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Cults and World Religions

The Characteristics of Cultic Commitment
by Grady L Davis
B.Div., M.C.M., M.A., Ph.D.

Note: This document was originally prepared as a handout for courses that were taught either in a Christian seminary or in Christian churches in the 1980s. The vocabulary is therefore primarily geared toward that specific audience. Since Messianic Judaism as a group has no formal, detailed doctrinal position, it is difficult to speak about cults from a purely “Messianic Jewish” perspective.

Cults are sometimes referred to as “high-demand” religious groups because of the rigorous regimen and the unusual degree of commitment required of members.[1]

A former member of the Alamo Christian Foundation used biblical language in a letter to her parents to describe the kind of total commitment she was experiencing.

One indicator of cultic commitment is a willingness to strive for goals that seem impossible to achieve. A “shepherd” of a Children of God colony once told his fundraisers: “God wants you to go out in the field and do more than you’re supposed to do. Come back and say that you’re profitable servants and ask what more you can do.” Sun Myung Moon admonished the “true believer” to “invest yourself until you are consumed.”

Cults are defined as religious organizations that tend to be outside the mainstream of the dominant religious forms of any given society. In this sense, cults are not new to the American religious scene. Nineteenth-century America provided fertile soil for the growth of such culture-rejecting religious communities as the Shakers, Oneida, Arnana, Zoar, and the Harmony Society. Sociologist Rosabeth Moss Kanter presents a comparison of these nineteenth-century utopian communities with today’s cults. It lends itself to an analysis of the extremist cults we have been considering. The similarities between some of the communitarian groups of the 1800s and today’s religious cults give credence to the notion that there is indeed nothing new under the sun.

In the commune movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and in some of the New Age cults, the metaphor of the family remains. Dr. Kanter mentions a hippie commune that calls itself the “Lynch family.” And from the world of religious cults there is the “Love Family,” one of the front names for the Unification Church.

Dr. Kanter found that for communes-- past and present-- the problem of securing total and complete commitment is crucial. Group cohesiveness refers to the ability of members to “stick together,” to develop a common response to perceived threats from the “outside” or from “Satan.” And control involves the development of obedience to leaders and unquestioning conformity to the beliefs and values of the group.

There are a number of ways in which current cult groups generate commitment. These include:

[1. Sacrifice

When a young person is required to make certain “sacrifices” as a test of his faith or loyalty, his motivation to remain in the group rises considerably. All cult programs demand that new recruits “give up” something for joining.

Celibacy is a requirement or an encouraged ideal in a number of the New Age cults, and the diet was also consciously controlled to eliminate sexual stimulation in some groups.

Membership in a group like the Hare Krishnas means sacrificing attractive clothing, make-up, and other forms of personal adornment.

An austere life style, without the comforts and affluence of middle-class America, is an effective sacrifice mechanism. Hard work, substandard living conditions, non-indulgence, and little or no monetary reward-- all may characterize the committed cultist. Moon once gave this instruction: “You can put some dry food in your pockets, and you can eat as you walk.”

2. Investment

Through the process of investment, cult members’ commitment grows stronger. Tangible resources like cars, stereos, bank accounts, and stocks are turned over to the group upon joining.

According to the text of a formal report on the activities of the Children of God conducted by the Charity Frauds Bureau of the State of New York, “No ex-member was permitted to retain any of the possessions he ‘contributed’ nor to take them out when he left.”

3. Renunciation

Strong commitment is also built by means of renunciation, or “the relinquishing of relationships that are potentially disruptive to group cohesion.” The process of severing all past associations is a part of the pattern of thought reform common to all cults. After the initial phase of brainwashing is completed, there continues to be an emphasis on disengagement from the old and engagement with the new.

Renunciation usually involves relationships in three categories: with the outside world, within the couple, and with the family.

According to Dr. Kanter, “The outside society, a changing, turbulent, seductive place, poses a particular threat to the existence of utopian communities, so that most successful communities of the past developed sets of insulating boundaries-- rules and structural arrangements that minimized contact with the outside.”

The world outside the cult is viewed as a corrupt, evil place to be ventured into only for proselytizing, fund-raising, and other necessities. The threat to new converts is particularly real, and therefore “older” members are required to accompany the neophyte.

Some groups maintain facilities that are geographically removed from the “beaten path.”

Specialized terminology and linguistic patterns form what Kanter terms a “psychic boundary,” distinguishing the group from the larger society. In-group jargon emphasizes the separation of “thorn” from “us.”

Newspapers, TV, magazines, books other than certain “approved” religious literature-- all are prohibited in most groups.

Distinctive styles of dress also serve as insulating boundaries, as with Hare Krishna devotees whose saffron robes and hair styles gain attention and promote demarcation from the general population.

