How can you tell if a group is a cult or not?
After a recent report about a cat-worshipping, end-times group in Middle Tennessee, we asked cult expert Janja Lalich to explain what makes a cult a cult.
“The reality is that there’s just dozens and dozens and hundreds if not thousands of these groups around in our country and everywhere else in the world. Sometimes they’re dangerous, and sometimes they’re not. But they definitely flourish,” said Lalich, who is a professor emerita of sociology at California State University, Chico.
She recently spoke to The Tennessean about the characteristics of cults after an article written by veteran religion writer Bob Smietana for the Nashville Scene. The investigative report explained why the followers of a leader of a Columbia-based cat rescue think they were in a cult.
A cult is a group or movement held together by a shared commitment to a charismatic leader or ideology. It has a belief system that has the answers to all of life’s questions and offers a special solution to be gained only by following the leader’s rules. It requires a high level of commitment from at least some of the members.
There’s four dimensions to a cultic group that we see across the board.
1. Charismatic leader: The charismatic leader is the originator of the group. Charismatic leaders are people who are great manipulators, they’re charming. They know how to read people. They come along and offer a message that is going to resonate with somebody. Once they get a few followers that’s all they need and then those people go out, recruit more and they build up an aura around the leader.
2. Transcendent belief system: Most religions and even political groups are going to have a transcendent belief system, meaning they’re stating how to get to some better place. But what’s different in cultic groups is they have their way to get you there. It’s what I call the recipe for change. In order to be part of the group, you have to go through a transformational process, which they dictate to you and you can’t be there otherwise. That’s the indoctrination program.
3. Systems of control: They think they’re joining something that’s going to give them purpose and meaning. Slowly the heat gets turned up and you go through the rituals or the study sessions that get you more and more drawn in. As this process goes on, the person begins to adopt this new worldview that requires new behaviors and which most often requires cutting off from the past. There’s all kinds of control mechanisms, which are the rules and regulations. You’ve got to dress this way.
4. Systems of influence: Then there’s the more subtle influences, which is the peer pressure. Older members will model for the new members how you’re supposed to behave. Before you know it, you’re so enveloped in this other reality that you don’t look to anything else. You don’t allow yourself to be opened to any other explanations. Your mind has completely closed in on this new worldview. So the connections to the belief system is kind of the glue that keeps you there. This is your only hope.
How does the culture of the Bible Belt impact the influence of cults?
Just about everybody belongs to some kind of church. And today we also have, which to me I think is one of the dangers, we have a huge number of these small, nondenominational churches. Some guy decides he's going to be a pastor and starts inviting people over to his house, and before you know it they get a little storefront. Before you know it he's got 100 followers. The problem with these nondenominational groups is just that. They're nondenominational. They don't belong to any kind of bigger organization where they would be held accountable.