Everything you should know about cults

From time to time, news items appear in the media that inform us of transgressions of the law or unusual behavior by the leaders or members of certain groups that are identified as cults. These are also present in our closest environment when someone comments that a friend, acquaintance or relative of someone has joined a sect.

What is a sect?

Well, it depends, since there is a certain polysemy and the term can take on different meanings. On the one hand, some religious groups and some people with a tendency to intransigence use the term to refer to others. For Jehovah’s Witnesses, all religions are sects, including all variants of Christianity. Only they are a non-sect. In other areas, a sect is used to refer to any group (usually religious) that is a minority in its environment. Without further ado. For example: “the Afro-American sects in Brazil” or “the satanic sects of the Spanish Levant”.

In politics, and increasingly so in recent years, the accusation of sectarianism is used to refer to rivals. It is a term that implies lack of objectivity, partisan bias, closed-mindedness, inability to dialogue with the adversary, etc. But in no way does it mean that the party accused of sectarianism is a sect, nor that the sectarian politician is a leader or member of a sect.

The usual use of the word sect attributes to it a series of connotations such as:

  • The sect is an aggregate of people who are related to each other and who share the consciousness of belonging to the same group.
  • The orientation of sects is religious, although the possibility of other interests that are not strictly religious is increasingly recognized: philosophical, personal wellbeing, ufological… With reluctance, the concept of sect has also been applied to small and radical political organizations, as well as to business organizations (especially some companies oriented towards aggressive sales methods).
  • The cult is a scam: an organization that sells a false product in order to obtain money, low-paid work, flattery or sexual favors from its followers.
  • The creators of the sect are unscrupulous psychopaths who have set up an operation to take advantage of the unwary who fall into their nets.
  • Cults take children and spouses away from their families.
  • Cult followers are lunatics with outlandish beliefs, unpredictable and alienated from society. To a certain extent, cults are not part of the society in which they find themselves.
  • Cults are all-consuming.
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Some of the clichés that are also associated with cults are issues such as tax evasion, sometimes mistreating members or children, practicing promiscuity, mass suicide, etc. These implications are, for the most part, correct. They more or less reflect a reality and there are certainly groups with this constellation of tendencies. However, an exception must be made: when we say that the beliefs of the sect are simply a false and self-serving invention of an unscrupulous impostor, how do we know? What if it is not so? What if they really believe it? What if their charisma does not depend so much on their ability to manipulate as on their blind conviction in what they affirm? If everything had been a crude lie of the sectarian leader, it would be expected that, sooner or later, some of these leaders would admit the deception. The lie could also be uncovered in other ways: writings evidencing fraudulent and maliciously and premeditatedly drawn plans or confessions collected by the closest disciples that they would later make public after their disillusionment. But this never happens.

On the other hand, the study of the biographies of sectarian leaders, of their trajectory before becoming leaders, suggests several profiles, all of them more favorable to the model of the fanatic than that of the swindler. These profiles are as follows:

  1. That of the stubborn activist who for a lifetime has battled for a cause in which he has gradually acquired leadership.
  2. That of the visionary, in the strictest sense of the term, who after an unexpected mystical experience (a revelation, a vision) begins a career as a preacher in which he succeeds in attracting a nucleus of people who support him and devote themselves unreservedly to the new cause.
  3. That of the mentally ill person with a chronic delusional disorder of mystical-messianic content.

Why are sects attributed a harmful and detrimental character?

What explains the emergence, since the 1970s, of an anti-sectarian movement present in most Western countries through a network of associations? Why have legislative initiatives aimed at tackling the problem of sects emerged in the European Parliament and in various national and regional parliaments?

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Because of their minority and marginal nature, they do not constitute a real danger to society as a whole: they do not threaten either our legal and institutional framework or economic stability. The risk that a sectarian group could seize political power is, at the moment, nil.

The problem is, in fact, the great capacity of sects to induce profound changes in their followers, sometimes rapid changes that affect their own personal identity. The new sectarian personality is often inexplicable to family and friends, who have the impression that “he is no longer the same” and that this newly acquired personality is not the result of spontaneous personal evolution, but the consequence of undue, excessive and unnatural influence.

Behavior of the sectarian follower

Curiously, the sectarian adept denigrates his previous personality, in which he supposedly felt empty and unhappy, and speaks of a new state of happiness never experienced before. The adepts of some sects are always smiling and surrounded by a beatific aura (others would say that they are spellbound). However, after a few years, when they finally leave the group, these same former followers explain that their happiness had a lot of self-deception, that it was false, and that it hid a personal suffering that they were forced to keep hidden. This is the first criticism that can be made of sectarian groups: they proclaim a happiness that ultimately proves to be deceptive.

The sectarian follower pours into the other members of the group, the leader, its objectives and common activities, a passion, energy and time that never cease to grow. Sometimes this is to the detriment of their sleep and their own health, their family life, their social relationships and their professional performance. Family and emotional relationships suffer, not only because of the objective amount of time dedicated to the group, but also because of emotional detachment. Interest, effort and availability for work are also diminished. In this way, the sectarian is not there, “with his head always elsewhere”, as family members often say. In some cases, the group offers a modus vivendi and thus the possibility of giving oneself body and soul to the sect, completely breaking any link with the presectarian environment. It is only when the sectarian decides to break with the group and return to his previous situation that he becomes aware of the damage caused.

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Characteristics of a sect

Sectarian groups induce in their followers an absolute submission to the leader and authority figures. The manifestations of this submission are manifold: obedience, servility, complete credulity in the face of any statement coming from the leader, willingness to accept any form of exploitation or violence, etc. It is, in essence, a form of slavery that is willingly accepted. Unlike what happens with the true slave, submission does not come from overt coercion or intimidation, but from an apparently voluntary process that takes place in the mind of the follower. Moreover, the submission is such that the group need not insist on discipline. The adepts voluntarily execute any suggestion. They have put aside their own initiative somewhere in the recesses of their being and confuse their free will with obedience. Nothing despairs the relatives more than this inability to realize the obvious. Consequently, and although it may not seem so at times, sectarian militancy implies a renunciation of one’s own freedom.

Risks of sectarian behavior

Finally, there is a wide range of risks associated with specific behaviors induced by sectarian groups, which will vary from case to case. I refer, for example, to the commission of crimes (with the consequent harm for the victims and the risk of penal consequences), the display of unethical behavior according to the criteria prior to joining the sect (criteria which will also be the same after leaving), the (almost always irreversible) handing over of personal assets to the group or the leader, the “kidnapping” of minors, the consequences of the deprivation of medical treatment or the administration of heterodox therapies, etc.

Finally, and to end on a positive note, it is necessary to dismantle one of the often repeated clichés: “whoever enters does not leave”. Sectarian militancy is not an irreversible phenomenon and the return to the previous situation often occurs as quickly and unpredictably as joining the sect.

For more information, consult a specialist in psychiatry.