Articles on Cults

What is a “Cult”?

At its most basic, a cult is simply a small, unestablished, non-mainstream religious group that typically revolves around a single leader. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “cult” this way: (1) A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader. (2) A system or community of religious worship and ritual.

The first definition is closer to the common usage of the term today, but you’ll notice there’s no mention of brainwashing, murder or mass suicide. There is no meaningful difference between a cult and a religion in terms of faith, morality or spirituality. The primary differences are that a “cult” operates outside of mainstream society, often calls on its followers to make an absolute commitment to the group and typically has a single leader, whereas a “religion” usually operates within mainstream culture, requires varying levels of commitment from its members and typically has a leadership hierarchy that, in practice, can serve as a series of checks and balances.

But destructive cults are a different story. There is a big difference between a destructive cult and a non-destructive religion (or a non-destructive cult). A destructive (or totalist) cult exploits its members’ vulnerability in order to gain complete control over them, often using unethical psychological techniques to bring about thought reform. It can be said that a non-destructive religion or cult attempts to alleviate its members’ vulnerability through spiritual guidance in an effort to help them exercise control over their own lives….

Many of these religions are founded by a single person who retains a position of exclusive power within the organization, and power tends to corrupt even the most ethical among us. In the case of The People’s Temple, there is evidence that its leader, Reverend James Warren Jones, was abusing prescription drugs and becoming increasingly paranoid through the 1970s. Next, because these groups operate outside the mainstream, there is usually no one checking up on their operating procedures, so a corrupt or mentally unstable leader is free to exploit his followers to his heart’s content. In addition to this authoritarian leadership structure, some primary characteristics of a destructive cult include:

  • Charismatic leadership
  • Deception in recruiting
  • Use of thought-reform methods
  • Isolation (physical and/or psychological)
  • Demand for absolute, unquestioning devotion and loyalty
  • Sharp, unsurpassable distinction between “us” (good, saved) and “them” (bad, going to hell)
  • “Inside language” that only members fully understand
  • Strict control over members’ daily routines

excerpt from “How Cults Work” by Julia Lawton


How Thought Reform Works in a

 Spiritually Abusive System

Robert J Lifton’s Thought Reform Criteria

 Within Bible-Based Cultic Groups

by Steven Martin

Milieu Control

This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large. Free exchange of information is tightly controlled by threats of accusation of gossip or “touching not the anointed” leadership. Stories concocted for “damage control” also fall under this category so that members are fearful or reluctant to contact dissident or former members. Information from outside sources is often criticized and discounted to discourage acceptance by group members. Connotation is a powerful tool in the maintenance of milieu control.

Thinking Inside the Box (Pg 9, Martin’s summary)

Milieu control is an environment in which the leader imposes a limitation of communication and interaction with the world outside for the group (except, of course, for the purpose of recruiting). This limitation stems from the conviction that their group possessed an ultimate truth, and that reality is their exclusive possession. In order to engineer the soul into this “truth,” they believe that they must bring the person under full observational control. Therefore, one is actually boxed in and hindered from obtaining what is true and relevant outside the group.

Loading the Language

The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating clichés, which serve to alter members’ thought processes to conform to the group’s way of thinking. Connotation also plays a major role, and accusations and terms such as “gossip”, “rebellion”, “Jezebel” and the like are avoided at all costs by membership and prevent critical thinking and evaluation of group tactics. Activation of emotions through the use of connotation can create “cognitive dissonance” and temporarily stop critical thought processes so that the message behind the language is not evaluated with usual cognitive processing. If emotion can be dominated, the cognitive stress created by the conflict gives the leader strong influence over thought and behavior. This is also reciprocal: confusion of emotion or thought or behavior gives the leader strong influence of the remaining aspects of self and can instill the group doctrine without critical evaluation by the individual.

The Language of Non-Thought, (Pg 89, Martin’s summary)

Loading the language involves the manipulation of words and phrases to produce “thought-terminating cliches.” It is thus a tool and extension of the “Sacred Science” — language that is used in order to stifle doubts and criticism, resulting in a narrowing and constriction of thought processes. It involves abstract words that categorize and judge members within the group and people outside the group. Such language is used for manipulating and even stifling a members thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

The words and phrases have special meaning within the group — a kind of language which, of course, exists to some degree in any organization, and all belief systems depend on it. However, the loading is more extreme in totalistic groups since jargon expresses the certitudes of the sacred science serving to stifle and control one’s thinking.

Mystical Manipulation

There is manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority or spiritual advancement or some special gift or talent that will then allow the leader to reinterpret events, scripture, and experiences as he or she wishes. This technique may also apply to alignment of the group or group leaders with powerful, respected and orthodox others who may be enlisted to make statements or write opinionated articles in support of the cultic group or leaders. Media presentations may also connotate legitimacy when they are well done and impressive. Within Charismatic/Pentecostal groups, collected information or desired behavior may come in the form of messages of prophecy, “Thus saith the Lord.”

Illusion to Delusion (Pg 21, Martin’s summary)

A powerful means of persuading or instilling belief in someone is to strike a sense of awe and enthusiasm within the person through various forms of “mystical manipulation.” By manipulating circumstances or the environment from behind the scenes in such a way that events look spontaneous or miraculous, observers can be struck with a sense of awe and thus be attracted and misled. The resulting “mystical aura” that surrounds the system and its master is sheer deceit.

