Yet while authorities and scholars say that these erring cults represent less than three percent of the total NRMs, there is a widespread public bias and distrust of cults, as NRMs are commonly known.
With groups that influence religious beliefs, political thinking and even health and nutrition, applying the term “cult” is generally pejorative. In part, this is due to controversies concerning groups whose beliefs and practices are not only outside of the mainstream but also violate human rights, public safety and peace and order.
Last week, Carmen police released 11 minors after a father complained that his three children were forcibly kept inside a poorly ventilated hut in Sitio Bito, Barangay Baring, Carmen for several days.
According to Mia E. Abellana’s Mar. 26, 2008 report in Sun.Star Cebu, the police arrested Jessica Sayson and other adult followers of the group called Pagtulun-an sa Dios Amahan (Teachings of God the Father) after they refused to release the Saysons’ three children and eight other minors.
Jessica’s husband, Edilberto, said that he was worried about his children’s health and schooling. Jessica and the other members countered that the children did not want to leave the hut as their neighbors were involved in “evil deeds.”
Early warning signs
According to Rodney Stark’s “A Theory of Religion,” a religious “sect” is “a deviant religious organization with traditional beliefs and practices” while a “cult” is “a deviant religious organization with novel beliefs and practices.”
Regardless of the label, the public should educate itself about the “warning signs of a destructive cult.” This is the advocacy of FACTNet, Inc., a “nonprofit organization Internet library dedicated to protecting freedom of mind by reducing harms caused by destructive cults and mind control.”
According to www.factnet.org, “coercive persuasion” is the chief dominant feature of a group that “suppresses the ability of people to reason, think critically, and make choices in their own best interest.”
The website advocates that persons should investigate a group if its leader shows a “totalitarian” tendency to control behavior, from “what (members) believe… (to) what (they) wear and eat, when and where members work, sleep, and bathe, and how members think, speak, and conduct familial, marital, or sexual relationships.”
A cult leader may force members to abandon or alter their families, jobs and lifestyles. His or her system of beliefs and laws is projected to be the only viable one ensuring change or redemption. There may be “false, irrational or even contradictory teaching,” as well as “false miracles performed or endorsed by the leadership.”
A leader may discourage regular medical care and emphasize reliance on faith healing. Children are abused, as when they are blindfolded for hours to “meditate.” Sexual abuse, forced labor and confinement are carried out against members.
Destructive cults make an appeal to social contributions, which turn out to be fronts for recruitment and fundraising, solely for increasing the wealth and prestige of the leader. Members surrender their possessions, money, time and lives to their leaders.
Us versus them
Ethical double standards require members to conform to a strict code while tolerating leaders’ abuses or excesses.
Leaders may also encourage members to be open within the group but manipulative and deceptive to non-members or group outsiders.
Members may be incited to phobias, hatred, threats, harassment and excessive lawsuits against critics and outsiders.
When there are doubts that a group presents potential risk to the physical, emotional and mental health of a person, complaints should be lodged so that the authorities can intervene. Professional counseling is needed to help former members return to the mental and psychological balance suppressed by cult brainwashing.