Volume 13 - Issue 1

Towards an analysis of cult

By Nigel Scotland

Until recent years sociologists of religion have concentrated their studies of religious institutions on ‘church’ and ‘sect’ types as enunciated by Ernst Troeltsch and Max Weber and more recently developed by the Oxford sociologist Bryan Wilson. No attempt was made to distinguish between ‘sect’ and what has subsequently become known as ‘cult’. But from the mid 1960s onwards scholars have begun to differentiate the two. It should be noted at the outset that some sociologists of religion, notably Roy Wallis (1984) and James Beckford (1986), have preferred the term ‘New Religious Movements’ (NRM) 1 on the ground that it is less prejudicial. Others such as Eileen Barker seem happy to stay with ‘cult’.2 Ernest Becker pointed out that ‘cults’ were much like sects so that it was extremely difficult to draw a line between the two. However, Milton Yinger considered that cults represent a sharper break in religious terms from the dominant religious tradition of society.3 A number of recent sociologists, most recently Ronald Enroth, Eileen Barker and James Beckford, have followed Yinger and sought to analyse a cult typology. This article draws on some of their material and with additional analysis seeks to clarify the nature of a ‘cult’. Illustrative material is drawn in the main from Christian-related cults such as the Jonestown Community, the Children of God and the Unification Church, but reference is also made to Scientology and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

One reason why such an analysis of ‘sect’ and ‘cult’ forms of institution is important is because it provides a means of identifying and assessing expressions of religion. Orthodox Christianity for example has always been accepting of most sectarian groups whose basic doctrines are in keeping with the historic creeds. In contrast, however, cults, even those with Christian roots, are unacceptable to the main-line Christian denominations partly because of the function and role of their leadership and also on account of their denial of basic human freedoms.

Exponents of the sect typology have noted a number of significant characteristics. In their understanding of salvation the sects emphasize the importance of the instantaneous and the experiential ‘new birth’, ‘nirvana’ or ‘Krishna consciousness’. Sectarian worship is correspondingly ‘free’, often associated with rhythmic chorus hymns, handclapping and the supernatural. The sect is frequently in the hands of a naturally emerging dominant personality. Sect membership is by conscious decision and exclusive. There is also a strict ethical code of conduct coupled with disciplinary and expulsion procedures.

A cult, it is argued, has a number of distinctive features which mark it off from a ‘sect’. Perhaps most obvious is the fact that the cult leader becomes God to the movement. Max Weber pointed out that the founder of the sect would hold a certain authority over his followers which was best described in terms of ‘charisma’. The sect leader was not considered to be an ordinary human being but in some sense ‘a man above his fellows’ with special powers and qualities of personality.

A cult (or NRM if you prefer) also has a living leader, but invariably he or she becomes God to the cult membership. Once the leader dies the likelihood is that the cult will disappear unless someone takes over the position. This is unlikely since if he is God or believed to be God he presumably cannot be replaced. It does seem, however, as though Scientology may succeed in transferring power following the recent death of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, though membership has plummeted.

Cult leaders often begin life in humble, even harsh, circumstances but at some point they begin to receive a revelation of visions or acquire quasi-supernatural powers. Because of this the members’ faith in the leader begins to develop rapidly and in a process which is largely unconscious they ‘legitimate’ his claim to absolute control as a messiah figure. Beckford expresses it as follows: ‘The cult leader is usually seen not as the precursor of the messiah but as the messiah himself, therefore he exercises total control over the following.’4For example Sun Myung Moon, who was born in 1920 of Presbyterian parents of comparatively ordinary circumstances, began to ‘pray for extra-ordinary things’ when he was just twelve. At sixteen when he was praying out on a Korean mountainside he had a vision of Jesus in which he was told he had been selected to carry out an important mission. He was later able to converse directly with Abraham, Moses, Peter, Paul, Confucius, Wesley and Buddha, enabling Christianity to be reborn in a Moon-mediated form. In 1954 he founded ‘The Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity’, more simply known as the ‘Unification Church’. From this time on both he and his wife have assumed a god-like status over the movement, styling themselves the ‘true parents’. Cult members frequently address Moon as ‘Father’ or ‘Master’. Moon teaches that he is in fact ‘the Lord of the Second Advent’ who has come to complete the work which Jesus left uncompleted. Indeed in one of his speeches Moon speaks of himself as ‘the Way of God’:

