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Louis Hughes, OP

Defining the Term 'Cult'

"A cult is a totalitarian organization, whether religious or not, the behaviour of which affects human rights and social stability."
["Une secte est une association de structure totalitaire, déclarant ou non des objectifs religieux, dont le comportement porte atteinte aux droits de l'homme et à l'équilibre social." - Mission Interministérielle de Lutte contre les Sectes, established by the French government in 1998 to combat the 'sectes', which best translates in English as 'cults']

Because of its popular usage I use the term 'cult' in this article to designate any group, religious or otherwise, which is considered to subject its members or would-be members to an unusually high degree of psychological pressure, intimidation or deception. However, I dissagree with those in the 'anti-cult' movement who divide groups into two categories: 'cults' and non-'cults'. The problem of 'cultism' can arise in any group situation (including one's own) and can increase or decrease over time. None of the movements commonly referred to as 'cults' would accept this derogatory term as being applicable to them. Hence my use of apostrophes round the word 'cult'.

The 'cults' we hear most about are new religious movements. While these are the main focus of this article, it should be noted that there are also psychological, political, commercial, New Age and science fiction 'cults' that control their members' lives no less ruthlessly. While concerns are most often expressed in connection with new religious movements, problems can also be found within groups claiming association with mainline religions. Over the past forty years 'cults' of every description have managed to attract to their ranks millions of members, including very many highly educated and intelligent adults.

'Cults' can have memberships running as high as hundreds of thousands. At the other end of the scale I am aware of one-to-one 'cult'-like relationships within which the life of one person is under the total mental domination of another. All tend to have a number of features in common.

Profile of a 'Cult'

The leader of a 'cult' exercises an almost irresistible power over his followers. Through his charisma he is able to command unquestioning obedience over every aspect of the member's life and may even routinely alter the group's rules and beliefs. In some cases the leader claims to be God.

From the time a member joins, the 'cult' is to be his or her real family. Frequently members refer to and think of the leader as 'Father' or 'Mother' . The natural parents, sisters and brothers are rejected. Contact with them is however sometimes allowed in order to raise money from them, or with a view to 'saving' them by bringing them into the 'cult'.

'Cult' members are taught that the end justifies whatever means are required to advance the group's mission as interpreted by the leader. Systematic deception is a typical 'cult' tactic. ISKCON (Hare Krishna) members dressed in plain clothes have on occasion collected money on the streets "to help young people with a drugs problem." In reality the money has gone to that organisation itself. To 'cult' leaders and their followers, this is not regarded as lying, but as 'heavenly deception' (the term used by the Unification Church (Moonies) which one is obliged to use in order to further 'God's work'.

The follower's fear of being rejected is exploited by the group for the purpose of control. Rejection may simply involve being treated as an outcast. Sometimes it can take the form of threats about, for example, being damned to hell or being destined to reincarnate as a worm or an insect.

Members believe that there is no hope of salvation outside the cult, which claims to provide the only answer to humanity's problems. Outsiders are considered as lost, evil, even satanic.

What harm do 'Cults' do?

The violent end suffered by members of some 'cults', notably those who followed Jim Jones, David Koresh, Solar Temple and Heavensgate, demonstrates the extreme destructiveness to which in some cases cultist mind control can lead. Psychiatric damage is a much more typical result of 'cult' involvement. This can be readily established in the case of those who have left and who subsequently present themselves for therapy.

One systematic survey studied more than 400 ex-members from a number of groups including the Unification Church, Hare Krishnas, Divine Light Mission, Children of God, the Way International and Scientology. It found that for a long time after leaving, 'floating' sensations were experienced by 52% of those surveyed, while 40% suffered from nightmares, 35% from inability to break chanting rhythms, 21% from self-destructive tendencies, 21% from amnesia, 14% from violent outbursts and 14% from hallucinations. In some cases up to two years of counselling was needed to cope with these symptoms.


The more intensive and effective the mind controlling techniques are, the more damaging a group is. Cultism is a defect that can enter into and poison the way any group - religious or non-religious - functions.

