What Defines A Cult?

What defines a cult is not so much the beliefs of the group but the underlying dynamics.

A cult is simply a group of people who have a belief or set of beliefs that differs in some way from the rest of society. They are often devoted to a person, place or thing. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, people should be free to believe whatever they want.

There are movies that have a 'cult following', where the viewers who love the movie may get together to talk about the movie, the props and the clothes and so on. There are people who regularly gather to act out wars from past times. The Apple cult are those people who are very loyal to Apple's Macs and iPhones.

The general idea here is that people can easily move in and out of the groups easily and no one gets harmed by being in such a group.

A destructive cult is something else altogether. In 1985 the International Cultic Studies Association decided on the following cult definition:

"A group or movement exhibiting great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethical manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control (for example, isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, the motion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it), designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community."

What does all that mean? What I want to do here is to show how these ideas show up in real life so you can begin to apply the ideas to a group that you may have doubts about, either one you are in or a group a loved one is involved with.


What defines a cult?

Here is a list, in no particular order, of things that you will find in destructive cults.

The members are 'all in' with the group. The leader and the group have the answers to your problems. You just have to follow the program and things will be fine.

The members will not be able to list three defects that the leader has. If they do mention some fault, they will immediately explain that he (or she!) is this way for the good of the group.

The leader of the group is all powerful. He is answerable to nobody. By this I mean that he basically makes all the decisions. He is the final arbiter of whatever happens in the group. Everything has to be run by him first.

A destructive cult imposes a 'cult personality' on the members. Each members perceptions, thoughts, decision making process, language, emotions and behaviors are changed. This is why cult members have the same beliefs, ideas, jargon, behaviors and even dress code. This cult personality is known as a pseudopersonality. You can read much more about how mind control tactics create this pseudopersonality.

Destructive cults have their own particular process to recruit new people. This process has been honed and tested, often over years. If you listen to different members talk about the group, you will hear the script they have learnt. This script will include lines to overcome the common objections that people have as a way to overcome these objections quickly.

The group love bombs potential members. There are often events especially designed for introducing new people to the ideas of the group. More senior members are usually in attendance and they make the new people feel special, smart, unique. The newbies are made to feel that they are among trusted friends and they are told how they will do well in the group because they learn quickly, for example.

At these events, new people see the group members, happy, smiling, helpful and so on. The group members have stories about how they were having difficulties in their lives before they found the group and once in the group, their lives were turned around and they have never been happier. They reassure the newbies that the group has the answer to their problems, too.

While the members may have joined a karate class, or a church, or a support group for those grieving, the leader is giving advice on diet, relationships, family matters, and so on. In other words, the group, or rather the leader, is influencing every aspect of the members' lives.

It's often difficult to have a conversation with a cult member unless you are talking about the group's ideas, in which case, they can talk for hours! They may be quite unaware of anything else that is happening in the world around them, but will be intensely aware of what the leader is up to.

Cult members will have joined the group for particular reasons but their attention to the activities of the group is soon overtaken by adoration of the leader. They start off going along to the group to do yoga or for political or religious reasons, but they end up going because the leader is such an amazing, fabulous person. He knows so much, he is so worldly, he helps so many people, or so they are led to believe.

The members individual goals for attending the group become subsumed by the goals of the group. They are led to believe that if they go after the goals of the group they will automatically achieve their personal ambitions. Of course, that rarely, if ever, happens.

The members are convinced that they are on the path to achieving their personal goals (goals that are now very much intertwined with those of the group!). They just haven't got there yet, but they will. It will be next month, or next year, or after the next course with the leader, or after another 6 months of mentoring with the leader. Achieving the personal goals are always just a little bit into the future.

The goals of a destructive cult are to recruit new members and take their money. The members are unwittingly recruiting new people but they think they are actually helping others by spreading the word and inviting people along. They believe that the group has valuable information that cannot be had anywhere else and that if everyone had this information, the world would be a better place. Hence the desire to get people into the group, believing that it will make their lives better.

