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The Marks of a Cult!

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One thing I dealt with quite extensively in the early years of my priesthood were cults. Fine high school students from our best families who taught religion classes to our younger children went off to college. In less than a year, some of the brightest and best of our young people had joined a cult at the university where they were freshmen. 

Kim’s parents were so distraught over their daughter’s joining a cult, that they set up an appointment for her to see me when she had a college break. Not only did Kim show up, but a cult member came with her. I hardly recognized Kim from the last time I had seen her when she went off to college. She always had the most gorgeous blond hair that flowed down to her waist. Now it was all cut off and I stopped counting her new ear rings when I got to ten. Both of them were wearing Army jackets that did not cover the new tattoos on Kim’s wrists. 

Both Kim and her new boyfriend hardly made sense when I tried to carry on a conversation with them. I had to leave them for just a couple of minutes in the tiny office where we were sitting. When I returned the two of them were on the floor making out. Through much prayer and some extensive counselling, Kim was able in a couple of years to return to her former life. 

In another suburban parish where I was assigned, Mike who came from the best of families, went off to college. In a matter of months he had joined a cult. His whole outlook on life changed. Where he once had morals and a wonderful value system, these were now gone. His family was so concerned that they decided to take drastic action, no matter the cost. They hired a crew who followed Mike around the college campus in a van. When they finally saw him alone with no one around, they grabbed him, gagged him and hauled him off in the van. 

They took Mike to a deserted hut in the middle of nowhere. There a couple of experts trained in mind-control worked on Mike for over two months to get him to understand that all the lies and the misinformation he had been fed was false. He finally came around, but it took many months. I was afraid to ask the family what the financial cost of all of this amounted to. Since I knew Mike’s family so well, I was well aware of what the emotional cost was. They all aged several years because of what Mike had put them through. Due to all the stress, Mike’s father had a stroke and wound up in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. 

All of this was happening in my life on a small scale, while larger cults were making headlines. The “Jonestown Massacre” occurred on November 18, 1978, when 918 members of the American cult called the People’s Temple died in a mass suicide murder. This all happened because of one man, Jim Jones, the cult leader. Many of the dead were young children. 

The “Waco Massacre” was the result of the Branch Davidian cult. It was carried out in Waco, Texas by the US Military between February 28 and April 19, 1993. The Branch Davidians followed the direction of their cult leader, David Koresh. The ATF suspected the stockpiling of illegal weapons and other illegal activity. An intense gunfight erupted. Four government agents died. A siege lasted for 51 days followed by a tear gas attack and a terrible fire. The fire killed 76 Branch Davidians, including 25 children, 2 pregnant women and the cult leader, David Koresh. 

Whether on a small scale that I worked with or on a large scale, as with the “Jonestown Massacre,” the “Waco Massacre,” and Nazism under Hitler, I have learned that there are EIGHT DISTINCTIVE MARKS that come into play with each and every cult member and these MARKS can last for years and years. 

  1. Authoritarian:  There is always a central, charismatic, living human being who commands total loyalty and demands allegiance. 
  2. Oppositional:  Their beliefs, practices and values are counter to those of the dominant culture.
  3. Exclusivistic:  They are the ONLY GROUP that possesses “the truth” and they will make everything right again.
  4. Legalistic:  There are rules, beliefs and slogans from the cult leader that must be followed and repeated over and over again.
  5. Subjective:  The emphasis is on the experiential, the feelings and the emotions. Masses of cult members get easily stirred up at rallies. This goes hand-in-hand with their anti-intellectualism and their anti-scientific approach. 
  6. Persecution-conscience:  The cult leader and the cult members feel that they are being singled out and are being persecuted by those in the mainstream – by parents, by authority figures, by the media, of course, and by the government. 
  7. Sanction-oriented:  The cult leader and the cult members require conformity in practice and in belief. Severe sanctions are leveled against any wayward cult member who might choose to desist, criticize the cult leader or leave.
  8. Esoteric:  The cult leader and the cult members promote beliefs of secrecy and concealment. “Truth” is thus taught on two levels, inner truth and outer truth, where misinformation and lies can be easily promoted on both levels as “truth”.


Thanks to Cottonbro Studio for the photo. 

What are YOUR thoughts? What is YOUR experience in dealing with cults and cult members? Have YOU found the eight distinctive marks to be the relevant ones?


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