Daniël Maritz

Cults: A Sociological and Psychological Reflection (Part 1)

Daniël Maritz |13 April 2021 | 8 min read

Whereas a previous article reflected on the nature of cults theologically, part 1 and 2 of this article will use the insights gathered from sociology and psychology to reflect on the nature of cults. While a cult is theologically defined as a group that rejects or twists one or more of the essential doctrines of orthodox Christianity, and paradoxically still insists on being classified as Christian[1], a sociological definition will focus more on the use of thought-reform processes and the implementation of control mechanisms to manipulate and control people in cults. Consider the following sociological definition of a cult for example:

“A cult is a group or movement that… exhibits great or excessive devotion or dedication to a person, idea or thing, uses a thought-reform program to persuade, control, and socialize members, systematically induces states of psychological dependency in members, exploits members to advance the leadership’s goals and causes psychological harm to members, their families, and the community.”[2]

When considering events like Jim Jones and the People’s Temple Cult in 1979[3], David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in 1993[4], Marshall Applewhite and Heaven’s Gate in 1997[5], and, here in South Africa, the Mancoba Family and the Seven Angels Ministry in 2018[6], a more sociological approach to cults can be extremely helpful to explain certain features of these groups and their behaviour. Although Christians should primarily approach cults theologically, “we can… gain some key insights into the cultic mentality from sociology and psychology.”[7] Accordingly, a sociological and psychological approach to cults can be immensely helpful in its provision of finer insights into the behavioural mechanics of cults in general.

To meaningfully discuss this sociological and psychological approach to cults, we will spend time on some of the general mechanics of cults, the role and profile of cult leaders, and the so-called control mechanisms that cults implement.

The General Mechanics of Cults

The one thing that the leadership of cults wants to achieve among the cult members is known as “group cohesiveness.” Marc Galanter defines this phrase as follows:

“[It is] the result of all the forces acting on members to keep them socially engaged in, and psychologically dependent on the group. When cohesiveness is strong, participants work to retain the commitment of their fellow members, protect them from threat, and ensure the safety of shared resources. With weak cohesiveness, there is less concern over the group’s potential dissolution or the loss of its distinctive identity, and joint action is less likely.”[8]

To achieve strong “group cohesiveness” which produces loyal and obedient members, the leadership of cults will, slowly but surely, instigate a state of psychological, sociological, and ideological dependence in its members. This will secure their involvement and collaboration in the cult and make it difficult for the members to ever leave the cult. Ideologically, the members are subjected to the ideas of the cult and its leader, while sociologically and psychologically, the cult is set up to be like a new family and refuge for its members, at the same time isolating them from the wider society.[9] According to Alexandra Stein the “emotional and physical energies of the group members must be fully engaged in order to keep them from external relationships and influences.”[10]

In short, one can say that a cult member eventually becomes “enthralled” by the cult. In other words, the person falls into a state of moral and mental servitude to the cult and its leader. This results in the loss of independence to the extent that many, if not all, minor and major life decisions cannot be made without the approval of the cult’s leadership.[11] While many people commonly think that cults are made up of “losers, loners, outcasts, and people who don’t fit in,”[12] and that they are not susceptible to this kind of enthrallment, the reality is that neither your education, social class, nor your age can protect you against cult recruitment. If the timing and context is right, any normal functioning person with a normal everyday background can be recruited by a cult.[13]

To achieve a state where the members are dependent on the cult on more than just one level is not something that happens overnight. Rather, it is a process during which “the leader slowly takes you through a series of events that on the surface look like one agenda, while on another level, the real agenda is to get you, the recruit or member, to obey and to give up your autonomy, your past affiliations, and your belief systems.”[14] This process has popularly come to be known as “thought-reform.”[15] The goal of this process is to establish a suitable environment wherein commitment to the cult can be evoked and control mechanisms can be implemented. If the thought-reform process is successful, the leadership will have a firm grip of control over their members and can consequently “deceive, manipulate, and exploit their members and hope to keep them for as long as possible.”[16]

Take note that a thought-reform process will rarely include physical oppression. It rather takes the form of a psychological attack to undermine the person’s “basic consciousness, reality awareness, beliefs and worldview, emotional control, and defense mechanisms.”[17] Eventually reality becomes less important for a cult member than the “preservation of their ties” to the cult itself and the leadership.[18] This explains why cults will claim to have a monopoly on truth where the ideology of the cult functions as a rigid “master map of reality.”[19] According to Robert Jay Lifton cult leaders are therefore not merely after the minds of their members, but in a sense they are concerned “with the ownership of reality itself.”[20]

