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Drink the Kool-Aid
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But you WANT to stay!
Cults of personality
There’s a lot of power inherent in enlightenment — or the perception of it — and spiritual power is no less corrupting than any other power. In fact, it may be even more corrupting. I remember the first time I became conscious of this: I started teaching at thirty-three; most everybody was older than me, and more educated, and smarter. They had better jobs and all that. As I was driving home from teaching one night, it suddenly hit me: I could go in there and say almost anything and make them believe it. I saw, all at once, the incredible frailty of human beings. And I understood how intelligent, well-educated people can get involved in cults and the most ridiculous ideas: when we are in the grasp of ego, we’re extraordinarily vulnerable.

A cult (not to be confused with occult) is any religious or political group too small to have its own army and navyWikipedia 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, typically in a detrimental fashion,[note 1] 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."

Usage in recent decades[edit]

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[edit]

Jim Jones, of Jonestown infamy.

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 thumb is that they came into a country after World War II. 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[edit]

Authorities respond to Aum Shinrikyo's sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway system.

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.[2]

Warning signs of a potentially unsafe group/leader[edit]

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. The leader's authority is absolute, without meaningful accountability.
  4. There is no tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.
  5. There is no meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget or expenses, such as an independently audited financial statement.
  6. There exists an unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies, and persecutions.
  7. Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.
  8. There are records, books, news articles, or television programs that document the abuses of the group/leader.
  9. Followers feel they can never be "good enough".
  10. The group/leader is always right.
  11. 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[edit]

Rick Ross's Cult Education Institute lists the following warning signs for followers of a cult:[3]

  1. They are extremely obsessive regarding the group/leader, resulting in the exclusion of almost every practical consideration.
  2. 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.
  3. Whenever the group/leader is criticized or questioned, it is characterized as "persecution".
  4. They engage in uncharacteristically stilted and seemingly programmed conversation and mannerisms, effectively cloning the group/leader in their personal behavior.
  5. 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.
  6. They have a hyperactivity centered on the group/leader agenda, which seems to supersede any personal goals or individual interests.
  7. They lose their spontaneity and sense of humor in dramatic fashion.
  8. They are increasingly isolated from family and old friends unless they demonstrate an interest in the group/leader.
  9. They can justify anything the group/leader does, no matter how harsh or harmful.
  10. 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[edit]

The Palmarian Catholic Church cathedral. The wall surrounding it is a good example of #12: Isolation in action.

Isaac Bonewits, a neo-pagan writer and magician, proposed the following 'Cult Danger Evaluation Scale' in the 1970s:

  1. Internal Control: Amount of internal political and social power exercised by leader(s) over members; lack of clearly defined organizational rights for members.
  2. External Control: Amount of external political and social influence desired or obtained; emphasis on directing members’ external political and social behavior.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Dogma: Rigidity of reality concepts taught; amount of doctrinal inflexibility or "fundamentalism"; hostility towards relativism and situationalism.[note 2]
  6. Recruiting: Emphasis put on attracting new members; amount of proselytizing; requirement for all members to bring in new ones.
  7. Front Groups: Number of subsidiary groups using different names from that of main group, especially when connections are hidden.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Sexual Favoritism: Advancement or preferential treatment dependent upon sexual activity with the leader(s) of non-tantric groups.
  11. Censorship: Amount of control over members’ access to outside opinions on the group, its doctrines, or leader(s).
  12. Isolation: Amount of effort to keep members from communicating with non-members, including family, friends, and lovers.
  13. Dropout Control: Intensity of efforts directed at preventing or returning dropouts.
  14. Violence: Amount of approval when used by or for the group, its doctrines or leader(s).
  15. Paranoia: Amount of fear concerning real or imagined enemies; exaggeration of perceived power of opponents; prevalence of conspiracy theories.
  16. Grimness: Amount of disapproval concerning jokes about the group, its doctrines, or its leader(s).
  17. 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).
  18. 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.[4]

Groups considered to be coercive cults[edit]

Note: the groups listed below below are not necessarily cults, though they have been accused of being so.

