The original, neutral definition of a cult comes from a Latin word cultus, meaning "worship". It refers to a group transformed in spirit by devotion to a charismatic figure, like Virgin Mary.
However, the word "cult" has gotten a more sinister and terrifying meaning, thanks to some very destructive, even deadly groups (e.g. Jim Jones' People's Temple, Branch Davidians led by David Koresh, Heaven's Gate led by Marshall Applewhite, Aum Shinrikyo led by Shoko Asahara, Elizabeth Clare Prophet's Summit Lighthouse/Church Universal and Triumphant, Ramtha, Lazaris, The Order of the Solar Temple led by the de facto leader Joseph DiMambro from the back and the young, charismatic Luc Jouret from the front, The Manson Family). Hence the word is commonly used to refer to a pyramid-structured authoritarian group serving aims of an unscrupulous charismatic leader in guise of a belief system, using deceptively recruiting front groups, insidious thought reform (also known as, y'know, brainwashing) techniques, social isolation and (once again, deceptive) promises of a new, better life. Such a group is essentially about unscrupulous exploitation of people. (For its different meanings, see Analysis/Cult.)
While the word "cult" has been understood by different people to refer to different kinds of groups and has been understood and can be used in a pejorative way, it's meant as a descriptive term much of the time in public consciousness, even though referring to a very negative and destructive yet very real agent.
It's an unfortunately common misconception that cults merely attract insane people, losers, the desperate, the weak or the gullible. Cults appeal to the emotionally vulnerable, but such weakness isn't necessary. Gullibility is often a huge plus for brainwashing cults, but that isn't necessary, either. Exploitive groups do want to recruit successful people, both because they'll bring in a lot of money and they'll make the cult look legitimate. They keep their true colors hidden, withholding information that would make anyone think twice about continuing and realizing what they're really getting themselves into. Cult experts like Margaret Singer say it can happen to anyone. Some people only plan to stay for a while, only to stay for life (or a very long time). On the matter of cults and insane people, there actually have been instances of mentally ill people being exploited and recruited as well, all under the guise of helping them. There's a mix of many factors involved(often working in favor of a leader), like lack of knowledge and some kind of a need, discontent, longing or desire in a potential convert and withholding of information or deliberate misinformation by cult leaders and well-meaning recruiters alike. Essentially, your goals are exploited in the form of promises leading to increasing demands. Being in a tough time in one's life can also increase the risk of getting lured into a cult. For example, a young adult, who has no readily available apartment, can have nowhere to go. Recruiters of these groups are sent to find those in need. Cults offer security and structure, which can be immensely appealing. Especially if everybody looks happy and peaceful. It may not be immediately obvious that this is Stepford Smiler, but after a time you may see that they all seem to look and behave somewhat alike. Cult expert Steven Hassan reveals, "One reason why a group of [alleged] cultists may strike even a naïve outsider as spooky or weird is that everyone has similar odd mannerisms, clothing styles, and modes of speech. What the outsider is seeing is the personality of the leader passed down through several layers of modeling."
Milieu control is also present. Perhaps that young adult without an apartment finds a place to stay — and then finds herself staying a lot longer than she'd planned. Maybe a place isn't easy to leave. Keep your wits about you and trust any alarm signals.
Even though some cults present themselves as "new religious movements", dangerous groups needn't have any religious trappings at all and many religious movements are benign, harmless and beneficial. Dangerous groups can as well exert influence over individuals by promising a better life (for example, spiritual growth, financial prosperity or personal transformation, with vague, lofty words leaving others' minds a lot to fill in). There have been cults started around theatrical groups, rock bands, newspapers, business seminars and physical therapy institutes. Individuals can also behave in a cult-leader-like fashion with friends or family members. "Cult" describes a certain set of attitudes and practices, not a religion.
