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Remember ... A group does not have to be religious to be cultic in behavior. High demand groups can be commercial, political and psychological. Be aware, especially if you are a bright, intelligent and idealistic person. The most likely person to be caught up in this type of behavioral system is the one who says “I won’t get caught. It will never happen to me. I am too intelligent for that sort of thing.”
The following statements, compiled by Dr. Michael Langone, editor of Cultic Studies Journal, often characterize manipulative groups. Comparing these statements to the group with which you or a family member is involved may help you determine if this involvement is cause for concern.
My initial impression that former cultists come face with a multiplicity of losses, accompanied by a deep, and sometimes debilitating, sense of anguish. See for example interviews with defector from Mormonism on YouTube
The study consisted of a three page survey mailed to 150 former cultists. Eighty surveys were returned (53%). Of the 80 respondents:
The last two pages of the survey focused on 31 specific areas of loss. Sadly, many of the surveys were returned with nearly all 3l checked as applying to the respondent, and as having caused tremendous distress during the first two years out of the group. Of the 31 issues addressed, l will mention the five that were identified as having caused the most distress not only during the two immediate cult years, but since departure, however long ago that may have been. All of these issues were rated as having caused "extreme" distress in the lives of the former cultists involved.
Although exiting a high-demand group signifies, and carries with it, hope of a new life filled with individual freedom, especially the freedom to make one’s own decisions and choices, departure also means coming face-to face with a multiplicity of losses.
Let us consider, for a moment, a few examples of these losses, and empathize with the inner struggle and grief that challenge many a former cult member. Consider, for example, the former cult member who leaves spouse, and/or family, behind in the group, and the long-term friendships one forsakes upon leaving the group. What grief must accompany the loss of such precious relationships? What of the individual’s personal and social sense of identity, which identity, for so long, was "defined" by the cult leader or leadership? The recovering former cult member struggles with the loss of his "cult" identity, and must find, for himself, the answer to the age old question, "Who am 1?" In addition, the former cult member—now no longer part of a group where lofty, unattainable ideals of perfection and responsibility reign—may grope in an emotional "limbo" of sorts, feeling that his life has lost significance, meaning, purpose. He no longer has the "personal responsibility" of saving the world, or of being "perfect," weighing upon his shoulders, and struggles to define what his role is, and will be, in life. Needless to say, in these instances, the potential for feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and despair are great. Finally, what of all those innocents, who come face face with the realization that their trust has been violated—that their bodies, minds, and souls, their love, devotion and energy—have been manipulated, used, and abused, in the name of all that is "supposed to be" good? Whom can they trust now? Their sense of loss and betrayal, and subsequent grief, are indeed profound!
My hope upon initiating this research was to provide a link between cult leaders and corporate psychopath and demonstrate that cult leaders practices (that are more or less well understood and for which extensive literature exists) have a strong predictive power for the behavior of a corporate psychopath. We should not focus just on the acute and long-term distress accompanying reporting to corporate psychopath.
Here are some psychological mechanisms used:
Many people now agree that cults frequently psychologically manipulate their membership to ensure conformity and control. Steve Hassan's excellent book "Combating Cult Mind-Control" is a great starting point. The following points come from numerous sources. Not all of these are found in every cult but enough of them are found in most cults to make them very frightening places that inflict deep psychological damage on their membership.
1. Submission to Leadership - Leaders tend to be absolute, prophets of God, God Himself, specially anointed apostle, or just a strong, controlling, manipulative person who demands submission even if changes or conflicts occur in ideology or behavior.
2. Polarized World View - The group is all that is good; everything outside is bad.
3. Feeling Over Thought - Emotions, intuitions, mystical insights are promoted as more important than rational conclusions.
4. Manipulation of Feelings - Techniques designed to stimulate emotions, usually employing group dynamics to influence responses.
5. Denigration of Critical Thinking - Can go so far as to characterize any independent thought as selfish, and rational use of intellect as evil.
6. Salvation or Fulfillment can only be realized in the group.
7. End Justifies the Means - Any action or behavior is justifiable as long as it furthers the group's goals. The group (leader) becomes absolute truth and is above all man-made laws.
8. Group Over Individual - The group's concerns supersede an individual's goals, needs, aspirations, and concerns. Conformity is the key.
9. Warnings of severe or supernatural sanctions for defection or even criticism of the cult - This can go so far as to apply to negative or critical thought about the group or its leaders.
10. Severing of Ties with Past, Family, Friends, Goals, and Interests - Especially if they are negative towards or impede the goals of the group.
