Cults Again!

Cults Again! July 30, 2023

Cults Again!

This is to announce my forthcoming book Unsafe Sects: Understanding Religious Cults (Cascade Books [Wipf and Stock]). I will announce here when it is published and available to order.

The book is the result of years and years of studying especially, but not only, American religious cults, sects, alternative religions. I taught a course on cults, sects, alternative religions at Rice University during my PhD studies there. I invited representatives from many American cults, sects and alternative religions to speak in the class. I visited various religious groups and establishments to interview members and leaders. And that went on throughout my fifteen years of teaching Christian theology at Bethel College and Seminary (now Bethel University) in Minnesota. I also published scholarly essays on the subject, served as a police consultant about the subject, developed genuine friendships with members of groups most people would call “cults,” and contributed chapters to books about the subject. It wouldn’t be entirely wrong for someone who knows me well to say this subject has been an obsession of mine for many, many years.

Most recently I finally watched a multi-episode German-made documentary about a cult in Chile called “Colonia Dignidad.” (Current members do not think it is or ever was a cult, but you can decide for yourself by watching the docuseries which is called “A Sinister Sect: Colonia Dignidad” on Netflix. There are many very brief presentations about the group on Youtube, but some of them contain errors. I strongly urge you to watch the above named docuseries on Netflix. It is one of the best critical examinations of a cult that I have watched. Naturally, of course, the leaders and members denied ever being a cult. Today the colony is mostly a tourist attraction.

The leader of the group was Paul Schaeffer, a German Pentecostal follower of American healing evangelist William Branham. In the 1960s Schaeffer was accused of abuse of young members of his group and he moved them all to Chile where they founded a “paradise in the wilderness” that became extremely controversial. The documentary includes interviews with ex-members who recall some of the horrors that happened at Colonia Dignidad especially during the dictatorship of Colonel Pinochet in the 1980s. The colony and especially Schaeffer supported him and some members cooperated with his reign of terror against dissidents.

The documentary is eye-opening on several levels, but the one I want to mention here, which I emphasize in my book, is how really good and decent people can be manipulated by a charismatic leader into doing things they later strongly regretted and into closing their eyes and ears to abuse that they later testify they should have seen and known as such.

Of course, we, here in America, have known of such experiences with groups such as The People’s Temple led by Jim Jones and the Branch Davidians led by David Koresh. But they are only the best known because of the government and media attention they garnered. I have known of lesser-known, even doctrinally orthodox, Christian churches and organizations that became cult-like even as good, decent Christian people kept attending and supporting without questioning. When someone did question the leadership, they were abused, shamed, threatened, expelled—with the claim that they would lose their “salvation” merely for questioning the leadership and leaving or being expelled.

When most people hear “cult” they think of groups like the People’s Temple or the Branch Davidians or Heaven’s Gate or the Solar Temple. Or they think of Satanic groups or groups involved in witchcraft or “black magic,” etc. The above mentioned documentary shows how good, decent Christian men and women and children were drawn into and held in a group led by a monster who was eventually imprisoned for child abuse which had gone on for many years. And, according to the documentary, the compound in Chile was used by Pinochet for extremely nefarious activities including torture and murder of dissidents—with the full knowledge and support of Schaeffer and some of his followers. Other followers say they never knew or suspected it.

So the question is how to recognize, identify, expose, leave a Christian (or other) church that is cultish or cult-like? In my book I explain various “marks” of cults beyond heretical teaching and bad doctrines. A perfectly doctrinally evangelical church, for example, can be cultish, cult-like, even a cult by psychological, sociological and theological standards.

The key mark of cultishness is authoritarian leadership that demands uncritical support by followers even when the appearance of evil is uncovered. Avoid any church or religious organization whose leader(s) is (are) secretive, furtive, authoritarian, abusive toward members who dare to question him, her or them, and/or domineering over members in any way.

In the book I mention that I attended a fundamentalist Bible college that I now, looking back on it with all my fund of knowledge about cults, consider to have been cultish. Fortunately, it no longer exists. The strange thing is that many good, decent Christian people, students, constituent pastors, donors, denominational leaders, refused to see what I saw clearly as a student. Although I did not then think to consider it cultish. Over time I have given myself permission to say it: I attended and graduated from a cultish college. I could write a book about the abuses I experienced and knew about that went on there at the highest levels—financial, inter-personal, spiritual, etc.

IF you are interested in cults, sects, alternative religions and especially ones that appear to many outsiders and insiders as perfectly normal, watch the named miniseries documentary on Netflix. I cannot recommend any of the Youtube videos about it that I have seen. (One, for example, lumps Jim Jones and Billy Graham together as evangelical cult leaders.) I knew about Colonia Dignidad before watching the Netflix series, but that series informed me for the first time of the horrors that went on there in the 1980s, 1990s and even into the first decade of this century, when Paul Schaeffer was its leader.

Also, please watch for my book Unsafe Sects: Understanding Religious Cults which should be published later this year.

*Note: If you choose to comment, make sure it is relatively brief (less than 100 words), on topic, addressed to me, civil and respectful (not hostile or argumentative), and devoid of links or pictures.*



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