Occasionally there are news reports containing shocking information about individuals or groups that have come under the sinister control of organisations that claim to be religious. One outstanding example is the mass suicide of nine hundred men, women and children in a Guyanan jungle in 1978. The “Reverend” Jim Jones led his followers from California into an isolated South American village because of the pressures of the twentieth century world and his conviction of an approaching apocalypse, or dramatic end to the world. Everyone outside that community was seen as an enemy, leading eventually to such a feeling of desperate persecution that all of Jones’s followers were persuaded by him to take a lethal poisoned drink.
Before and since that event there have been other examples of people blindly following the commands of a powerful personality. Young people are often susceptible to this kind of persuasion, leaving their families because of the attraction of a mystical philosophy, without realising the dangers involved. Some of these excursions have also ended in tragedy. Parents are naturally very concerned lest their own children are drawn into the activities of a cult and away from the principles they have been taught in their families. Warnings are sometimes given about different groups who target those who are young and impressionable. We need to know the factors that mark out cults, and what it is that can make them dangerous or lead to tragedies like those in Jonestown.
We need first of all to determine the factors that create a cult. Is anyone who believes differently from us, automatically a member of a cult? Some literature circulated by various cult help groups suggests that any organisation that does not accept the teachings of the mainstream Christian Churches is a cult. But is it right for non-conformists to be likened to the fanatical groups we have briefly considered? What exactly is a cult?
Are All Minority Religions Cults?
We are not helped very much by the word itself, which refers simply to worship, devotion or homage. But a related word – ‘sect’ – helps to distinguish groups …