Cults keep their followers away from the true source of healing

Jim Jones, founder of the Peoples Temple, which ended with the mass suicide of 900 members (AP photo)

I was leafing through a book entitled Further Along the Road Less Travelled by M Scott Peck the other day. This author, for those not acquainted with him, wrote a bestseller in the 1980s called The Road Less Travelled, about the wisdom he had gained from his own clinical experiences as a psychiatrist, then a psychotherapist and “healer”. I put the word “healer” in quote marks, not because Peck might not have brought some solace and insight into the lives of some troubled people, but because, like the word “charismatic”, it is thrown about too easily in these troubled times when many people are searching for healing (or so it seems), not aware of where the source of all true healing is to be found: in Christ.

Quite a lot of this sequel is really pop psychology – not exactly bad, but very simplistic. Yet almost any book can yield something of interest. I found it at the end of Peck’s book where he lists the 10 characteristics in his view of what makes a cult:

1. Idolatry of a single charismatic leader
2. A revered inner circle
3. Secrecy of management
4. Financial evasiveness
5. Dependency
6. Conformity
7. Special language
8. Dogmatic doctrine
9. Heresy
10. God in captivity

This list seems to make sense. You don’t have to be a famous actor, like Tom Cruise, whose odd beliefs have been in the news recently, to be vulnerable to what a cult has to offer. If you lack a close father-figure in your life, a cult generally offers you one – even if, like the late Jim Jones, he is also bizarre and sinister. If you feel insignificant, joining a cult will give you status and importance. You also don’t mind the secrecy, as long as you are part of it and others are kept out. If making choices about your life is stressful, a cult will make them for you without you realising your dependency. If you feel lonely, it will offer a kind of community, although at the price of conformity to its rules and dogmas. And, of course, the further you become ensnared by the cult and its twisted idea of “God”, the further away you move from discovering God Himself in the person of Christ.

World religions like Christianity are not immune from occasional symptoms of this spiritual pathology. Within the Church herself, new movements sometimes start up which have worrying cult-like features. I am thinking here of the Legionaries of Christ. In their heyday they seemed to go in for an unhealthy and rather alarming conformity, even down to the same hairstyle for their seminarians; there was definitely financial evasiveness and a secretive inner circle; and their founder, the late Fr Marcial Maciel, was too keen on cultivating his own “charismatic” public image at the expense of holiness – as was discovered late in the day when many shameful cover-ups about his personal life eventually came to light.

If the truth will set you free, lies, such as those peddled by cults, always lead to enslavement of the soul.