When most of us hear the word "cult," we see a bunch of brainwashed zombies feeding their children cyanide-laced fruit drink, mass murders, a burning compound in Waco, Texas -- it's not a pretty picture. But is it a true picture? What exactly is a "cult," and how is it different from a "religion"? Are all cults dangerous? Are people who join destructive cults mentally disturbed, or are all of us equally susceptible?
In this article, we'll separate fact from propaganda and learn what a cult actually is, what practices characterize a destructive cult and look at some of the more notable cult incidents in recent history.
What's a "Cult"?
If You Need Help
If you think you may be involved in a destructive cult, or you've recently left one, there are a lot of resources out there ready to help you. They can assist you in understanding the situation and taking action. Here are just a few organizations that specialize in helping people recover from cult involvement:
* Support Group Locations
* Post-Cult Trauma
* Cult Information Service
The cults that make the news and drive fear through the hearts of parents sending their kids to college are the exception, not the rule. At its most basic, a cult is simply a small, unestablished, non-mainstream religious group that typically revolves around a single leader. The American Heritage Dictionary defines "cult" this way:
1. A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader.
2. A system or community of religious worship and ritual.
The first definition is closer to the common usage of the term today, but you'll notice there's no mention of brainwashing, murder or mass suicide. There is no meaningful difference between a cult and a religion in terms of faith, morality or spirituality. The primary differences are that a "cult" operates outside of mainstream society, often calls on its followers to make an absolute commitment to the group and typically has a single leader, whereas a "religion" usually operates within mainstream culture, requires varying levels of commitment from its members and typically has a leadership hierarchy that, in practice, can serve as a series of checks and balances.
But destructive cults are a different story. There is a big difference between a destructive cult and a non-destructive religion (or a non-destructive cult). A destructive (or totalist) cult exploits its members' vulnerability in order to gain complete control over them, often using unethical psychological techniques to bring about thought reform. It can be said that a non-destructive religion or cult attempts to alleviate its members' vulnerability through spiritual guidance in an effort to help them exercise control over their own lives.
While most small, non-mainstream religions are harmless, certain circumstances do make them an easy breeding ground for destructive practices. The People's Temple began as a charitable organization in the United States that ran a free medical clinic and drug rehabilitation program. But you probably know it as the doomsday cult whose Kool-Aid mass suicide/murders took more than 900 lives in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978. How can something that began with so much hope go so very wrong? There's a lot of speculation about what happened to the members of The People's Temple, but for the most part, what went wrong is what goes wrong with most destructive cults: the leadership.
Photo courtesy Getty Images
Don Hogan Charles / New York Times Co.
Reverend Jim Jones, leader of The People's Temple, and his family in 1976
Photo courtesy Getty Images
David Hume Kennerly
Nine-hundred members of The People's Temple (including more than 200 children) dead after Jones ordered a mass murder/suicide in 1978
It's really a two-part problem. First, many of these religions are founded by a single person who retains a position of exclusive power within the organization, and power tends to corrupt even the most ethical among us. In the case of The People's Temple, there is evidence that its leader, Reverend James Warren Jones, was abusing prescription drugs and becoming increasingly paranoid through the 1970s. Next, because these groups operate outside the mainstream, there is usually no one checking up on their operating procedures, so a corrupt or mentally unstable leader is free to exploit his followers to his heart's content. In addition to this authoritarian leadership structure, some primary characteristics of a destructive cult include:
* Charismatic leadership
* Deception in recruiting
* Use of thought-reform methods
* Isolation (physical and/or psychological)
* Demand for absolute, unquestioning devotion and loyalty
* Sharp, unsurpassable distinction between "us" (good, saved) and "them" (bad, going to Hell)
* "Inside language" that only members fully understand
* Strict control over members' daily routines
For the remainder of this article, when we refer to techniques employed by "cults," we're talking about destructive cults, not the small religious groups that keep to themselves and don't hurt anybody. In the following sections, we'll examine destructive cults more closely and find out how they function. Let's start with the leadership structure.
It Takes All Kinds
Not all destructive cults are religious in nature. They can be driven by political or financial goals as well. In the end, it's all about subjugating members' individuality to achieve the desires of the leader(s), whether that means reinforcing a self-proclaimed messianic status, participating in destructive activities in the name of political revolution or simply filling the leader's pockets with their hard-earned money. There are radical political groups, commercial pyramid schemes and self-help seminars that employ similar recruiting and indoctrinating techniques as destructive religious cults, targeting people with certain vulnerabilities and then playing on those vulnerabilities to keep them "in the fold." The end result is a "convert" who will blow himself up in the name of destroying capitalism, try to get all of his loved ones to buy into the same business deal that he is losing his life savings on, or keep signing up for an unending series of lectures, seminars and retreats that promise psychological and spiritual healing but really only drain his bank account.
Cult suicide is that phenomenon by which some religious groups, in this context often referred to as "cults", have led to their membership committing suicide. Sometimes all members commit suicide at the same time and place. Groups which have done this include Heaven's Gate, Order of the Solar Temple, Peoples Temple (Jonestown) and the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God. In other cases, certain denominations apparently supported mass suicide, but did not necessarily encourage all members to do it. Examples here include Filippians and the Taiping.
