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Socialization and Re-
socialization: Entering and
Exiting a religious cult, A Reflection
on first and second generation
On April 13th 1975 Don joined a religious cult named the Children
of God, (COG). In this paper the reader will become aware of how Don and others went through different cycles of socialization
and re-socialization upon joining and then leaving the cult. With Don it will cover a period spanning almost thirty years.
The reader will also become aware of differences in these socialization processes between a first generation cult member (FGA
or first generation adult), one who originally joined a cult voluntarily, and also a second generation cult member (SGA second
generation adult) one who was born into the cult with no choice in the matter.
Before going in depth, about Don and his fellow cultist one must have knowledge
of what the processes of socialization and re-socialization are and how they differ. At the same time the writer will show
basic characteristics and earmarks that all cults possess.
The book Sociology in Our Times defines socialization as the following:
The lifelong process of social interaction through which individuals acquire a self identity and the physical, mental and
social skills needed for survival in society. (Kendall, pg. 110, par. 1) The book Sociology in Our Times also defines re-socialization
as this: The process of learning a new and different set of attitudes, values,
and behaviors from those in one’s background and previous experience. (Kendall, pg. 134 par.1) While reading this study
the writer would ask the reader to keep these definitions in mind to give a well rounded insight into the cycles of socialization
and re-socialization involved in entering, being a member of and exiting, and in some cases escaping from a cult.
Questions one may ask is what is a cult, and what are characteristics or earmarks
that make up a cult, what does a cult have to do with different aspects of sociological perspectives? A universal definition
of a cult is as follows:
Cult - Any group
which has a pyramid type authoritarian leadership structure with all teaching and guidance coming from the person/persons
at the top. The group will claim to be the only way to God; Nirvana; Paradise; Ultimate Reality; Full Potential, Way to Happiness
etc, and will use thought reform or mind control techniques to gain control and keep their members. (Groenveld, Freedom In
Christ par. 4)
One should also examine the characteristics or what is referred to as earmarks of a cult.
These characteristics are exclusive to all cults and the cult of which Donald was a part of was no exception and exhibited
all these characteristics:
There is almost always a central, charismatic, living human leader who commands total loyalty and allegiance.
Their beliefs, practices and values are counter to those of the dominant culture.
are the only group that possesses the "truth."
3. Legalistic: Rules
and regulations abound governing spiritual matters and the details of everyday living.
4. Subjective: They
emphasize the experiential, the feelings and the emotions. This is usually accompanied by an anti- intellectualism.
The groups feel they are being singled out by mainstream Christians, the press, parents, and the government.
They require conformity in practice and belief, and exercise sanctions against the wayward.
Esoteric: They promote
a religion of secrecy and concealment. Truth is taught on two levels, inner truth and outer truth.
There are no paid clergy or professional religious functionaries.
Keeping these characteristics in mind, why would anyone join a cult anyway? In the case
of Don simply put, vulnerability! At the time of his joining the cult Donald
was already in many ways not living as a part of a normal societal structure. He had gone through years of drug abuse, being
a hippy, anti-war activism during Viet Nam, and just before joining the COG attempting to live a life away from society by
living in the country wanting to hunt and grow his own food. Much of the life he had been living could have been considered
deviant behavior and he was a social outcast. He was ripe for the picking when approached by the group and was told that their
group was just what he needed. He was told about a Jesus that was a social outcast just like him, a “weirdy beardy”
hippy who was not to be found in any of society’s churches, but in the confines of their communes. Needless to say Don
liked what he heard and made the decision to join the COG and go to live in one of their homes.
Upon joining the process began to re-socialize Don into a new way of living and a new way
of thinking. Already un-trusting of the establishment of that time, the cult built on that when referring to the world outside
the cult as “the system” and the people in it as the “systemites”. If you have a job other than working
for God in the cult you have a “system job”. With this our cult characteristics are coming to view. The re-wiring
of Don’s thinking was done very subtlety to begin with using scripture memorization. One might ask, What’s wrong
with that? Many scriptures were learned, but many were not in context. For example, in the book of Matthew there is a verse
that says something like; a man’s enemies will be those who are in his own house. (Matthew 10:36) This was used to smooth
over the thinking when cult members received opposition from their families when they found out their loved one had joined
a cult. Communication with members of one’s “flesh family” was discouraged and in some cases prohibited
to prevent any outside influence coming to cult members. Communication was encouraged if there could be some monetary gain
to come from it. As referred to in the cult this was called “spoiling Egypt”, as this was from the life you left
behind and now that you were n the cult you were in the “Promised Land.” Readers are again encouraged to keep
in mind the cult characteristics previously stated.
