Isn’t religion supposed to be all about love, goodness, and fixing the problems humanity faces? How is it that an organization which has a religious basis can cause dreadful harm to the life of a member and in some cases grief to his or her family and friends?
A religious cult will most likely have a benign sounding name which will probably include the word God in one form or another, Jesus or other prominent biblical identities, perhaps the name of its founder or of a key belief of the group. This name will give no clue to what really goes on within it. By way of example, can you see anything nasty about the name Worldwide Church of God? Yet it was a group causing harm to people in dozens of countries around the globe.
Not all cults are considered as troublesome, even though persuasive techniques may be used. Arguments over whether a particular group is a harmful cult will always occur however a detailed look at some typical damaging cult behavior will help you make this important determination for yourself. Even if you decide a particular group is not totally cult-like, you will be able to decide what kinds of traits and behaviours are unhealthy or undesirable, and avoid them.
To examine how such organizations are so destructive, let’s look at the characteristics of a cult discussed in chapter two.
1. Usually headed by a strong and charismatic leader who may claim to have direct contact with God beyond that of anyone else or may even claim to be God on Earth, Jesus, or speaking as some other famous religious leader re-incarnated.
In the case of a cult which is small in size, and confined to a limited local area, the leader will have total control over the group’s affairs. He or she will be aware of the lives of each member and will have control or at least a large amount of influence over them.
With large cults spread over a whole country or around the world as Worldwide was, the leader must appoint a trusted group of elders or ministers to exercise his or her will in each local area. These people will be out to impress their leader or those above them if a chain of command exists and may be even more authoritarian than the leader is.
This continued mind control robs individual members of their normal ability to think clearly and thought processes become distorted with the cult’s views on all aspects of life. People in this situation lose ability to make major and sometimes even minor decisions.
Worldwide had an authoritarian chain of command as its structure of Government from the top down and this is the way it was supposed to work. At the top was God the Father then Jesus the son of God, Arch-angels such as Michael and Gabriel, regular angels, and here on earth, Armstrong as the modern-day apostle, followed by a number of Ministers with the rank of Evangelist. After that came Ministers with a rank of Pastor, Preaching elders, local elders and deacons with regular members at the bottom of the heap completing the story.
Get the picture? The chain of command was clearly defined and it was easy then for the cult to say that God was in charge and backed up all decisions made here on this planet within the group.
Members were taught that a challenge to the authority of Armstrong or a Minister was a challenge to God himself. Obedience through fear was the result and people who are frightened are easy to control. We were taught that if a decision made by a superior within WCG was wrong and even if we knew it, we must still obey as God would sort it out.
2. The leader and those around him or her live a luxurious life-style while the regular member struggles in poverty due to financial demands placed on them by the cult.
Cults often demand or trick members into giving over large sums of money on a regular basis. Sometimes cults will take-over completely the control of the financial affairs of members.
Of course this results in poverty for the average member and although the money is supposedly used to preach the Gospel or to bring help to the needy, most of it seems to find its way into benefiting the leader and those high in the governmental structure of the group.
Good old WCG was typically cultish here too and as already mentioned, Armstrong flew all over the world in a private jet fully funded by the hard working and loyal members. The justification for this was that he had so many world leaders to visit; it just wouldn’t be practical to use commercial airliners. How many “ordinary” members had a fly in it? I didn’t even see it.
The pay local Ministers or the other officials within the group received wasn’t discussed however large and well appointed homes were the order of the day for these people. Only members who were personal friends or who informed on others received invitations to visit such places.
During my life in the cult, I can’t remember such an invitation for my parents and I to visit, yet some of our much needed cash contributed to this wealth.
The cult prided itself on not passing an offering plate around during weekly Church however this was a crafty disguise as the group received huge amounts of money due to its enforcement of a corruption of the Old Testament tithing system.
As well as this, so-called free-will offerings were taken up during the seemingly endless round of Church services throughout the annual Sabbaths briefly covered earlier. The offering would be preceded by a message from the podium consisting of emotional black-mail describing how the “Church” needed as much cash as we could give in order to do God’s work in the short time we supposedly had left.
