How Should We Look at Cult Members?

Those who observe the behavior and belief system of cult members from an outsider’s point of view will often make assumptions about those people.

I admit that I often make these assumptions myself.

Let’s examine the first assumption on my list when examining a cult member.

You can’t possibly believe that shit.

The level of absurdity, the lack of supporting evidence, and the illogical nature of religious doctrine will appear simply impossible to believe to an outsider. We often think that the subject must be aware that what he is saying is a steaming pile of crap but he is pretending to actually believe it to serve an ulterior motive.

There are certainly cases in which a person would be motivated to feign a belief in a doctrine that they do not really have. Exploitation — religion is big business and a lucrative one. Opportunistic con artists have been using religion in order to gain money and power from their followers, probably as long as religion has been part of human civilization.

Some people will pretend to go along with religious beliefs in order to please family members. There are people for whom admitting that they don’t really believe such bullshit would deeply hurt those who are close to them and so they go along with it to spare the feelings of others.

Adaptation of religious fanaticism has been used as a tool for criminals in order to demonstrate how they are rehabilitated and ought to be released from prison. Unfortunately parole boards fall for this sort of lie way too often.

In very religious societies a person may feel compelled to go along with a belief system merely to fit in. We are social animals and most of us have an innate fear of being outcasts.

Except in rare cases, humans have a natural sex-drive, particularly powerful in young folks. If Junior thinks that believing in the Great Pumpkin is going to get him laid — he will believe in that Great Pumpkin. You may want to look at information about David Berg’s Children of God cult in which the female members hit the streets and literally prostituted themselves for Jesus. “Flirty fishing” is what they called it.

The list is far from exhaustive, there are many reasons that a person would have the desire to pretend to believe in something that they really don’t believe in, however, the majority of people who claim to believe in ridiculous bullshit really truly believe that bullshit.

With that in mind, we can’t make the assumption that a cult member is pretending to believe something that they do not really believe. It is probably more realistic to assume the opposite — they really do believe what they claim to believe. Most cult members are sincere and they have, through indoctrination and reinforcement, created a mental construct in which the nonsensical makes sense to them. If we examine history we have no choice but to conclude that there is nothing that is too far fetched for people to believe.

You are crazy, senseless, out of it, gone-down-the-road, wacko!

The next assumption that we often come to in response to the irrational beliefs of a cult member is that the subject is insane. There is no doubt that some of them are. Religious cults do have a natural appeal to some people who suffer from mental illness. The reason for this is that cults offer an environment in which irrational thought process and bizarre behavior is normalized.

We can also examine the process of indoctrination and how it will, after a period of time, induce delusional thinking that is on the level of an individual who is afflicted with severe schizophrenia. Let’s take a look at an excerpt from a article called An Inquisition, by Dr. Jeffery Shcaeler (

As an example, let’s take people who use LSD — their imagination of the world, what they “see” under the influence of LSD, is believed as literally true. That verges on what we in psychology and psychiatry label as psychosis. A person who can’t, or won’t, is incapable of, or somehow fails to differentiate what they imagine about the world from what is literally true, is said to be experiencing psychosis. In religious experience, something similar happens. If I say, God is speaking to me, that’s something I imagine, and that I assert is true. However, because that’s a socially acceptable delusion, I’m not going to get into much trouble. If I say, Martians are walking around on the ceiling, I will be labeled as psychotic because that’s a socially unacceptable delusion. Qualitatively, there’s not much difference, it’s a matter of which delusion is more popular. So, we could say that people who have religious delusions are psychotic, or we could say that people we label as psychotic are, basically, having religious experiences.

Normal and abnormal beliefs are determined by the society in which a person resides. Delusional thinking can be normal if a person lives in a community in which most members of that community share the same delusion.

let’s take a look at the Unarius Society, one of the first UFO cults founded in 1954. Among their beliefs about a universal interconnectedness and eternal life the leaders of this cult have claimed telepathic communication with intelligent beings on other planets and a false prediction of a meeting with the “space brothers” who were supposed to have landed on Earth in 2001.