Demand for Purity
The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. Dissidents or competing ideologies are labeled as entirely untrustworthy and are given the connotation of near-heresy. (In psychology, this ego defense is termed “splitting.”) The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here. Systems of positive reinforcement of acceptable behavior and negative reinforcement of unwanted behavior are employed to promote compliance with the group norm. Favored individuals are often used to model behavior and are rewarded very publicly to promote group compliance.

Getting Nowhere Fast (Pg 36, Martin’s summary)
This is a demand which goes to the extreme of labeling certain thoughts, feelings and actions as “sins” which really are not sins at all. Even human limitations, weaknesses, and imperfections are categorized as “sin,” and perhaps looked upon with condemnation. In other words, it is a demand for perfection. It is a kind of purity that is not reachable. It is a standard of purity, of rightness and wrongness, as defined by the leader (the ideological totalist). Every human being has a certain amount of guilt and shame that can be tapped into. At totalist leader can then exploit this guilt and shame:

To remind the subject of his limitations and weaknesses;

  • As a manipulative appeal to the subject to strive for the ultimate standard of good as the authoritative leader so defines it.
  • The result is a burden of man-made rules that come to be accepted as necessary for purity or perfection. But the rules are hard to bear and the goal is unattainable, resulting in undue guilt and shame. Hence, it is a system of legalism. The guilt and shame are used as emotional levers, and serve to prod the member toward continuous reform. The subject keeps on striving painfully to meet the prevailing standard. But it is like being on a treadmill, or pursuing the carrot on a stick. If the subject does not measure up to the standard or keep the rules, he is expected to expect (or willingly accept) punishment, humiliation, and ostracism.

Cult of Confession

Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members’ “sins,” “attitudes,” and “faults” are discussed and exploited by the leaders. Even if not obviously promoted by the group, information is collected (usually automatically without set guidelines for collection) and fed to leadership. Shameful past events may then be exploited to manipulate individual compliance or as evidence for disciplinary actions. This information is also exploited by members who leave the group.

Vocal Self-Degradation (Pg 53, Martin’s summary)

This element is associated with the previous element, the Demand for Purity. The Cult of Confession is a mode of open confession in front of the leader and is often in front of the group. It is intended to expose and rid the member of those impurities that the group so labels. What it amounts to, however, is open self-degradation. This leads to exploitation of the member’s vulnerabilities. Under normal and appropriate circumstances, personal confession is therapeutic. In this situation, however, certain actions, weaknesses, thoughts and feelings are labeled as sinful and impure when, in fact, they are not. The member may even be pressured into confessing crimes that he or she has not committed.

A totalist group assumes to have a type of ownership of a person’s inner self. The member, consequently, views confession as a means of oneness with the group, and as a necessary means toward betterment of himself or herself. Fellow group members who confess as well, may also take on the role of judges. Perpetual confession becomes a means of judging others: “the more I accuse myself, the more I have a right to judge you,” thus taking on the identity of “judge-penitent.” The goal of the totalist leadership in the exposure process is to eliminate any confidentiality about personal matters. But the effect is actually quite the opposite and creates an inner conflict: the more one engages in self-exposure and self-degradation, the desire to maintain and protect personal secrets is intensified.
Sacred Science

The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.Many such leaders have patterns of avoiding accountability and aggression towards his critics. Leaders often have the appearance of accountability to a presbytery and an internal church government, but often the systems have been designed to avoid all accountability. Presbyters are often friends, associates or subordinates of the cult leader(s).

Thou Shalt Not Question (Pg 69, Martin’s summary)

The totalist environment maintains an aura of sacredness around its teachings and practices. Therefore, any doubts or questions about the system are prohibited. The prohibitions may be either clearly evident or subtly implied. The totalists look upon anyone who criticizes or disagrees with what’s happening or proposes alternative ideas as evil, irreverent, and even unscientific. Thus, they exalt the ideas of a human leader to the level of God. If an individual goes along with the teachings and practices, being caught up in the aura of sacredness can give a sense of comfort and security. This leads to a posture and unquestioning faith. But such a position of unquestioning faith. But such a position of unquestioning faith is not easy to sustain, especially if the member’s experiences and reality come more and more in conflict with what he is being told to believe. On the other hand, the “sacred science” can gain such a strong hold over the person mentally that if he begins to feel attracted to contradictory ideas or alternative ideas, he may feel guilt and fear. Consequently, his quest for truth and reality is hindered. (This actually contradicts the character of the genuinely scientific approach.)

Doctrine over person

Member’s personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group. The end ideology of the group must be maintained by any means, even at the expense or suffering of the group members. Love for the system or ideology supersedes that of the people, places or lesser causes. This promotes hatred and intolerance of all opposing critics or ideologies.

Fitting the Rigid Mold (Pg 109, Martin’s summary)

  • Doctrine Over Person consists of fitting everything under the leader’s dominating control into a pre-concieved mold. This involves:
  • Human experience and the interpretation of those experiences.
  • Human feelings and the interpretation of those feelings.
  • Disregarding one’s feelings or sensitivities.
  • No appreciation of someone’s talents, individuality or creativity; the only goal is to fit everyone and their personalities into the dominating vies and influence of the one in control, opposing diversity and individual differences.
  • The rigidity of the doctrinal mold resists adaptation even when adaptation may prove to be best.

The rewriting of history to fit the system of the doctrinal mold.

Stating it another way, the controller reinterprets the personal feelings and experiences of the group members to fit his own dominating views and influence. He disregards and remolds past events, individual differences and capabilities to fit his own preconceived mold. In essence, the controller rejects everything that does not fit into his preconceived mold or framework.