I have certain things you can find nowehere else. This is what has drawn you to me. What might seem presumptuous doesn’t trouble me. My conscience is all clear and happy. You owe me. Without me there is a certain distance you cannot go in your search for God. You must come to Him through me. You are following the universal path to heaven which has shortly been sent by me.5

Beckford comments: ‘The person of the Reverend Moon plays an important role in relation to the Unification doctrine not only … because he is thought to be the Lord of the Second Advent … but also because he is regarded as the movement’s mediator with God and other eminent spirits.’6 When no visitors are present at their worship Unification Church members pray to God through Moon as he is the physical representation of God.7

Swami Prabhupada, the founder of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), is regarded as the latest in an unbroken line of Krishna’s disciples. Although Prabhupada is distinct from Krishna, he is nevertheless regarded as ‘the perfect guide to Krishna’. He appears to have achieved this role on account of his matchless store of knowledge drawn from his unequalled understanding of the Hindu Scriptures.

David Berg, the leader of COG (Children of God), began his working life as an evangelical fire-and-brimstone preacher with strong pre-millennial convictions which he proclaimed along the California coastlands during the 1960s. In his early days he was very puritanical and offered salvation in return for heartfelt repentance. His gospel found ready acceptance amongst the back-packing youth culture of the permissive swinging sixties which was desperately searching for something to cling to.

Berg’s personal dominance over the movement became progressively stronger. By the early 1970s it had been accepted that he had been ‘filled with the Gift of Faith in his mother’s womb’.8 Berg began to style himself ‘Moses David’ to indicate his messianic status and he started to issue his teaching in the form of MO (short for Moses) letters. By the end of the 1970s Berg claimed that the COG were under God’s leadership:

We have had world-wide fame!…

All I do is just give the word!

Beckford comments: ‘The evolution of the Children of God movement illustrates the overwhelming power that its leader has been consistently able to exercise over its members.’9

A similar pattern can be observed in the control which James Jones began to exercise over his following in the People’s Temple in Los Angeles. Eventually the group moved to Guyana to set up the Jonestown Community, where Jones used to sit on a raised wooden throne from which he made pronouncements much in the manner of the Pope. As early as the mid 1960s he claimed to be ‘God’s heir on earth’.10

Some might feel that all of this is little different from the way in which a Roman Catholic regards the Bishop of Rome or a high Anglican his parish priest or a house-church member unquestioningly responds to his shepherd or elder. And yet there is a fundamental difference in that in the cult the leader is more than a revered figure—he acquires the status of deity. Maurice Burrell encapsulates this aspect of cult succinctly when he writes: ‘… today’s new wave prophets literally profess to be God incarnate and most wield absolute authority over cult members.’

Another distinguishing feature of ‘cult’ is seen in a rigid and tyrannical authority structure. Members of sectarian groups believe their leader to be uniquely inspired and to be a source of divine truth. Because of this they are prepared to accede to his or her wishes and follow sect patterns of behaviour. However, members who don’t wish to fall in with sect patterns of behaviour are either free to leave or they may be expelled or excommunicated.

In the cult the leader assumes the role of dictator or absolute monarch and is to be obeyed without question. The structure of the cult is therefore pyramidical with each tier passing orders down from the top and no one questioning or challenging a higher level of authority. Cult leaders often live in great seclusion surrounded by an aura of mystery which leads to greater veneration when they appear in public. Moon lives in a palatial complex in a quiet area of New York State. L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, who spent his early years in naval service, lived in a life-sized replica of a clipper complete with three masts and bridge which was located at Gillman Hot Springs near the Mojave Desert in California.

