, and subsequently used by many other sociologists. They presented what they considered inadequacies in the then prevailing church-sect theories and developed their own theory to include cults.
They point out that traditionally sects were linked to churches and seen as schismatics who broke away from the parent church. They refer to Benton Johnson and his reconceptualisation of the church-sect theories by postulating a continuum showing the degree to which a religious group is in a state of tension with its surrounding socio-cultural setting. He regarded a church as accepting its existing social environment, and suggested that sects were groups that rejected their existing social environment. Stark and Bainbridge build on this theory and develop the concepts of religious movements and religious institutions - therefore not just limiting the concept to Christian churches.
They point out that not all deviant religious bodies (that is, groups in a relatively high state of tension with their surrounding socio-cultural environment) are schismatic breakaways from some parent religious group, and therefore cannot be called ’sects’. These groups, sharing many characteristics in common with schismatic sects, but having no prior tie with another established religious body in that society, they refer to as ’cults’.
This distinction of cults being similar to sects but representing an independent religious tradition, either as an import (from other external societies) or as innovation within that society, is one I had been using before I read Stark and Bainbridge’s theories.
Around the same time that these two sociologists pronounced their theories, I was using a similar descriptive statement in seminar outline notes and later in publications.
’A cult is regarded as distinctly different to a sect, in that a sect, generally, comes out of an established group and carries over with it many of the major teachings and/or practices of the original group. Cults, however, generally, commence completely independent of another group - there is generally no clear distinguishable continuity or link between the cult and any one major established church or denomination.’ (van Leen, 1983, p. 337)
The way Stark and Bainbridge develop their theory it becomes possible to have cults as religious movements which themselves end up with schismatic breakaway sects.
Sociologist Bryan Wilson (1982, pp. 91-92), in discussing the sociology of sects, refers to eight specific characteristics. Wilson refers to some groups as sects which I, and many others, would refer to as cults - I believe most of his characteristics apply to both cults and sects. He suggests that sects:
1. tend to be exclusive;
2. claim a monopoly on religious truth;
3. tend to be lay organisations and are generally anti-sacerdotal;
4. tend to reject religious division of labour in religious practice and deny any special religious virtuosity to anyone other than perhaps their leaders or founders;
5. are generally marked by voluntarism requiring evidence of merit through knowledge of doctrine, quality of life, initiations or ritual performances, and the like;
6. generally set the standards of acceptability (behaviour and belief) for the members, and sanction those who are inadequate or wayward (often with expulsion);
7. tend to demand total allegiance;
8. are protest groups.
With the exception of Wilson’s eighth point, each of the preceding characteristics can be used of cults (as the term is used by Stark and Bainbridge).
Lynne Hume (1996), from the University of Queensland, lists what she considers to be ’Danger Markers’ - some eleven components which reveal a pattern that can culminate in a religious group’s cataclysmic end:
1. Charismatic personality of leader;
2. Establishment of a separate community;
3. Dualistic us/them ethic;
4. Group as kin;
5. Leader’s high libido and control over members’ sexual activities;
6. Patriarchal authority structure;
7. Self-proclaimed divine qualities;
8. Notion of an apocalypse and a new millennium;
9. Accumulation of armaments;
10. Followers either willingly or coerced into dying for the leader’s ideology;
11. Cataclysmic end result.
She refers to these ’Danger markers’ in the context of examining Charles Manson’s Family, Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, David Koresh’ Branch Davidians, and David Berg’s Children of God/Family.
Giving consideration to various writers concerned about definitions, perceptions, concepts, characteristics and typologies of the cults over the years has led me to develop my own definition and listing of characteristics. I have drawn from the perspectives of theology, psychology and sociology. Many of the typologies presented by various writers are not limited to one field of professional research only - often approaches overlap. Some focus on one area only, others on two areas, and some on all three areas. Below I group them under one of the three areas for convenience and some perspective. Some writers are more helpful, or more balanced, than others. Apart from those writers already quoted, the following have also been referred to and considered:
(a) Predominantly Christian/theological: Allan, 1986, pp.17-33, 141-164; Breese, 1986, pp.15-114; Forrest & Sanderson, 1982, pp.14-22; Gruss, 1994, pp.1-11, 215-220; Hoekema, 1963, pp.1-8, 373-403; Lee & Hindson, 1993, pp.11-73; Lewis, 1966, pp.1-15; McDowell & Stewart, 1992, pp.11-36; McGregor, 1992, pp.9-17; Petersen, 1982, pp.11-16; Robertson, 1991, pp.12-29; Schipper, 1982, pp.9-21; Sparks, 1979, pp.13-25; Tucker, 1989, pp.11-48; Whalen, 1981, pp.1-7.
