Religion is a complex phenomenon. It is multilayered and diverse. To place religion in a pigeonhole without taking into account its complexities is grossly erroneous. But regrettably many tend to do that and such oversimplification results in distortions. We often hear stories of evil acts committed by those motivated by religious zeal and correspondingly some will point fingers at that faith, blaming it altogether. Our failure to distinguish between the mainstream body of the faith and the tiny fringe responsible for the misdeed will create misunderstandings. Narratives that do exactly that are divisive.
Cults Vs Mainstream Faiths
Many fail to realize that religious groups under the spotlight for vile deeds are mostly founded as religious cults. Headline making groups such as ISIS, The People’s Temple of Disciples of Christ, and Aum Shrinkyo should not be seen as representatives of the mainstream of Islam, Christianity and Buddhism respectively but distinctively as cults in their entirety. Religious cults are high control groups founded by charismatic individuals. They may have broken away from a pre-existing body of believers or be a new religious movement in their own right, whatever the case may be, they are marked by charismatic individuals as founders with an ability to exert undue influence upon their followers to coerce them into an extreme level of loyalty and devotion.
The Modus Operandi of Cults
To legitimize their existence they would be seen denouncing the extant version of the faith in which they grew out from, labeling it as deviant while pitching their group as its genuine version. Their taking on the vocabulary and paraphernalia of the religion within whose matrix they came out from deceives outsiders concerning their true identity.
Appeal to An End of Times Narrative
Cult founders are messianic figures who would propagate an end of times narrative. Claims such as being the reincarnation of a revered historical figure along with self proclaimed honorific titles enable them to sell themselves to a gullible audience as the ‘the promised messiah’, an end of times savior who was foretold by scriptures. Such an awaited saviour is common within the apocryphal texts of majority of world faiths such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but there are also strong scholarly voices dismissing such an idea all together.
Masters of Manipulation
Cult leaders are demagogues. They are masters of manipulation. They display psychopathic tendencies by love-bombing members, making them feel special and needed and then exploiting them later. Their prime stratagem is to remain unaccountable. To evade accountability they will resort to any means, and this is why religious groups should come under statutory regulation in order to prevent individuals with charm and charisma from exploiting the weak and the vulnerable. Without checks and balances, anybody can set up shop, make emotional appeals to a gullible audience, extract money, connections and much more, and then fly off to disappear in far away lands or worse to cause destruction and mayhem.
What distinguishes cults from the mainstream is that unlike the later, they do not disclose all upfront. Their outside persona is meant to attract, enquire and recruit. It is when one is deep within the group that the true face of the cult gets known. This deception is what makes cults anti-social and when espousing violence towards others, their proliferation becomes the subject of law enforcement. When a prospective members makes initial contact then he or she has not got the complete picture of what the group is all about and what it really means to sign yourself up.
Once inside, it is not easy to leave as “..cult members are systematically made to be phobic about ever leaving the group. Today’s cults know how to effectively implant vivid negative images deep within members’ unconscious minds, making it impossible for the member to even conceive of ever being happy and successful outside of the group. When the unconscious is programmed to accept negative images, it behaves as though they were true. The unconscious mind is made to contain a substantial image-bank of all the bad things that will occur should anyone ever betray the group.” (Steven Hassan, Combatting Cult Mind Control, pp 45)
Cults are on the prowl for those with whom they can identify an organizational fit. Recruiting on campuses and online preying on the lonely and confused. Controlling tactics also include confessions before the group leader. This makes the leader’s grip stronger as then he becomes the confidante of a follower’s private life.
Undue Influence within the Group
Cults offer a utopian worldview that is far removed from reality. Any confusion is masked as questions and criticisms are discouraged. It is emphasized that people outside the group do not understand the absolute truth claimed within the group and debate is stifled. An ‘us verses them’ mindset becomes the order of things resulting in group members psychologically (and at times physically) cutting them selves off from loved one’s. Due to such extreme coercions, a carefully thought out intervention is necessary for the rescue and recovery of those trapped in a mind controlling cult.
Cults do not represent the Mainstream
An entire faith with millions of followers is not blameworthy when adherents acting in its name resort to committing evil, but we need to closely inspect the perpetrators and separate them from the mainstream. Religions have numerous strands within them. Neither do we find only one persuasion within a tradition and nor is one interpretation representative of all. Knowledge of religions and an awareness and appreciation of charismatic cults will enable us to distinguish between the peaceful mainstream and the destructive fringe.