11. Barratrous Abuse - Some cults use "cult lawyers' to sue ex-cult members and critics often using fabricated evidence and causing financial stress by repeated trivial law suits. The cult's aim is not so much to win the lawsuit (though they often do) as to harass and intimidate their critics into silence.
Cult Conversion Techniques
Conversion into a cult is usually the result of two interacting dynamics. The first is the personal vulnerability of the potential recruit. This vulnerability may be enhanced by, but not limited to, transitional situations such as divorce, abuse, job or career change, moving away from home or leaving college, an illness, or death of a loved one.
The second dynamic are the tactics used to convert, indoctrinate (brainwash) and hold the members. Some groups attempt a radical and rapid conversion over an intensive week-end or week, such as The Forum or Scientology. Others have a more subtle approach which may take weeks or months, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses. The following are techniques of unethical thought reform and mind control:
The importance of cognitive dissonance
Any person will act so as to reduce conflict between their thoughts, their emotions and their behavior. When these things are at odds with each other a person experiences 'dissonance" (the opposite of harmony). Cognitive dissonance is when what a person knows is right is at odds with either what they feel is right or what they are doing. Cults quickly move to control four key areas of a person's life during the conversion process -
Behavior - by intense involvement in activity and isolation from others. Behavior is closely prescribed and carefully supervised.
Emotions - a new recruit is often "love bombed" and greeted enthusiastically and told they are very special. They are made to feel that everyone in the cult loves them and that "nothing could be wrong with such a loving group of people". However this does not last. Emotions are sent on a roller coaster and the only hope of emotional stability is total conformity and pleasing the cult leadership.
Thought - indoctrination, extended "teaching sessions", memorization of cult dogma, "auditing sessions" where inner secrets are revealed and thought processes exposed - all are a part of attempts at thought control so that the thought life of the convert is taken up entirely with the group.
Information - isolation from peers, TV, radio, newspapers, (often labeled as "Satanic") and careful control of associations ensures that little or no material critical of the cult reaches the new recruit during the conversion process.
The combination of all these factors make it very likely that if the new recruit stays in the cult for any length of time they will come to believe in it utterly. We are not as objective as we like to think and when all these powerful forces combine then very intelligent people will be "converted" but not by God.
A Quick List of Nasty Practices
1. A Focus on felt needs, defects, with exaggerated promises of fulfillment.
2. Rigid Control of Time and Activities - Often physically and emotionally draining activities leaving little time for reflection, questioning and privacy.
3. Information Control - Cutting off or denigrating outside sources of information especially if it is critical of the group. This can also include misrepresentation and information overload.
4. Language Manipulation - Ascribing new "inside" meanings in ordinary words or the use of an exclusive vocabulary subtly moving a person to want to become an insider.
5. Discouraging Critical, Rational Thought and Questions - For instance, comments like, "Satan is the cause of all doubt; he wants to keep you from the Truth", or, "one must move beyond the cognitive left-brain and get in touch with one's higher self, his right-brain, intuitive self for true knowledge".
6. Instruction and Repetition in Trance Induction Techniques - These include progressive relaxation, chanting, hypnosis, meditation, trance states, guided imagery or visualization, deep breathing exercises, all of which make a person highly suggestible, often unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality, and can cause psychopathology such as relaxation induced anxiety.
7. Confession Sessions - Promoting full disclosure of all secret sins, thoughts, temptations which can become a powerful tool to manipulate, blackmail, and emotionally bond people to the leader or group. It is actually a depersonalization or stripping of the inner self , a forced submission to the group.
8. Guilt, Fear - Weapons used to maintain group loyalty, suppress questions and defections.
9. Control of Sexuality and Intimacy within the Cult - This may extend to marriage decisions (Moonies), sexual relations, promiscuity (Children of God), group sex (New Age Therapy groups), child sex, adultery, and polygamy (Branch-Davidians).
10. Excessive Financial Obligations - More and more money is needed to attain higher degrees of spirituality (Scientology), or complete submission to God requires one to give up everything to the group or leader (pp. 26-29).
The more points of ideology and conversion methodology that are in place, and the degree of intensity of their application is proportionate to the effect and damage of mind control.
These factors tend to make normal evangelism, or even dialogue, much more difficult. Therefore, some people have looked to deprogrammers or exit-counselors to help break the mental head-locks of their loved ones in an attempt to rescue them from the cult.
Can an Orthodox Christian Group Get Like This ?
Yes they can!!! Just because the theology is straight down the line does not mean the behavior will be. I was in a mission society that in a particular place under the influence of a leader with a great deal of charisma and authority became "cultic" for a year or so. That has been corrected but much damage was done.
Some Christian groups start off great -like the "children of God' and end up utterly wrong and evil. The church needs strong leaders, but they must always be accountable to Scripture and to other wise Christians.
