A cult is generally described as a close group of people that associate their beliefs and practices with ideas outside of the mainstream beliefs that are held by society. The word 'cult' is sometimes used in a disparaging way to describe a group of misled people who are willing to do whatever a cult leader instructs them to do.1
A cult differs from religion by this simple fact: a religion is a tradition that is passed down through generations of family and society, while a cult is created for a specific purpose, usually lead by a single leader who takes control of the cult member's lives.
Cults are made of a group of people that follow the dictates of a leader. A cult leader will condition the followers with emotional manipulation, making the cult members trust and believe in the cult leader with unquestioning faith.
Many people, from all walks of life are attracted to cults, either because of a need to belong to a group that they feel they identify with or because they are manipulated in many ways to give up their freedom for the sake of the group and it's leader. Cults can be dangerous to society, as cult leaders can be controlling and manipulative, destroying peoples lives in their quest to lead and to be followed. Doomsday Cults hold the dangerous belief that the end of the world is approaching, so the members may take their own life in preparation, or take the lives of others in their quest to transcend life on earth.
Some people who lead cults begin with a life of religion and take it to the extreme. One such example, is the Jonestown cult, which started out as a Christian social reform group, and turned into one of largest mass-suicide cults of the 20th century.
Jim Jones, Cult Leader
The cult leader Jim Jones was a charismatic man who was very passionate about religion and idealism. He became an ordained minister in 1950. He founded a church group in Indiana, called the Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church. He created a social belief system, called Apolistic Socialism.2
In 1978, Jim Jones, organized a group of followers and called it The Peoples Temple Church. The Peoples Temple Church was eventually moved to San Fransisco. By then it had over a thousand followers. These people believed in Jim and accepted him as a father figure and called him "Dad". When the church was investigated by the IRS, it moved to Guyana, South America, where Jones created a settlement with his cult members that he named Jonestown.
His claims that he was the incarnation of Jesus, Buddha, Lenin and, 'Father Divine', brought him many people who believed in his supposed powers of healing. He catered to and accepted members of the African-American community, and the group became more cult-like and less Christian over time.
This settlement was to be a racist-free society based on agriculture, and the principles of communism. He was even praised for helping out the local poor black community as a benefit. After the move from San Fransisco, the organization began to fall apart, as Jone's schemes and his drug addiction to Phenobarbital was uncovered by members of the group. Eventually, some people had been outcast or they had left the group because they were in fear for their lives, and in fear for the lives of others in the group. Unfortunately when people who had left the cult went to the authorities revealing information about beatings, brutality, and the plan of taking their own life through suicide, they were not believed.
Finally, in 1978 the US congress lead a delegation team lead by Congressman Leo Ryan to investigate the claims of violation of human rights within the Jones cult.3 For three days, members of Jonestown were interviewed, and on the third day the team left after an assassination attempt on Jone's life was made. The team was able to talk twenty members of the cult into leaving with them, but as the group members were boarding the plane, bullets were flying as they were being shot at by some of the Jonestown compound guards.
Five people died as they were trying to board the plane. Later on, all 914 people in the Jonestown cult ended their lives by drinking "Grape Flavor-Aid laced with cyanide".4 Jones ended his life when he had shot himself in the head while sitting in his chair.
History reminds us that the human will is easily lead astray by hopes and desires to have something to believe in. A cult leader will operate a group based on mind control to serve a personal agenda, because of power, money, glory, or just to feed a maniacal ego. When the cult leader has gained control, the group becomes like a unit - an extension of the cult leader's will.
While the Heaven's Gate cult was against suicide from a traditional perspective (ie. to end suffering), they used it as a method to "turn against the Next Level when it is being offered". 6 To the members of the cult, the body was a vehicle and the appearance of the Hale-Bop comet was the sign that they waited for, to escape from the earth in a suicide pact so that they could transcend to the 'Next Level'.
According to Applewhite, he was a transcended master that had evolved on this earth, and he compared himself to Jesus who he claimed was also a transcended master. The group believed that the earth was going to be destroyed because it's inhabitants refused to evolve to the Next Level.7
Marshall had always lived a troubled life. In the 70's he checked himself into a mental hospital under the personal belief that homosexual urges and voices were guiding his life. When he was released from the hospital his beliefs had become worse, and he castrated himself in an attempt to rid himself of his homosexual urges. According to Louis Jolyon West, professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles, Marshall was "delusional, sexually repressed and suffering from clinical paranoia." 8
The Heavens Gate group began in the 1970's after Marshall had a life changing experience when he suffered a heart attack and nearly died. During this time, Marshall believed that he had seen a vision of the afterlife. He identified with his nurse caretaker Bonnie Nettles, as part of the larger plan that Marshall believed was outlined in the book of Revelation of the bible, choosing her as one of the chosen ones. She gradually began to believe Marshall's story and they became very close. Bonnie and Marshall shared a platonic relationship.9
They joined forces and worked together, building a spiritual bookstore that eventually failed. However they were determined to spread the message that Marshall believed in, and they decided to travel across the country and gather chosen members into their fold. For many years they worked to recruit members, and it was Bonnie's death by cancer in 1985 that finally separated them. By then the cult had grown to a large size and was organized into a tight-knit group that lived together, separated from the outside world.
Marshall demanded of his members that they should live a simple life that was free from the burdens of the outside world. His members were forbidden to see family and friends, and he also required six of his male associates to castrate themselves just as Marshall had done. Members of the group were forbidden to express any kind of sexuality.
The 39 members of the cult committed suicide in a house in San Diego. When the Hale-Bop comet appeared on March 26, 1997, it was a sign that it was time to transcend to another world. according to Marshall's directions, they gathered together and ingested phenobarbital and alcohol and suffocated themselves. Their heads were covered with a purple shroud.
According to the videotapes of the members before the suicide, they were willing to end their lives, without even thinking twice. Marshall had convinced them that he was an incarnation of Jesus and without him they could not transcend into the next world.
From the New York Times Website: "We couldn't be happier about what we're going to do, one woman said, her voice choking a bit but her face anything but sad. Another woman, smiling, added, ''We are all happy to be doing what we are doing."10
What brings people into the cult is the leader's ability to to manipulate the members in many ways, particularly through emotion. A cult leader is charismatic and is able to pitch their story to whomever will listen, as they deliver promises and make demands.
So what are some of the signs that a cult is dangerous or controlling? There are a few key ideas that Isaac Bonewits wrote about in 1979, in an essay called the ABCDEF scale that determines the dangerousness of a cult. Let's review some of these (excellent) ideas inspired by this essay by Bonewits: (this is my interpretation of his scale)
Source: The Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation Frame