3. Cults frequently have a persecution complex, that is, they fear and teach their members to fear “the outside World”.
This behavior leads to the member suspecting the motives of anyone not in the group and causes extreme distrust. It also brings about division in families where one person is a cult member and others within the family are not. In many cases, contact between the cult member and his or her family “outside” is forbidden. This lack of normal family interaction is of particular harm in the case of second or third generation cult members. It is a situation that will be covered in more detail later.
During Chapter 1, I briefly mentioned how family ties were damaged for me because of social isolation. WCG believed that it would be persecuted and as members, we all dreaded this and sometimes discussed whether we would have the strength to admit that we were Church members if the police or other authorities came to the front door. We were taught that even trusted neighbours would probably turn on us one day.
See the fear and the distrust? Children have huge issues with this when brought up with it and nightmares disturbed my sleep from time to time.
4. Cult messages often have a pre-occupation with fear of “the wrath to come”. This is used to deliberately scare members and prospective members in order to gain their attention and make them susceptible to mind control.
It is beyond the purpose of this book to cover a lengthy and technical explanation of what mind control actually is, however for more detail on the subject, again please visit www.factnet.org
Suffice it to say here that mind control is a way of convincing someone of adopting a belief system that he or she wouldn’t have otherwise come across as his or her own. Sleep deprivation and constant repetition of religious messages may be used to hammer-home the belief system into the member or new recruit of the group.
High-tech sound and lighting effects are likely to produce an altered state of consciousness in a significant number of people making them highly susceptible to various teachings of religious cults. The aim of the preacher is to reduce the function of the left side of the brain of the listener. This is the analytical side and is the most likely to resist new or radical messages. The right side of the brain is the creative and artistic side and is more suggestible. Of course resistance is not what cults need in order to gain new recruits.
Some sects use various meditation techniques, chanting or even drugs to break-down resistance and turn people into virtual sponges, willing to absorb all of the ideas and beliefs of the group.
Cults often like to stress the more frightening parts of the Bible such as the book of Revelation, using these writings to bring fear into the thinking of members and prospective recruits.
Then the preacher from the cult promises “deliverance” from these horrible events provided of course the fearful person obeys in full all the teachings of the group and comes to God through and only through the path of the particular organization.
Armstrong held to the doctrine known as “British Israelism”, that is, he believed that the people of the U.S. Canada, Britain, some from Northwestern Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the whites of South Africa were descended from the so-called lost tribes of Israel.
He also believed that a time of terrible and unimaginable punishment was about to come upon the above mentioned people because of what he saw as our departure from the ways of God. We in Worldwide were taught that the most horrible tortures you could ever dread would soon come to our country.
If you are a sensitive person then this paragraph might cause some difficulty for you. As a child, I clearly remember a message in Church when a torture apparently used by Japanese troops during WW2 was detailed. The victim was forced to drink as much water as possible and is made to lie down on their back. Then he or she is jumped on and the stomach is destroyed.
Would you tell a story like that to your kids before bedtime? Children in WCG had no choice; we had to listen to stuff like that, no wonder about the nightmares. The thrust of the message was to indicate that such terrible events were to happen again and we would go through it too if we didn’t obey the teachings of the sect.
5. Ex-members are usually shunned and if a family member leaves the cult, it’s not unusual for the cult to forbid contact between family remaining within it and “the one gone astray”.
Where someone has been a cult member for many years, he or she may have no friends or very few outside the group. When such a person leaves the cult or is excommunicated (usually for disciplinary reasons) they are likely to experience extreme loneliness. This person will also experience major fear and probable depression as he or she is taught to think that it is impossible to please God unless they are a loyal and obedient member of the group. Also a person in such a position is not likely to seek help from a counselor or other qualified people due to the distrust issue covered earlier. Feelings of isolation and desperation are common and as mentioned earlier, tragically in some cases suicide is seen as the only escape.
Due to the authority of local Ministers, members could be easily excommunicated from this group. Sometimes WCG members were just suspended for a temporary time. One reason for this was “fornication”. For some reason, suspension was usually for a longer time if such sexual activity resulted in pregnancy. Of course this was to teach a lesson and as a deterrent to others. In the long-term though such practices just reinforced the fear of the Minister and did nothing to help anyone.
