Cults or Cultish Behaviour
The other days on Religious Hardtalk, the host, Ian Boyne, had as his guests a Jamaican religious group with some unconventional beliefs.
Formed on the basis of a revelation given to a 19th century Jamaican, this particular group believes in a literal interpretation of scripture which includes men greeting each other with kisses, the literal washing of feet and wearing uniforms to church services on Sundays. Also, they insist that their interpretation of scripture is correct, and that anyone who believes or practices differently is damned / doomed / going to hell.
To most outsiders, it has all the appearances of a cult, when the word is used conventionally.
However, I can think of a few unconventional organizations that I have been a part of. Some of them were called cults (or worse) even though I never felt that I was in anything dangerous to my health and well-being -- quite the opposite in fact.
The truth is that no-one who starts a cult actually announces that fact, or even believes it. Instead, I truly believe that most group (Jim Jones included) sincerely believe that they are doing good.
Calling a group a cult does not help, as there are few groups that are likely to take the accusation to heart, and take the opportunity to examine their practices for "cult-like habits and processes." In fact, they are probably doing all the things that every other organization is doing on a daily basis. They also learn to develop fancy defenses, such as "lists of what cults do," and reasons why they not fit the bill.
It struck me after watching that show that itmight be more helpful to think of the problem differently.
After all, each organization has an interest in not being seen or taken as a cult. However, anyone can develop a relationship with an organization that is cult-like, just by becoming overly obsessed with some aspect of it. Indeed, I have participated or worshipped alongside people who have turned an organization I was a member of into more than just a pastime, with some disturbing behaviours.
They lose interest in other activities. They come to think that the leaders can do no wrong. They spend inordinate amounts of time, money and energy on the organization. They come to believe in its beliefs, thinking that it is the only true way, and that it can never do any wrong.
Leaders of organizations might very well be interested in being trained to spot these types of relationships, in the interest of intervening with the member before they are hurt in some way. Their interventions would save both the member and the organization from a harmful result.
The biggest obstacle to this kind of awareness-training might be the egos of the leaders themselves, because there is a kind of seductive pleasure to be derived from people who come to believe in the organizations, or turn them into cults. Leaders would have to train themselves to see past their own ego-gratification, to the larger good of the the member, organization and ultimately themselves.