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The Millennium is Here

The Millennium is Here – and So are the Cults

Lita Linzer Schwartz

Abington College, The Pennsylvania State University

Abstract

The beginning of a new century and a new Millennium seems to be an appropriate time to re-examine those movements that claim to have exclusive knowledge of what measures will save the world and who will be saved.  Special attention is paid to the role of women in the various cults, to new targets for recruiters, millennial predictions, and to techniques that may protect youths and others from those recruiters.  Consideration of the tie between cult group characteristics and the attacks of September 11, 2001 is also included.

Visionaries, or those who advertise themselves as such, said for several years that the world would self-destruct at the Millennium, that it would be the time of Armageddon, that salvation only for the chosen fewled by said visionary, of coursewould be available at the Millennium.  This is not an original thought; the “modern” version began with Nostradamus a few centuries ago, and there were similar predictions even 4,000 years ago.  A group leader often ambiguously sets the “end time,” but, as occurred at the turn of the Millennium, it sometimes coincides with a landmark date.  The visionaries, of course, have the path to salvation at their fingertips.  With all of the warnings as well about the potential disasters that Y2K was to have brought to the world of computers, it is a wonder that these words are available for you to read and that you are here to read them.  Given the significance of the Millennium to some visionaries, this seems an appropriate time to look anew at cults.

A Contemporary Orientation

Just so that we all start from the same place, let me share with you two definitions of a cult.  The first says that a “totalist type” cult is

a group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc.), designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community (West & Langone, 1986, pp.119-120).

A briefer, but equally cogent, definition was given by Robert Lifton, a psychiatrist particularly well-known for his work on thought reform of prisoners during the Korean War:

Cults can be identified by three characteristics: (1) a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power; (2) a process I call coercive persuasion or thought reform; (3) economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.  (Lifton, 1991, p. 2)

What Lifton calls “thought reform” is also known as “brainwashing.”  In a more recent book, he rephrased his description of a cult to include groups that incorporate “totalistic or thought-reform-like practices, a shift from worship of spiritual principles to worship of the person of the guru or leader, and a combination of spiritual quest from below and exploitation, usually economic or sexual, from above” (Lifton, 1999, p. 11).  He has also described the environment of cults in terms of their psychological characteristics: milieu control; mystical manipulation, which includes purification rites, confession, and self-criticism; a sacred science, the group’s religious claim to scientific truth; loading of language; and dispensing of existence with only true believers being “saved” (Lifton, 1997).  Of course, groups vary considerably along these dimensions and may change substantially over time.

Schwartz & Kaslow (1982) developed a method for comparing the practices of four religions or sects and four cults (Schwartz & Kaslow, 1982).  Their conclusions, expressed below in Table 1, are of course based on their personal observations and do not reflect quantitative empirical research.

Table 1

Comparison of characteristics among religious groups and cults

Characteristic

Group

(see below for expansion of abbreviations)

Lub

Amish

R.C.

Mor.

U.C.

Sci

Alamo

COG

Charismatic

Leader

?

X

X

X

X

Submission to

Authority

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

Communal

Lifestyle

X

X*

X

X

Rigid

Ideology

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

Restricted

Communication

X

X

X

X

Isolation from

Family

#

X

X*

X

X

Active

Recruiting

X

X

X

X

X

X

Physiologic

Deprivation

X

X

X

X

Hate/Fear of

Outsiders

X

X

X

X

Assets Turned

Over to Group

Tithe

Tithe

Contb..

Tithe

X

X*

X

X

*These hold true for members living within the group’s community, but not necessarily for all members.

#The Amish practice “shunning,” or separation for violating Church principles.

Lub – Lubavitcher/Chassidim; R.C. = Roman Catholic; Mor. = Mormon; U.C. = Unification Church; Sci = Scientology; COG = Children of God/The Family

Comparing the first four groups, considered legitimate religions or sects by society generally, with the second set of groups reveals that, in the researchers’ opinion, all eight groups are submissive to an authority figure – whether the Pope for Roman Catholics, the Bishop among the Amish, the Rebbe of the Lubavitcher Chassidim, or the head of the Mormon church, Rev. Moon of the Unification Church, or the current head of the Church of Scientology, the Family of God, or the Alamo Christian Foundation – and that all eight groups have a rigid ideology to which followers are supposed to adhere.  Only the four cultic groups had the other practices or characteristics in common: a charismatic leader obeyed by all without question, restricted communication outside the group, isolation from the member’s family of origin, active recruiting (often using “heavenly deception”), physiologic and other deprivation, contribution of all or nearly all assets to the group, and intensive preaching of hate and fear of outsiders.