Some commentators have argued in defence of present-day 'cults' that they are not fundamentally different from small enthusiastic religious groups, including the early Church, that flourished in previous centuries. This viewpoint ignores the fact that today's 'cults' have access to a wide range of modern psychological techniques to gain control over a person's thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Then there is also the application to group situations of sales' techniques for influencing people that have been developed for the marketplace.

Mind Control not Brainwashing

There are legitimate forms of mind control that individuals may use to help develop their personal effectiveness. The unethical mind control that 'cults' use are systems that seek to undermine people's integrity in making their own decisions.

Many critics of 'cults' accuse them of 'brainwashing' people. I believe there is some confusion here. Brainwashing is a much cruder instrument than mind control. With brainwashing the person knows he is being abused. Brainwashing is physically coercive, abusive, and sometimes even accompanied by torture. The effects of brainwashing seem to dissipate when the person is released from his controllers and gets back to familiar surroundings, whereas mind control by a 'cult' is frequently every bit as powerful when the follower is away from the cult environment. A young Irishman who joined the Unification Church in Australia some years ago, was able to return home and live in his brother's house without his Moonie convictions being weakened in any way.

'Cult' members are not aware that they are being mind-controlled. If they were, the control would automatically cease. In counselling situations, any time I have gently hinted at the possibility of mind control, they have vehemently denied it. Indeed, the key to helping a person make a free choice about leaving or staying in a 'cult' is to help her arrive at an awareness of how she is being mentally manipulated - never an easy task. Fortunately, many 'cult' members escape the web of mind control through becoming aware of it without any outside help. One young woman who had been a member of ISKCON told me of her discovery that unknown to her the leaders had been reading her letters. This led her to realize that she was being manipulated and she left the group. Moments of 'enlightenment' like this are probably the main reason why 'cults' have such a high turnover of members, especially in the earlier stages of involvement.

The effect of mind-controlled entry into a 'cult' is to leave a person not so much with a 'personality change' - the view of earlier analysts - as with a dual identity. On the outside and on top most of the time is the 'cult' identity, modelled on the leader and other influential members of the group. Trapped inside and occasionally making it to the surface, is the original natural personality, the much loved daughter or son, sister or brother. Patience rather than force is needed in order to allow the 'cult' member get in contact with and act out of his or her own personality.

The Technology of Mind Control

A significant factor in the growth of 'cults' over the past couple of decades has been that more and more people have been introduced to methods for inducing hypnotic trance. These same techniques are capable of being used in mind control, by turning the external senses inwards and programming a person's thinking.

Since the Second World War intelligence agencies round the world have been engaged in researching and developing mind control technology. The brainwashing practised in Korean and Chinese prisoner-of-war camps of the early 1950s was a fore-runner to this development. Sun Myung Moon, a native Korean and close collaborator of the then president Park Chung Hee, was aware of these techniques. Later on he improved and refined them into the mind control technology used in building up his Unification Church.

Mental overload is the single most powerful method used by Moon and some other 'cult' leaders. Anyone who has taken part in an intensive seminar will have had some experience of it - the feeling of wanting to get out in the fresh air, walk around, reflect on what one has heard and relate it to things already known. During the Moonie weekend there are extended periods of indoctrination including a lecture lasting six hours. The participant is deprived of nourishing food, sleep and of any opportunity for reflection. She is never allowed to be on her own even when going to the bathroom. One young Irishwoman who did this weekend at a camp in California, had no idea that it was being run by the Moonies or Unification Church. She was recruited into the organisation without even knowing its name.

At a certain point in the indoctrination process mental 'snapping' can occur. The personality of the listener is overwhelmed by the pressure of new information and all resistance to further indoctrination crumbles.

Sensory deprivation is a technique particularly favoured by 'cults' of Indian origin. Some of these practise deep meditation during which participants receive suggestions which make them more receptive to the group's doctrine. A College student of exemplary character and family background answered an advertisement for a meditation course in an Irish daily newspaper. As a result she became involved unknowingly in the Ananda Marg. This is an Indian-based cult that has combined religious fanaticism with an agenda of political violence, including assassinations and self-immolations. At the time her distraught father came to see me, she was in an Italian jail on a six year sentence for heroin smuggling.

