The answer to "What is a religious sect?" is twofold.
Firstly, a sect is simply a group of people who share common interests or beliefs that are somewhat outside of the main stream. A small group of people in a town might believe in UFO's for example and they get together regularly to share information. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, people are free to believe what they like!
Similarly, a religious sect is a group of people who have the same religious beliefs and these smaller groups have often broken away away from a larger religious body. Again, nothing wrong with this. People are free to move out of a group if they do not agree with certain aspects and go and join whatever group or groups they feel more aligned with.
The second aspect is much more sinister.
There are religious groups where the people are not actually free to make their own decisions. The members will truly be convinced that they are operating under their own free will but they are not aware of the psychological influences and coercive forces that they are being exposed to.
This is the situation in a destructive religious sect, or cult. There is an all powerful leader who basically answers to no-one, deception and a process of thought reform going on. Let's look at each of these in turn, starting with the deception.
Each destructive sect is offering something to the members, whether it is martial arts classes, yoga classes, a sales training or a particular relationship with God, as in the case of religious sects. That's why people are attracted to the group. But this is only a front, a façade. What you see is NOT what you get.
What the members get is a new life, a new personality and a new goal. Whatever they wanted to achieve by joining the group is quickly made less important than the goals of the group. And what are they? To recruit new people and take their money. That is basically the aim of any destructive sect, religious or otherwise. In normal healthy groups, people attend the meetings and outside the meetings they live their own lives. In destructive sects, the groups ideas filter into every aspect of the person's life. Relationships, work life and social life begin to be organized around the group. Group activities become the central focus of the person's week. They talk a lot about the group, the ideas and especially the leader because they believe they have found something fantastic and they want to spread the word. They believe that if everyone knew these things the world would be a better place. Unknowingly, they have started the recruitment of new people into the sect, thinking that they are actually helping others, helping to make the world a better place.
More so than the ideas of the group, the leader becomes the members' focus. In reality the ideas of the group are those of the leader. A destructive sect leader will take some ideas that are considered useful in the real world and put a twist on them. These then, supposedly, become the basis of the group. The members follow the rules and ideas of the leader believing that they are somehow special, different and will allow them to have or achieve something that is not available anywhere else.
And it is true that they are not available anywhere else because the leader has basically made them up. He, or she, has created a reality and then forces people to live within this reality. This reality may have little or nothing to do with the real world but the members believe very strongly that this new reality is the best there is and they would be wasting their lives if they were not part of this group.
On top of all this, the leader associates all the good stuff of the group, the good results and benefits, the great feeling, the sense of belonging, the sense of being special, the sense of having a higher purpose, with himself. It is all linked to himself. What is on offer is not available without him or her! (The scarcity principle.)
The members' lives begin to organize around that of the leader, making sure the leader, or leadership, are comfortable. They will sacrifice in their own lives for the sake of the group (which obviously benefits the leader!).
So, each member entered with their own desires and wants but these become subsumed by the desires and wants of the leader. Oftentimes, the members are completely unaware of this, they think that they have found something more important since joining the group and they feel strongly it has been their own choice to switch priorities. (Emotional manipulation is a fundamental part of mind control.)
They typically believe that the leader is very intelligent, has special knowledge, is caring, kind, a brilliant teacher and will defend the leader to the point of getting aggressive about it if anyone criticizes the leader or calls the group a cult or a sect. They cannot admit that the leader has any faults and if they do see something, they justify it straight away as necessary for the well being of the group. This adoration of the leader, of course, is not normal in healthy groups but is typical of destructive sects.
Thought reform, also called coercive control, undue influence or mind control, is at the heart of a destructive religious sect. This is a series of psychological influence processes used against a person without their knowledge to manipulate and control them. These influence processes are not special but rather they are normal influence processes used with a particular motivation in mind. Parents, for example, use influence techniques to bring up their children but the motivation is to rear healthy individuals with a sense of who they are so that they can make independent decisions, exercise free will and contribute to society in ways that give them satisfaction and benefit everyone in that society.
The motivation of the leaders of religious sects is quite different. The leaders make people dependent on them. They heavily influence the decision making of the members in a way that is, for all intents and purposes, invisible to the members. They take away any free will. They coerce people into believing certain things that benefit the leaders. They manipulate the members into perceiving, thinking, acting in certain ways, again, ways that benefit the leadership. They create a reality for the members that may have nothing to do with the real world and force the members to live in this false reality.
All of this is done outside of the awareness and without the consent of the members. If a person knew that by joining a group they would give up their personal freedoms, pay more attention to the needs and well being of the leaders than to their own families, give a sizeable portion of their earnings to the leaders, have their decisions made for them, turn against anyone who criticized the group, have the leaders control their time, their eating habits and relationships, have sex with the leaders whenever the leader desires, they would run a mile before getting involved. So all this is hidden from the newcomers to the group. Instead an atmosphere of friendliness, happiness, success, well-being, even perfection, is created around those who are interested in joining the group.
