In 1978, America was shocked to learn that 900 people took their lives for one man, Jim Jones. In Billings, Montana, an infant girl was born dead because the religious group her mother belonged to refused medical aid. Shirley MacLaine leapt to the headlines after voicing her belief in reincarnation. Seemingly overnight, Eastern mysticism cults became America’s “new” religion. These practices and beliefs have been around for centuries, but they are now coming to the forefront of religious consciousness. By offering easy answers to life’s hard questions, cults lure America’s searching youth into an oppressive lifestyle from which it is almost impossible to escape.
To truly understand how cults grow, it is necessary to define what a cult is, not an easy task considering the diversity of cults themselves. Different perceptions of cults are continually being expressed, which are usually based in a radical reaction to an isolated incident. People tend to have wrong views of cults and their very nature encourages this: as Robert Burrows says “…overtly religious (cults) may seem compatible with Christian faith. When inconspicuously secular, they may seem spiritually neutral” (23). A very general and popular definition developed by sociologists states that cults are any religious group which break with the mainstream of religious tradition in their society. Dr. Ronald Enroth, a sociologist who has studied cults for many years, categorizes new religious movements into five basic groups (Enroth, Lure, 22). First on the list is Eastern Mysticism which is made up of some form of Eastern sect or spiritual discipline such as the Hare Krishna and Zen Buddhism. Aberrational Christian groups are those which are much “closer to the margins of mainstream Christianity like the Way or the Unification Church” (Enroth, Lure, 26). These groups are harder to identify as cults because their leaders usually were once members or leaders of good standing in conventional evangelical denominations. Some of the most popular groups today are the Self-Improvement groups which use “mind/body interaction” (Enroth, Lure, 29). One of the best known self-improvement cults is Transcendental Meditation, which in recent years has practically become a household word. Another of these groups is Scientology, founded by L. Ron Hubbard. Those new religions take “elements and truths from several different spiritual/mystical traditions and reformulate (them) into a single religious system” (Enroth, Lure, 31). The Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon is most likely the best known group of this category. The last category Enroth discusses is most likely the group that people think of when defining cults and that group is the Psychic Occult-Astral group. These groups investigate “worlds beyond the ordinary realm of knowing” (Enroth, Lure, 33). Many new groups consult stars for their guidance and direction. The above categories are meant only as guidelines, and are mixed in various combinations. One may be tempted to believe that the New Age culture has grown quickly because of the many facets of religion it offers, but these types have been around for ages and only now do they appear everywhere in America.
The counterculture of the 60’s “rejected materialism and turned inward – and eastward – to Hindu mysticism” (Hopkins 69). It brought with it an openness to new ways of thinking, new higher consciousness, experimentation with transformation of self (Enroth, Lure, 109). The new eastern religions replaced the once popular drugs to reach the “higher consciousness” which enables one to experience life more intensely. “Spiritual states of rapture are induced by chanting, meditation and other forms of spiritual technology” (Enroth, Lure, 43). Members discover truth by using mystical insight and the “opening of cosmic energy” (Enroth, Lure, 43). America was ready for this New Age movement to replace, or rather, continue what the counterculture began.
New Age religions are founded on the belief that man is his own god or the leader of the group is the Messiah. An example of this ego-pleasing philosophy is found in the religion “est.” which claims “…that we are each Gods who create our own universe” (Hunt, 183). The charismatic guru-god symbolizes man’s salvation from man; their followers believe whatever he or she says is law and definitely words to live by. Finding the god-like qualities within oneself frees a person from dependency on other people and gives him/her the reason for self-confidence which everyone craves.
Surprisingly though, everyone who is attracted to this new form of spirituality is not an ex-hippie or even a poor misfortunate looking for a way out. Actually, the people most susceptible to the pull of the New Age are the middle-class youth who come from nominally Christian homes and are in the immediate post-high school years or are college seniors. Being exposed, however minimally, to some religion instills a desire for some sort of spirituality. Parents are not fulfilling this need, so the youths are forced to look at all options presented to them. The after graduation predicament of “what now?” gives a sense of confusion, longing and desire for answers. Cults willingly remove the necessity of facing reality and give all of the “right” answers to searching youth. The cult provides the yes and no, black and white answers to life’s complicated questions (Enroth, Youth, 152).
There are certain times when kids need the black and white answers the most, and it is at these times when disciples approach their prospective converts. “When someone is feeling exceedingly anxious, uncertain, hurt, lonely, unloved, confused or guilty, that person is a prime prospect for those who come in the guise of religion offering a way out or ‘peace of mind’” (Enroth, Youth, 154). The above scenario may sound familiar and it should. Today, people are constantly expounding on the unloved and misunderstood youth in America. Cults will offer the friendship and strong emotional support that society doesn’t offer the prospects during their time of need, until the member is completely inducted into the group. With most cults the deeper one is involved the less friendly and more occultic in practice it becomes and the more difficult it is to get out.
Before a member reaches the inner levels of a cult he must undergo a process of induction. Candidates are completely stripped of their identities, or at least are severely weakened to make them easily conform to the belief systems of the cult. In essence, they are given a totally new identity which is the same as every other member’s. Common teachings in cults instruct that the evil and moral problems of the world are caused by society violating God’s will (Pavlos, 48). Towards the end of the conversion process the thought processes of the converts are changed, their behavior modified, and their belief systems conformed to that of the group (Pavlos 49).
It is obvious that cults have a firm hold on their converts, but some people do break away and others are taken away. Those who want to leave sometimes are unable to because of the strong hold cults keep on their members. Some groups use techniques such as sensory deprivation which usually involves lack of food and sleep. They will also sever all social ties and keep them in a “totalitarian environment where all aspects of one’s life are controlled” (Enroth, Lure, 74). Basically, the power behind the hold that cults have lies in the member’s fear that they will be unable to care for themselves outside of the cult or the fear of lost salvation.
Once the ties with a cult are successfully broken, ex-members have a difficult time adjusting to the “outside world.” Andrew Pavlos, speaking on the “‘Aches and Pains’ of Post-cult Adjustment” (150), says that the sense of pride and elitism provided by the cult leaves ex-cultists incapable of facing life’s difficult problems. They also deprive the cultist of the feelings of personal ambition and competitiveness which are such an integral part of society today. Those who are forced to leave cults are usually subjected by their families to a series of long, intense questioning of their cultic beliefs. This process is done by a deprogrammer, who, if he does his job, leaves the ex-cultist in a spiritual vacuum which the ex-member will search to fill, most likely in another cult. Sometimes the ex-cultist is totally incapable of surviving in the “real world,” much like a mental patient.
Cults are far from being fully understood, and the New Age movement is far from over. The number of people involved in this movement is unknown and almost impossible to determine, but it is most definitely growing. The church needs to love and to support our youth to counteract the effect and attraction of cults and – just as important – help and support those trying to leave the cult.
Burrows, Walter, “Americans Get Religion in the New Age” Christianity Today May 16, 1986: 17-23.
Enroth, Ronald M. The Lure of the Cults, New York: Christian Herald Books, 1979
Enroth, Ronald M. Youth, Brainwashing, and the Extremist Cults. Michigan Zondervan Pub. House, 1977.
Hopkins, Joseph M. “Experts on Nontraditional Religions try to pin down the New Age Movement.” Christianity Today, May 17, 1985: 68-69.
Hunt, Dave The Cult Explosion, Oregon: Harvard House Pub. 1980.