Levine (1999) has a slightly different list of features that cults share, some of them overlapping what has already been stated:  charismatic leader, hierarchy, ideology, some written manifesto or Bible-like book, rules, rituals, neologisms or code words, meetings, internal code of honor, fairly homogeneous group in terms of age/socio-economic class/education.  Terrorist-type groups, those most likely to attempt to bring on an Armageddon, like the Aum Shinrikyo, have many of these same characteristics.  

A sub-group of the American Academy of Religion, called the New Religious Movements Group, has fairly recently emerged to study these groups, and has its own journal: Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternate and Emergent Religions (Niebuhr, 1999).  Another group that studies cults or “new religious movements” – the term preferred by sociologists, is the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, which also has a journal.

Popular culture also attends to these groups.  Two fairly recent examples are the TV program, “Touched by an Angel” on August 29, 1999 (a repeat), and mystery writer Faye Kellerman’s novel, Jupiter’s Bones, published in 1999.  Both demonstrate most of the characteristics just described to you with respect to group beliefs and behaviors.

A Variety of Perceptions

Recruits and Recruiters

We tend to think of cult recruits as being in their late teens and early twenties, and indeed many of them have been recruited as they left high school for the more rarefied atmosphere of dormitory life at college or to live with a friend as they entered the world of work.  As Levine (1999) asserted anew, “Youths are remarkably susceptible to ideological and passionate solicitations” (p. 342).  In addition, some of those recruited, for their money but not for the almost monastic life of some groups, have been the elderly living at a distance from family members.  He wasn’t looking at the senior citizens who are recruited, but many of them were and are also susceptible to heart-wringing appeals, and are particularly swayed by the idea that they are (supposedly) doing great good for someone else by their financial contributions.  Just briefly, in terms of the senior citizens who are recruited, on the one side, the cults are after the assets of the elderly; on the other side, the elderly welcome the attention provided by the recruiters.   They are once again made to feel important to someone (Collins & Frantz, 1994).  Without family members nearby, and in some cases feeling that their adult children have rejected or forgotten them, that feeling of importance is welcome.  In other words, many of the factors that make young people vulnerable to cult recruiting have the same effect on the elderly.  These include: ego-weakness, weak or non-existent family relations and support systems, stress, unmanageable and debilitating crises, and inadequate resources for survival (Curtis & Curtis, 1993).

It might be mentioned that there are political and racist groups that operate much like cults in terms of their deceptive recruiting techniques and some of their activities.  A former leader of the Aryan Nation, for example, speaks to high school students about that hate group, including why he left it.  He describes how these groups begin recruiting at the grade school level, using comic books or finding something in common about which to start a dialogue.  His reason for leaving was that, following his son’s operation for a cleft palate, an officer of the Aryan Nation reminded him that when the group gained power the son would have to be “euthanized” because of his genetic defect (Halper, 2000).  This, too, is violence.  The group not only preaches racism and intolerance of defects, but also practices it.  

What else is there in the youthful recruit-to-be and in the group that recruits him or her that creates a match of the two?  Some young people as they approach or arrive at significant crossroads in life may be beset by feelings of low self-esteem, alienation, even demoralization (Isser & Schwartz, 1988; Levine, 1999).  They seek affirmation of their existence as they seek to belong and to believe.  Even the two youths who created the tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado sought to belong – to a nebulous association of “outsiders” since they felt rejected by those who did belong to more acceptable groups in the student body.  The “uniform” of black coats and their behaviors all spoke to their feeling of being united, however loosely, with other “outsiders” in an attempt to control their situation.  In the Columbine case, they were asserting their sense of being “somebody”  their sense of power and control  as they shot their schoolmates.  What tragedy a cult leader could develop with such angry and estranged youths!