Newcomers are made to feel very welcome. They are made to feel special and told that they will do very well in the group because of the talents they have. They are made to feel lucky for having found the group at this particular moment in time. They are offered solutions to their particular problems in the group, or they are told that they will find what they are looking for only by being a member of the group. This is the love bombing phase that people talk about in relation to sects.
The purpose of the mind control system in the group is basically to create perfect group members, people who will listen and follow the leaders instructions without thinking or criticizing. What the influence processes do is to basically change a person's personality. The real personality is dismantled, changes are made and these changes are frozen in place. The result is a false personality, or cult personality, that believes the cult ideas, follows the leaders instructions without question, is dependent on the group and the leader, believes that what they are doing is the best thing in the world that they can be doing and wants to share the ideas with everyone they know. This pseudopersonality believes that if everyone in the world knew what they knew, the world would be a different place, a better place, They genuinely think that they are helping people by getting them to join the group. The reality is that they are tricking people into being recruited into a sect.
This pseudopersonality idea explains why all the cult members have the same beliefs, speak the same language, act in the same way, have the same ideas, regurgitate the same arguments, and they may even dress similarly. It's because the leader has worked out over time what works for him or her, and imposes this on all the members. If the leaders decide they want something different (remember the leader is all powerful, the leader is judge and jury) then the whole group switches. For example, the leader has made it a rule that certain types of people cannot join the group. Later, he realizes that he can make a lot more money if these people do join, the rule will change and there will be justifications for this change ("God has told me it's ok!"). The members are programmed to simply accept the new rules and they carry on as if it was always this way.
The members, without their knowledge or consent, are subjected to all sorts of influences that lead them to put the group and the leader before all else, their lives revolve around the group, the ideas of the leader becomes the master program for making decisions and acting. They spend a lot of time with other members and they are programmed to recruit new members into the group, although they don't think in these terms. They believe they are helping others to find "The Truth", thinking that if everyone has this Truth that the world would be a better place.
Despite the members being programmed to project perfection about the group to the outside world, it´'s not all roses in the garden. Many members have inner conflicts because they recognize things that they do not like or go against their values. However, they are not allowed to talk about these things and they find a way to resolve them enough to stay in the group. Some people just pretend to accept the groups ideas so as not to cause conflict with the leaders. Some change their thinking to fully accept the ideas while others justify the things they don't like as necessary for the benefit of the group to reduce their inner tension and, over time, these people often come to fully accept the ideas as well.
Sometimes the members do talk among themselves in tiny groups about the problems and contradictions they see, but this is done in a secret way, not letting the leadership know what they are doing. The problem is that the members are programmed to reveal all to the leaders and if one of the people in these small groups blabs to the leaders, the leaders then use this information to further enhance their control over the members.
Something that is inherent in religious sects (indeed, all sects), is a power imbalance and with that comes double standards. The leader bans some behavior but engages in it himself or herself. The leader always has a justification why this is permissible. The group claims not to be materialistic but the leader has several expensive cars or even a private jet! He will claim that this is necessary to properly do God's work because he has to travel a lot and works while travelling, for example. Or sex is not permitted outside marriage but the leader can do it because it's important for the evolution of the fortunate member that he is having a relationship with, or that God wants him to consummate, here on Earth, the spiritual relationship he (God) has with the members of this particular group.
If there is a major conflict, the leader is accused of tax fraud, sexual abuse or some other scandal, many members may leave but there are those who stay. For them to admit that the leader is a con artist would be too much cognitive dissonance and they accept the leader's excuses and often become even more devoted members of the congregation. The opposite of what you think would happen, I know, but this is what happens in mind control environments!
If you recognize many of these signs of a religious sect in your group, it would be wise to investigate further. If you have doubts, you absolute should be learning more about cults, destructive mind control, psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists.
Sects steal people's money, time, energy, creativity, life, love and spirituality away from them. Every day you are in a sect is a day that you are not living your own life. You are living a life that someone else has chosen for you, and that life is not for your benefit, it is always beneficial to this someone else.
You can read more about what a cult means, how people are brainwashed into joining a cult (people never voluntarily join a cult, they are tricked into it!), how the cult personality is created, the contradictions in a cult and how to escape a cult.
Would you like to talk to someone about your situation?
If you think you are or have been in a cult or a destructive relationship, or a friend or family member might be in a cult and you want to talk to someone, send me a message on the Contact page and we can arrange to talk. All communication will be treated in the strictest confidence.
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