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Cults, Gurus, Religions, and Misconceptions

Are the followers of non-orthodox religious and philosophical teachers members of cults, or are they merely devotees participating in “new spiritual movements”?

The phenomenon of what we think of as cults is not new, nor are these groups only religious in nature. Certain corporations, political movements, self-improvement groups, exercise programs, product pyramid schemes, teen gangs, college fraternities, and even some families have cult-like qualities. Confusing matters even more, the word “cult” itself is controversial and has different meanings and interpretations in both popular culture and among scholars across different fields of study. According to Wikipedia the word “usually refers to a social group defined by its religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or its common interest in a particular personality, object or goal.”

That is a fairly neutral definition. The bottom line is that in most cases cults are in the eyes of the beholder. As the renowned American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton noted, “One person’s cult … is another’s religion”—or spiritual community, or positive lifestyle, or set of beliefs that offer meaning and solace in a chaotic world. Lifton argued that “we must make careful distinctions … and judge each group by its own behavior.” (Quoted in Cults in Our Midst, by Margaret Thaler Singer, Jossey-Bass, 2003, p. xiii)

However we technically define the term, the fact remains that joining a destructive cult-like group can have devastating consequences for the individuals involved and their families. We as a society have a responsibility to understand the phenomenon—its causes and effects—which is not a romantic relic of the flower-child 1960s but metastasizing today in ever more virulent and dangerous forms. If we want to protect ourselves, our families, and our fellow citizens, we need to be watchful and aware.

“Cults don’t come out of nowhere; they fill a vacuum, for individuals and for society at large,” wrote the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz. This is an old story: Some scholars believe that more than 2,000 years ago, for example, political hegemony and the decline of state religious observance in the Roman Empire contributed to the spread of early Christianity.

Today many believe that people flock to nontraditional religious groups—not just in India but all over the world—because mainstream institutions have failed them. Economies are unstable and inequitable; families have fractured, with younger generations moving to cities for work; politics often is polarized, corrupt, and even violent in some countries; religious institutions, too, are struggling with corruption and sexual abuse. It is no wonder that people feel let down by their families, their politicians, and their priests and turn to gurus and shamans for comfort, fellowship, meaning and even identity.

The impulse is not wrong; the problems come when vulnerable, idealistic or superstitious individuals place their faith in leaders and groups just as untrustworthy as the mainstream groups they have left behind.

Alexandra Stein, a British social psychologist who lectures and writes about cults and ideological extremism, has come up with a useful list of cult characteristics that tallies with the scholarship of Margaret Thaler Singer, an American clinical psychologist and researcher (now deceased) who published her well-known book on cults in 2002 (Cults in Our Midst). These characteristics include: a closed, hierarchical structure; the use of brainwashing, or “coercive persuasion”; and an environment in which cult members must put the interests of the group ahead of their own, even to the point of sacrificing their health, family relationships, and financial independence.

Most cults also actively recruit new members, are located in secluded areas (to better exert control and limit outside influences). Cults typically are run by individuals perceived as charismatic, who extract favors from followers, usually monetary or sexual (or both). These leaders try to manipulate followers’ attitudes toward life and society, often requiring or encouraging them to cut ties with their friends and families outside the group. Promising some sort of magical transcendence of life’s problems and using techniques such as sleep deprivation, long hours of tedious work, and inducement of hypnotic states by way of drugs, chanting, or dancing, for example, these leaders and their close associates attempt to squelch followers’ ability to think for themselves and make balanced life decisions.

The role of the leader and the power structure of the group, specifically the relationship between the leader (or leaders) and the followers, are key. Singer noted that “a cultic relationship is one in which a person intentionally induces others to become totally or nearly totally dependent on him or her for almost all major life decisions, and inculcates in these followers a belief that [the leader] has some special talent, gift or knowledge” (p. 7)

She further describes them as “self-appointed, persuasive persons who claim to have a special mission in life.” They “tend to be determined and domineering and … center veneration on themselves.” (p. 8)

So a major warning sign is a domineering, narcissistic leader who coerces his or her followers to obey him or her unquestioningly.

