Phases of Involvement in a Religious Cult

By George A. Boyd © 2003

Involvement in a cultic group may be visualized as passing through seven phases over time. The latter phases represent an increasing absorption in the lifestyle and doctrinal set of the group, culminating in the complete collapse of normalized personality functioning. These are described below.

1. Initial Exposure Phase – through recommendations of members, active proselytization of members and public lectures, an individual is asked to attend a service, satsang, meeting, etc.

2. Cult Induction Phase – the individual attends the first meeting and is asked to participate in prayer/meditation/worship.

3. Conversion Phase – once the individual has had initial exposure and his/her interest has been identified, the individual is actively worked on to make a commitment to the group. This commitment may take the form of, for example, a belief in Jesus Christ and undergoing baptism, taking spiritual initiation into meditation, coming to regular services, satsang or meetings, etc.

4. Spiritual Honeymoon Phase – after the initiation, the new convert is given love, support and extra attention. Extra effort is made to teach him/her the doctrine and to deepen his/her prayer or meditation experience. Often members are kind, loving and supportive.

5. Thorns Phase – the individual is asked to make a greater sacrifice on behalf of the group. This can take the form of extended volunteer labor, a large financial donation, giving more time to prayer and meditation or doing personal work for the leader. Here much greater demands are made on the individual and he/she may feel like he/she is being tested or challenged, though he/she may feel grateful initially for the opportunity to serve.

6. Crucifixion Phase – here the individual’s beliefs and autonomy are completely undermined. Any belief other than that approved by the leader are weeded out and absolute 24-hour commitment with complete abandonment of any interests outside the group is demanded, along with total surrender of any personal desires or choices to the leader is required. The leader dictates every aspect of life.

7. Spiritual Zombie/Divine Madness Phase – through the intense austerity of the Crucifixion Phase, the individual becomes fixed in an altered state of consciousness. Personality functioning is suspended for much of the time and the individual becomes fully identified with the spirit, nucleus of identity or ensouling entity is cultivated by the group and disidentified with the personality and his/her own life.

A victim of the Spiritual Zombie Phase is characterized by a marginal ability to function in roles other than those dictated by the teacher and has effectively lost the ability to think, make independent decisions, to feel authentic feelings, and to initiate and maintain genuine relationships. Here the individual functions only in the group pseudo-personality, in a state of waking trance.

The Divine Madness Phase occurs when the individual becomes completely identified with the spiritual nucleus and no longer functions normally through the personality: there comes to be a profound gulf between the personality and the state of inner realization. Visions and voices come to dictate decision-making, the presentation of symbols supplants the ability to think, and profound narcissism and/or detachment come to characterize the style of the individual’s relating to others. The individual may demonstrate tirades (rage) and profound withdrawal (isolation).

Others in the Crucifixion Phase may be needed to function on the individual’s behalf or explain/justify the individual’s behavior to others when they become fixed in the Divine Madness Phase. Demands by the individual on others may become irrational or impractical, yet the demand for fulfillment is maintained. The individual may become grandiose and delusional.

UCLA cult researcher, Dr. Jolyon West, first coined the term, pseudo-personality. It is marked by a relationship orientation where:

  1. all activities are governed by cult values and rules
  2. all discussion is about cult doctrine or philosophy
  3. interpersonal relations aim to convert others, who don’t believe, or to maintain the faith of those who do believe

Continual prayer and meditation maintain this altered state of consciousness. It is marked by a very peaceful and happy mood, with a positive demeanor, which bubbles over with spiritual enthusiasm.

This blissed-out, carefree state is very euphoric, but it is completely out of touch with genuine personal feelings, values, and experiences. It is a state of dissociation from normalized personality experiences; hence it is a “pseudo” or false personality.

Deep spiritual work does require transcension and temporary suspension of personality function, cultic groups create many of their deleterious effects by insisting that an individual remain in this altered state of consciousness continually. If we are to avoid the excesses engendered by these groups, then remaining in an altered state of consciousness for long periods of time must be avoided as a start.

While mainstream religious groups and cults share phases 1-4, cults move the individual deeper into phases 5-7, in which the potentially destructive personality changes commonly arise.

When an individual becomes deeply focused and absorbed in spirituality through a cult, the dangers come when prolonged altered states of consciousness, coupled with continual coercive and manipulative suggestions, begin creating profound personality changes.

Identifying some of these markers of phases 5-7 may help the aspirant to avoid being caught up in a destructive cult and allow him/her to withdraw before these deleterious changes occur.

Author’s personal note: Having spent 12 years of my life in cults and having experienced the Spiritual Zombie Phase first-hand, I want to assure you that you don’t ever want to go there. You can read more about these experiences in the article on this web site, My Spiritual Journey.