(This originally appeared in the March/April 1998 edition of the MCOI Journal)
People often wonder why it’s so hard for people to leave cult groups, even when they’re made aware of very damning facts about the group. Even more mystifying is the loyalty people exhibit toward their group, long after they’ve left on their own or have been kicked out. People who have been horrendously treated by their former “friends” in the group still carry an immense amount of loyalty to them. They can become angry and spring to the defense of their former associates if someone correctly labels them as a cult group.
The Daily Herald of April 6, 1997, ran an Associated Press article about a former member of the Heaven’s Gate cult whose own daughter was one of those who died in the mass suicide of that group last spring. In the article, Lorraine Wilbur (who claimed to be one of the founders of the group), defended not only her daughter’s choice to take her life, but also cult leader Marshall Applewhite. He led the others to their death through his imaginative teachings that he claimed to have channeled from beings of a “higher level” than humans. The article stated that she “disliked the term cult,” preferring to call the group “the fellowship.” About Marshall Applewhite himself, she complained of media distortion and insisted that he was “a kind and wonderful man.”
Although I am aware that the majority of people cannot understand her attitude, especially in light of the fact that she lost a daughter she loved, anyone familiar with the attitudes of former cult members who have not yet come to grips with their past will recognize this as a very typical reaction to criticism of their former group. Lorraine couldn’t accept that she had so disastrously misjudged Applewhite, who was not a “kind and wonderful man” but a very dangerous religious con man who only appeared to her to be wonderful.
We human beings often are very confident we can judge character and truth by outward appearance, but time after time we prove we’re not good at it at all. Lorraine’s “loyalty” to Applewhite was based upon her trust in her own ability to judge people. This loyalty was likely strengthened by the sad truth that she was, indeed, partly responsible for her daughter’s death. If she were to accept that her judgment had failed her, she would have to admit this fact of her own part in her daughter’s suicide.
I’m sure many readers will remember the interviews of two former members of Heaven’s Gate on CBS’s 60 Minutes. The interviewers seemed incredulous to learn that both men still believed that Applewhite was right and their former associates were, at that very moment, speeding through space aboard the spaceship that was hidden behind the Hale Bopp comet. One man’s wife was “aboard the craft,” in his view, and he regretted that he didn’t go with her. Why would he persist in this belief when there was no rational reason for it? The fact is, of course, there’s a very rational explanation for the loyalty he showed, as his responses in the interview made plain to me. The man told how he and his wife became involved with the group — how, after they had attended just one meeting, they came home and gave their daughter away so they could join up with Applewhite’s separatist group.
Now, let me ask you something. How easy would it be to admit to yourself that you, a supposed rational human being, had given your daughter away and run off with a flimflam man who captivated you in a matter of hours with a fantastic yarn? It would be much easier to keep right on believing a spectacular falsehood than to face yourself with that awful truth. Human beings are driven by pride, and to recognize that one has been deceived to that extent can be a tremendous blow to one’s ego. Considering how difficult it can be for human beings to admit having made a poor restaurant choice or to having taken a wrong turn on the highway, imagine the devastating embarrassment and shame of admitting to a judgment error of this magnitude.
The consequences of this former member’s choice were so horrendous — his child abandoned by her parents and his wife now dead — that the Hale Bopp theory of Applewhite’s just had to be true for this man to live with himself. The level of loyalty one exhibits toward the group one left is often directly tied to the magnitude of the sacrifices made, sacrifices that would appear very foolish, indeed, if they turned out to be needless sacrifices after all.
Such sacrifices are not always life and death as this man’s were, but they still can be compelling reasons to refuse to accept the truth about whatever cult group with which one happens to be involved. For example, imagine you, yourself, had given up years of your life peddling “God’s magazines” from door to door for a Brooklyn publishing concern who had claimed to be God’s only channel on earth, as many Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW’s) have done? You had given up holidays and birthday celebrations. You had deprived your children not only of these things but normal childhood activities such as sports involvement or, perhaps, higher education. You had sacrificed your right to vote or hold public office and had even agreed not to think independently or to disagree with the leadership in any detail. And those had been the small sacrifices! The big sacrifices had involved giving up family members or good friends who disapproved of your involvement or who tried to talk you out of joining the group.
