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A cult (not to be confused with occult) is any religious or political group too small to to have its own army and navy or without political power. When used as a pejorative or snarl word, it can mean "a new religion, that isn't mine, which I don't like." In popular culture, the term is generally applied to religions that are controlling and extreme.
The media narrative is that cults are scary groups where lost children go to be raped and murdered, where the recruits wander through airports chanting various 'ohms', and of course, where people are (ooga booga) brainwashed.
A bit more formally, the term is usually used to refer to religions (or other movements) whose beliefs or practices are heterodox and regarded by the larger population as bizarre. In the academic discipline of religious studies, recently developed religions have been called "new religious movements," or "NRMs," as a scholarly attempt to avoid the pejorative connotations of "cult."
- 1 Usage in recent decades
- 2 Warning signs of a potentially destructive cult
- 3 Groups considered to be coercive cults
- 4 See also
- 5 References
Usage in recent decades
The term "cult" gained currency — and deeper pejorative connotations — during the 1960s and '70s due to the criminal activities of groups like the Manson Family. Outsiders considered that various NRMs exercized a coercive control over members' lives; on the other hand, such NRMs proved especially attractive to young people in search of meaning. Adherents often segregated themselves from society, including from prior friends and family, and adopted non-mainstream lifestyles. Recruitment tactics like love bombing and offering an environment of stability via identification with, and dedication to, the group aroused alarm in non-adherents. The great majority of young people who join NRMs, however, do not stay for more than a year or two.
Anti-cult hysteria during the 1970s and since has had an air of moral panic. In at least two cases — the Branch Davidians and M.O.V.E. — this unreasonable fear led to preemptive law-enforcement actions far out of proportion to any danger the group actually posed, if any, and ended in disaster. Moreover, the Satanic Panic mania of the 1980s and '90s infected law enforcement and prosecutors, leading to wrongful convictions of many for supposed ritual abuse of children, events which in all likelihood never occurred.
On the other hand, some cults have 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 to take over the city, and criminal harassment of critics and ex-members by Synanon and by the Church of Scientology. On the other other hand, the existence of some few dangerous cults has led to an abusive overuse of the term, fed especially by the Internet. Any faddish self-help movement or new religious movement can get labeled a cult merely because it teaches unorthodox woo or other heterodox beliefs.
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
- Promises are made of a new life, a "spiritual resurrection," and a rejection of one's former life, which are simply irresistible to many desperate people. Therefore, it's easy to be pulled in.
- There is no legitimate reason to leave. Former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative, or even evil. Therefore, it is extremely hard to leave.
- The leader's authority is absolute, without meaningful accountability.
- There is no tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.
- There is no meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget or expenses, such as an independently audited financial statement.
- There exists an 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
- They are extremely obsessive 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".
- They engage in uncharacteristically stilted and seemingly programmed conversation and mannerisms, effectively cloning the group/leader in their personal behavior.
- They are dependent 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.
- They have a hyperactivity centered on the group/leader agenda, which seems to supersede any personal goals or individual interests.
- They lose their spontaneity and sense of humor in dramatic fashion.
- They are increasingly isolated from family and old friends unless they demonstrate an interest in the group/leader.
- They can justify anything the group/leader does no matter how harsh or harmful.
- Former followers are at best considered negative, and at worst, they are considered evil and/or 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.
- Alcoholics Anonymous
- Alamo Christian Foundation
- Aggressive Christianity Missionary Training Corps
- 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
- 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 People's Temple
- Reyna Chicas
- Sathya Sai Baba
- True Russian Orthodox Church
- Twelve Tribes
- Unarius Academy of Science
- Unification Church (Moonies)
- Westboro Baptist Church
- Hardline movement
- International Workers Party/New Alliance Party (see Social Therapy)
- "Juche", which, among other things, features the worship of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, adding a strong religious component to the officially purely political and atheist ideology
- Ku Klux Klan
- Lyndon LaRouche movement
- Men's rights movement
- National Labor Federation
- Shining Path
- Revolutionary Communist Party
- Workers Revolutionary Party
- Alex Jones's and Mark Dice's Resistance movement
- Tea party movement
- The Avatar Course
- Chuluaqui-Quodoushka/Deer Tribe Medicine Society
- Erhard Seminars Training
- Falun Gong, which borders on a few catergories more.
- Landmark Forum
- Re-evaluation Counseling
- Scientology ("[any problem]? Scientology can help you with that.")
- Social Therapy
- some large group awareness trainings
- some forms of wilderness therapy
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:
- Church of the SubGenius
- Herbert W. Armstrong and Garner Ted Armstrong-related groups
- Jehovah's Witnesses
- Local Church
- New Age
- Seventh-day Adventism
- 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 (see Anti-Catholicism).
- Darwin Fish considers any famous evangelist other than himself to be a cult leader.
Cult of personality
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 secret speech "On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences" was the outing of the late Joseph Stalin as being a cult figure. The unfortunate Mao Zedong was to suffer a similar fate a few decades later.
Oom Yung Doe, formerly known as Chung Moo Quan, is a chain of Taekwondo schools who promote a worship of founder John C. Kim. Students are encouraged to cut contact with friends or family members who criticize the school and are frequently threatened or humiliated by instructors, who build a database of information on each student's personal lives beforehand.
- The Advanced Bonewits’ Cult Danger Evaluation Frame (ABCDEF) BY Isaac Bonewits, useful since 1979
- The Cult Education Institute's warning signs
- Vyckie. "What Is Quiverfull?". http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nolongerquivering/what-is-quiverfull/.
- Lee, Teresa. "6 Ways the MRA Indoctrinate New Members With Cult Tactics." Cracked.com, 6 March 2017 (recovered 6 March 2017).
- Unitarian Universalism Contender Ministries