New Religious Movements: How far will humans go to feel needed?

May 22, 2018


Humans are afraid. They are afraid of the unknown and what they do not understand. They are afraid of their futures. They are afraid of death and they are afraid of life. Some individuals find it easier to let go of their responsibility to make decisions and instead find solace in allowing someone else to hold the reins for awhile. They find satisfaction in joining a “family” that they believe is achieving something greater than themselves through their newfound mentality. They want to be on the front end of rebelling against societal norms and being able to live a sexually driven and liberated life. These are just a few examples of why men and women find themselves joining a “new religious movement” otherwise known as a cult.

Literature Review

In order to mask the negative connotation of the world cult, many leaders or members refer to their lifestyle choice as simply being a part of a new religious movement. Even though the new name is used to obscure all of the negative aspects of the group: including but not limited to the psychological manipulation. Many individuals are able to see through this mask and identify what the organization truly is: a cult. However, some are not as lucky and find themselves wrapped up in this idealistic lifestyle and suffering from many forms of psychological abuse (Cite Seer). This abuse can implant its roots deep within the individual stemming both emotional and physical thorns.  

Some of the most shocking and popular cults of the late 1900s were the Children of God, the Sullivanian Institute, the Source Family, and People’s Temple. All of which flourished primarily in Western Societies because of the newfound admiration towards any acts of the rebellious nature (Dawson). These new religious movements acted on people’s fears and promised to save them from the stresses of the world by allowing them to devote themselves to a new family, one that changed not only their way of living but their way of thinking. However, in most cases, these new religious movements fulfilled their promises in ways the members did not anticipate or want, from sexual abuse to non-consensual submission, cults in many ways were places where women and children found themselves at the bottom of the hierarchy of power. Power is a desirable characteristic of the human experience. But, when power is abused or simply when power is conducted in a way that contradicts previous notions, tensions rise and unease sets in.

Vries de Kets ”

The fact that power and leadership can be seen as two extremes is what makes it so desirable for humanity.

Humans always want to be in control, determining what is right and wrong, and never having to conform to the ideas of others. They want to instill their beliefs in those around them so they are not alone. They do not want to be isolated with their ideas or thoughts and they crave the support and acceptance of those closest to them.

The Children of God was founded in Huntington Beach in 1968 under the careful instruction of former pastor David Brandt Berg. The members lived in fear of an apocalyptic world and were taught that in order to save themselves they needed to leave society and abandon all of their responsibilities (The Children of God Cult). The members upon arrival changed their names to a biblical version and their legal names were kept a secret so that members were able to keep their practices a secret. Their foundational commandments revolved around the idolization of sex being a beautiful way to praise God. This overarching belief was blanketed underneath the idea of Christianity so that members thought that having sex with your family and underage children were okay because it was what God wanted. Or at least that is what Berg was able to convince them (The Children of God Cult).

It was an environment where children were highly sexualized and experienced numerous forms of sexual abuse from a very young age. 

— Sophia Tewa

Over the years the group has been forced to change its name because of “numerous allegations of abduction, pedophilia, and various forms of sexual abuse in countries all over the world” (Butler). They would even be the leader in what would become known as “deprogramming” during the 1960s (E. Van Zandt, David). Deprogramming is the act of brainwashing the youth into believing in a twisted mindset of the world. In this case, they led young America to believe that sex was beautiful and natural in all forms. Even in situations, like child molestation, sexual abuse, or even rape. Their leader and evangelist, Berg, even defended instances of incest and rape as simply the way they needed to live in order to expand the tribe following (The Children of God Cult).

Rape can be divided into 4 definitions: forcible, coerced, non-voluntary, or non-consensual sex (Bogart). All of which have to do with the same idea, an individual being forced to complete an action against their wishes. The psychology behind the perpetrator is hard to fully understand. There is the aspect of superiority, how they want to feel the power they feel they deserve, and then, of course, the appeal of someone feeling vulnerable and crippling to succumb to their power. Men have been known to seduce women into sex because they feel as though they are the superior sex and rape was a way for them to assert their dominance (Durrant).