Dispensing of existence

The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group’s ideology. Within many Bible-based cults, a higher way of living or greater enlightenment may be obtained by striving and modeling the group’s ideals. If persons do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members, or may be viewed as lesser Christians. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility as the specialness of the group promotes greater desire for milieu control and a sense of martyrdom. Those within the group who demonstrate non-conformity may also lose privileges or the status of enlightenment, a very potent method of negative reinforcement. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also. Even after leaving a group, the former member tends to have a sense of loss of grace and a programmed sense of shame. Leadership thus makes it difficult to leave such groups, and departure implies a rejection of the only true means of religious transcendence. Link here to “They told me when I left…”

The Elitists (Pg 138, Martin’s summary)

The totalist environment draws a sharp line between those who have a right to exist and those who do not. They claim that those outside their group have no right to exist, or at least say that those outside their group are inferior. The group thus has an arrogant and elitist mentality, considering themselves superior rather than having equal rights as other humans. Those who do not conform to their path of existence are targets of rejection or annihilation.

Summary and paraphrase of Dr. Lifton’s Thought Reform Criteria excerpted from Steven Martin’s The Heresy of Mind Control” available for download at Recognize (Please be generous.)

Adapted by C. Kunsman from Robert J. Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, 1989


What messages are behind today’s cults?

Philip G. Zimbardo, Ph.D.
APA Monitor, May 1997

Cults are coming. Are they crazy or bearing critical messages?

This article was written by Dr. Philip Zimbardo, a renowned social psychologist at Stanford University who is currently a candidate for the presidency of the American Psychological Association. The article applies Dr. Zimbardo’s understanding of social influence processes to the question of cults. He says, for example: “Whatever any member of a cult has done, you and I could be recruited or seduced into doing–under the right or wrong conditions. The majority of ‘normal, average, intelligent’ individuals can be led to engage in immoral, illegal, irrational, aggressive and self destructive actions that are contrary to their values or personality–when manipulated situational conditions exert their power over individual dispositions.”

How do we make sense of the mass suicide of 21 female and 18 male members of the Heaven’s Gate extra-terrestrial cult on March 23? Typical explanations of all such strange, unexpected behavior involve a “rush to the dispositional,” locating the problem in defective personalities of the actors. Those whose behavior violates our expectations about what is normal and appropriate are dismissed as kooks, weirdos, gullible, stupid, evil or masochistic deviants.

Similar characterizations were evident in the media and public’s reaction to other mass suicides in The Order of the Solar Temple in Europe and Canada, murder-suicide deaths ordered by Rev. Jim Jones of his Peoples Temple members, as well as of the recent flaming deaths of David Koresh’s Branch Davidians and the gassing of Japanese citizens by followers of the Aum Shinrikyo group. And there will be more of the same in the coming years as cults proliferate in the United States and world wide in anticipation of the millennium.

Such pseudo-explanations are really moralistic judgments; framed with the wisdom of hindsight, they miss the mark. They start at the wrong end of the inquiry. Instead, our search for meaning should begin at the beginning: “What was so appealing about this group that so many people were recruited/seduced into joining it voluntarily?” We want to know also, “What needs was this group fulfilling that were not being met by “traditional society?”

Such alternative framings shift the analytical focus from condemning the actors, mindlessly blaming the victims, defining them as different from us, to searching for a common ground in the forces that shape all human behavior. By acknowledging our own vulnerability to the operation of the powerful, often subtle situational forces that controlled their actions, we can begin to find ways to prevent or combat that power from exerting its similar, sometimes sinister, influence on us and our kin.

Any stereotyped collective personality analysis of the Heaven’s Gate members proves inadequate when tallied against the resumes of individual members. They represented a wide range of demographic backgrounds, ages, talents, interests and careers prior to committing themselves to a new ideology embodied in the totally regimented, obedient lifestyle that would end with an eternal transformation. Comparable individual diversity has been evident among the members of many different cult groups. I’ve studied over the past several decades. What is common are the recruiting promises, influence agendas and group’s coercive influence power that compromise the personal exercise of free will and critical thinking. On the basis of my investigations and the psychological research of colleagues, we can argue the following propositions, some of which will be elaborated:

No one ever joins a cult. People join interesting groups that promise to fulfill their pressing needs. They become “cults” when they are seen as deceptive, defective, dangerous, or as opposing basic values of their society.

Cults represent each society’s “default values,” filling in its missing functions. The cult epidemic is diagnostic of where and how society is failing its citizens.

If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. As basic human values are being strained, distorted and lost in our rapidly evolving culture, illusions and promissory notes are too readily believed and bought–without reality validation or credit checks.

Whatever any member of a cult has done, you and I could be recruited or seduced into doing–under the right or wrong conditions. The majority of “normal, average, intelligent” individuals can be led to engage in immoral, illegal, irrational, aggressive and self destructive actions that are contrary to their values or personality–when manipulated situational conditions exert their power over individual dispositions.

Cult methods of recruiting, indoctrinating and influencing their members are not exotic forms of mind control, but only more intensely applied mundane tactics of social influence practiced daily by all compliance professionals and societal agents of influence.

What is the appeal of cults? Imagine being part of a group in which you will find instant friendship, a caring family, respect for your contributions, an identity, safety, security, simplicity, and an organized daily agenda. You will learn new skills, have a respected position, gain personal insight, improve your personality and intelligence. There is no crime or violence and your healthy lifestyle means there is no illness.

