The Psychological Effects Cults Have on People
This paper will address the meaning of the word cult. While also touching briefly on why its difficult to describe what a cult is and how it could be compared to Christianity and Jews. I also give some examples of people who started groups/cults with the art of persuasion; Leading some of their member to even commit murders and suicide.
Finally by the end paper one would fully understand the roles cults play in the physiological process of a person. For many years, cult leaders always had a psychological hold on their followers’ minds.
Whether it was to kill other people or to kill themselves, they did it without question. Some cult leaders used fear, violence and guilt as a means of a weapon to control the minds of their followers. Other cult leaders used persuasive and spiritual speeches that made their followers believe they were doing good and fulfilling God’s plan. Because cult leaders are powerful through psychological offenses, the people that belong to their cults are brainwashed into doing things they wouldn’t normally do in their right state of mind.
For years, there have been problems surrounding the definition of the term ‘cult’. The literal and traditional meanings of the word cult, which are more fully explored at the entry Cult (religion), come from the Latin cultus, meaning “care” or “adoration,” as “a system of religious belief or ritual; or: the body of adherents to same. ” In French or Spanish, culte or culto simply means “worship” or “religious attendance”; therefore an association cultuelle is an association whose goal is to organize religious worship and practices. The word for “cult” in the popular English meaning is secte (French) or ecta (Spanish). In formal English use, and in non-English European terms, the cognates of the English word “cult” are neutral, and refer mainly to divisions within a single faith, a case where English speakers might use the word “sect”. Hence Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism are cults within Christianity. However, in common usage, “cult” has a very negative connotation, and is generally applied to a group in order to criticize it. Understandably, most groups, if not all, that are called “cults” deny this term.
Some groups called “cults” by some critics may consider themselves not to be “cults”, but may consider some other groups to be “cults”. Although anti-cult activists and scholars did not agree on precise criteria that new religions should meet to be considered “cults,” two of the definitions formulated by anti-cult activists are: Cults are groups that often exploit members psychologically and/or financially, typically by making members comply with leadership’s demands through certain types of psychological manipulation, popularly called mind control, and through the inculcation of deep-seated anxious dependency on the group and its leaders.
Cult: A group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines cult as: “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also: its body of adherents. Indeed, any religion involving unconditional worship and unquestioning obedience to God could be labeled as a cult (using the derogatory suggestion of the word), since such a religion would have that high level of dependency, obedience, and unwavering compliance ascribed to cults by definition. Many mainstream religions still require their members to believe in God unquestioningly, to have faith that he is good and that what he does is good, to consider one’s own wants and needs as unimportant while accepting the will of God as paramount.
All of these are certainly characteristics commonly attributed to cults, but while it would not be unreasonable to apply this definition of a cult to any dogmatic religion that requires strict compliance with God’s word and will as a condition of membership, the notion of applying the word “cult” to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or any other major world religion today is considered absurd. There are those who make this very claim: that those who worship God fit the classic depiction of cult members in their dogmatism, unswerving obedience, and denial of self.
This highlights the problematic nature of defining what is and is not a cult. The problem with defining the word cult is that purported cult members generally resist being called a cult, and the word cult is often used to marginalize religious groups with which one does not agree or sympathize. Some serious researchers of religion and sociology prefer to use terms such as new religious movement (NRM) in their research on cults. Such usage may lead to confusion because some religious movements are “new” but not necessarily cults, and some purported cults are not religious or overtly religious.
Where a cult practices physical or mental abuse, some psychologists and other mental health professionals use the terms cult, abusive cult, or destructive cult. The popular press also commonly uses these terms. However, not all cults function abusively or destructively, and among those that psychologists believe are abusive, few members would agree that they suffer abuse. Other researchers hold the view that classifying a religious movement as a cult is generally used as a subjective and negative label and has no added value; instead, they argue that one should investigate the beliefs and practices of the religious movement.
The field of cults and new religious movements is studied by sociologists, religious scholars, and psychologists and psychiatrists. The debates about a certain purported cult and cults in general are often polarized with widely divergent opinions, not only among current followers of a purported cult and disaffected former members, but sometimes even among scholars and social scientists. Psychologists, among them those specialized in group psychology, studied what cognitive and emotional traits make people accept to join a cult and to stay loyal to it.
Some groups, particularly those labeled by others as cults, view the designation as insensitive, and feel persecuted by their opponents whom they often believe to be part of the “anti-cult movement”. Such groups often defend their position by comparing themselves to more established, mainstream religious groups such as Catholicism and Judaism. The argument offered in this case can usually be simplified as, “Christianity and Judaism can also be defined as cults under some definitions of the term, and therefore the term cult is superfluous and useless. Members of groups referred to as cults have been known to engage in long discussions over the definition of the word “cult. ” Critics of alleged cult groups state that by doing so, these persons have been known to waste large amounts of time and effort that would be better spent examining the actions of the groups in question, in order to reveal why these groups are referred to as cults. Another problem with writing about cults comes about because they generally hold belief systems that give answers to questions about the meaning of life and morality.