Upon entering a cult all is done to disassociate the new member with their former life,
in what could possibly be called de-socialization. In the case of Don and the COG, members take Bible names to reinforce that
they are not the same person as they used to be and are not part of the society they were a former member of. Don first took
the name Malachi. The only time a member is to use their “system name” is when dealing with the “system”
as in legal matters. For example, when a cult member is arrested, this according to cultic thinking and characteristics is
persecution. Don tells a story of one time while selling cult literature at a traffic light he was arrested with fellow cult
members, the charge being soliciting without a permit. Of course to the cult mind they were being singled out because of their
beliefs, not because they were asking for tax free money and prohibiting the flow of traffic. A humorous side note to this
incident is at the same traffic light the COG cult was arrested together with the Hare Krishna cult. In this case it was not
dueling banjos but dueling cults. Thinking about being arrested, one may ask again, why be a part of something like that?
A simple answer, is the indoctrination or re-socialization is so subtle no one realizes it’s happening. It’s like
the story of the frog that was put in a cold pot of water on the stove, and slowly heated up; the frog was cooked before he
could jump out.
As stated in cult characteristics cults are authoritarian, and there is always a central
figure that commands respect and loyalty. The COG was no exception, they had their founder and prophet David Berg-Moses David-Mo
as the cult called him, he was also called Dad. The cult was controlled by his writings known as the Mo Letters. The Mo Letters
are what separated the cult from mainstream Christianity, as all mainstream Christianity had was the Bible, but being a part
of the COG you were the chosen few to have the privilege to have the words of God’s end time prophet, therefore giving you an edge of importance to God over “System Christians”. As dictated
cult members were to memorize Mo quotes along with scripture. Don unfortunately remembers the quote, “Only Mo letters
and the Lord can keep us unified in actions, ideals, spirit, and goals.” His memory doesn’t serve him well enough
to say which of the 1000’s of Mo letters this came from, but it shows how intense indoctrination works and how certain
things can become ingrained in one’s being.
As in any other society the agents of socialization take place and are at work to mold
member’s minds and beings into good members of the cultic society. As in any society the family is one of the main agents
of socialization. In the COG or “The Family” as it was later to be known, one’s biological family has no
importance whatsoever. All is done to physically, mentally, and emotionally alienate one from his “flesh family”.
All importance is placed on being a member of your new family, your real family, or God’s family. You have new brothers
and sisters; a new “Mama” as David Berg’s mistress and present leader of the cult was referred to. You have
a new father or “Dad” another name given to the prophet. As a new member or disciple one is not allowed to go
anywhere alone but must be with an “older brother or sister” one who has been in the cult longer than you. Their
reason being is that the disciples of Christ went two by two, not that they want to do everything possible to indoctrinate
their members into only cultic thinking.
As one can see in the cult there is no peer influence from outside the cult. Just as there
is no interaction from anyone outside the cult, there is little if any influence from mass media from outside the cult. One
of the publications that is sent out to members is the World News Digests, which title sort of infers what it is; digested
news. The majority of world news members receive is news that the powers that be in the cult want their members to know and
reflect their world view. The world view for the most part being that of an anti- American, conflict perspective. This anti-American
perspective was the reason to send the majority of the cult outside the U.S. at different times, as it was the belief that
God was going to judge and destroy the U.S. for its many sins which one of most prevalent being the US support of Israel.
This could develop into whole other topic, but suffice to say that the prejudicial mind set of anti-Semitism is something
that took many years for Don to overcome. Believing that the US was going to be destroyed July 4th 1976 Don left
the US for Mexico, the first of several foreign countries he was to live in.
Through coercion, mind control, and what seemed benign Don rejected norms of accepted society,
to accept the mirage of a utopian society having become part of his being. As the greater family unit being the cult took
precedent over the smaller private family units polygamous relationships were accepted as normal and even encouraged. Don
thanks God for his present wife, and grown son who are the best things he was able to carry away from his cultic experience.
The writer hopes through these glimpses into cultic thinking and lifestyle that readers
are able to imagine how one’s thinking can be completely perverted into thinking that such lifestyle is the norm and
all others lifestyles are inferior. With this in mind the hope is the reader will also see how hard it is to reject the cultic
society and the engrained mind sets, and once again become a productive member of normal society again. Don’s exit and
recovery will be discussed later in this paper.
Probably one of the saddest aspects of a cultic society is that of children born in the
cult, who are raised from day one with cultic input. Their recovery and entry into non-cultic society is so much more of an
ordeal than that of their parents who had a choice in the matter and also have a point of reference to look back at. In other
words they have a pre-cultic life. As stated above cultic input begins from day one as births of children are taking place.
At times those present for the births were encouraged to play tapes of cult music as these new members exit the womb. Members are encouraged if not dictated to only listen to music produced by the cult,
as “system music” could bring in too much influence from the “system”. The cult had there own story books for children most significantly being what were known as the “Mo
Lion Readers”. (Since no one knew what he looked like the prophet Mo was
portrayed as a lion so his picture would not be displayed to the public.) In these readers instead of “See Dick run”,
there would be a picture of a lion saying something like “See Mo pray”. The children’s education consisted
of being educated with cult materials. Once again different agents of socialization come into play in the raising of COG children.
Any further education past a fifth or sixth grade education was seen as not necessary; and according to Mo all one needed
to know was basic reading, math, and science. More important than that was to know how to pass out his letters to the public,
or be a newspaper boy as he called it.
