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  • Writer's pictureTiffany Lee

What's Wrong With Cults?

At age 14, I developed a rather unusual fascination with documentaries; mostly regarding cults. While my conviction towards Christianity remained unwavered, my intrigue only soared. I failed to understand the authenticity of the foundation and actions of these socially deviant groups and in utter disbelief towards the work of history's most notorious cults. My disgust bubbled as they justified their excessive abuse of power in the name of God or religion and even more when hundreds of people from all walks of life continued to seek their guidance. Cults conflate charismatic leaders with fanatic followers, with an intense devotion to an extreme ideology that is taught by an infallible leader whose words are nothing but hypocritical. As cults prevail throughout the 21st century, their gullibility continues to elude me and makes me wonder, should we continue on a path of indifference and tolerance towards cults?


Ominous undertones have haunted the term cult for decades. Between the mass suicide in Jonestown and the wave of hysteria in Tokyo elicited by the devious Aum Shinrikyo, most people have become naturally inclined to deviate from associating with cults. Even so, many cults or new religious movements continue to attract unusual amounts of traction. This poses the question: how do they continue to lure people in?


Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton delineated the characteristics of destructive cults as one, a charismatic leader, who is revered as a God-like figure and poses as the “single most defining element of the group and its source of power and authority”. Their new reality as a cult member subjects them to an enclosed and enveloped system that upholds and promotes a fervent devotion to their leader. Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, who was responsible for the mass suicide by Kool-Aid in 1978, were masters at the art of deception. Teri Buford O'Shea who escaped the mass suicide by weeks contends that “he [Jones] was very charismatic and attracted people who were feeling vulnerable or disenfranchised for whatever reason”, offering solace, community, and guidance when the line between critical thinking and irrationality is blurred. The second is the process of indoctrination, more commonly known as brainwashing or thought reform. Recruiting members is not a facile task and takes weeks or even months to execute. They follow the elements of indoctrination by injecting themselves into targets' lives or someone they know, leaning towards newcomers to an area or someone who recently entered a state of vulnerability due to an abrupt change in their lifestyle. The ensuing void of desire for meaning and connection makes them susceptible to the idea of alternative narratives or communities. Once they join the cult, the outside world is posed as the enemy, placing the victim in a perpetual state of denial between their doubts and their peers which is called cognitive dissonance, a “mental discord related to a contradiction between one thought and another”. This along with peer pressure imposes control over our perception of reality through our fundamental human desire for acceptance or through “coercive persuasion involving guilt, shame and fear”. In his coterie, Jones fashioned a narrative that he was the all-powerful, the giver, which conditioned members to become dependent on him. “If you wanted religion, Jim Jones could give it to you. If you wanted socialism, he could give it to you. If you were looking for a father figure, he'd be your father”, Jones would hone in one’s desires and your “needs” to bait followers emotionally. They would suppress their doubt as a sign of commitment and gratitude for his altruism and acceptance, instilling a sense of indebtedness to their leader. Jim Jones was the epitome of successful thought reform, even convincing people that “he was Gandhi, Buddha, Lenin -- he said he was the coming back of anybody you'd ever want to come back” and just like that, everyone believed him. In short, Jim Jones had mastered the art of brainwashing, paving the way for new cults to do the same.


Jonestown mass Koolaid suicide, 1978


“Cult is a term that doesn’t refer to religion at all, but applied to a social movement”, denoting a social group with socially deviant beliefs and practices. However, the incredibly vague definition of a cult often inaptly associates cults with religion. Like cults, the charismatic leader could easily be found in Christianity and Buddhism who claim divine knowledge and revelations. Furthermore, the intent is supposedly the same, to face an external threat and navigate through tumultuous times by uniting under his leadership. In Europe, many religions were created during the turmoil of the renaissance and in India, they grew out of social disarray as backlash towards British colonialism. Even in America, the burnt-over district between Albany and Buffalo, became the breeding ground of Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventism, and other social, political, and religious movements. Albeit, the distinction between cult and religion is not the content of its religious ideology. It's when the manipulation and distortion of reality become destructive that cults and religion diverge paths.


Personally, the nature of a cult doesn’t seem malicious. Members are generally misguided by a promise of safety and community, only with an intention to feel welcomed, wanted, and for personal growth. The flaw is the behavior elicited by the cult that creates a margin for error. Cults sever members' ties with the outside world, relationships with family and friends, financial assets, and living arrangements, demanding obedience to human leaders. They forcibly suppress freedom of thought, speech, and connection, discouraging critical thinking, gradually stunting psychological and emotional growth. Yes, the first amendment protects people under freedom of religion but faith should not cost your family, friends, and life.


At the turn of the 20th century, the derogatory understanding of cult began, drawing from an uproar of radical cult behavior affiliated with some of the most atrocious disasters in history. Some of the most notable cults that have swayed the world's perception and definition of cults include the Peoples Temple led by Jim Jones, Heaven’s Gate led by Marshall Applewhite or the Aum Shinrikyo led by Shoko Asahara. Jim Jones was adamant that the remote settlement in Guyana would be a utopia, cushioning them from an impending nuclear apocalypse as well as the racism that plagued America. Their commune became known as Jonestown. Almost immediately, relatives expressed their apprehension, branding it the “Jonestown Concentration Camp”, begging the public and government to interfere to liberate their families. They accused Jones of “mind programming campaigns” and holding “mock mass suicides” to test their loyalty. An erratic leader tied with an onslaught of public dissent, Jonestown had become a ticking time bomb. The bomb was triggered on November 18th, 1978, when Congressman Leo Ryan along with his aide and journalists arrived at Guyana to investigate, only to be found dead on the tarmac at Port Kaituma airfield. Admitting defeat, Jim Jones broadcast his final message: “I’ve tried my best to give you a good life. In spite of all that I've tried, a handful of our people, with their lies, have made our life impossible. There’s no way to detach ourselves from what’s happened today”. Within the day, Jones and his followers had ingested cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, committing mass suicide. “There were to be no survivors,” said Krause, who survived the ambush. This was nonetheless, the most substantial act of domestic terrorism America had ever faced until 9/11. Jim Jones had instantaneously and permanently polluted the connotation and behavior associated with the term cult.


The reign of terror by cults never ceases, with the the Tokyo sarin gas attack in 1995, Heaven’s Gate mass suicide in 1997 or the most recent NXIVM cult, that veiled a sex-trafficking operation. Their crippling demeanor of violence, lack of morality and bigotry only justifies the derogatory connotation of the term cult. It was redefined to demonize an unconventional and contentious movement that is deemed a threat to the rest of society. The new interpretation of the value and ambition of cults place us at a crossroad between acceptance and rejection. How could a force that triggers only grief, despair and rabid vexation possibly be tolerated in a world that already struggles to achieve equality, acceptance and solidarity?


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