Cults and Psychology (part 2 of 2)
Written: May 19, 1999
Attraction and Repulsion
A critical question which preoccupies just about everyone who studies New Religious Movements is: Why and how are people attracted to these movements? What sort of people are they, and what are their backgrounds? Professional studies provide conflicting information. One crucial point often overlooked is that most groups report a very high turnover rate - so whatever is causing them to join isn't necessarily keeping them around for very long.
A common speculation is that people attracted to NRMs lead deprived childhoods which results in deprived lives; thus they are now desperately seeking some sort of satisfaction which would make them feel more complete. This assumes that the NRM serves a functional purpose of meeting people's needs. That young arrivals typically come from families with all the material benefits of modern culture would indicate that if these people feel deprived of anything it is not material in nature but instead emotional or psychological. Unfortunately, this does not adequately explain why so many such deprived individuals manage to find fulfillment in traditional religions or no religion at all.
The question of alienation from modern culture has been a common feature of leftist critiques of modernity for many decades, and it certainly serves well in the investigation of NRMs. Alienation refers to the idea that one is experiencing strangeness or separateness from the groups around them. When one does not feel that they belong, alienation can result. So could it be that these movements provide the cure for the waves of alienation which sweep society? Many social structures, especially the basic family, are in periods of serious transition, and that may serve to increase any alienation experienced by today's youth.
Thus, instead of destroying families as anti-cult apologists so often charge, the joining of these movements might instead be seen as an indication that all is already not well at home. People who are alienated from their friends and family do not typically share this information - after all, if they felt that they could talk about matters of such depth, they wouldn't be alienated. This might explain why friends and family are so shocked with a loved-one suddenly joins a new and strange religious group.
Confusion & Identity
Of course, it is unlikely that a person would join many of these groups if they were not already religiously inclined. Although it is not unheard of for a committed secularist to join an NRM, it is still very rare. Of those religiously inclined, it would be more likely those who are "religiously confused," or not already secure and satisfied in a traditional faith, who would be most susceptible to the messages of new movements.
Where might this confusion come from? America has become more secularized in a variety of ways - and many young people are not receiving much religious education at home. This is true not only for nominally religious families which are gradually moving away from faith, often out of apathy, but also among secular and atheist families suffering from the notion that if they simply ignore religion, it will go away. Ignorant young people are then later faced with aggressive and enthusiastic proselytizers, but are unable to counter such efforts with their own arguments of knowledge or experience. The rise of such religious movements can then be seen as a symptom of growing secularization rather than simply as a backlash.
A common experience among young people is the search for an identity separate from their parents and unique to themselves. This is related to the issue of alienation in modern society, since such searches for identity were not prevalent in pre-modern cultures where identity and social roles were more rigidly defined. Modern Western culture, however, tends to treat people more impersonally - resulting in both greater alienation and greater need to define oneself personally. This search for identity can be difficult, and it might be theorized that an enthusiastic religious movement provides easier answers. When one feels lost and drifting, evangelizers offer an anchor of meaning. Since traditional churches have often bought into the process of impersonalization, stressing rules and doctrines rather than experience and personal needs, they too might be fueling the drive to these newer religions.
Although it is perhaps trite to claim that people attracted to NRMs have suffered personal crises which lead them away from earlier beliefs, it is nevertheless true in many cases. When one has found failure instead of success or perhaps experienced personal tragedy, it is common to embark upon a new search for meaning and purpose - and this search can easily lead to other searchers who have already joined a radical religion. Pathological features have also been observed among those who have joined these movements, especially depressive personalities. Some people suffer from a deep sense of personal inadequacy, pessimism and despondency - these may be relieved by joining a "total institution."
Of course, it shouldn't be assumed that every effect on new members is bad. Quite a few psychiatrists and psychologists have examined these members, only to find that some have indeed benefited significantly from their groups. Some benefits are more obvious, like giving up drugs and alcohol. Others are less obvious but no less important, like relieving stress or anxiety, providing a secure and stable home, and enabling a more healthy lifestyle. Whatever problematic or even pathological personality traits previously exhibited, members of New Religious Movements often show themselves to be well within the range of normal personalities.
All of this demonstrates conclusively, to me at least, that no simple generalizations about either "cults" or the people who seem attracted to them will serve any real purpose. Generalizations in these cases tend to be either totally untrue or simply fail to encompass the diversity of beliefs and people involved. In either case, they should be avoided whenever possible.
There is a lot more which could be said on this subject - in particular, I had hoped to cover the process of conversion, the nature of anti-cult groups which become practically "cults" themselves, and the relationship between "cults" and contemporary law courts. But I've simply run out of space and will have to address them in one or perhaps two future articles. As we get closer and closer to the millennium, I intend to write about a number of different issues which relate to the possible problems we face - with "cults" or New Religious Movements being just one.
Don't miss the other section:
Part 1: What is a "cult"?