Frank Zappa once quipped that the difference between a religion and a cult was the amount of real estate that they owned.
Certainly when it comes to the believeability of claims, the dividing line between the two can be blurred. In the 1980s, Kinks guitarist Dave Davies was the best-known member of a spiritual movement that encouraged telepathic communication with Venusians. Then in 2008, P.Z. Myers enraged Catholic League President Bill Donahue by desecrating a cracker. Donahue insisted that communion wafers transform into the flesh of a long-dead messiah when placed into a believer’s mouth.
Both Davies and Donahue were espousing bizarre beliefs backed by no evidence or testing, nor bolstered by an explanation of the mechanism behind these phenomena. Only a few thousand people would think Davies was experiencing what he claimed, whereas a billion people would agree with Donahue’s description of what goes on atop a worshipper’s tongue. Yet the first belief is considered part of a strange cult and the latter considered a ritual in a major religion.
While the popularity of a belief is irrelevant to its soundness, it is one of the factors most persons take into account when differentiating between a cult and a religion. Looking to expand Zappa’s definition, I found that what is traditionally referred to as a cult will usually have at least some of these distinctions:
- Being small in number. Small here is relative. Nearly 1,000 persons died in the Jonestown tragedy, so there were many followers, but compared to 800 million Hindus, the size of the congregation was minuscule.
- Intensely loyal. A person might go from Presbyterian to Methodist, or even from Buddhist to Shinto. But when David Koresh was plotting to induce Armageddon, none of his followers decide they’d rather be part of the doomsayers in Aum Shinrikyo.
- A near-mythical leader. Most religions have a key figure – a Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, or Moses. There are also living embodiments of faiths, such as the Pope, Dalai Lama, or Ayatollah Khomeini. But cult leaders are even more central to their movement because cults seldom survive the death of the anointed one. In some cases, such as with a Judaism offshoot in the mid-1990s, the cult ends because the leader’s death undercuts his claims of being immortal. Other times, such as with Koresh, Jim Jones, and Marshall Applewhite, the ruler leads a mass suicide/murder. Even if he (or, infrequently, she) was not considered immortal, the cult flitters after his/her death, because most followers held the leader in impossibly high regard. When serving the leader and the cause is no longer possible, the meaning in life is gone. If the movement does continue after the leader’s death, it usually splinters as surviving members fight for control. Even those subgroups can further break into smaller movements. There have been well over 100 Latter-Day Saint splinter groups, as well as spinoffs of those spinoffs, a la Good Times. I suspect the most interesting was the Homosexual Church of Jesus Christ.
- Claims of exclusive knowledge. This is probably the key component. Most cult leaders will claim to have one of the following: A) a direct line to a god or other enlightened creature, B) secret knowledge of an astronomical event that will usher in calamity or paradise, or C) an unwritten guidebook that will guarantee happiness and fulfillment.
- Demands for subservience and cash. Where it positively crosses the line into a cult is when the leader insists that followers too can share in this knowledge in exchange for unquestioned devotion. The secrets are available in exchange for your money, cars, spouse, children, freedom, and independent thought.
- Communal living. Keeping persons isolated ensures they hear only the leader’s words, that they rely on him for their needs, and that they have it constantly reinforced that he is the sole provider. Also, the cultists are conditioned to keep each other in line. Those disinclined to do so are selected for reeducation. Still further rebellion will result in temporary or permanent banishment, which might seem to an outsider like a relief, but can be frightening for someone who has lost their only friends and access to most cherished beliefs. In extreme cases, dissidents are murdered.
Based partly on the communal living, Conservapedia tried to argue that Jonestown was more a socialist dystopia than religion gone awry. While there were elements of the former, it is hardly reasonable to deny the religious nature of something called the Peoples TEMPLE, led by the REVEREND Jim Jones.
However, in other instances, secular social movements can assume cultic overtones. In an article for the vowel-happy online publication Aeon, Alexandra Stein related her experience with just such a group. She joined the O, a communist movement that determined what she would wear, who she could marry, and whether she could have children. Despite staying for six years, she never saw the leader, as she was too low on the totalitarian totem pole, a result of the strict hierarchy that distinguishes most cults. After leaving, she wrote Inside Out, a cathartic piece she described as “an effort to understand how I, an independent, curious, and intelligent 26-year-old, could have been captured and held by such a group for so long.”
One way cults succeed in doing this is by controlling the surroundings. One Christian cult highlighted Jesus’ statement about needing to hate your parents in order to convince members they should eliminate contact with their families. Some cults even forbid all consumption of outside sources and this makes it much easier to mold and bend someone. Ten years after Warren Jeffs’ conviction, members of the Fundamental Church of Latter Day Saints remain unaware of why their leader is no longer around. They can’t question if serial child rape is unbecoming of a high holy man if they are unaware the crimes occurred.
Cults also rely on reward and punishment. Beatings, isolation, and blindfolding are all associated with cults, but rewards have their place, too. This can lead to instances of the Stockholm Syndrome, as small concessions can lead to an appreciation of the captor. The guy who yesterday had you chained to a wall while calling you useless ends the captivity and permits you toilet usage and a meal, complete with your favorite dessert, chocolate pudding. These manipulations create a rhythm of powerlessness, fear, and dependency, all in a closed system. The group causing the fear is also the one vanquishing it. On and on the cycle goes.
Cult leaders are a contradictory mix of charismatic and cruel. Without charm, the leader would be unable to incentivize persons to join the movement. But lacking authoritarian traits, the leader would be unable to control the followers.
There is usually an inner council, whose main job is to ensure the leader is imbued with an aura of invincibility, impenetrability, and mystery. Meanwhile, the leader keeps the inner circle off-balance by sowing distrust, spreading rumors, and promoting and demoting for whimsical reasons. Another way of keeping followers off center is to change previously irreversible rules following the leader’s further enlightenment.
For many, the cycle and isolation makes it impossible to realize they’ve been lied to. In her Aeon piece, Stein quoted Yeonmi Park, who escaped from North Korea. Park recalled how she passed starving orphans daily, yet still believed the regime’s propaganda that, in her country, children were treated as royalty.
People seldom see the horrors first. Instead, they are exposed to a vibrant believer, a website’s home page, or a slick publication, all of whom make the movement seem appealing and grounded in common sense. Scientology highlights reasonable philosophical positions and observations of the world in a pamphlet that, for many, is their first exposure to the group. Only later does one learn that the organization teaches that aliens were ejected from a volcano and into our bodies. In the 1960s, Jim Jones attracted followers by portraying himself, not entirely inaccurately, as a man dedicated to racial equality and the eradication of poverty. It was later that his flock would learn about the tenet of genocide-by-sugary-drink.
At the same time, my first several exposures to the Catholic Church said nothing about crackers coming to life or the covering up of serial child molestation. Maybe Zappa was onto something.