Why people join cults, and why they leave

Pity the poor Branch Davidians. They came looking for heave and found apocalypse now. They longed for a messiah and got manipulation, abuse and disaster.

They aren't alone. Over 800 cults and cult-like groups are flourishing in America today, including more than a dozen in Maryland. Many are communal, like the Branch Davidians, but some function like churches with walk-in adherents.


In most cases, you wouldn't recognize a cult member if you stood behind one in a supermarket check-out line or saw one at a gas pump, both of which you probably have done at one time or another. Cultists look and seem surprisingly normal for the most part.

The question is, why do they do it?


What causes people to surrender themselves willingly - even rapturously - to others even to the point of being willing to die for their leader or their group? What trick of the mind allows a man to hand his wife over to a cult leader for sex in the next room? Why would anyone give away property or money without doubts about such a transaction?

The answer is simple enough. People join cults because they're looking for love and acceptance and because they want answers to the personal problems in their lives.

Unlike most people who find socially acceptable solutions to their problems, these emotionally scarred individuals are willing to go beyond the bounds of normalcy in order to meet their deeply felt needs. They will do whatever it takes to find balm for their wounds and answers to their questions.

At this point in their lives all it takes is a magnetic, problem-solving personality (male or female) along with the perception of a loving, caring family group and the trap is sprung. Once ensnared, cult life for these people seems perfectly normal and right to them and to other insiders, no matter how pathological it appears to outsiders.

Cult members are willing to die for their leaders because they have come to believe that their own redemption is tied to the group and the leader. The same is true for the mind-boggling willingness to give one's spouse over to the sexual desires of the leader. To fail at these critical points of belief and commitment is to no longer be an authentic member of the group and to lose assurance of one's salvation.

For parents and family members who agonize over children involved in such groups, the good news is that most people leave cults after several years. Most joiners become leavers before the age of 35.

What makes people leave cults? Clearly, not pressure from family and friends. People are seldom if ever argued or coerced out of their cult beliefs or lifestyles.

Deprogramming isn't the answer either, although it works in some cases. Usually, deprogramming creates more problems than it solves because it depends on emotionally breaking the cult member. More trauma is exactly what parents and children don't need in such situations.


What works best with kids caught in cults is respecting their individuality, not over-reacting, showing love and avoiding lecturing.

Interestingly, these are exactly the opposite of what cults do to their members once they've got them hooked. A steady diet of diatribes, group-think and hostility toward everyone and everything in the outside world is more than most people can handle for long.

Typically, the break comes when members realize that the cult is not living up to its promises to heal and save. This sense of failed expectations combined with demonstrations of unconditional love and acceptance by family and friends invariably mark the beginning of the cult-exiting journey.

Tom Bisset is general manager of WRBS-FM, an evangelical radio station in Baltimore.