many people, traditional religion no longer offers satisfying answers
to life's problems and this factor is probably one of the reasons for
the explosion of cults that began to occur in Western society in the
latter half of the twentieth century.
164, 2015 September)
All cults have the potential to be dangerous just as all religions have
the potential to be dangerous. The cults that are most dangerous are
those whose beliefs are radically antisocial, and whose methods of
indoctrination are highly effective at making and keeping converts.
Some of the cults that meet these criteria and who have self-destructed
in an orgy of violence are listed below:
1978, Guyana: 913 members of the People's
1985, Philippines: 60 members of the Ara
1993, Waco: 80 members of the Branch
1994, Switzerland, Quebec & France: A total of 69 members of the Solar Temple killed.
2000, Uganda: 1000 members of the Movement
for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments killed.
these tragedies are the most obvious sign of the harm that dangerous
cults can cause, much of the damage can remain hidden from the public
eye. For example, sexual and physical abuse of the group's children,
exploitation of its members, and the breakup of families that can
result from conversion to the cult are all causes for concern.
purpose of this essay is to examine cult characteristics, those who are
most vulnerable to the conversion process, the recruitment strategies
cults employ, the mind control techniques they use, and methods of
protection that can be employed to safeguard individuals from these
many cults are based on religious ideas, others are founded upon
secular principles, and examples of these are as follows:
Political — The Aryan Nation,
an American white supremacist group whose aim is to seize control of
relationship cults have with mainstream society may be described as
"closed": where members of the group have little contact with the
outside world, The Children of God,
for example; or "open": where members are encouraged to participate in
society, and even seek positions of influence in the public service,
politics and other professions as is the case with Scientology. However, regardless of
whether a cult is open or closed, they all have common features that
can be summarised as follows:
All doctrines must be blindly accepted. The group's dogma must not be
questioned, and any doubts a member may have are attributed to his or
her own spiritual blindness, sin or intellectual immaturity.
The cult believes that it alone has a monopoly on the Truth, and the
human situation is usually reduced to two diametric components: good
versus evil and "them" (any person not of the group) versus "us."
Consequently, all cults have their personifications of evil — demonic
supernatural beings, secular institutions, professions and conspiracy
Most cults have an elitist mentality that often derives from the belief
that the group has been especially chosen by God or Destiny to bring
about the fruition of a grand mission — the establishment of a utopian
society, Heaven on Earth and so on.
There is a dominant leader who discourages individuality and freedom.
Members of the cult must be subordinate to the leader — everyone must
model their thoughts, dress and actions on this person.
The psychological characteristics of many cult leaders appears to fit
the following profile:
Psychotherapy/Educational organisations whose aim is to make money by
convincing people to sign up for expensive courses in personal
development of which Scientology is an instance. Broken marriages,
financial ruin and even suicide have resulted from the activities of
Commercial — these are the pyramid-style and multilevel marketing
organizations who exploit their salespeople.
obvious to me that some cult leaders have an inferiority complex and a
somewhat antisocial personality. Although many cult leaders want and
need material opulence, what they require, in my opinion, is attention
and power. In fact, power can and does become an extreme addiction.
Over time, cult leaders develop a need for more and more power. One
thing that makes these people so dangerous is their psychological
instability, and the fact that they actually believe their own
propaganda. They are not just cunning con artists who want to make
money. From my experience, I think that most actually believe they are
"God," or the "Messiah," or an enlightened master."
