As a noun, the term cult may be understood to mean either a system of religious beliefs and its practices or a very unusual religious group which is outside an established religion (Bullon, 2003). Alternatively, a cult may also mean a collection of persons who organize around an influential authority figure (Rhoads, 1997). The practice of cultism therefore is a kind of ritual usually practiced by a group of people and in which the membership, admission and all other forms of inculturation are secretly conducted with the activities of the cult members being detrimental both to the members and non-members alike (Ajayi, Ekundayo & Osalusi, 2010).
Cults, just like other groups, have been known to try to expand their levels of influence on the bases of power and money (Rhoads, 1997). For cults to be able to meet the level of influence that they require so as to control their members, it has been pointed out that most cults use a blend of deception and influence techniques in order to achieve the psychological control over their membership; which level of control is known variously as brainwashing, thought reform or mind control (Rhoads, 1997).
Upon a destructive cult successfully inducting a member, it displaces the member’s former identity only to replace it with an entirely new one. Rhoads (1997) notes, rather impliedly, that the new identity that the member adopts is one made out of duress and or coercion because it is one that the member would not have chosen freely out of their own volition had they been given the chance.
There are a number of symptoms that an inducted cult member is wont to exhibit. The most common of these include personality changes, dramatic shifts of values and or beliefs, changes in diet or sleep patterns, refusal to attend to important family events, the inability to make decisions without making consultations with the cult guru (leader), sudden use of new philosophies to explain everything, very simplistic reasoning that is wont to see everything in terms of black and white, new vocabulary and also the usual insistence by the inductees that you do whatever it is they are doing just to mention but a few (Sagarin 1997).
Up to 1997, the US authorities had documented about three thousand cult groups being in active operation within the US’ territory. However, Rhoads (1997) notes that notwithstanding the high numbers of such groups, all of them may be broadly categorized into four groups. The said groups are religious cults, psychological or enlightenment cults, commercial cults and political cults.
Authorities submit that at the inception stages, cults use influences that boarder those of conventional religious or even political groups. Ultimately however, very marked differences between will surface as to between the cultic behaviour and the rest of the social groupings that most people belong to. Among these differences, Rhoads states, includes the fact that established religions and other altruistic movements have their efforts focused outwards since they attempt to improve the lives of both members and even non-members alike. Such efforts are usually in very stark contrast of cultic efforts which, rather than be focused outwards, are focused inwards. In fact, the overall purpose of cults is to serve the interests of their leader(s) (Rhoads, 1997).
Besides the difference caused by the direction of the energies, another distinction between cults and the established religions and other altruistic movements is that unlike cults, these established religions and other altruistic movements are not prone to the use of overbearing authoritarian control, deception during the recruitment of members, use of coercive influence techniques as well as the use of brainwashing techniques.
There are various reasons that have been advanced as being the causes of cultism in the society. Ajayi, Ekundayo and Osalusi (2010) for instance provides five such reasons. The reasons offered by these authors, although confined to causes of cultism in Nigerian tertiary institutions of learning, may be accepted as being true of general causes of cultism in the society.
The first factor that is identified as being responsible for the causing cultism is peer influence. They argue that most undergraduates are driven into cult membership within the universities out of the strong influence deriving from their peers. Their argument, based on the human developmental process, is that from the period of adolescence, people shift their relationship focus from their parents to their peers. During this period, a person would easily be influenced into joining groups that their peers are involved in.
This line of reasoning remains true for general reasons that inform membership into cultism, not just in the Nigerian higher institutions of learning, but indeed everywhere else even outside educational institutions. The three authors posit that out of the general factors that nature abhors vacuum, the psychological void created by the detachment from the reliance on parents is filled up by the reliance upon the new group of peers. This line of argument may be held to be true even for people outside their adolescent age bracket. Thus, a number of people would get into cultic practice by being driven through peer pressure, age notwithstanding.
The second reason given as being responsible for membership into cultism is the parental background. According to authorities, the way that parents control their children and enforce discipline among them is a very strong pointer as to whether the children become very ready candidates for cultism or not. It is posited that generally those children whose parents are very strict are usually cautious as well as anxious and are likely to keep off being ready candidates into cultic activities (Ajayi, Ekundayo & Osalusi, 2010).
The corollary is that parents who give their children too much freedom make their children very ready candidates for admission into cultic activities. This is because those parents who pamper their children end up making those children grow with negative habits which consequently make such children take in criminally oriented behaviour such as cultism. Besides, parental background may also be a relevant factor because there are certain circumstances in which children pick up cultic habits from their own parents who are themselves deeply entrenched into cultic practice (ibid).
Another reason advanced as being responsible for membership into cultism is the level of societal decadence. According to the authors, the society provides the appropriate environment that may or may not breed cultic behaviour and or practices among its members. It is asserted that where a particular society is the type that considers dishonor higher than honour, then such kind of a society is likely to witness very exponential growth in the criminal and cultic activities of its members (Ogunbameru, 1997).
The author particularly cites the Nigerian society as epitomizing one where the level of moral decadence took a nosedive making the country’s youth to be particularly vulnerable to criminal acts and tendencies such as cultism. This position has been reiterated by Mgbekem (2005) whose argument is that the increase in criminal tendencies presently is largely out of the fact that most young people have taken into immoral values rather than inculcating morally upright practices.
A fourth reason which has been cited as being responsible for recruitment into cultism is one that is specific in the nature of educational institutions. This has to do with the erosion of educational standards. The reasoning here is to the effect that when the society is rife with corruption, the educational institutions compromise merit in the course of their admissions. This has the consequent effect of bringing into the university society, students with very low self image and esteem. Such students attempt to make up for their low esteem through the becoming cultic. Thus generally, low self esteem among members of the society would spur membership into cultism (Akinfolarin, 2003).
The final reason informing cult membership is the militarization of the world polity. It is posited that when a society experiences a state in which violence becomes part and parcel of its general polity, the same is bound to inspire official introduction of violence. Consequently, the members of the society would find reason to believe membership into organizations that appear to counter the official face of violence would be very fashionable. Consequently, most people are likely to fall prey to deceptions into cult membership which engage in violent activities (Adewale, 2005).
For instance, the authors Ajayi, Ekundayo & Osalusi illustrate that the militarization of the Nigerian society gave a consequent boon to the existence of violent cultism within Nigeria. This is because violence caused political assassinations, coup d’etats among other violent activities. The response from the society was that secretive groups that were very violent quickly cropped up. This was an instinctive counter move to the official commissioning of violence from the state (Adewale, 2005).
Thus these reasons, among the many more not ventilated here, are part of the so many reasons as to why people engage in and practice cultism. Like was indicated herein earlier, these reasons, although were advanced to explain cult membership within Nigerian tertiary institutions of learning, are still very relevant to the general causes such practices within the society. The Nigerian tertiary institutions just give a pointer to the bigger societal problems.