Recent media reports have raised public awareness about the rights and beliefs of certain religious sects.
Some call them cults, but defining a cult can be difficult.
One Internet encyclopedia notes: “The dictionary definitions of the term ‘cult’ include at least eight different meanings. These include both classic and unorthodox religious practice, extreme political practice, objects or concepts of intense devotion, including popular fashion and systems for the cure of disease based on dogmatic teachings.”
Others report that cults are less about dogma and more about the political structure of the group, usually meaning that all knowledge and revelation come from a central leader.
Another writer expressed cult-like groups this way: “A cult is any group which employs mind control and deceptive recruiting techniques to obtain and keep its members.”
Influence and control are at the core of cultic groups, programs, and even relationships, say experts on cults. Often families, former members and supporters of cults are not fully aware of the extent to which members have been manipulated.
What would you do if you found that a family member seemed to be under the influence of a particularly powerful and charismatic religious leader?
The following list — adapted from Michael Langone and the book, “Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships” — includes strategies to determine if there is reason to be concerned about a loved one’s involvement in a group:
* The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader. Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act and feel. (For example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live.)
* The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader and members. The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
* The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike teachers, military commanders, or leaders of mainstream religious denominations).
The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members.
Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.
* Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities. Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
* The most loyal members feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.
After becoming aware that something may be wrong, a concerned party may want to help their loved one escape from a cult-like environment. This act may require the help of those with experience in this area.
Often, it is wise to make a secret plan, set up help from the outside, and have exit counseling for the ex-cult member. Many who have left have had to endure psychological and emotional anguish, the loss of a community they once considered like family, and a total restructuring of how they perceive the world around them.