Other youths are idealists and have become impatient with and critical of established institutions in our society.  The cults appeal to that cynicism with the assertion that they have the answers to the world’s ills (Hunter, 1998).  Many of these young people are alienated from their families, and may not have had a strong relationship with their father (or a father figure) (Schwartz, 1998; Schwartz & Kaslow., 1982).  That may be even more true today, when there are so many single parent families, than when we surveyed ex-cult members some 20 years ago.  Psychological stress, identity diffusion, rootlessness, inability or unwillingness to make choices, and lack of consideration of long-term consequences of decisions made are other factors seen in those successfully recruited.  The early all-enveloping stages of being in the group, of being told how special you are, and of having someone else make decisions for you can be very seductive to some of these youths.

When it comes to cult leaders, we have a different picture.  I doubt that even Levine was aware when he wrote his article that there would be twin 12-year-olds leading a ragtag army  composed of fundamentalist Christians - named “God’s Army” - in a largely Buddhist environment through Thailand and Myanmar in an attempt to right wrongs that they perceived, particularly against their co-religionists.  The swagger that these cigar-smoking brothers have emerged even in still newspaper photos, and the charisma they must convey to have hundreds of males  adolescents and adults  following them obediently, is remarkable

Indeed, their followers “believe the twins have magical powers that guarantee victory and ward off harm” (McDowell, 2000).  They are also believed to be invulnerable to bullets and otherwise invincible.  They are no different than other charismatic cult leaders who must have a certain “something” to attract and keep a devoted following – usually comprised of late adolescents and young adults.  Even this little army had some of the characteristics of cults: the self-perception of being “special,” commitment, communal passion, almost super energy, intolerance of outsiders, a goal to be attained – combating violently wrongs perceived as having been done to them.  When they surrendered to the Thai Army early in 2001 (Associated Press, 2001), the boys admitted that they had no supernatural powers and expressed a desire to be reunited with their parents, then living in a refugee camp in Thailand.

In terms of those who become cult leaders, one might well watch the development of one traveling evangelist in Pennsylvania.  He is bearded, wears a long white robe, and preaches the Gospel as well as offering solutions to his listeners’ spiritual dilemmas.  Some residents of one community in the Northeast corner of Pennsylvania have already accepted Carl J. Joseph, who seems to prefer being known as “What’s Your Name,” as a personal emissary of Jesus.  In appearance, he certainly looks like the drawings of Jesus seen in some religious books (Florio, 2000).  He claims to have been a traveling preacher for nine years, although there is no indication of how he supported himself in this period.  Depending on one’s orientation, he might be perceived as just that  a traveling preacher  or as a possible future cult leader if enough people see him as a miraculous healer, or perhaps as a reincarnation of Jesus, among other possibilities.  The potential for development of a sizable group of adoring and obedient followers appears to be in place.  Indeed, an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer in mid-February 2000 warned Joseph of the possible impact of media celebrity in these words: “His season of temptation has begun.”

Robert Hale’s (1994) interesting study of who tends to be a serial killer is relevant to our investigation of cults and cult leaders.  Hale emphasizes the role of rejection in childhood or adolescence, often in the form of humiliation or embarrassment, as a critical factor in repeated attempts to do away with those who caused these negative feelings.  They keep killing because they can never kill their real target and so continue to slay the substitutes.  It occurred to me as I reread his paper that the repeated homicidal effort was something like Lady MacBeth washing her hands over and over again trying to get rid of the blood, yet never quite succeeding.  Hale’s paper was published before we became aware of Aum Shinrikyo, but it has application here as we look at the long festering anger at the world that caused Asahara to feel shamed and humiliated: his almost total blindness; his attendance at a special school that offered limited opportunities; his double failure in the all-important university examinations; the poverty in which his family lived; and his rejection by classmates and others in his community.  When Asahara became familiar with the writings of a number of religions, both Eastern and Western, he found a way to gain power over those who had in his mind wronged him. Jim Jones, too, had feelings of rejection, shame, and embarrassment stemming from his childhood that were later expressed in his manipulation of and his acts of violence toward others (Lifton, 1999).  Indeed, a sense of power, of complete control, is what being a cult leader is all about.