How easy would it be to admit you had been deceived? How foolish would you feel to accept it, no matter how much confirming evidence you were shown that the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society,* though seemingly mainstream, is a destructive cult whose policies have caused the death of many more people than Jonestown and Waco put together.
Fear of ridicule is another thing that keeps people bound to their former cult group. They fear that family members or “worldly” friends (friends outside the group) will crow “I-told-you-so” or laugh at their error. Consider this Associated Press interview with the head of the Unarius Academy of Science, another UFO cult:
In a small town outside San Diego, 76-year old Charles Spiegel eagerly awaits the 1,000 aliens who will descend from ‘Myton’ around 2001 … He shrugs off the skeptics who note that the Unarius spaceships failed to show up for their last appointment with Earth in 1976. We will have the last laugh, Spiegel said.
You see, Spiegel believes (and is correct) he and his compadres have been laughed at. Therefore, he desperately wills his religion to be true, against all evidence to the contrary, so he will be vindicated and get the last laugh! That’s very sad but supremely human as well. Most of us would rather endure the rack for ten hours than to be laughed at for five seconds. How many JWs remain in that group despite the many false prophecies and despite seeing so many doctrinal flip-flops because they’ve been ridiculed and their wounded pride stubbornly refuses to give up the hope that they will have the last laugh after all? How many of us can handle humbling experiences without employing similar defensive strategies? Fear of ridicule and/or wounded pride are powerful blindfolds, indeed.
Misplaced loyalty is another trap. Writing in the October 1, 1984, WATCHTOWER (p. 22), Governing Body member Karl F. Klein told how his loyalty to the Bible Students was “tested” shortly after his baptism in 1918. (Jehovah’s Witnesses were called Bible Students until 1931, when Joseph Rutherford changed the name to Jehovah’s Witnesses.):
“World War I was raging,” he says, and “the need for Christian neutrality was not fully appreciated by those then taking the lead.”
The President of the Bible Students at the time was “Judge” Joseph Rutherford. The Bible Students of that era were permitted to accept being drafted into the Army for non-combatant military service, as they had done under their first President, Charles Taze Russell. Karl wrote that there were some Bible Students “who saw the issue clearly, took offense, and separated themselves from the Bible Students.” These “Standfasters,” as they called themselves, believed that non-combatant service was every bit as bad as regular military service. They warned Karl that, if he stayed with the Bible Students, he would fall out of favor with God and lose out on being one of the “little flock” of anointed followers. (A very BAD thing, for those of you who are unaware of what that means.) Karl agreed with the Standfasters’ position but wrote that his mother “helped me to make the right decision.” So Karl stood loyally with the leadership of the Bible Students, even though he had become convicted that the Society’s teaching was wrong about this very crucial issue. He would not join with the Standfasters, whom he believed were theologically and morally right!
“I could not see myself leaving those from whom I had learned so much, and I therefore decided to take my chances with my Bible Student brothers. It really was a test of loyalty.”
Karl Klein gives us a fine example of misplaced loyalty. His loyalty was to his religious organization rather than to what he believed was right. His “brothers” had become his god. Of course, in time the Society’s leadership came to believe that the Standfasters view was the correct one — though they certainly made no acknowledgment/apology to the now “apostate” Standfasters — and threw out of the organization anyone who did not comply with the new organizational prohibitions against alternative service!
(I must, with tongue in cheek, remark that the Standfasters who left the group in 1918 recently have been found to be wrong after all (at least for now). According to the May 1, 1996 WATCHTOWER, it is A-OK with God that His followers accept alternative service again. This means, I gather, that God was wrong to ever forbid it, although He certainly could change His mind again, making the Standfasters right again, and so it goes. As I have said before, it would be easier for JWs to stay in “the truth” if it would just stand still!)