According to a recent study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry religious affiliation is associated with significantly lower levels of suicide compared to religiously unaffiliated people, atheists and agnostics. Source: Kanita Dervic, Maria A. Oquendo, Michael F. Grunebaum, Steve Ellis, Ainsley K. Burke, and J. John Mann. "Religious Affiliation and Suicide Attempt" (161:2303-2308, December 2004).
Full article online: http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/abstract/161/12/2303
OBJECTIVE: Few studies have investigated the association between religion and suicide either in terms of Durkheim's social integration hypothesis or the hypothesis of the regulative benefits of religion. The relationship between religion and suicide attempts has received even less attention.Pitzer College sociologist Phil Zuckerman compiled country-by-country survey, polling and census numbers relating to atheism, agnosticism, disbelief in God and people who state they are non-religious or have no religious preference. These data were published in the chapter titled "Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns" in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. by Michael Martin, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK (2005). In examining various indicators of societal health, Zuckerman concludes about suicide:
METHOD: Depressed inpatients (N=371) who reported belonging to one specific religion or described themselves as having no religious affiliation were compared in terms of their demographic and clinical characteristics.
RESULTS: Religiously unaffiliated subjects had significantly more lifetime suicide attempts and more first-degree relatives who committed suicide than subjects who endorsed a religious affiliation. Unaffiliated subjects were younger, less often married, less often had children, and had less contact with family members. Furthermore, subjects with no religious affiliation perceived fewer reasons for living, particularly fewer moral objections to suicide. In terms of clinical characteristics, religiously unaffiliated subjects had more lifetime impulsivity, aggression, and past substance use disorder. No differences in the level of subjective and objective depression, hopelessness, or stressful life events were found.
CONCLUSIONS: Religious affiliation is associated with less suicidal behavior in depressed inpatients. After other factors were controlled, it was found that greater moral objections to suicide and lower aggression level in religiously affiliated subjects may function as protective factors against suicide attempts. Further study about the influence of religious affiliation on aggressive behavior and how moral objections can reduce the probability of acting on suicidal thoughts may offer new therapeutic strategies in suicide prevention.
Concerning suicide rates, this is the one indicator of societal health in which religious nations fare much better than secular nations. According to the 2003 World Health Organization's report on international male suicides rates (which compared 100 countries), of the top ten nations with the highest male suicide rates, all but one (Sri Lanka) are strongly irreligious nations with high levels of atheism. It is interesting to note, however, that of the top remaining nine nations leading the world in male suicide rates, all are former Soviet/Communist nations, such as Belarus, Ukraine, and Latvia. Of the bottom ten nations with the lowest male suicide rates, all are highly religious nations with statistically insignificant levels of organic atheism.It is important to keep in mind that atheism and agnosticism have no inherent proscription against suicide, so higher rates of suicide among agnostics and atheists should in no way be considered a failure of these belief systems. Indeed, compassionate tolerance for suicide and euthenasia are widely regarded as hallmarks of many secular societies.
The list of countries with the highest levels of atheism, agnosticism and non-belief in God (see: Largest Atheist Populations, reporting lists by Zuckerman, 2005, and Greeley/Jagodzinski, 1991) strongly correlates with countries that have the most liberal (or "progressive") laws, policies and practices regarding right-to-die, assisted suicide, and euthenasia for infants, the terminally ill, chronic pain sufferers, the handicapped, and depressed individuals. Zuckerman (2005) listed the top countries with the highest levels of atheism and non-religiousness as: Sweden, Vietnam, Denmark, Norway, Japan, Czech Republic, Finland, France, South Korea, Estonia, Germany, Russia, Hungary, Netherlands, Britain and Belgium (highest by level of non-belief, with Sweden being the highest).
A report last updated 1 March 2005 about assisted suicide (Assisted Suicide Laws Around the World, compiled by Derek Humphry, former editor of World Right-to-Die Newsletter) summarizes the situation in these proportionately more atheist/agnostic countries:
...Sweden [ranked #1 on the list of countries with the highest proportion of atheists/agnostics] has no law specifically proscribing assisted suicide...[See the article for many more details.]
Norway [ranke #4] has criminal sanctions against assisted suicide by using the charge "accessory to murder"... A retired Norwegian physician, Christian Sandsdalen, was found guilty of wilful murder in 2000. He admitted giving an overdose of morphine to a woman chronically ill after 20 years with MS who begged for his help... Dr. Sandsdalen died at 82 and his funeral was packed with Norway's dignitaries, which is consistent with the support always given by intellectuals to euthanasia.
Finland [ranked #7] has nothing in its criminal code about assisted suicide. Sometimes an assister will inform the law enforcement authorities of him or her of having aided someone in dying, and provided the action was justified, nothing more happens. Mostly it takes place among friends...
Germany [ranked #11] has had no penalty for either suicide or assisted suicide since 1751...
France [ranked #8] does not have a specific law banning assisted suicide, but such a case could be prosecuted under 223-6 of the Penal Code for failure to assist a person in danger. Convictions are rare and punishments minor...
