Distinctions Between Extremists
Cults, Terrorism, and Religious Fundamentalism
by: Raphael Aron
Perhaps the most significant difference between a cult and a religion is the fact that in the latter the veneration is directed towards God, whereas in a cult the love and devotion is directed towards itself. The leader is either God-manifest or God himself. There is no room for question or doubt. Allied with this notion is the belief in the leader’s infallibility. This belief has far-reaching implications.
Total and unquestioning commitment to a guru or a master carries the risk that in the event the leader becomes paranoid or deranged, the followers will have no choice but to remain loyal to the whims of his madness. The tragedies of Jonestown, Waco and Heaven’s Gate involved leaders who, at one time, had credibility. Jim Jones, for example, commenced his work as an ordained member of a Christian Church and was highly regarded by various U.S. dignitaries. During the 1976 American presidential campaign, Jones met with Vice Presidential candidate Walter Mondale on his campaign plane. First Lady Rosalynn Carter personally met Jones for a private dinner at the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco.
The notion of infallibility leads many cult members to believe that life without the cult leader is unthinkable. In the event of the leader’s death, the cult members may choose one of two options: to believe that the leader has not really died, as was the case with Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, guru of the Rajneesh organization whose death was viewed as the shedding of a physical cloak, or tragically to follow their leader by committing suicide.
According to terrorism expert, Anthony Stahelski, a professor at Central Washington University, in exchange for providing joiners with meaningful existences and for fulfilling their affiliative emotional needs, the terrorist leader also requests and receives unquestioning obedience from the joiners. Long-term members of the group support the leader’s obedience pressure by applying conformity pressure on new joiners in order to forestall any deviation from the group’s mission or values. The joiners’ initial susceptibility to this intense obedience and conformity pressure makes them extremely vulnerable to the social psychological conditioning process used in violent cults.
There are other differences between cults and religions. Unlike cults, religious groups support the family structure and can be credited with attempting to emphasize its importance in the face of the collapse of the nuclear family. They encourage family contact as well as the use of counseling service to heal relationships. Religious leaders do not assume the role of parents.
Religious orders will not disguise information about the true nature of the organization, its beliefs, and its structure. There are opportunities to question and to inquire. In the mainstream churches, the mission statements, the methods of appointments and the financial records are available to the public. Cults, on the other hand, often make a deliberate effort to conceal the true nature of the group by operating under a variety of names or withholding information from the potential recruit.
The restriction on inquiry or criticism of the organization is a very disturbing feature of many cults. In his book When God Becomes a Drug, Leo Booth suggests that the discouragement of independent thinking is the primary identifying mark of a dysfunctional system. If you cannot question or examine what you are taught, if you cannot doubt or challenge authority, you are in danger of being victimized or abused.
Religions do not divide the world between the good—those who follow the religion—and the bad—those who do not follow it. This division of the world into good and evil is one of the features of cults that are almost universal. Whether the message is presented overtly or subtly, the followers are led to believe that their way is the only way; any departure from the cult and its beliefs will compromise the individual’s quality of life and may be fraught with danger.
The tendency to divide the world into good and evil is also a characteristic of the “fringe churches” that are becoming increasingly popular today. These churches, which present as bona fide Christian organizations, are often guilty of the misrepresentation and deceit practiced by some of the better-known cults.
The complaint against these cult is not the fact that they are secretive, but that they are deceitful, concealing their true aims and their potential effects from followers and families.
In contrast, fraternities such as the Masons, though secretive, openly inform members that they will be taught the more secret rituals of the group as they progress. On this issue Margaret Singer said very succinctly, ”A secret handshake is not equivalent to mind control.”
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