Understanding why people join cults can be an excellent first step in determining if you’re actually in a cult. Your reasons for joining any particular group should be explored, as a church or other such organization may be taking advantage of certain needs you have, or offering you something you want but in an unhealthy way, and without you realizing what’s happening.
If you can recognize how cults take advantage of members, or how such groups appeal to potential new members, you might readily recognize how a cult is not acting in the best interest of those congregants. Seeing yourself in these scenarios can then help you better understand if you’re in a cult, or at least a controlling and abusive organization of some sort. You can then find healthier, more positive alternatives for yourself.
a sense of belonging
Just about all humans have a need to belong to something larger than themselves; this includes a partnership, friendships, extended family, and outside groups of some sort. Being attached to other people can make a person feel reassured that they won’t be left alone to handle problems or emergencies, and will have advice and counsel when needed.
Humans also have a need to talk to other people about their concerns, losses, and so on, to get support and comfort. People also like to share their happy and positive events with others!
There are, of course, many other reasons why individuals like being in relationships and groups larger than themselves, but a religion especially can provide that sense of belonging. Unlike coworkers in the office or neighbors on your block, you know people in your church personally, you have some beliefs in common with them, you form friendships with them.
Cults that isolate members from the outside world, be that physically, mentally, or emotionally, and that insist members only associate with other members, are notably good at giving their congregants that sense of belonging.
a sense of superiority
Many cults often provide a sense of superiority for members, telling them that the church or group knows better than other people when it comes to certain secrets or deep doctrine of the bible, or about human nature in general. Cults also often tell or teach members that they’re smarter or more capable than other people, and that the group itself knows more about how life began, what will happen in the future, how to bring people together, how to get people off drugs, and the list goes on.
This sense of superiority can be very appealing to anyone but especially those who might struggle with low self-esteem or a low self-image to begin with. If “Mary” knows that she’s not particularly smart and doesn’t have a lot of education, isn’t in a relationship and has a low-paying job that doesn’t earn her much respect, she may struggle with her self-image. Mary may not feel very good about herself when she talks to her neighbors or meets new people; in the back of her mind, she may assume that people who went to college, and who have a good job and marriage, are looking down on her.
If Mary joins a cult that claims to know more about life, the human condition, the bible, the future of mankind, and so on, Mary then feels much better about herself. When Mary meets her neighbors, she might now be thinking that she is smarter than them, despite their years of education and secular success. “Karen” has an engineering degree and “Susan” is an accountant, but Mary knows the truth about the bible and what will happen in the future! Not only does Mary now feel better about herself when around other people, but she might even feel superior to them because of being a member of a cult that feeds this sense of superiority.
power, authority, prominence
Cult leaders often maintain their organization for the sake of power and authority. They have authority over the lives of their congregants and the power to dictate many details of those lives. For some cult leaders, this power and their own prominence is enough motivation to keep their church functioning.
Within the cult, however, certain members can also be given a good measure of authority over others, and this “power trip” can also be motivation to join and stay in that cult. For example, elders, deacons, bishops, and others may have the authority to counsel or chastise members of the church for a wide variety of reasons, tell them what jobs to take or refuse, instruct them in how to discipline their children, decide whether or not they can marry a certain person, and so on.
This sense of power can be appealing to anyone but especially for those who don’t have authority in other areas of life, or who resent authority over them. For example, an office worker who has no authority over others on the job, and who has many managers telling him or her what to do, might enjoy the fact that he or she “gets to be the boss” within the cult.
Cults often claim to know or offer a solution to certain problems; some cults teach that their members understand human nature better than anyone, that they alone can bring people together and negotiate peace between cultures, and so on. Cults might also take this promise to a more personal level, claiming that following their courses or teachings will allow a person to stop drinking or doing drugs, will give them greater success in their career, better marriages, and the like.
Some religious or other such “doomsday” cults might also teach that god or their prophet or aliens or someone else will soon step in and fix everyone’s problems, or take faithful cult members to some type of paradise, nirvana, second earth, etc.
All of these teachings offer cult members a quick fix to their problems, which can be very enticing. Rather than having to work hard at getting an education and at bettering their career so that they can earn more money, a person can just join the cult and somehow have more success. Rather than working hard at healing from past abuses, a cult member can simply wait on god or the prophet to make these problems go away.
Cult members might also mentally and emotionally “detach” from problems in the world; they don’t need to worry about how to vote or if they should get involved in politics or volunteer opportunities, but can simply wait for god or the prophet to step in and fix the world around them.
A martyr complex refers to someone feeling that they are always suffering, always the victim. People with this syndrome actually seek out suffering or persecution because it feeds a need of theirs; they gain sympathy and support from others, or use their supposed suffering as a way of avoiding responsibility.
It might sound strange that someone would join a cult for the sole purpose of suffering, but note that a person can develop a martyr complex over time; they enjoy the sympathy they get when they’re suffering so they continue to seek out persecution, or just make up a scenario that paints them as being persecuted in order to get more sympathy.