Hassan: Combating Cult Mind Control,
THOSE AT RISK
anyone can become a cult victim, generally speaking, those most at risk
are individuals who are experiencing some form of emotional turmoil or
dissatisfaction with life — states of mind that tend to reduce a
person's ability to think critically:
vulnerable people are those discontented with some aspect of their
life, or are going through a life crises (such as job loss, bereavement
or ill health), who have above average intelligence and/or good
concentration. People who have a strong need for intimacy in their life
are also particularly vulnerable, as are those who are idealistic and
disappointed in what society has to offer.
the above factors into account, it is not surprising that most
conversions occur between the ages of 10 and 20, a time when many young
people are experiencing the turmoil of adolescence, or dealing with its
general discontentment or life crises these people are experiencing
means that they are likely to be already operating at a higher than
normal level of arousal. Higher arousal dampens the ability to think
clearly or critically." (L. Samways: Dangerous Persuaders, pages
the studies which have examined the age of conversion have found that
the majority take place during adolescence. Argyle (1958), reviewing
the research dealing with the age of conversion, found that experiences
mostly occur between the tenth and twentieth year. The most frequent
year in which conversions take place seems to vary with the
investigator and perhaps with the date of the research." (G.E.W.
Scobie: Psychology of Religion,
are four basic recruitment strategies that cults employ, and they are
Advertisements offering personal development courses, yoga and
meditation classes, or lectures on "world peace," "cosmic
consciousness" or some equally vague and idealistic title.
order to increase the likelihood of a successful conversion, cults
often tailor their beliefs to suit the temperament of the person they
are targeting, and towards this end many divide people into four basic
Cult members can also gain access to people by going door-to-door
selling goods and asking for donations to some worthy and legitimate
Others loiter in malls, bus and train stations, and airports looking
for vulnerable people.
Possibly of greater concern is the infiltration of schools by these
groups in the guise of youth fellowships and counseling services.
Thinkers — those people who will be attracted by the group's
philosophy, and would be interested in meeting other intellectuals.
the potential convert is brought more fully within the sphere of the
cult's influence — by attending classes, meetings or ceremonies — then
various techniques (collectively referred to as Mind Control) can then
be employed to modify their beliefs and initiate the conversion
(2) Feelers — those needing love, acceptance and, possibly, a
substitute for family life.
Doers — those attracted by the idea of improving the world.
Believers — those needing a spiritual dimension to their life.
MIND CONTROL TECHNIQUES
primary difference between the brainwashing techniques employed by
totalitarian regimes and methods of mind control is that with
brainwashing the victim is often subjected to physical and/or
psychological torture and, generally speaking, knows what the
intentions of his captors are. With mind control, however, the
techniques are more subtle, and the victim is usually unaware that his
or her beliefs are being deliberately manipulated towards a particular
secret of mind control lies in the ability of the manipulator to
inhibit a person's capacity to think critically, and induce states of
suggestibility that allow new beliefs to be implanted. One of the ways
that this can be achieved is as follows:
strong emotions of anxiety, guilt, or anger, causing mental conflicts,
exhausting the individual mentally or physically, prolonging stress by
leaving him in doubt for varying times without knowing what his fate is
going to be, all bring about states of suggestibility... The
fundamentalist Christian evangelist employs three methods. Firstly, he
never argues but inculcates beliefs by affirmation (Jesus is waiting
for you!), by repetition (Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!), and by crowd
contagion. Secondly, he utters terrible warnings of hellfire so that
the possible non-existence of Hell never enters the listener's minds...
Thirdly, having induced fear and guilt in his audience, the evangelist
tells them how they may be saved and as the agent of the divine holds
out promises the fulfilment of which is never questioned. (J.A.C.
Brown: Techniques of Persuasion,
a person to a particular cult is, in itself, insufficient as they may
revert to old ways of thinking. In order for the group to consolidate
their hold on an individual, commitment to the cult must be engendered
in order for the convert to be continually exposed to mind control
techniques, and I shall now proceed to outline how this can be
biggest threat to any cult is critical thinking on the part of its
members. Consequently, if a person questions or criticises some aspect
of the cult's doctrines or practices, then they must be silenced, and a
common tactic employed to achieve this end is to turn the criticism
back on the individual. For example, it might be implied that the
group's beliefs will become clear only after the person commits
themselves more fully to the cult, or that it takes real courage to
change, or that doubts are indicative of a lack of trust, or the
individual's doubts arise from a condition of ignorance or sin.
