This is a three part series on a serious topic. The rise of cults, (not occult), has alarmed me for years. I first became acquainted with cults when two friends of mine went into two different ones. One man I knew joined the Moonies. Another joined an offshoot cult of the Catholic Church, with a false pope. The first man was somewhat of an outcast, with a sad background. He was extremely shy. for physical reasons, by nature, and this had made him a loner. However, in college, he managed to come out of his shell and he became an actor, with some talent. However, later, he left the Catholic Church and joined the Moonies. He also got married in one of their crowd-marriages, where hundreds of couples get married at one time. Sadly, our paths separated so that I could not get him out of that cult.
Most of the readers here will recognise the cult of the Moonies. What a cult is may not be so clear to readers.
I shall define different types of cults in a minute. My other friend, a highly intelligent and religious person, got into a strange cult begun by a con-man, who claimed to be the real pope. I shall not go into details, but thankfully, my friend left the cult on his own free will. However, it was obvious that years of living in that cult had marred his psyche, his soul.
Now, these two cults are, as they still exist, “religious” cults. There are also “mystical” cults, and “political” cults. These categories became popular because of the growth of sects and cults in the 20th century. Max Weber, who we history majors studied in university, was a pioneer in the study of cults.
A cult is defined generally as any systems of religious veneration or devotion. Thus, for example, we have the cult of religion among Benedictines, who follow a rule. Our liturgy is part of the cult of our Faith. This general definition is not how I am using it here.
My definition is the more modern one, which is a group which thrives because of unusual religious, spiritual or philosophical beliefs or which is a community surrounding a strong, charismatic personality. We have modern day tragic examples of this type of cult—Jim Jones’ People’s Temple which ended up in that famous mass suicide, or Heaven’s Gate.
Some so-called “religions” begun by men rather than by God have aspects of cults. The Latter Day Saints exhibit cult behaviour, especially among the young. These “religious cults” centre on strong ideas which separate these groups of people from others. And, this aspect, of separation, of setting people apart from society, is a huge sign of a cult. The Branch Davidians, an offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventists, is also a Protestant sect turned cult. Again, that group of people died in tragic circumstances following a charismatic leader.
The other two types of cults are less obvious. One type, the political cult, may be exemplified in many movements today, and there are a slew of books written on political cults. Aryan Nation is one of those political cults, as is the Trotskyist group in England, called the Worker Revolutionary Party, which was communist. Political cults, like other cults, cause aberrations in the character of those who join them. One sign of odd and dangerous behaviour is the unwillingness to discuss the cult, to explore criticisms openly, and to demand certain behaviour, even dress, of its members. Such groups as the Brown Shirts, the paramilitary group under Hitler responsible for much violence, could be labelled a political cult. I think some of the far-right and far-left moments occurring both in the United States and in Europe could be classified as political cults.
Both the religious and political cults separate their members from society at large. This separation, at first a sign of loyalty and membership, quickly become tyrannical and over-bearing. However, many members accept that type of tyranny in order to belong to a group which shares his or her religious or political goals.
The third category of cult is the “mystical” cult. These are groups which centre around either a mystical experience or a person who has had mystical experiences. Many of the New Age “churches” fall into the category of a mystical cult. One of these is the Summit Lighthouse movement which is connected to the Church Universal Triumphant. This “church” was started by Elizabeth Prophet, who died ten years ago. Taking ideas from all the main religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, as well as Christianity, Elizabeth claimed to have messages from the “Ascended Masters.” An apocalyptic group, the Summit Lighthouse people have little Christian morality and some are involved in the occult, such as seances. Again, mystic cults usually follow a charismatic leader, a person with a strong personality, who has natural or even negative supernatural abilities to influence people. Obviously, if the cult leader is controlling people by sharing messages from Masters, (a al demons), the cult becomes destructive, if not to the bodies of those involved, the souls.
Sadly, there is a tendency for some types of people to want to join cults. These are not necessarily uneducated or “stupid” people. On the contrary, studies have shown that cults attract highly intelligent people.
Why would a highly intelligent person want to join a cult?
The first reason is community, the need to belong to a special group, the need to conform to a group and be accepted by that group. Community is a good thing, if free, without restrictions which squash individuality or personality. The community of a cult is usually controlled by a person with exceptional gifts. A good community, such as a monastery, has objective rules, and allows for a person to be themselves, even while following a rule. The Benedictine monks and nuns, for example, have community, pray together, eat together and work together. The Rule of St. Benedict is one of the most practical of all religious orders. The word “order” separates the communal activity of the monastery from that of the mystic or religious cult. As Catholics, we can see the difference between a religious or mystical cult surrounding an individual or a community using a rule.
The danger now is that some people are seeking the communal experience by joining cults because of dysfunctional families and the lack of community in churches. Even among Catholics, there is this danger of wanting human consolations, friendships, and a conforming type of lifestyle which brings a sort of comfort to the lonely soul.
However, when the community becomes more important that the individuals, danger sets in. The group think takes over and the community of the cult must exist separated from other people who do not share the same vision.
This leads to the second reason why people join cults. They think or feel that they are special if they join this or that group which claims to have esoteric, special knowledge. This is the appeal of Gnosticism, one of the earliest heresies to hit the Early Church. The gnostic tendency is pride, the pride which makes a person think or feel they are better than other people because they have “special knowledge.” This knowledge may be from such as the Ascended Masters, or a seer, such as that of Bayside, a condemned set of apparitions and messages. Those who revel in seeking out special knowledge, the sin of curiosity as well as pride, too often fall prey to false seers, false prophets.
A third reason people may join a cult is out of sheer rebellion against a sect, an organised sect, a specific church, or a religion. Rebellion leads to spiritual pride. All the heretics exhibited this type of pride; Calvin, Luther, Knox, and so on. The sin of disobedience marks the leader of the cult who has broken away from an established church.
Another reason a person may join a cult is sheer loneliness, and the desire for love. Sadly, many wounded people, albeit highly intelligent, fall into cults because they are lonely. This motive is slightly different than that of the first reason. Reason number one is a positive motive, whereas escaping loneliness is a negative one.
I am sure there are other reasons why people join cults. Sometimes, cults attract many members of the same family, and, therefore, family unity is a reason to join a cult. Some members of the Latter Day Saints build on family unity to the point of stifling individuality. Some sociologists would claim the LDS is a cult, some would say it is an organised sect and some would call it a religion. However, the religious cult may seem like a good institution, and usually cults are much smaller than an organised “religion,” albeit one man-made.
This is the first of three posts on cults. To be continued…
JMJ, pray for us!
God is good,