Your leader may promise not only to heal any sickness and foretell the future, but give you the gift of immortality, if you are a true believer. In addition, your group’s ideology represents a unique spiritual/religious agenda (in other cults it is political, social or personal enhancement) that if followed, will enhance the Human Condition somewhere in the world or cosmos.

Who would fall for such appeals? Most of us, if they were made by someone we trusted, in a setting that was familiar, and especially if we had unfulfilled needs.

Much cult recruitment is done by family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, teachers and highly trained professional recruiters. They recruit not on the streets or airports, but in contexts that are “home bases” for the potential recruit; at schools, in the home, coffee houses, on the job, at sports events, lectures, churches, or drop-in dinners and free personal assessment workshops. The Heaven’s Gate group made us aware that recruiting is now also active over the Internet and across the World Wide Web.

In a 1980 study where we (C. Hartley and I) surveyed and interviewed more than 1,000 randomly selected high school students in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, 54 percent reported they had at least one active recruiting attempt by someone they identified with a cult, and 40 percent said they had experienced three to five such contacts. And that was long before electronic cult recruiting could be a new allure for a generation of youngsters growing up as web surfers.

What makes any of us especially vulnerable to cult appeals? Someone is in a transitional phase in life: moved to a new city or country, lost a job, dropped out of school, parents divorced, romantic relationship broken, gave up traditional religion as personally irrelevant. Add to the recipe, all those who find their work tedious and trivial, education abstractly meaningless, social life absent or inconsistent, family remote or dysfunctional, friends too busy to find time for you and trust in government eroded.

Cults promise to fulfill most of those personal individual’s needs and also to compensate for a litany of societal failures: to make their slice of the world safe, healthy, caring, predictable and controllable. They will eliminate the increasing feelings of isolation and alienation being created by mobility, technology, competition, meritocracy, incivility, and dehumanized living and working conditions in our society.

In general, cult leaders offer simple solutions to the increasingly complex world problems we all face daily. They offer the simple path to happiness, to success, to salvation by following their simple rules, simple group regimentation and simple total lifestyle. Ultimately, each new member contributes to the power of the leader by trading his or her freedom for the illusion of security and reflected glory that group membership holds out.

It seems like a “win-win” trade for those whose freedom is without power to make a difference in their lives. This may be especially so for the shy among us. Shyness among adults is now escalating to epidemic proportions, according to recent research by Dr. B. Carducci in Indiana and my research team in California. More than 50 percent of college-aged adults report being chronically shy (lacking social skills, low self-esteem, awkward in many social encounters). As with the rise in cult membership, a public health model is essential for understanding how societal pathology is implicated in contributing to the rise in shyness among adults and children in America.

Our society is in a curious transitional phase; as science and technology make remarkable advances, antiscientific values and beliefs in the paranormal and occult abound, family values are stridently promoted in Congress and pulpits, yet divorce is rising along with spouse and child abuse, fear of nuclear annihilation in superpower wars is replaced by fears of crime in our streets and drugs in our schools, and the economic gap grows exponentially between the rich and powerful and our legions of poor and powerless.

Such change and confusion create intellectual chaos that makes it difficult for many citizens to believe in anything, to trust anyone, to stand for anything substantial.

On such shifting sands of time and resolve, the cult leader stands firm with simple directions for what to think and feel, and how to act. “Follow me, I know the path to sanity, security and salvation,” proclaims Marshall Applewhite, with other cult leaders chanting the same lyric in that celestial chorus. And many will follow.

What makes cults dangerous? It depends in part on the kind of cult since they come in many sizes, purposes and disguises. Some cults are in the business of power and money. They need members to give money, work for free, beg and recruit new members. They won’t go the deathly route of the Heaven’s Gaters; their danger lies in deception, mindless devotion, and failure to deliver on the recruiting promises.

Danger also comes in the form of insisting on contributions of exorbitant amounts of money (tithing, signing over life insurance, social security or property, and fees for personal testing and training).

Add exhausting labor as another danger (spending all one’s waking time begging for money, recruiting new members, or doing menial service for little or no remuneration). Most cult groups demand that members sever ties with former family and friends which creates total dependence on the group for self identity, recognition, social reinforcement. Unquestioning obedience to the leader and following arbitrary rules and regulations eliminates independent, critical thinking, and the exercise of free will. Such cerebral straight jacketing is a terrible danger that can lead in turn to the ultimate twin dangers of committing suicide upon command or destroying the cult’s enemies.

Potential for the worst abuse is found in “total situations” where the group is physically and socially isolated from the outside community. The accompanying total milieu and informational control permits idiosyncratic and paranoid thinking to flourish and be shared without limits. The madness of any leader then becomes normalized as members embrace it, and the folly of one becomes folie & agrave; deux, and finally, with three or more adherents, it becomes a constitutionally protected belief system that is an ideology defended to the death.

A remarkable thing about cult mind control is that it’s so ordinary in the tactics and strategies of social influence employed. They are variants of well-known social psychological principles of compliance, conformity, persuasion, dissonance, reactance, framing, emotional manipulation, and others that are used on all of us daily to entice us: to buy, to try, to donate, to vote, to join, to change, to believe, to love, to hate the enemy.

Cult mind control is not different in kind from these everyday varieties, but in its greater intensity, persistence, duration, and scope. One difference is in its greater efforts to block quitting the group, by imposing high exit costs, replete with induced phobias of harm, failure, and personal isolation.

What’s the solution?
Heaven’s Gate mass suicides have made cults front page news. While their number and ritually methodical formula are unusual, cults are not. They exist as part of the frayed edges of our society and have vital messages for us to reflect upon if we want to prevent such tragedies or our children and neighbors from joining such destructive groups that are on the near horizon.

