The 4/3/2011 Post story “Local Church that torched Koran has divided pastors, family, and others” noted that some former members of Terry Jones’ Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville Florida have accused the church of being a “cult.” Sociologists of religion have mixed feelings about the word ‘cult,’ particularly after the 1993 Branch Davidian crisis in Waco Texas, where 76 ‘cult’ members died in a fire after their compound was surrounded and fired upon by government agents. Scholars of religion charge that government authorities investigating the Branch Davidians branded them a “cult’, using the term for ‘deviance amplification,’ in order to lower the public’s identification with the group thus freeing the FBI and BATF to charge the Davidian compound with tanks and tear gas.
After the Waco incident, scholarship exploded on cult research, and now, “new religious movement” is the term scholars use to neutralize the pejorative aspects of “cult.” Cult-like tools and techniques remain in use in some groups however, designed to pacify membership. The Cult Awareness Network and International Cultic Studies Association have identified several characteristics of cult-like behavior:
1. high degrees of authoritarian control over members
2. veneration and obedience to charismatic leaders
3. insider/outsider mindset, through the use of mind-control techniques
4. infantilization and shaming of members to obviate critical thinking
5. absolute claims to truth
6. punishment and expulsion of the disobedient
7. using this punishment as a deterrent to inside members.
Former members of the Dove World Outreach church have decried Terry Jones’ demands that members swear allegiance to him, cut ties to nonmember family, restrict diet and stop outside work---all techniques associated with cult-like behavior. These techniques normalize uncritical submission.
Whether the group is a ‘cult’ however remains to be seen. Using definitions by sociologists of religion, the group wound more likely be termed a ‘sect with cult-like tendencies,’ that is, a break-off group from Christianity which asserts that they are more authentic to the original teachings of the host religion, more purged of cultural accretions, and use a high degree of tension with the ‘established’ manifestations of the religion and with the surrounding society in order to create their own organizational identity.
The Dove World Outreach Center has dwindled down to 30 members, several of them family members of Terry Jones himself. Like Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church, public recognition gives them the significance they crave, even if highly negative. They use positive recognition to legitimate their authority within the group, and use negative attention to demonstrate to members that they are indeed the ‘pure and righteous’ showing a corrupt and lawless world the right way to go.
Cult and Sect Definition Characteristics
A small religious/spiritual group which demonstrates 1. high degrees of authoritarian control over members, 2. veneration and obedience to charismatic leaders, 3. insider/outsider mindset, through the use of mind-control techniques, 4. infantilizing and shaming of members to obviate critical thinking, 5. absolute claims to truth, 6. punishment and expulsion of disobedient.
(Also known as brainwashing, coercive persuasion, mind abuse, thought control, or thought reform) refers to a process in which a group or individual “systematically uses unethically manipulative methods to persuade others to conform to the wishes of the manipulator(s), often to the detriment of the person being manipulated.” Mind control is facilitated through the use of isolating the individual, demanding repetitive behaviors, depriving them of sleep, water, and food, and enforced assertions of obedience and subservience.
Meaning of the word “sect:”
A sect is a small religious group that is an offshoot of an established religion or denomination. It holds most beliefs in common with its religion of origin, but has a number of novel concepts which differentiate them from that religion.
Sects assert that they are more authentic to the original teachings of the host religion, more purged of cultural accretions, and use a high degree of tension with the ‘established’ manifestations of the religion and with the surrounding society in order to create their own organizational identity.
Lauve Steenhuisen is a scholar of American theologies and religious movements and teaches at Georgetown University.