Such leaders allow harsh discipline to be meted out on deviant or questioning members. Some instigate a reign of terror. David Blundy described the authority which Jones exercised over his thousand subjects as ‘an ascendancy as despotic, as cruel and as absolute as Cleopatra’s’. In a 1977 press exposé detailed accounts were published of what went on behind the doors of Jones’ People’s Temple. It included the fining of members, ritual beatings of adults and children and bizarre sexual activities.11 Later when the cult moved to Guyana dissenters were forcibly injected with drugs to quieten them down and make them amenable to Jones’ policies. Jones, who was by this time styled ‘father’, demanded sexual favours from any of his several hundred women he happened to fasten his eyes on. They were forced to comply even if they were engaged or committed to someone else. All this was a far cry from Jones’ early days as an evangelical fundamentalist preacher.

In 1984 a leading British newspaper gave a parallel report that some of the officials at the East Grinstead Headquarters of Scientology were acting ‘like Hitler Youth’ dressed in military uniform and inflicting punishments of confinement and violence. According to another article on Scientology in the Sunday Times Magazine, entitled ‘The Sinking of the Master Mariner’,12 the Church was using the Spanish Inquisitional type of tribunals to bring even some of its more important officials into line. The Church had a ‘penal camp’ in an Indian Reservation several miles from Gillman Hot Springs. David Mayo, who was once Ron Hubbard’s own personal auditor (or confessor), was apparently forced to dig ditches in the desert heat for six months and when he wasn’t digging he was made to run around a pole. Why didn’t he just leave the movement and escape? According to an ex-Scientologist in the article:

They don’t have any money. They don’t know anybody outside except their family and they severed those ties years ago. Anyway they love Ron. He is their God.13

Similar instances could be cited from most cult groups but perhaps one more from the ‘Love Family’ cult reported by Enroth will suffice to make this point. ‘The Love Family’ was formed by Paul Erdman, a Seattle salesman, in 1969. He believes he is Christ’s representative on earth whose special purpose it is to gather God’s true family. Amongst other things they hold rigidly to the King James Version of the Bible and engage in a religious ritual which involves inhaling toluene, an industrial solvent. The following passage indicates forcibly the control and repressive discipline exercised by the leader.

Love also laid down the rules on marriage and sexual activity within the Family. At one point, celibacy was the norm. ‘When I first got there, everybody had given up sex until the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.’ Later Love changed the rules and allowed couples to live as man and wife. A man who wanted to be married would go to Love and would say, ‘We would like to get together.’ Love made the decision. Sometimes he would notice that two people liked each other, and he would ask, ‘Would you two like to live as man and wife?’ They would say yes, and they would be ‘bonded’. There really wasn’t a ceremony—they would just sleep together. Love also had the authority to unbond people. He could say that those two people couldn’t sleep together any more. Or, without actually ending the relationship, he could say, ‘Well, you are still bonded, but you can’t sleep together now.’ And they would obey him.

One guy got flogged for sleeping with some girl who wasn’t in the Family. He wanted to remain in the Family so he had to submit to a beating as a punishment. He got paddled on his bottom with a stick that was about two feet long—forty swats. Everybody in the Family had to come and watch. One of the elders did the beating, and they hit him pretty hard.14

Another related feature of the cult is the use of techniques akin to brainwashing. It is important to stress techniques ‘akin to’ brainwashing because opinion is divided as to whether the techniques used do in fact constitute brainwashing. Beckford gives a number of instances from his researches which indicate brainwashing or something closely approximating to it.15 For example he cites the case of Philip, a student of physics in his home town university. He left his parents a note to say that he had gone to UC Centre in the south of England to learn about the Reverend Moon. On his return home he burst into his parent’ bedroom. His father describes the scene:

He was quite beside himself, wasn’t natural at all, demented and … in a hectic state … completely confused and convinced that he had just had a message from Mr Moon. It was just to confirm that everything [the Centre] had told him was to be accepted.… He was convinced that he must consider full commitment.16

This behaviour was echoed in another, Brian, a former teacher of music aged 29. His mother commented:

He left everything, library books which I had to take back, he just joined overnight.… It made me suspicious because it all happened so quickly. I felt when he’d gone actually I was empty and I felt that he’d been brainwashed.… And then I had letters full of the preaching and so on, and I just felt he was completely taken over. And, of course, since then I feel that he’s become retarded.17

In a later chapter entitled ‘The moral career of the ex-Moonie’ Beckford gives further instances which suggest evidence of something akin to brainwashing. Caroline’s tearful departure from the UC Centre in Germany speaks for many ex-Moonies:

Then I was really upset and I would have given anything then to say I’d stay, because then, I really felt I was saying goodbye to Heavenly Father, and you know, it was so confusing, really mixed up … I completely felt I was doing the wrong thing, but then again it was the draw of my parents that kept me on the train to go back.18

Another young man stated:

I still can’t eradicate, that’s why I think there must be something to do with brainwashing. I still can’t eradicate that there could be some truth in it. No matter how hard I try I still can’t eradicate that feeling.19

Other ex-Unificationists reported experiencing psychic phenomena after ‘disengaging’, including dreams, visions of kneeling figures (often monks), fear and paranoia. In some cases ex-members also tried to compensate for an ‘arrested role-passage’ in their teenage years. They tried desperately to catch up for lost time and to enjoy some of the pleasure they’d missed out on but they reported only guilt and a sense of failure in many cases. Eileen Barker, in her extensive study of the Unification Church entitled The Making of a Moonie: Brainwashing or Choice? (1984), is reluctant to commit herself to the view that the Unification Church brainwashes its subjects. She sums up her findings as follows:

What then are my conclusions? Has my study led me to believe that people join the Unification Church as the result of irresistible brainwashing techniques or as the result of a rational calculated choice? As will doubtless be clear to anyone who has read thus far, the short reply to such a question is that I do not find either answer satisfactory, but that the evidence would seem to suggest that the answer lies considerably nearer the rational-choice pole of the continuum than it does to [the] irresistible brainwashing pole.20

Ex-Moonie Monica Heftmann defined a brainwashed person as ‘one who has been debilitated and manipulated to the point that he can critically analyse neither the beliefs instilled in him nor the desirability of actions consequential to those beliefs’.21 Clearly there are adherents of the Unification Church and other cults who have been brainwashed and in some cases subsequently been deprogrammed, just as there are those who have made rational decisions to become members. On the other hand it has to be recognized that ‘disengagement’ is common. In the 1970s it is estimated that 75 per cent left the Unification Church within a year of joining. This hardly sustains the view that cults extensively brainwash.

Perhaps the least that can be said on this issue at this point is that from the moment visitors or inquirers first enter cult premises their time is fully monopolized in a fast-moving programme of lectures, seminars, recreation and leisure activities in which there is little time for reflection and none for questioning. No potential recruits are allowed to be alone to discuss their beliefs—always they are shadowed by a cult member. Young recruits are often subjected to long hours, little sleep and a strongly carbohydrate diet. New members are also frequently isolated from their homes and familiar surroundings with the result that they become increasingly dependent on the movement for their security. Erica Heftmann makes a significant assertion that cult members are ‘not necessarily brainwashed’ but totally dependent on the movement.22 Like children they are controlled because they are dependent.

It might be argued that the evangelistic techniques employed on occasion by certain evangelical groups run close to some of these procedures. Nevertheless it is doubtful whether even the most flamboyant of fundamentalist preachers sets out with conscious deliberation to deny his audience the freedom to reject his message.