It is important to note that religious cults are the most well-known and the most numerous. Even from a sociological and psychological perspective, this makes sense. The well-known sociologist of religion, Christian Smith, observes that the religious sphere of life can often generate “intensity, depth, and persistence in people’s motivations, commitments, and endurance not often seen in non-religious life.” Religious convictions are a strong sociological and psychological driving force in the life of a person with great potential for abuse and social control.[21]

At the end of the day, the keyword to remember regarding cults is “control.”[22] This is why the phrase “control mechanisms” has so much explanatory power when thinking about the sociological and psychological dimension of cults. However, before investigating the different control mechanisms, it will be meaningful to first discuss the role and the profile of cult leaders who function as control mechanism initiators. It is as Jean-Marie Abgrall states: “Manipulation fundamentally depends on fraud. How well it is done depends on the personality and cunning of the guru.”[23]

The Role and Profile of Cult Leaders

It has been observed that all through history “groups of enthusiasts have sprung up around charismatic leaders of every possible description.”[24] The moment parts of society fail to address certain questions truthfully and meaningfully, “then, like a dormant disease, ever-present potential cult leaders take hold and lure followers to their causes.”[25] The phenomenon of cult leaders is therefore not a recent appearance. What deserves attention for now however, is the way in which cult leaders manage to position themselves to not only recruit a following, but also control them.

The cult leader can be described as the “engine” that drives the whole cult by way of controlling the lives of his followers.[26] It is also around the leader that a cult develops and eventually matures. Singer captures a cult leader as follows:

“[They are] self-appointed, persuasive persons who claim to have a special mission in life or to have special knowledge … Cult leaders tend to be determined and domineering and are often described as charismatic. These leaders need to have enough personal drive, charm, or other pulling power to attract, control, and manage their flocks … Cult leaders center veneration on themselves.”[27]

It is typical for a cult leader to implement an authoritarian and hierarchical structure in which he is the one person at the top with all the authority, making all the final decisions, and rewarding or punishing his followers. While all the resources flow up to the leader, the orders and the cult’s ideology flow down to the members. This kind of structure will take on the shape of a pyramid.[28] In many cases the leader will also appoint a few subordinates who ensure that his rules are adhered to by the members.[29] The leader will either establish this structure, or in some cases inherit it from the previous leader.[30] This kind of hierarchy results in what is properly known as “authoritarianism,” which “involves the acceptance of an authority figure who exercises excessive control over cult members. As prophet or founder, this leader’s word is considered ultimate and final.”[31]

Apart from a hierarchical pyramid shaped structure, a bird’s eye view of the same structure can also take the shape of a concentric layered onion. The leader is accordingly not only at the top, but he also occupies the center of the cult. Stein unpacks this view as follows:

“The deeper you go towards the center of the system, the more distant from reality you become as you enter the ‘fiction’ of the closed and secretive totalitarian world.”[32]

Just like an onion has layers, the cult implements layers to seal themselves off from society and the real world. The closer to the center one gets, the further from reality one is. This kind of structure ensures the dominance of the leader and his leadership, it maximizes the control he can have over his followers, and it provides controlled access to and from the outside world and thus further isolates the members.[33] In a system with these attributes, the absolute ideology “which flows down the steep pyramid from the leader to the membership, is the sheep’s clothing that both disguises and justifies the sharp teeth sunk into the follower’s neck.”[34] The next question however, is, what kind of personality is capable of establishing a system such as this?

Any cult leader will need at least two personal characteristics: charisma and authoritarianism. Using their charisma, cult leaders can lure people to themselves and win them over to their cause. Their charisma is what draws people to them and make people love, worship, and idolize him. Tobias and Lalich phrase it this way:

“In general, charismatic personalities are known for their inescapable magnetism, their winning style, the self-assurance with which they promote something – a cause, a belief, a product. A charismatic person who offers hope of new beginnings often attracts attention and a following.”[35]

While charisma causes love for them, authoritarianism causes fear of them amongst the cult members. In his drive for power and control over his followers, the cult leader will need authoritarianism to dominate and threaten those who oppose him within the cult.[36]

With a theoretical basis of the general mechanics of cults and the role and profile of a cult leader in place, the final aspect to discuss in part 2 of this article, is the so-called control mechanisms.

Suggested Readings

Hassan, Steven. Combatting Cult Mind Control. Newton, MA: Freedom of Mind Press, 2016.

Lifton, Robert Jay. Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultims, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry. New York: The New Press, 2019.

