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Cults keep their followers away from the true source of healing

Even Christianity is not immune to spiritual pathology

By on Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Jim Jones, founder of the Peoples Temple, which ended with the mass suicide of 900 members (AP photo)

Jim Jones, founder of the Peoples Temple, which ended with the mass suicide of 900 members (AP photo)

I was leafing through a book entitled Further Along the Road Less Travelled by M Scott Peck the other day. This author, for those not acquainted with him, wrote a bestseller in the 1980s called The Road Less Travelled, about the wisdom he had gained from his own clinical experiences as a psychiatrist, then a psychotherapist and “healer”. I put the word “healer” in quote marks, not because Peck might not have brought some solace and insight into the lives of some troubled people, but because, like the word “charismatic”, it is thrown about too easily in these troubled times when many people are searching for healing (or so it seems), not aware of where the source of all true healing is to be found: in Christ.

Quite a lot of this sequel is really pop psychology – not exactly bad, but very simplistic. Yet almost any book can yield something of interest. I found it at the end of Peck’s book where he lists the 10 characteristics in his view of what makes a cult:

1. Idolatry of a single charismatic leader
2. A revered inner circle
3. Secrecy of management
4. Financial evasiveness
5. Dependency
6. Conformity
7. Special language
8. Dogmatic doctrine
9. Heresy
10. God in captivity

This list seems to make sense. You don’t have to be a famous actor, like Tom Cruise, whose odd beliefs have been in the news recently, to be vulnerable to what a cult has to offer. If you lack a close father-figure in your life, a cult generally offers you one – even if, like the late Jim Jones, he is also bizarre and sinister. If you feel insignificant, joining a cult will give you status and importance. You also don’t mind the secrecy, as long as you are part of it and others are kept out. If making choices about your life is stressful, a cult will make them for you without you realising your dependency. If you feel lonely, it will offer a kind of community, although at the price of conformity to its rules and dogmas. And, of course, the further you become ensnared by the cult and its twisted idea of “God”, the further away you move from discovering God Himself in the person of Christ.

World religions like Christianity are not immune from occasional symptoms of this spiritual pathology. Within the Church herself, new movements sometimes start up which have worrying cult-like features. I am thinking here of the Legionaries of Christ. In their heyday they seemed to go in for an unhealthy and rather alarming conformity, even down to the same hairstyle for their seminarians; there was definitely financial evasiveness and a secretive inner circle; and their founder, the late Fr Marcial Maciel, was too keen on cultivating his own “charismatic” public image at the expense of holiness – as was discovered late in the day when many shameful cover-ups about his personal life eventually came to light.

If the truth will set you free, lies, such as those peddled by cults, always lead to enslavement of the soul.

  • New Old School

    Thank you for drawing attention to a very useful checklist.

    And it’s useful for not only watching out for cults but also cult-like behaviour. The latter being particularly important for Catholics as we don’t have to look very far to see such dangers within our own church.

    From my own dealings with for example the Neo-Catechumenal Way communities, I can see how each point on that list can be ticked off…

  • karlf

    It just goes to show how easy it is for healthy, intelligent people to be led to believe in ‘truths’, which to those of us on the outside appear as such blatant fallacies.

  • Lewispbuckingham

     Such as nothing is quite complicated and has structure.

  • Parasum

    Let’s apply those ten points to the CC:

    1. Personality cult of the Pope
    2. Not really
    3. Yes
    4. In most respects
    5. Yes.
    6. Yes
    7. Yes
    8. Yes
    9. Yes
    10.Yes – the Church’s Gospel is about the Church: Christ & His Work is an add-on, to enhance the Church. 

    2. is the only exception, and it may not even be complete. Still, 9 black marks out of 10 is not good. 4  is at most a partial exception – that still leaves 8 out of 10.

    There are some indices he does not use, which may be important for specifically Christian types of cultism.

    “Within the Church herself, new movements sometimes start up which have worrying cult-like features.”