The solution? Simple. All we have to do is to create an alternative, “perfect cult.” We need to work together to find ways to make our society actually deliver on many of those cult promises, to co-opt their appeal, without their deception, distortion and potential for destruction.

No man or woman is an island unto itself, nor a space traveler without an earthly control center. Finding that center, spreading that continent of connections, enriching that core of common humanity should be our first priority as we learn and share a vital lesson from the tragedy of Heaven’s Gate.

Reflections on Post-Cult Recovery

by Michael D. Langone, Ph. D.

On July 22-24, 1994, AFF conducted an “After the Cult” workshop at the St.Malo Retreat Center in Estes Park, Colorado. Carol Giambalvo, Nancy Miquelon, Hal Mansfield, Roseann Henry, and I organized the workshop and served as presenters, as did David Clark. It was the first in the Denver area and was extremely well received by the participants. The insightful and moving discussions inspired me to write down some of the reflections inspired by the workshop. I wish to share these with you.

As the workshop participants made very clear, the subjective essence of the cult experience is psychological abuse, and betrayal in particular. Cults ostensibly offer to fulfill commonly experienced human needs for understanding, certainty and self-esteem. They provide an absolutist triad of black-and-white answers to life’s problems, a refusal to entertain doubts about those answers, and a promise of being superior to everyone outside the group. Youth and individuals experiencing stress (which includes nearly everyone at some point in their lives) are most likely to be attracted to groups offering this triad. If vulnerable persons encounter a sufficiently persuasive or seductive cultic group at the right time in their lives, they may indeed join, (I presume that there is a range of groups varying from mildly to extremely persuasive and that people will differ in their susceptibility to particular group >pitches’.) When they join, the members expect benevolence, respect, love, help, etc. What they receive is very different.

The reason is twofold. First, the absolutist triad is an illusion. It moves people away from reality and genuine human connections. It is the opposite of what one could call the adaptive triad: a questioning mind possessed of a healthy measure of doubt (discernment), tolerance of ambiguity (no black-and-white answers), and a humble yet critical openness to the meaning systems of other people. Thus, to the extent cults try to deliver the absolutist triad (and they try very hard), they come into conflict with the inexorable demands of the human condition.

The second reason cults don’t deliver the benevolent results they promise is their tendency to manipulate and exploit their members (groups that aren’t manipulatively exploitative are not cults). Cults employ subtle processes of thought reform (also called coercive persuasion and mind control) to recruit members and to maintain them in systems that exploit members’ needs while promising to fulfill those needs. Thought reform is not all-powerful, as some sensationalized media imply. Nor do all groups employ it to the same extent. But it can be remarkably successful in causing large numbers of persons to spend years in social systems that are harmful and sometimes extremely abusive.

Most persons ultimately leave cults, or are ejected from their groups. Research suggests that members leave when they become disenchanted with the group’s inability to deliver on its promises, become disillusioned with the hypocrisy or fraudulent practices of the group’s leadership, are separated from the group for a period of time, or are able to discuss doubts and concerns with an intimate. A majority appears to be troubled by the experience, while some are devastated. We can only speculate on how many are troubled but unable to acknowledge or recognize their own pain.

The core of this distress is the sense of having been abused by persons thought to be benevolent, that is, of having been betrayed. When they leave their groups many members feel ‘spiritually raped,’ violated at the core of their beings. With physical rape, it severely damages the capacity to trust — oneself, others, and God. Ironically, ex-cult members find themselves most in need of the illusory comfort of the absolutist triad when they realize that they have been betrayed by those promising this triad (that is why, perhaps, so many persons will join a cultic group after leaving another.) If they have insight sufficient to resist the lure of the absolutist triad, they will understandably feel empty, depressed, guilty, and painfully unsure of what or who is real and trustworthy and even how to discover what or who is real and trustworthy. In the most extreme cases they are in a state of psychological bankruptcy in which all feelings are tinged by the sourness of betrayal. They must begin anew when they have nothing to grab hold of and no idea about where to turn for help.

That so many do indeed recover is a testament to their courage and enduring capacity to love. Although some manage to pull themselves together without substantial outside assistance, the sharing at the after-the-cult workshops highlights the value of knowledgeable support. The ex-members who have made it out of psychological bankruptcy say to those still suffering: “There is a way out. You can trust again. Hold my hand.” Instead of the absolutist triad of black-and-white answers, they offer the adaptive triad of discernment, tolerance, and humility. Instead of giving abuse and humiliation, they give respect and love. Instead of advocating unrealistic standards that guarantee failure, they advocate and model a humble, step-by-step approach to solving problems. This step-by-step approach is the pathway out of distrust and paralyzing doubt.

Ex-members’ first step on this pathway is often to reconnect to their pasts by reflecting upon those times when they did trust themselves and others. If they can also watch, record, and review their progress, and especially if they hold on to loving, understanding hands, ex-members can, over time, come to believe in the predictability of their self-respect (i.e., the tendency to treat oneself as deserving of kindness instead of guilty recriminations) and competence (including their imperfect capacity to judge what is real and good) — they will come to trust themselves. Increased trust in oneself makes it easier to trust others because the latter requires discernment, and discernment presupposes confidence in (trust in) one’s own cognitive competence. But developing trust in others is also vital to increasing trust in oneself, for the affirmation of respected others is the most effective antidote to the sometimes crippling self-doubt ex-cult members often experience. That is why many ex-members needs to lean on others (e.g., family) for a period before they can begin to show signs of independence.