However, the harm of rape destroys pieces of the victim’s self-esteem, security, and assurance that the victim did not even know they had. It is a situation that changes their outlook on the world and will affect them every day for the rest of their life (Bogart). This unrepairable damage done to the victim’s identity runs deeper than anyone can imagine unless having been in that position themselves.

On the other coast of the United States, all the way in the Upper West Side of New York City, Jane Pearce was separating families and glorifying sex. Now to the average individual residing in New York, the Sullivanian Institute was just another group of Americans seeking some guidance in their lives. The Institute on the Upper West side of Manhattan never raised any alarms when it came to their practices until the veil was lifted on this bizarre cult.

Jane Pearce was a psychiatrist who studied with Harry Stack Sullivan in the late 1940s (Shaw). Pearce and Sullivan’s patients lived together, avoiding as much contact with anyone who was not a part of the Institute. This was required of them, as was as seeing their therapists at lavish parties in the Hamptons, where drugs and alcohol run rapid, and of course in bed. They were encouraged to never spend the night alone and to cut all ties with their family because families were toxic (Lewin).

The first step cults take is to prevent all individualistic and critical thinking. This can be done by separating family members from each other. But, all in all just like any sort of abuse leadership or tyrannical reign, those imposing their power aim to break you and then remake you in their image (Furnham). And that is exactly what Jane Pearce was able to convince her patients to do.

The 1970s in America was a time rattled with uncertainty and fear. The idealistic peace, love, and happiness of the hippies gave way to the realities of drugs, depression, and paranoia. The Vietnam War raged on, civil unrest was prevalent all throughout America, and a darker side of the American culture began to appear as new religious movements were becoming more and more common. For some people, an astounding 100 or more, the wise teachings of Father Yod served as the structure that they needed in their lives. His followers, the Source Family, changed the mindset of individuals from “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” to a healthier, more spiritually conscious way of living (Demopoulos). Father Yod claimed that he was one of the few humans on earth to ever attain God’s consciousness (Admin).

The Source Family had gained their name from the restaurant that Jim Baker, who later becomes Father Yod, opened on Sunset Boulevard. It was said that at one point the Source Restaurant was making more money per square foot than any other restaurant, providing the family with their funds to live in the Hollywood hills. They worked together, meditated together, lived together, and played together. All the while attracting more and more members to their family by spreading the news of religious enlightenment and the appeal of being able to disappear from your past.

Is common not to have a good relationship with your father and many of the members craved a paternal figure in their life who would see them how they wanted to be seen. Father Yod told the women stories of how he believed in their liberation and how they should be able to do as they please, from choosing their work, spouse, or just freely expressing their soul as a creative force in the universe (Sharpe).  Jim married a woman named Robin and together they formed the idealized couple of the Source Family because their relationship was the union of two beautiful souls. She even encouraged him to leave Yogi Bhajan and was instrumental in everything that led to the success of the religious cult (The Source). But as time passed, Father Yod soon began to summon other women to his room. He taught them how to have sex and enjoy their bodies. These women soon formed a council of 14, all of whom would openly fulfill his sexual desires and do anything to please him (Sharpe). He began to impregnate other women and even have sex with underage girls. Many of these women were close to Robin and felt horrible for betraying her, but were fearful of the repercussions if they said no.

Jonestown was the place where the People’s Temple cult took sanctuary and where 909 died in a mass suicide (Jonestown). Many of the men and women who joined this cult did so in order to find their purpose. They did not see their involvement with the People’s Temple as anything associated with the cult lifestyle, but instead a spiritual and religious movement dedicated to bettering oneself. The leader of this cult, Jim Jones, grew up in a dysfunctional family. His father was an alcoholic and his mother was constantly gone because she had to work all the time in order to provide for their family. Jones was described as peculiar and strange from a very young age and he was known for having an obsession with death. Jones saw congregations and their leaders as a way to influence a large collection of people and gain a strong sense of power.

An important aspect of the Peoples Temple was that it was not opposed to minorities or individuals from different walks of life. Through their acceptance of all men and women, from different ethnic backgrounds, the Peoples Temple were able to bridge racial controversy, attracting even more followers than anticipated. Everyone who joined was treated equally, or at least that was what they hoped for. Jim Jones always being the exception to the rules everyone else had to live by. An instance where the inequality between Jones and his disciples, was clearly evident, was when it came to sexual relations. Jones preached that any sort of sexual relationship was selfish and merely a distraction from fulfilling their true purpose of serving the church. Relationships were looked down upon, but this never stopped Jones from fulfilling any of his sexual desires. It was very clear that Jones took full advantage of his power to have sex with whomever he wanted whenever he wanted.