Fear of making a DEADLY mistake is another reason people stay put. One lady who called the helpline had been a JW for 25 years. She was very unhappy as a Witness, but she was scared to death to leave. You see, a JW is taught that everyone outside of that organization is going to be soon destroyed by God at Armageddon. It is this fear that draws many into the group in the first place, and it is this same fear that keeps many of them there, even when they want so badly to breathe freely. She had quit going to meetings, but she lived in fear, not only for herself, which she could tolerate, but the fear that she would be responsible for the destruction of her family who quit going when she did.
Well, we talked … She was aware of the false prophecy concerning 1975 (because she had lived through it), but her fear of leaving was stronger than her desire to leave. I told her that the Society’s false prophecy concerning 1975 was only the latest in a long string of false prophecies dating back to 1914. In addition, I told her about the seven-foot pyramid at Russell’s gravesite, erected by the Society in 1919, just when they were supposedly being chosen by God as His only channel. I told her about the lies and coverups of the Watchtower Society — how they have blatantly misrepresented views of scholars to make it appear that those scholars back JW teachings, when nothing could be further from the truth.
I informed her that the Society used to forbid vaccinations and organ transplants on the same grounds on which they now forbid blood transfusions but changed their minds. We talked about the lack of freedom within the organization and many other problems it had. I am very happy to say she listened to me and accepted documentation** from me proving what I said and courageously left that organization. She accepted Christ and started attending a church, yet it took a long time to completely eradicate the fear of Armageddon that had been drummed into her. Having realized she had been so terribly deceived by the Watchtower Society, she had a hard time trusting that she had made the correct judgment this time.
Another stumbling block is the terrible time human beings have accepting that highly intelligent people whom they know within the group can be deceived. Brother so and so is a rocket scientist, and he believes all of this stuff; therefore it MUST be true! People instinctively, but wrongly, assume only stupid or highly gullible people would wind up in a cult group, but nothing could be further from the truth!!! My JW friends are highly intelligent women. Intelligence just has nothing to do with deception!
Look how many brilliant people have bought into what Michael Denton*** calls a “fairy tale for adults:” evolution. How many evangelicals (including yours truly) believed Mike Warnke when he claimed to have been a former highly-placed Satanist back in the 1970’s, without ever checking out his story? How many good people of normal or above-average intelligence believe Benny Hinn truly heals people or that the Holy Spirit has an interest in pinning people to the floor or throwing them into uncontrollable fits of laughter? The fact is even Christians (of whatever intelligence) are not immune to deception, which is why the Bible warns us time and time again not to be deceived. If we could not be deceived, why the warnings (Matthew 24:4; Colossians 2:4, 8)?
Similar is the “but they are such nice people” objection to the cult label. Of course, they’re nice people; that’s why we’re tryingso hard to liberate them from the mess they’re in! Anyone, no matter how nice, no matter what age or level of education, can be deceived. If you don’t believe you can be deceived, you’re deceiving yourself!
I had a dialog on-line with an agnostic, former JW, who was ridiculing Christians for their gullibility in believing fantastic conspiracy theories and such nonsensical rumors as Proctor and Gamble secretly putting a Satanic symbol on their products some years back. I had to agree with him, because he was right and I know Christians can be deceived just like others. It is part of the human condition. But I cautioned him that skeptics also can be deceived, which was hilariously confirmed when he informed us of a “Christian fundamentalist plot” against atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair. I was keenly interested to learn who was involved in this secret conspiracy, but unfortunately our skeptic could provide us with no evidence or even the most rudimentary details of the dark plot.
