What is a religious cult?

Lake City Reporter/November 23, 1988
By Tom Leithauser

  • Jonestown, 1978—912 members of the Peoples Temple commit suicide or are murdered at the urging of the Rev. Jim Jones, a charismatic preacher who led his tight-knit band of followers to the jungle to escape the outside world and build a paradise.
  • San Francisco, 1981 - 17 members of Synanon, a religious movement dedicated to rehabilitating drug lasers, are accused of beating to death a former member suspected of disloyalty.
  • Worldwide, 1987—Nearly 150,000 people congregate at selected points around the globe to mark the "Harmonic Convergence," a two-day event that supposedly coincided with the alignment of celestial bodies. The convergence, based on the ancient Mayan calendar, was designed to usher in a bright, new, enlightened age for man on earth.

In its early years, histories tell us, Christianity was considered a cult. So was Islam. The two religions today are thought to have 1.5 billion followers.

Throughout history, the label "cult" has been slapped on any religious movement that fell outside the mainstream, including nearly all of the Protestant sects that developed in the 1500s.

For many modern Americas, the word "cult" evokes images of black-clad figures gathered around an outdoor fire muttering satanic incantations or vacant-eyed teenagers with plastic smiles selling flowers on a street corner.

In most cases, experts say neither image applies. Most modern cult groups appear to be fairly normal on the surface. Indeed, only a very fine line separates cults from "socially acceptable" religious organizations.

On one side of that line are groups in which members are free to think for themselves and speak their minds without fear.

On the other side are humans afraid of free thought, their minds manacled by psychological coercion and the techniques of brainwashing.

Jeri Smith is a Sioux Falls, S.D. pastor who counsels families of cult members and ax-members. She has studied End Time Ministries, a religious movement in the process of coming to Lake City from throughout the nation.

She uses the following checklist to define a cult.

  • The group has a living leader whose authority is absolute.
  • The leader claims to have a special relationship with God.
  • Converts are young adults contacted during a crisis period of their life — first year of college, first year out of college, breakup with boyfriend or girlfriend, divorce, etc.
  • Converts are looking for love or security and feel the need to be totally committed to the group.
  • Once in, converts are required to give absolute allegiance to group.
  • The group separates itself from the outside world, either physically, by moving all members to a single, isolated location; or spiritually, by telling themselves they are different or better than others.
  • Members give a great deal of money to their leader, but don't hold the leader accountable for how the money is spent.

Officials at the Chicago-based national Cult Awareness Network mention one other item that cult leaders use to sway new converts and maintain discipline in their group—mind control. A cult programs its members by getting them to repeat key phrases over and over, by separating them from their old life, and, in some cases, by depriving them of sleep or protein.Cults also frequently proclaim that some great disaster is about to take place — such as famine or nuclear holocaust—that will signify the end of the world. Cult members themselves believe that by remaining in the cult they will be able to shield themselves or will be saved by divine intervention.

A common myth about cults is that members are easily recognizable by their glassy eyes and serene, hypnotized appearance. But, in fact, Smith said, most cult members lose much of their intensity after the first few years, and, with it, the spacey look of the new recruit.

Cult members frequently look and act like everyone else.

"People don't realize that destructive cults blend in very well with society. They don't realize they may be working with someone in a cult, that they may have relatives in a cult," said Cynthia Kisser, executive director of the Cult Awareness Network. [Note: the Cult Awareness Network was bankrupted by Scientology sponsored litigation and now seems to be run by that organization].

Another myth is that only someone who is mentally unstable to begin with could be recruited into a cult.

Tim Reiterman, co-author of "Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People," said: "People still have the tendency to dismiss the people of the People's Temple (Jim Jones' group) as a bunch of crazies and kooks and worse. But when you've spent a whole lot of time with the subject, you understand they're a whole lot like the rest of us".

Anyone can get sucked into a cult after attending just a few meetings of a group. During their first few visits, potential recruits usually find themselves surrounded by attentive group members who appear friendly and open, but who usually avoid answering questions about the group.

The Cult Awareness Network estimates that 2,500 cults are in operation in this country and nearly million people have been affected by them. -:

Interest in cults appears to be growing. The network received 10,000 calls requesting information this year, twice as many as in 1987

November 18th was the 10th anniversary of what is now called the "Jones town Massacre." The deaths at Jonestown are blamed on the single-minded devotion that members of the Peoples Temple felt for their leader, Jones. ''

No modern event before or since has focused attention on the potential destructiveness of cults as did Jonestown. But Kisser believes the killing continues.

"For every child who died in Jonestown, many more have died since in similar circumstances" Kisser said. "Tragedies are being perpetrated one person at a time".

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