Cultism: Why even the so learned are gullible

Wednesday, April 26th, 2023 11:07 | By
Detectives from homicide unit, DCI and other security personnel marking graves site in Shakahola to exhumed bodies. PD/RONALD MWANZOMBO
Detectives from homicide unit, DCI and other security personnel marking graves site in Shakahola to exhumed bodies. PD/RONALD MWANZOMBO

Shallow graves, bodies, emaciated people who don’t want to be rescued… these are some of the shocking scenes Kenyans have been witnessing from Shakahola Forest.

More than 89 bodies have been recovered on the 800 acres piece of land that belongs to Pastor Paul Mackenzie, who is being investigated over the deaths of his faithful. Available reports show that the pastor who anchored his sermons on end-time teachings told his followers to fast to death to meet Jesus. Surprisingly even intelligent and learned people followed him blindly without questioning his message.

“Cults use every technique to capture their target and prey. Cult leaders are very aware that people have distinct needs and, therefore, come to them to offer psychosocial support, help, love, and care, which receivers could never dream of receiving anywhere. Therefore, they prey on people’s vulnerabilities and manipulate them to their advantage,” says Faith Goko, counselling psychologist, who doubles up as an advocate for mental and physical disabilities, corporate emcee and founder Healing Hearts Organisation.

Search for purpose and meaning

Pastor Mackenzie’s followers are not the only followers who are in a cult unknowingly. In Kenya cultism is gaining ground every day. The reason is most people are not able to differentiate religion and cultism. According to Reverend Peter Mbede, Director of Youth Ministry, Fountain of Life Churches Int’l, the reason people are not able to differentiate the two is because some of these cultic groups are disguised as churches or faith organisations, which gives them a little credibility or trust with the people.

“By definition, a cult is a non-orthodox heretical religious group that often exercises social and mental control over its members,” reveals Mbede.

One characteristic common with cults, he says, is that they are often started by strong dynamic leaders who easily sway unsuspecting members into following their heretical teachings and their manner of life. Many of the cults advocate for uniformity in practice, for example, in clothing, worship, among others.

He reveals that cultism is still a major challenge even in this century because the needs of humanity have not changed from time immemorial. Man is always in search of purpose and meaning in life. This drive has often led people to execute crazy ideas. “Misinterpretation of Scripture is the backbone of cultism fuelled by claims of new or deeper revelations. Regrettably, some people have gone too low to the extent of exploiting unsuspecting members left, right, and centre for personal gain. It is clear that any time a church deviates from the true teachings of Scripture, the consequences are always bad,” the man of God adds.

Preying on vulnerabilities

Another reason  is that humans tend to think that they are not fundamentally good in themselves nor even products/victims of their social environment. Therefore, when cults come around with their enticing attractions and teachings, they easily find a high-yielding haven to thrive, flourish, and exponentially reproduce.

“This cult creed is well mapped out to captivate the unsuspecting eye or mind, thus easily raveled in its grip. Distinct cults have different motivations or something to worship if there might be a holy object.  The culture and context in which cults thrive stir them to greater heights,” says Goko.

Also, cults are cautiously designed by experts who have mastered human needs and preferences. These professionals, with big titles and names, veraciously craft attractive, well-bundled products that the human eye cannot resist. Their bait comes across as solution based, harmless, and prepared to immediately sort out an issue or tribulation when in actuality, they are sugar-coated poisons that individuals drink into their resulting damage. They realise when it is too late. The worst part is that a majority of them never get to discover that they are on an extensive road to destruction.

Goko says that anyone can be persuaded, but those who are desperate for an instant solution for a tribulation that has been bothering them for a while and someone who is easily gullible is easier to persuade. Available research also shows that women are more likely than men to join a cult.

“The psychology behind cult suggests that the human need for comfort prompts people to seek out others or things to soothe their fears and anxieties. Women fall for this manipulation because there’s a lot of attraction, attentiveness, and flattery, and both cults and abusers will make you feel special — it’s very seductive,” adds Goko.

Unconditional acceptance

And what do cult leaders do to convince their victims so easily? Nyambura Gathumbi a psychotherapist says that cult leaders meet certain basic human principles and the first one is unconditional acceptance. When one gets into a cult, they tell him or her what he/she wants to hear. That’s so important because the majority of the people who are in a cult seem to be from heavily dysfunctional families, meaning that they might have been either emotionally neglected or they have experienced a certain level of childhood trauma.

The second principle is identity. When one gets into a cult, they gain a new identity both individual and collective identity. For individual identity, the person realises that those people love them, they see him/her and they accept them for all their weaknesses, failure scenes, and all that stuff.

For collective identity, this is where the perception and emotional experience is that ‘we are all here together, we are broken, and we love each other’ and that’s primarily what everyone needs in this life, at least from an emotional point of view, because that’s what majority of these individuals have not experienced from their family of origins.

Sense of belonging and reward

 The third principle is a sense of belonging. Once someone unconditionally accepts you and you have a new identity, you feel that you belong in that place forever. And because your emotional need has been met, the mind does not perceive that there›s anything better than what you›re receiving.

And when we›re looking at cults, we don›t look at them as individuated psychopathology or psychology problems, we look at the cult from the science of addiction.

“Number four is the reward. Here, because of the promised reward, recruited members are willing to suffer as long as they will receive a reward at the end of it all. From the psychological perspective, we classify cult as an addiction, but unlike physical or drug addiction, which are very easy to treat, the cult is on another level. That is why, even those rescued are not willing to be helped until their ‘mission’ is done,” concludes Nyambura.

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