    ## That could be applied, to some degree, to monasticism (it is apt to be forgotten that early monasticism was not universally welcomed in the Church): and to any body which makes a separation  between the great mass of the Church, & itself. Jesus founded a lay movement. Not a movement in which some were first class Christians because of their being religious or clergy – let alone a Church in which the laity were little more than cash cows or helots for the “real Christians” – the religious & clergy.

    The Vatican appears to be woefully ignorant of the physiognomy of cults – if it had not been, it would have death with the L.C. & its dependent bodies far sooner. It recognises sectarian behaviour only of it does not occur within the CC. And these people are supposed to be qualified as our fathers in God & our shepherds ! That is enough to show how dysfunctional the institutional Church is.

  • Robert Johnson

    I like the Deism definition of a cult taken from the site of the World Union of Deists ( : “In Deism, a cult is an embracing of unreasonable beliefs by a group of people. Based on this definition, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all cults because their members suspend their God-given reason in order to believe or accept the unreasonable dogmatic teachings and superstitions such as God giving real estate as a gift to the Jews, the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, faith-healing and Mohammed’s ascension to heaven, among many more false and unreasonable claims. Because Deism always promotes free and independent thought and reason, it is impossible for Deism to become a cult.” 

  • Lewispbuckingham

     I wonder what the Deists believe in, apart from God.I am glad they are not a cult.

  • aearon43

    1. At least outside of Italy, this isn’t really true. The current pope’s style is fairly academic and he doesn’t draw excessive attention to himself the way a cult leader would. Yes, visitors to Rome like to hear him speak and say Mass, but most Catholics I don’t think pay much attention to the pope, at least on a day to day basis. There is not really any need to, you can be a good Catholic without ever listening to a word the pope says, as long as you receive the sacraments, fight against sin, etc. Yes, people do get excited to see him, but I’m not sure that qualifies as a “cult of personality.”

    2. ok

    3. How is it secret? Are you talking about the Vatican or individual dioceses? The rank structure of the Church is fully public. Are you imagining that the Pope Benedict XVI is, say, a “puppet” of some “secret pope?” If you’re referring to the Secret Archives, the Holy See does have the right to some level of confidentiality like everyone else. I don’t think there’s anything really amazing that’s being withheld though, are you suggesting some kind of Dan Brown type conspiracy?

    4. Again, are you talking about the Vatican or individual dioceses or churches? My local parish publishes a general outline of its income and expenses, and I believe the diocese does as well. The Vatican actually volunteered for some kind of audit by the EU or something along those lines — it was in the news. Again, some level of confidentiality is appropriate here, for salaries and that kind of thing, but I think the level of transparency is similar to what you would normally find at other private institutions.

    5. I suppose this may be true for some people. There is a spiritual dependency, yes, but not the kind of total dependency that you would see in a cult, where the cult basically controls the person’s entire life. Many Catholics are business owners, etc. and quite in control of their own affairs.

    6. This is pretty silly considering that Catholics can be found in every country in the world. If you took a Catholic from Asia, Africa, Europe, and North and South America, would an objective observer find them to be a “conformist” group? Probably not, right? But again for there to be any sort of group identity there does have to be some level of “conformity” to the basic shared beliefs and practices. Music lovers all “conform” to a passion and respect for music, that doesn’t make them a cult.

    7. Ok, yes, Latin for one and theological terminology. True also for any specialized field.

    8-9. Yes. It should be said though that the Church does allow debate within certain limits, and that people who have serious issues with doctrine are generally welcome to debate them in a civil fashion.

    10. So, you’re a Protestant. You’re entitled to that opinion, but Protestant churches are churches too and share many of the same attributes as the Catholic church that you mention. The arguments against Protestantism have been made many times before and much more skillfully than I could be able to do so. However, note some points:
    - Who decided what books were in the Bible?
    - Why did Jesus say to Peter, upon this rock…?
    - What to do about the more practical and logistical issues of groups of Christians who want to join up together?