We must allow people to be critical, to think for themselves and to understand scripture freely apart from the dictates of any leader. we must allow a great deal of emotional and intellectual freedom and renounce our desires to control others if we are to have healthy churches where people rejoice in the Truth.
This article may be freely reproduced for non-profit ministry purposes but may not be sold in any way. For permission to use articles in your ministry, e-mail the editor, John Edmiston at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In my definition, a cult is a group that is led by a person who claims, explicitly or implicitly, to have reached human perfection; or, in the case of a religious cult, who claims unity with the divine; and therefore claims to be exempt from social or moral limitations or restrictions. In the language of psychoanalytic diagnostics, such people would be called pathological narcissists, with paranoid and megalomaniacal tendencies. Without the cult leader, there is no cult, and from my perspective, in order to understand cult followers, we must simultaneously seek to understand cult leaders. I will attempt to describe the interplay of psychological dynamics between leader and follower that can enable cult leaders to dominate and control followers and enable cult followers to be seduced and manipulated into submission.
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Cults prey upon idealistic seekers, offering answers to social problems and promising to promote bona fide social change.
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Cult leaders, however, practice forms of control, such as intimidation and humiliation, which demand submission. In Ghent's view, masochistic submission is a perversion of surrender. Cult leaders often use the idea of surrender as bait, and then switch to a demand for submission. Nevertheless, in so doing, they may not actually be practicing mind control in any conscious way. They may simply be behaving in ways typical of pathological narcissists, people whose personalities are characterized by paranoia and megalomania-characteristics, by the way, that are readily attributable to one of the modern masters of thought reform techniques, the totalitarian dictator known as Chairman Mao. Totalitarian dictators study and invent thought reform techniques, but many cult leaders may simply be exhibiting characteristic behaviors of the pathological narcissist, with the attendant paranoia and mania typical of this personality disorder. Thought reform is the systematic application of techniques of domination, enslavement, and control, which can be quite similar to the naturally occurring behaviors of other abusers, like batterers, rapists, incest perpetrators, in all of whom can be seen the behaviors of pathological narcissism.
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For the cult leader, his ability to induce total dependence in followers serves to sustain and enhance a desperately needed delusion of perfect, omnipotent control. With many cult leaders, (e.g., Shoko Asahara [Lifton, 1999]), the dissolution of their delusion of omnipotence exposes an underlying core of psychosis. Sustaining a delusion of omnipotence and perfection is, for the cult leader, a manic effort to ward off psychic fragmentation. Again it is useful to consider that this kind of pathological narcissism and defensive mania is often seen in persons whose childhood development was controlled by extremely dominating, often sadistic caregivers, or whose developmental years were characterized by traumatic experiences of intense humiliation. Cult leaders then create elaborate rationalizations for their abusive systems, while unconsciously patterning those systems from the templates of their own experiences of being abused.
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Cult leaders succeed in dominating their followers because they have mastered the cruel art of exploiting universal human dependency and attachment needs in others. The lengthy period of dependency in human development, the power that parents have, as God-like figures, to literally give life and sustain the lives of their children, leaves each human being with the memory, however distant or unconscious, of total dependency. Cult leaders tap into and re-activate this piece of the human psyche. Followers are encouraged to become regressed and infantilized, to believe that their life depends on pleasing the cult leader. Cult leaders depend on their ability to attract people, often at critically vulnerable points in their lives, who are confused, hungry, dissatisfied, searching. With such people, cult leaders typically find numerous ways to undermine their followers' independence and their capacity to think critically.
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If truth in advertising standards could be applied to religion, some churches would be required to display a sign reading: "Warning: this church could be harmful to your spiritual and psychological health." Farfetched? Not if my own research of the past few years has any validity at all. Sadly, spiritual and pastoral abuse is more prevalent than most people believe. Like child abuse, it often goes undetected, or else it is strongly denied. Spiritual abuse is inflicted by persons who are accorded respect and honor in society by virtue of their positions of religious authority and leadership. When such leaders violate the sacred trust they have been given, when they abuse their authority, and when they misuse their ecclesiastical office to control their congregations, the results can be catastrophic.
What are the hallmarks of unhealthy, aberrant churches? The key indicator is control oriented leadership, ministers who have a need to "lord it over the flock." Abusive leaders demand submission and unquestioning loyalty. The person who raises uncomfortable questions or does not "get with the program" is cast aside. Guilt, fear, and intimidation are used to manipulate and control vulnerable members, especially those who have been taught to believe that questioning their pastor is comparable to questioning God.
