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M.E. Anders’ life reads like a tale of escape from a modern-day Jonestown. Born the preacher’s kid of a burgeoning fundamentalist society, M.E. battled critical thinking as the unforgivable sin. Mining those experiences for storytelling, M.E. Anders pens psychological tales exploring the difficult questions of the human condition.These sagas excite the mind and stop the heart. Weaving webs of twisting plots are her specialty, horror tempered by mind-bending drama. Her passion is to shed light where all is darkness. To bring hope to those living in shadows. Fiction and fact blur seamlessly into her gripping thriller novels.
What Makes a Cult a Cult
What images come to mind when you hear the word, “cult”? For me, it’s a sickening series of images from the Jonestown massacre. Though cults come in various types, I will be discussing what characterizes a religious cult in this article.
My cult enthusiast friend, Peter Saint-Clair, defines universal cults as such:
“CULT - Any group which has a pyramid type authoritarian leadership structure with all teaching and guidance coming from the person/persons at the top. The group will claim to be the only way to God; Nirvana; Paradise; Ultimate Reality; Full Potential, Way to Happiness etc, and will use thought reform or mind control techniques to gain control and keep their members.
This definition covers cults within all major world religions, along with those cults which have no OBVIOUS religious base such as commercial, educational and psychological cults. Others may define these a little differently, but this is the simplest to work from.”
Steve Hassan, the cult expert author, says that destructive mind control can be understood in terms of four basic components, which form the acronym BITE:
I. Behavior Control
II. Information Control
III. Thought Control
IV. Emotional Control
Let’s examine each of these components to discover what makes a cult a cult.
- Behavior Control
Cults are not necessarily isolated compounds in the middle of nowhere where members are not permitted to leave the property. Modern cults are clever in their attempts to control their members. Manipulating members’ behavior is their clever tactic. Each one of these aspects could be present within a cult.
- Cult members may experience strict dress codes, restricted food choices, limited sleep hours, and financial dependence upon the leadership.
- Major time commitments for indoctrination sessions take precedence over free time.
- All major decisions should be run by the leadership staff.
- Group think is the standard of excellence. Individual thought that differs from the group is punished.
- Trust and obey is a common theme in behavior control.
An example of behavior control from my religious cult, the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement http://fallenfromgrace.net/2011/06/20/what-is-an-ifb-church, would be that strict dress codes were imposed upon both male and female members, but especially females. We were forced to undergo surprise “dress checks” where one of the female leaders would examine us individually from head to toe. If our outfit did not meet their lengthy list of modesty requirements, then they issued us a demerit slip. This forbad us from attending classes until we changed our outfit and had our appearance re-approved.
2. Information Control
Cults are masters at manipulating the information their members receive about the outside world. The leaders consider themselves to be filters for the “worldly” infiltration of evil intent upon destroying their members’ lives. This control is exhibited in the following ways.
- Information may be forcefully protected and held back from common knowledge.
- Any access to outsiders’ information is preached against and often punished severely.
- Leaders control who gets to know what about the inner workings of the group.
- Members are usually sent out in pairs or groups when leaving the campus to prevent contamination from the world.
- All types of video, audio, and printed media are prohibited by the leadership unless they are affiliated with the cult.
An example of information control from my past attendance at my cultic alma mater was that women who lived on the college campus were not allowed to leave the campus unless they had a group of three or four females, in addition to an “approved girl.” This approved girl was an upperclassmen, who had proved herself to the leadership as loyal to the college. This “buddy system” ensured that the innocent college girls were not exposed to outside influences.
- Thought Control
Cults use thought control to internalize their doctrine as the one truth. Black and white thinking is common. It’s either their way to heaven or the high way to hell. An antagonist attitude prevails amongst the members: the us versus them mentality.
- They also use a “loaded language.” These are words that only cult insiders know. The lingo distinguishes the inner circle members from newcomers and outsiders. A cult member cannot rise through the ranks until he or she becomes fluent in their language.
- Negative thoughts about the group, the leaders, or the doctrine are not tolerated. These thoughts are either of the devil or the members’ sinful nature. Therefore, they are to be suppressed through cult techniques: chanting, meditating, prayer, evangelization, praising God, speaking in tongues, singing, listening to sermons, or calling an accountability friend.
- No differing belief systems are allowed to be positively discussed within the group. Only the leaders can explore belief systems and interpret how members should act accordingly.
An example of thought control from my cult-church was the invitation time after every sermon. Members were expected to respond to the sermon by “going forward” or “walking the aisle” to “get right with God.” If not enough members came forward, then the pastor would verbally express his displeasure. He might be angry or upset that members had not listened to the voice of God. He used the altar calls as a cathartic reassurance of his “man of God” status.
- Emotional Control
Cults manipulate their members feelings about topics and identity. Members are never perfect enough, no matter how much they change to fit the cult’s “ideal member.” If there ever is a problem in a member’s life, it is never the fault of the group ideology or the leadership. It’s the individual’s fault every time.
- Members who feel negative emotions are berated and told that the devil is after them. Only happy and positive emotions are cultivated. Each cult has different traits they prize above all. If an individual differs from these emotional identities, they are belittled.
- Guilt is used excessively to pressure members to meet the cult’s agenda. Many experience resulting psychological damage and depression because of the relentless guilt trips. Every sermon is purposefully packed with guilt-inducing language.
- Fear is the most commonly used weapon against breaking the will of the members. Thinking critically is a sin. The outside world is evil and unhappy. Enemies are constantly trying to penetrate the members’ homes. Ex-members are treated with outright hostility and shunned until they repent.
- In the cult’s ideology, there is never a legitimate reason to leave the group. Once a member has been inducted into the inner circle, they are expected to meet cult expectations for the rest of their lives and raise their children to do the same.
An example of emotional manipulation from my former cult-pastor was that he preached about his being chosen by God himself as our leader. If we ever defamed him in any way, even if he sinned, God would strike us down. God might even kill us and our children because we “stretched out our hand against the man of God.” He told us horror stories of people who God supposedly maimed and murdered because they did not accept our pastor as God’s authority.
Steve Hassan, the cult expert author, explains the vital aspect of cult mind control.
“It is important to understand that destructive mind control can be determined when the overall effect of these four components promotes dependency and obedience to some leader or cause. It is not necessary for every single item on the list to be present. Mind controlled cult members can live in their own apartments, have nine-to-five jobs, be married with children, and still be unable to think for themselves and act independently.”
Cults are prevalent in our society, often cloaked beneath the guise of mainstream religion. To determine whether or not a group is a cult, use the BITE Model above. After leaving my cult, I actually recorded an audio taping of the BITE method for my personal use. I went through every point and gave an example of how my prior church met the cult criteria. This solidified my suspicion that my former church assuredly was (and still is) a cult.
What say you? Have you ever experienced traits of a cult in a religious group or secular organization? How did you leave that unhealthy environment? I’d love to hear your stories. Just leave a comment below.
For further resources about cults, I recommend Cults in Our Midst by Margaret Thaler Singer and Combatting Cult Mind Control by Steven Hassan.