For a number of readers, last week’s reflection about authoritarianism raised questions about cults. Cults are dangerous.
They are closely related of course.
According to Hebrew tradition, when the legendary Moses went up into Mount Sinai, in the 13th century BCE, to receive the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:12-18), he left the Israelites for forty days and forty nights. The Israelites became restless and fearful in his absence. Turning away from God, and led by Aaron the brother of Moses, they directed their devotion to worshiping the Golden Calf. It was immediate, provided simple answers, and required no thinking. An early cult.
There are of course more contemporary examples, where people become fearful, want immediate and simple answers to life’s big issues and problems. They stop thinking. Their critical faculties decline and they surrender to the simple but phony propaganda of cultic leaders. And they are usually supported by far-right movements with strong racial supremacy.
Quite often the line between conventional religion and a cult is not so clearly defined. Cults are exclusive, highly secretive, and authoritarian. Some cults even proclaim Christianity, but bear no resemblance to anything truly and authentically Christian. There are as well political cults, which attract and control because they act like captivating religions, whose only demands are obedience and unquestioned loyalty.
A typical cult has a somewhat theatrical and unaccountable leader, who persuades by coercion and exploits the cult’s members economically, sexually, or in some other way. Cult leaders shun and ostracize people who don’t accept the cult’s exclusive claims to truth. When it comes to truth, cult leaders gradually turn fantasy and fiction into accepted truths by continually repeating false statements in rhetoric, propaganda, and the media. Cult leaders are false prophets.
The American psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton (born 1926), known for his studies of the psychological causes and effects of political violence, delineates three common features of destructive cults:
(1) A living leader, who has no meaningful accountability and who becomes the single most defining element of the group and its source of power and authority.
(2) A process of indoctrination, persuasion or thought reform, commonly called “brainwashing.” In this process, members of the group often do things that are not in their own best interest, but in the best interest of the group and its leader.
(3) Economic, sexual, social, and political exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.
The warning signs of cultic development are clear:
• It advocates authoritarianism without meaningful accountability. Leaders, if not downright evil are self-centered, mediocre, crass, and juvenile.
• No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry. Dissent and criticism are not permitted. Those who dissent are marginalized, excluded from decision-making, and labeled “troublemakers” or “dangerous,” or even demonic.
• The leader promotes exaggerated and misguided fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophes, evil conspiracies, and persecutions.
• Members of the cult believe their leader was sent by God to change the world; and all must therefore be obedient and loyal to the leader.
We all need to be alert to cultic leaders and groups. They are unhealthy and pernicious. We need to have the courage to speak out. They are people who thrive on fear and fear of social change; and they take advantage of people by controlling information and promoting fear. In the process, they support a very unhealthy kind of religion.