The most dangerous cult of all

Robert T. Pardon
Bob Pardon is director of the New England Institute of Religious Research (NEIRR), and of MeadowHaven, a cult recovery facility, in Lakeville, Massachusetts (see  He has been an AIIA Resource Associate since 1995.
I recently received an e-mail that contained the following message in its subject line: “URGENT CRISIS!” My daughter joined this group … and her boyfriend wants to go get her!”
On another occasion we had a person at our recovery facility, MeadowHaven, whose child died in the same cult.
In yet another destructive group, children were savagely beaten and sexually abused.
Then there are groups like the Branch Davidians, Aum Shin Rikyo, Heaven’s Gate, and Jonestown.
Is one of these groups the world’s worst cult?
Here are the characteristics of the world’s worst cult.
1.  A very controlling leader and/or leadership sits at the helm and
     frequently the leader or leadership demands implicit or explicit
     near to total submission.  This is because, according to them, they
     have the “mind of Christ,” special revelation, or are “God’s
     anointed,” an “endtime prophet,” etc.  The leader has a special
     pipeline to God with no actual accountability.  This gives him/her a
     special authority and weightiness in their pronouncements, even in
     non-essentials.  Thus, the leader determines in what areas  the
     member needs to submit.  Refusing his/her counsel is the same as
2.  There is separation/isolation of the membership.  Members are
     separated from the “world” in a variety of ways to protect them from
     “harmful” influences.  This is couched in spiritual language and the
     leader usually sincerely believes it is an appropriate and necessary
     step to take.
3.  These high control groups feel like they are the chosen few and
     spiritual elitism is often rampant in these totalistic, destructive
     groups.  All other believers outside the group are either lukewarm
     or not true believers at all.  Consequently, salvation is not found
     outside the walls of the group.
4.  These sects and high control groups practice a uniformity of
     lifestyle, beliefs, dress, language and living conditions.  These
     groups desire to create a true “disciple” of the cult.  In actuality
      it is a total uniformity – a uniformity that can intrude into all the
     private areas of an individual’s life.
5.  Group unity is heavily stressed.  Because the leadership is
     authoritarian it follows that the sheep cannot question God’s
     anointed or prophet.  In non-coercive groups and churches,
     differences on lesser points are tolerated.  It is the unity of the
     group or the Spirit that is essential.  Minor differences are not
     tolerated in a totalistic, destructive group.  If a group member
     speaks out or questions then they have a rebellious spirit and they
     may possibly fall under God’s wrath.
6.  The destructive group is always in transition.  Doctrines and
     practices tend to mutate further and further from the group’s
     original beliefs and expression.  The most destructive groups are
     not static but devolve theologically and in practice.  Practices and
     rituals also tend to take on “divine authority” over time.
7.  Leaving such a totalistic, destructive group is always traumatic.  If
     a member plans on leaving and the leadership finds out, there may
     be a painful confrontation with the leadership who will seek to talk
     the “rebellious” member out of leaving.  Frequently, the person may
     be told, “If you leave bad things will happen to you.  Maybe you will
     get cancer, get hit by a car, lose everything, go insane, and even
     die.”  However, having been indoctrinated to believe that “salvation”
     doesn’t exist outside the cult, where is the departing member to
What is not often understood is that no one wakes up one morning and says, “I’ve got nothing better to do today.  I think I’ll join a cult and have them ruin my life!”  People always make what they think will be a positive life choice, or join what they believe is a healthy spiritual environment.  The average skeptic looks at such destructive groups and says, “I would never join one of those groups!”  Sadly, that person is often the most vulnerable, precisely because he or she is so certain.
That leads us to the last characteristic of the world’s most destructive cult – and the most insidious factor.
8.  Any group not recognized as destructive is the most dangerous
     cult.  Any group where the person uncritically abdicates the
    decision making power over their life to the group is the most
    dangerous.  Any group that says, “Don’t reason. Critical thinking is
    evil.  Don’t question.” is the world’s most dangerous cult.

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