Developing trust in others may be viewed metaphorically as developing a well-differentiated array of concentric circles representing the varying levels of closeness into which a discerning self allows others. These circles express the psychological boundaries that distinguish a person from others. In a cult these boundaries are dissolved as the individual is pressured to identify with and merge into the group persona. Once out of the cult, ex-cult members must learn not only how to reestablish boundaries, but how to reestablish (or for some people, establish for the first time) appropriate boundaries. Who should be allowed into the inner circle? Who into the mid-range? Who should be kept at the periphery? Who should be excluded? These decisions require discernment and the courage to experiment in a social world that, though not nearly as abusive as the cult, contains abuse as well as respect and love. Having the help of caring and knowledgeable people who model discernment and courage and offer understanding and a helping hand can be invaluable to ex-cult members hesitatingly trying to reach out to others.

Reestablishing trust in God can be even more difficult than reestablishing it in oneself and other. (The following reflections may not apply to those persons who feel no need for a relationship with God, for example, because they do no believe in God or are agnostic. However, at AFF workshops many, if not most, ex-members consider spiritual issues to be the most pressing of all.) First of all, God is often associated with religion, and most ex-members who have approached clergy or religious institutions for help have been deeply disappointed. Secondly, ex-cult members have had a compelling personal experience of evil, and they angrily ask how a loving God could have permitted their spiritual rape while they sought Him so fervently. Religions do not convincingly answer the problem of evil, of which the ex-cult member’s experience is a special case, mainly because the explanations they offer tend to presume a faith in the God whose existence the experience of evil calls into question. The explanations may satisfy believers, but they offer little consolation to those whose contact with evil has left them doubting God’s existence.

Thus, ex-cult members frequently feel abandoned by God or turn away from Him when they most need Him. Their tendency is to place their suffering before the “God who might be there” and say: “If you exist, and if you are indeed a loving and merciful God, you’ll understand why I cannot trust you now. I have been savaged by lies, and more than anything I need truth, even if only one crumb at a time. As much as I would like to believe and trust in you, I will not allow myself to be deceived again. So please give me time. If you can’t respect this, then you don’t exist.” It appears that as their trust in themselves and others increases, most ex-cult members eventually reconcile with God, although nearly half, according to a survey I conducted, still tend not to identify with any religious denomination.

Those ex-cult members who do not lose their faith in God have a divine hand to hold during their struggle to rebuild trust in themselves and others. The “God who is there” is there for the psychologically bankrupt as well as the psychologically affluent. Thus, ex-members tortured by free-falling self-doubt can humbly turn to God and pray for the courage and discernment to reach out to those whom they hope genuinely care without strings attached.

A bit of trust in God can lead to a bit of trust in oneself, which in turn can lead to a bit of trust in others. But the growth of trust is not unidirectional. Trust, whether in God, oneself or others, breeds further trust — provided that the ex-cult member has the courage and wisdom to move one step at a time and the good fortune to move toward people who behave respectfully and with understanding. That first, vital spark of courage must come from the mysterious depths of the ex-cult member’s soul. But after that first, lonely courageous step, caring, knowledgeable others can give the encouragement that motivates ex-cult members to quicken their pace and move forward more and more confidently.

Pitfalls To Recovery
By Paul Martin, Ph.D

Each person suffering from trauma or injury usually has the capacity to recover. In this chapter, I will point out some pitfalls on the road to recovery from the trauma of cultic involvement, and then provide some guidelines for speeding up the recovery process…

[I want to state the myths surrounding the cultic experience] … because it is very important for recovering …[former members] …to recognize them. If one leaves a cult and surrounds himself or herself with some well-intended people trying to help but believing in one or more of these myths, the recovery process may be delayed or sidetracked.

The Six Myths About Cultism

  1. Ex-cult members do not have psychological problems. Their problems are wholly spiritual.
  2. Ex-cult members do have psychological disorders. But these people come from clearly “non-Christian” cults.
  3. Both Christians and non-Christian cultic groups can produce psychological problems, but the people involved must have had prior psychological problems that would have surfaced regardless of what group they joined.
  4. While normal non-Christians may get involved with cults, born-again evangelical Christians will not. Even if they did, their involvement would not affect them quite so negatively.
  5. Christians can and do get involved in these aberrational groups, and they can get hurt emotionally, but all they really need is some good Bible teaching and a warm, caring Christian fellowship.
  6. Perhaps the best way for former cult members to receive help is to seek professional therapy with a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health counselor.

As parents … [or as an ex-member] … who has left a cult, it is crucial that you do not subscribe to these myths. If you or anyone connected with [an ex-member] holds these false beliefs and communicates them, there will be a double sense of victimization. The first sense of victimization is from the cult itself. The … [ex-member] … feels hurt, betrayed, confused, angry, violated, anxious, and perhaps depressed as a result of their cult experience. The second sense of victimization comes when friends, helpers, or family perpetuate the myths about cultism. These myths work themselves out in everyday conversation in such questions and comments as:

  • I certainly could think of some others who might join a cult, but you were the last person I would have expected.
  • Why go to counseling? You know you were deceived in your spiritual walk. What you need to do is repent of your sins so that the deceiver cannot tempt you…
  • People who join these groups are troubled or have come from dysfunctional homes. I guess I was wrong in assuming you didn’t have those problems…

When one who has left and is trying to stay away from a cultic group hears these statements, the message that comes through is, “Something is wrong with you.” “You must have some psychological problems.” … If the ex-cultist hears and believes these messages, recovery is all but impossible until the erroneous thinking is corrected. Regardless of one’s spiritual or psychological health, whether one is weak or strong, cultic involvement can happen to anyone.