Mention should be made as well of devil worship groups and Satanic cults.  They may or may not have millennarian views, but they attract many youths who, like the boys in Colorado, Arkansas, and Tennessee, feel like outsiders among their age peers.  These groups tend to be isolated in specific communities rather than nationwide, and carry out their activities in different ways from other groups.  Animal sacrifice, public displays of Satanic signs and symbols, ritual abuse, and violations of burial sites are examples of their activities, the goals of which seem to be to rebel against society and perhaps frighten others, thereby giving the perpetrators a sense of power that they might not otherwise have.

Women and Cults

Looking at the role of women in cults, Palmer (1994) found that it varied from celibacy to virtual prostitution, from servitude to occasional leadership, from being a “sister” in the Unification Church to being “mother” among the Krishna Consciousness or Hare Krishna members.  Sexual exploitation is common, with the woman being manipulated into believing that her relationship with the group’s leader is an honor, a blessing, or a special gift (Lalich, 1997).  Typically, women could find what they needed, or felt they needed, in some group, whether it was simple acceptance after rejection, celibacy after being wounded emotionally, salvation, expression instead of repression, or moral certainty instead of moral ambiguity.  Among the needs met, according to Rosen (1997), a social worker who counts many ex-cult members among her clients, is a return to the relative peace of latency, i.e., an absence of sexuality.  They also respond positively to the idea of helping others, a common recruiting appeal (Rosedale, 1995).  

In some groups, a type of asexuality or unisexuality is practiced.  This is true for those who attain “Thetan” status in Scientology, and for the followers of Bo and Peep (Palmer, 1994), who are better known under other names (Marshall Applewhite and Bonni Lui Nettles) for their later leadership of the “Heaven’s Gate” cult, whose members committed mass suicide in March 1997.   Unisex clothing is worn and androgyny is practiced.  In other cults, men and women are seen as completely different, with women, for example, seen as less spiritually pure than men in ISKCON (the Hare Krishna movement).  Sexual celibacy is stressed among the Hare Krishnas, with intercourse reserved strictly for procreation, whereas a much more promiscuous lifestyle for both sexes was practiced among the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.  Unlike their role in most other cults, Bhagwan’s female followers were seen to have “superior charismatic qualities to men” and to be better “receptacles” for “Bhagwan’s energy” (Palmer, 1994, p. 52).  This, to non-followers, would appear to be a highly convenient way to exploit women sexually.  To many of the female members, however, the relaxed attitudes toward sexual relationships, opposition to marriage generally but fidelity in marriage specifically, the ban on pregnancy, and the pre-eminence of women in positions of authority were perceived as attractions (Palmer, 1994, p. 63).  Other groups have actively used women’s sexuality to attract prospective recruits, and the women were obviously able to rationalize this virtual prostitution as essential to the goals of the group.

This is very different from the role of women in the Unification Church, headed by Rev. and Mrs. Moon, where marriage is a key component of the group and is blessed – often literally by the thousands – by Rev. Moon.  The young women who became part of the Unification Church were often attracted by the cordial friendships that they could have with their “brothers,” uncomplicated by sexual advances, and welcomed the “Matching” done by Rev. Moon that resulted in a marriage sanctified by him but that was not consummated, typically, until several years later.

The value of marriage is elevated above the goal of personal happiness to become a means of uniting humanity, ushering in the millennium, and guaranteeing personal salvation.  Because of its religious basis and the impossibility of divorce, Unificationist way of marriage promises young women stability and permanence in their chosen career as wife and mother (Palmer, 1994, p. 102).

Elizabeth Claire Prophet, one of the few women to lead a cult (Church Universal and Triumphant, or CUT), says that she voluntarily remains in her body while she fulfills her missions of being “the one and only mouthpiece of God, . . . a guru and spiritual teacher in the flesh.  Thus, her word and position are beyond reproach, and her power over CUT members is absolute” (Gasde & Block, 1998, p. 197).  In the 1980s, CUT had moved to Montana and built underground shelters there in anticipation of a nuclear attack tied to expectations of the arrival of the millennium.  Prophet’s illness, which has reduced her functioning and her impact, has resulted in male leadership and a shift toward sharing their teachings out in the world rather than literally holing up in Montana (CUT leader diagnosed with Alzheimer’s amidst institutional changes, 1998).

