Cults: Why do People Believe in Them?
In the 1950s, Jim Jones established the People’s Temple. What started out as a preach for utopia has led to the mass suicide-murder of more than 900 followers of Jones, also known as the Jonestown Massacre.
Though the People’s Temple is an extreme case, cults are not uncommon. Thousands of cults exist around the world. But how does one actually define a cult, and how is it any different from the mainstream religion?
What is a cult?
The most common definition of a cult is a group or social movement led by a charismatic leader. The group holds a shared commitment to the charismatic leader or towards an ideology. But that sounds a lot like religious institutions, be it churches, mosques or temples. So what makes a cult a cult?
There seem to be 3 common denominators in cults:
- A charismatic leader, one who is often authoritarian and demands to be revered and treated like a God.
- A form of indoctrination programme, one that essentially brain washes the members, some might even call it ‘mind control’.
- A form of exploitation, be it sexual, financial or even human trafficking.
To precisely define a cult is difficult as it blurs the line between religion and extremism. Pastors and imams are generally charismatic people and religious folk share the same belief. It all boils down to one’s moral judgement — what do you classify as indoctrination, or charisma, or exploitation?
It is also important to note that not all cults are religious. Some are political, therapy based, satanic cults, and even cults based on certain aspects like art, opera or theatre. Although not all cults lead to the deaths of their members, most are harmful by denying its members freedom of thought, speech, and in many cases, abuse.
Where did cults come from?
Cults have existed for a far longer time than you may think. The word ‘cult’ originated from the Latin word ‘cultus’, meaning to till or to cultivate. It was used to describe the offerings made by normal folk to cultivate favours with their God(s). Thousands of years ago, religion was considered a cult (the Roman Empire referred to Judaism as a cult) but overtime, religion has integrated into society as it grew. Cults on the other hand, aim to isolate its members from society, making them dependent solely on the leader of the cult.
Cults arose not to exploit or control their followers, but to help them survive an external threat. It is thought that the beliefs these cults hold helps its members to navigate through turbulent times. In Europe, the number of cults increased during the turmoil in the Renaissance period and as a backlash to institutional religion. In India, cults arose during social unrest due to the transition to agriculture and later on in response to British colonialism.
“The collective’s sense of self is under attack by the world, the only way to salvage one’s identity is to come together under the leadership of a charismatic authority and to rebuild from scratch.”
— Reza Aslan, author
Why do people believe in cults?
The leader is often the one who recruits the members at first. These members then go on to recruit other newer members. It’s estimated that about two-thirds of cult members were recruited by a friend or family who was already a member of the cult. Some children were roped into the cult as they were born into one, or when their parents became cult members.
Recruiters tend to target individuals undergoing change, whether it be personal or professional. For example a person who is new to the area or someone who has suffered the loss of a family member. These people are the most vulnerable and hence more open to trying new things, like going to a Bible study session.
Once the recruiters have managed to convince an individual to take the first step to joining a cult (though they would not have known that it is a cult), the individuals are open to indoctrination. In the end, most members don’t even realise they are in a cult.
According to social psychology, there are 6 elements to indoctrination in a cult.
1. Going through a transition
As mentioned before, cult recruiters tend to target people undergoing a transition, one that makes them vulnerable. Recruiters may spend some time building a rapport with the person, to make themselves appear more trustworthy.
2. The soft sell
Some recruitment processes for cults involve the individuals answering questionnaires with questions such as ‘Are you happy?’. Recruiters then attempt to convince the individual to take the first step to join a talk, Bible study session or meeting.
3. A new reality
This is where indoctrination takes place. The individual who joins the cult experiences a new and different reality. The cult’s environment discourages critical thinking, you do as you’re told and do not question the leader. The members are not able to think for themselves and hence increases the dependence on the leader.
This may lead to cognitive dissonance, where each compromise makes it harder for the individual to admit that they have been deceived. This forms a ‘self sealing system’ and eventually the cult becomes your whole world.
4. Relationship with the dear leader
Cult leaders are more often than not authoritarian, they want to be treated like a God and demand that their followers do so. Children in some cults are told to love the cult leaders more than they love their parents. It’s common for members to be instructed to always place the needs of the leader before your family. After all, only the dear leader can bring you down the path that you’re on.
