Cults is a phenomenon firmly built on methods of persuasion, otherwise it is unclear to people who are not involved how members of the cult could have agreed to enter it so blatant are methods and tricks used. Simultaneously with a derisive term ‘cult’ it can be rather difficult to decide what in fact cult is. Definitions of cult can vary from a person to a person. As the saying goes, Someone’s cult is another’s religion. In order to gain a person’s favor, cults resort to numerous persuasive techniques and methods. It is obvious that cults, advertently or inadvertently, employ all the possible means of persuasion such as verbal and nonverbal means of influence, persuasive messages, and influence of the group. However, their major reliance is on the power of group’s influence when people, being initially drawn by the means of different reasons, feel the influence of norms, conform under the influence of the group’s size, accept groupthink, and fall under peer pressure.
Although now is the age of information and the Internet and an array of various mass media make it possible to learn whatever and about whomever, people still fall into the clutches of cults and destructive sects. Only the last two decades saw a number of new cases of fatal outcomes that occurred as a result of cults’ activities. In 1997, the extraterrestrial cult called the Heaven’s Gate culminated in the mass suicide of 39 members. In 2000, Uganda’s sect The Movement for the Restoration of the 10 Commandments of God proclaimed the end of the world and took lives of 778 members in a large fire. Another sect, the Yearning for Zion group, professed polygamy, often between young girls and much older men. Their leader was sentenced to life in prison in 2011 in Texas for sexual assault of teenage girls. In total, currently there are over 5000 cults in the U.S. and their ranks are growing with around 185,000 new members per year.
Whereas cults and sects in Africa can be explained by a backwardness of third-world countries, what can be said about The Children of God/The Family, a cult that originated in the 1960s when a large number of people were in an opposition to bourgeois values of the middle class and were all for freedom and free love. Skillfully mixing traditional Christian beliefs with freedom-loving tendencies of hippies, David Berg, the founder managed to establish the cult that has been alive for more than a half a century even after his death in 1994. Apart from religious directions, modern cults can make emphasis on New Age content, psychotherapy, sciences, business, and political direction. The Children of God Cult chose sexual overindulgence as their key emphasis.
As a rule, cults have a charismatic and powerful figure at the centre of their influence over its members. The Children of God Cult was founded by David Berg, an ex-Evangelical minister, who introduced a great many innovations into the cult’s life. For example, female members of the cult were encouraged to evangelize with their bodies by flirting with men at bars with the purpose to convert them into the Children of God followers. It was called “flirty fishing” referring to the Biblical quote where Jesus Christ compares his disciples to fishermen. For the general public it was a very unusual practice as for an organization that claimed to be a church, so people jokingly referred to the Children of God female adapts as “Hookers for Jesus.” Meanwhile, Berg boasted that in 1974, “Flirty Fishers” had “witnessed to over a quarter of a million souls, loved over 25,000 of them and won about 19,000 to the Lord”.
In fact, sexual frivolities might be one of the incentives that hooks new members. Many cults are religious and many people are aware that religion treats sex rather strictly and does not encourage promiscuity. Therefore, when they join a cult and find out that adultery and fornication are allowed, some may find it thrilling, at least for some time. The Children of God cult had a wide assortment of various sexual practices allowed to its members. There is hardly anything that was not allowed. Berg and then his successors believed that their adepts should follow their ‘true self’ and do not prevent themselves from anything. It included incest and pedophilia.
While for some the participation in wild sexual practices can account as identification, presumable for males, others might suffer from it. Especially the cult has even more disturbing mores concerning children. One of the ex-members, Mary D'Ambrosio, reports that the children were “sexually abused and subjected to incest from a very young age, under Berg’s bogus theory that God created human beings to enjoy love and sex, so it was his responsibility to introduce them to it early”. This type of behavior serves to strengthen indoctrination of the members. Such experience should have been intense for the members and instead of making them leave the cult it served to bond them more. According to scholars, “we value a group more if out indoctrination into the group is severe and intense”. After initial stages of compliance, comes “internalization” and “consolidation stage” when new-comers accept all the rules and are ready and eager to do everything what is demanded from them.
