What Defines a Cult?

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By C.W.S.

With the death of notorious proxy-murderer Charles Manson, the word cult is again being used to describe Manson and his band of hippy ‘followers.' Manson is seen as the charismatic leader of 'The Family:' a figure that was able to, with just the power of his mind- control tactics, convince his followers to commit several ritual murders on his behalf. In fact, this year is full of cult-talk, with the popularity of American Horror Story: Cult, and several new podcasts detailing the mass suicide of Heaven's Gate in 1997. Leah Remini's anti-Scientology show Scientology and the Aftermath has also been exposing weekly the abuses within one of the most massive and bizarre cults in the world. 

“The reality is that there’s just dozens and dozens and hundreds if not thousands of these groups around in our country and everywhere else in the world. Sometimes they’re dangerous, and sometimes they’re not. But they definitely flourish,” said Janja Lalich, who is a professor of sociology at California State University.

Cult. We throw this word around a lot, and oftentimes we are right to do so. But how do experts in the areas of psychology and sociology define what is and is not a cult? They don’t always look like the Manson family; they come in many different forms. Let’s explore.

Members of the Manson Family

Members of the Manson Family

What the the official qualities of a cult?

According to CultResearch.org, there are four dimensions that are seen in all cults:

1.         Charismatic leader: The charismatic leader is the originator of the group. Charismatic leaders are people who are great manipulators, they’re charming. They know how to read people. They come along and offer a message that is going to resonate with somebody. Once they get a few followers that’s all they need and then those people go out, recruit more and they build up an aura around the leader. 

2.         Transcendent belief system: Most religions and even political groups are going to have a transcendent belief system, meaning they’re stating how to get to some better place. But what’s different in cultic groups is they have their way to get you there. It’s what I call the recipe for change. In order to be part of the group, you have to go through a transformational process, which they dictate to you and you can’t be there otherwise. That’s the indoctrination program.

3.         Systems of control: They think they’re joining something that’s going to give them purpose and meaning. Slowly the heat gets turned up and you go through the rituals or the study sessions that get you more and more drawn in. As this process goes on, the person begins to adopt this new worldview that requires new behaviors and which most often requires cutting off from the past. There’s all kinds of control mechanisms, which are the rules and regulations. You’ve got to dress this way.

4.         Systems of influence: Then there’s the more subtle influences, which is the peer pressure. Older members will model for the new members how you’re supposed to behave. Before you know it, you’re so enveloped in this other reality that you don’t look to anything else. You don’t allow yourself to be opened to any other explanations. Your mind has completely closed in on this new worldview. So the connections to the belief system is kind of the glue that keeps you there. This is your only hope.

Some subcategories of cults are found below. Some cults can fall into multiple categories.

Destructive cults

These types of groups injure or kill members through deliberate actions. Psychologist Michael Langone, director of the International Cultic Studies Association, calls these types of cults "a highly manipulative group which exploits and sometimes physically and/or psychologically damages members and recruits" Oftentimes for the leaders of these cults, money and power are the main motivating factors. The members experience “behavioral and personality changes, loss of personal identity, cessation of scholastic activities, estrangement from family, disinterest in society and pronounced mental control and enslavement by cult leaders.” These cults can prevent people from receiving proper medical care, and often put them through physical and sexual abuse. Some famous examples include the People’s Temple (Jonestown), the FLDS Church, and Scientology.

Members of The People Temple

Members of The People Temple

Doomsday cults

Doomsday cults are often the ones that make it onto the news, as their stories are the most sensational. These types of groups are convinced by their leader that the end of the world is imminent. These groups can both claim to predict the coming Apocalypse or they can believe that they have the power to bring it about. Often the group is considered ‘chosen,’ and believe themselves to be the ones who will survive the end times. Heaven’s Gate and the Branch Davidians are examples, as well as the Ramtha cult in Washington State. 

Political cults

These cults exist with a primary goal of affecting politics with their own ideology. Generally speaking, these groups exist at the extreme ends of our political system, both the right and left. Writer Lucy Patrick spoke about the way political cults operate in the US: "Although we live in a democracy, cult behavior manifests itself in our unwillingness to question the judgment of our leaders, our tendency to devalue outsiders and to avoid dissent. We can overcome cult behavior… by recognizing that we have dependency needs that are inappropriate for mature people, by increasing anti-authoritarian education, and by encouraging personal autonomy and the free exchange of ideas." Some political cults in the US include the LaRouche Movement, Democratic workers party, and the new white nationalists known as the Alternative Right. 

Polygamist cults

Polygamy is a marriage that occurs between more than two people. This almost always takes the form of a husband having multiple wives, and having children with each wife. These cults are often religious in nature, most famously, the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints led by Warren Jeffs that was raided by the FBI in 2008 and 2010. Jeffs was arrested for marrying and having sex with under aged girls.

Warren Jeffs, leader of the FLDS church and his wives

Warren Jeffs, leader of the FLDS church and his wives

Racist cults

This one is pretty self-explanatory. The Ku Klux Klan is an obvious example, which still operates to this day. During the time of Nazi Germany, Aryan cults actually added a great deal of momentum to Hitler’s rise to power. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that there are currently 1,600 extremist white supremacy groups operating in the US. 

Terrorist cults

Al-Qaida and ISIS are the most well-known terrorist cults in our modern world. Osama Bin Laden was considered by experts to fulfill the criteria for a cult leader. In an article on Al-Qaida published by journalist Mary Ann Sieghart, she commented that "Al-Qaida fits all the official definitions of a cult. It indoctrinates its members; it forms a closed, totalitarian society; it has a self-appointed, messianic and charismatic leader; and it believes that the ends justify the means." These cults use tactics of mass fear to attempt to manipulate the public for their own political agenda. Author and former cult member Dr. Masoud Banisadr said about terrorist cults: "If you ask me: are all cults a terrorist organization? My answer is no, as there are many peaceful cults at present around the world and in the history of mankind. But if you ask me are all terrorist organizations some sort of cult, my answer is yes. Even if they start as an ordinary modern political party or organization, to prepare and force their members to act without asking any moral questions and act selflessly for the cause of the group and ignore all the ethical, cultural, moral or religious codes of the society and humanity, those organizations have to change into a cult. Therefore to understand an extremist or a terrorist organization one has to learn about a cult."

Warning signs of cult behaviors

Here are some warning signs from world-renown cult-expert Rick Ross that a group you are a part of might be verging on the cultic:

• 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.

Cult of Scientology

Cult of Scientology

Cult leaders aim to take away one of humanity’s most valuable tools: critical thinking. Without critical thinking, we can be coerced into all sorts of thoughts and behaviors. This is because this type of cultic programming renders the issues of our world black and white, taking away all the nuance of decision-making. The group alone is good, and outsiders are bad and evil. Our world is ending, or a new era is ushering in, and only the group will be safe. The leader is all-knowing, impossibly righteous. It becomes easy to give away all power to a charismatic leader; it feels good to have someone else be in control, someone to say, “I know the way, and I am certain.” In a world where nothing feels certain, it can be easy to fall under the spell of finding a group that knows the truth, that makes you feel a part of something bigger, that allows you to feel like you have special knowledge or special power. But cult members do not have special powers, in fact, they have no power at all, making them incredibly vulnerable to the kind of abuse and exploitation we see time and time again. The truth is that cult leaders don't have any power either, until they take it from those who they make believe.