One of the many damaging aspects is convincing members that friends, family members, relatives and other sources are not to be listened to — (not-so-)obviously because they could possibly take away a new member. Disconnecting from former social lives completely is encouraged and prompted. Critical thinking is frowned upon, discouraged, even punished; any signs of such are seen as deviation. (Thinking is sometimes disparaged in favor of feeling.) A recruitee can be lovebombed — showered with lavish demonstrations of affectionate attention — by a leader and by other brainwashed cultists, only to have that affection cut off once you're in, causing you to work twice as hard trying to get it back. Isolation makes it easier for cultic beliefs and thought processes to get reinforced, unchallenged. Thought control is utilized to ward off homesickness.
The stereotypical cult lives in an armored "compound", but this is rarely realistic. Most cults do not build bomb shelters and amass weapons like Elizabeth Clare Prophet's Church Universal and Triumphant. Members may live together in a communal home, but are just as likely to have their own homes. The cult may be a completely ordinary house of worship, even a Christian church. In some instances such as Mountain Rock Church and the Lyman Family, the "compounds" were ordinary remodeled homes in subdivisions.
Some cults can still be relatively benign. Others can be viciously abusive, which recruited cult members only find out after being immersed. There are just as many disturbing ways in which cults can abuse their members as individuals can act toward other individuals. Some cults are abusive only of their own members, some are violent towards outsiders branded as enemies, some work both ways. Sometimes leaders seem benign but their assistants act as enforcers, making it look like the leader doesn't know. (He knows.) It is the inner circle, who's privy to a leader's machinations and often authorized by him/her to act on his/her behalf. Just as well the inner circle (and members, who've advanced to higher levels in a hierarchy) can receive abusive treatment (or the worst of it). All these possibilities are despite different members being differently affected by same mistreatments and different groups not being harmful in the same ways, to the same extent or even necessarily to all members.
Literature about cults
- Masoud Banisadr, Destructive and terrorist cults: A new kind of slavery: Leader, followers and mind manipulation
- David G. Bromley and Lewis F. Carter, eds., Toward reflexive ethnography: Participating, observing, narrating
- David Felton, Robin Green and David Dalton, Mindfuckers, A Source Book on the Rise of Acid Fascism in America. Cult leaders who used LSD for manipulation and mind control purposes included Mel Lyman, Charles Manson and Victor Baranco (of the Lafayette Morehouse sex commune). Felton said these people succeed by assuming "godlike authority and using such mindfucking techniques as physical and verbal bullying and group humiliation."
- Arthur Deikman:
- The wrong way home
- Them and us: Cult thinking and the terrorist threat
- Flo Conway & Jim Siegelman, Snapping. The "snap" refers to the experience of sudden enlightenment or ecstasy (like a light switch snapping on), similar to satori or cosmic consciousness, which believers may experience after a period of focused spiritual exercises or meditation. It isn't supposed to last, but believers who don't know this may get "hooked" on it in a way and will do anything to get it back and cult leaders exploit this. Conway and Siegelman also wrote Holy Terror, about the Religious Right and their influences in politics.
- Geoffrey D. Falk, Stripping the Gurus: Sex, Violence, Abuse and Enlightenment. Million Monkeys Press, 2005. Reveals a lot of nasty truths about enshrined spiritual leaders, including Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and a lot of other "gurus" that were reverenced by hippies back in the 1960s and 1970s.
- Janja Lalich, Bounded Choice, True Believers and Charismatic Cults
- David C. Lane, Exposing cults: When the skeptical mind meets the mystical
- Frank MacHovec
- Cults and personality
- Cults and terrorism
- Rick Alan Ross, Cults inside out: How people get in and can get out. Ross is one of the foremost experts on cults and mind control techniques.
