I just finished reading two books about cults: Church of fear –Inside the Weird World of Scientology by John Sweeny and Call Me Evil, Let Me Go- A mother’s struggle to save her children from a brutal religious cult by Sarah Jones.

As there are different uses of the word cult, particularly different understandings of its meaning in Ghana, let me clarify that I’m not talking about occultist groups that apparently worship Satan. I’m referring to abusive groups that often deceive people into joining them, hiding their true natures, then coerce them into remaining.

What these two books really brought home for me was the way intelligent, stable people can be so easily manipulated and controlled.

I have read many books from those who escaped from Scientology but Sweeny’s was written by a non-scientologist – a journalist investigating the group. The book was effective at showing how the coercion techniques, the bizarre use of language and the constant emotional and intellectual assaults can negatively affect someone even though he was outside of the group. It was a truly frightening world to be witnessing.

The second book surprised me because it was about a Christian church in a small village in the UK. It helped me clarify the definition of a cult – not as the beliefs themselves, but as the behaviour of groups within that belief system which disable a person’s independent thought and the ability to function outside of the group.

There were some aspects of Sarah Jones’s story which mirrored comments I have read about certain churches in West Africa, so I will outline them below.

  • The leader frequently gave the impression of being in communication with God, therefore anything he said was an instruction from God to be obeyed without question.
  • The ever increasing size of the church, including attracting international visitors, was seen as proof it was following God’s word (rather than using deceptive marketing techniques).
  • The congregation were expected to take notes when the pastor spoke and to study his sermons and writings which were also marketed and sold.
  • The pastor would suggest the only family was the family of God – his church – and that biological family were impediments to salvation.
  • Individuals would be told about evil possessing them, family members or friends, if they questioned the pastor or did not conform.
  • There was fear of everlasting punishment in hell if you left his church.
  • The pastor controlled the environment of the congregation. The outside world was seen as evil so external sources of information such as TV were discouraged (except for the pastor who claimed only he was spiritually strong enough to watch it), as were friendships with non-church members.
  • There was a lack of privacy. Private thoughts shared with others were reported back to the pastor who would occasionally make this public knowledge.
  • Whilst the pastor and his family lived in luxury, the church members struggled to make ends meet after paying tithes, donating extra money demanded at church services, and doing voluntary work for the church in their leisure time (the pastor was scathing of what he perceived as laziness).
  • Apparent miracles, healings and prophecies performed in the church were seen as signs that Jesus was with the church and illness as a sign of disobedience.
  • Mention was made of false prophets in the other churches reinforcing the idea that God was only with their church and pastor.
  • The pastor would travel around the world, increasing his influence and returning with honorary degrees.
  • He was, typically, approving of many African country’s attitudes towards people with same-sex desire ‘taking them from the life for which they are unworthy’.

So what we see is a powerful, charismatic figure, who uses his skills to manipulate and control others through controlling their environment, the use of fear, conditional love and the threat of public humiliation and ostracisation.

Eventually working in the church’s recording studio and being responsible for the editing and production of the pastor’s sermons, she notes how she had to remove the worst of the pastor’s strong language, character deformations and unproven miracle claims to provide the best public image to promote the pastor/church. This was one experience that helped her critical abilities to return leading to her eventually escape.

These cult leaders are not taught how to control others but are clearly very sensitive to identifying possible threats to their totalitarian rule and developing techniques to induce fear. Jones notes the way she increasingly felt secure only in the shadow of the church where all decisions were made for her and her steady inability to function in the world outside of it. There was also an awareness that the love, friendships and security she experienced were conditional on towing the line, and losing them meant losing everything.

The church Jones was in was a Charismatic one and it’s possible these churches may be more susceptible to becoming abusive groups. We need to remain vigilant particularly in West Africa where these churches are not regulated.