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Cults and World Religions

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.

The Seduction Syndrome[1]
by Grady L. Davis,

To understand the dynamics of the transformation process by which a young person becomes totally enveloped in an extremist cult, it is important to note the context from which he comes. What kind of background factors characterize the young people who are entering the New Age cults in such alarming numbers?

The majority of people who join new-age cults are between eighteen and twenty-two years old at the time of first contact. They are post-high school persons. This is when a potential joiner is most vulnerable. A profile of the typical cult member reveals that he or she is white, middle or upper-middle class, with at least some college education and a nominally religious upbringing.

Most have grown up in average American homes, and many have experienced varying degrees of communication problems with their parents. A number have known the pain and deprivation of a single-parent home, and perhaps for this reason some have strongly identified with older cult leaders who provide a parental image.

There is the successful, idealistic, very secure kind of person, who represents the most promising prospect as far as the leadership is concerned. On the other hand, there are clearly those recruits who have problem backgrounds and who have experienced varying degrees of “failure” according to the standards of middle-class America. These young people have dropped out of school, have been involved in the drug scene, come from broken homes, or have a history of emotional problems and unresolved personality conflicts.

Perhaps more than anything else, the young people pursuing cults today are involved in a search for identity and a quest for spiritual reality that provides clear-cut answers to their questions.

An army of hitchhikers and street people signify that American youth are running away from something.

Nevertheless, young people who have not fled suburbia and their families are also experiencing a crisis of identity. The characteristic ambiguity of adolescence has been compounded in recent years by the liberation ethos that has pervaded our culture and profoundly affected our sex-role relationships. Appropriate models for adulthood are often unclear on are undergoing considerable change. “Even such seemingly universal adult roles as mother and father are amorphous and changing... For youth, therefore, the development of a coherent adult identity and the resolution of generational discontinuities is becoming more difficult,” reports Francine Daner.

This identity confusion is commonplace among the children of affluence-- the chief target of the cults.

Some young people who were interviewed as part of this study had been pursuing spiritual rainbows for many months and had moved from church to church or even cult to cult in search of firm answers.

Cults not only provide firm answers to every question, but also make promises that appeal to those needing reassurance, confidence, and affirmation.

Although some young people who enter cults have little or no religious background, many have had nominal religious exposure. A few have had extensive experience in traditional churches or synagogues. Invariably cult seekers have found these conventional religious institutions to be lacking in spiritual depth and meaning-- incapable of inspiring commitment and providing clear-cut answers, and often hypocritical to everyday life. They view the religious life of their parents as shallow and perfunctory.

Any person experiencing an identity crisis or involved in a serious spiritual quest is theoretically vulnerable to the seductive outreach of the cults, but some are move vulnerable than others. On the basis of evidence drawn from the life histories of former members, it is clear that persons who have recently gone through some kind of painful life experience or who find themselves in a state of unusual anxiety, stress, or uncertainty are far more susceptible to cultic involvement.

For example, students just entering that strange and sometimes scary university world are particularly vulnerable to the appeal of a cult masquerading as a warm, friendly group offering fellowship and small-group intimacy to lonely freshmen.

Other precipitating life experiences that increase vulnerability include such things as a recent divorce of one’s parents or similar serious problem in the home; the extended, critical illness of a family member; a break-up with a girl friend or boy friend; poor academic performance or failure; and unpleasant experiences with drugs or sex. When someone is feeling exceedingly anxious, uncertain, hurt, lonely, unloved, confused, or guilty, that person is a prime prospect for those who come in the guise of religion offering a way out or “peace of mind.”

Some youth have had a single, traumatic life experience that triggers entrance into a cult, but a significant number might be characterized as having chronic emotional or personality problems of a pathological nature. Dr. John G. Clark, a psychiatrist, has spent several years researching the effects of cult membership on the mental and physical health of young people. He declared, “These inductees involved themselves in order to feel better, because they are excessively uncomfortable with the outside world and themselves. Such motivated conversions are ‘restitutive’ in that the ‘seeker’ is trying to restore himself to some semblance of comfort in a fresh, though false, reality.”

Mental health authorities feel that individuals who constitute what Dr. Clark calls the “restitutive group” run the risk of additional damage through prolonged exposure to extremist cults that practice mind control and prevent or inhibit autonomous behavior. The deterioration that may result is analogous to the fate of chronic schizophrenics institutionalized for many years; they eventually lose the ability to think and function with any degree of effectiveness, especially in the outside world.

Even more disturbing is the fact that young people who have no history of mental pathology, and who have relatively normal, healthy personalities upon entering cultic groups, suffer the destructive impact of a very real, very frightening form of thought control or brainwashing that subjugates the will and stifles independent thinking. There is increasing clinical evidence from the various behavioral sciences for the existence of a syndrome of seduction and mental subversion involving cult converts. This is a matter of both great human concern and professional interest.

From the Christian perspective, there clearly are spiritual dimensions to the seduction syndrome, and these are discusses in the handout “The Characteristics of Cultic Commitment.” First we must consider the psychological and sociological components of mind control, or-- as some prefer to call it-- “coercive persuasion.”

