Reflections 2010

Cult Members: Who Are They?

Kayla Teixeira

cult child tatoo

Within a few minutes of searching online, attempting to find the answer to what type of people and what motivations people have for joining cults, it is difficult to not be bombarded by a wide array of stereotypical responses.  The search yielded responses, showing that many or perhaps even a majority of people think that people get sucked into cults because they’re “stupid”, “brainwashed”, “insane”, “weak-minded”, “types who need to be told what to do”, “or people who are too lazy to mentally think for themselves” to name a few.  In addition to the previously mentioned stereotypes, one statement that deserves high recognition for its outstanding ignorance describes cults as “dangerous, totalitarian groups lead by power-drunk maniacs preying emotionally, sexually, and financially on vulnerable followers” ( Jenkins).  In all fairness to the people holding these misconceptions, it is understandable why these misinformed judgments are so widely spread.  As media coverage tends to blast society with stories such as the 914 deaths at Jonestown, 49 suicides of Heaven’s Gate members, or the showdown between law enforcement agents and David Karesh’s followers in Waco, Texas it can be hard for people not to be influenced by this information.  Despite the misinformation that has been spoon fed to us through the media coverage, people who join cults are typically not insane, brainwashed or stupid.  According to studies, some which can be found in Lorne L. Dawson’s book The Sociology of New Religious Movements, cult members fit relatively similar demographics across most New Religious Movements (NRMs). Common characteristics that emerge between members of various cults include: a higher level of education, a weaker spiritual background, higher financial success, younger age, and fewer time constraints.  In addition to looking at the demographics of cult members this paper will address why these people are more likely to join cults/NRMs, and whether or not this benefits the cult leader’s mission furthering the success of the group.

 Contrary to popular belief, people with higher education are more likely to join cults than those with less education.  Dawson writes that “with few exceptions studies have found that recruits to NRMs are on average markedly better educated than the general public” (87). Although not all students attend school voluntarily, people pursuing or holding degrees have a higher likelihood of being open-minded when presented with new information. Students are frequently confronted with new ideas from all areas of study, and with this constant confrontation they become more comfortable and better equipped to handle new information. This is not to say that educated persons blindly accept all ideas, rather they tend to take in and process ideas and arguments before criticizing or rejecting them. 

From the cults perspective, in regards to education, that in order for a cult “to be properly understood, the teachings [of most NRMs] demand literate intelligence, a willingness to study, and a lack of fear in the face of unfamiliar concepts and language” (Dawson 87-88).  This seems to suggest that without an inquisitive nature in its members, the cult may not have a chance to grow and thrive, as members of society with a lower level of education have a greater chance of rejecting the ideas of the cult prematurely.  Due to this lack of understanding or interest to learn, they would not receive or reciprocate benefit in a cult and therefore they do not make up a majority of NRMs recruits.

In addition to education, the financial status of recruits has been found to be a common thread between cult’s members.  In most cases, people with more money/higher financial status will join cults.  People who join cults are “disproportionately from middle-to upper-middle-class households, the advantaged segments of the population” (Dawson 88).  This statement can be explained in a couple different ways.  The first is that, as mentioned above people with higher education join cults more frequently, and it is also the case that people with more education often earn higher salaries than those without.  It may be the case that Dawson’s statement accounts for education and financial success as independent factors in NRMs recruits, when perhaps financial success is directly correlated with the level of education and should not be counted separately, but seen as dependent on each other.  Another account for why wealthier people join cults is the idea that they have a higher sense of stability in their lives.  Because wealthier people feel more secure in the everyday worries of life, they have more freedom to pursue outside interests such a spiritual pursuits.  It may also be argued, accepting wealth as a measure of success, that people who strive and accomplish success in one arena of their life are more inclined to seek growth and success in other areas as well, such as their desire to begin exploring a spiritual side to life.

Having wealthy recruits may work to the cult’s advantage.  Not only can the members consistently and confidently provide for themselves, they can also contribute financially to the needs and growth of the group.  Another benefit to having wealthy members is that it is more likely that because the people are financially secure they have more time and fewer stresses, giving them the ability to focus their attention elsewhere, elsewhere being the cult.

Another interesting point to touch upon is that most people who join cults have less spiritual or religious upbringing.  Dawson writes about a concept called religious seekership which essentially refers to the action of a person seeking some religious/spiritual influence.  Dawson pushes the “contention that religious seekership is a necessary precondition for conversion to NRMs” (89).  Although the point Dawson makes about people joining cults may be true in some cases I don’t agree that everyone must have this spiritual seekership as a prerequisite, and other sources for conversion can come into play for those without a religious background when choosing to join a cult. It has more to do with how people take in information and whether or not their stance on a certain topic is firmly rooted or not.  It is probably safe to say that within Western culture people have been exposed to the idea of religion, yet some still haven’t or never will associate with one.  In assuming that people in general question or contemplate religion and spirituality at some point in their life, then those with a religious background would have a metaphorically filled their space and those without it would have an empty space. Expounding on the parking spot metaphor let’s define Jack as a person with an empty parking spot, meaning he has not religious background.  Julie has a parking space which has always been occupied by Chevys, meaning she has a firm religious background.   Both Jack and Julie are approached by Bob, a car salesman, and he sells Fords.  It will be much easier for Bob to convince jack to buy a Ford, despite him not being in the market to purchase a car because he already has an available space, the Ford seems to have amazing features and he really has no solid grounds for why he shouldn’t buy the Ford.  On the other hand, Julie will most likely not buy a Ford because she has always bought Chevys, who unlike Jack grew up with the mentality that Ford stands for Found On Road Dead, she isn’t looking for a new car, and she would have nowhere to park it.  For Bob Jack is clearly an easy sell because he hasn’t formed any stance on cars prior, whereas Julie appears to be a lost cause due to her firmly rooted admiration of Chevys.  Whether a person is buying a car, talking to a friend about a new product or on a path of “religious seekership”, the point is that it is almost always easier to convince someone that is without a stance on the subject at hand than it is to change a person’s mind and attempt to reintroduce a new concept.

