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Why cultism causes even best brains to make baffling moves

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While religion may be the opium of the masses, cultism is not a honeytrap for the poor.

Fr Sahaya Selvam, a Catholic priest who has a PhD in the psychology of religion, says poverty is the last reason someone would use to justify joining a cult.

“Psychology studies reveal that poor people are very resilient; their lack of material wealth is not much of a problem to them,” he says.

He gives the example of cases of radicalisation and recruitment into terrorism, where quite a number of Europeans are reported to have joined ISIS, or where educated people, including university students, have been at the forefront of carrying out terrorist attacks.

The lead suspect in the Garissa University attack in 2015, which caused the deaths of 148 people, was Abdirahim Mohammed Abdullahi, who had been a law student at the University of Nairobi.

His classmates described him as a fashionable dresser, and no, he did not come from a poor family. Kenyan forces killed him during the attack.



Just last week, a university lecturer was arrested after the decomposing body of her 13-year-old son was found in the family’s home in Nairobi’s South B estate.

Post-mortem results would later indicate that the boy had died of excessive bleeding in the stomach — he had malignant ulcers and had been dead for days.

After her arrest, the lecturer, whom the caretaker of the building described as religious, told police that she had been praying for her son’s resurrection.

She also explained that she did not take him to hospital when he fell ill because she did not believe in hospitals.

A few years ago, a city lawyer, Mr Paul Magu, killed his wife and three children before throwing himself in front of a moving bus.

In a bizarre case that horrified the nation, it emerged that the lawyer and his family had been fraternising with a preacher, Ann Wanyoro, who is accused of compelling Magu to kill his wife and children, and ultimately, himself.

The lawyer is said to have left some of his property to the pastor.


These two stories have the markings of a cult, says Fr Selvam, who has a written a book titled Pastoral Psychology for Africa.

“There is a distinction between religion and a cult. Everything that talks about Jesus and God does not necessarily become religion,” he says, adding that religion without spirituality is dangerous because you cannot think beyond what you are told or question what you are told — the community becomes the controlling unit around you.

He further explains that religion, when combined with spirituality, means seeking and searching — “yes, we know that God exists, but who is God?” he states.

He points out that religion alone can become very political as we see in religion-sponsored criminal activities, that someone can pray fervently today and the next day detonate a bomb in a roomful of people.

This kind of religion, he points out, lacks spirituality. “Religion promises three Bs — belonging, believing and becoming — becoming someone you aspire to be,” says the priest, adding that religion conveniently comes in when you’re in the midst of a crisis.

At that point, someone will come up with a suggestion to resolve that crisis. The conversion into cultism is either sudden or gradual.

“A cult has four elements. The first is the presence of a charismatic leader that controls the group,” says the priest.

“They can be very convincing and are usually very smart people, have good communication skills and keep a group of faithful followers around them.”

The second is the element of brainwashing, where “you sell your brain to that charismatic leader”.

The gang around the charismatic leader, in some cases, might take over the administration of the group in the name of the charismatic leader, who could be well-intentioned, to take advantage of the influence that the leader exerts on the congregation to amass individual wealth.

The third is that cults always exaggerate emotions to the detriment of reason.


Explains the priest: “There is always the element of fear thrown in — if you don’t do this, this will happen to you — this element of fear is related to brainwashing, which is done through repetition and instilling fear.”

The fourth element is the promise of a reward that is not imminent — you are told that you will receive it in an unknown future if you take certain steps, including giving money.

Should the promise fail to materialise, this person will have an explanation for this and they will rationalise why it did not happen.

“For instance, they will promise the end of the world, or healing or resurrection, and when this promise fails to come to pass, they will blame you for the failure, tell you that you have a sin that has not been forgiven, hence the failure, for instance.”

Coming from the charismatic leader or his followers, such an explanation will sound logical because the person has already been brainwashed to believe that system of thinking.

This, the priest points out, is what makes even well-educated people make baffling decisions and act in ways that go against the profile of a well-educated, enlightened and grounded person.

Mostly, a person who is likely to be recruited into a cult is one who is very ambitious (not necessarily poor), someone who yearns to be at a certain level financially, socially, even career-wise, but the society around them is not giving them an opportunity to get there, and therefore they decide to look for a shortcut.

“This kind of brainwashing happens across humanity. For instance, there are Indian gurus who have built empires around this kind of strategy. They are very influential in the secularised society, which has some sort of vacuum that they promise to fill,” explains the priest, who is originally from India.

Worth noting is that people who join cults often have a need — such a person is probably going through an existential crisis, a trauma, an unmet dream, unanswered questions or is driven by greed.

A 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, a US think tank, that surveyed people in 44 countries, including Kenya, suggested that wealth makes people less religious.

Those interviewed were asked how important religion was in their day-to-day lives — they were to check four boxes: very important, somewhat important, not too important or not important at all.

Some 87 per cent of Kenyans checked the first box while only 12 per cent ticked the second. Non ticked the last.

Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana were ahead of Kenya at 97, 90 and 86 per cent, respectively, with Uganda at 86 per cent.

Their rich counterparts in the West, apart from the US, which posted 54 per cent, were not so religious, with Italy at 30 per cent, Spain at 22 per cent, Germany at 21 per cent, Britain at 17 and France trailing at 13 per cent.

If these figures are anything to go by, the suggestion is that as people become more successful, they become more satisfied with their lives and are unlikely to feel that they need God’s intervention in their lives.