Chapter 4: Why would anyone join a cult?


As we have seen, religious cults may be very dangerous or even life-threatening. Why then would some people give part or full control of their lives over to such a group if it is going to hurt them?


It should be remembered by anyone reading this who has not been involved in a cult that leaders of such organizations are very persuasive. If they were not, then their groups would never get off the ground. Of course not only religious cult leaders are able to persuade, by way of example, Adolf Hitler dazzled the crowds with his powerful speeches and haven’t we all heard of people being talked into something by a door-to-door sales person?  


A cult leader though is particularly dangerous as he or she is likely to claim that they have the backing of the Lord himself. This adds a lot of weight with any God fearing individual. A leader or other preacher from a religious sect may say to a member something like this , we may not know what you are doing but God does. As a result even if a member goes on a trip to some remote location such as the Australian Out-back (assuming it is allowed) obedience will be assured.       


In the early 1990s, my then wife Joan and I went with a group of friends from the cult to Stradbroke Island, East of Brisbane. We were there for 3 days camping and all had a good time. At that time, mobile phones were not common and my portable ham radio set was the only means of communication handy.


Even with this isolation, someone brought a tape recorder along so we could hear a taped sermon on the Sabbath. No one would have known if we didn’t play it but we all felt that it would be wrong not too. See how members will obey even when not being observed?


We will divide cult members and new recruits into two groups; this is in order to better examine how people end-up in cults in the first place and to more thoroughly understand the challenges faced by survivors as we rebuild our lives.   


Firstly there are people who join such a sect as teenagers or during adulthood. We all are aware of our physical human needs such as the requirement to keep our bodies hydrated and the need for food, clothing and shelter. Most people have social needs as well and we enjoy the company of others through relationships and friendships.  


For thousands of years, many human beings have also felt a need to connect spiritually with a God or a creator however they see such an entity. Beliefs in an after-life are wide-spread around the world and are not new. The Pharos of ancient Egypt were surrounded by many luxury goods in the tomb as it was believed that these would assist them on their journey to the next-life after physical death.


Most religions teach that how we live here now on Earth will have a bearing on our ability to enjoy a good life in Heaven or whatever is seen as paradise. Many individuals satisfy this spiritual hunger by joining one of the world’s major religions or perhaps by going along to a meditation group. This gives the person concerned a sense of calmness and a feeling of being a part of a purpose larger than themselves. 


There is sometimes a stage in a person’s life when he or she actively searches for a belief system to cling too – an organization which will offer guidance, that sense of security and belonging. This may happen during young adult-hood or even during the teen years as an individual builds the structure of his or her life or perhaps as a result of disillusionment with established religion.


Such a search may be rewarding and ultimately satisfying however those mounting such efforts are vulnerable if they come across a cult during this time. Also people from abusive backgrounds may be looking for a way of escape and may see a religious sect as a place where they can be guided, feel secure and protected. In this situation, he or she will suffer more abuse, perhaps worse than at home.


My parent’s case shows how cults may take advantage of people trying to find the truth. Both were brought-up in mainstream religion but became turned off by what they saw as a lack of interest and empathy from the Church nearby.


As luck would have it, at this time, while searching for something with more meaning, they came across The World Tomorrowprogram on radio.


As mentioned, this was produced by WCG and was hosted at the time by Herbert Armstrong himself or by his son Garner Ted. This happened in 1965 and after contacting the “Church” they were sent literature compulsory to the process of becoming a member.


Due to vision impairment, the material had to be read onto tape for Mum and Dad. Going through this entire process took about 3 years and my parents were baptized as WCG members in 1968. They then became what are known now as first generation cult members.  


Cults tailor messages to the general public carefully and recruits are not aware of the true nature of the organization until well into the journey toward membership. By the time they become aware of what is happening, it may be too late for him or her to avoid hurt if the brain-washing process is successful.     


The second group in our study is those who join by default in childhood or even as babies as a result of a decision by parents or guardians to become cult members. Those of us in this position had no choice in the matter and face huge challenges when learning to live outside the cult where we may have spent years or decades. We are known as second generation members and if a cult lasts long enough, third or even fourth generation members are possible. 


A typical second generation cult member’s case is that of my own. When I was at the tender age of three, my parents came into contact with WCG. Is a child of that age going to recognize a cult? Is he or she going to say, “No, I don’t think that sounds right?” Certainly not, especially in the 1960s, a child wouldn’t dare even if he or she had a bad feeling about it.  


I have no real precult memories and 31 years is a huge slice of a person’s life. I was very fortunately though able to make life-long friends at school and as these children were not cult members, I did have some normal childhood interaction. 


As I grew up, family activities such as Christmas parties, Birthday parties or Easter celebrations weren’t permitted due to the beliefs of WCG.


I observed Christmas for the first time in 1996 at the age of 34 and it felt very, very strange indeed. Christmas was banned because observances on the 25th of December can be traced back to a time long before Christ and Armstrong felt that this was enough of a reason to not only forbid it but to call it a feast of Satan.   


He believed that Christ was born much earlier in the year, probably around September as the shepherds wouldn’t have been out in the December snow with the sheep. This may be correct but it’s hard to justify the hatred with which the cult viewed this celebration. 


The celebrations mentioned above are frequently a time when families get together in countries like Australia and WCG’s refusal to allow them only lead to damage of family ties. In my situation and for many other second or third generation cult members, family ties with people outside the cult, are never properly formed at all. 


People in this group have been exposed to cult messages from day one and do not have many or any pre cult memories to look back to. We are often badly harmed even more than the first group as our formative years are partly or fully spent in the sect.


Both groups have issues in common and also difficulties which apply to one group more than the other.  Later, we will look at the challenges faced by both lots of cult survivors as we re-build our lives.