Anatomy of cults
At 14 years old, Jane should have been like any other young teenager: enjoying school, hanging out with friends, and exploring various hobbies and interests. Instead, she was coerced into marrying an 18-year-old whom she never met so she could earn a place in heaven. Chloe, just 13, was forced to marry a 21-year-old man. When she pleaded with her parents to let her leave, they insisted that it was the will of God for her.
Jane and Chloe, both now 15, were following the commands of Jey Rence Quilario, leader of the religious group Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc. (SBSI) based in Surigao del Norte. To SBSI’s 3,650 members, Quilario, also known as Señor Aguila, was revered as the reincarnation of the Santo Niño (Child Jesus). Apart from claiming that the forced union was approved by God, he also allegedly told the husbands that they had the right to rape their child brides since they were already married.
SBSI is currently facing a Senate investigation for a series of violations, including forced labor and sexual violence against minors. Sen. Risa Hontiveros has unequivocally condemned SBSI as a “cult” due to the numerous abuses and manipulative tactics used by Quilario and other leaders to control their members. SBSI, on the other hand, denies these allegations, claiming to be a simple “people’s community” following the “bayanihan” concept and insisting that all underage marriages had parental consent.
Renowned sociologist Janja Lalich, an international authority on cults, has extensively discussed how cults isolate their members from others by seeking to directly control the lives of their followers: from their physical attributes and financial assets to their living arrangements and personal relationships. And while not all cults are equally extreme, they all demand absolute obedience to a leader and total adherence to the group’s rules and norms.
Hontiveros shared horrifying stories from former members on how SBSI supposedly uses to punish those who break the rules. These include being imprisoned in a foxhole and being forced to swim in a hole filled with urine and feces. There are also allegations of SBSI collecting 50 percent of the pension and 4Ps allowance of its members as a sign of their commitment and loyalty.
Many cults are religious, but they could also come in the form of a political group, a professional association, or a self-improvement method. Research shows that cults know specifically who to target and how to attract members. Vulnerable individuals, seeking purpose or belonging due to past neglect or current challenges, are often lured by cults promising answers and solutions to life’s difficulties. Recruits are showered with lots of attention and what Lalich calls “high-arousal” activities that keep them constantly busy and excited. These make a person more psychologically and emotionally pliable into being conditioned to see self-renunciation and conformity as necessary sacrifices in achieving the professed goal.
While thousands of cults exist all over the world, a country like the Philippines provides a conducive environment for cults to thrive. Organized religion already holds a central place among Filipinos—with a belief in God as a primary source of moral guidance for people from all walks of life. However, challenges presented by poverty have made some communities more susceptible to charismatic leaders who offer hope and comfort in exchange for unquestioning faith. Without strong social safety net programs to lean on, it is easy to be drawn to a group that promises to look after both your practical and spiritual needs.
Most children become a part of cults through their family members. Apart from the social pressure and strict disciplinary code utilized by cults to prevent alternative points of view, the strong emphasis on filial piety among Filipino families could strongly deter children from leaving the group or questioning its practices. I am reminded of a former classmate who was part of a religious sect that forbids women from cutting their hair. As tiresome as she found her calf-length hair, she did not want to disappoint her parents by rebelling.
As an educator, stories like SBSI serve as another stark reminder of why we need to do more to ensure we teach students how to think rather than what to think. So long as our education system continues to fall short in instilling critical thinking among our children, our people will always be vulnerable to the exploitative practices that groups like SBSI peddle. Ultimately, access to quality education and other programs that foster a more equitable and inclusive society can help reduce the attractiveness of cults.
On a personal level, it is good to constantly reflect on our personal beliefs and associations, as well as the paths they are leading us toward. As Lanlich emphasized: If someone is asking you to sacrifice your relationships or morality for the greater good, they are most likely exploiting you for their own.