Paul Derengowski, ThM
The world of the cults is thriving. Everywhere a person turns someone is either promoting a cultic philosophy, a faddish product, or inspirational guru to entice the populace to follow their outlook on life. Have you ever wondered why the cults are so successful, though, in doing what they do? Below are ten suggestions as to why people join the cults, which are also tens warning signs that the reader can use to examine his/her life to determine whether he or she is vulnerable to be recruited into a cult.
From biblical illiteracy to the persistence of evil, the following has been written with over 30 years’ experience in dealing with religious cultism or with individuals committed to a particular cult. Cult, here, is defined as a group of at least two or more people who are polarized around a religious or philosophical idea that attempts either to mimic biblical Christianity or run counter to it. On the one hand, the following insights are enlightening and helpful, while on the other they are heartbreaking. The cults are the “unpaid bills of the church” that only seem to continue to mount. Here are a few reasons why.
- Biblical Illiteracy
Since all cultic activity is a product of an attack upon biblical principles, in one form or another, it should come as no surprise that the number one area that cults focus on in its recruitment effort is a person’s personal acuity when it comes to biblical knowledge. Typically the strategy is to recruit those who have little or no basic understanding of the Bible by inviting that person to a “Bible study” where a distorted or twisted view of reality is taught which promotes either the religious leader’s or organization’s skewed world view. Jehovah’s Witnesses are notorious for this kind of recruiting effort as it is not uncommon for them to schedule in-home personal Bible studies to advance the teachings of The Watchtower or one of its leaders.
Conversely, those who have a working knowledge of the Bible and a sound hermeneutic (interpretive method) are virtually immune to cult recruitment. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to conclude that as soon as the cultist discovers that a person has a solid biblical understanding of what he believes, the cultist often flees, files a report at the cult’s main field office (particularly if out and about mapping a neighborhood), and does not return. Sadly, though, with a growing biblical illiteracy among many people, as fueled by a postmodern attitude toward truth, whether in or out of the Christian church, most cultists rarely have to flee because they feel threatened by a person’s biblical acumen, but are instead welcomed into people’s homes and hearts with little resistance.
- Ecclesiastical Scarring
If aggressive attempts by the cults to intrude into the lives of people are not bad enough, what many Christian churches and leaders are doing through legalistic scarring often results in the church becoming cultic in nature, or simply drives the abused member to join a cult. Legalistic scarring takes place when the church or pastor is more concerned about living by the letter of the law rather than by the Spirit behind the law. Church members are frequently harassed, threatened, or intimidated into following a prescribed set of do’s and don’ts, often with no compassion or love on the part of church leadership, which lords it over the people, rather than as a shepherding overseers.
The typical person who comes out of the legalistic setting and becomes susceptible to cult recruitment is the young person. Growing up in a church setting, or becoming involved early on, where obeying the capricious rules of an ecclesiastical dictator was more important than loving God from a pure heart, is the number one ingredient necessary to drive that young person out of the church and into a cult later on in life. Or if the young person does not end up in a cult, he becomes so rebellious against authority that he adopts a cultic mentality or philosophical outlook, that he is combative, even against Christians and churches that are not abusive. If you have ever wondered why so many pastors’ children end up living lives contrary to the so-called Christian principles in which he/she was raised, just check out the ecclesiastical scars received when he/she was younger. Those scars can typically be discovered by simply talking to the person and listening to his/her pent-up bitterness.
- Church Indifference
It has been said that “the cults are the unpaid bills of the church.” By that it was meant that the Christian church has been negligent, by-and-large, in its responsibilities to not only evangelize the lost, but to disciple its members as well. In the former instance Christians have turned away from the God-given duty to preach the word in season and out, and to “reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (1 Tim. 4:2), and have turned instead to Hollywood and Madison Avenue visualization and theatrics as the preferred methods to emotionally entertain people into the Kingdom of God. To make matters worse, the same kinds of methods are used to indoctrinate new members, and before long those same persons either end up growing indifferent to the Christian life or become ripe for picking by the cults, which often have better visual aids to promote their religious caricature than do most Christian churches, along with a literary demand to read the publications that they produce.
In 2009 George Barna conducted a poll which concluded that “a huge majority of adults pick and choose what they believe rather than adopt a church or denomination’s slate of beliefs.” Tragically 61% of born again Christians have decided to fly by the seat of their pants when it comes to what they consider Christian beliefs, with a staggering 82% of young adults (25 years-old and younger) leading the capricious way. Barna, in another poll, revealed that only 19% of those who claimed to be “born again” had a biblical worldview. Clearly if Christian churches were not indifferent toward what its members believed, then we would not be seeing those kinds of figures. Yet, it is because the Church has become complacent that so many are be tossed about by every wind of doctrine, and eventually ending up in the outstretched arms of an enthusiastic cultist ready to take them in.
