the Spirit Watch


The Siren Song: How Cults Deceptively Recruit


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by Rafael Martinez, Director, Spiritwatch Ministries

NOVEMBER 12 - UT Chattanooga, 10:06 a.m.

He was a likable, bright and sharp guy, but truth be told, he was actually a very quiet person whose lonely hours after work and school were getting too long. The party life was getting old - getting buzzed with a bunch of co-workers just seemed to go nowhere, but no one seemed to have any other ideas of quite what to do with disposable income and weekends. His last relationship - a fumbling series of aimless encounters in and out of clubs and bedrooms - didn't last a month.

Surfing on the Net and vegging out watching 300 channels of the same predictable dreck was not doing it for him. The pleasantries of the church folk and routine didn't either. The job market seemed to promise nothing but a lifetime of upwardly mobile hand to hand combat, for which the company-paid graduate classes were but a wearying round of pre-emptive strikes. Even the mountain biking through the Smokies of East Tennessee no longer was as elevating as it used to be.

So there he was, minding his own genially frustrated business, wondering if he really wanted Taco Bell again for lunch and if asking Maria out (the sort of cute Mexican data entry chick four cubes over) was worth the energy of doing a Lotus Notes or not. And then with faces alight with something he'd never seen before, Sarah and Jack walked up ..

The person being approached by a cult recruiter is usually completely unaware of just how well sized up they already have been by the recruiter. They know automatically that the prospects they encounter are people with a variety of unmet personal ambitions. Recruitment for any ideology or cause always involves at some level a purely personal appeal to one's desires, dreams, goals and needs. This is neither good nor bad - it just seems to be a part of human nature that comes into play when the call to idealism comes by those possessed by a shining vision of a better way of life.

And persuasion is never so compelling as when it speaks to where you are. Cults are masterful analysts of the human mind and heart and know this fundamental principle of human interaction all too well. The human equation is always in mind as they do their daily canvassing at homes, their street preaching, and their million dollar ad campaigns. To get their foot into the door of the life of the prospect they approach, they must decisively and intentionally act. So what do they do?

Fast Food Fellowship

As we are all too familiar, people are basically insecure creatures who will spare no effort to find the means to satisfy their need for personal security through personal fulfillment. In short, they will seek "the itch for their scratch." Cultic groups target people struggling with such issues with their astonishingly effective means of personal recruitment based upon meeting those needs, thereby gaining significant means of leverage and control over them. And their recruitment is usually as successful as their group's ability to foster that instant sense of rapport and community with those they seek to convert. It is this kind of immediacy in purely relational issues that most powerfully influences the seeker. Their payoff - facilitated by the recruiter's personal contact  -  is a carefully controlled outpouring of positive regard by the collective group aimed to impress upon them how valued and cared for they are: this is done in three ways

In short, this is what we call fast food fellowship. It is quick, delicious and satisfying and can be obtained easily from the right places relatively cheaply. There are no shortage of franchises to choose from. The menus differ to some extent, but the fare is the same. And ultimately, no matter how tasty, the diet is imbalanced and unhealthy and leads into a real rut that is very difficult to get out of! Another terms used by cult researchers to describe this phenomenon is "love bombing".

Immediately, it is obvious to anyone just how shallow and superficial and certainly staged such practices are. Clearly it is unethical, coercive and dishonest. In our article on the identification of what cults are, we noted that  manipulative recruitment practices that dangerous cult groups use have historically been used to the extent that religious abuse on a profound order has been committed. This act of deceptively leading men and women into destructive lifestyles that demand that they dedicate themselves fully to the group's welfare and identity at the expense of their own is certainly a committal of spiritually bankrupt and injurious trauma. Testimony after testimony of cult victims may be cited where their marriages, family ties, personal needs, fortunes, and goods have been ruthlessly and intentionally plundered to advance the group agenda through blatantly authoritarian means.

The Cult In Culture

For too long, we have always assumed that cult groups are exclusively religious in nature when the hard truth is that this is not the case whatsoever. Cultism is active in our culture in forms that are sometimes indistinguishable from established social institutions and realities. The recent upswing in the growth of street gangs in parts of our nation far removed from the inner city - such as the Chicago Latin King wannabes of Cleveland, Tennessee - also helps us see how the cultic mindset can be easily adapted for any situation, and how the human equation we spoke of comes into play universally. The essentially manipulative and domineering spirit of fallen mankind seems to gravitate towards the kind of abusive behavior and practice we have been discussing, and which is found in a bewilderingly wide variety of settings, ranging from political movements to the inner circles of aggressive business associations, from street gangs to self-help and psychotherapy groups, from Identity militia movements to Bible study groups. Irrefutably documented and seemingly endless examples of all of these - and more - have consistently exhibited the same characteristics of cultic behavior and practice that Hassan and Martin have defined.

Although we risk sounding like alarmists when we make such statements, we cannot stress this point enough. The patterns of cult practice involve several sophisticated control mechanisms that play upon the weaknesses and predictability of human nature - and, therefore, prove to be coldly unethical and deliberate manipulations of idealistic people looking for a cause to rally around, and a purpose for life. It matters not if one is a young black child from the inner city seeking to belong, or a fiftyish chief excessive officer disillusioned with the predatory business world. Their openness to new friends with new ideas may prove to be a step into an environment of deception that will profoundly manipulate their lives. This is how the cult problem ensnares many who are members of such groups today.

While the quest for purely religious and philosophical answers regarding many personal concerns certainly does lure many into cultic groups, it is not the only reason. People want to belong to something that makes them feel significant, and cultic groups await their beck and call. Nine out of ten people who join cults are not "religious fanatics" when first recruited; they are instead thoughtful individuals on a search for a purpose in life, for an answer to a troubled past, for friends and love they've lost or never really had. They are the idealists among us who want to be fulfilled and to who want to fulfill a quest for a better world. They reject - or much more often are ignorant of - the conventional avenues to change their lives and the world which are available to them through mainline religions and causes. Yet the daring, radical and alternative perspectives that cultic groups offer become quite appealing.

So, despite what they may hear, they will allow themselves to attend that three day weekend retreat, that motivational seminar, that Bible study or religious service that seem to touch just such a chord within them. Such is the diabolic genius of cult recruitment. While the old ways are rejected, a new truth is introduced as the magic wand with which the troubles of life will be conjured away with.


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