This makes it difficult not to write in biased terms about a certain cult, because writers are rarely neutral about these questions. Some writers who deal with the subject choose to explicitly state their ethical values and belief systems to deal with this difficulty. For many scholars and professional commentators, the usage of the word “cult” applies to abusive behavior, and not to a belief system. For members of competing religions, use of the word remains pejorative and applies primarily to rival beliefs, and only incidentally to behavior.
In the sociology of religion, the term cult is a part of the subdivision of religious groups into sects, cults, and denominations. In these terms, it is a neutral term, referring to a religious movement with novel beliefs and a high degree of tension with the surrounding society. Cults, in this sense, may or may not be dangerous, abusive, etc. By this definition, most of the groups which have been popularly labeled cults are indeed cults. In some cults people don’t join them, they are recruited by the cults.
Philip Zimbardo explains, “People join interesting groups that promise to fulfill their pressing needs. They become cults when they are seen as deceptive, defective, dangerous, or as opposing basic values of their society” (Zimbardo 212). The fact is, the recruitment techniques that cults employ are quite effective. Cults obviously want to be successful, so they seek to recruit the most capable people who can effectively serve them. Many cult members are doctors, lawyers, professors, and high profile celebrities responsible citizens.
This is why some cults have survived for decades and functioned efficiently despite a high turnover rate, public disapproval and angry parents. People often believe cult members must have been neglected by their families. But this conclusion is in sharp contrast to the actions taken by many concerned families who will devote their money and time in intervention efforts to bring their children out of such groups and home again. Zimbardo urges people not to stereotype cult members. Rather than asking “What kind of people join cults? he suggests we should instead ask, “What was so appealing about this group that so many people were recruited/seduced into joining it voluntarily? What needs did the group fulfill that were not met by ‘traditional society? ‘” (Zimbardo 126). It is also important to note that cults make many promises to potential recruits in the initial phases of induction–it is often not until months or years later that the recruit realizes that these promises were ploys to gain their compliance.
However, by that time, the member is already submerged in the group and likely in submission to and under the undue influence of its leadership. Since at least the 1940s, the approach of orthodox or conservative or fundamentalist Christians was to apply the meaning of cult such that it included those religious groups who used (possibly exclusively) non-standard translations of the Bible, put additional revelation on a similar or higher level than the Bible or had practices deviant from those of traditional Christianity. These unorthodox groups can be rather large or small.
Understandably, these groups deny that they are cults. By 1967, Charles Manson had spent most of his adult life in jail, mostly for such offenses as car theft and credit card fraud. He also worked some time as a pimp. He gathered a group of followers, which he referred to as the Family, a group bound together by fanatical loyalty to Manson, and an abolishment of all moral precepts. He soon afterwards moved to Los Angeles, at first basing himself and the Family in Pacific Palisades and then taking over an unused ranch in the western San Fernando Valley formerly used to make western movies, the Spahn Ranch.
Inspired by the Beatles song “Helter Skelter” and other songs off the White Album he became convinced of an impending race war and nuclear attack, based on Biblical prophecy in the Book of Revelation. He implied to his followers that he was Jesus Christ, saying he had died before, some 2000 years ago. However when asked directly in court he said, “I may have implied on several occasions to several different people that I may have been Jesus Christ, but I haven’t decided yet what I am or who I am. (Bugliosi 341) Around the time the family was formed, he is said to have begun calling himself by a slightly different name, Charles Milles Manson (his real name was “Charles Willis Manson”), allegedly because it could be read symbolically as “Charles Will Is Man’s Son”. Although only a few members of the Family came to national attention, the Family itself seems to have been quite a significant size, estimates of up to 100 people (of varying degrees of involvement) associated with the Family have been quoted beyond the “hard core” of around 30.
On the night of August 9, 1969, Manson directed some members of the Family to commit murder. These were Charles “Tex” Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Susan Atkins, at or around midnight entered the home of actress Sharon Tate, wife of director Roman Polanski, who was eight months pregnant, and murdered her along with friend, Hollywood hairstylist Jay Sebring, and house guests Abigail Folger, the coffee heiress, and her lover Voytek Frykowski. Before entering the house, they had shot to death Steven Parent, an 18 year old youth who was leaving the property and had unwittingly seen the intruders.