Religious groups[edit]

Political groups[edit]

Self-help movements[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Self help

Criminal organizations[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Organized crime
  • Bratva (also commonly known as the Russian Mafia)
  • Cosa Nostra (also commonly known as the Sicilian Mafia in Italy or the American Mafia in the United States)
  • La Familia Michoacana
  • Mexican cartels
  • NSDAP (German Nazi Party) and such subsidiary organizations as the Gestapo and SS
  • Triad
  • Yakuza

Accused by fundamentalists[edit]

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:

Cult of personality[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Personality cult § Examples

See also[edit]


  1. Who Hears This Sound? Adyashanti On Waking Up From The Dream Of “Me”
  2. The Advanced Bonewits' Cult Danger Evaluation Frame (ABCDEF) by Isaac Bonewits, useful since 1979
  3. The Cult Education Institute's warning signs
  4. Quoted at After the Truth
  5. Vyckie. "What Is Quiverfull?". 
  6. Caleb Maupin’s Former Comrades Speak Out, His Abuses Must Stop! 20 Aug 2022 (Archived) Medium
  7. Lee, Teresa. "6 Ways the MRA Indoctrinate New Members With Cult Tactics.", 6 March 2017 (recovered 6 March 2017).
  8. Former TERFs and SWERFs are Fleeing The “Cult” Movements Known For Being Terrible and Wrong, Riese, Autostraddle 20 May 2020
  10. Dolan, Sean (1999). "Understanding Cults Today". Everything You Need to Know About Cults. The Need to Know Library. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc. p. 34. ISBN 9780823932306. Retrieved 4 July 2021. "Commercial cults promise their members riches, usually through the sale of a specific special product. In many cases, what the cult is actually selling is itself. The cult often functions as little more than a pyramid scheme [...]." 
  11. Benjamin, Elliot (2013). Modern Religions: An Experiential Analysis and Exposé. p. 346. ISBN 9781257082612. Retrieved 4 July 2021. "[...] Avatar's cult dangers cannot be ignored. We have here a very expensive alternative spiritual organization with a highly organized and effective recruitment and marketing strategy. [...] Avatar has been described as 'the new est,' [...]. We see here another LGAT (Large group Awareness Training Program) at work." 
  12. Lewis, James R. (2014). "Controversial Groups and Movements: An Expanded Glossary". Cults: A Reference and Guide (3 ed.). London: Routledge. p. 129. ISBN 9781317545132. Retrieved 4 July 2021. "Erhard Seminars Training, more commonly known as est [...] has often been accused of being a cult." 
  13. Cohen, Tammy (2007). "Father of the Year". Deadly Divorces. Kings Road Publishing. ISBN 9781843586890. Retrieved 4 July 2021. "[...] Landmark Education. Variously described by detractors as a 'cult', a brainwashing technique and a way of raising bucket loads of cash from emotionally vulnerable people [...]." 
  14. Cooke, Kaz (2009). The Rough Guide To Girl Stuff. Rough Guides. Rough Guides UK. p. 334. ISBN 9781848362505. Retrieved 4 July 2021. "Examples of cults include the Exclusive Brethren, the Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientology (one of the many based on ideas about aliens) and Landmark Forum." 
  15. Unitarian Universalism Contender Ministries


  1. It could be argued that all religion is controlling, and this isn't necessarily a bad thing; much like secular law, religion can be used to hold people back from hurting each other over petty squabbles, conflicts, and competitions. Religion also serves to encourage people to be kind to one another, to cooperate, and to help each other where help is needed. Where religion's penchant for being controlling becomes a bad thing is when the people in charge of the religion abuse their power for their own gain at their followers' expense.
  2. One thing Isaac forgot to mention cults tending to disapprove of is disagreement with the leader's word or established doctrine.