This is a relatively small group and most people would consider the Unarians to be, if not barking mad, at least some goofy-ass motherfuckers.

Let’s take a look at a belief common among some denominations of protestant Christianity — the rapture. According to this mythology, at any given moment Jesus Christ will come to Earth and then return to heaven with all his faithful believers, leaving the infidels to suffer a terrible life on Earth, as the faithful are kickin’ it on Big Rock Candy Mountain. Believing in the rapture is just as insane as believing in the space brothers but the former has a greater level of social acceptability merely because there are so many more people who engage in that delusion than their are those who believe in the latter. Both delusions are equally irrational.

Most cult members are able to behave rationally in other areas of their lives and then go Tom Cruise when they are practicing their religion. The cult members who have a kind of double life — a rational view of the world in most circumstances and a delusional world view within the framework of their religion, we can reasonably assess that such a person is not suffering from an organic mental disorder.

I believe that Shaeler makes a good point on a philosophical level, in that his analogy does demonstrate the correlation between the experiences of the mentally ill, those who are under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug, and those who have been indoctrinated into a religious cult. We treat the three types of delusions differently in our society because of the way that our society functions, not the level of absurdity of the delusions. Cult members can and do recover from the symptoms of indoctrination just as those who are on drugs or mentally ill can and do return to a state of so-called “normalcy.”

The point being that we cannot assume that a cult member is insane, even though they say things that suggest they are buggy as a flop-house blanket, such folks, most of them, are merely complying with the culture they are part of and embracing the delusions that they have been taught to believe.

You are dumb as a fucking fence post.

It is common to assume that a person who embraces an ideology that is just too stupid to be believable must be an idiot, incapable of the cognition required to see the obvious.

I do not think that John Travolta is a stupid man. I think he’s actually quite intelligent. Scientology is stupid — any way one wants to look at it — it’s stupid.

In much the same way that cults attract mentally ill people, they attract dumb people. So there are certainly cases in which the observation is accurate, not always. William Lane Craig is not an idiot — he’s just an asshole. Kirk Cameron is dumb as a fucking fence post.

Generally anti-intellectualism is a necessary component to religious cults. Exceptions are few and far between. Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism are a couple of cults that espouse a pseudo-intellectual philosophical stand. For the most part a religious cult will praise ignorance and blind following. A person who is not particularly gifted in the area of analysis and cognition will find such a social structure appealing — their stupidity is rewarded.

If you examine the stories of those who have left a cult you will see that many intelligent people have become indoctrinated into a limited and overly simplistic mode of thinking and then broke away from it. Some stories are from people who were born into cults and then discovered on their own the there is a larger world out there. Some joined a cult later in life and then came to realize that they had been led to believe things that simply are not true.

A while back one of the posters on Ray Comfort’s Atheist Central aka The Swamp, asked me why it is that we almost always see de-conversion stories from those who were involved in very rigid and extreme religious cults and then became completely non-religious.

The answer I gave at the time still rings pretty much true to me. The extreme religiosity to total lack of religion is not, of course, the only de-conversion or re-conversion scenario there is. This scenario, however, does represent the most profound change in thinking — therefor the subject will have an incentive to write about their experiences. It is an extreme life-changing experience.

No doubt there are Methodists who choose to join a Presbyterian church, for example, but the change is subtle, and the subject is not as likely to want to share the experience with the world. There are plenty of people who were raised in mildly religious families and abandoned what little religious attitudes they had later in life, but again, a subtle change that can go unnoticed. A person may have spent a week checking out the Hare Krishnas and decided that it was not their cup of tea, but would hardly feel compelled to publish a book called, My Life With the Krishnas.

I would be interested in the reactions to this post from people who are currently involved in a religious organization.


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