Firstly, what is a cult? Well, that line is drawn at how a movement is perceived by the mainstream. Perhaps the following are some markers you would be comfortable with: worship of a charismatic leader, a strict doctrine and a funneling of capital from bottom to top. But these characteristics could be applied to many organizations, religious or otherwise—capitalism, anyone? But for the majority of us, the idea of a cult produces images of converts speaking of true religious ecstasy, drinking the “Kool-Aid,” or the image of Tom Cruise jumping up and down on a couch. But still, the line between cult, movement, religion and culture is so blurred that the term “cult” is almost useless. Many people who participate in alternative structures prefer the term New Religious Movements (NRMs).
The majority of NRMs that gain widespread attention often do so because of beliefs that are perceived as extreme; the group has certain practices that are far outside the mainstream or are illegal; or they perpetuate violence on themselves or outsiders. But once the cult has gained notoriety, so much of our attention stays with the figurehead, the charismatic leader that begins and directs the movement. We dissect their motivations, background and methods in an effort to understand how the cult evolved. But what about those who join? Despite the examples of how NRMs can go horribly wrong, are those that join unaware of what drinking the “Kool-Aid” truly means? It seems that, like many of us, people simply want to belong.
Related – Which Cult is Right for You Quiz
DOPE Magazine asked two former Sannyasins—followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (now Osho), who have been in the news lately due to Netflix’s hit documentary, Wild Wild Country—about what drew them to living within a New Religious Movement
“I returned to Australia from Guatemala in 1976 after a failed marriage and three miscarriages. I was at a loose end and keen to be part of a clan. I met up with old friends who were now hippies. Word came from India of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Rajneeshism seemed the antithesis of the negativity I was feeling. I dyed my clothes orange and traveled with several others to Poona, India.
“The ashram was like an oasis of calm. My first impression was as if I was coming home. I had always craved to be part of a large family. It was mostly joyous, so vibrant, the glowing colors, having permission to ‘be yourself’ with impunity. Sometimes we smoked dope after the morning shift, I don’t know how many other people did, but there was no smoking within the ashram so we’d go to someone’s room outside.
“The freedom from needing money is still memorable. I was given accommodation in the ashram and a meal pass. I worked in the canteen, morning or afternoon shifts. Preparing meals for the 1000 ‘ashramites,’ making tofu, serving food, cleaning. We were looked after materially but responsible for oneself. Not many permanent couples, constantly changing relationships, lust, jealousy, loneliness. Relationships seemed to begin quickly and end without the dragged out guilt and doubt that I had experienced in my previous life.
“Living and working in the ashram was intense. There were no ‘days off’ and it was strengthening and reassuring to be a part of a continuous machinery, the flow of the commune. There was a constant push to meet deadlines, no matter what job; push on through, break down to break through!”
“I was a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and quite alternative. A lot of people were disappearing to India and coming back wearing orange as sannyasins—followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. I’d tried teaching, quickly decided it wasn’t for me, and didn’t want to be a ‘straight’ member of society. I decided to spend the winter of 1976 in India, beginning with a visit to the Rajneesh ashram. On arrival I immediately felt at home and ended up staying for five years.
“NRMs (New Religious Movements) all offer community, belonging, a sense of being in a group of fellow travelers, kindred spirits. Traditional NRMs offer a lot of security in the form of strict rules and discipline, which can tip over into oppression, even abuse, but can be really good for people who are confused, lost or can’t handle the freedoms of modern society. Often NRMs are ‘millennialist,’ with a vision of a new and better world, created by and resulting in a more enlightened population. This can be very inspiring and motivating. With such a vision people are willing to push themselves way beyond their comfort zones, work really hard, accept tough discipline and restrictions.
“The downside is it becomes hard to leave if things go wrong, as the world outside seems even harder, colder, more lonely and threatening. This is partly why people sometimes stay on after they’ve become unhappy or disillusioned. The other even more negative downside is the ‘us vs. them’ mentality can easily harden and polarize, sometimes leading to extreme action, even death and destruction, as with Waco, Jonestown or Heaven’s Gate. Of course, there are all kinds of other factors that result in a tragedy, and it’s hard for even specialist sociologists to predict where such events might erupt.
“On the face of it, progressive NRMs have a lot to offer women, in terms of opportunities for personal/spiritual growth, power and leadership. Osho was especially good at promoting women. Nowadays such opportunities are more widely available, so these benefits are less unique. But still, a spiritual path offers an alternative to the traditional role of wife and mother, which is still amazingly powerful as a social force! If women want to be celibate and or childless, it is much easier in a religious community that values these choices. That said, from the outside it can be quite difficult to distinguish between oppression and empowerment.”
Elizabeth Puttick, Ph.D., is a sociologist, the author of “Women in New Religions” and writes at metatheologies.org.
Practicing Safe Sects
There are a handful of groups that come to mind when we hear the word “cult.” When I say “cult,” you think…
This cult gained notoriety when the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, was sieged by law enforcement and broadcast on live TV. David Koresh believed he spoke the word of god, but it was the large cache of weapons amassed inside the compound that became the trigger for the ATF raid.
The Manson Family
Charles Manson became an instant cultural touchstone when his followers, at his request, went on a killing spree in Los Angeles. Though The Manson Family had no specific religious views, unless you count “Helter Skelter,” they are widely regarded as a cult. For his role in the horrific murders, Manson was sentenced to death but spent his life in California jails, dying in 2017.
Jim Jones is perhaps the most infamous of all cult leaders after exiling his followers to “Jonestown” in Guayana, Venezuela. One of his followers shot and killed a U.S. Congressman at the compound. Knowing this would surely be the end of his movement, Jones forced over 900 of his followers, including children, to drink poison mixed with Flavor Aid—not Kool-Aid, as the saying goes.
Is Scientology a cult or a religion? As there is no defined difference between the two, other than mainstream acceptance, it’s like Justice Potter Stewart famously said of what defines hardcore pornography: “I know it when I see it.” In the case of Scientology, when your leader has stated, “If you want to get rich, you start a religion,” you may want to rethink things.
Gaining notoriety when 39 of its members committed suicide, Heaven’s Gate followers hoped their spirits would soar to meet a spaceship following in the tail of Comet Hale-Bopp. The 39 followers who died wore armbands which read “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.”
See which cult is right for you….