Excommunication could also be permanent and a typical reason for this was if a member was caught with so-called dissident literature. This was produced sometimes by former members and I very clearly remember an incident where I played a major roll in the removal of a fellow-member.
We were taught to inform on each other if we knew of another member reading and or passing such material around among the group. I knew of such a person and thought I was doing the right thing, pleasing God, I phoned the local Minister at the time about this and within a few days, the man was put out from the sect. That was many years ago and I have no idea what happened to him as I haven’t seen him since.
Now I have no pride at all in that action but it shows how loyal cult members will do almost anything.
6. Cults are often very secretive and try to stop religious services and other group activities from being viewed by “outsiders”.
This makes it difficult if not impossible for non members who are trying to help a family member or friend to leave such a group to do so. In extreme cases, even police or Government welfare workers are prevented from gaining access to the group. In a high
profile case some years ago in the U.S., a shoot-out resulted between the Branch Davidian cult and the FBI. Unfortunately a large number of people died in the resulting fire as the authorities tried to gain access to the property owned by the group.
WCG members lived in ordinary houses as mentioned above and as far as I know, the group didn’t prevent or try to prevent access to any members by authorities. The cult did though force new recruits to read an amount of literature which was supposed to prepare them for membership before they would be allowed to attend Church services. Walking in off the street to checkout a Church service was not permitted.
I remember an incident where one of my aunts asked about coming to a Church service out of interest and with some embarrassment, my parents had to tell her not to come. I don’t think she could workout why and who could blame her?
Doors would be locked before the group observed the pass-over – the most solemn and serious commemoration of the sect, describing the death of Christ.
7. A cult may condone or even encourage members to break the law in the country where it operates believing that the group is subject to only the law of God.
As a cult leader is likely to believe that he or she and the “flock” are only subject to the law of God (however they see it), this will cause conflict between the member and the Government of the country where he or she lives. It’s a particular problem if the religion in question is not permitted or if freedom of assembly is not allowed. In Australia, voting in Federal, State and Local elections is compulsory. Over the years, at least two cults including WCG forbade their members from voting and it was necessary for each member to indicate that this happened due to religious reasons in order to avoid a fine.
My parents and I (when I reached voting age) dreaded the please explain letter from the Australian electoral commission asking why we didn’t vote after one poll or another.
Mum is totally blind, dad is severely vision impaired as I am and so we would have to ask another cult member to fill-out the form and then we returned them to the AEC.
WCG justified this behavior by saying that we were subject only to the Government of God and we shouldn’t have any interest in the affairs of another Government.
8. Members are often discouraged or forbidden from seeking medical aid even if they are very ill. This may be seen as a lack of faith.
For example, in one situation which I am aware of in Worldwide, a lady was diagnosed with a small benign tumor. Surgery was recommended and would have been just minor. This lady felt that it would be a lack of faith to go ahead with the removal of the tumor due to the teachings of the cult and many years later, the growth was huge. The cult eventually modified some of its beliefs and the ladies tumor was removed but the operation was much more difficult than it should have been. Even more drastic medical situations are sometimes left untreated by obedient cult members and at times, unnecessary, death may result.
Another even better known group has forbidden blood transfusions no matter how urgent the need, and children who receive one have sometimes been disowned by their parents. That particular group now has a confusing set of rules on blood fractions. Every Australian state legislated against preventing children from receiving blood transfusions as a result of that group’s teaching.
9. People within a cult are usually not permitted to read books or other literature not written by a leader, minister or which has not been approved by someone senior within the group. Or if other sources of information are not banned altogether, they may be strongly discouraged or scorned.
This increases the control of a cult over its members and information which is not approved may perhaps plant a seed of doubt in a member’s mind so therefore it is forbidden. Again, it’s all about mind-control or a more modern term which is coercive persuasion. If brain-washing is successful enough, even cults which do not physically isolate members can succeed in stopping people from reading literature not approved because such a person in this case thinks, “God knows what I am doing”.
