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A cult (not to be confused with occult) is any religious or political group too small 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 New religious movement
- 3 Warning signs of a potentially destructive cult
- 4 Groups considered to be coercive cults
- 5 See also
- 6 References
Usage in recent decades
The term "cult" gained currency — and deeper pejorative connotations — during the 1960s and 1970s due to the criminal activities of groups like the Manson Family. Outsiders considered that various NRMs exercised 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.
Anti-cult hysteria during the 1970s and since has had an air of moral panic. In at least one case — the Branch Davidians — 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 1990s 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.
New religious movement
The term "new religious movement" is a euphemism for "cult." They are young and have a novel mix of teachings and practices.
The question what is new is not fixed. One rule of the thumb is that they came into a country after the second world war. New religious movements are very diverse. They tend to be small, unpopular and generally receive little support from society. A notable exception to this is the Sathya Sai Baba movement that is supported by many high-ranking Indian politicians. Japan has some large new religious movements.
Many of them were founded by living charismatic leaders, in the sense used by Max Weber. Living charismatic leaders tend to be unpredictable.
One important practical question is how to deal with a family member or friend who joins a movement. The degree of involvement may vary greatly for each individual: not all new religious movements demand strong commitment.
Individual problems with a movement may only appear on leaving for a committed adherent, especially when the adherent lives in an intentional community.
Some countries, like France and Belgium, have special laws against new religious movements. The UK has a government-sponsored public education institute, called Inform. Other countries like the USA and the Netherlands have no special laws or institutes at all.
New religious movements may become less radical and less demanding over time. For example, in ISKON/Hare Krishna, not so much pressure is put on converts to live in an intentional community anymore.
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.
The Cult Danger Evaluation Scale
- Internal Control: Amount of internal political and social power exercised by leader(s) over members; lack of clearly defined organizational rights for members.
- External Control: Amount of external political and social influence desired or obtained; emphasis on directing members’ external political and social behavior.
- Wisdom/Knowledge Claimed by leader(s): amount of infallibility declared or implied about decisions or doctrinal/scriptural interpretations; number and degree of unverified and/or unverifiable credentials claimed.
- Wisdom/Knowledge Credited to leader(s) by members: amount of trust in decisions or doctrinal/scriptural interpretations made by leader(s); amount of hostility by members towards internal or external critics and/or towards verification efforts.
- Dogma: Rigidity of reality concepts taught; amount of doctrinal inflexibility or "fundamentalism"; hostility towards relativism and situationalism.
- Recruiting: Emphasis put on attracting new members; amount of proselytizing; requirement for all members to bring in new ones.
- Front Groups: Number of subsidiary groups using different names from that of main group, especially when connections are hidden.
- Wealth: Amount of money and/or property desired or obtained by group; emphasis on members’ donations; economic lifestyle of leader(s) compared to ordinary members.
- Sexual Manipulation of members by leader(s) of non-tantric groups: amount of control exercised over sexuality of members in terms of sexual orientation, behavior, and/or choice of partners.
- Sexual Favoritism: Advancement or preferential treatment dependent upon sexual activity with the leader(s) of non-tantric groups.
- Censorship: Amount of control over members’ access to outside opinions on group, its doctrines or leader(s).
- Isolation: Amount of effort to keep members from communicating with non-members, including family, friends and lovers.
- Dropout Control: Intensity of efforts directed at preventing or returning dropouts.
- Violence: Amount of approval when used by or for the group, its doctrines or leader(s).
- Paranoia: Amount of fear concerning real or imagined enemies; exaggeration of perceived power of opponents; prevalence of conspiracy theories.
- Grimness: Amount of disapproval concerning jokes about the group, its doctrines or its leader(s).
- Surrender of Will: Amount of emphasis on members not having to be responsible for personal decisions; degree of individual disempowerment created by the group, its doctrines or its leader(s).
- Hypocrisy: amount of approval for actions which the group officially considers immoral or unethical, when done by or for the group, its doctrines or leader(s); willingness to violate the group’s declared principles for political, psychological, social, economic, military, or other gain.
Groups considered to be coercive cults
Note: the groups listed below below are not necessarily cults, though they have been accused of being so.
- Adnan Oktar (Harun Yahya) Community
- Alamo Christian Foundation
- Aggressive Christianity Missionary Training Corps
- Aryan Nations
- Aum Shinrikyo
- Bhagwan Sree Rajneesh (Osho)
- Branch Davidians
- Children of God
- Church of God Restoration
- Church of Wells
- Christian Identity
- The Discipling and Shepherding movement, and denominations that practice it such as the International Church of Christ/ The Boston movement.
- Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
- Heaven's Gate
- Hebrew Israelites
- House of Yahweh
- International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) (a.k.a. the Hare Krishna movement)
- Jehovah's Witnesses
- Movement for Inner Spiritual Awareness
- Nation of Islam
- Nation of Yahweh
- Order of the Solar Temple
- Palmarian Catholic Church
- The People's Temple
- Ramtha's School of Enlightenment
- Reyna Chicas
- Sathya Sai Baba
- Seventh Day Adventism
- Shincheonji Church of Jesus
- 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, the national "religion" of North Korea. Among other things, Juche features the worship of the father Kim Il Sung, the son Kim Jong Il, and the grandson Kim Jong-un, adding a strong religious component to the officially purely political and atheist ideology
- Ku Klux Klan
- Lord's Resistance Army
- Lyndon LaRouche movement
- Men's rights movement
- Mujahideen-e Khalq (or People's Mujahedin of Iran)
- National Labor Federation
- Shining Path
- Revolutionary Communist Party
- Workers Revolutionary Party
- Alex Jones's and Mark Dice's "Resistance" movement
- Tea party movement
- Alcoholics Anonymous
- Avatar Course
- Chuluaqui-Quodoushka/Deer Tribe Medicine Society
- Erhard Seminars Training/Landmark Forum
- Falun Gong, which borders on a few catergories more.
- Multilevel marketing (esp. health MLMs such as Young Living)
- Re-evaluation Counseling
- Scientology ("[any problem]? Scientology can help you with that.")
- Social Therapy
- some large group awareness trainings
- some forms of wilderness therapy
- Cosa Nostra
- La Familia Michoacana
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). Catholicism circa (say) 1200 CE might seem more cultish than Catholicism circa 2015 CE.
- Darwin Fish regards any famous evangelist other than himself as 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.
- The Advanced Bonewits' Cult Danger Evaluation Frame (ABCDEF) by Isaac Bonewits, useful since 1979
- The Cult Education Institute's warning signs
- Quoted at After the Truth
- 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