29 Oct 2010

What makes a cult?

The Guardian - UK May 27, 2009

Watch out for tell-tale signs

A typical cult has a charismatic, unaccountable leader, persuades by coercion and exploits its members, economically, sexually or in some other way.

by Rick Ross

Some say that the word "cult" or "sect" is a pejorative label used to discriminate against "new religious movements."

However, it seems disingenuous to ignore the historical significance and modern day applications of the word cult or sect.

Today many controversial groups that have been called cults or sects are seeking to either eliminate that description or ignore it.

Some academics with close ties to such groups have become little more than apologists, labeling the word "cult" a "four letter word."

These apologists often prefer the supposedly politically correct title "new religious movement" (NRM).

But historically cults have always been with us and they continue to be a part of the world today.

The word cult can be broadly defined as "formal religious veneration," "a system of religious beliefs and its body of adherents," "a religion regarded as 'unorthodox or spurious,'" "great devotion to a person or idea" as well as "persons united by devotion or allegiance to an artistic or intellectual movement or figure."

These general definitions could potentially include everything from Barbie doll collectors to so-called "Trekkies" and die-hard Elvis fans.

American history is particularly rife with religious groups that can be seen as cults, such as the devoted followers of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, or the Mormons united through their devotion to Joseph Smith. Both of these religious groups were at one time also regarded by many as "unorthodox or spurious."

But the most salient concern to the general public, law enforcement and government officials today regarding groups called "cults" is what potential they might represent to do harm.

Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who once taught at Harvard Medical School, wrote a paper titled Cult Formation in the early 1980s. He delineated three primary characteristics, which are the most common features shared by destructive cults.

1. A charismatic leader, who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose power. That is a living leader, who has no meaningful accountability and becomes the single most defining element of the group and its source of power and authority.

2. A process [of indoctrination or education is in use that can be seen as] coercive persuasion or thought reform [commonly called "brainwashing"].

The culmination of this process can be seen by members of the group often doing things that are not in their own best interest, but consistently in the best interest of the group and its leader.

Lifton's seminal book Thought Reform and Psychology of Totalism explains this process in considerable detail.

3. Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.

The destructiveness of groups called cults varies by degree, from labour violations, child abuse, medical neglect to, in some extreme and isolated situations, calls for violence or mass suicide.

Some groups that were once seen as "cults" have historically evolved to become generally regarded as religions. Power devolved from a single leader to a broader church government and such groups ceased to be seen as simply personality-driven and defined by a single individual. For example the Seventh-day Adventists, once led by Ellen White, or the Mormons church founded by Joseph Smith.

Some groups may not fit the definition of a cult, but may pose potential risks for participants. Here are 10 warning signs of a potentially unsafe group or leader.

  • Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.
  • No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.
  • No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget or expenses, such as an independently audited financial statement.
  • Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.
  • There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.
  • Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.
  • There are records, books, news articles, or broadcast reports that document the abuses of the group/leader.
  • Followers feel they can never be "good enough".
  • The group/leader is always right.
  • The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing "truth" or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.

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  1. Dear Perry –
    I commend your intentions here. These ten warning signs have value. Perhaps though, you could have left it at that and tempered your finger pointing. I have been a Christian Scientist for 16 years, and my life has no relation to what the list describes. Admittedly, there are former and present Christian Scientists, like any people, who have differences with a group and may even have published those differences. But this list of warning signs has nothing to do with Christian Science and its Founder, Mary Baker Eddy – just like would be said of the signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Christian Scientists and their children are free and encouraged to understand their “inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” They have generally found that this includes Christian Science care, which is an incomparably systematic and reliable form of healthcare. And with their good health and devotion to freedom and well-being, they have found themselves, as lawyers, teachers, healers, nurses, and so on, to be in a position to help all peoples and nations.

  2. Laura Thebaud Gibbs2 November 2010 at 17:43

    I was raised in Christian Science and I find the list has everything to do with it. If my brother had not died of medical neglect, I suspect he would agree. Our mother paid a practitioner to "treat" the pneumonia that killed him, and the only doctor who ever saw him was called in to sign the death certificate. My observation has been that CS families who have not experienced serious medical problems are the ones most likely to continue their affiliation to this cult.

  3. I was raised in Christian Science and I completely agree with Laura Gibbs and disagree with everything Curtis said. Every item on the list is consistent with Christian Science. It is hard for children to understand and avail themselves of their "inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" if they're dead.

    Like Laura, I lost a sister to untreated lymphoma. She was sick for over two and a half years, no medical treatment, no autopsy, no service. The kicker is that when my Christian Science parents got sick, they got medical care for themselves. My other siblings and I were just lucky we didn't get juvenile onset diabetes or spinal meningitis or cancer or we would have died, too.

    How can Christian Science claim to be health care when they teach that the body doesn't exist and illness is only a reflection of flawed thinking? Christian Science mandates that its members deny any symptom of illness, even a broken bone, as an illusion and to ignore it, and instead keep praying to know they are God's perfect child, therefore how can they be sick or injured? If the child doesn't get well, the child is blamed for not having enough faith.

    These things are also true, I might add, of Christian Science "nursing homes" receiving federal Medicare money. There is no nursing going on in those facilities at all. The nurses don't even take temperatures, because to do so would acknowledge the reality of the illness. They simply sit by and record how many times the child screams, vomits, etc. It's a very dangerous cult.

  4. A comment that was submitted to this post by Liz Heywood was accidentally deleted. However, a copy was sent to my email so I am reposting Liz's comment.


    Liz Heywood said:

    This list of warning signs is exactly right.

    I agree with Laura and Anonymous that Christian Science has nothing to do with health care--not even with the "positive thinking" defense; any rational positive thinker will use all means, including medical, to get the best result--especially for a child.

    At the age of thirteen I contracted a serious bone disease in my leg that went untreated--except for the prayers of my parents, church and practitioner. Yes, my treatment was "systematic", including the Christian Science practical nurses who washed my open sores with soap and water, the extent of their training. I spent almost a year in bed as my leg opened and drained in multiple places, then six months in a wheelchair and eighteen months on crutches. This occurred within twenty miles of The Mother Church in Boston in the 1970's. My practitioner--later First Reader of The Mother Church, currently a Teacher of practitioners--declared I was healed. My "healing" included severe depression,panic attacks and flashbacks, eating disorders, feelings of failure, self-loathing,and the desire to die, as well as my grotesquely scarred and fused leg which eventually was amputated. I spent twenty years in shame praying for a "complete healing". But when my own daughter was born, I left Christian Science and began to examine what had happened to me.

    Emotional flexibility and a willingness to look hard at what you believe are the signs of mental health. Only a cult-member blinded by faith would hold a religion more dear than his or her own child. Maybe the eleventh warning sign of an unsafe group is the refusal to even consider that the previous ten signs apply to Christian Science.