A further related feature of the cult institution is the repression of individuality. Within a sect there is a certain amount of room for individuality and for members to develop their own identity as well as express their opinions within certain limitations. Within the ‘cult’, however, there is invariably a pronounced and concerted effort to repress individuality. Members may be given new names. When members joined the COG in the 1960s they signed the following statement: ‘I promise to give all my goods and income, let you open my mail, obey rules and officers.’ If they are married they may well be separated from their former partner, as frequently happens in the Unification Church.23 Sometimes their marriages may be dissolved and they are then married to another.

Cults tend to keep their members on the move, making them work in different centres, headquarters, shops or street sells for three- or four-month periods. This means that they have little time to keep in touch with their families and past links around which their identity has been built. Parents are also frequently denied access to their children for this reason. The plight of many parents is summed up by this comment from the mother of a Unificationist:

The UC attacks family structure, because I don’t think you can be a fully committed member of the UC and live a normal family life, it isn’t possible. They don’t encourage you to pop home for the weekend or if mother’s ill, come home and nurse her or.… You cannot have a normal family relationship.24

This fact that NRMs downgrade the nuclear family and emphasize the community of the cult family largely explains why they recruit the vast majority of their membership from unstable home backgrounds. The majority are in the 18–30 age band, 77 per cent being male and 95 per cent unmarried.

Part of the repression process is the rejection of the individual ‘ego’. For example, an ex-member explained that if a Hare Krishna devotee has to look in a mirror he or she will probably say something to the effect of, ‘O stupid body’. This apparently is part of the devotee’s constant practice of subjecting himself ‘to degradations and assaults on his identity which are designed to detach him from his former self-concept’.

Repression of the ‘ego’ is also achieved by so totally occupying the individual’s time and energy that there is no time for one’s own self-image or self-gratification. As one member of the Alamo Foundation put it:

I praise God for the way He stripped me down financially, mentally, etc. In preparation for my serving Him. Right now I’m down to God and me—plus clothes and personals. I believe you’re either all for God or not.25

Beckford relates that the destruction of the self-image or ego in the cult adherent is also achieved in a process of intrusion into private affairs which exceeds the generally accepted limits of personal privacy. The Times(London), in an article in 1986, carried details of a successful lawsuit against the Scientology Church. The article asserted that the cult subjected its adherents to ‘psychological manipulations’ in a process known as auditing whereby they were forced to reveal intimate details of their past lives. These details were monitored and recorded and then used to blackmail the same individuals to stay within the movement.26 They were told quite bluntly: ‘If you leave we’ll reveal this and this about you.’

One further characteristic of cults or New Religion Movements is the use of deception techniques in their recruitment activities. As cults see it, the world is in the grip of Satan, therefore Satanic methods are both necessary and justifiable in dealings with the outside world.

In the UC this practice is actually termed ‘heavenly deception’. This procedure means that if you can promote the interests of the UC or attract a potential convert by lying or not being open it’s perfectly alright. Many Moonies if you meet them on the street won’t admit that they belong to the UC; they call it ‘The Holy Spirit Association’ or ‘One World Movement’ or even the ‘Kensington Gardens Arts Society’! Most often they just refuse to go beyond ‘we’re from the Church’. Many testify to the fact that they were first attracted to a cult by the friendly smile of a street worker or the depth of fellowship at an inquirers’ weekend. All of this is often part of a deliberate tactic. Moonies frequently practise what is known as ‘love-bombing’.

This is one of the problems sociologists or students of the movement face. You never know whether you are getting the truth or not.

Infiltration of mainstream churches has also been an approved tactic for winning new recruits and/or supporters, although this has led to some counter-productive controversy. Two examples locally illustrate this. About four years ago the UC membership in Cheltenham made a concerted attempt to infiltrate St Philip and St James C of E parish. Members of Stanton Fitzwarren UC (near Swindon) often visit other churches in the mornings and hold their own worship in the evenings.

The UC also organizes conferences for church leaders, scientists and medical practitioners. Some of these are solely with the objective of putting across a positive image to counteract other adverse publicity.