5. Creation of an external enemy
In an attempt to prevent the members from leaving the cult, an enemy is created. Members are told what would happen to them if they leave the cult. Women will be raped and men murdered. The outside world is a dangerous place but the leader can provide refuge.
6. Peer pressure
Peer pressure is ultimately the most powerful tool to make a cult’s members conform to the ideals of the cult leader. If everyone is doing the same thing, the individual may choose to act accordingly even if they disagree with it. As demonstrated in a conformity experiment by Soloman Asch, 75% of participants gave the answer that was obviously wrong at least once throughout the entire experiment because the other group members (who were also in the experiment) all gave the wrong answer too.
A person’s nature to conform to societal norms (or in this case, a cult’s norms) may far exceed logical thinking, and this makes peer pressure the perfect weapon for a cult leader.
All the indoctrination makes it hard for someone to leave a cult. Members are taught that the cult is their whole world, they may not be so keen to believe that their beliefs, their world is all a lie. How does someone make decisions for themselves after being in a cult for years and years, where every decision has been made for them already?
Eventually cults fall apart for many reasons. Some cult members come to a realisation that their leader is a sham. Some cults dissolve due to scandals or backlash. The members then return back to their normal lives and try to integrate back into society.
Are all cults bad?
‘Bad’ is a moral judgement. What one person considers evil may not be the case for another. Though cults do get a pretty terrible reputation in the media, not all cults are bad. On one end there are cults that commit mass suicide, human trafficking or abuse, and on the other are the cults that worship spaghetti or UFOs. Doesn’t sound very harmful.
The Cargo Cult is a group of aboriginal people on isolated islands of the South Pacific. They are worshippers of, you guessed it, cargo. During World War 2, the tribes had their first encounter with modern society when soldiers, weapons and cargo were shipped to and air dropped on the island. The natives believed that these soldiers were able to attract the cargo planes and provide them with food and supplies. They believe that cargo planes came from paradise. Hence they started mimicking the actions of the American soldiers stationed on the island, such as wearing soldier uniforms or standing on guard. There are even altars built for the cargo.
With the rise of the internet is the creation of a different type of cult. One that centres around online platforms like Reddit or QAnon. Loneliness is on the rise due to a number of reasons and has been deemed a public health threat by countries like Australia. Lonely people seek refuge in online communities. Like attracts like, and although it usually is not bad, it has led to the formation of communities like the Incels.
Incels, short for involuntary celibacy, started off as a community of men who are sexually inactive, many of whom blamed women for not being attracted to them. This community started spiralling and it became a forum for white supremacy and male supremacy among other things. Its members, often white men, share the belief that men are far superior than women and that they should be obeyed by the people they deem inferior (women, people of colour, etc).
While Incels are not a typical cult, they are dangerous. Members of the incel community have carried out attacks on people who are different, such as the New Zealand mosque shooting that killed 51 people, and the shooting was broadcasted live. The shooter posted his manifesto hours prior on 8chan, a forum popular among Incels, and received praise for it. The Westgate shooting in Texas was carried out by an Incel who killed 3 people, and he even claimed that he wanted to kill couples.
In January 2020, a report by the Texas Department of Public Safety identified Incels as an ‘emerging domestic terrorism threat’. This is no surprise as several other shootings were carried out by men identifying as Incels. It shows the danger that such online communities, bordering on cults, have on society and the emerging threat to public safety where like minded individuals are able to share their ideologies full of hate with each other.
The issue of cults is a tricky one. How does one classify a cult as a cult and not a religious group? Though the examples raised in the article were mainly from the west, cults are a huge problem in the East as well. South Korea for example is a home to many, many cult leaders, most of them preaching a distorted form of religion. The Shincheonji church is one of, if not the largest cult in South Korea, with its members reaching thousands.
Although the ideologies and operations of cults are frowned upon by many, authorities are unable to act on them as they aren’t violating the law. It is only when there is concrete evidence of abuse or exploitation when action can be taken. Unfortunately, this means that many victims will continue to suffer as they are reluctant to speak out, whether due to indoctrination or pressure. The severe brainwashing in cults makes it virtually impossible for friends or family of members of cults to help them become aware of their environment. Most of the time, it is only when the individuals themselves start to question the cult that they are able to leave.
[Written by: Sarah Chong]