May 7, 1993
A cult is a religion with no political power.
If you want to understand why people join cults, think back to that time in your childhood when your parents had absolute authority; when they were omnipotent. They were gods who could do no wrong, and you were more-or-less helpless. If, like most of us, you can't remember when you felt that way, look at how children perceive their parents, grandparents and teachers. For most of us, childhood was a time of great security and happiness. There was little of the confusion and difficult decision-making of being an adult. If we could go back and re-live that time, many of us might choose to do so; especially during those times in our lives that are full of great stress and indecision.
Most of us, during our later periods of growing up, have people who we "look up to." That expression look up describes exactly what a small child does with his parents --he looks up at them. I suspect that there are few, if any, people who haven't looked up to several people in their lifetime. Sometimes it's a teacher, an older friend, or someone we don't know who is a success in our eyes. The popular expression these days is "role model."
The person inside of me who looks up to people is not the competent, decision making, independent adult; but a small dependent child. Reflect that every person or age that we have ever been is still alive inside of our minds. Having heroes, role models and idols is a normal part of growing up. When I say growing up, I am referring to that period of life between birth and senility. Most of those gods that we create are good people. Later, as we do with our parents, we realize that they are human and that they, like us, are fallible human beings --not gods.
During times of extreme loneliness and stress, people can lose their ability to discriminate, and may place their trust in a glib charismatic madman. That was what happened to disciples of Jim Jones and David Koresch. It is a mistake that those people will never have a chance to grow out of. Death is an irreversible decision. For every person who succumbs to such a person, there are millions who, through that very same process, place their lives in the hands of someone who, while not a god, is either fairly benevolent, or harmless. Whenever someone is ill, he puts his trust in his doctor or nurse. Even in times of stress, many of us manage to retain at least some of our adult critical faculties, so that we can still make independent judgments, despite the frightened child inside of us who trusts absolutely.
What is the difference between a cult and a religion? I believe that the only difference is time. Every religion, at its inception, was considered a cult by the rest of society. Over time, the cult assumes the trappings of an established religion by doing whatever is socially acceptable to the society that it is in. If you go back to the origins of Judaism, the customs can be found in the other cultures of the time. Most of the customs and festivals of the Italian tribes were incorporated into Catholicism. A good idea of how a religion evolves can be gleaned by studying the evolution of the Mormon religion. The history of this second-wealthiest religion is recent enough so that it can be studied objectively. Nowadays, groups that cling to the original Mormon principle of polygamy are considered cults by the main-stream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
How are people freed from cults? The only way that I know of that works, is to emotionally support that lost and lonely child within, and to try to reach the rational part of the cult member's mind. It's usually hidden somewhere deep inside the mind, where the totally trusting child has stashed it.
It is worth remembering that, in times of great loneliness, confusion and stress, we are most of us susceptible to the seductions of some insane prophet. The cult of Nazism conquered much of Europe, and almost conquered the world.
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