Prolonged repetitive chanting can also become a mechanism for sensory deprivation. Between singing and silent recitation, observant ISKCON members spend on average seven hours chanting each day. This can greatly reduce a person's ability to think critically and so the door is opened to mental programming.

Whatever method of mind control is used, the new member soon starts to take on the characteristics of his 'cult' instructor and a dual personality begins to take shape. An interesting finding in this connection was that when members of seven major religious 'cults' were given the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator tests over a period of time, they were found to be moving towards one specific personality type within each movement .

Why do People join?

The most basic thing that anyone joining a religious 'cult' is looking for is an experience of transcendence. There is within each one of us a sense that there must be something more to life than the pursuit of wealth, power and pleasure. We are consciously or unconsciously searching for a sense of mystery. One of the things that the growth of new religious movements over the past few decades teaches us is that the human being by her very nature is irremediably spiritual. This point is confirmed by the experience in the former Soviet Union where religious activity of every kind has mushroomed in a society systematically deprived of religion for seventy years.

The main-line Churches seem to have acquiesced in the striving of Western culture to dominate and exploit the environment for material gain. All too rarely do people experience a sense of wonder or awe while attending traditional religious services. Through their use of spiritual techniques, including chanting and meditation in exotic environments, 'cults' seem to offer more in the way of spiritual high points.

One thing that strikes the visitor to a meeting of 'cult' members is a sense of community and belonging. The first time I attended a satsang or prayer meeting of the Divine Light Mission/Elan Vital - even though I was attending for the purposes of research - I found myself quickly relaxing into a warm, loving atmosphere as some of those present spoke enthusiastically of their love for Guru Maharaj. Closely knit groups like this give potential recruits love, acceptance and community. However, the reality after they commit themselves is often very different.

For idealistic young men and women, 'cults' offer the chance to transform the world, spreading peace, creating heaven upon earth, with spiritual fulfilment for all who are prepared to listen. The partial failure of the traditional Churches to carry out their mission is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the way in which 'cults' have been able to usurp the mandate to spread the Good News.

Pastoral Responses

On one occasion after I had given a talk on Satanism to a group of school pupils, two or three sixteen year-olds came up and told me that they still found seances with a ouija board very attractive. On further discussion I discovered that what they were really interested in was not actually Satan but the sense of mystery which can come from sitting round a lighted candle. I told them that traditional religious services for young people can also be celebrated in such a setting and they said they would be delighted to come!

I felt there was a lesson here. Rather than organize some grand liturgical function, why not simply invite young people to sit in prayerful silence round a lighted candle in a darkened room? There are many things that can be done after that - place a crucifix or an icon behind the candle, play a Taize or Christian meditation tape, or celebrate the Eucharist.

Meditation is probably the most popular form of religious or spiritual activity today. In my work with students I have found it easier to involve them in Christian meditation sessions than in Mass.

Spiritual weekends for young adults are now happily available in many parts of Ireland and elsewhere. I have found that within a short time, young people of seventeen and upwards are ready to take part, not just in the cooking, but also in prayer services, Scripture study, 'Emmaus walks' and preparing the liturgy. A great sense of community and mission can come out of these weekends. Those who have been nourished at them will be less likely to turn to 'cults'.

When people come to me whose son or daughter has joined a 'cult', I discourage them from taking any hasty action. It is all too easy for a 'cult' member to believe that their parents are doing Satan's work by opposing their involvement. I recommend that they seek help from somebody who understands the dynamics of 'cult' mind control and who also knows something about that particular movement; that they find out as much as possible about the group through books, magazines and tapes. Above all, I urge them not to lose hope.

RECOMMENDED READING (in addition to works referred to above)
Deikman, M.D., Arthur J., THE WRONG WAY HOME - uncovering the patterns of cult behaviour in American society [Beacon Press, Boston 1990]
YOGA - A PATH TO GOD?, Louis Hughes [Mercier Press, Cork, 1997]
Progress Report on New Religious Movements received from Regional and National Episcopal Conferences - October 1985. [published in OSSERVATORE ROMANO (English Ed.), 19/5/1986