Rosedale (1995), an attorney and president of the American Family Foundation, maintains that a woman is likely to have more postcult difficulties than a man, whether she marries within a cult and then seeks to leave with or without her husband, or  even if she remains single and attempts to leave.  If she attempts to accuse a cult leader of sexual abuse, if she attempts to take her children with her, if she claims that her husband was abusive, then anything that she may have told those in the group when she was first recruited is likely to be used against her, and anything she did while in the group will be used to proclaim her unfitness to have custody of her children.  Rosedale also believes that it is more difficult for a woman to regain her trust in others or her own self-esteem than it is for a man.  In this, there are similarities to victims of rape and to victims of spousal infidelity (Schwartz & Kaslow, 1997).

Any counselor working with women who have exited a cult needs to provide a low-key, psychologically safe and trustworthy environment to enable the client to feel she has some control over what is happening in therapy (Dahlen, 1997).  Indeed, this is essential to the client ultimately taking responsibility for her own healing.

Child Abuse

Abuse of children in cults takes many forms: physical punishment, isolation, starvation, absence of appropriate medical care, inadequate schooling, lack of appropriate affection, sexual abuse, and having “control” over their parents in the sense that they are encouraged, ordered even, to report the parents for any infractions of cult rules.  Getting the child out of such an atmosphere is a difficult matter, however, as cult leaders will invoke both “freedom of religion” and “separation of church and state” to justify any actions within the group.  The courts in some states have gained control over the lack of medical care problem on the grounds that the children had not chosen the religion and the state has a responsibility to intervene in terms of the welfare of its children.  

Millennial Predictions and Preoccupations

Focus on Predictions

Whether we consider Jim Jones of the People’s Temple, David Koresh of the  Branch Davidians at Waco, Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate, or any of a number of other self-styled leaders of doomsday-type cults, we find that each predicted the imminent end of the world and was able to convince his psychologically dependent followers that he was not only going to be able to save them from the calamity to be faced by non-believers, but would help them find a better way to reach the better world.  How neatly the members of Heaven’s Gate arranged themselves prior to death!  They were packed and ready, literally, even with a five-dollar bill in their “flight bags,” to ascend to the “Next Level” when the Hale-Bopp comet – supposedly with a spaceship in its tail to transport them – came closest to Earth in March 1997.  Similarly, members of the Solar Temple in Canada and France followed a precise pattern. (Schwartz & Kaslow, 2001) Apparently these self-described omniscient leaders based much of their forecast on Matthew Ch. 24 in which Jesus is credited with discussing the fall of Jerusalem and the coming of Armageddon (Fennell, 1997) or on the Book of Revelation (Lifton, 1999).

In 1984, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh “began to predict the death of two-thirds of humanity through the disease AIDS by the year 2000” (Palmer, 1994, p. 47).  Happily, that has not happened, although the deaths of tens of thousands of people from AIDS have been tragic.  Elizabeth Clare Prophet, former head of the Church Universal and Triumphant and self-described as a victim of Alzheimer’s disease, had predicted that the Apocalypse would occur in 1989, while other cult leaders predicted “the coming” in 1992 or 2007 (Weber, 1999).  The Unification Church is similarly concerned with salvation and the millennium, as noted just a moment ago. The saffron-robed Hare Krishna devotees practiced a regime almost of self-purification in anticipation of being saved when the world ends, living in “temple communes where gambling, intoxicants, meat, and illegitimate sexual activities were banned pending the world’s imminent collapse and the new era’s advent” (Weber, 1999, p. 210). At least one group claimed that Biblical sources predicted the Y2K problems . . . a bit of a stretch of interpretation. Evangelical Christians anticipated the end of the world on January 1st of 2000, with the Y2K bug being a major instrument in that collapse (Rosin, 1999).  Their predictions did not come true.  

