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7. Psychological Aspects of Conversion: The Individual

in Crisis

conversion and the cultic process

Having learned what myths and traditions new religious beliefs are made of, we should now look at the more personal and social characteristics of people who join cults. We can best do so by taking a closer look at the sort of individual who becomes involved in the cultic process.

The process of creating or looking for and converting to a new religion we call the cultic process. In this and the following chapter, we will look at it in some detail to see what it is that the "seeker" and the new religions do to bring about salvation. The cultic process is fascinating because it forces theologians and social scientists to deal with those subterranean aspects of the individual that we usually prefer to ignore--the phenomena of fragmented beliefs and shattered worldviews. These are characteristically accompanied by anxiety, dread, emotional instability, tension, ennui, and various personal crises.

Personal crises frequently motivate people to search for a meaning system to explain their condition and afford peace; many seek fulfillment within a new social reality. Beyond a meaning system, many also look for a framework of practice in which to express the new meaning. Belief and practice--in short a new lifestyle--enable an individual to engage his or her whole self, so that each movement, each feeling, each thought is reintegrated into a sense of "spiritualized acceptance."

Analytically speaking, the cultic process comprises four major phases. First, a cult or new religion starts when a leader and some close associates externalize and objectify a worldview. They publicize their beliefs, collect followers, and build an organization. Second, individuals experiencing personal crises or generally significant tensions in their environment start to search for a worldview and social setting that will dissolve these tensions and save them and the world from its evils. Third, the searching individuals find the new religion and are socialized into it. Fourth, society generally or those close to these new members (parents, friends, community) react favorably or unfavorably to their commitment and to the new religion. Thus the cultic process includes the combined innovations of the religious entrepreneur, spiritual therapist, lifestyle designer, and, of course, the seeker ...