Why does a pastor or priest sometimes turn into a spiritual tyrant? I believe it is because of the human desire to control others and to exercise power over people. Each of us has been exposed to the temptation of power, whether in the role of spouse, teacher, or parent. An excessive will to power, coupled with sincere religious motives, can lead to the misuse of spiritual authority.
More than any other age group, young adults are attracted to abusive churches, their seemingly dynamic programs, and their "take charge" leaders. Such churches often target young couples during the crucial child bearing years. As a result, the energy needed by these young couples for legitimate family interaction is siphoned off into a high intensity cause. Family obligations are sacrificed, and children's developmental needs are neglected.
How can we recognize a healthy church? In addition to matters of appropriate doctrine, a healthy church is reconciling and restorative, not adversarial and elitist. Members of healthy churches seek to deepen and strengthen their family commitments. Legitimate leaders will welcome dissent and hard questions from members without threat of reprisal. Trustworthy leaders will encourage accountability, and they will establish checks and balances.
Choose a church carefully and prayerfully. Remember, not all religion is benign, and not all church experience is beneficial.
Have you ever bought an outfit that didn't fit properly because the sales person convinced you it looked nice? Ever have someone talk you into having another drink when you didn't want one? Ever run into a clever con artist who had a good line? Ever sign a contract you didn't really want to sign? Getting involved with a cultic group could be just that easy? (If you still think it can't happen to you take our test on the General Information page [grin]
Why do I do this? After 15 years wandering through the world of the cults, including time in both Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses, I finally realized that I was being controlled rather than controlling my own life. I found myself alone with no access to information that would help me recover. I resolved then to make it easier for others than it was for me and my family. When I left there was no one to talk to about my experience who understood .... life was very lonely and frightening at times.
Michael Rogge, "On the Psychology of Spiritual Movements," This is an interesting WWW site dealing with common psychological mechanisms which are seen within spiritual movements of all types. See: http://www.xs4all.nl/~wichm/psymove.html
The psychological make-up of a guru may be generalized as follows:
- Difficult youth. Self-chosen isolation at childhood. Introvert. Therefore not used to share inner life with friends.
- Narcissistically absorbed in inner mental processes.
- Undergone a traumatic experience.
- Authoritarian attitude. Élitist and anti-democratic.
- Attracting disciples rather than friends on account of the fact that they never learnt to exchange thoughts in childhood.
Mind control can involve many techniques. Robert Lifton describes eight of them in his book "Thought Reform & the Psychology of Totalism:"
Milieu control: control of the group environment and communication Manipulation: Leaders are perceived as being chosen by God, history or some supernatural force. Salvation can only be attained through the cult Purity demands: An us vs. them mentality is developed, in which cult members are the only pure and good. Confession: group confession and self-criticism is used in order to produce personal change Sacred Science: The cult's doctrines and ideology are considered sacred and must not be doubted or questioned. Loading the language: Conventional words and phrases are given special, in-group meanings. Doctrine over person: Members are conditioned to feel guilt if they ever question group doctrine. One must subject one's experience to the "truth," as taught by the group. Dispensing of Existence: The group contains the elite; outsiders are evil, unsaved, and may not even have the right to exist. Leaving the group will have devastating consequences.
James A. Beckford & Sophie Gilliat _Religion in Prison: Equal Rites in a Multi-Faith Society_ Cambridge University Press, 1998 ISBN: 0 521 62246 8 Hardback: 35 pounds sterling
Lorne L. Dawson, Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements.
Toronto and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Lorne L. Dawson, Cults in Context: Readings in the Study of New Religious
Movements. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Pub., 1998 (and Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press, 1996).
I have just re-read my essay for the first time in three years. That person seems many more years behind me. I am still the same person, but a bit more skeptical. This is a good and bad thing. As I read over my story, I realized that what still haunts me most is the loss of some very special friends. I have often thought about trying to write to them or call them. I did not contact them due to the knowledge that there is nothing I can say or do in one short conversation to teach them what I now know. Their conclusion would only be pity for me losing my spiritual path.
Life is sometimes good and sometimes not, and that is what is beautiful about being alive. I have a great job, a house, a fantastic husband, and I am still in awe of the love my family had/has for me to take the risks they did and to do what they did three years ago. But best of all is my daughter. She is the highlight of every moment of my day! I would not have a husband or a daughter if I had stayed with Mariano.
As I re-read my essay, perhaps my most troubling thought was how to explain a cult experience to my child so that she may learn from my mistakes. Someday .....
The Last but not Least Technology is dominated by two types of people: those who understand what they do not manage and those who manage what they do not understand ~Archibald Putt. Ph.D
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Last updated: February 12, 2019