Given a long history of The Children of God cult, it is logical and natural that a new generation of children was born who questioned the tenets of the teaching and ways of living. As a result, they suffered from harsh discipline and severe punishments. Conformity is extremely important for cults because it is a mortar of their activity. As soon as someone begins showing sign of dissent or disbelief, the whole edifice of the cult threatens to topple down. According to the theories of human behavior, “more than one dissenter” increases the chances that the dissent will grow. Knowing that resisting pressure is difficult, cult leaders do their best to nip the dissent in the bud. If one person is able to effectively resist the general rules, a second dissenter decreases conformity by 80% and so it is easier to ensure conformity of the initial group than to combat ‘a domino-effect’ later.
Therefore, the children born into the Children of God cult felt not only pressure to conform but they also were treated harshly for their disobedience. For example, Berg’s granddaughter Merry was a regular of Victor Programs and Victor Camps, detention places with strict discipline and hard labor. Second generation Children of God members expressed their dissatisfaction with the way of living and the adults wanted to change their attitudes by giving them silent treatment, forcing them to fast up to four days, leaving them alone in empty rooms or attics, and making them do hard work such as digging tranches.
Additionally to punishments and discipline methods, the cult’s leaders had to intensify their propaganda methods. In her testimony, another COG ex-member Julia Llewellyn Smith tells about “Traumatic Testimonies,” a set of stories from which members read out to prove that it is impossible to live in the normal world: “They’d say: ‘It may look good out there, but believe me I’d be dead if I hadn’t found The Family’”. Thus, fear becomes a hook and keeps members inside the cult. Here, an additional aspect is emphasized such as an opposition Us-Them. Intentionally, the outside world is shown as menacing and evil, while the cult as welcoming and the only safe place.
Together with other techniques of persuasion, cults heavily rely on “group’s coercive influence power” in order to reduce their member’s critical thinking and influence their behaviors. Having come to a cult for various reasons such as encouraging and loving environments, friendly people, an opportunity for self-growth, etc., people usually fall for a charisma of the leader or find a circle of friend. Smith says that her parents were accepted in the cult when they were young. She tries to explains the reasons: “To release oneself from independence, to follow the Prophet was to be free of responsibility”.
Out of this follows a desire to conform and fit in the group. According to psychological theories, groups of any size exercise normative influence, which means that when people agree with general rules of the group they are liked and when they disagree they are strongly disliked. Psychologically it is felt as rewards and punishments and people try to conform in order to get one and to avoid the other. At that, the larger the group, the more pressure an individual feels to fit in and comply. For example, giving her testimonies at the trial against the cult Merry Berg explains that she sought the group’s approval when she asked them to protect her from evil spirits but instead they “gathered the leadership together, pulled my pants down and spanked me publicly which was humiliating because these people were important to me”.
By skillfully playing on human necessity to be accepted cults lure people into their nets. Under the influence of limited communities and closed environments intensified by persuasive methods, people lose an ability to think critically and accept of the cult’s rules and ideas. After successfully escaping The Children of God Smith explains why she and her husband, also a fellow member of the cult, got divorced: “In the cult environment, you think you know someone because you live with them full time, but you only know who the cult expects them to be”. People grow into a habit to show an assumed personality and it is difficult to understand even for an individual himself or herself where is he or she real and where he or she is pretended.
Cults are nothing without its members. The more people a cult gains, the more powerful it becomes. Therefore, cult leaders are interested to learn and use persuasive techniques on their flock. Primarily, cults can begin with some basic techniques of persuasion such as reliance to a charismatic leader, peer pressure, etc. The present paper dwelt on the persuasion through group compliancy. On the example of the cult The Children of God, the paper has discussed how group size affects conformity, the effect of more than one dissenter, and methods of indoctrination, as well as identification as an important process of conformity.