Linda Kasabian was the look-out and driver, and later received immunity for submitting evidence against the group. She told Manson, “I’m not like you, I can’t kill anybody”(Bugliosi 312) and evinced shock and horror at finally seeing the pictures of the killings in court. The victims had been stabbed ferociously many dozens of times, and words were left on the walls in their blood. The following night in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles, California, businessman Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary LaBianca were also murdered in their home, once again by members of the Family.
On this occasion, Manson apparently went along to “show them how to do it” with less tumult, and pacified the victims, tying them up before returning to the car to tell his followers to commit the murders. There was no apparent connection between the victims of the murders, but the crimes were prosecuted by Los Angeles assistant district attorney Vincent Bugliosi in a single trial. Members of the Manson Family had previously been responsible for the murder of Gary Hinman, a music teacher, in Topanga and were suspected of other murders.
They claimed a total of some 35 killings, not counting those after the trial, of which several were considered likely or plausible, but were not tried on most of these either for lack of evidence, or because the perpetrators were already sentenced to life for the Tate/La Bianca killings. It begins with the Beatles, and with the Beatles’ celebrated White Album that came out in 1968. In it, while tripping on acid, Manson heard the message that put it all together for him. There would be a war between blacks and whites; whites would lose. Manson and his followers would hide out in the desert when the slaughter took place.
When it was over they would emerge from their hiding places and somehow convince the blacks that they should be made the leaders of this new world. He got all this not just from the Beatles but also from the Bible. Perhaps his most fascinating connection was to put side by side the Beatles song “Revolution 9” with Revelations 9 from the Bible. Revelations, the final book of the New Testament, has always been the favorite of mystics because its wild apocalyptic imagery is so bluntly addressed not to the literal but to symbolic consciousness.
For those who read scripture not as a moral code of social behavior nor as a literal history book but as a symbolic rendering of a reality out of time and out of mind, the book of Revelations is the proof text. In the book Helter Skelter, Susan Atkins is quoted in saying “The whole thing was done to instill fear in the establishment and cause paranoia. Also to show the black man how to takeover the white man. ” When asked to describe the start of Helter Skelter, she defined it as “The last war on the face of the earth.
It would be all the wars that have ever been fought built one on top of the other”(293). To Manson, Judgment Day, Armageddon, and Helter Skelter were one and the same, a racial holocaust which would see the black man emerge triumphant. David Berkowitz became known as the ‘Son of Sam’ after taunting letters from him to police investigating the case were published in newspapers. At a court in Brooklyn, New York, Berkowitz admitted all the killings which in 1977 had residents of three New York boroughs living in fear. He also admitted wounding seven people before he was arrested in August 1977.
Berkowitz, who acquired his proficiency with guns through a three-year stint in the US army, said he had no motive other than “excitement” for carrying out the shootings. However, the Son of Sam nickname was adopted after Berkowitz used the term to describe himself in an anonymous letter to police in April 1977. The first killing attributed to Son of Sam occurred in July 1976 when 18-year-old Donna Lauria was shot as she sat in a car with a friend in the Bronx district of New York. However police did not realize there was a serial killer on the loose until another two people had been murdered and several more injured.
The link was not made until March 1977 when it was found the gun used to kill Ms Lauria had also been used in the fatal shooting of 19-year-old Virginia Voskerichian. The press initially dubbed Berkowitz “the . 44 Killer” after the calibre of gun he used. “Unlike a number of other high profile criminals, Berkowitz kept to him self”(Terry xiv) He was eventually captured after being linked to the scene of the final killing through a parking ticket issued when he left his car parked illegally. Berkowitz quickly confessed and claimed he was ordered to kill by a neighbor’s dog.
He also admitted to being behind the unsolved stabbings of several women, all of whom survived. In June 1978 David Berkowitz was sentenced to 365 years in jail. Over the years Berkowitz has hinted he did not work alone. Conspiracy theorists believe Berkowitz was part of a satanic cult and that others were involved in the shootings. “The group’s main goals were power, greed and terrorism. It is the embodiment of organized evil”(Terry xii). They also believe that the members in this satanic cult did not also work with Berkowitz, but also worked with Charles Manson and had been part of ‘the Family. The Peoples Temple was a cult that is best known for a mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, on November 18, 1978. The Temple was founded in 1953, at Indianapolis, Indiana, by Reverend Jim Jones. In Indianapolis, and at the California cities of Ukiah, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, where Jones extended new branches of his church, they earned a good reputation for aiding the cities’ poorest citizens, especially racial minorities, drug addicts, and the homeless. Soup kitchens, daycare centers, and medical clinics for elderly people were set up, along with counseling programs for prostitutes and drug addicts who wanted to change their lives.
