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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.
  • 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

Films — documentaries explaining cults

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