A very different deception technique is that pioneered by David Berg in the mid 1970s. Styled ‘Flirty Fishing’, he says that it is ‘the sacred duty’27 of women members to have or offer sexual intercourse for the deliberate purpose of bringing men to faith in Christ. Unfortunately this has resulted in the presence within the community of what are termed ‘Jesus babies’ and ‘mateless mothers’.28

This form of behaviour was justified in a series of MO letters in which Berg argued that because this is ‘the end time’ immediately before the millennium, the new law of love has replaced the old Mosaic law. The same basis is also used to justify the practice of condoning extra-marital sexual relations. Husbands in particular are warned to be magnanimous and forgiving of their wives’ liaisons:

Judge not that ye be not judged, for with what measure ye mete it out it shall be meted unto you again (Mt. 7:12). Even if your wife is guilty, you’d better forgive her if you want to be forgiven for your sins. For if you self-righteously and hypocritically judge her harshly God will judge you the same, but justly, ‘For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap’ (Gal. 6:7).29

Gerry Armstrong, former international archivist of Scientology, said, ‘I went from being a devotee—I thought it was the hope of mankind and I learned it was all lies and deception.’


What are we to say in conclusion? First, in many of the so-called NRMs the members become totally dependent on the leadership and thereby ‘legitimate’ his or her actions even to the extent of dictatorial terrorism, NRM leaderships illustrate the maxim that ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Many cults exemplify antinomian tendencies which probably result from initial over-intensity and puritanical traits. Cults attract and in many cases deliberately set out to meet the need for friendship and community which many lack who have had unstable home situations.

In an attempt to look on the positive side James Beckford has suggested one or two areas in which NRMs have made some sort of contribution. For example, he relates that some cults have emphasized holistic healing and humanistic pyshcology in ways which have found favour among many sections of the adult population of Western Europe.

Whatever else may or may not be said, the ‘cult’ typology clearly helps us to a fuller understanding and analysis of religion of an intense kind which reflects the fragmentation of late 20th-century society.

1 R. Wallis, Elementary Forms of New Religious Life (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984); J. Beckford, Cult Controversies (London: Tavistock Publications, 1986).

2 E. Barker, The Making of a Moonie: Brainwashing or Choice? (1984).

3 See E. Becker, The Birth and Death of Meaning (Penguin, 1962); J. M. Yinger, Sociology Looks at Religion(London: Macmillan, 1963).

4 See Beckford, op. cit., p. 45f.

5 R. Enroth, Youth Brainwashing and the Extremist Cults (Paternoster Press, 1977), pp. 109–110.

6 Beckford, op. cit., p. 48.

7 I discovered this through informal conversation with UC members after one of their Sunday worship services.

8 MO Letter No. 77, 1971, cited by Beckford, op. cit.

9 Beckford, op. cit., p. 42.

10 See for example J T Richardson, ‘People’s Temple and Jonestown: a corrective, comparison and critique, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (September 1980), pp. 239–255.

11 Daily Mail, 29 July 1984.

12 D. Blundy, ‘The Jonestown Tape’, Sunday Times Magazine, 25 November 1979.

13 Ibid., p. 39.

14 Enroth, op. cit., pp. 91–92.

15 Beckford, op. cit., p. 108.

16 Loc. cit.

17 Ibid., p. 109.

18 Ibid., p. 163.

19 Loc. cit.

20 E. Barker, op. cit., p. 122f.

21 E. Heftmann, The Dark Side of the Moon (Penguin, 1983), p. 244.

22 Loc. cit.

23 Ibid., pp. 191–192.

24 Beckford, op. cit., p. 112.

25 Enroth, op. cit., p. 167.

26 The Times (London), 20 September 1986.

27 Beckford, op. cit., pp.38, 40, 134. See also J. Williams, The Locust Years (Hodder, 1987), pp. 136–137.

28 Loc. cit.

29 MO Letter No. 1012, June 1981.

Nigel Scotland

Cheltenham and Gloucestershire College of Higher Education