This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 15 table of contents.

Charismatic Movements

Cults are small social groups that seek to isolate themselves and their members from mainstream society as they conceive it. However, there are two reasons not to use the word cult to label an extremist religious group in America. First, anthropologists use the term for any religious group in any culture. Second, most non-anthropologists regard the term as a pejorative (insulting) term. A more neutral label is charismatic group. This term covers religious cults but also other groups that offer similar comforts and controls.

Cults or charismatic movements are typically marked by these features:

—They are based on a strongly held belief systems.

—They provide comfort, ecstasy, and feelings of well-being.

—An influential leader or revered historic figure guides them.

—They maintain strong social cohesion, often physically isolating themselves from outside influences in a culturally homogenous neighborhood, isolated area, or communal dwelling.

—They use techniques to weaken ties to competing social organizations, including a member's family and old friends if they remain outside the group.

—They place heavy demands on members, asking them to devote most of their time, labor or money to the group.

—They use the belief system to induce anxieties that the group itself offers to relieve.

What features are common to many social organizations, and what are more typical of cults or charismatic groups?

The first three characteristics are common in social organizations of all kinds. The last four distinguish cults or charismatic movements from other groups. Providing people with a comforting belief system and a charismatic leader is one thing; asking them to leave their family behind is something else.

Sometimes the characteristics of a cult can be found in a larger, nationalistic movement, typically focused on a charismatic leader. Joseph Stalin pioneered this approach, which has been called the cult of personality. Historians still find it amazing that Stalin was revered as a Godlike figure by millions of Soviets, while at the same time he was murdering hundreds of thousands of his opponents. As was later the case with Hitler, many of Stalin's followers were dimly aware that something bad was going on behind the scenes, but they let their doubts be washed away in the excitement of a mass movement that made them feel proud and excited about their country.

What pattern is especially distressing to parents?

In The True Believer (1951), Eric Hoffer pointed out that mass movements in a revolutionary or fanatical phase tend to be anti-family. This is particularly true when members are recruited away from a family's culture, religion, or political tradition. In that case, the family is seen as an antagonistic social force competing for the loyalty of the new member. Charismatic movements sometimes encourage new members to sever ties with family members, and this is one of their most distressing characteristics to parents.

How do families often fight back?

Families often fight back. In some states of the United States families can remove adult children from so-called cults through a legal mechanism called conservatorship. This is a legal power of supervision that may be granted to the family of an adult in California and several other parts of the United States. It is controversial, because there is a thin line (if any) between conservatorship, or the "deprogramming" which often goes along with it, and depriving people of their freedom to believe in religious or political systems of their choice.


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