Cults are thought of as on the fringe of society. Whilst this may be true, I think they hold importance to understanding society. This is because I am convinced they highlight the extreme end of the spectrum of normal social interaction.
A definition of a ‘cult’ is vague. I class it as a small grouping of people who follow a ‘guru’. As the cult grows, it can become an ‘alternative’ religion. And if it really takes off, it can enter the area of world religions.
Who joins a cult? It is easy to say they are not very bright, and maybe from deprived backgrounds. Evidence says this is not so. Rather, the average cult member is intelligent and middleclass. The defining point is that they seem to have seen searching for meaning – a meaning a guru has provided.
Are cult members ‘brainwashed’? No such thing. A process of sleep deprivation and bombardment with Scripture CAN reinforce the disciple’s beliefs, but, bearing in mind the point above, evidence suggests they really do want to be there.
The central element of the ‘success’ of a cult is the guru himself. He invariably has a charisma that is almost hypnotic in nature. Part of this is based on his absolute belief in his ‘rightness’, but equally it is a product of his life path.
Gurus tend to have an identical life path. Growing up in some form of adversity, they don’t seem to fit, and they begin to question the world. This leads to a form of mental breakdown, which they interpret as a spiritual experience. They exit this period of life convinced they have a spiritual truth and authority.
This makes the guru charismatic. But more than this, his theology places him at the centre of devotion. In essence, he is ‘god-like’, and thus he is absolute law, with absolute power.
WHEN CULTS GO WRONG
It is through this process that a cult can begin to go wrong. Power corrupts. And it is through this process that genuine ‘goodness’ can turn into a perverted totalitarianism.
The cultish system becomes a vicious circle, with disciples increasingly requiring meaning, and the guru increasingly needing the adoration. In this way, the process becomes, in a sense, ‘vampiric’ with each and every member insatiably feeding their soul.
This process increases self-esteem all round. But self-esteem is really a need for validation, born from a person with distinct insecurities. And so, too, with the ‘system’ of the cult. In this way, it becomes increasingly paranoid, unable to take criticisms and want to explode in the occasional violence.
Most cults do not get to the above extreme stage. But those that do have become dangerous. It drives them to become more and more insular, taking themselves more and more out of the world. The cult becomes all.
Holding inherent insecurities, as noted above, if the cult is then overly challenged, the search for meaning can turn in on themselves. The cult can require itself to prove itself through ultimate sacrifice. The cult has become mass-suicidal. And we are all aware of what that means.
There are thousands of cults in the world, and although it can be painful for families of members, the reality is, most are innocuous and do good work. But in the above, I have tried to highlight the processes involved, and how, in the extreme, they can become highly dangerous.