Even though every human being can be deceived (and it is not easy for anyone to admit it and change course), the consequences of changing course for the cultist are often far more devastating on a personal level than for the average person. I may be embarrassed to admit I have been fooled, but I won’t be shunned as a result. But personal rejection and loss of friends and family members are not unusual prices to pay for making the break from a cult group. Almost all of the cults shun former members and consider them not merely misguided but evil. Most people, I think, cannot imagine the courage it takes to do the right thing in the face of this type of rejection. I myself don’t relish being rejected by strangers, much less being thought of as the worst kind of evil person by someone I love, and treated accordingly. Many disillusioned cultists just try to drop out of the group quietly to avoid the personal loss and, for some, that works … at least for a time. Yet, eventually, most have to decide: Is it more important to tell the truth to those they love within the group and risk losing them or watch their loved ones continue on in their deception?
Former cultists, once out, have still another obstacle to overcome. They have been heavily indoctrinated to believe that all of Christendom was “paganized” in some early century, and no truth can be found in any church. Thus poisoned, they often become spiritually empty “loners,” no longer able to believe what they once did but sure that there is nowhere else to go.
They also resist the true gospel of the grace of God because of the works mentality that has been drilled into them so effectively. The difference between cult theology and true Christian theology is the difference between being a slave or being a son, between being owned or being loved. The slave’s well-being is tied to his performance, the son’s to his unalterable position in his father’s heart. In Romans 8:15, Paul speaks of being released from the fearful insecurity of the slave as one receives the spirit of sonship. This is a very difficult concept for former cult members to grasp. They’re used to filling out time cards, attending meetings, and sporting professional “Christian” attire and haircuts. They’re “organization” men and women, bound by rules and bylaws, and they know nothing of the freedom that we are called to in Christ (Galatians 5:1). Free grace is, to them, anathema; indeed, they have been taught to ridicule the notion. Too easy, they scoff.
I have said this before, but it bears repeating: We did nothing to merit our earthly birth, and we needn’t merit or deserve our spiritual birth. We’ve been born into “the Adam family:” born in sin and under a curse; but we have been given the option, through Christ’s ransom, to switch sides and be born again into Christ (Romans 5:12-19). It’s a free gift with no strings attached, and we receive it by faith in Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). This is, indeed, wonderful news, which is why it’s called the “gospel” which means “good news.” Peter said it this way:
“… In [God’s] great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade — kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’spower until the coming of salvation that is ready to be revealed inthe last time” (1Peter 1:3-5, New International Version).
Moreover, these gifts of grace and sonship are not limited to an elite few but are open to all. Jesus, Himself, said in John 3:16 (NIV) “… whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” If you’re a “whoever,” you’re included in the invitation, but if you are not born again, you will not see the kingdom of God (John 3:3).
To believe is to trust in, to have faith in; but sadly, distrust erects the final and, perhaps, most daunting barrier for the former cult member. Having been deceived once, they can be mighty fearful of ever trusting again. You may be able to show them that the Bible says that acceptance by God and adoption into His family is based solely upon faith, but “faith” itself is something they have come to fear. Beware of men (or women!) bearing Bibles, their heart warns. If anyone reading this is in that position right now, I want you to know that fearlessness is not a requirement for salvation. You can be scared and have faith at the same time. You may be terrified of flying in an airplane, but if you have enough faith to get aboard, that’s enough faith! You needn’t hold off boarding until you are convinced that you’re fearless. The plane will fly whether you are scared or not!
The faith necessary for salvation is just like that. You don’t need to be fearless or even doubtless. God knows your weaknesses. He is fully aware of what you’ve been through. He asks you to put your faith and trust in His Son. Just call upon Jesus. The Bible says you will not be disappointed (Romans 10:9-13). Your knees may be knocking or your heart pounding, but get on that plane. He will fly you safely home.
Love to all,
“Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is love and His gospel is peace … Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression shall cease.”
— O Holy Night —Ω
*a.k.a. Jehovah’s Witnesses
**Documentation that comes, oddly enough, from the Watchtower Society’s own, self condemning magazines and books!
***Michael Denton, author of Evolution: A Theory in Crisis
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