The world “cult” comes from the Latin “cultus”, meaning “to till or cultivate”. In antiquity it was used to describe the sacrifices, offerings, and monuments built to cultivate favor with the gods, whereas in time, it came to mean any unorthodox religion.
It is a known fact how dangerous a cult could be: they may prompt people to commit awful acts that can endanger the disciples themselves or other people. But given so, why do people join cults? What is so attractive about them?
During the last decades of the 20th century, many cults distinguished themselves for the horrific acts committed; a clear example can be provided by Peoples Temple.
When Reverend Jim Jones founded Peoples Temple in 1955, few could have imagined its horrifying end. This progressive religious movement rose in popularity and gained support from some of San Francisco’s most prominent politicians. But in 1977, amidst revelations of brainwashing and abuse, Jones moved with several hundred followers to establish the commune of Jonestown in Guyana. Built as a utopian paradise, the colony was more like a prison camp, and when a congressional delegation arrived to investigate its conditions, Jones executed his final plan. On November 18, 1978, 909 men, women, and children died after being forced to drink poisoned Flavor Aid.
Today there are thousands of cults around the world, and it is important to know two things about them. Firstly, not all cults are religious; some are political, therapy-based, focused on self-improvement, and secondly, not all religions are what we are referring to as cults.
In order to identify these groups of people, social scientists had established three common features that enables to consider a group as a cult:
- The first one is the fact that the group is led by a charismatic leader, who is authoritarian and demands to be revered as a godlike figure
- The group has some form of indoctrination program, sometimes called “thought reform” or “mind reform”
- There is some type of exploitation of the members, either sexual, financial or of other kinds.
The problem with this kind of definition is that it is a value judgment more than it is a functional world, for instance, every prophet of every major religion can be considered as a charismatic leader. For this reason, according to social scientists, it is when leader’s manipulation becomes destructive that a group becomes a cult.
It could be said that there is a thin line dividing cult from religion, as both are united by the presence of a leader in charge of helping his follower survive from an external threat. In fact, nowadays, cults are even referred to as “new religious movements”.
As we previously said, the group becomes a cult when it undergoes some sort of indoctrination program, but how does this work?
Social scientists have identified 7 elements that can lead to indoctrination into a cult:
- The followers are going through a transition, maybe a difficult one, as when someone is going through a tough period is more likely to try something new
- A soft sell, maybe through a questionnaire
- The creation of a new environment, that with time enables to create a sort of self-sealing system
- A dear leader, loved even more than your own parents, who is the only one who’s right
- The leader often solidifies his position by creating an external enemy that you’d face if you leave the group
- The leader is a likely sociopathic narcissist, that claims to be essential for the community
- Peer pressure is used to scale up control by the leader and it is commonly exacerbated by human desire to be part of a group
The last one is probably the most important, as the will to be part of a group can even distort our own perception of reality. This was demonstrated by social psychologist Solomon Asch in 1951. Several students were placed in a room and all but one knew about the experiment. They were asked to state which among the lines drawn matched with the first one. The students that knew about the experiment provided all the same wrong answer on purpose and in 75% of the cases, the participant gave the same wrong answer, even though it was obvious that was wrong. Therefore, basic social psychology and everyday influence and control techniques are the means used by the leaders.
While a cult leader uses personal charisma to attract initial followers, further expansion works like a pyramid scheme, with earlier members recruiting new ones.
Cults are skilled at knowing whom to target, often focusing on those new to an area or who have recently undergone some personal or professional loss: loneliness and desire for meaning make one susceptible to friendly people offering community. People are more often recruited by friends, family members or co-workers.
The cult environment discourages critical thinking, making it hard to voice doubts when everyone around you is modelling absolute faith. The resulting internal conflict, known as cognitive dissonance, keeps you trapped, as each compromise makes it more painful to admit you’ve been deceived; actually, even though most cults don’t lead members to their death, they can still be harmful. By denying basic freedom of thought, speech, and association, cults stunt their members’ psychological and emotional growth.
Nowadays, some sort of online cults are spreading through social media, exploiting people’s loneliness, but many of them don’t consider themselves as cults even though they might possess all the common elements of a cult.
In time, the majority of cult members will leave on their own, often when they discover that their infallible leader is not so infallible, when they find their guide to a moral life is actually a hypocrite or when their constructive reality cracks.
Melton, J., 2022. Peoples Temple | religious group. [online] Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Peoples-Temple>
Ross, R., 2022. What makes a cult?. [online] The Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2009/may/27/cults-definition-religion>
Klein, E., 2022. Watch Explained | Netflix Official Site. [online] Netflix.com. Available at: <https://www.netflix.com/watch/81097621?trackId=14277281>
Lalich, J., 2022. Why do people join cults?. [online] Youtube.com. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kB-dJaCXAxA&ab_channel=TED-Ed>