Cults: The Threat is Real


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.

Easy to Get In
Transcendental Meditation's
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."

Sadly, members of the group murdered Jeannie for leaving — demonstrating that it is almost always easier to get into a cult than to get out.


The 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.

Caveat Emptor

Identifying cults, 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.

Many 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 society.

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.

Common Misconceptions About Cults

  • Cult groups are small.
    Some cults are small; some have millions of members. Belief and practice — not size — defines a cult.

  • Cults are isolated groups.
    Some do physically isolate members; many use techniques of psychological isolation while members live and work within the general population.

  • Cults 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.

  • Cultists wear weird clothes.
    Some cults have strange dress requirements; many do not.

  • I 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 leader.

    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.

Arrangements to host Mary Kochan as a speaker at your event can be made by contacting her directly or through her agent, St. Joseph Communications, Inc. reached by writing to P.O. Box 720, W. Covina, CA, 91793, by calling (626) 331-3549, via email at or the internet at: . Mary's tape sets can be viewed at the St. Joseph Communications website by entering "Kochan" into the website search window.

Copyright © 2003 LayWitness

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