On Nov. 18, 1978, in Jonestown, Guyana, the world woke up to a spine-chilling occurrence that demonstrates the tremendous power religious cult leaders have on individuals.
James “Jim” Warren Jones, now known for the appallingly charismatic guidance of his followers to a supposed spiritual liberation through suicidal sacrifice, convinced more than 900 members of The People’s Temple cult to drink a lethal elixir of Kool-Aid and cyanide.
But that is just one example of an extremely destructive cult.
At times, it may be difficult to distinguish the technical differences between a cult and a true religion. Some would argue that they are the same.
Alan W. Gomes, author of “Unmasking the Cults,” believes that, typically, cults are derived from a mainline religious system such as Christianity or Islam, but stray from the fundamentals of these faiths.
He believes no leader has to have a significant following to qualify as a cult. On the other hand, no one individual with unorthodox beliefs is a cult.
Gomes focuses specifically of cults derived from Christianity.
“A cult of Christianity is a group of people, who claim to be Christian, yet embrace a particular doctrinal system taught by an individual leader, group of leaders, or organization, which (system) denies (either explicitly or implicitly) one or more of the central doctrines of the Christian faith as taught in the 66 books of the Bible,” he writes.
Religious scholar, the Rev. Richard L. Dowhower, author of “Recovery from Cults,” points out that there are some key characteristics that distinguish religions and cults:
* Religions respect the individual’s autonomy, but cults enforce compliance.
* Religions try to help individuals meet their spiritual needs, but cults exploit spiritual needs.
* Conversion to religions involves an unfolding of internal processes central to a person’s identity, but cultic conversion involves an unaware surrender to external forces that care little for the person’s identity.
* Religions cherish the family, but cults view the family as an enemy.
* Religions encourage a person to think carefully before making a commitment to join, but cults encourage quick decisions with little information.
Arthur Goldwag, author of “Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies,” adds: “What makes a cult cultish is not so much what it espouses, but how much authority its leaders grant themselves–and how slavishly devoted to them its followers are.”
In reflecting on the writings of Robert Lifton, the internationally known scholar on the subject of thought reform, he says that cults possess three characteristics:
* A charismatic leader “who increasingly becomes an object of worship”;
* A process of “coercive persuasion or thought reform” (brainwashing); and
* Economic, sexual, or psychological exploitation of the rank-and-file members by the cult leadership.
Another noted scholar, Jerry Stokes, author of “Changing World Religions, Cults & Occult,” found that, typically, cults are led by those who claim to be divinely inspired. He also believes that “Cults and sects usually claim to be the only true (or the most true) church in the world.”
Charles Fillmore founded the Unity School of Christianity. His writings are highly regarded by his adherents as truth.
Joseph Smith founded Mormonism upon the divine revelations he received. Those who belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints often claim to belong to the only true church.
Victor Paul Wierwille, founder of The Way International, claimed that God spoke to him directly, giving him a new interpretation of the Bible.
L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, claimed to be the only source for solution of the world’s problems.
Charles Taze Russell, founder of Jehovah’s Witness, believed his new-found society was inspired by God and is the only righteous example of true Christianity.
Goldwag suggests that Christianity may have at one point qualified as a cult since it was spawned from Judaism.
“Christianity, for example, began as a cultic offshoot of Judaism, enjoying a similar status to the Essenes, the desert-dwelling ascetics who preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls, or the Samaritans, who not only belonged to a different ethnicity than the ancient Hebrews, but also didn’t worship in the Temple of Jerusalem or acknowledge any but the first five books of the Bible,” he writes.
However, he notes that if cults become large, economically sound, and widely respected, it is likely to become a recognized religion.
There are hundreds of cults around the world, some that are known and others that are kept secret from mainstream society. Many may be regarded as physically or psychologically harmful. Others are not quite so repulsive in that manner and are not necessarily easy to spot.