Then disturbing accounts began to spring up, told by a few people who had succeeded in leaving the cult. “Jones has a power that operates on fear, guilt and extreme fatigue. While we were in it we did many strange things. We signed over all of our property. We wrote and signed false, self-incriminating statements. We had to admit that we were homosexuals and that we molested our children. We had to participate in painful punishments for such minor things as forgetting to call Jones “Father,” forgetting to pay a bill, or for giving a piece of candy to a child.
Some of the punishments were beatings, humiliations and medications that made people appear to die (later to be resurrected by Jones). The beatings were intensely brutal. Many times the beatings would be done on children four and five years old. The board they used was three-quarter of an inch thick and about two and a half feet long. Children were beaten the number of times decided by Pastor Jones, often as many as 150 times. During the beating, Jim Jones would demand that a microphone be held to the child’s mouth so that the audience could hear the groans of pain.
The microphone was unnecessary as the screams could be heard throughout the whole building. After the beating the child or adult would be held up and forced to say, “Thank You, Father. ” If they didn’t say this, they would be beaten again. We were so frightened of him and his power that we would have sworn to anything he asked. We believed that he would always take care of us and would never harm us, even though we witnessed daily atrocities that should have convinced us otherwise. It is impossible to explain the effect of his brainwashing.
We do know that it took months after we left to be able to think and act as normal, reasonable people”(Mills 13). Jones was stealing from his followers, faked the miracle healings, was punishing the members severely, practicing sodomy with male members, and now considered himself the new Messiah. By now, journalists, law enforcement officials, and politicians were showing interest in Jones’ group. Jim Jones reacted with frequent long and angry speeches, where he claimed that the defectors lied, and the outside world was trying to destroy them.
At the time, more former members told of beatings and abuse within the People’s Temple, and relatives of members insisted that members were being forced to remain there against their will. Jones reacted by moving his church, over 800 followers, to Guyana. The followers were promised a tropical paradise, free from the wickedness of the outside world, but when they arrived, they were forced to work by Jones’ orders, and together they built Jonestown. In November 1978, the cult was visited by Leo Ryan, a United States Congressman, who was investigating claims of abuse.
A number of Temple members expressed a desire to leave along with the Congressman, and the entire group went to the local airstrip. Temple security guards fired on the group, killing Congressman Ryan, three journalists, and a Temple member who wanted to leave. The shootings were captured on film by one of the journalists who died in the attack. Later that day, Jones ordered his congregation to drink a cyanide-laced soft drink in the Jonestown mass suicide. Those who resisted were shot, strangled or injected with cyanide. Jones was found with a shot wound in his head.
Upon investigation his body contained high doses of drugs. In all, 914 people died. Mind control theories are based on the premise that an outside source can control an individual’s thinking, behavior or consciousness. Such theories have ethical and legal implications. The mind control theories as applied to membership in new religious movents assumes that no one would join such a group if he knew what he was getting into. In Helter Skelter, Bugliosi states about Manson’s control over his ‘family’ “A domination so complete, that they would do anything he told them to do.
Including murder. Getting this evidence was especially difficult because Manson rarely gave direct orders. Usually, he’d suggest, rather than command, though his suggestions had the force of commands”(287). The recruit is not to be held responsible for his actions, since he was “under control”. Neither scientists nor sociologists generally consider this model a viable theory. Theories vary as to the degree of control attained and the methods used to attain it (either direct or more subtle).
When these methods are used forcibly on captives, most sources refer to it as “brainwashing” Although to their followers, Reverend Jim Jones and Charles Manson were all messianic and each possessed the uncommon ability to totally control and dominate the lives of those who believed in them. Clearly, many influences from the outside world influence people’s minds, such as advertising, media manipulation, and propaganda. Politics plays a role in the forming of cults. Charles Manson had a hatred towards police. In Helter Skelter, Manson states “I have x’d myself from your world. You have created the monster.
I am not of you, from you, nor do I condone your unjust attitude toward things, animals, and people that you do not try to understand. I stand opposed to what you do and have done in the past. You make fun of God and have murdered the world in the name of Jesus Christ. My faith in me is stronger than all of your armies, governments, gas chambers or anything you may want to do to me. I know what I have done. Your courtroom is man’s game. Love is my judge”(Bugliosi 412). His hatred was directed towards them because he believed that they were the ones that created him into a monster.
Therefore, cult leaders are powerful through psychological offenses, the people that belong to their cults are brainwashed into doing things they wouldn’t normally do in their right state of mind. Cult leaders used various ways of molding a follower’s mind and brainwashing them to do things for them. Some cult leaders used punishments as a way of breaking the follower’s that were resistant to their demands. Others used and perfected the art of persuasion. Either way, the mind of their followers or ‘family’ are in total control of the leader.