Cults are a style of abusive group relationship. Just as an abusive partner may work 40 hours a week or zero, cults don’t all look the same. While they may appear from the outside as churches or environmental groups or hobbyist societies, inside they will share certain controlling, manipulative, abusive behaviors.
There are two major components to cult scriptures or teachings. The first is that group’s own strange beliefs. Cult leaders are plagiarists; they steal from older, more respected religions to conceal their difference and appeal to an existing market. Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and indigenous American faiths have all been subject to this narrative theft and rewrite.
They tweak the cannon stories, throw out whole philosophies, and mash the scavanged bits and pieces of theology together. If cultists were only rewriting and altering scriptures for themselves or for entertainment, we might call it blasphemy or fan fiction or both, but odd beliefs on their own do not a cult leader make. That takes followers, which is where the second, more crucial part of cult leading begins: brainwashing.
Brainwashing, or exacerbating and exploiting cognition errors, is how the leader gets their whacky doctrine believed,which is itself merely the means to their real end. There have always been religious people who sought to convert others. Missionaries want believers. Cult leaders want followers. The weird beliefs are a tool to isolate and control, to segregate from the wider world. Obedience and worship are the leader’s true aims.
The following quote is an example of these two components at work. It is homophobic and extra biblical in nature, so consider this my warning of both offenses.
“Pornography, even man-woman porn is homosexual in nature, because it takes sex and degrades it to be about self pleasure for the viewer. Homosexuality is about an attraction towards “sameness.” And since pornography directs pleasure towards self-arousal, and does so initially even when watched with a partner, it has the same narcissistic element to it. This is difficult to explain and hard for the average person to understand at first, but as you continue your walk towards being more Christ-like, it will begin to make sense.”
The opening sentences contain an odd belief, that pornography is inherently gay. The more common Christian position is that pornography promotes lust and is adulterous. Most anti-porn Christians don’t think straight porn is gay. The final sentence is the real kicker. It acknowledges that the odd belief sounds like nonsense, then immediately claims the only reason it sounds that way is the listener’s inferior nature.
If the listener is already a member or an interested recruit, this emotional sleight of hand will convict them, make them feel guilty and dirty and dumb. If the listener already relies on the group with these odd beliefs for love or shelter or sobriety, they will do any mental contortions necessary to adopt the group beliefs, or at least fake it until they make it. Until their critical thinking skills are dull and silenced. Cults start on new recruits with love bombing, then threaten to take it away if the recruit won’t accept their doctrine,no matter how strange, as gospel truth.