- Cult Naïveté
Consistent with biblical illiteracy and church indifference is cult naïveté that exists among so many people, whether in or out of the church. To be naive about cultism simply means that one either knows little or nothing about cult doctrine and practices, or what is known is shallow or misleading. In the former instance the lack of knowledge leaves the potential recruit defenseless to the charges, claims, and promises made by the cult, whereby the recruit finds something about the sales-like pitch appealing. It answers a need or want in life, even though the pitch is merely a rudimentary ploy to entice the recruit to become more involved in the more obscure and irrational beliefs that may only be learned much later on down the line. In the latter instance the information that has been learned by the recruit is either false or partial, and the cultist can easily convince the recruit by simply correcting the falsehood (e.g. “all cultists are devil worshippers”).
If there ever was a time in human history where being naive about cult activity is a serious detriment to society, it is now. The cults and cultists prey upon the naive and ignorant with their answers to everything mentality. Moreover, given the slick advertising schemes and multimedia strategies employed by many of the cults (e.g. Mormonism, The Church of Scientology, and Landmark Education Corporation, etc.), then to remain in a state of cult naïveté is simply inexcusable. Therefore, it would be in the best interest of everyone to not only become informed about the basics of cult beliefs, but what they are planning as well. To do so will not only prevent a life wasted by being duped into cult involvement, but a lifetime of heartache as well, by trying to live up to cult standards that often insult both human dignity and intelligence.
- Inordinate Individualism
There is little doubt that a growing mentality is being promoted, particularly in the United States, among many well-meaning social conservatives which is isolating individuals from the rest of society to their detriment. “Rugged Individualism” is the battle cry of some who believe that the only way of upholding the Constitution is to guarantee that government be prohibited from any kind of intrusion into anyone’s life. A “nobody is going to tell me what to do” attitude, and an aversion for civil authority, is breeding not only a spirit of rebellion, but also an extreme narcissism, where more and more people believe that all opinions are equal, no matter how ridiculous they might be, is being advocated. Worse yet, however, is the deep-seated vacuum that is being created by separating people as “rugged individualists,” whereby fewer people know how to communicate effectively with their neighbor, let alone even know who their neighbor is. In other words, inordinate individualism is breeding extreme loneliness which God Himself said was not good.
Because people are inordinately lonely, through faulty means, they also manage to set themselves up for cult recruitment. While the normal, healthy, sociable person has little problem rejecting a cultist’s invitation to accept his offer to recruit him, some who have taken the “rugged Individualism” doctrine too far, and are lonely, will regularly end up looking for love in all the wrong places, particularly when the cultist comes knocking on his door. The fact is humans are individuals, but not to the degree that many of the commentators believe that they are, and if the individual becomes a loner, he creates an unhealthy personal profile that is vulnerable to cult persuasion. Therefore, to prevent cult recruitment which involves the rugged individualism mantra, one must understand the mantra itself in light of the Hellenistic culture from which it was derived, and then either reject or reform it. If one reforms it, it must be done in light of the biblical message, otherwise despite the bravado that comes with the mantra, one can easily be recruited into a cult when it is discovered that the “rugged” part of the individualism was actually more of a ruse than a reality.
- Life Transition
Another reason why many people join a cult revolves around changes in life whereby a person is temporarily rendered unstable. Divorce, marriage, a new job, a death in the family, attending college for the first time are all examples of life transitions that many cults seek to capitalize upon, and offer what appear to be solutions to stabilize the situation. Typically the more unstable a person is, the more likely the person is to listen to the message of the cultist. When the cultist senses that the vulnerable is lending an attentive ear, and has become dependent upon his counsel, then the cultist moves quickly to involve the person in the cult itself. The idea is to create a cult mentality in the recruit which does not allow him to reasonably react to what is going on by totally preoccupying his time with cult responsibilities and duties.
In the 1990s the Boston and International Churches of Christ were notorious for preying upon college students using life transition tactics to recruit and brainwash the unwary into their way of thinking. Frequently it was reported that numerous college students throughout the United States were dropping out of college only to be servants and drones of Kip McKean and his eccentric form of “Christianity.” Victor Paul Wierwille and his Way International cult were also infamous for victimizing college students using similar means. The moral of the story is that when undergoing a transition in life, regardless of its extremeness, one must be on guard against possible cult recruitment. Asking a trusted friend for advice when a stranger with a bright smile and all the answers to life’s problems is a good starting point before suddenly biting onto the hook of cultic insight.
Commensurate with the concept of life transition is what often happens when a person is initially introduced to a cult by members of the cult. It is called “love bombing.” Love-bombing takes shape in the form of inordinate attention and fawning over the potential recruit. Everyone is so cheery and helpful, and everyone wants to be friends with the new person. This is not to say that in a normal Christian setting that people should be anything less than friendly, compassionate, and helpful. It is that in a cult the “love” is pretentious and is part of the modus operandi of making a person feel as if he is truly needed and appreciated; that the cult truly cares about the person, and that there is a special place just for the person, should he decide to join.