(b) Predominantly psychological (often holding the view that: cults use ’mind control through the use of abusive behaviour-modification techniques’ (Vatican Report, 1988, p.24)): Hassan, 1990, pp.1-11, 35-94; LeBar, 1989, pp.11-18; MacHovec, 1989, pp.3-114; McManus & Cooper, 1984, pp.109-116; Markham, 1987, pp.9-37; P. Martin, 1993, pp.19-76; Ritchie, 1991, pp.1-10; Ross & Langone, 1988, pp.19-34; Rudin & Rudin, 1980, pp.13-29; Samways, 1994, pp.1-24, 61-95; Streiker, 1984, pp.ix-xii, 18-30; Tobias & Lalich, 1994, pp.11-47, 276-277; Vatican Report, 1988, pp.16-26.
(c) Predominantly sociological (in a few cases with overlap from the other two areas - most sociological approaches tend to be in disagreement with the psychological approaches, and generally dismissive of theological approaches): Beckford, 1985, pp.1-26, 69-134; Campbell, 1977; Enroth, 1992, pp.75-165; Enroth, 1983, pp.9-24; Hamilton, 1995, pp.193-215; Nelson, 1987, pp.48-91, 173-187; Robbins, 1988, pp.24-62, 100-160; Saliba, 1983,7-29; Wallis, 1975.
Drawing from the preceding sources in the three areas of theology, psychology and sociology, as well as primary cult sources read over the years, I have developed a definition and list of characteristics which I believe is appropriate for the majority of cults.
In my consideration of cults I endorse religious freedoms and rights, including the right of persons to know as much as possible about religious groups, including any hidden agenda or esoteric teachings, practices or requirements, before getting deeply involved. Therefore, I believe, it is in the public interest for a full awareness or exposure to be made, or be available, for the public on, or about, any and all religious groups from theological, psychological and sociological perspectives, in order to gain a balanced perception and understanding of such religious groups and movements.
The preceding comments and references make it clear that definitions of cults are numerous and varied. However, I submit that it is generally accepted by most scholars and professionals that sects and cults share common characteristics but that sects are reform, or separatist, movements that have broken away from a parent body with which is shares many common elements and a linear continuity. Cults, however, are generally commenced by an individual, often claiming divine revelation or insight, or some other charismatic justification for commencement, independent of, and with no linear connection to, any other major religious movements.
DEFINITION AND CHARACTERISTICS - TYPOLOGY
There are differing perceptions and interpretations between scholars and popular notions of sects and cults, especially amongst Christians who tend mainly to examine theological differences. In popular thinking, in the church-sect-cult continuum, cults are often regarded as extremely heretical (theologically) and sects may be regarded as unusual and deviant in some practices and activities but not necessarily very heretical (theologically). Whilst some sociologists (and others) may technically call some such groups “cults” it does not necessarily follow that the term is used in a derogatory manner. There are some groups which some sociologists may technically refer to as “sects”, (and some, following predominantly the psychological model, may want to refer to as “cults”) but for which I prefer to use the term “Extreme Christian Fringe Groups” - religiously and theologically they may basically be Christian but some of their practices and behaviour may be cultic. Sometimes they are individual congregations still existing within a larger denomination (this can be so especially in denominations emphasizing almost total autonomy for the local congregation). Some of these groups may no longer be officially part of a denomination, but may belong to a particular ’stream’ of Christianity, e.g. the Pentecostal stream, or the Baptist stream.
Cultic groups and sects are very diverse. To deal with this diversity we have also used broad categories or divisions of cultic groups in our work. We acknowledge that there will be some overlap in some cases between categories, and there will always be some groups that are exceptions to the generalised category, or may not comfortably fit in any one category.
The categories or divisions we use are:
WESTERN PSEUDO-CHRISTIAN EXCLUSIVIST GROUPS;
EXTREME CHRISTIAN (EXTREME RELIGIOUS) FRINGE GROUPS
HUMAN POTENTIAL GROUPS
NEW AGE GROUPS
EASTERN MYSTICAL GROUPS
In spite of diversities sects and cults often share common characteristics. I therefore hold the view that it is appropriate to use the following definition for a sect/cult: “A leader, or leadership, centred and dominated independent religious group that deviates from religious orthodoxy and accepted socio-cultural patterns in its beliefs and practices, and seeks the conformity and submission of members in obedience to the leadership”. The distinction lies essentially in the extremity of their practices, and the fact that cults have independent beginnings and are not breakaway groups, as are sects.
I submit that the following characteristics and techniques or practices are generally found in most cults and cultic groups. Not ALL cults will be equally characterised by ALL of the following, but most will reveal many of them with varying intensity.
