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by Vicki Davies

The Oxford Dictionary defines cult as "a system of religious worship; devotion to or admiration of a person or thing". In the last 100 years, and especially since the 1960's the increase in new religions and cults has been enormous. Many of the followers are in their teens or early twenties. Yet they come from all ages and backgrounds. Mention the word cult and images of surrender, violence, sex and power comes uncomfortably to mind.

How can we tell what the movements are like? Most people used to dismiss them as small groups of cranks who were best left alone. Since the tragic mass suicide of the Jonestown People's Temple in Guyana, and TV coverage of brainwashing techniques in other cults, people have begun to realise the dangers such groups can represent.

New groups which attract the label 'cult' often have certain characteristics. They frequently have a very strong, charismatic leader. Absolute obedience to the leader and his teachings is often called for. This obedience can include giving up home, job, family and possessions. The prevailing state of mind within cults is the dependency upon someone higher up who satisfies perceived needs for protection and support. The strength of a group's influence depends upon its ability to control self esteem, financial support and emotional closeness among its members. Dependency upon authority figures can obscure personal judgement where people set aside any doubts by assuming that "they" must know what "they" are doing. Wanting to believe is a powerful dynamic initiating and sustaining cult-like behaviour. This type of submission to one who protects, rewards, and punishes provides an illusion of invulnerability. Under the auspices of this loyalty, followers legitimise behaviour that would otherwise be morally unacceptable, even to the point of sanctioning cruel and vicious actions.

There seems to be four main categories of cult. There are the self improvement groups such as Scientology, whose members are trying to discover themselves and improve their personalities. There are the eastern groups such as the Divine Light Mission, whose followers believe that the mystical East gives more meaning to life than the materialistic West. There are the unification groups such as the Moonies, who take elements of truth from many religions and claim to fulfil them all. There are the Christian deviation groups such as the Children of God and The Way, which seem to have been genuinely Christian to begin with but put so much emphasis on their own added teachings that they can no longer be called so.

There seems to be a growth in cults because many people, particularly the young, are thoroughly dissatisfied with society. Politics provides no answers. Science creates more problems than it solves. Mechanistic views of man and society have made man impersonal and in need of a true identity. The future seems frightening with the threat of nuclear war and the running down of natural resources. At the same time, family life is providing no security and the church in the West seems to be declining.

People are looking for help and in many cases the cults seem to offer it. They have a highly organised system to believe in and become involved with. They show real interest in welcoming new members and a real enthusiasm for spreading their message. By and large, members of the cults are sincere people who feel that they have discovered something important. If you speak to them on the street corner you will find most of them friendly enough - though rather persistent in their conversation. Most street level members genuinely feel that they are right in their beliefs.

Yet, many members have found out only too late that what they have become involved with has hidden undercurrents, which they are less than happy about. It can be very hard for a member to do anything about this when he is surrounded by the pressure of a close knit group.

The idea of cults become more and more unacceptable particularly when people hear of Jonestown, Waco and what went on in Tokyo recently. Many fundamentalist cults right now, hold the same potential for deadly violence as did the Peoples Temple.

Jim Jones, leader of the People's Temple Church regularly ordered his followers to drink an unknown liquid and syringe some into their children's mouths, telling them death would follow in 45 minutes. When the time had passed he told them the 'white night ritual' was to test their loyalty to the cause. On 18 November 1978, 913 members including 260 children drank the liquid at their jungle settlement in Jonestown, Guyana, South America. However, this time it was laced with cyanide. The death of all 913 took less than five minutes.

Jim Jones did everything he could to perpetuate the myth that he was god. Fraudulent psychic healing demonstrations; searching member's garbage for information to 'reveal'; drugging his followers to make it appear as though he were actually raising the dead. He promised the faithful they would be 'transformed' and live with him in heaven forever. The heaven he spoke of was on another planet. Jones did not himself take the poison, but was shot by someone else during the final death scene in Jonestown.

Another group of fundamentalists, had, by the usual formula, a charismatic psychopath who held the American F.B.I. (who seemingly missed the cult leader's intent and bungled the affair) at bay for 51 days, then torched a compound just outside the Texas town murdering almost ninety people. David Koresh, the self styled son of Christ and Christian fundamentalist is one of many fundamentalists around the world with the potential for destruction in the name of God. The big question is, was David Koresh killed at the siege or has the F.B.I created a deep mystery about him? Will he resurrect? No doubt there are those who will acknowledge him as the Messiah.

In early 1995, a Japanese cult based in Tokyo has been accused of placing gas bombs in the Japanese subway and killing a number of passengers.

Thus the word cult has received a very negative connotation in general society. To most people, any organisation that is "different" from the "norm" must be a cult. Unfortunately, this also takes in many aspects of the New Age movement. Something else to consider - cultism is a normal way of life for most people. Psychologist Arthur Diekman makes this statement to alert people that most of us adopt cult-like behaviours to fulfil a desire to fit in mainstream society. The cult behaviour may not be as obvious as what has been mentioned above, but the perceptions, beliefs, and critical judgements are affected by associations with informal cults to which everyone belongs. In his book, The Wrong Way Home: Uncovering the Patterns of Cult Behaviour in American Society, Diekman argues that our cult-ure operates on the same principles of authoritarianism as the obvious cults. e.g. "we look up at those who must be obeyed or down upon those who must obey us". This authoritarian tendency has its roots in the family structure.