Another agent of socialization, the family, probably did more damage to the young members
of the cult than anything. They had no concept of what a real family unit was. Since the larger family of the cult was more
important than the individual or “flesh family” young people grew up not knowing who they were or where they belonged.
There are many that were raised by their so called aunties and uncles as their actual parents may have been off to parts unknown
in service to the cult. In many instances these precious young people were victims of physical and sexual abuse at the hands
of their aunties and uncles. The problem of this is that since these things were happening within their concept of family
and also happening to their peer group, they grew up thinking this was normal and worse than that thinking it was Christian
as they were in a group that was God’s chosen people. This was to become their idea of what Christianity was and that
all Christians had this way of thinking.
Don has a son that was born in the cult in Spain. Fortunately for Don’s son he was
raised by both of his parents and was not the victim of any physical or sexual abuse. On the other hand he was without choice
being indoctrinated with cult socialization and doctrine especially in his early years. One aspect that sticks out to Don
in the early upbringing of his son is anticipatory socialization. When all that one anticipates is something apocalyptic that
in itself gives not much hope for the future. Don remembers a situation when his son was probably six or so and they drove
by the driver’s license office and his son exclaimed, “I’ll get my license when I’m 16!” Since
the cult was convinced that Jesus was going to return in 1993 his son was told that would not be happening because Jesus would
return before he was old enough to get his license. This is just an example of what second generation cult members don’t
have to look forward to or anticipate when they get older. This is especially true when these young people reach there teen
years and young adulthood. At this age is when people really start having a mind of their own and what they are going to do
with my life. Sad to say for a second generation cult member what they are going to do with their life is what has been done
in the past; more of the same, unless they have the gumption to leave. Although this is something traumatic the case is many
are leaving and are finding how difficult it is for them to socialize into societies which they know nothing of. They have
the handicap of little or no connection with the outside world and how it operates. They have had an inferior education, and
little or no job skills. Many have had grandparents help them to get them started in their new life in a society they know
nothing about. They may also be in a country they know nothing about as many were born outside of their parent’s home
countries. They must also endure ostracism from their parents, siblings, and other members of the cult as those that leave
are considered backsliders and apostates. When they leave they are bitter against those they are ostracized by and more sadly
against God or the God they perceive. They do look to their own kind for help and moral support as only those who have been
through this experience can truly understand their hearts and minds. There is a very active ex-member community with both
FGAs and SGAs.
It can be a painful and lengthy process for socialization of these young people into what
was termed as “the system”. There are many who have not made it and taken their own life unable to integrate in
a society other than the cult. Many have ended up in jail. Thankfully many have overcome the incredible odds and now lead
very productive lives and have received exemplary educations, as a result of hard work and perseverance. The same goes for
many first generation members. Many of both generations carry the baggage of emotional and psychological problems some of
which have lasted for years.
Don considers himself to have had a wonderful exit and recovery from the cult. There are
a number of factors which have made this the case. At a point in time Don and his wife received what one could say was a “spirit
of independence”. This is not to say they didn’t believe in the prophet or the tenets of the cult, but they found
it easier to live on their own out of the communes of the cult. The cult did make provisions for members such as this. Members
of this category were given a lower classification, but allowed to receive almost all publications as long as they sent their
tithe in each month. Slowly, slowly they re-socialized. The working of a regular job and doing the things of day to day life
were not so hard. Their son went all the way through the public school system. The part that took so much time to overcome
was the engrained mindsets which they had to overcome to become full productive members of society. Little by little progress
was made over the years with more and more disagreements with cult teachings. A turning point came in the aftermath of Sept.
11, 2001. Not long after this tragedy the cult put out a statement, which for the most part was in solidarity with the aims
of the terrorist, this was mostly because of the long standing anti-Israel stance of the cult. This was too much for Don,
who by now had become very patriotic and pro-Israel in his thinking. Even with this it took Don and his wife till Feb. 2003
to completely reject the cult and its teachings that had kept them in a stranglehold and kept them outside society’s
norms for almost 30 years. One may ask, “Why did it take so long?” A simple answer is fear of being wrong about
not being God’s chosen and the perceived consequence of rejecting this belief. Don can tell you emphatically that the
consequence has been extreme blessing. The institutions such as church and country that were once rejected have become hallmarks
with Don and his family and instrumental to re-socialize them. Don counts it a true miracle to have been taken where he was
to where he is now and would pray that other cult members could see the same miracle in their lives. There is a song that
has been an inspiration and theme song for Don and his recovery.
them down for the joy of the Lord
it down for the joy of the Lord
We say yes
Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes
Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes
Lord yes yes Lord Amen
but not crushed persecuted not
but not destroyed
I am blessed
beyond the curse for his promise
That his joy's
gonna be my strength
sorrow may last for the night
His joy comes with
the morning (Evans)
Works Cited List
Evans Darryl, 1998 Integrity's Hosanna! Music
Groenveld Jan http://www.ex-cult.org/General/identifying-a-cult , 1985 Mansfield, 4122,
Kendall Diana, 2005
Wadsworth Belmont, CA