i) they are leader, or leadership, centred and dominated, usually by persons claiming some divine appointment or authority - while members are accountable to the leadership the leadership is not accountable to anyone else, leaders often make significant decisions for members;
ii) the leadership generally claims supernatural insights, divine revelations - often superseding sacred scripture (scriptures are often replaced, misused, reinterpreted) - and superior knowledge to that available to ordinary members, leaders may be believed to be omniscient, have supernatural powers, healing powers;
iii) the groups are often aggressive in recruiting new members and in increasing finances, even using various forms of deception, including infiltrating established churches or religious groups, in order to increase both - this also adds to the power of the leadership, members are often asked to contribute all possessions or large sums of money;
iv) the groups are often characterised by some form of secrecy - hidden agendas, teachings and practices for the member not revealed publicly - esoteric aspects kept from outsiders and newcomers until they become entrenched members;
v) double standards are often an integral part of such groups - one standard, privileges, luxuries and the like for the leadership, and a (often very) different standard for members - often one standard for the public and another for group members (even justification for deceiving non-members) - all too often double standards involve moral values at one extreme or another;
vi) most such groups have a persecution complex in which all questioning or criticism, disagreement or non-conformity is regarded as a threat and generally results in claims of persecution, discrimination or vilification - sometimes extreme measures are taken to silence all critics and opponents;
vii) these groups generally present themselves as having the answers to all of life’s complex issues, they promise “the world” and can be very persuasive, though their claims cannot stand close scrutiny, questioning or deep thought;
viii) most such groups present either an unrealistic hope with utopian claims and promises, or they use fear and uncertainty, possibly claims of the imminent end of the world and the promise that they alone have the truth that leads to salvation, the way out, to attract and keep members - many, if not most, are characterised by extreme religious exclusivity;
ix) many such groups use impressive public promotion and propaganda to present a positive image to the public - they often seek official endorsement by academics, politicians, and community leaders who are shown just what the group wants them to see and kept from discovering negative elements;
x) these groups often use intensive emotional techniques to entice newcomers and endeavour to maintain emotional intensity to lessen any critical thought, analysis or questioning;
xi) such groups build a suspicion of all outsiders, including natural family, in the minds of new members and use a variety of methods to separate members from their normal support systems - family, friends, social and educational contacts and environment - to increase the member’s dependency on the group and its leadership;
xii) in many of these groups, natural parents and family members are criticised, condemned, or rejected and replaced by the group as the better or true family - sometimes a complete new name and change of identity is provided for members so that there is a complete separation from the past and dependency on the group and its leadership is reinforced;
xiii) behaviour modification techniques and high powered salesmanship are often used to gain and control new members;
xiv) long hours are often given to extensive studies promoting a sense of deeper knowledge and elitism, and further separation from others and the past;
xv) repetitive techniques of chanting or singing, and the effective use of music, are often used to induce an altered state of consciousness, mood and emotional control and the elimination of active thought processes;
xvi) exhaustion and fatigue are often induced through prolonged mental, emotional and physical activities, limited or interrupted sleep (late to bed and up in the early hours of the morning), long working hours followed by long reading/study sessions or meditating/chanting sessions and the like;
xvii) fear and intimidation is a major control technique used by such groups - negativity, non-conformity, non-compliance may result in humiliation and ridicule by the leadership in front of other members, physical punishment - of adults and especially of children - again, often before others, may also occur, psychological and spiritual threats of God’s punishment or Satan’s seduction are often invoked on those who question too much or who leave - those who leave are treated as apostates and often completely shunned (even by family members in the group);
xviii) group pressure and dynamics are often used to ensure conformity - the individual must deny self for the greater good of the group, conformity in behaviour, values, beliefs, dress, social activities and standards are all reinforced through group dynamics, group confession and other techniques to destroy individuality are common;
xix) communal living provides a greater controlled environment, ensures greater separation of the members from their socio-cultural and spiritual support systems that present an alternative to the group, and deepens the power and control of the leadership.
The preceding definition and listing of cult characteristics is a refinement of what has been used in seminars and writings I have produced for CCG Ministries over the years. This version presented here was first stated basically in this form (apart from a couple of minor variations) in an affidavit submitted to the High Court of the Republic of Singapore in August 1994 in a case in which I was asked to be an expert witness. It was then published in the CCG Ministries’ magazine, TAKE A CLOSER LOOK, in March 1995 (van Leen, 1995).
A real danger exists of oversimplifying the nature of particular groups merely on the basis of a comparison with some stated list of characteristics. Each religious group has elements of its own uniqueness which make some of its characteristics exceptional and in contrast to those stated, or where characteristics may validly apply but with some modification or further explanation. When dealing with groups of people things are rarely as lawyers try to make them out in court - simply one thing or another - either, or; yes or no. Reality tends to be more complex - often a matter of both, and - rather than either, or; and, yes or no, BUT...!
It should also be noted that, especially individually, many of these characteristics may, at times, apply to individuals, families, businesses, some community groups, political groups and regimes, government departments and bodies, and varying, apparently non-religious, ideologies. Here they are being considered and applied specifically in the context of examining religious groups, especially those which take things to extremes.
Therefore, while I believe the listing of what may be deemed as ’cult characteristics’ is valid and appropriate in this context, it will need development and explanation in being applied for comparison and consideration with any particular group. In addition, we should never lose sight of the fact that the cults are made up of people. Cultic and other religious groups are not merely objects for fascination or academic examination. Those people need to be respected, and have a right to care and compassion, not just scrutiny.
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(From TACL Vol 19 #4 Aug/Sep 1998)