Back To CourseTopics in Sociology
8 chapters | 90 lessons
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Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.
Imagine your best friend has begun acting differently over the past few weeks. He seems to have lost interest in his favorite hobbies and activities. Your friend also seems to be obsessed with new ideas and activities, so you ask what's going on. Your friend explains that he has just joined a new group where there is close sense of community. It's a religious sort of group, but one whose ideas are markedly different from any other religious group you've heard of. Your friend also can't stop talking about the group's leader, how wonderful he or she is, and the fact that this leader seems to have some kind of mystical powers.
At this point you begin to realize that your friend has possibly joined a cult. Before we go any further, let's make sure we understand what as cult is, and then we'll discuss cult leaders. A cult is a religious or quasi-religious group whose ideas and practices are considered deviant, or differ significantly from mainstream religious groups. In sociological terms, there is considerable difficulty defining a cult because what is and what isn't 'deviant' is subjective. The term is also often used in a derogatory sense, often to put down or discredit the religious ideas of a particular group. For example, many mainstream Christian denominations (such as Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, etc.) consider the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) to be cults.
Cults are often considered perversions of mainstream religious sects. For example, a cult group might adhere to some of the central beliefs of a mainstream religion or religious sect, but then add its own bizarre or unusual teachings. Uncommon or unusual teachings are a common characteristic of cults. Another key characteristic of a cult is that it usually has a dynamic leader.
Cult groups often have a dynamic leader whose authority is respected and, in many cases, unquestioned. Obedience to the leader is often required, even when it involves deviant or unhealthy activity. For example, a cult leader might require that all female members be required to have sex with him.
Usually, a cult leader is a person of tremendous charisma who makes followers feel loved and accepted. It's often suggested that cult leaders use brainwashing tactics to attract and keep followers. In many instances, cult members deeply identify with and admire their leader. Cult leaders often require degrees of conformity among members. For example, they might require all members to wear matching white jumpsuits and shave their heads. Fostering feelings of belonging is a central tactic cult leaders employ.
Cult leaders often claim to have a special connection to God/Higher Power/the universe, etc. They claim to be the point of contact between God/Higher Power/the universe and the rest of the group. This means that the leader has access to divine revelation, which is special knowledge directly from God that the rest of the group does not have. A leader might claim that God is communicating directly with him or her through dreams, visions, etc., and passes this on to the group. So it would be like someone saying, 'Hey guys, God told me he wants you to dye your hair blue and dress up in a chicken costume, so get to it!' Leaders might also claim to have special powers.
Let's look at a few famous cult leaders. Jim Jones is perhaps the best-known recent cult leader. He founded a group called the People's Temple based on racial equality and socialism. In 1978 he orchestrated the mass suicide of over 900 people in Jonestown, Guyana. Most members died from cyanide poisoning, but Jim Jones was found with a gunshot wound to the head.
The Branch Davidians is a cult group famous for its 1993 standoff with the federal government in Waco, Texas. The group was formed in the 1930s as a splinter sect of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. In 1993 its leader was David Koresh. Koresh taught that the end of the world was near and commanded his followers to stockpile firearms in their Waco compound. He also insisted on having sex with his followers, including underage girls. In 1993 the FBI and other law enforcement groups attacked the Branch Davidian Compound, resulting in the death of David Koresh and 82 of his followers, including children. The Clinton administration was heavily criticized for its handling of the event.
Heaven's Gate was a cult that received widespread media attention in 1997, when 39 members committed mass suicide in an effort to secure their place on a spaceship that was supposedly traveling behind the Hale-Bopp Comet. Led by Marshall Applewhite, the cult members were obsessed with the end of the world and extraterrestrial life. Applewhite taught that only by shedding their human skin through death could the members achieve 'next level status' and catch a ride on the spaceship following behind the Hale-Bopp comment. Applewhite and his followers killed themselves with a combination of cyanide, arsenic, and vodka. Attached to their clothing were patches that read 'Heaven's Gate Away Team.'
Let's review our key terms. A cult is a religious or quasi-religious group whose ideas and practices are considered deviant or differ significantly from mainstream religious groups, usually through unusual teachings or behaviors asked of its members by the leaders. In many cases, cult leaders tend to be highly charismatic and claim to have access to divine revelation, which is special knowledge directly from God that the rest of the group doesn't actually have. The leaders also tend to make followers feel secure and give them a sense of belonging while requiring complete obedience.
Jim Jones is possibly the most well known recent cult leader who founded a group called the People's Temple. In 1978, some 900 cult members committed mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. The Branch Davidians is a cult group famous for its 1993 standoff with the federal government in Waco, Texas. Their leader was David Koresh. Marshall Applewhite was the leader of the Heaven's Gate, which was a cult that received widespread media attention in 1997, when 39 members committed mass suicide in an effort to secure their place on a spaceship that was supposedly traveling behind the Hale-Bopp Comet.
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Back To CourseTopics in Sociology
8 chapters | 90 lessons