Their supposed suffering might also act as a shield between them and their obligations; a person with a martyr complex might claim that they are unable to work or take care of their home or children because of their persecution, or their resultant depression, physical aches and pains, etc.
Being in a cult that is not respected by the outside world can feed this persecution complex, or the cult itself may create a type of martyr complex in members. Congregants may think along the lines of, “I’m depressed because Satan is picking on me, so I can’t work or clean the house today.”
A martyr complex, similar to a sense of superiority, might appeal to someone with low self-esteem. When Mary is out with Karen and Susan, she may not feel respected by them because of her lack of education and career successes, but she can get sympathy from them if she presents herself as always suffering.
Cult members might feel persecuted simply because of being in that church itself, or the rules of the cult may create situations that bring about suffering.
For example, a fundamentalist cult may encourage couples to stay together even if a husband or wife is abusive; the abused partner may then develop a martyr complex. Rather than leaving or addressing problems in the home, they stay in the marriage because it produces those feelings of persecution for which they get sympathy from others. Their abusive or neglectful relationship is then worn like a badge, even being part of that person’s identity.
Some individuals join cults for very sincere reasons; the organization might have soup kitchens, programs for disaster relief or to help people get off drugs, for improving literacy, and so on. Some people might believe a religion’s teachings about the bible and sincerely think that the church has the truth about god, Jesus, etc.
Some rank-and-file members of cults, who don’t join the organization for authority or power or any other selfish reason, might truly feel that they’re helping other people to better their lives, or are helping the community in some way.
Members of some organizations might join simply to make friends. A church might offer outreach programs, social groups for single parents, and other such opportunities.
Some groups support certain political ideals that a person agrees with, and they join the organization to help support their chosen party or a particular cause.
There is certainly nothing wrong with joining a group that seems to be doing some type of good for the world, or that a person honestly assumes is a benign political party or church. However, it’s still a good idea for that person to give the group an honest evaluation from time to time, and especially if people often refer to it as a cult. There may be issues with the organization that rank-and-file members tend to overlook but which are outright abusive to congregants or those outside the cult, and those who have left.
It’s also quite possible that a group started out as a benign religion or political party, only to eventually be taken over by certain leaders who are now abusing their authority or who have redefined the church into something very hurtful.
about “undue influence”
Some cult commentators have stated that people join cults because of “undue influence.” This phrase is a legal term, used to describe a type of coercion that convinces a person to act in a way that is not in their best interests.
The American Bar Association defines undue influence as:
“…a process whereby one person manipulates the trust, fears, dependency, and vulnerabilities of another for personal gain. Fraud, duress, threats or other types of pressure often accompany it.”
As an example of undue influence, a healthcare worker might badger an elderly person into changing their will and including that worker. An abusive husband might isolate his wife with threats and control of the couple’s finances, so that the wife no longer speaks to her own family and gives in to all the husband’s demands. In these types of cases, one person uses their position, along with threats and duress, to manipulate the other.
Undue influence also refers to someone taking advantage of an imbalance of power; as an example of how this works in a cult, members might shun those who leave. In turn, a congregant will stay in the cult because of their fear of being shunned. The cult leader has used their power or influence over congregants, who obey their demands to shun, to manipulate members into staying.
While undue influence is powerful and commonly used by cult leaders, it’s shortsighted to assume that all cult members are victims of this ploy. As already discussed, some cult members willingly choose to stay in a cult because of what it offers them, including power, authority, a quick fix, a sense of superiority or of persecution, and the list goes on.
This point is important to consider because some people use the concept of “undue influence” as a type of excuse for cult members, even overlooking the way those congregants hurt other people. Some such commentators say that the only culprits of the cult, or the ones who should receive the brunt of criticism, would be the organization’s leaders; the governing body, the board, the president, etc.
According to these commentators, the leaders are the ones who create policy, so they alone are responsible for abuses in the cult, including shunning, mishandling of child sex abuse, etc. Those leaders are unduly influencing or brainwashing all the cult’s members, who can’t help what happens in the church, or so some commentators seem to teach.
One reason this thinking is a bit dangerous is that cult members need to take responsibility for their own actions. A leader or prophet or governing body can make all the rules they want, but a grownup, adult person also needs to be responsible for their own decisions, no matter who is influencing those decisions.
As an example, a church leader might say that you should shun your family when they leave the church, but the members of the church who actually do shun former congregants are responsible for the damage done by this practice.
Obviously there are cult members who stay because they are victims of some type of mistreatment, including mental abuse or emotional blackmail. Not all cult members stay in the church for these reasons, however. It’s vital that people understand this, so that no one ignores their own responsibility in having to make the healthiest decisions for themselves, and for those around them.
Dismissing the choices a cult member makes, including the decision to stay because the cult serves an unhealthy need of theirs, as “brainwashing” or “undue influence” only serves to empower those who use the cult for their own selfish ends, rather than empowering them to make the decision to leave.