Stein, Alexandra. Terror, Love & Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems. New York: Routledge, 2017.

Singer, Margaret Thaler. Cults in Our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against their Hidden Menace. San Francisco, MA: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

Tobias, Madeleine, L. & Lalich, Janja. Captive Hearts, Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships. San Francisco, CA: Hunter House Publishers, 1994.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the employees and members of Ratio Christi South Africa.

[1] A good way to think about the theological definition of cults is to use the Apostles’ Creed, the Creed of Nicaea, the Creed of Athanasius, and the Chalcedonian Creed as guidelines for establishing the tenets of historic, orthodox Christianity. The truths represented in those early confessional documents defines Christianity, and must therefore be upheld to definitionally be a ‘mere Christian.’

[2] Michael D. Langone, “Introduction” (In Langone, Michael, D. ed. Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual abuse. New York: W.W. Norton, pp. 1-21), 5. Apart from Langone’s definition, Jean-Marie Abgrall also has a helpful sociological and/or psychological definition, stating that a cult “is a closed group, based on mental manipulation, organized around a master (guru) and an ideology. It aims to establish a qualitative difference between the initiates of the structure and non-initiates, and its objective, overt or covert, is the enrichment of the group or a part of the group. It is established and developed by the exploitation of those who are manipulated, by those who do the manipulating. Its effect on the individual is likely to entail physical and physic disorders, which may or may not be reversible” (Jean-Marie Abgrall, Soul Snatchers: The Mechanics of Cults [New York: Algora, 2000], 19).

[3] Jim Jones (1931-1978) was the leader of the People’s Temple cult. On 18 November 1978, more than 900 men, women, and children experienced the ultimate form of cultic victimization. Following the directions of Jones and his inner circle, they drank Kool-Aid laced with cyanide resulting in a mass murder-suicide. This tragedy made the public aware of the reality and destructive potential of religious groups that manipulate the mind, subvert the will, and vandalize the soul.

[4] David Koresh (1959-1993) was the leader of the cult known as the Branch Davidians. His activities lead to the deaths of more than 80 men, women, and children as a fire swept through their compound where they isolated themselves. As this cult became more and more harmful to the society, the FBI became involved, but the events evidently did not end well for Koresh and many of his followers. This tragedy also contributed to a more sociological and psychological approach to cults.

[5] Marshall Applewhite (1931-1997) founded a cult which became known as Heaven’s Gate. He organized a mass suicide and claimed the lives of 39 people. This was yet another example of a religious cult wherein the leadership manipulated people to the extent of willingly taking their own lives for the Applewhite’s cause. This tragic event also showed that there are unhealthy levels of control in religious cults.

[6] The Mancoba family, which consisted of seven brothers, controlled the Seven Angels Ministry. In 2018 they caused the deaths of six policemen in a shootout. After the shootout, the police went on a manhunt during which some of the Mancoba brothers were killed. The police consequently exposed the whole ministry as another religious cult. People were manipulated to give large amounts of money to the church. In some cases people even donated their cars to the church. It was also discovered that the seven brothers had nearly a 100 sex slaves of which the youngest was only 12 years old. Some of these girls were manipulated to such an extent that they considered their work as sex slaves an honour in the eyes of God. This is evidently another group which subverted and controlled the wills of people.

[7] Ron Rhodes, The Challenge of the Cults and New Religions: The Essential Guide to Their History, Their Doctrine, and Our Response (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 20-21. Take note that there is a debate over whether the theological or sociological approach to cults should be primary. Most Christian scholars argue that since the truth claims of the Gospel are ultimately salvific, the theological side must be primary but that the sociological approach should not be dismissed in the process. D.R. McConnell for example explains that since theology and doctrine are comparative and evaluative and not only descriptive, it deserves primacy over sociology and psychology (D.R. McConnell, A Different Gospel: A Bold and Revealing Look at the Biblical and Historical basis of the Word of Faith Movement [Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995], 17). Ronald Enroth, after unpacking the value of the sociological and psychological approach to cults, still insists that “the concept of cult must also include another crucial dimension – the theological.” The fact that he uses the word “also” here implies that although sociology and psychology is valuable, theology remains indispensable when approaching cults (Ronald Enroth, The Lure of the Cults & New Religions: Why they Attract & What we can Do [Downers Grover: InterVarsity Press, 1987], 20). Henk Stoker also highlights the importance of a sociological and psychological approach to cults but acknowledges that even the practical implementation of the sociological and psychological abuses in cults, in some sense, rely on theological and doctrinal foundations (Henk G. Stoker, Die Jehovah-Getuies: ‘n Onchristelike Kulte [Pretoria: Printburo], 9).

