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Why Do People Join (and Stay In) Cults?

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Every year, on March 17th in Uganda, Ugandan Christians have been reminded of the Kanungu cult tragedy. Here close to 1000 lives were lost. Well… in different ways, but majorly through a mass fire that saw over 500 people die. And every time this subject comes up, about people who died in the name of faith and religion, Ugandan Christians are left wondering. Why do people join cults? Why would you want to be part of a religious group that would eventually cost you your very life?

Is It Foolishness? Is it Witchcraft?

I have heard some people remark and say “such people must be fools. You mean they could not tell that this group was a wrong one?” I have heard even some people say maybe some people were under the spell of witchcraft. Because, how does a logical thinking person – and especially a Christian who claims to read the Bible – end up in a false religious group that ultimately kills him?

There is no doubt whatsoever that this subject is a very sensitive yet very important one. Why do people join cults? How is it that some people, sometimes even intelligent and educated, are misled or end up joining a cultic group? A group that may harm them psychologically, spiritually and sometimes eternally.

Two Key Reasons Why People Join Cults

There are a number of reasons why people end up in false religious groups. In fact, one noted sociologist named Michael Langone, has identified two interacting forces that are behind the lure of joining cults.

1. Cults Employ Recruitment Tactics

1) He says that people may join a cult because of the tactics that a cultic group is using to recruit, to convert, and to hold members captive. Maybe a group has some communication strategy that it’s using, that inspires and motivates people to be part of their vision. Maybe this is a group that uses money? You come to poor people, you give them some money, you give some scholarships to their children. They are likely to be encouraged to join this group because they’re having financial benefits.

Every cult has tactics and strategies that they use to hold the interests of their potential follower

So, every cultic group has tactics and strategies that they may use to hold the interests of their potential followers and sometimes to keep them once they have joined.

2. Cults Target Vulnerable People

But 2), Michael says that personal vulnerability may be one of the reasons why people join cults. That cultic groups will often target potential recruits as people who may be having personal vulnerabilities. Maybe they are going through some emotional stress of some kind. Maybe they have lost a loved one, and members of this group come and encourage them, and they walk with them through the grieving process.

Personal vulnerability may be one of the reasons why people join cults

One can understand why you would want to follow such people to their church – if they have loved you, showed you care and compassion. Especially if they have done things that your own church has not been able to do for you.

So, the tactics that the cultic group uses, but also the personal vulnerability of the potential recruit.

Basic Motivations for Joining a Cult

Another noted theologian and sociologist called Harold Bussell has noted that there are four basic motives why people may join a cultic group. And these motives might be intellectual, might be emotional, might be social or might be spiritual.

Intellectual

From time to time you have people who have a longing for rational answers to basic questions. Maybe you belong to a certain Church where you have asked questions from your pastor and your pastor has not given you satisfying answers. Maybe he doesn’t know. Or he has intimidated you by telling you to stop asking such questions, or to believe them by faith. So, people who have that craving for intelligent conversation and dialogue, might be lured into a cult that claims to have answers to their questions.

Emotional

But you might have people who have a longing for love – a longing for identity – who are undergoing some emotional breakdown. And out of that desire to be loved and accepted, they might end up in a group that seeks to love them, to accept them, to protect them.

Most people who end up in cultic groups are not the non-believers

Spiritual

In terms of spirituality, there might be a longing for closeness to God. In fact, in my personal experience, most people who end up in cultic groups are not the non-believers. Generally they are genuine, innocent, sincere, professing Christians who are spiritually hungry. Then, out of a longing for deeper fellowship and closeness with God, they come across a group of people that claim to have special revelations. People that claim to be in touch with God more than anyone else; that claim to have had visitation of angels. And out of that longing for a deep spiritual connection, they end up joining a group that looks like it is in tune with God, but actually is a dangerous religious group.

The Iron-Clad Grip

But beyond that, Michael Langone that I have talked about earlier, has developed or identified what we call the 3D syndrome. That might explain the reasons why people join cults. What are these 3D’s? He identifies deception, dependence and dread. And what does Michael mean?

False Promises & Hidden Identities

In terms of deception, he says that a number of cultic groups will lure and hold their members by deceiving them. For instance, they might offer false promises of what you get when you join the group or what you become. They might promise you riches, or they might promise you miracles. They might promise what will happen to you when you die. Perhaps claims to special privileges in heaven? And through those special promises you might join the cult.

By hiding their true identity, giving you false promises and suppressing information… you may come to think they are a good group

Another way they may deceive you is by hiding their true identity. Most cultic groups, when they come to you, will not tell you the bad and the ugly things in their wardrobe. They will instead promote their group very well in a very positive way. That when you listen to them you begin to wonder, “why did I take so long before knowing that such a group existed”? So, by hiding their true identity, giving you false promises and suppressing information about them, you may come to think they are a good group when actually they are a very dangerous religious group.

A Loss of Individuality

But 2) is what we call dependence. Cults will usually break down your individuality. They make you part of a group where you lose yourself and begin to think in terms of what the group says or what the group holds to be true. they may alienate you from your family members, from your loved ones, and make you to feel part of a new family that seems to love you more than your family members have ever loved you. And eventually, you realise that you almost cannot live, or cannot identify your Christian faith, apart from them.

The Threat of Spiritual Damnation

But 3), they use what we call dread or fear. In most of these cultic groups there is a fear of spiritual damnation if you should ever leave the group. Or maybe they will tell you of some of the curses, or some of the calamities that will befall you if you leave their group? Especially if you had already been introduced to the secrets within the group. So, you find that with people who are in a dangerous religious group, they may even know that there are some danger signals about it. But the fear of what will happen to them should they leave, grips them so tightly, that they cannot imagine walking away from such a group.

The fear of what will happen to them should they leave, grips them so tightly, that they cannot imagine walking away

Of course, there are so many other reasons why people may be held captive to such groups. But at least, these are some of the major ones as to why people may be enticed to be part of a religious group. But even more so, why they may be held captive once they have joined a cult.