The word “brainwashing” is somewhat imprecise, as it has been variously defined and applied. Nevertheless, it regularly appears in scholarly literature along with more academic-sounding equivalent terms like “thought control,” “mind control,” “psychological kidnapping,” and “coercive persuasion.”

Social scientists have emphasized the very important role that group influences play in thought reform. They have pointed out striking similarities between what is occurring in the contemporary cults and the brainwashing that took place in China and Korea during the early 1950s. Rabbi Maurice Davis, an outspoken critic of Moon, stated this concerning the Unification Church:

 “The last time I ever witnessed a movement that had these qualifications:

(1) a totally monolithic movement with a single point of view and a single authoritarian head;

(2) replete with fanatical followers who are prepared and programmed to do anything their master says;

(3) supplied by absolutely unlimited funds;

 (4) with a hatred of everyone on the outside;

(5) with suspicion of parents, against their parents--

the last movement that had those qualifications was the Nazi youth movement, and I tell you, I’m scared.”

It is our contention that psychologically persuasive techniques and the dynamics of spiritual seduction combine with group forces and processes to cause youth caught up in the cults to accept ideas, attitudes, and behaviors quite foreign to them prior to their involvement in the groups.

The transformation of personality and thinking that occurs in the cults includes, as already suggested, a highly seductive process involving individuals who are already quite susceptible:

  1. The first crucial element in the syndrome is gaining access to potential converts-- recruitment tactics. Cultists have an uncanny ability to single out such individuals in a crowd; they seem to sense those who are ripe for the plucking. Frequently, deceitful means are used to entice a young person to make initial inquiry. A former member of the Moon movement claims he was instructed to be on the lookout for people wearing backpacks, people on the move. He was also told to avoid Mormons and evangelical Christians-- anyone holding firm religious beliefs and possessing substantial knowledge of the Bible was not considered worth the effort. Persons with some religious background and slight acquaintance with Scripture were more promising targets.

  2. Next, once tentative interest has been expressed by the potential convert, intense group pressure and groups activity are initiated. Lectures, sermons, Bible studies, and indoctrination sessions are part of a constant round of activity designed to surround the new recruit with an all-encompassing rhetoric.

  3. All ex-members of extremist cults report having experienced some kind of sensory deprivation-- usually food and sleep. Starchy, low-protein diets combined with only four or five hours of sleep each night wear down one’s physical and psychological defenses and make a person even more vulnerable to indoctrination.

  4. The imposition of guilt and fear is basic to the brainwashing process. That a person’s eternal destiny will be jeopardized if he abandons the group is a common belief. They are made to feel guilty even if they wanted to be alone to think. A major emphasis of the demand for purity is to bring out feelings of guilt on the part of the participants. The rigorous standards are seldom met; the individual nearly always falls short and is left remorseful and repentant. Alamo Christian Foundation is a prime example of a cult that effects mind control through fear. They foster an intense fear of a wrathful God.

  5. Members of extremist cults undergo a dramatic change in world view. Efforts are made to alter their former attitude toward and conception of the world, the nature of reality, and the ends and purposes of human life. This shift in world view is accomplished through a process of re-socialization that includes a “stripping process” by which the identity of the individual is greatly weakened, sometimes destroyed. The person is stripped of his personal possessions.

  6. The cultist is stripped of his past. Renunciation and rejection of his prior associations and relationships is mandatory. All connections with family, friends, and the home community are severed. The past must be submerged; reality becomes the present. Cultists not only claim to have discovered a new “spiritual family,” but in many cases acquire a new name. Some observers suggest that using Bible names or “spiritual” names helps to avoid detection by searching parents and law enforcement personnel. More pertinent to our analysis is the fact that acquiring a new name reinforces the act of severing all ties, familial and cultural.

  7. Without exception, the parents who contributed to this research effort commented on the drastic, sometimes sudden personality changes they observed in their children. Statements like “He is not the same person” and “She’s not the same daughter I once knew” are common. Many parents and friends of cult members have also observed changes in voice, posture, mannerisms, and even handwriting.

  8. There is ample evidence that brainwashing as practiced by the cults impairs logical reasoning processes and alters interpersonal relationship patterns. In some extreme cases, individuals have experienced a loss of such basic skills as reading and simple arithmetic. This is most evident in the groups that officially disparage the mind.

  9. Finally, the assault on the convert’s prior identity and his subsequently assuming a totally new identity sometimes involve a pattern of personality regression. This is especially the case in the Moon movement, where parents and other observers frequently report that converts have regressed to the level of early teen dependence. A childlike ego state is fostered in the person, and the wholesome innocence of early adolescence appears to be upheld as an ideal.

Dr. Clark says, “The fact of a personality shift in my opinion is established. The fact that this is a phenomenon basically unfamiliar to the mental health profession I am certain of. The fact that our ordinary methods of treatment don’t work is also clear, as are the frightening hazards to the process of personal growth and mental health.”


  1. This material is derived from pp. 149-165 of Youth, Brainwashing, and the Extremist Cults by Ronald Enroth. [RETURN]

Page last updated on Saturday, 23 September 2023 11:33 AM
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