What is a Cult?

Cults in general.

Adapted from an article in The Guardian by Rick Alan Ross, a well-known if problematic cult deprogrammer:

Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who once taught at Harvard Medical School… delineated three primary characteristics, which are the most common features shared by destructive cults.

1. A charismatic leader, who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose power. That is a living leader, who has no meaningful accountability and becomes the single most defining element of the group and its source of power and authority.

2. A process [of indoctrination or education is in use that can be seen as] coercive persuasion or thought reform [commonly called “brainwashing”].

The culmination of this process can be seen by members of the group often doing things that are not in their own best interest, but consistently in the best interest of the group and its leader.

Lifton’s seminal book Thought Reform and Psychology of Totalism explains this process in considerable detail.

3. Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.

The destructiveness of groups called cults varies by degree, from labour violations, child abuse, medical neglect to, in some extreme and isolated situations, calls for violence or mass suicide.

Some groups that were once seen as “cults” have historically evolved to become generally regarded as religions. Power devolved from a single leader to a broader church government and such groups ceased to be seen as simply personality-driven and defined by a single individual. For example the Seventh-day Adventists… or the Mormons church.

Some groups may not fit the definition of a cult, but may pose potential risks for participants. Here are 10 warning signs of a potentially unsafe group or leader.

  • Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.
  • No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.
  • No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget or expenses, such as an independently audited financial statement.
  • Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.
  • There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.
  • Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.
  • There are records, books, news articles, or broadcast reports 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.

Source: The Guardian, “Watch out for tell-tale signs

Modern cults.

That article was written more than 10 years ago. I am not an expert but I believe and have said repeatedly that we need to expand our definitions of cults. Cults don’t rely on single, charismatic leaders anymore (to his credit, Ross does say that the “group” can function as the leader as well). In my view, as the internet connects more people and makes information and communities more decentralized, the parameters of “cult” will keep shifting and expanding.

What are you searching for?

Seek and you shall find.