Cult-like groups also frequently deny members access to informational material, telephone, and mail and distort what information is available. Secrecy, isolation, and denigration of a follower’s individuality and self-worth tend to deepen followers’ dependence on the leader and the group as a whole. Frequently these groups use mind-control techniques such as forcing followers to spy on one another, forcing them to give their leader knowledge of their fears and mistakes, and then using this information to humiliate them. The resulting feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, and humiliation make it even harder for people to extricate themselves.

Longing for meaning, purpose, transcendence, and peace are natural human instincts, so perhaps the biggest tragedy is how these positive, natural yearnings are exploited and perverted by unsavory characters. Legitimate spiritual and philosophical paths do exist, and they share characteristics sincere seekers can use as milestones, whether they are pursuing social justice, self-improvement, mindfulness, or self- and God-realization. These characteristics stand in dramatic contrast to those that define cultic groups and leaders.

  • A legitimate leader of any genuinely altruistic group will keep the veneration of adherents focused on God, abstract principles, or the group’s purpose. These leaders never claim to be more than human and never demand obedience or veneration. In fact, they never demand anything. They encourage people to think critically and independently, to explore alternatives, to use their best judgment and discrimination to examine the goals and methods of that particular group to see if it is the right fit for that individual.
  • A legitimate leader not only encourages critical, independent thinking but also offers support and encouragement to help followers build self-reliance and self-confidence in their personal and professional lives.
  • Legitimate leaders never accept money for themselves—from anyone, whether group members, prospective adherents, or local politicians. They have pursued a career or profession and live on their own money (which might sometimes include family assets).
  • Legitimate groups may accept donations (of money, land, real estate, and/or services), but these are always used to pay for whatever humanitarian services the groups provide (for example, hospitals and schools)—never for the personal enrichment of the leader. And group members are never pressured to make donations; these are strictly voluntary.
  • Materials are provided to help members and prospective members study and learn—broadly about the group’s history, for example, and specifically about the group’s tenets, values, expectations, and behavior. There is transparency concerning the group’s legal and financial status. And such groups provide transparent, informed consent (through interviews and written materials): what the way of life involves, what is expected of members, and what are the group’s presumed benefits.
  • All activities, lectures, group meetings that members might participate in are strictly voluntary.
  • Legitimate leaders and their close associates always follow the laws of their countries and hold themselves to the highest ethical standards. In turn, they emphasize moral living for all group participants. These moral standards are not relative but adhere to the universal moral codes (such as the ten commandments of the Christian Bible) of all mainstream religions. Leaders never advocate breaking the law.
  • Legitimate leaders emphasize the necessity of being a good citizen, a productive member of society, a good family member (whether spouse, parent, or child) and friend. They emphasize the importance of maintaining family harmony, even if some sacrifice is required; of studying hard for young people; and, for adults, earning one’s own living and not being a burden on one’s family or society. These groups stress the importance of living a balanced, healthy life of moderation rather one of ascetic extremes (such as fasting or prolonged retreats).
  • Legitimate groups do not proselytize, but rather encourage interested parties to do a thorough research into the philosophy, resist pressure from friends and family, and make an independent decision to participate based on their own judgment, goals, and self-knowledge. Once an individual joins such a group, the leader never dictates personal decisions but respects the dignity and autonomy of group members. Members are free to marry whom they choose, work in whatever profession they choose, bring up their children however they choose, and generally live whatever lifestyle they choose. The leader may make recommendations concerning particular life choices based on philosophical principles (a vegetarian diet, for example), but group members are never “kicked out” or shunned for disregarding such guidelines.

Scholars agree that there is no consistent profile of someone who is attracted to cults or vulnerable to narcissistic, domineering guru-types. Often such “seekers” are vulnerable because of naivety, youth, superstition, excessive idealism, or all of those things. Another factor may be that they are floundering in life and have experienced a loss of some kind—the break-up of a significant relationship, the loss of a job, graduation from college, the death of a friend or close family member—and are looking for solace, structure, and community. They may want someone to take charge of their life to relieve them of making difficult life choices.

The best protection against dangerous cults and false prophets, for ourselves and for those we care about, is to focus on the actions and behavior of these groups and gurus. Compassion and close observation are not mutually exclusive. In these troubled, uncertain times—no matter where we live and what our background—we need both.