- Margaret Thaler Singer, Cults in our midst; One of the best books on the subject
- Steven Hassan, Combatting cult mind control; Another one of the best books on the subject, especially the updated 25th anniversary version
- Ronald Enroth, Churches that abuse
- Michael Langone, Recovery from cults: Help for victims of psychological and spiritual abuse
More reading about cults
- Simple video introductions to cultism, including how people end up converting in the first place as told by Janja Lalich
- CESNUR (the Center for Studies on New Religions) has replied to TED's video. The undersigned scholars express concern for religious movements getting unfairly stigmatized by "the cavalier use of the word "cult" for all groups whose lifestyle is different from the mainlines". The letter disagrees with certain characteristics like separation from mainstream society, deification of a leader or a lifestyle demanding sacrifices being automatic alarm signs. Despite CESNUR having been accused of cult apologetics (or apologetics for religiously themed movements), the letter actually refers to the same concerns cult watchers share of "movements, both old and new, harming their followers and society through physical violence, sexual abuse, and financial exploitation" as well as dangerous groups deviously gaining outward legitimacy and influence in the mainstream society.
- Wikipedia on cults
- Briefing by Bullyonline.org
- How did an apocalyptic cult come to be?
- Listverse; Psychological reasons why people join cults
- Cult Awareness and Information Center
- Former TM teacher on suggestion, indoctrination process, spiritual Darwinism and detriments to psychological health; Including his definition of a cult like Transcendental Meditation
- Freedom of Mind; Helping site by Steven Hassan
- The Year of Obedience Hilarion Lynn's website. Raised in Elizabeth Clare Prophet's Church Universal and Triumphant, Lynn now collects any and all material about it, background information, articles and books by former members and outsiders, and is amassing a library of Prophet's own newsletters and literature given only to insiders.
- Cult Education Institute by Rick Alan Ross
- Joe Szimhart's pages include useful information and his personal experiences. He's an old-fashioned deprogrammer who's written extensively about Elizabeth Clare Prophet, and the theatrical cult run by Wayne Allen Geis.
- International Cultic Studies Association
- Apologetics Index; When researchers become apologists for more dangerous new religions
- Secular and religious critiques of cults: Complementary visions, not irresolvable conflicts
- For writers interested in writing about cults in a fictional story
- NoNonsenseSelfDefense has articles about cults in the martial arts scene. Fraud instructors selling seriously flawed and misleading(read: life-endangering) advice only care that it sells, not whether it works in the real situation. There is also a short section on Eric Hoffer's thoughts on mass movements, people often drawn to them and similarities to cultic martial arts groups.
- It's unfortunately common for well-intended martial arts school owners, too, to end up running a McDojo.
- Mel Lyman: The Lyman Pages A folk musician once calmed an angry audience at a concert with a simple hymn — and came to believe he was God. David Felton summarized the Fort Hill experience in a two-part ''Rolling Stone'' article. Felton's observations were confirmed and clarified in long-time member Michael Kindman's account. Two members starred in the Michelangelo Antonioni film Zabriskie Point, and were allowed to do so because Lyman felt it was good publicity for his own music ventures. You can see them in a Dick Cavett interview on Youtube.
- The Wellspring Retreat is a site worth looking at in its own right. It also includes links to many other cult-information sites.
- Enlightened-spirituality.org; Timothy Conway's views on warning signs of dysfunctional cults
- A tale of two theories: Brainwashing and conversion as competing political narratives: David Bromley, despite his article having some sociological jargon and repetitiveness making it a bit dry to read, gives an insightful account of differences between two "camps" studying cultic groups. These "camps" have formed differing views about the nature of some movements, including how people end up joining them and whether their conversions and staying in such groups are legitimate or not. Bromley himself is (and makes it clear he is) in the "camp" leaning towards seeing conversion as something more beneficial and likely to be chosen by an individual without being manipulated than the contrary. He relates the difficulties in finding out the actual nature of an individual being involved in a group. Though Bromley argues for the debate being political in nature on both sides, he also states that studying the nature of group affiliations can be "an empirical thorny ticket", hard to resolve. He gives fair hearing to both sides and ends up noting some similarities between the two camps.
- Eileen Barker on sociological study of harm in NRMs
- Lynn Wallis on the cults that target students
- INFORM, the information network on religious movements is a British site, but helpful no matter where you live.
- How to Start a Cult at Science of People. Based on The Culting of Brands by Doug Atkin, it illustrates the similarity between cults and corporate branding and marketing.