The Barnabas Ministry
Book Review

Cults in Our Midst- The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives
Margaret Thaler Singer with Janja Lalich  (Josey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, CA, 1995, 1996). 373 pages.

Margaret Singer was a clinical psychologist who spent her career studying cults and counseling cult members. Cults in Our Midst is a thorough and eye-opening view into how cults work. Singer estimates that twenty million Americans have been involved with cults at one time or another (p. 5). Singer debunks common misconceptions about cults and shows how cults operate.

Sometimes people laugh when I tell them about the content of certain cultic groups or show films about the groups. For example, I tell them about assisting former members of a horse cult, an outer-space cult, a sports cult, a weight-lifting cult, a music camp cult, a diet cult, and a hairdressing cult.

While such groups may sound odd, Cults in Our Midst is not about weird people who join crazy groups. It's about how all of us, at various times, can fall into vulnerable states during which another person can wield more influence over us than at other times. We are all more vulnerable to flattery, deception, lures and enticements when we are lonely, sad, and feeling needy. In such periods of transient vulnerability, most us are more manipulable, more suggestible, and more likely to be deceived by the flattery and inducement of designing persons. (Introduction, page xxi.)

Singer discusses numerous cults, both the well-known and obscure, in illustrating and demonstrating the various traits of cults.
A cultic relationship is one in which a person intentionally induces others to become totally or nearly totally dependent upon him or her for almost all major life decisions, and inculates in these followers a belief that he or she has some special talent, gift or knowledge. (p. 7)
Singer does the world a service by raising awareness about thought reform processes and the plethora of groups that exist, waiting to recruit unsuspecting people for the warped purposes of the cult leader:
People like to think that their opinions, values and ideas are inviolate and totally self-regulated. They may grudgingly admit that they're influenced slightly by advertising. Beyond that, they want to preserve the myth that other people are weak-minded and easily influenced while they are strong-minded. Even though we all know human minds are open to influence-- whether or not that is a comfortable thought-- most of us defensively and haughtily proclaim, "Only crazy, stupid, needy people join cults. No one could ever get me to commit suicide or give my wife over to a cult leader. No one could ever talk me into anything like that."
As I hear people say that, I silently ask, "You want to bet?" (p.16)
Singer introduces six criteria for thought reform (p. 63):
  1. Keep the person unaware of what is going on and the changes taking place.
  2. Control the person's time, and, if possible, the physical environment.
  3. Create a sense of powerlessness, covert fear, and dependency.
  4. Suppress much of the person's old behavior and attitudes.
  5. Instill new behavior and attitudes.
  6. Put forth a closed system of logic; allow no real input or criticism.
Cultic influences are a particularly troubling concept in the realm of Christianity, where healthy and right practices can be warped into a distorted counterfeit that benefits leaders, exploits members and robs them of the faith they once desired.

Thought reform is a threat not only to Christianity and the church; it is a threat to the world and civilization itself. In these days where terrorism overshadows life in the civilized world, it is frightening to think that terrorist networks could utilize thought reform techniques and cultic relationships to recruit people to do their dirty work.

In discussing the idea of leaving a cult, Singer astutely identifies eight reasons why it is hard to leave a cult (pp. 266ff):

  1. You believe you will accomplish something
  2. People are loyal and don't like to go back on a "commitment"
  3. It is easier to submit and adapt to authority figures than it is to confront or resist them
  4. Peer pressure and lack of information prevent an honest assessment of the group
  5. People are too busy and tired to stop and think about what is going on. They focus on surviving in the short term.
  6. People have become separated from their pre-cult identity
  7. People are afraid of retribution or displeasing others
  8. People are reluctant to "throw away" what time and energy has been invested in the system
Singer discusses the way some powerful cults try to suppress discussion and negative information, even to the point of threatening and intimidating news media organizations with frivolous but costly lawsuits. This discussion is sobering for those who think the news media will expose all unhealthy situations! Some groups are not above harassing, intimidating and threatening individuals who seek to speak out about their experiences with the group. Even professionals like herself who promote cult awareness are harassed and threatened. Cults in Our Midst includes enough stories about these sort of things to hopefully make all readers take cults seriously. Some of these groups are extremely ambitious and everyone should be wary of them.

She also addresses the question of recovery from the cult, focusing on putting one's life and thinking back together after coming to grips with the cult experience. In summary, Cults in Our Midst is a worthy, helpful book that everybody ought to read. This is a topic about which nobody can afford to be ignorant.

Copyright © 2004 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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