Denmark [ranked #3] has no specific law banning assisted suicide...
In England and Wales [ranked #15] there is a possibility of up to 14 years imprisonment for anybody assisting a suicide. Oddly, suicide itself is not a crime, having been decriminalized in 1961. Thus it is a crime to assist in a non-crime. In Britain, no case may be brought without the permission of the Director of Public Prosecutions in London, which rules out hasty, local police prosecutions... there have been eight Bills or Amendments introduced into Parliament between 1936-2003, all trying to modify the law to allow careful, hastened death. None has succeeded, but the Joffe Bill currently before Parliament is getting more serious consideration than any similar measure...
Hungary [ranked #13] has one of the highest suicide rates in the world... Assistance in suicide or attempted suicide is punishable by up to five years imprisonment. Euthanasia practiced by physicians was ruled as illegal by Hungary's Constitutional Court (April 2003), eliciting this stinging comment from the journal Magyar Hirlap: "Has this theoretically hugely respectable body failed even to recognize that we should make legal what has become practice in everyday life."
...in Estonia [ranked #10]... lawmakers say that as suicide is not punishable the assistance in suicide is also not punishable.
The only four places that today openly and legally, authorize active assistance in dying of patients, are:
1. Oregon [the U.S. state with the highest proportion of self-described non-religious residents] (since l997, physician-assisted suicide only);
2. Switzerland [ranked #23] (1941, physician and non-physician assisted suicide only);
3. Belgium [ranked #16] (2002, permits 'euthanasia' but does not define the method;
4. Netherlands [ranked #14] (voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide lawful since April 2002 but permitted by the courts since l984)...
Japan [ranked #5] has medical voluntary euthanasia approved by a high court in l962 in the Yamagouchi case, but instances are extremely rare... The Japan Society for Dying with Dignity is the largest right-to-die group in the world with more than 100,000 paid up members
Active religious cultures exhibit lower levels of suicideIn 2002 the American Journal of Epidemiology published a study by Dr. Sterling C. Hilton showing that active Latter-day Saints are 7 times less likely to commit suicide than their surrounding peer population. (See: "High Religious Commitment Linked to Less Suicide", describing the study from American Journal of Epidemiology).
In various broad-based sociological studies, Latter-day Saints consistently exhibit high levels of religiosity and committment to behavior in accordance with religious teachings, relative to the general population, levels higher than seen in nearly all other sizable religious groups. The Hilton study showed not only that membership in a highly religious culture is linked to lower levels of suicide, but also that higher levels of participation within a specific religious group are linked to lower levels of suicide.
It is important to keep in mind that suicide is not actively encouraged by any major group or belief system, whether atheist, agnostic or highly religious. Even in nonreligious nations and belief systems in which suicide is considered a moral and viable option, it is an abberation.
Although there is a strong statistically significant correlation linking religious belief and practice to lower levels of suicide, it is not reasonable to use this correlation to broadly generalize about the merits of any particular belief system. Simply put, most people eat food, have families, work or go to school. But only a tiny fraction of any population ever commits suicide. Suicide is a statistical anomaly and is not a generally applicable demographic measure.
Social scientists believe that non-belief in God or lack of religiosity are not causitive factors leading to suicide. Rather, it is likely that religious belief that suicide is wrong is a strong deterrent factor that prevents otherwise suicide-prone individuals from committing suicide.
According to medical research, the factors most predictive of suicide are hopelessness and depression. Clinical depression can be found in all segments of society. The following passage is from: "Cognitive therapy for the suicidal patient: A case study" in Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, Oct-Dec 1998, by Christine E. Reilly:
Suicide is responsible for more than 31,000 deaths a year, making it the ninth leading cause of death in America (Anderson, Kochanek, & Murphy, 1997). The single most predictive risk factor for a completed suicide is a psychiatric diagnosis. As in the case of depression and panic disorder, cognitive therapy research has made a significant contribution toward understanding the variables in suicide. A task force of the National Institute of Mental Health Center for Studies of Suicide Prevention developed a tripartite classification system in 1973 to describe suicidal behavior-suicide ideation, suicide attempt, and completed suicide (Beck et al., 1973)...Certainly Latter-day Saint missionaries never knock on doors with a message, "Hello. If you join our Church you'll be less likely to kill yourself." Likewise, it is unlikely that any atheists and agnostics will modify their beliefs and religious practices simply because of one demographic factor relating to a statstical group they happen to belong to. If your "discussion" of the relative merits of your belief system devolves into pointing out the suicide rate within a specific population, then you have already lost the argument, because you have abandoned substantitive dialogue in favor of an appeal to tangential sensationalism.
Many factors play a role in suicidal ideation and behavior. Hopelessness frequently has been reported to be the most critical psychological variable predictive of suicidal ideation and behavior. Degree of hopelessness, along with a negative self-concept (a variable predictive of suicide independent of hopelessness), compose two of the three components of Beck's negative cognitive triad found operating in depressed individuals (Beck, Steer, Epstein, & Brown, 1990).