Alternatively, less subtle methods such as ridicule or verbal abuse may
be used to silence dissenters.
subjected to these tactics, many people may experience feelings of
inadequacy (they are led to believe they don't understand because they
are ignorant, lack commitment, are distrustful and so on), and may
uncritically accept doctrines because they have been led to believe
that they are not capable of, or have no right to criticise the cult's
beliefs and practices. Unfortunately, once a person is convinced that
this lie is true, the more power the group has over them. These
techniques, combined with peer group pressure and rewards for compliant
behaviour become powerful tools for manipulating others.
person is prepared to uncritically participate in the cult's
activities, the following additional methods can be employed to produce
trance-like states of suggestibility in which new beliefs can be
implanted, and the individual's natural personality submerged:
Prolonged ceremonies that focus the mind on candle flames, ritual
objects, mantras, rhythmic sounds or music can be used to achieve this
end. An additional objective of these activities is to occupy the mind
to such a degree that there is little, if any time for the person to
critically evaluate what is happening to them or the ideas they are
being asked to believe.
on the cult can be established by a number of means: Isolating the
individual from family, friends and work by involving them in the
group's commune, inducing mental and physical fatigue through lengthy
sessions of prayer, physical activity designed to deprive the
individual of sleep and rest. The cumulative effect of these techniques
results in a state of mental confusion that reduces the person's
ability to make decisions, and consequently reduces their autonomy. It
is not surprising that under these conditions many people hand over all
their financial assets to the group, and as a result become even more
dependent on the cult.
methods of mind control may be employed, such as encouraging
individuals to reveal their inner feelings, and the information
obtained through these confessions can then be used to manipulate the
person by playing on their fears, hopes and anxieties. All of these
methods are often combined with actively discouraging the person from
contacting family and friends, and blaming loved ones for a variety of
real or imagined problems. If the individual's relationships with their
family, work, and all other familiar reference points are successfully
broken down as a result of these processes, then the victim may come to
believe that the cult is the only group that offers sanctuary from a
hostile world. Indeed, mind control techniques can induce phobias about
leaving the cult — the individual fears they will incur the wrath
of God, be killed in an accident, or be persecuted by the Forces of
well as these imaginary threats, there is also a real possibility that
people who have left the cult or, who are seeking to leave one, will
face a campaign of intimidation and violence instigated by the group:
or even speak out against a cult is not only to face excommunication
and what is perceived as the very real prospect of damnation in the
eyes of God, but to risk mental or physical abuse. This can take many
forms. In the extreme it may result in the assassination of the ex-cult
member, but psychological pressure is more commonplace... Often years
of abuse follow the leaving of a cult. This emanates from other cult
members living in the neighbourhood and enormous damage is wrought to
individuals and families." (M. Jordan: Cults, page 76)
anyone is approached in the manner outlined under the Recruitment
Strategies section of this article, then there are a number of
questions that can be asked which may be of assistance in determining
if the organization is a dangerous cult.
before I outline these questions, it is important to keep the following
Firstly, never give out personal
details such as your family name, address or telephone number.
Secondly, remember that dangerous
cults rely on lies, deception and have a hidden agenda — namely, their
desire to exploit you. Consequently, you may receive vague and evasive
answers, and encounter attempts to change the subject.
Thirdly, when you do encounter these
evasions, continue to seek a direct answer to your questions until you
receive one, or until it becomes obvious that no direct and unambiguous
answer will be forthcoming.
Fourthly, if you do decide to attend
a meeting, class or lecture, make sure that you: (A) Obtain as much
independent information on the group as you can. (B) Go with a friend,
and under no circumstances become separated. (C) Leave immediately if
you suspect that mind control techniques are being used.
following set of questions is based on those suggested in Combating Cult Mind Control, and
may prove useful for identifying dangerous cults:
How long have you (the recruiter)
been involved with this group, and are you trying to recruit me?