Exit Counseling and Confronting Denial

…It takes quite some time for those leaving cults to know what happened to them, and they still operate under shame and guilt over their cultic involvement. One must realize that cults use powerful techniques of manipulation. …The major problem for those not undergoing some form of exit counseling is denial. Many continue to believe they were somehow responsible for their fate. It is difficult for them to accept that their lives were not always completely under their own control. Denial shows itself in withdrawal from family and friends, statements that “I’m fine,” defensiveness about the group’s problem, and refusal to seek help. Such denial must be countered by clearly showing the realities of cult dynamics. Former cult members need to see how they were lured into the movement, what vulnerabilities the cult exploited, and how the principles of mind control were used to keep them in the cult.

Emotional Needs: Cults lure people for many reasons, but perhaps primarily because of the relationships that the experience offers. The involvement is an intensely personal experience. …The therapist, counselor, pastor, and [family] must be able to relate to the ex-member’s emotional needs for acceptance, belonging, friendship, and love. …In recovering from cultic life, one of the things that takes the longest to resolve is the search for the love, fellowship, and caring that was experienced while in the group. It is extremely important that a trusting relationship be established between the former member and the helper. …[The] tremendous fellowship and warmth that the ex-member often longs for is an “artificial high.” …group experience felt great. [Were these highs] really more like the feeling of euphoria produced by some drugs?

There are many group processes that can make people feel euphoric. These “highs” can be psychologically and spiritually unhealthy, because the experience produces in the member a strong sense of dependence on the group and its leaders.

Recognizing Floating

These “highs” are part of what is known as altered states of consciousness—states between waking and sleeping “that differ from those usually experienced in the world of everyday reality.” Included are states such as those induced by creative work, meditation, drugs, sleep, alcohol, and hypnosis. When an ex-cultist returns to the “high” after leaving a cult, it is called “floating.” It is also called “floating” when one snaps back into the shame-based motivations experienced while in the cult and believes anew that the cult was right. Floating is handled by discovering what triggers the episodes and then dealing with the triggers.

Types of triggers include:

  • Verbal—songs, jargon, Scripture verses, slogans, types of laughter, mantras, decrees, prayers, tongues speaking, curses, [rhythhmic speaking, accents]
  • Visual—certain colors, pictures, hand signals, symbols, smiles
  • Physical—touches, handshakes, kisses, hugs
  • Smell—incense, perfume of leader, foods
  • Tastes—foods

The first step in recovery from floating is to identify these triggers and the loaded language that gives meaning to the visual trigger. For example, the visual trigger may be a book that has been forbidden by the cult. Seeing the book causes thoughts like, “This is the work of the devil.” Loaded language is any thought-stopping cliché that is used in manipulative groups to prevent critical thinking. For example, simple tiredness is reinterpreted as “running in the flesh,” and is used to discourage people from claiming fatigue or stress. Not wanting to go to every scheduled meeting is labeled “rebellion” and as possessing a …”independent spirit.” … Such loaded language is not easily forgotten even after exiting a cult. It sidetracks critical analysis, disrupts communication, and may produce confusion, anxiety, terror, and guilt.

Undoing the language of the cult requires a hard look at what words and phrases mean. The mind must be taught to rethink the meaning of language. Because cults misuse words and use loaded language, one ex-cultist recommends concentrating on crossword puzzles and other word games as an aid to regrounding one’s conception of the true sense of words. In addition, …[ex-members] …must learn to challenge the factual claims of loaded language phrases.

Former cult members must …[learn to] …identify such words and phrases that have a special or loaded meaning to them. …One simple way for ex-cultists to help themselves is to look words up in a dictionary and then compare those meanings with what the cult taught. The member should be encouraged to spend a good bit of time reading in areas unrelated to the former cult.

Such exercises are crucial for any …[former cult members] …who feel powerless because they do not know how language was used to control them. Empowerment and control are essential ingredients to recovery from cultic involvement.

The Use of Mind Control in Religious Cults (Part One)
By David Henke

Do you remember the pictures in the media of the suicide deaths of 900 People’s Temple members in Jonestown, Guyna? Or, do you remember the more recent reports of the suicide deaths by members of the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult? And, why would the Branch Davidians stay in their compound if they thought it meant death?

Somewhere in the mind of each person in each situation there was a life or death decision they thought they had to make. Given their perceived circumstances they thought death was the only honorable, or viable, choice. Of course we know differently. But, what is it in the cult milieu that leads to such stark alternatives?

Many in the counter-cult community believe it is attributable to the influence of mind control techniques. Some disagree with that model as an explanation. There is no attempt here to defend one model against another. Rather, the purpose here is to explain the process of undue influence that can occur in the mind control model, and to consider the objections.

POWs and Freshmen

At the end of the Korean War Americans learned a new word, brainwashing. Many of the American POWs had experienced a very thoroughgoing process of thought reform. The Communists had imposed a rigorous process of punishment and reward together with indoctrination that led some of the POWs to express a desire to remain in the Marxist country. Among those who returned all quickly reverted to the worldview and value system in which they were raised. In other words brainwashing does not last if it is not maintained.

All the principles of thought reform used by the communists have been used by most cults. There is however, a vast difference in them. The communists used severe physical punishments and deprivation, even the threat of execution. Cults hold out a much less severe, and more subtle, form of reward and punishment which people cooperate with because they believe it to be what is good for themselves.

