by Rich McGee

Rich McGee directed the recent conference on origins entitled Mere Creation which was held in Los Angeles and was attended by 192 scientists and scholars. Rich, a 20- year staff member of Campus Crusade for Christ, is also director of International Expansion for Christian Leadership Ministries, where he has been since 1982. Rich earned a Th.M. in Old Testament from Dallas Theological Seminary in 1981.


What is a cult, and how is it different from a religious group? I will seek to answer this and discuss what the cults believe and what it is that motivates people to enter these groups.

What is it that makes people stay in cult groups and sometimes be willing even to die for their group? We think immediately about the Heaven's Gate cult and the 39 otherwise bright people who recently killed themselves so they could supposedly be transported to a UFO trailing the Hale-Bopp Comet. Or we think of David Koresh and the Branch Davidian cult near Waco, Texas in 1993, who barricaded themselves at their Mount Carmel headquarters and died in the flames. An even more dramatic memory is Jim Jones and his 911 followers, members of the People's Temple, who in 1978 committed mass suicide by drinking poison in Jonestown, Guyana.

First I will define the characteristics of a cult. Secondly I will present their methods, and thirdly I will look at their beliefs.

Characteristics of a Cult

A cult is not just a religion. The major religions of the world are not cults. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism are not cults. As a Christian, I have major differences with the other religions and I believe they have missed God's unique revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ, but they are not cults.

Some people say, "The only difference between a cult and a religion is a hundred years," but they blur a vast distinction between the two. There is a sizable body of literature on cults, so I will attempt to summarize the defining characteristics under four headings, using the acronym CULT:

C Cut off from the world. Cult leaders and followers are isolated and cut off from normal interaction with people outside the group. They do not have the corrective influence of other perspectives. They lose their ability, and their desire, to verify information the cult gives them. They become alienated from family and friends and have an unhealthy need to belong to the cult group.
U Undernourished--poor nutritional intake and sleep deprivation often characterizes cult members. They are near exhaustion and their resistance is low, so they can be easily manipulated, deceived, and exploited. Inadequate nutrition and sleep is disguised as a special practice or diet to improve health or advance spirituality.
L Leadership is authoritarian and coercive. The leader claims divinity or special knowledge and authority from God, and often uses deception and has hidden objectives. Unquestioning obedience is expected. This leads the cult follower into total dependence upon the cult for belief, behavior, and practice. He or she loses personal freedom and the ability to make choices.
T Theology or beliefs of a cult always involve some unique or new perspectives, and they claim that truth is only found in what the cult says. Cults often promote the "we/they" syndrome, which also keeps members dependent and loyal to the cult.

Obviously, these are generalizations and not every cult exhibits each of these characteristics at all times. And, the major religions of the world, including Christian churches, sometimes express some of these traits. Corporations even exhibit some of these traits! The difference is that the cults practice far more of these traits, and at a far greater intensity and frequency level, than do religions or other non-cult groups.

So, cults are characterized by (1) their methods, and (2) their beliefs. I will look first at these methods, which basically involve manipulation, and then look at their beliefs in more detail.

The Methods and Procedures of a Cult

The questions addressed in this section are: How do the cults lure and deceive their followers? Do cults really engage in coercive conversion and brainwashing? Can their approach be successfully resisted? To answer these questions we need to look at the procedure cults use to win converts. The following four elements are common to most cults. These four steps draw a person deeper and deeper into the cult:

  1. Give loving attention. Someone attending a cult meeting for the first time quickly finds himself the object of attention and loving regard-"love-bombing." Feelings of warmth and acceptance are experienced as the group presents itself as a closely knit family bound together by ties of affection and common purpose.

  3. Grooming or cultivating. If the visitor accepts the invitation to stay with the group, he or she becomes isolated from outside contact and is subject to intense group interaction. The visitor typically receives less sleep than usual, eats low protein food, and, perhaps without realizing it, begins to be exhausted and his or her reasoning capacity is reduced.

  5. Intensive indoctrination. During this phase an individual is bombarded with the idea that one's self amounts to very little, that the group and its leader are everything, and that "outsiders" are misguided or hostile and to be feared and avoided. By eliciting confessions of the recruits fears and secrets, the cult produces intimacy and emotional vulnerability. A person's feelings of guilt and personal insufficiency are highlighted, and in such a context the idea of being directed by a perfect leader begins to be attractive.

  7. Action. At this point a critical moment arises as the guest, by now a seeker, is requested to take some action. This may involve confession of guilt or weakness, a renunciation of past behavior, and a pledge of loyalty to the group and to its leader in particular. Pressure to evoke a "concrete" expression of commitment typically follows. For example, Peoples Temple members were induced to sign away property holdings, bank accounts, and even their children to the cult. One former member recalled: "After you've made a commitment of this magnitude, it's hard to admit you've made a mistake, and you'll go to great lengths to rationalize what you've done."

To determine whether the techniques employed by the cults would be best described as super-salesmanship or whether cults really engage in coercive conversion and brainwashing would require a cult-by-cult and case-by-case analysis. It is clear, however, that many of the techniques closely parallel those described by Edgar Schein, Robert Lifton, and others, who have studied brainwashing techniques used on American soldiers captured during the Korean War. These techniques included efforts to undermine physical resistance, removal of all social and emotional supports, mortification exercises, and intensive indoctrination procedures. Moreover, the results are sometimes similar to brainwashing in that converts experience altered personalities, altered world views, and partial or complete loss of the ability to think clearly and abstractly.

The Beliefs or Theology of Cults

In commenting on the beliefs of various cults, I have to have a standard by which to compare them. As I mentioned earlier, I am a Christian, which means I have trusted Christ to forgive my sins and to accomplish His will and purposes in my life. So I will be describing briefly what Christians believe about major issues and then showing that the cults depart from these beliefs.

  1. In their world view, philosophy, or basic view of reality, there are three different categories of religious cults, although of course there is overlap:

  3. Major Beliefs. For the last 2000 years, the Christian church has held certain beliefs to be vital to one's faith. While there is some doctrinal disagreement within the three branches of Christianity - Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant - there is a general agreement among them as to the essentials of the faith, defined in the ancient, universal creeds of the early church like the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. Whatever disagreement the churches may have among its three branches, it is insignificant compared to the heretical beliefs of the cults. I will comment on four of the major beliefs of Christians and show how the cults differ.

IV. Conclusion

You can resist the cults and help your friends to resist. The greatest command in the Bible, according to Jesus Christ and the Jewish rabbis, is to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength. Don't surrender your mind or soul to the undue control of a cult group. You have a choice; God created you with the ability to be responsible for your own actions and destiny.

You, like all other humans, are wonderfully made and greatly loved by God, and deeply fallen from God. But you also are faced with a choice: you can establish a relationship with God by accepting His offer of forgiveness and eternal life, or you can ignore or reject His offer. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die to pay the penalty for your sins. Open your life to Him. Turn from your selfish desires to Him, and ask Him to come into your life, forgive your sins, and make you the kind of person He wants you to be. Then find a church that helps (not coerces!) you to obey Christ, worship God, and learn His Word, the Bible.