Destructive cults use a system of thought reform, or mind control, or coercive persuasion to manipulate and exploit the members. They control the members' thoughts, emotions and behaviors through strong influence techniques to lead them to accept, believe in and defend the ideas of the group.

The ideas of the group are not actually special. They are simply the beliefs and ideas of the leadership. The leader learns about some topic, often something that does have value in society, like sales training, some hobby or sport, a religious practice or even hairdressing. They then put their own spin on it and offer it as something special and unique, making use of the scarcity principle. It is indeed unique, in that you can't get it anywhere else, but that is actually a good thing.

When the leader distorts the information, it becomes tainted. It is used to push the members deeper into the mindset of the cult. The tools and techniques, likewise, force the members to become more dependent on the leader and the group. The more they do the exercises, the more it actually indoctrinates the members, and the more they become convinced of the correctness of what they are doing.

The members are convinced that the tools they have are fantastic. Their initial reaction to these tools was very positive, because the group set it up that way. This belief is rarely, if ever, questioned by the members. So when the techniques don't work, the member blames themselves, thinking they are not doing them correctly, or not doing them often enough, or not doing things in the right order, or some such thing. They will go right back to do another course, or private work with the leader to figure out how to get them to work again.

Cult members are not mad, crazy, deluded types. They are often bright, energetic people who are motivated to learn and improve their skills. They may have a genuine spiritual quest. However, there is a huge level of exploitation from above. The leader wants intelligent, enthusiastic types in the group. They will learn, get good results and earn him more money. And besides, what better advertisement can you have to attract new people into the group?

Cult members are absolutely convinced that they are making their own decisions. They will argue, often aggressively, if anyone tells them that they are in a cult. The cult leader has often trained them how to respond to such accusations. And because they cult leader has done so, when anyone mentions anything about the group being a cult, the members think, "Ah, the leader said that this would happen!" and they become more convinced about the leader's wisdom.

Not all cults separate people from their families. Many leaders are happy that the members continue in their jobs, living at home etc. After all, that puts more money in their pockets with which to pay for courses, materials, products, mentoring etc. Many, however, do. They don't necessarily take people off to other countries, but cult members will often separate from family and friends because the family and friends won't come into the cult. They have been led to believe that outsiders who are not willing to learn the groups's ideas are holding them back and they should separate from them. So if a group is taking over a person's life, and they won't listen to reason but would prefer to go with the group than stay with the family, then consider that as a major problem. If only people would learn to listen to their families rather than a recent blow in, the cults would be so much less effective at recruiting.

Lies, distortions, exaggerations, lies and more lies are part of every destructive group. The leader lies about his past. He, or she, hides a lot of information from the members. The reality that the leader creates and then forces the members to live within, often has little or nothing to do with the real world. It is a delusion. Another name for it is a lie.

Unfortunately, for various reasons, the critical thinking and ability to rationalize of the members is severely affected. Therefore they cannot see the lies and contradictions that are inherent in the destructive cults' ideologies.

It can be very frustrating trying to talk to the member about the fact that they are in a cult. They have all sorts of answers for such situations that they have learnt in the cult. They can even get aggressive with friends and family members, insisting that the friend or family member has no idea what they are talking about because they have never been in the group. They believe they know more about the group than outsiders, when, in fact, the opposite is often true. The outsider recognizes the cultic nature of the group while the member is blissfully ignorant.

This list of what defines a cult is by no means exhaustive. There are lots of other subtleties that exist between benign groups and destructive cults. Learning more is important if you think you might be involved with a cult in some way.


What defines a cult? - more reading

If you think you might be in a cult, or you think a loved one might be captured, it's imperative that you learn more about mind control, psychopaths, narcissists and what controlling groups do to the members.

You can read more details about the fundamental aspects of all destructive cults, cult tactics, how to brainwash someone, how to escape a cult and recovery from psychopathic abuse.

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Would you like to talk to someone about your situation?

If you think you are or have been in a cult or a destructive relationship, or a friend or family member might be in a cult and you want to talk to someone, send me a message on the Contact page and we can arrange to talk. All communication will be treated in the strictest confidence.

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