Dr. Ronald Enroth
What makes cults different from other religious groups? Commitment without freedom, according to Ronald Enroth, Ph.D., professor of sociology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calf. “A cult demands unquestioning devotion. It discourages members from thinking critically about its beliefs and actions.”
Just about anyone can be vulnerable to the influence of a cult at some point in his or her life. “People join cults because these groups meet basic human needs for security and a sense of belonging,” Enroth explains.
People going through a transitional period, particularly those between the ages of 18 and 27, are especially vulnerable. The stress and uncertainty of moving from high school to college, starting a career or ending a relationship can make the structured life of a cult seem attractive. There is no need to make decisions about the future. The cult leader dictates members’ actions, and they are given packaged friendships, careers and even marriages. Quick and absolute answers are provided for complex problems.
Cults also prey on the lonely, depressed and those with low self-esteem, becoming a surrogate family with the leader taking on the role of parent. Members are often idealists on a spiritual search. Cults claim to have a way to change the world, as well as special status or powers for the group as a whole, or for the leader in particular.
As people become more involved with a cult they are cut off from their families. Enroth warns, however, that family members should not become overtly angry. Condemning the group only confirms the cult’s warnings about outsiders and may drive the person farther away.
“The most important thing is to keep the lines of communication open,” he says. Above all, family members must show their love in a way that is not contingent on their agreement or obedience with their wishes. “Let them know they have a home to return to where they are unconditionally loved.” Enroth advises. By listening and asking questions rather than offering opinions, you can not only rebuild a rapport with them, but also learn about the group.
Family members should talk to organizations (such as the American Family Foundation) that compile facts about cults, provide advice about possible courses of action and may help locate former cult members, another important source of information.
“There is no universal solution for bringing someone out of a cult,” Enroth says. It can be a long, painful, frustrating process. Fortunately, counseling professionals, support groups and other organizations are available. To find out more, call the American Family Foundation’s Cult Information Line at (914) 514-3081.