by Robert T. Pardon Bob Pardon is director of the New England Institute of Religious Research (NEIRR), and of MeadowHaven, a cult recovery facility, in Lakeville MA (see www.neirr.org). He has been an AIIA Resource Associate since 1995. I recently received an e-mail that contained the following message in its subject line: "URGENT! CRISIS!" My daughter joined this group. . . and her boyfriend wants to go get her!" On another occasion we had a person at our recovery facility, MeadowHaven, whose child died in the same cult. In yet another destructive group, children were savagely beaten and sexually abused. Then there are groups like the Branch Davidians, Aum Shin Rikyo, Heaven's Gate, and Jonestown. Are one of these groups the world's worst cult? Here are the characteristics of the world's worst cult. 1. There is a very controlling leader and/or leadership. Frequently, near to total submission is implicitly or explicitly demanded by the leader or leadership. This is because, according to them, they have the "mind of Christ," special revelation, are "God's anointed," an "endtime prophet," etc. The leader has a special pipeline to God with no actual accountability. This gives him/her a special authority and weightiness in their pronouncements, even in nonessentials. Thus, the leader determines in what areas the member needs to submit. Refusing his/her counsel is to be rebellious. 2. There is separation/isolation of the membership. Members are separated from the "world" in a variety of ways to protect them from "harmful" influences. This is couched in spiritual language and is usually sincerely believed by the leader as an appropriate and necessary step to take. 3. There is a sense of being the chosen few. Spiritual elitism is often rampant in totalistic, destructive groups. All other believers outside your group are either lukewarm or not true believers at all. Consequently, salvation is not found outside the walls of the group. 4. There is a uniformity of lifestyle. This uniformity of lifestyle may be manifested in beliefs, dress, language and living conditions. The desire is to create a true "disciple" of the cult. In actuality it is a total uniformity - a uniformity that can intrude into all the private areas of an individual's life. 5. There can be no dissent. Because the leadership is authoritarian it follows that there can be no questioning of God's anointed or prophet. In noncoercive groups and churches, differences on lesser points are tolerated. It is the unity of the group or the Spirit that is essential. Minor differences are not tolerated in a totalistic, destructive group. To speak out or to question is to have a rebellious spirit, and to possibly fall under God's wrath. 6. The destructive group is always in transition. Doctrines and practices tend to mutate further and further from the group's original beliefs and expression. The most destructive groups are not static but devolve theologically and in practice. Practices and rituals also tend to take on "divine authority" over time. 7. Leaving such a totalistic, destructive group is always extremely traumatic. If a member plans on leaving and the leadership finds out, there may be a painful confrontation with the leadership who will seek to talk the "rebellious" member out of leaving. Frequently, the person may be told, "If you leave bad things will happen to you. Maybe you will get cancer, get hit by a car, lose everything, go insane, and even die." However, having been indoctrinated to believe that "salvation" doesn't exist outside the cult, where is the departing member to go? What is not often understood is that no one wakes up one morning and says, "I've got nothing better to do today. I think I'll join a cult and have them ruin my life!" People always make what they think will be a positive life choice, or join what they believe is a healthy spiritual environment. The average skeptic looks at such destructive groups and says, "I would never join one of those groups!" Sadly, that person is often the most vulnerable, precisely because he or she is so certain. That leads us to the last characteristic of the world's most destructive cult - and the most insidious factor. 8. Any group not recognized as destructive is the most dangerous cult. Any group where the person uncritically abdicates the decision making power over their life to the group is the most dangerous. Any group that says, "Don't reason. Critical thinking is evil. Don't question." is the world's most dangerous cult.
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