Thursday 3 March 2011

Thought Picnic: Analysing the Cultism in our Religion

Between religions and cults

An article titled When Does a Religion Become a Cult? [1] In the Wall Street Journal inspired this blog and whilst the main thrust of the write-up offered the signs that make religious cults evident, there was a possibility that certain of those perspectives were not necessarily all-encompassing.

Being on expert on the subject I have however witnessed first-hand people who have joined up to religious organisations seeking some solution to life’s problems and ended up becoming people with altered personalities, narrowed views of life, extreme fundamentals and spewing out doctrinal teachings that border on blasphemy to evident apostasy looking like new revelation.

Effective Controls

It is instructive that analysts of cult phenomena suggest a number of criteria that define cults as behaviour control, information control, thought control and emotional control. Beyond this are two other categories defined as financial control and extreme leadership.

What apparently indicates as control is different for different cultures and one can suggest that in open and freer societies the elements of control are probably more obvious and directly impacting on the adherents of such cult followings.

In this sense, one could be deluded into thinking that cults rarely exist in African cultures because the controlling forces do not appear to be enforced in a seemingly policed environment rather people tend to abdicate the free moral agency they have and submit themselves to the controlling influence of their leaders and then flock together with the false sense of safety in community.

Indirect but controlling nonetheless

There are many elements of behaviour control masquerading as religious creeds with interminably long lists of dos and don’ts of with absurd logic pandering to ancient rites that have long been superseded by modern ways that are conveniently ignored.

Information control usually presents as doctrinal diktat breeding anti-social forms of extremist and intolerant attitudes encouraged by the laziness of congregations to review criticisms no matter how constructive those views might be.

With a plaint and fawning audience, thought control is easy, people who are brought up in patriarchal societies might not be disposed to inquisitiveness or questioning the basis of the tenets they adhere to. There is a self-censorship in place that automatically kicks-in when a “Man of God” speaks, acts or commands as some vague dread of the supernatural instils the fear that allows for bling-followership and no critical assessment of the circumstances the person is in.

The aspect of emotional control is easy, as humility is confused with accepting humiliation and the guilt complex is exacerbated by painting scenarios that leave adherent apparently eternally grateful for the succour the leadership appears to provide.

In the pocket of the mind

Financial control is almost as innocuous as it is diabolical, holy texts are trotted out to convince, persuade, cajole, tease and in the extreme defraud as people are first convinced of a monetary key to blessing and almost compelled from the pulpit to give everything to the point of pain; whilst mind-control is quite difficult to assess, the beholden are already taken.

The religious leader regaled in the best flaunts this luxurious appearance as something to aspire to but only available through deeper financial commitment as hopes and desires are played and teased with the eventual promise of success which is almost within grasp – the spur is captivating to keep the people striving. The message gets perverted to “Use God and Love Money”.

By which time extreme leadership does not look that extreme any more, people who have willingly and freely associated that they have been subsumed and the leader either by design or unwittingly earns a cult following of almost sycophancy at some presumed closeness to God.

The slide to a cult

In any event, very little needs to be done to exercise absolute control as varying degrees of control as pertains to the earlier criteria could have inadvertently created a self-sustaining cult environment, the participants so completely oblivious of the fact that they have also stuck so close to a commune they cannot cut loose.

The sad thing is many are already in cults thinking they are fervent followers of some religion, the distinction between the terms almost impossible to distinguish. The analysts however conclude that every coercive religious group harbours the telltale trait of untoward secrecy – however, secrecy might well be hidden in everyday language, a lot being said but a dog whistle to those who know.

If members experience impediments in relationships, ideas or travel and the group’s finances are suspect and non-transparent, one might just say, following the money will just take you deep into the grotto of a cult.


[1] Mitch Horowitz: When Does a Religion Become a Cult? -

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