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There are many suggestions as to why people join cults and sects alongside various sociological reasons behind the membership of these groups. We hypothesise that a person’s social background poses the key influence on their desire to join cults or sects, particularly their experiences during the process of primary socialisation.
Cults and sects are groups or movements of people who form together with shared beliefs, usually religious and with some concept of a ‘cause’ or ‘prophecy’. While there are many different types of cults and sects, with different internal rules and structures, there are some general distinctions between the two. Sects usually take their core beliefs from already established religions and adapt and interpret them to fit their own agenda. Membership of sects is usually restricted and limited to a small group of dedicated followers, where it is difficult to leave the organisation. Cults on the other hand generally have open membership and allow people to leave as they wish, cults’ beliefs do not tend to stem from existing religions, but from an individual’s own beliefs that other people have taken an interest in. Both cults and sects have been a subject of controversy in society since their earliest origins, with the general public becoming suspicious and fearful of their sometimes suspicious or secretive behaviour.
There have been a number of both sociological and psychological studies conducted on members of cults and sects that provide various reasons for their memberships. The term ‘cult’ was originally introduced to the sociological community by Howard Becker in 1932. Becker defined cults as ‘small religious groups lacking in organisation and emphasising the private nature of personal beliefs’. For our discussion we wanted to mainly investigate a sect, the Branch Davidians, and a cult, The Church of Scientology.
Many examples of both cults and sects exist and while some are low profile and harmless, others conduct seemingly outrageous behaviours and rituals and have become apparent in the public eye such as Heaven’s Gate: a cult that conducted mass suicides as a way of gaining access to heaven. And the People’s Temple, a cult lead by the Reverend Jim Jones who famously drove a mass suicide in a jungle encampment in south America.
And again, the real question that stands out is: What drives these people to willingly sign over there material possessions and in extreme cases their lives based purely on the word of an individual? The main answer presented to this question is the concept of mind control. The fact is that many people who seek to join these cult movements tend to be impressionable or unstable individuals that have suffered as a result of a traumatic upbringing. It is commonly known that the stage of primary socialisation (the period between birth and the age of 3) can be the defining factor in a person’s behaviour in later life. For example, Charles Manson, the leader of the so-called Manson Family cult, was supposedly sold by his alcoholic mother to buy beer. Many of Manson’s ‘family members’ had equally had difficult upbringings, to which Manson offered simple solutions. This concept of offering solutions to life’s problems is the initial way in which cult movements tend to recruit their members.
Mark Sageman, a former CIA operations officer and forensic psychologist, worked closely with Afghanistan’s Mujahedin (Islamic freedom fighters) and the US government to attempt to explain why people join Jihadi organizations, fundamentalist Islamic sects. Sagemen states that ‘When you buy into something that seems to explain everything, you can soon be coaxed into doing almost anything”
Functionalist sociologists such as Emile Durkheim would likely support this theory as he believes the key aspect of society is the idea of consensus and social solidarity. These important things can be lost during a traumatic childhood, and the organisations project the idea of sanctuary and isolation in which outside problems hold no influence over people any more.
Another key factor of cult and sect movements is that they almost always have one outstanding characteristic: An extremely charismatic leader. Cult leaders such as Shoko Asahara, the leader of the Aum Shinirikyo movement, possessed immense charisma and speaking prowess that enabled him to draw such a large membership base. While the Aum started out as what seemed to be a humble meditation group, Asahara soon began to try and increase its numbers, which eventually lead him to Russia. Many inhabitants of the war-torn nation found Asahara a source of spiritual nourishment, and pledged themselves to the cult to escape their confusion and disenchantment with the state. In their impressionable state of mind, members of the cult were instructed to carry out a sarin gas attack on a Japanese subway station, aiming to kill civilians. 7 people were killed and 200 were harmed during the attack.
Interactionism provides us with some explanations of how cult leader’s exert their influence. Rosenthal and Jacobson’s concept of the labelling theory applies to young people, often with troubled backgrounds who feel ‘labelled’ by society, predicted to fail in life. However when a friendly and authoritarian speaker approaches these individuals they are presented with a sense of admiration and respect, and a solution to their troubles. This is developed during membership of the cult into a deep-felt awe of the leader, the once troubled members end up revering them as a saviour or deity in some cases, and are therefore willing to do whatever is asked of them.
Benjamin Zablocki, a professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, suggests that ‘groups that have been characterized as cults are at high risk of becoming abusive to members’. He states that this is in part due to members' adulation of charismatic leaders contributing to the leaders becoming corrupted by power. Mark Sageman, a former CIA operations officer and forensic psychologist, worked closely with Afghanistan’s Mujahedin (Islamic freedom fighters) and the US government to attempt to explain why people join Jihadi organisations, fundamentalist Islamic sects. Sagemen states that ‘When you buy into something that seems to explain everything, you can soon be coaxed into doing almost anything”
Vernon Howell, aka David Koresh leader of the Branch Davidian Sect was a victim of a harsh upbringing. He was born into a poor environment; he was dyslexic and a bad student, dropping out of school at a young age. Marxists would theorise that his working class background and cultural deprivation contributed heavily to his failure at school and seeking of a different outlet, in this case, fundamental Christianity. Koresh was also bullied considerably during his short time at school which interactionists such as Hargreaves would argue contributed to his apparently bizarre behaviour in later life. Many of the cult members themselves were also from poorer backgrounds and troubled in some way, they were influenced by Koresh’s charismatic speaking and claims that he spoke directly to God. Koresh appealed largely to young people as he came across as ‘cool’ and approachable, he was an avid guitarist and often used his talents to appeal as a figure of influence to impressionable young people.
Above: David Koresh
It has also been apparent that certain members of the Church of Scientology cult have suffered from mental illness in their lives, possibly induced by traumatic upbringings. A famous example is that of Lisa McPherson, a member who removed all of her clothes after being in a car accident and who was a target for a psychiatric examination. Before the examination however, McPherson, under advice from other Scientologists, discharged herself and agreed to a procedure conducted by the Church to cure her psychosis. The procedure, known as a Rundown, kept her isolated for a prolonged period of time with a muzzle over her mouth so she could not talk, and deprived of any human interaction. McPherson died reportedly as a result of this treatment on the 5th of December 1995; however the Church of Scientology was acquitted of any homicide claims.
There is no clear-cut explanation as to why certain people are willing to join cult and sect movements, however as we suggested and as supported by examination of various cult members and leaders, an individual’s experiences during the early stages of socialisation and their social background can have an affect on their mental stability and impressionability, which can make them more susceptible to influence by these groups, and although baffling to many people, new cults and sects are arising every day and are continuing to increase their memberships.
Sam Fry is an A2 Sociology student at Sussex Downs College
Amie Reed is an A2 Sociology student at Sussex Downs College
Huw Whittington is an A2 Sociology student at Sussex Downs College
Footage of the Jonestown massacre
David Koresh - Brach Davidian leader
The secrets of scientology