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A cult is any religious group too small to field its own army or without political power. It is also a term generally applied to religions that are isolationist, controlling, and often, extreme.
In pop culture, cults are scary places where lost children go to be raped and murdered, where the recruits wander through airports chanting various 'ohms', and of course where people are (ohhga booga) brainwashed.
A bit more formally, the term is usually used to refer to religions (or other movements) whose beliefs or practices are not just "not what we do", but are seen by the culture at large, as truly bizarre. In religious studies, recently developed religions with few adherents are called "new religious movements" or "NRMs"; the term "cult" is generally reserved for a religious group that is actively endotoxic (dangerous to its members, e.g. People's Temple) or exotoxic (dangerous to non-members, e.g. Aum Shinrikyo). Often, cults are identified as religions that are coercive in recruiting and retaining members. "Cult" can be a Snarl Word applied to unpopular religions, and was used up until the middle of the 20th century to describe any sort of movement, religious or otherwise, that had an element of in-group/out-group to it.
 Usage in recent decades
The usage of the term shifted considerably during the 1970s to mainly refer to a variety of new movements (religious or otherwise) which were believed to hold a coercive control over member's lives, or which were especially attractive to young people in search of self-actualization but also led to adherents adopting modes of living which were rather out of the mainstream (and thus perceived to be threatening to society even if harmless in themselves). Some of these groups were especially attractive to young adults during that time of social change, appealing to them through recruitment tactics like love bombing and offering an environment of stability in identification with (and ultimately dedication and obedience to) the group. Much of this concern over cults during the 1970s and since has had an air of moral panic and in at least two cases (the Branch Davidians and M.O.V.E.) led to a preemptive law enforcement overreaction to the group which was far out of proportion to any danger the group actually posed if at all, and ended in both cases in disaster. In one case, the Satanic Panic, there was a widespread belief, including among law enforcement, in a cult which probably never even existed as claimed.
On the other hand, a few cults have on some occasions posed a genuine threat to society or to themselves; well-known examples include the People's Temple and Heaven's Gate mass suicides, the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo cult under the orders of Shoko Asahara, the spreading of salmonella at salad bars in The Dalles, Oregon by the Rajneesh movement in order to influence local elections and take over the city, and criminal harassment of critics and ex-members by Synanon. On yet the other hand again, the fact that there have been truly dangerous cults has led to a general overuse of the term, fed especially by the Internet in which web sites exist accusing everything from Amway to Alcoholics Anonymous to Wikipedia of being cults. The situation is such that any faddish self-help movement or new religious movement has to contend with suspicion that it is a cult until proven otherwise, especially if the group has a charismatic leader or guru associated with it. Many of these groups may be teaching pure woo, but the next Peoples Temple they aren't; unfortunately the problem is that human nature is such that there will be more truly dangerous cults but it is hard to tell in advance which new group will turn out to be one, among all the eccentric but relatively harmless groups.
 Warning signs of a potentially destructive cult
With that said, there are several warning signs that can be used to indicate when a religious group has gone from "harmless, quirky woo-meisters" to an active threat to its membership and even to others.
 Warning signs of a potentially unsafe group/leader.
- Offers promises of a new life, a "spiritual resurrection", a rejection of former life which to many desperate people is simply irresistible. Therefore, easy to be pulled in.
- There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil. Therefore, extremely hard to leave.
- Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.
- No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.
- No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget, expenses such as an independently audited financial statement.
- Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.
- Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.
- There are records, books, news articles, or television programs that document the abuses of the group/leader.
- Followers feel they can never be "good enough".
- The group/leader is always right.
- The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing "truth" or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.
 Warning signs regarding people involved in/with a potentially unsafe group/leader.
- Extreme obsessiveness regarding the group/leader resulting in the exclusion of almost every practical consideration.
- Individual identity, the group, the leader and/or God as distinct and separate categories of existence become increasingly blurred. Instead, in the follower's mind these identities become substantially and increasingly fused--as that person's involvement with the group/leader continues and deepens.
- Whenever the group/leader is criticized or questioned it is characterized as "persecution".
- Uncharacteristically stilted and seemingly programmed conversation and mannerisms, cloning of the group/leader in personal behavior.
- Dependency upon the group/leader for problem solving, solutions, and definitions without meaningful reflective thought. A seeming inability to think independently or analyze situations without group/leader involvement.
- Hyperactivity centered on the group/leader agenda, which seems to supersede any personal goals or individual interests.
- A dramatic loss of spontaneity and sense of humor.
- Increasing isolation from family and old friends unless they demonstrate an interest in the group/leader.
- Anything the group/leader does can be justified no matter how harsh or harmful.
- Former followers are at best-considered negative or worse evil and under bad influences. They can not be trusted and personal contact is avoided.
 Groups considered to be coercive cults
Note: the groups listed below below are not necessarily cults, though they have been accused of being so
 Religious groups
- Alamo Christian Foundation
- Aryan Nations
- Aum Shinrikyo
- Bhagwan Sree Rajneesh (Osho)
- Branch Davidians
- Children of God
- Christian Identity
- The Discipling and Shepherding movement, and denominations that practice it such as the Boston Church of Christ
- Falun Gong
- Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
- Heaven's Gate
- House of Yahweh
- International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) (a.k.a. the Hare Krishna movement)
- Movement for Inner Spiritual Awareness
- Nation of Yahweh
- Order of the Solar Temple
- The Peoples Temple
- Reyna Chicas
- Sathya Sai Baba
- True Russian Orthodox Church
- Twelve Tribes
- Unarius Academy of Science
- Unification Church (Moonies)
- Westboro Baptist Church
 Political groups
- International Workers Party/New Alliance Party (see Social Therapy)
- "Juche", or the worship of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il
- Ku Klux Klan
- Lyndon LaRouche movement
- National Labor Federation
- Shining Path
- Revolutionary Communist Party
- Workers Revolutionary Party
 Self-help movements
- Alcoholics Anonymous
- The Avatar Course
- Chuluaqui-Quodoushka/Deer Tribe Medicine Society
- Erhard Seminars Training
- Landmark Forum
- Re-evaluation Counseling
- Church of Scientology
- Social Therapy
- some large group awareness trainings
- some forms of wilderness therapy
 Criminal organizations
 Accused by fundamentalists
According to many Christian fundamentalists, any sect that does not agree with their doctrines is a cult, though they are less pernicious than many of the above groups. Examples of such sects include:
- Jehovah's Witnesses
- Herbert W. Armstrong and Garner Ted Armstrong related groups
- Seventh Day Adventism
- Church of the SubGenius
- New Age
- The really wacky ones consider the Unitarian Universalist Church and possibly even liberal Protestant churches to be cults
- A few, such as Jack Chick, might accuse the Roman Catholic Church of being a papal cult of some sort
- Darwin Fish considers any famous evangelist to be a cult leader
 See also
- ↑ Martin Gardner used it frequently to refer to schools of medical quackery in his book Fads and Fallacies.
- ↑ See persecution complex.
- ↑ The Rick Ross Institute's warning signs
- ↑ Note that Conservapedia has been heavily infiltrated by people who disagree with most of the principles of Conservapedia.
- ↑ Unitarian Universalism Contender Ministries