Cults: The Threat is RealMARY KOCHAN
Jeannie Mills seemed to have beaten the odds when she defected from Jim Jones' Peoples' Temple cult before the 1978 mass murder/suicides of 911 adults and children in Jonestown, Guyana. She had the chance to reflect upon her involvement in the group.
to Get In
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
"When you meet the friendliest people you
have ever known, who introduce you to the most loving group of people you have
ever encountered, and you find the leader to be the most caring, compassionate
and understanding person you have ever met, and then you learn the cause of the
group is something you never dared hope could be accomplished, and all this sounds
too good to be true — it probably is too good to be true! Don't give up
your education, your hopes and ambitions to follow a rainbow."
members of the group murdered Jeannie for leaving — demonstrating that it
is almost always easier to get into a cult than to get out.
images that go with the word are confusing — shaven-headed, saffron-robed
chanters in a public park; young, street-corner flower-sellers with pasted on
smiles and nowhere eyes; televised flames and death in Waco, Texas; bizarre and
ominous stories of poisonous gas in Japanese subways; a failed rendezvous with
a comet by Heaven's Gate. Clarity of thought about the subject is not eased by
arbitrary, muddy definitions and the dictionary description — "a system
of worship" — seems useless when movies, books and even rock bands can be
said to have a "cult following". Is "cult" just a handy epithet for mainstream
Christians to hurl at small, unpopular groups? Or can something useful can be
said about this phenomenon?
We need to know. Every day dozens of Americans
join cults. Some will break family ties or change their names. Many will cancel
education or career plans; others will lose homes or businesses. Not a few will
lose their mental health. And whether it occurs singly, or in dramatic newsworthy
numbers, some will lose their lives. Just who are these people? Who would follow
a Jim Jones, a David Koresh, or a Shoko Asahara into isolation and death? As I
speak on this topic, I find that many people have definite ideas about what is
wrong with the people who get into cults: "People who join cults are stupid. People
who join cults are weak-minded. People who join cults have emotional problems.
They are people who are looking for someone to run their lives for them."
The legacy of Jeannie's words however informs us these stereotypes are wrong.
From her we learn three important things about those who join cults. First of
all, no one knowingly joins a cult. No one wakes up in the morning and
says, "I don't like the way my life is going so I think I will join a cult today
and see if that will take care of my problems." People do not think they are joining
a cult; they think they are joining a church or a political activism group or
a Bible study gathering or a business seminar or an evangelism team. If people
knew the group was a cult, they would not join it.
then, is neither a matter of abstruse theological wrangling nor of sensational
tabloid speculation. It is of vital importance to the health of millions of Americans
and affects the stability of hundreds of thousands of families. It is an issue
with subtle impact upon every community and with a potential for explosive violence
which we ignore at our own risk. Identifying cult groups and understanding their
methods gives us the means to warn vulnerable populations of the dangers posed
by these groups. Experts estimate that close to 200,000 Americans join a destructive
cult each year, with a quarter of them suffering permanent damage in their ability
to function in the emotional, social, familial, or occupational spheres (Wellspring
Update quarterly newsletter of Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, Albany,
OH. Fall 1995, p 3). Destructive cultism is the least-recognized, most under-funded
public health problem in the country.
Unlike other dangers to mental
and physical health, no public awareness campaigns exist to warn people of the
dangers of destructive groups. Consumer advice abounds on such subjects as how
not to get taken in making a car purchase and what your legal rights are when
contracting for remodeling work on your house. But educating yourself about the
religious con artists may save you more than money, it may save years of your
life and your relationship with your loved ones.
What makes this education
so vital is what Jeannie's words reveal about the process of joining a cult. The
process of joining a cult involves deception. The loving people who welcomed
Jeannie into the group did not tell her up front that they would threaten, harass
or even kill anyone who decided to leave. Cult recruiters will not knock on your
door and say, "Good morning, we are here to invite you to the meeting of our cult
down the street." Very few people have any kind of working definition in their
minds of what a cult is or of how cults operate and this ignorance leaves them
vulnerable to the deceptions of cults. And cults are deceptive. The laws
which protect us against false and misleading advertising and which provide for
judicial redress in the case of fraudulent claims simply do not apply to religious
charlatans. Cult leaders are masters at using the religious freedom available
in this country to rob American citizens of their own ability to make decisions
in their own best interests and they do so with legal impunity.
thousands of heart-broken family members have discovered the implacable power
of the last religious decision. The last religious decision is the decision made
by someone to turn over to another the authority henceforth to make all of his
or her religious decisions, and to define what constitutes a religious decision.