The term brainwashing is used when the process begins with an adversarial relationship, and is externally imposed with coercive methods. We use the term mind control when it begins with a friendship, is very subtle and persuasive, and leaves coercion out until control is achieved. Both are categorized as thought reform.

Even though our soldiers viewed their jailers as the enemy, they succumbed to the process. Cult recruits see the leaders as friendly, supportive and caring. This is the greatest single difference. This difference is an advantage to the cult because the recruit lets down his guard to a friend, whereas his guard is up to a perceived enemy. But without a support network, as well as knowledge of truth, even our guard can be overcome.

College students are often a target for cults because they are isolated from the support network of family, friends, and church. It isn’t unusual to be lonely and homesick. The cult recruiter comes along with an idealistic message offering friendship and significance. A student may lack the knowledge that would enable him to discern the trouble he faces.

Any emotionally traumatic experience can create a vulnerability to deception.

Dr. Robert J. Lifton conducted a thorough study of our returned POWs to discover the process used to reform their thinking. His findings are published in his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. Though his focus was on prisoners of war the criteria carry over to the cult mind control model. Let’s look at them. As you read the descriptions of each criteria think of the old Soviet Union and what you know of their Cold War practices. That model serves as an excellent example of mind control attempted on a large scale.

Milieu Control: Milieu is the environment in which we live. It includes all our interactions on a daily basis. It includes the information we take in and the information we give out. It includes the people, places, events, and ideas that pass through our daily life.

If these can be controlled the individual will become isolated from his support network and therefore vulnerable to influence. For example the Soviet citizen could get his news only from a Party affiliated source because western broadcasts were jammed.

Christians are to be salt and light in the world. We must be in the world but not of it. That implies interaction, not isolation. The Truth will stand any test.

Mystical Manipulation: In any cultic group, or Marxist government, there is a higher calling, an almost utopian goal for which the group strives. The follower accepts that his group is the only one that is equipped to achieve this goal. With that assumption this mystical ideal can be achieved if they will give their all in its pursuit. If they fail to give their all they will fall short of their goal. This is a powerful incentive for religious cults, as if God Himself were directing their actions.

Lifton makes the point that such manipulation requires a level of trust that is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain for a long time. When trust is lost the followers see through the manipulation and cease to respond.

Among the cults a demonstrated false prophecy can put an end to the leaders ability to manipulate followers on to greater effort. The dismal statistics in the Watchtower’s own Yearbooks after their 1975 false prophecy illustrates this dramatically.

Manipulation is completely out of place for the Christian. Sometimes admonition and exhortation are replaced with manipulation. Where this happens it should be resisted.

In the political arena the utopian goal can be achieved by actions consistent with ideological purity. In the religious arena ideology is called doctrine. To achieve the utopian goal anything impure must be removed. The leaders get to decide what that purity is in totalistic systems. The followers strive mightily until they fail. Then their failure is written off as an example of the impurity that held the group back from achieving its goal. As Christians we know that the Ten Commandments are pure and true but man is unable to obey them completely. Our “purity” is Christ’s purity imputed to us through faith in His blood.

In totalistic systems the leaders exhort the followers to search themselves for anything impure that would hold the group back and defeat them. This causes the followers a lot of self doubt leading to a rigid adherence to the rules of the system. The Pharisees are an excellent example.

An example in communist history is the Chinese Cultural Revolution and also the Cambodian experience under Pol Pot where everyone was forced into agrarian work, an ideological ideal, according to the Khmer Rouge. Phnom Penh became a ghost town.

Cult of Confession: Closely related to the above is confession. Not legitimate confession to God, or someone wronged, but improper confessions. Any personal weakness, bad thought, failure to give 100% to the group, must be confessed. Even wrongs not committed can be confessed to help the group achieve purity. Our innate sense of guilt because of Original Sin makes people vulnerable to this.

Confession can have a cathartic effect on the person confessing. It can also provide leverage to use on the person in the future as often happens in cultic systems. Open confession sessions can create a sense in the group of personal uncertainty. If a seemingly strong person is confessing the weaker followers will feel less sure of their own purity. Public confessions can eliminate the sense of boundaries we need to maintain our individuality.

In the communist world, especially China, when a political dissident is tried and found guilty he will frequently make a public confession of his “guilt.” This justifies the political system that will then kill him to purify the “workers paradise”.

Christians should only confess actual wrongdoing to God and the one wronged.

Sacred Science: Lifton said, “The totalist milieu maintains an aura of sacredness around its basic dogma, holding it out as the ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence” (page 427). It is beyond questioning. To question it is to blaspheme. It is this questioning that must not be allowed in such a system. To allow questions implies that an issue is unsettled, and therefore uncertain. Questioning will also spread to others and undermine the hold of the leadership.

In the Soviet Union the Party was the ideological master. In every military unit there was a “zampolit”, or political officer, who kept everyone in line with the Party ideology. When Gorbachev instituted “glasnost” (openness) outside sources of information could now be accessed. The sacred science of the Party line could now be questioned. The people were now empowered and as a result the communist system had to go. This is what every cult leader must fear most. The Watchtower calls it “independent thinking” and condemns it as an “evidence of pride” (Watchtower, 1/15/83, page 27).

For a Christian questioning is not a sin. It is not even doubt, but unbelief, that is sin. The examples are many from Genesis to Revelation that God wants a two-way relationship with His own (Job 9, 10 and 38).