A Fear of Whales

The word cult evokes strong negative feelings, immediate accusations and denials… But no definitions… “Cult” is a disapprobation more than it is a proper category, people use it to mean “religious group I don’t like”. Unfortunately that doesn’t help us to protect people from religious organizations they are not familiar with, and that’s pretty much the only reason to have a category like “cult”.

We’re fixing that today.

Acutely felt tension, religious problem-solving perspective, religious seekership, experiencing a turning point, development of cult-affective bonds, neutralization of extra-cult attachments and intensive interaction.
These 8 terms originate from John Lofland, a sociologist who spent his life studying doomsday cults and millenarian movements, such as at the Unification church (the Moonies). His perspective is about the most comprehensive, authoritative, and non-biased. I’d like to share it with you and along the way I will keep other key words in bold so that by the end of this short article you will be well equipped to identify dangerous trends in religiosity.

Acutely Felt Tension (Guilt)
Guilt is the bread and butter of cult activity, they tend to prey on people who are already predisposed to this sort of thinking, for this reason you will find divorcees and ex-military personnel in those communities in higher than average numbers. Often a doomsday scenario helps the community keep up the pressure once conversion is accomplished. You have to evangelize lots of people and stock up on food because the end is near. This is coaxed into the mind of the convert so as to become a new normal.

Religious Problem Solving (Black And White Thinking)
In keeping with the trend of guilt, cults teach that the answer to every question in life is found within their community. Are you depressed? Don’t see a doctor, that would indicate a lack of faith, instead pray more. Are you looking for a wife? God will bring her to you from our community when you have finished your mission. Are you unemployed, or concerned about your station in life? You don’t need to worry, just have complete unquestioning trust in our infallible leader.

Seeker Ship (Recruitment)
Cults spend a disproportionate amount of their time, money and resources, preoccupied with finding and converting new members. Almost every religious group is interested in recruitment to some degree, but it is a cults number one priority because the community will typically shut down without a steady revenue stream from new members. Quotas are not uncommon as a means of determining recruitment, and deception is frequently used as a means to convince the unfaithful. This leads to what I call “increasing irreality on a gradient” which means that information about the crazier beliefs and more serious expectations is withheld from new members until they are slowly integrated into the community. The boiling frog effect.

Turning Point (Brainwashing)
Brainwashing sounds like something out of science fiction, but the use of thought reform methods is actually reasonably mundane. Cults have a particular way of talking about their life before and after membership, and will teach you to do the same by encouraging consistent repetition of formulaic testimonies which speak in black and white terms about everything changing in an epiphany moment and encourages “us and them” thinking about those who have not experienced it.

Development of Affective Bonds (Insulation)
In order to enforce these thought reforms, the cult relies on an insular social structure. In keeping with the trend of increasing irreality, this will initially be touted as a boon of conversion. “Do you want to convert? Look at all these instant best friends you will have in a tight knit loving community”, but over time it serves as a limiting factor, as you will be encouraged to live, work, and date and marry only within the group. When a member begins to realize that some of the teachings are false, they will fear leaving the community, because of the investment they have made within it. This leads to cognitive dissonance or an unwillingness to accept the truth they see before them.

Neutralization Of Extracult Attachments (Isolation)
Among the more serious warning signs of cult activity is the neutralization of attachments. When loved ones of converts begin to worry, cults need a way to keep their members in the fold and out of the deprogrammer’s office. It’s main two tools are shunning and excommunication. Shunning applies to nonmembers, such as a converts’ parents, whose child  will be encouraged to cut ties with if they become too vocal about their disagreement with the group’s practices. Excommunication is the ultimate weapon against members who ask too many questions. If they cannot be brought into line with shame, and social ramifications, they will eventually be cut off from the community, and members will be strictly dis-incentivized, or prevented from continued interaction with them.

Intensive Interaction (Deprivation)
The final, and perhaps most important characteristic of cult activity, the reason it matters, is intensive interaction. The end result of any cult involvement is the deprivation of its members. In order to keep you malleable and dependent on the leadership you will be compelled to give a substantial control of your finances to the community. Cults will encourage regular and intensive fasting, and Orwellian levels of accountability. Your privacy will be stripped from you, you will be weak, hungry and poor, and then you will be asked to go and find new blood, as you will have been sucked dry.

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