For the cult leader this concept could be very valuable.  If the cult spends countless hours trying to convince an avid Chevy consumer to switch to Ford, not only do they risk offending the person, they also waste time and resources they could be aiming towards the easy sells like Jack.  If cults want to be successful they need to realize where their time would be used most wisely and who they should be marketing their message to.

Not only are people without a spiritual identity more likely to get recruited, young adults searching for their own personal identity are more likely to join cults also.  “The members of most NRMs are disproportionately young” (Dawson 86).  From a psychological perspective, many youths join cults because they are in a transitional period attempting independence all the while struggling to form a sense of belonging away from home.  According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the third tier is the need for love, affection and belongingness, which states that “when needs for safety and for physiological well-being are satisfied, the next class of needs for love, affection and belongingness can emerge” and “ people seek to overcome feelings of loneliness and alienation”(Simons, Irwin, and Drinnian).  A cult may fulfill this need for companionship and make the young member feel stable and comforted during transition.  Another argument to be made is that young adults are attempting to find their own identity as an adult and separate from the identity they may have taken as an adolescent or teen.  As mentioned in a book on family social work “during this stage, young people focus on establishing themselves as independent adults, capable of functioning on their own” (Collins, Jordan, and Coleman 72).  Young adults want to prove to themselves and others that they are equipped to make their own decisions and choose what is best for them.

In addition to the search for identity that young people go through, they also have fewer time constraints than older adults.  Younger people tend to have less time consuming responsibilities such as raising kids or managing their career, so in turn they have more free time and flexibility to focus on their involvement with the cult.  Dawson expresses that because NRMs are more communal and exclusive in their commitments “the demands and desires that accompany family life and the raising of children are often in conflict with the continuing obligations of membership in these groups” (86).  Naturally older adults with hectic schedules and a full load of family and social duties may not find time to devote to the cult that a young person may be able to.  Granted not all NRMs require the full and undivided attention of its members, it will though have a higher chance at success if the members are able to place the group high on his/her list of priorities.  Young adults are just the group with the time to do such a thing.  With little to tend to, the cult can become a highly prioritized facet of the youth’s daily life without threat of interference.  The downside to this however, is that as the young adult members age, assuming they begin to form families and pursue careers, the cult may fall to the side due to the person shifting his time to other aspects outside the cult.

Clearly it is not the case that cult members are stupid or weak minded.  These people are well to do, educated and responsible adults who choose to be a part of NRMs.  Individually and as a whole there are reasons why certain people join cults and how this demographic of people benefit the cult and assist it growth and prosperity.  Additionally, the fact that a high number of members fit such demographic may give the cult the upper hand.  According to “Carl Rogers’ assessment that participation in a group can be highly potent”, one could argue that as the group’s ideas get more firmly accepted and the stronger the ties between members, the greater the chance the cult has at success (Southwell and Merbaum 302).  These demographics are used like “hot buttons” that help persuade others [which] can be traced back to emotions, memories, and experiences that are common to a large percentage of the population” (Larson 270).  Conscious or not of these demographics, all cult leaders are preaching to an audience and the similarities among members can help to ensure a more cohesive outcome. 

Featured Art

“Tatted Skater” by Viki Eagles

Works Cited

Collins, Donald, Catheleen Jordan, and Heather Coleman. An Introduction to Family Social Work. Itasca, Ill.: F.E. Peacock, 1999. Print.

Dawson, Lorne L. Comprehending Cults: the Sociology of New Religious Movements. Toronto: Oxford UP Canada, 1998. Print.

Jenkins, Phillip. "Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religion in American History." Cambridge Journals. Web. 1 Mar. 2010.

Larson, Charles U. Persuasion: Reception and Responsibility. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2007. Print.

Simons, Janet A., Donald B. Irwin, and Beverly A. Drinnian. "MASLOW'S HIERARCHY OF NEEDS." Home | Honolulu Community College. Web. 01 Mar. 2010. <http://honolulu.hawaii.edu/intranet/committees/FacDevCom/guidebk/teachtip/maslow.htm>.

Southwell, Eugene A., and Michael Merbaum. Personality: Readings in Theory and Research. Monterey, Calif.: Brooks/Cole Pub., 1978. Print.

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