A person who is new to a destructive cult is, generally speaking,
inexperienced in recruitment techniques, and therefore less likely to
lie, and what lies he or she does tell will be easily detected. A
common response to this question is a denial, followed by the claim
that the person merely wishes to share some information.
What organizations are affiliated
with your group and what are their names?
Many cults use front groups to conceal their true identity, and it is
very important to establish who you are dealing with. Remember, always
do independent research to confirm any information you are given.
What is the name of the person who
has ultimate control of your organisation? What is his background and
what qualifications does he have that entitle him to this position?
Does he have a criminal record, or has he ever been subject to a
Many cult leaders have a shady past, and if the person starts a
monologue on how all great men have been persecuted or misunderstood,
or is evasive and uncomfortable when you request straight answers to
this set of questions, then this may indicate that the group has
something to hide .
What are the beliefs of your group?
Do these beliefs include the idea that the end result justifies the
means by which it is obtained?
If the person can't give a clear and concise summary of the
organisation's tenants, then they may be hiding some unpleasant facts.
At this point you may be invited to attend a meeting for an
explanation. However, this may be a ploy to lure you into a venue where
mind control techniques will be used.
What would be expected of me if I
were to join your group? Would I have to leave school or work, provide
donations of any description? Disassociate myself from friends and
family if they do not approve of or oppose my membership?
This question should make most members of a destructive cult very
uncomfortable and defensive. If the person is uneasy or is evasive upon
hearing this question, then regard their reaction as a danger signal.
Are there people who consider your
group dangerous, controversial or are critical of it and, if so, why?
If the person claims media bias, suggests a conspiracy theory or
ignorance on the part of the uninitiated, then beware. Remember; keep
probing until you obtain a clear and concise answer. Failure to obtain
direct and unambiguous answers may indicate that the person is hiding
Has anyone ever left your group? Have
you ever asked them why they left and If not, then why not? How do you
feel about those who have left your group? Does your group discourage
contact with former members, and if so, why?
Destructive cults always actively discourage contact with former
members and often regard them in a very negative way. The cult
missionary may claim that one of his/her best friends has left the
group. However, you must obtain specific and detailed answers to these
questions as the person may be lying.
Can you name at least three things
that you dislike about your group and your leader?
Members of destructive cults often say that they can't think of
anything negative about their organisation or leader. This response is
due to the fact that they have been conditioned not to have such
thoughts. Remember, there is no such thing as a perfect person or
organisation, so be very suspicious of an "all is rosy" answer.
Can you name at least three things
you would rather do with your life than be a member of your group?
If the answer is "nothing", or a version of the "all is rosy" response,
then beware. Such devotion and single-mindedness in a member of the
group is probably a good sign that mind control techniques may be being
cults are totalitarian in spirit. They thrive on the exploitation and
manipulation of their members, and therefore are a threat to
individuals and society. In the former case the threat comes from the
psychological damage that mind control techniques can cause, and in the
latter because the aims of the group are often antisocial.
democratic society, people have a right to hold as being true whatever
they so desire, and to attempt to convince others that their beliefs
are true. However, when this involves deceit, and the exploitation of
others, then we have the right and the obligation to object to the
activities of these groups. In my opinion, it is essential that the
public be educated as to the dangers posed by these organisations, and
I hope that this essay contributes in some way towards this goal.
J. A. C. 1972 Techniques of
Persuasion, Penguin Books, England,
K. & Farson, D. 1979 Cults and
Cons, Nelson-Hall, Chicago
S. 1990 Combating Cult Mind Control,
Park Street Press, Rochester
M. 1996 Cults, The Book
Company International Pty Ltd, Brookvale
L. 1994 Dangerous Persuaders,
Penguin Books Australia Ltd., Ringwood
G. E. W. 1975 Psychology of Religion,
B. T. Batsford Ltd. London.