This post will review why people want to join cults and how to recognise a cult.
I would like to continue on the reasons why some people join cults. I have chosen three out of many reasons which I believe apply to Catholics who are joining cults, which SEEM Catholic, but are dangerous groups which lead souls astray.
Reason one is to seek perfection. Yes, a woman or man may join a monastery in order to become a saint, but usually the impetus is that of love of God, not the desire to be perfect. We should strive for perfection because we love God and want to be with Him forever in heaven, not merely to be perfect. Some Catholics join cult or cultic groups because they want to be perfect. The method may be dubious, but the seeker for perfection is looking for a short-cut by joining a group, and following a program.
The life of a false seer who seems perfect or shares a way to be perfect tempts the perfectionist.
Reason two is to change the world. Many people today are fed up with the world. Corruption in politics, government, business and institutions appals us to the point of wanting change. Too many people join cults in order to change the world, as a group. Changing the world begins with changing one’s self, as good nuns and monks understand under the Rule of Benedict, for example. However, the young idealist may not see the difference between a true vocation to the religious life and the desire to change the world, or at least, one’s nation. The great false and condemned political movements, such as Marxism and socialism, also appeal to the young idealist. The cult appeals to the same drive to want to make utopias on earth.
Reason three is that some people want others to take care of them. They cannot maintain an independent, self-motivated life. They lack a sense of who they are and what they can be. Relying on others for spiritual strength and guidance is good only insofar as one takes responsibility for one’s own spiritual life.To want a spiritual director whom one sees periodically is not the same as wanting someone to tell you daily how to live your life, either physically or spiritually, and letting that person “take care of you.”
Fear of the present chaos in the world causes intelligent people to join cults as well. Fear is a negative emotion, whereas I have been emphasising positive, yet misguided, reasons why people would want to join a cult.
How does one recognise a cult?
These are my guidelines which I have learned over the years on how to recognise if a group is cultic.
One, is there a “us and them” attitude among the members? Do the members separate themselves from people not in the cult? Do they think they are better than non-cult members? There is a false security in the emotional response to “us” and “them.” Some people want to demonise the “enemy,” instead of engaging in conversation or, at least, praying for those with whom someone disagrees strongly. The us and them syndrome can happen in political, religious, or mystical cults. The sociologist and psychologists tell us that in times of social upheaval, cults become attractive. Hence, the growth of cults in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Cold War was at its peak and when economic downturns across the world caused huge inflation and joblessness. Cults blame others for problems and the us and them approach simplifies the answers to life’s biggest problems.
So, if someone is speaking in us and them terms, be suspicious of the friends and acquaintances that person may be surrounding themselves with lately—have they fallen into a negative group of us and them cultish types?
Two, changes in personality is a real sign of someone involved in a cult. Is the person you suspect may be in a cult removing themselves from old friends, dropping family members and only seeing this new group of people? Is that person that you have known acting differently, dressing differently, purposefully setting themselves apart, even to the point of not speaking with you, an old friend or member of the family?
Three, spending money on this “cause” of the group-be it political, religious, or mystical, to excess? One of my friends years ago was nanny to a family of children whose father was a world-famous engineer. The dad was gone frequently working in far away places for lengths of time. This dad assumed the mom, his wife, was taking care of the children properly, but when the nanny took over, she discovered that the children were eating cold hotdogs out of the refrigerator and not being cared for in other ways. The mother had joined the Scientologist and she was eating, drinking and sleeping Scientology. The nanny had to inform the father, who returned and discovered that his wife had actually become so involved in this cult, that she could not function as a wife or mother. Needless to say, the marriage ended up in divorce and the cult was to blame for this separation. A highly intelligent woman had spent house money on the cult instead of on the children, deteriorated to the point where she could not function normally. She also exhibited personality changes, as in point two, and had an us and them attitude, point one. The father did try to get her psychological help. However, one needs the person to be open to such.
If the person about whom you are concerned spending money on conferences, pilgrimages, talks on DVD and so on relating to the cult and not on anything else?
Four, is your family member or friend dressing oddly? Are they applying old Biblical rules to their lives not in keeping with good, solid Catholic tradition, such as observing different holy days or doing excessive fasting without the advice of a spiritual director? Is he or she wrapped up 24/7 with thinking, eating, drinking and talking about this cult and its beliefs? Such a list of externals may help one decide if one’s friend or family member is involved in a cult.
There are other symptoms, but these are simple ones to spot.
Sometimes cults seem harmless. Anything which takes over a person’s life must be looked at carefully. Sadly, in my experience, people involved in cults do not want “outsiders” advice or influence.
Brainwashing is part of the dynamic of any cult. The famous sociologist, to whom I shall refer at greater length in part three of this series, Benjamin Zablocki, is an expert on cults. He has spent his academic life studies communities and cults. He claims that brainwashing happens to keep the person involved in the cult. Therefore, it is not obvious in the beginning, where a lot of goodwill and even what seems like brotherly and sisterly love entice the person to join the cult, but later, when that person may want to leave. Brainwashing involves manipulation, aggressive or passive-aggressive actions on the part of the cult leaders. Threats may be extremely subtle, especially in religious or mystical cults, such as the suggestion that the person will go to hell if he or she leaves the cult.
Again, many highly intelligent people find cults a place where they can feel accepted. This changes, however, if they attempt to question the cult and its leadership.
It is clear to sociologists and psychologists that women are more prone to join cults then men. One has to ask one’s self why. If one looks at political cults, one may see mostly men involved, but with the religious and mystical cults, women joiners are in the huge majority.
I have come to my own conclusion on this point. I think it is because women want emotional experience in their religious life and see the cults as providing this emotional support and even control. Emotional approaches to religion are dangerous, period. Thankfully, the Catholic Church has always valued reason and rational discourse. Hence, the emphasis on reading and studying the Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Early Church Fathers and the Doctors of the Church. This is hard work. Cults provide emotional short-cuts to holiness, or so it seems to those attracted to such. There are no short-cuts to holiness, and those cults which appeal to women on the emotional level succeed in taking over their imaginations, and most tragically, their wills.
To be continued…
JMJ, pray for us!
God is good,