[8] Marc Galanter, Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion (New York: Oxford University Press), 17.

[9] Abgrall, Soul Snatchers, p. 10-11 & 18.

[10] Alexandra Stein, Terror, Love & Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems (London: Routledge), 17.

[11] Madeleine Landau Tobias & Janja Lalich, Captive Hearts Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships (California: Hunter House Publishers), 6 & 11.

Margaret T. Singer, Cults in Our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against their Menace (California: Jossey-Bass), 7.

[12] Steven Hassan, Combatting Cult Mind Control (Newton, MA: Freedom of Mind Press), 39.

[13] Singer, Cults in Our Midst, p. 14-15

[14] Ibid., p. 62 & 64-65.

[15] Ibid., p. 4. Depending on who one reads, other terms will also be used to explain this process.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., p. 60.

[18] Galanter, Cults, p. 20.

[19] Hassan, Combatting Cult Mind Control, p. 130. Stein captures this notion as follows: “This single truth, the sacred word, is the word of the leader, or sometimes, that of a deity to whom the leader is the only one to have a direct line. All knowledge comes from the leader. While the leader may change their mind as new ‘insights’ appear, followers may never do so, although they must ever be on the alert to jump to the leader’s sudden ideological shifts” (Stein, Terror, Love and Brainwashing, p. 18).

[20] Robert J. Lifton, Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultims, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry (New Yotk: The New Press), 1.

[21] Christian Smith, Religion: What it is, How it Works, and Why it Matters (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), 92-93 & 127.

[22] Counter-cult literature regularly makes use of the word ‘control’ when discussing the leadership of cults. Consider the following examples:

  • Stoker and De Bruyn explain that religious cults will deliberately set out to “control both the earthly and eternal lives of its members” (H.G. Stoker & P.J. De Bruyn, “Wat is ‘n Godsdienstige Kulte?” In die Skriflig, 29[4]:561).
  • Lifton describes cults as “sealed-off communities where reality can be dispensed and controlled” (Lifton, Losing Reality, p. 1).
  • Abgrall remarks that the person entering a cult is no longer free to act on the basis of his own free will, but that he “is involved in an ever-spiralling dependence on the organization, which controls him completely” (Abgrall, Soul Snatchers, p. 10).
  • Hassan states that the big difference between a normal and healthy group and a cult is that cults are guilty of “subjecting its members to systematic control … to keep them dependent and obedient” (Hassan, Combatting Cult, p. 82).
  • Stein affirms that cults “take control over people’s lives to such an extreme extent that life itself ceases to belong to followers” (Stein, Terror, Love and Brainwashing, p. 2).
  • When explaining the purpose of her book, Chrnalogar emphasises that she wants to show her readers the “inner workings of abusive and controlling groups to show … how they control members” (M.A. Chrnalogar, Twisted Scriptures: Breaking Free from Churches that Abuse [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan], 8).
  • Singer writes that cults are usually totalistic and all-encompassing “in controlling their members’ behavior” (Singer, Cults in Our Midst, p. 10).
  • Ross helps to undoubtedly establish the theme of control when he says: “The most salient single feature of most destructive cults is that an absolute, authoritarian leader essentially defines and controls [the followers]” (R.A. Ross, Cults Inside Out: How People Get In and Can’t Get Out [North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform], 122).

[23] Abgrall, Soul Snatchers, p. 53. The term ‘guru’ comes from an ancient Sanskrit document in which it meant “worthy.” Abgrall, however, uses it in this context to refer to the “charismatic leader of a cult” (Abgrall, Soul Snatchers, p. 53).

[24] Hassan, Combatting Cult, p. 83.

[25] Singer, Cults in our Midst, p. 29.

[26] Stein, Terror, Love and Brainwashing, p. 3, 14 & 15.

[27] Singer, Cults in Our Midst, p. 8.

[28] Stein, Terror, Love and Brainwashing, p. 116.

[29] Hassan, Combatting Cult, p. 117 & 185.

[30] Stein, Terror, Love and Brainwashing, p. 108.

[31] Rhodes, The Challenge of the Cults, p. 31.

[32] Stein, Terror, Love and Brainwashing, p. 116.

[33] Ibid., p. 16.

[34] Ibid., p.123.

[35] Tobias & Lalich, Captive Hearts Captive Minds, p. 67.

[36] Stein, Terror, Love and Brainwashing, p. 15 & 109.



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