Many members of cults see the group as a sanctuary that offers: friendship, connections, identity, and an opportunity to make a contribution. They want to be a part of something that is greater than themselves and this desperation to find meaning in their lives sometimes leads to them spiraling down a path of abuse (Furnham).

But, growing up or even joining a cult makes an individual susceptible to numerous destructive repercussions. Traumatic experiences include that of the physical, sexual, emotional, mental, and spiritual nature.

— Pignotti


Some of the resulting pains individuals must live with include depression, anxiety, panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, guilt, self-blame, anger, shame, humiliation, and a variety of other distressing emotions (Pignotti). Being able to heal or treat these effects have proved to be extremely difficult and most participants find themselves living with them for the rest of their lives.


Many individuals see cults as a thing of the past, as a result of an era full of violence and insecurities. But, this is not the case. Cult-like behaviors were being discovered long before the late 1900s and will continue to perpetuate modern day society long after. Melanie Bauman, the Director of Counseling and Health Education at the Webb Schools, believes that a lot of the characteristics that are seen within Cult leaders have to do with their early childhood and emotional bonding development. These two stages of development are predicated on the idea that you learn from those around you what your sense of safety is and how to engage in a healthy way. She goes on to explain that many of those who rise to power have an interesting dynamic with their followers. Many examples, such as Charles Manson, are seen as meek and mild instead of threatening and aggressive. This misinterpretation of their objectives is what leads them to attract so many followers in the first place. Although, Manson had everyone under his watch and was directing them and developing who and what they were. He was very hands-off when it came to the actual violence that the Manson family executed.

As she elaborates on the two types of cult leaders, she says, “When we take a look at those who rise to these positions, we see a lot of individuals suffering from trauma. This trauma stunts their emotional development, ability to bond, and their ability to follow social mores. Due to the fact that social mores have already been crossed for them, as a function of their trauma, it does not become a teaching they hold onto.” On the other hand, some of these leaders do not have any clear history of trauma that can reason their innate sense of violence and abuse. This group of leaders just seems to have psychopathic tendencies. There are a lot of theories behind this psychology especially the relationship between good or evil. Ervin Staub, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has spent a lot of time studying the Nazi Regime as a model for large-scale cult behavior. He elaborates specifically on the roles and directive of cults and why so many individuals find themselves falling into the same violent strides as those that have come before them. He accentuates on the necessity for an individual to have structure in their life, a family environment, and space where their needs which had not been met in the past are now being met.

But, the most important aspects of all cults alike is the directive they establish. This directive establishes a sense of unity, purpose, and direction to its followers. And having a purpose in life is one of the most basic yet valuable human needs. Bauman also elaborates on this necessity, she explains how humans have Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – shelter, food, safety, etc., but they also have a set of emotional needs. And one of the most recurring emotional needs is the need to be needed. She explains, “If you have value and importance in a system and you see that this value and importance is being lauded over and over again, no matter what it is, you follow and fall into that space.” Those who follow cults do so because they want a sense of safety within their environment, a place to call home, and a family that approves of them, despite the consequences of their actions. And cult disciples will sacrifice their morals to achieve this sense of reality.


Cults are the result of fear and paranoia, a way to combat one’s deepest insecurities. Men and women flock to cults for an escape from their past, a place to feel needed, and a home with a maternal or paternal figure who will allow them to live a liberated life free from societal constraints. But, along with this unrequited freedom comes the harsh reality of a world with rules that only benefit one individual, the leader. This world is packed with abuse both emotional and physical. Cult leaders take the mold of their followers and shape it to fulfill their needs, not thinking of the person they lose in the process. The heart, the soul, and everything that makes that person who they are becomes lost in translation and they become just like every other member. Acting against their will to accomplish a mission for someone else, hoping to find themselves in the process. Cults are a way to wash out the individuality of a person, leaving them broken and even more lost than before.

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