Cult groups also discourage relationships based on two-person attraction or friendship because such attachments pose potential threat to the group. Such “worldly attachments” as family and friends stand in the way of complete devotion for most cultists. Friendship was even discouraged.

Parents are referred to as “the devil in disguise,” and relatives are considered to be “just flesh relationships.”

Communal cults, past and present, frequently find that children are disruptive to the community and remove them them the group for rearing or schooling. This is illustrated by the comment of an ex-Hare Krishna member: “The young children were treated like a problem. The people were friendly toward them, but they were not openly or affectionately loved.”

4. Communion

This is the general term Dr. Kanter uses to describe a multiplicity of processes that enhance commitment: “connectedness, belonging, participation in a whole, mingling of the self into the group, fellowship.” Working, witnessing, and worshipping together create a powerful “we-feeling.”

They emphasize the importance not only of the group, but of the individual member. Cults achieve a sense of togetherness both by encouraging team effort and by repeatedly reinforcing the notion that “our team is the best of all possible teams.” Members are made to feel they are part of a cause that will revolutionize the world.

Especially with new converts, many cults employ principles of the power of positive thinking” to build loyalty and commitment to the group.

Another effective means of developing a “we-feeling” is to stress the exclusivity of a group’s belief system, particularly the path to salvation.

The Hare Krishnas are told of God’s special love tar their group and how the karmis (outsiders) are all being misled by maya (illusion). “By putting them down, we are built up,” says an ex-member.

Communion and commitment are further accomplished through frequent group meetings and participation in group ritual.

Persecution, imagined or real, tends to unify people, In the cults a sense of belonging is enhanced and commitment strengthened by what is perceived to be persecution. Many of the groups under consideration have received a “bad press”-- unfavorable publicity. Journalists, investigating legislators, parents, and even sociologists are transformed into “instruments of Satan” by defensive cultists.

5. Mortification Process

These processes are another means identified by Dr. Kanter for building commitment. “One intended consequence of mortification processes ... has been to strip away aspects of an individual’s previous identity, to make him dependent on authority for direction, and to place him in a position of uncertainty with respect to his role behavior until he learns and comes to accept the norms of the group.”

Many ex-members of the Hare Krishna movement talk about the “degredation rituals” which reinforce the notion that a Hare Krishna devotee is the lowliest of the low, an impure, fallen soul. The rejection of the individual ego and the physical body is evidenced by the fact that mirrors are virtually nonexistent in Hare Krishna temples.

Assaults on the self in the form of mortification of the body through physical activity and labor are also common in pseudo-Christian cults like the Alamo Foundation.

Another mortification mechanism involves the use of punishment, embarrassment, or some other means of applying sanctions to “deviant” members. Shunning is used toward members who don’t measure up to expectations.

New members are frequently segregated from more “spiritually advanced” members, and degrees of holiness or spiritual attainment are indicated by titles, positions, special wisdom or knowledge, and superior living conditions.

Again, “a part of the process of commitment is to find a common denominator with other people, to substitute a group-based identity for one based on individual differences.” Cult groups accomplish this by destroying a person’s sense of privacy and uniqueness. The individual ego is replaced by a communal ego.

The censoring or both incoming and outgoing mail is often practiced by these groups.

6. Transcendence

“This gives meaning and direction to the community by means of ideological systems and authority structures.” The experience of transcendence enables the member to find himself anew in something larger and greater. The sense of being connected with a transcendent moral order is convoyed to the individual through an often elaborate ideology or belief system, as well as through the charisma and authority of a powerful leader.

The various belief systems provide purpose and earring for the individual involved and legitimate the demands made on members by the group.

All religious cults, whether from the historical past or the 1970s and later, have strong central leaders who determine spiritual and structural guidelines and are the ultimate source or authority. Sun Myung Moon is intoxicated with self-confidence and has set himself up as the supreme role-model for his followers.

One theme seems to be present in one form or another through all the commitment mechanisms we have described. That focal theme is regimentation and discipline. Total commitment is nurtured in a control-oriented environment and manifested by an unyielding discipline. Whether it results in mind control or is present in something as innocuous as physical fitness exercises, the element of strict discipline is pervasive.

Rigid discipline and the kind of hyperactivity and tension it is capable of producing in the life of the cult convert probably explain one final characteristic of commitment that is physiological in nature. A serendipity in my research is the fact that, without exception, every female interviewed had experienced an interruption or change of some kind in her menstrual cycle.


 1. The material in this document is derived from Youth, Brainwashing, and the Extremist Cults by Ronald Enroth,  pp. 166-183. [RETURN]

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