Bible Open

Overview of Cult Behavior

by Jason R. Tippitt


In the midst of all the media hoopla surrounding the suicides of 39 members of the "Heaven's Gate" cult, Bill Maher made a very sensible comment on the night of "Good Friday," 1997.

He said, quite truthfully and bravely, that Christianity had started out with the name cult and had kept that name until it attracted enough followers to become respectable.

Although I wouldn't go so far as to say all religions are cults, being a Faith Atheist and Unitarian Universalist myself, I do believe that there are a lot more cults out there than we realize, hiding behind a facade of respectability...or at least acceptance.

The fact that a movement has existed for a long time, even centuries, and is believed in by even millions of followers does not make that movement necessarily true.

At amazes me to hear Christians say that their religion must be true, or else it wouldn't have lasted for 2,000 years. If age and size are signs of God's stamp of exclusive truth, then these people better get over to Hinduism right quick. That religion has been around even longer than Judaism.

No, age and size have nothing to do with truth. Galileo was right; Columbus was right; Darwin was right; but it took time for their ideas to be accepted.

I don't mean to slam Christianity; I'm just saying that its truth must be judged on the merits of what it says, not its age. After all, the early Christians couldn't use that argument.

So what makes a cult? It's not necessarily the strangeness of the ideas set forth; let's be honest, most religions look ludicrous to outsiders.

There has to be something more than a style of dress or a bizarre doctrine at the heart of a cult. Let's look at some characteristics of cults.

  • Cults usually feature a strong leader who is admired with a fervent devotion. People will follow him... and on rare occasions, her... anywhere.

    I've seen that happen in Christian denominations on more than one occasion -- when the minister would switch churches a large section of the congregation would follow him.
  • Cults try to keep their members isolated from outside influences that might cause doubt to arise. I'm not going to say that every church with a "family life center" is a cult.

    But when you combine that with restricting social contacts to others from the same denomination or even the same congregation, regulating hair styles and dress codes and condemning morally neutral activities such as dancing, listening to "secular" music or playing certain types of games, that starts to look like mind control.
  • Cults claim exclusive access to God's will. They're the only ones who have it all down right, they're the only ones getting into heaven. You see that in a lot of churches we don't think of as cults.
  • Cults control and sometimes destroy lives by dictating the personal lives of the members. Churches who oppose divorce often contribute to spousal abuse and even murder by forcing couples who don't belong together to stay together.

    Churches who oppose birth control have blood on their hands from every infant that starves to death as a result. And churches that oppose blood transfusions and other medical treatment are mass murderers, in my opinion.

As I said, I don't believe all religion is cultish. But we need to rethink what we call a cult. Pantheists observing the full moon with music and dance aren't hurting anyone or anything; they're merely worshipping as they feel led. On the other hand, I would call the small General Baptist church I grew up in a cult.

In that church, we saw visiting ministers whose appearances at our church brought out fans from their home churches who couldn't bear to listen to someone else preach for one Sunday -- they had to be near the leader.

In that church, I was told that I was being led to the devil by role-playing games and rock 'n' roll music, and that dancing or even swimming in the same pool with a girl was sinful.

Our church was of the opinion that the Southern Baptists were too liberal, and only a very handful of churches had any truth in them at all (mostly independent Baptist or Pentecostal). And the cure for mental illness was prayer, not therapy.

Add to that the fact that I was scared to death to leave until I was a teenager, scared to death that the world would end before I'd had any time to accomplish anything in life, and scared to speak up, and I'd say I was in a cult.

That's the way it is in a lot of places. And we've gotta be aware of that. It's easy to lose your head in those places if you don't keep conscious of the things that lurk behind the words spoken. If you don't, there's no telling where you might wind up.

It's not accurate to label all the people who end up in cults, but I think that I can pretty safely say that the ones who wind up staying in these groups are the people who feel like they don't fit in anywhere else. People who are shy or otherwise lacking self-esteem.

People are looking at the Heaven's Gate site right now, and doubtless some of them are in a low state, are thinking, "That sounds pretty good." If genuinely concerned humanists of either stripe, religious or secular, don't reach out and try to better our society, expect to see more than 39 bodies in San Diego.

The only way to prevent another Jonestown, another Waco, another Heaven's Gate, is to find those people who are preyed upon by cults and care for them. They'll take whatever comfort is offered -- it can be from someone who genuinely cares, or it can be from a demagogue.

Invite the person who's sitting alone in the cafeteria to eat lunch with you. You might be saving a life without knowing it; at the very least, you might end up making a friend, and we all need as many of those as we can get.

As Robert Fulghum says in his book From Beginning to End, many of us are called to be ministers, although few of us are called to the pulpit. And even if you don't believe in a higher power, you shouldn't deny your obligation to better the community around you. That sort of self-centered apathy is part of what's gotten us here.

The author would like to thank Kelly A. Parker, without whom he'd probably run off with a circus, for her input on this piece.

Jason R. Tippitt
Martin, TN, USA
Written March 30-31, 1997
Updated January 7, 1998


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