Love-bombing, though, is fraudulent behavior. It is a poor substitution for rational thought and discussion. In some cults love-bombing takes the form of sexual enticement, such as what occurred with the Children of God cult led by Moses David, or, The Family led by Charles Manson. Most of the time love-bombing simply involves inordinate attention at the initial stage in cult recruitment, only to turn mundane, if not hostile, should a cult member ever decide to leave the cult at a later date. Perhaps the key to remember when it comes to love-bombing is that if after being invited to a gathering, and everyone in that particular group seems overly inviting, intensely interested, and syrupy sweet, for no good reason, then odds are one is being manipulated into a “can’t say no” position when the cult asks the person to join it.
- Peer Pressure
There is nothing like fad excitement to get a whole group of people involved in participating in the fad itself. Rubik’s cubes, cabbage patch kids, text messaging, and Twitter are all examples of fads in recent years that have taken the public by storm. When it comes to cults and cultism, the same kind of faddish phenomenon is used and has been precipitated largely through peer pressure. Perhaps the most common form of this kind of pressure is among friends. One friend hears and then becomes involved in some kind of human potential cult or seminar (est, Mind Dynamics, Lifespring, etc.), and because of the novel excitement of it all, he invites his friends to join him on his quest for fulfilling one’s full potential, which could mean anything from gaining wealth quickly to becoming a god.
Another form of peer pressure is seen in the corporate world. Company leaders insist that their employees participate in self-help seminars and sensitivity training, often without advanced warning that the company-sponsored training is rooted in cult doctrine and philosophy. The Church of Scientology, with its many front groups (WISE, Narconon, Applied Scholastics, Sterling Management Systems, etc.), regularly attempt to influence businesses, schools, and government offices by means of infiltration and peer pressure, to get those entities and its employees and students to participate in Scientology “technology.” The overarching goal, however, is not to assist companies to correct particular problems areas, but to introduce and recruit employees into the cult. In this case caveat emptor or “buyer beware” becomes prudent advice.
- Irrational Worldview
When discussing the irrational worldview as a means to cult recruitment and involvement, one is asserting that the views of reality that the recruit and the cult are similar. In other words, the cultist has to make very little effort at recruiting the potential member simply because the recruit already shares much of the same basic outlook on life that the cult is espousing. All that is needed is for a few adjustments to be made and voila! A new cult member becomes a part of the attendance roll.
Cult thought is irrational in itself, as well as self-refuting, meaning that when it comes to objective reality there is no connection. It is not out of the question to be frequently confronted with eccentric claims, visions, and stories that have no basis in the real world, but are mere figments of the imagination of the cult leader who has found a gullible following. Moreover, it is not uncommon for the cult leader to make grandiose claims about himself, typically as the final prophet or spokesperson for God, or as a representative of the person of Jesus Christ. Those already sharing an affinity with the cult leader’s worldview are also often delusional in the same respects, believing themselves to be persons who are extraordinary in God’s economy and vital instruments in the saving of humanity from impending Armageddon or self-destruction.
- Persistent Evil
The final reason why many people join cults is the persistence of evil. All counterfeiting cults can ultimately trace their existence back to the “father of lies,” the devil, who is the most persistent of evil beings to ever have existed. It is his goal to destroy human beings, and he regularly disguises himself as something or someone benevolent and wholesome to do it. The apostle Paul would write of those who would be modern-day cultists, and their real leader, Satan, in the following terms: “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore, it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their deeds” (2 Cor. 11:13-15).
The persistence of the devil is perhaps best seen in the words of the apostle Peter who described him as a “roaring lion” who actively prowls about seeking someone to devour (1 Pet. 5:8). The idea of devouring involves the image of swallowing someone instantly. When one understands the operations of a cult one regularly sees the non-stop effort to succeed at all costs. No tactic is off-limits since the end justifies the means. About the only way a cult is stifled or destroyed is when it either becomes so corrupt that law enforcement must move in and arrest the members for breaking the law, the cult leader is finally pushed to the brink of insanity and self-destructs, the cult becomes non-viable due to financial trouble or disinterest, or the cult converts to Christianity. Apart from those occasions, most cults and their leaders believe they have the inside track to heavenly communication with God Almighty, and without their presence the earth and its inhabitants are doomed to destruction.
Cult proliferation has been ongoing since the dawn of mankind. Ultimately the cults exist as a counterfeit to God’s plan and purpose, with some cults being better than others in their counterfeiting efforts. There are several reasons why a person might become involved in a cult, ten of which have been discussed above. The degree to which any one of the reasons may apply is variable, meaning that one specific reason may explain cult recruitment better than others, or a combination of reasons may apply, with some non-applicable at all. Only the individual in 20/20 hindsight can say for sure after he or she has left the cult.
It cannot be over-emphasized the necessity to “beware of false prophets” and the messages that they are peddling. They come in all shapes and sizes with varying emphases on what they believe are important. The devil knows this, which is why he offers a literal smorgasbord of erroneous doctrines and beliefs from which the potential convert may choose to satisfy his particular need. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that neither the devil, nor the cultist, has the best interest of anyone in mind. In fact, the only thing that the cults possess in common is the destruction of the person they are seeking to recruit. Therefore, the admonition to “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert,” when it comes to those seeking the innocent soul is good counsel. For by being sober and alert, always, will prevent a life of regret, should one be caught unaware by those representing a cult.