It may include anything from the majors — who to marry, where to live, what
career or job to have — to the minors — how to dress and wear your
hair, what kind of car to drive, what to eat. This is an exercise of religious
liberty which ends religious liberty. Religious liberty in a cult belongs to the
leader/s of the group not to the people. As a result there exist, within our borders,
United States citizens who live like people under a totalitarian government. They
live in fear of informants — other members of the group who can turn them
in for associating with a forbidden person, reading a forbidden book or attending
a forbidden meeting. Should they seek to undo their last religious decision they
must often resort to desperate actions: making furtive phone calls at night to
talk with relatives they are forbidden to visit or renting post office boxes under
assumed names in order to correspond with someone outside of the group. The presence
of cults in our midst challenges our conceptions of religious liberty and civil
rights and demands an especially discerning response from the people of a democratic
Finally, Jeannie's words inform us that the motivations of
people who join cults are very high. These people join a group with a plan
to make the world a better place, a group with an agenda, a cause, a mission.
People who join cults are people who want to be challenged with a noble vision.
They are people who want to give of themselves in service to God and to their
fellow man. People who join cults tend to be among the brightest and most idealistic
members of our communities. In other words the people who join cults are a
lot like you.
The danger of cults lies in this: that you will think
there is something very different about the people who join them. You will think
those people are stupid or weak or crazy and so you won't think it could happen
to you. The tragedy of cults is not that they victimize the weak-minded
or the unintelligent, but that they rob us of the most productive years of some
of the people who have the highest potential for making genuinely valuable contributions
to the good of our society. The tragedy of cults is that thousands of people have
been deceived into giving up their education, hopes and ambitions to follow a
rainbow. Some of them have died, some of them have survived. But whether they
have lost years from their lives, or lost educations, careers or families, all
of us are poorer for what they have lost.
Thus far, the response of the
Christians to the cults has been scattered and sporadic. Some individuals and
a few local congregations have made outstanding efforts and reaped tremendous
results, nevertheless most American communities remain vulnerable and most Christian
people are ill-prepared for contact with a cult recruiter. But on a positive note,
we are at a stage in this work in which we can say that the foundation has been
laid. Those groups which are identified by Catholics and by mainstream Protestants
as cults are not suffering persecution merely because they are small or unusual;
they are groups which have a track record of destructive practices. They have
been given time to show their true colors. The suicides, family estrangement,
doctrinal flip-flops, false prophecies, scholastic dishonesty and the testimonies
of thousands of former members add up to evidence which cannot be ignored. There
is nothing arbitrary or haphazard in identifying a group as a cult; it is not
done to persecute or to slander; it is done out of love for the unwary who might
become ensnared and out of love for those trapped in abusive, exploitative and
manipulative religious systems or groups. And it is done out of love for Christ
in Whom alone true freedom is found.
groups are small.
Some cults are small; some have millions of members.
Belief and practice — not size — defines a cult.
Cults are isolated
Some do physically isolate members; many use techniques of psychological
isolation while members live and work within the general population.
have one strong leader.
Most cults begin with the followers of one strong
leader but over time authority may pass to a body of leaders, especially if no
one with the
charisma of the first one comes forth.
wear weird clothes.
Some cults have strange dress requirements; many do
have not seen any cult groups in my neighborhood.
That is because you
were looking for a small, isolated group of weirdly-dressed people following one
Look again. Cult groups are actively recruiting in every
community in the United States.
Mary Kochan. "Cults: The Threat is Real." Lay Witness.
This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine.
Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc.,
an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance
the efforts of the teaching Church.
After growing up as a third generation Jehovah's Witness, Mary Kochan worked
her way backwards through the Protestant Reformation to enter the Catholic Church
on Trinity Sunday, 1996. Mary has done extensive work and research on the problem
of religious cults, writing and speaking to live and radio audiences and answering
questions about all aspects of cultic behavior. She is married to Daniel and is
a member of St. Theresa parish in Douglasville, Georgia.
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