In 1982 Ingrid D. wrote home to her mother, "I have joined a wonderful group of spiritually minded people and am living in an ashram. If you send me clothing, it should be orange, red, or burgundy." She had become a follower of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, an teacher from India, who developed new forms of active meditation aimed at overcoming repression, lowering inhibitions, and attaining enlightenment. Although he preached that the family was an out-of-date institution that should be replaced, he did encourage his followers to make peace with their families rather than to alienate themselves. Ingrid lived in the ashram as one of "the Orange People" for 10 years, after which she left and pursued a successful career in law enforcement. Three years from now, she will retire and has already begun work on a second career as a minister in a New Age type church. She has positive memories of her years in the "cult" and wouldn't give up the experience for anything.
Before 1978 the word cult was a neutral term which referred to membership in a group with a common goal, transcendent values, and a strong central leader. It did not become a word with negative connotations until the tragedy at Guyana when Jim Jones of the People's Temple and more than 900 of his followers committed mass-suicide. Since then, horror stories about the Moonies and brainwashing, David Koresh's followers in Waco, Texas, Heaven's Gate believers in San Diego who killed themselves, and others groups like Satanists, have aroused public concern. Because of so much media publicity surrounding the use of the word, when people hear the word cult now, they immediately think of brainwashing, unethical techniques of persuasion and control, and manipulation (Hunter, 1998). Part of the difficulty in understanding just what a cult is, is that some recent researchers define them as having inherently evil characteristics. Clearly, not all cults are evil or can be defined in evil terms. In this paper we will explore various definitions of what a cult is, what kinds of people become cult members, and what cults offer them.
There is much confusion about what a cult is. Some researchers define cults by how well organized they are (Bader, 1996). The Jesus Movement, for example, started as a cult in the 1960s and developed into a well-organized religious sect. Usually, an individual has a revelation or a spiritual experience, develops a following, and a new cult is born -- for example, Christian Science began with one woman, Mary Baker Eddy, who reported she was spiritually healed by God from serious injuries that threatened her life. She started with a small group of followers, healing and preaching, and developed into an established religious denomination. Likewise, when Joseph Smith discovered ancient tablets and God revealed the meaning to him, he developed a small group of followers which grew and eventually became the Mormons. William Miller had a vision that the world would soon end and led a group of believers who grew to 50,000 people. They sold all their worldly possessions, put on white robes, and went up on hills to meet Jesus. When he didn't come as predicted, they started a church known now as Seventh Day Adventist. So some researchers see cults as a stage of organization. Other times cults are defined by the "excessive" devotion of their followers to a religious belief or idea. Campbell, Jackson, and Jobling (cited in Bader, 1996) defined a cult as a religious group with "mystical" or "occult beliefs." Cults are often new religious movements.. Pavlos (1982) says a cult "usually involves a relatively small religious group whose beliefs, values, and practices are at variance with those of dominant or traditional forms of religion" (p. 3). By this definition, Jesus of Nazareth was a cult leader and the early Christian "cultists" later developed into an established and recognized religion. Pavlos also says that "cults develop religious and/or political ideologies that provide a rationale for their beliefs and religious practices, as well as their very existence (p. 4). Herbert Blumer (cited in Pavlos, 1982) believed that cults were a kind of social movement because they emerged from social unrest. Lalich (2001) had this to say about cults:
A cult can be either a sharply bounded social group or a diffusely bounded social movement held together through shared commitment to a charismatic leader. It upholds a transcendent ideology (often but not always religious in nature) and requires a high level of personal commitment from its member in words and deeds (p. 124).
She points out that "totalism and separatism" are aspects of some cults but should not be part of the definition: "When one turns the viewing lens on a single cult in order to extract a thick definition of the forces that hold it together, one inevitably sees charismatic relationships and devotion to transcendent ideology [italics mine] as the important defining features" (p. 125). Lalich sees cult control of its members on a continuum in which some cults are "less invasive" while others are more "all-encompassing."
We know that cults are a social phenomenon and that they spring from unrest, but who becomes a member of a cult? Who are the enthusiastic followers committed to transcendent ideologies and loyal to their leaders? On this researchers tend to agree. Most cult followers join at 18 to 23 years of age. They are searching for answers to "the great problem of being." They want to understand who they are and why they are here in this world. They often are searching for the purpose and meaning of life. If they seek role models and fail to find them in their environment, they may become confused and unable to distinguish heroes from anti-heroes, and if they end up seeing themselves in strictly negative terms, this may result in a full-fledged identity crisis. Young people are often rebellious, as well, "critical of and impatient with, the established values and behavior patterns of society. They desire change, and experience frustration when it does not occur" (Hunter, 1998). They tend to be very receptive to new ideas, but they may not be mature enough to critically evaluate the ideas of a group that claims to have all the answers to the perplexing questions of life or a "vision of a perfect society" (p. 1). The adolescent who is vulnerable to recruitment by cults has an identity problem, is alienated from family, has "weak cultural, religious, and community ties; and feelings of powerlessness in a seemingly out-of-control world" (p. 2). Hunter states many cult members, like Ingrid D. At the beginning of this paper, come from "democratic and egalitarian homes and upper socioeconomic levels, rather than overpermissive, overindulgent, dysfunctional, and poor families" (p. 2). They are searching for spiritual fulfillment, meaning, and purpose; and want to become complete persons.
Why individuals with the profile we have just described join cults can be explained by the fact that human behavior often is motivated by need and satisfaction. We look for what will meet our needs, and when we find something that does, we stay with it until the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. Cults offer a sense of belonging. Often when a person finds that they suddenly "fit in" where they did not before, his/her self-esteem immediately improves. In the context of an accepting group, members get a sense of who they are. They find other people who have had similar experiences and thus accept them and validate them. As Clark (1994) points out, " ... A sense of belonging is crucial to identity formation." Cults offer an "immediate antidote to loneliness" (Curran, 1989). Adolescents can also find structure and order in cults, which may have rules more clearly defined than those they found at home or in school. Members find an outlet for their rebellion, which in adolescence is considered a normal stage of development. Many teenagers experiment with different values and lifestyles. The cult imparts a sense of purpose, not only for the individual, but a common purpose for all the members to work toward. And being part of a common purpose can be exhilarating. It is not so hard to see the attraction of membership in a cult. Stoner (1977) reports meeting two members of the Unification Church (Moonies) and described them thus:
Getting to know Nini and Terry was a relief rather than a disappointment. They are not melancholy or disillusioned, frightened or distrusting. Instead they are bursting with enthusiasm for life. They are the kind of young women who could make the hardest cynic wish to be young again. It was easy to enjoy their company ....each seems to have taken charge of her life. They are warm and loving individuals with talent, intelligence and beauty (p. 86).
These two girls eventually were taken from the movement and "de-programmed" (against their will). Stoner claims they had been brainwashed. Some researchers believe that the charge of brainwashing is one that is made by dominant religions against new, smaller…