As described above, the reading of such disapproved material was grounds for excommunication from Worldwide and debate over the teachings of that cult was seen as sowing discord.
10. Cults are frequently given to elitism, that is, they teach that being within the organization will make members special, set apart and blessed by God.
Who doesn’t like to feel special now and then? If you get a better price on a new TV or computer than a neighbour or friend, aren’t you just a little pleased? Don’t you feel at least a little special? Holiday resorts like to make their guests feel pampered and special as it is something most of us enjoy. It has a down side though in destructive religious cults. Cult leaders of course know all about how to play on this longing and do it very well.
This is dangerous for at least two reasons. Firstly, a cult member may feel that laws of the country where he or she lives do not apply to him or her as mentioned above. This view can lead to a superior or contemptuous attitude when dealing with police or other authorities. Secondly, Cult members are often promised special blessings from God due to their obedience and feelings of disillusionment may result when these do not happen.
We in WCG were sometimes described as the “little flock” and maid to feel special “set apart” as God’s people. We believed that we alone knew the course of bible prophecy and how it would impact the planet and this country.
We were taught that we and only us would be taken to a “place of safety” to receive special protection from God himself while the rest of humanity would endure the types of torture and death discussed briefly above because of sins. The rest of humanity of course included family members and friends not in the sect and anyone who had been excommunicated.
When I returned from school each day, my loving and devoted Mum would always be there to greet me. She would never, ever be out when I arrived home! One day though, Mum was out shopping with the next-door neighbour and I think the car broke down before I came home.
This was in the early 1970s when belief in this place of safety was still strong. I marched up to the front-door as normal and mum wasn’t there. No mobile phones were at hand then so she couldn’t tell me that she was running late due to her neighbour’s car troubles. A gut-wrenching and horrible fear suddenly gripped me as I thought, have they gone? As a child of about the age of 9 or 10, I thought do I now have to face the “great tribulation” and “the day of the LORD” (time of God’s punishment) alone?
Many years later, I told Mum and Dad about this, and they assured me that they wouldn’t have gone without me but children don’t always think rationally and I will never forget the fear and feelings of isolation that day. Also parents were told to leave if the order came through from Armstrong regardless of their children as God himself would look after them.
This place was supposed to probably be Petra, sometimes described as the ancient rose-red City of the Dead due to the number of burial chambers there and because of the colour of the local rock. It’s located in Jordan and as time went on, the place of safety was discussed less and less and of course, the group was never taken anywhere, just another Armstrong-ism.
11. Children within a cult are sometimes discouraged or banned from seeking a regular education as the group may view such schooling as “of the devil”.
Obviously children in this situation are at a major disadvantage particularly when they seek employment later. Even after leaving a cult, such contempt for and fear of education causes a person to struggle with normal life and the missed opportunities for a regular schooling may never be available again.
I must credit Armstrong with a strong belief in obtaining a good education and in fact, education is a law given great praise in his book “the 7 laws of success”. Also the group had a well respected learning institution with two campuses in the U.S. and one inEngland called Ambassador College.
This strong belief was though somewhat undermined by his teaching that the education institutions of this world such as schools, colleges and universities were all part of Satan’s system.
This view meant that parents including mine believed that children should only do what was necessary at school and nothing more in order to minimize their exposure to the system of the Devil. Also as briefly mentioned, we were of the view that “time was short” meaning that the wrath of God was about to descend on society. We were taught that any lost education would be more than maid up in the kingdom of God or at the place of safety.
If you have had no experience with a cult and are perhaps reading this book with the idea of helping a relative or friend in mind, then you will see just what damage being in such an organization does. Some counselors do specialize in helping cult survivors reconstruct their lives but in my view, it is still a neglected area of counseling in Australia. Society needs to be aware of what cult survivors are up against and more resources need to be directed at the situation.
Most of us have some idea of how much harm domestic violence and other forms of abuse cause to survivors, yet even though thousands of people have been harmed by cults of many different types, the subject is still poorly understood here in this country and it seems that most politicians, at least from the major parties, are not willing to take a good hard look at the problem. Could it be that there are just not enough cult survivors to swing votes at the next election?