Asahara, founder of Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult that tried to kill thousands in the Tokyo subway in 1995, focused on the millennium and the need for humanity either to follow his teachings or be wiped out in the Armageddon predicted earlier by Nostradamus (Lifton, 1999). In the Aum Shinrikyo cult, the concept called poa was derived from Tibetan Buddhist theology, and distorted so that instead of helping the dying to elevate their spiritual state, poa became a euphemism for murder.  “They claimed that people of higher consciousness, in killing designated enemies or ordinary people, were actually helping them on their journey toward Buddhahood” (Lifton, 1997, p. 25).  The people of higher consciousness were, of course, followers of Asahara, and only they would survive the imminent Armageddon.  [A side note: in January 2000, it was announced that Aum Shinrikyo had changed its name to “Aleph,” which as the writer of the article pointed out, “is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and signifies renewal for many Japanese” (Sims, 2000).  As a symbol of renewal, the letter Aleph is used in Japan in the name of many companies, a Japanese restaurant chain, even a prep school – all of which were thrown into turmoil by this move on the part of the cult.  Each of these legitimate enterprises felt very threatened by any possible connection to Aum.]

Members of the small Concerned Christians cult, who went to Jerusalem in 1998, predicted that the Second Coming of Christ, their reason for being in Israel, would be preceded by an earthquake in Denver (their home base) in October 1998.  Three months later, they were expelled by the Israelis who claimed that members of the group were planning to cause some catastrophe in Jerusalem to expedite that Second Coming (Kifner, 1999).  There was no such earthquake, and virtually nothing was heard of the group following its expulsion, except for a report in February 1999 that a number of the group’s members had leased homes in Greece (Associated Press, 1999).  They were expelled from Greece in December 1999 for overstaying their residence permits (Kifner, 1999).  The leader of the group, Monte Kim Miller, a former business executive who has claimed that he spoke with “the voice of God,” and who predicted that he would die in Jerusalem in 1999, was not in Jerusalem when his followers were deported and he has not been heard from or seen since then.

Of course, if the world doesn’t end as predicted, a variety of creative reasons may be developed to explain the delay.  Although a failed prophecy may have a negative impact on some aspects of cultic groups, research has shown that, on the whole, the members remain with the group.  The theory of cognitive dissonance explains how they modify and adapt contradictory information and their belief systems so that incongruence is resolved (Stewart, 1999).

One of the major concerns in government here and abroad in the years immediately preceding 2000 was the possibility of acts of international terrorism by politically-driven cult-type groups (Medd & Goldstein, 1997).  This concern may have contributed to some of the more hotly criticized anti-cult actions such as those taken at Waco, Texas.  On the other hand, one cannot blame the authorities entirely when they are confronted with groups predicting attacks, such as one series of press releases in the period August 1993 through October 1994 by a spokesman for a religious cult based in Missoula, Montana. This group claimed to have Biblical references that supported and predicted the bombing of the World Trade Center, retributive acts by Saddam Hussein, and so on (Chase, 1995).  Certainly the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and plans subsequently discovered for exploding the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels between New Jersey and New York were enough to cause acute anxiety in any government agency, and the well-known “copycat” format of psychologically disturbed people would elevate that anxiety significantly.

The more recent attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, are yet another example of terrorism by a politically-driven group led by a man with many of the characteristics of a cult leader, Osama bin Laden.  The magnitude of the attacks in this instance, however, have been regarded as an act of war, with military action undertaken against bin Laden and his group, the al-Queda, as well as heightened security at airports and other locations, and concentrated searches for possible terrorists in both the United States and a number of European countries.

Another very real cause for anxiety has been the proliferation of weapons, even nuclear weapons, which can certainly create an apocalypse.  Jim Jones began his ministry and People’s Temple in the late 1950s when a nuclear holocaust was indeed a sword hanging over our heads, and his self-described effort was to protect his followers from a nuclear holocaust.  Asahara, four decades later, was willing to use nuclear weapons to wipe out his enemies – most of the world, that is.  With detailed instructions for making bombs of all kinds available on the internet, the possibility that a deranged scientist, or any deranged but reasonably intelligent person, could build a nuclear bomb with which to bring on Armageddon is not entirely a figment of someone’s over-active imagination.  We are all too aware that it only takes one resourceful and resentful bomb-builder to hold a community or a nation hostage by threatening to explode the weapon.  Similarly, in late 2001 the appearance of anthrax-tainted mail and postal equipment, whether or not the work of the al-Queda group, has created considerable anxiety in the United States about the possible use of biochemical weapons to fulfill the self-ordained mission of someone or some group to destroy this country.

