By Rich McGhee
What is a cult, and how is it different from a religious group? I will seek to answer this and discuss what the cults believe and what it is that motivates people to enter these groups.
What is it that makes people stay in cult groups and sometimes be willing even to die for their group? We think immediately about the Heaven's Gate cult and the 39 otherwise bright people who recently killed themselves so they could supposedly be transported to a UFO trailing the Hale-Bopp Comet. Or we think of David Koresh and the Branch Davidian cult near Waco, Texas in 1993, who barricaded themselves at their Mount Carmel headquarters and died in the flames. An even more dramatic memory is Jim Jones and his 911 followers, members of the People's Temple, who in 1978 committed mass suicide by drinking poison in Jonestown, Guyana.
First I will define the characteristics of a cult. Secondly I will present their methods, and thirdly I will look at their beliefs.
Characteristics of a Cult
A cult is not just a religion. The major religions of the world are not cults. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism are not cults. As a Christian, I have major differences with the other religions and I believe they have missed God's unique revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ, but they are not cults.
Some people say, "The only difference between a cult and a religion is a hundred years," but they blur a vast distinction between the two. There is a sizable body of literature on cults, so I will attempt to summarize the defining characteristics under four headings, using the acronym CULT:
C Cut off from the world. Cult leaders and followers are isolated and cut off from normal interaction with people outside the group. They do not have the corrective influence of other perspectives. They lose their ability, and their desire, to verify information the cult gives them. They become alienated from family and friends and have an unhealthy need to belong to the cult group.
U Undernourished--poor nutritional intake and sleep deprivation often characterizes cult members. They are near exhaustion and their resistance is low, so they can be easily manipulated, deceived, and exploited. Inadequate nutrition and sleep is disguised as a special practice or diet to improve health or advance spirituality.
L Leadership is authoritarian and coercive. The leader claims divinity or special knowledge and authority from God, and often uses deception and has hidden objectives. Unquestioning obedience is expected. This leads the cult follower into total dependence upon the cult for belief, behavior, and practice. He or she loses personal freedom and the ability to make choices.
T Theology or beliefs of a cult always involve some unique or new perspectives, and they claim that truth is only found in what the cult says. Cults often promote the "we/they" syndrome, which also keeps members dependent and loyal to the cult.
Obviously, these are generalizations and not every cult exhibits each of these characteristics at all times. And, the major religions of the world, including Christian churches, sometimes express some of these traits. Corporations even exhibit some of these traits! The difference is that the cults practice far more of these traits, and at a far greater intensity and frequency level, than do religions or other non-cult groups.
So, cults are characterized by (1) their methods, and (2) their beliefs. I will look first at these methods, which basically involve manipulation, and then look at their beliefs in more detail.