Lifton (1997) explained this threat as one of “forcing the end.”  He wrote:

When the discontented break isolation and join in communal religious practices where the shared fantasies can be manipulated between leader and followers, where there is a commitment to endtime, when there exists a megalomaniac attraction to nuclear weapons, when people embrace a system of killing that can be experienced as not killing (as in the case of Aum Shinrikyo and its concept of poa), when religious traditions feed that system of killing, when there arise ambitions of imposing salvation on all of humankind, then we have the factors that give birth to a phenomenon like Aum Shinrikyo” (pp. 28-29).

Lifton’s statement seems almost prophetic of the events that began on September 11, 2001.

Preventive Programs

It is often difficult to design preventive programs for situations that are largely unimaginable even to professionals.  However, there are ways to reduce the damage done by cults, since it is unlikely that we can wipe them out altogether.

There are strengths we can try to provide to all children so that they will not be as vulnerable to the patter of cult recruiters (and others) when they reach adolescence (Schwartz, 1991).  We can begin when the child is quite young, even two years old, to teach the child to make choices and to live with them.  If we begin with relatively inconsequential matters, like which color shirt to wear today, the child will become accustomed to choosing and to adjusting to the consequences of choice.  As the child gets older, the behavior of choice is extended to more areas of activity.  If the consequences are sometimes less than what the child expected, this, too, is a lesson that must be learned.  Taking responsibility is something too few accept today, and yet is a truly adult behavior.  The goal here is to have the child gain an internal locus of control, rather than a lack of responsibility stemming from having others make decisions for him or her.

There are lessons to be taught in school and in society.  For one thing, we can discuss the practices of cult recruiters so that young people, and the elderly, are alerted and forewarned.  Publicity in the form of public service messages directed at informing people of the techniques used – how misleading they are and how the recruiters look for the most gullible – is one possibility.  For most of the years that I taught at my Penn State campus just outside of Philadelphia, I would talk to my second-year students about cults, about cult recruiting techniques, and about what they could do not to be vulnerable to them.  These were, for the most part, late adolescents who had never lived away from home and who would be moving to central Pennsylvania for their Junior and Senior college years.  Many of them would return months later with stories of how they had been approached with a story about some group that was embarked on a great welfare project, and wouldn’t they come to dinner and hear about it to see if they might be interested in working on it.  Bells rang in their heads, they said, and they quickly walked the other way.  If they hadn’t remembered the course content, at least they had remembered something that might prove to be far more important in their lives.  

Professionals should be taught how to recognize child abuse, including its physical, emotional, sexual, educational, and medical aspects. They should also be made aware of the fact that child abuse in a religious context is just as unacceptable, legally and socially, as in a nonreligious context. As freedom of speech does not permit one to yell “Fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire, so one cannot justify child abuse under the freedom of religion clause.  “Spare the rod and spoil the child” may be an often-quoted adage, and was generally the rule for centuries in families and schools.  But if even the British recognize that caning, practiced so forcefully in their schools for generations, is abuse, there may yet be hope for others.

A Concluding Comment

As dangerous as many of us perceived cults to be twenty years ago, the danger was seen more in individual terms than on a national or even international scale.  As we begin this new century and millennium, it is apparent that we can no longer be naïve and insulated about the potentially destructive impact of the intense focus of cults and groups like them, especially when combined with sophisticated technology, communications, and transportation.

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Lita Linzer Schwartz, Ph.D., A.B.P.P. (Forensic Psychology) is Distinguished Professor Emerita at The Pennsylvania State University.  She has studied cults for more than a quarter-century, and has also written extensively on the family, on adoption, surrogate parenting, and divorce, on gifted children, and on neonaticide, infanticide, and filicide.