What does cult mean? A cult is basically a group of people who have in common the appreciation or admiration of a thing, a person or even an idea or belief.
People often talk about a 'cult film' or a 'cult band' and it means that the film or band has a group of devoted followers.
Using this idea, religions, groups that believe in such things as UFOs, ghosts and the paranormal, groups that prefer one type of computers over another, political parties and so on, can all be considered to be cults. The people in the group all believe in the same thing, they have an affinity for each other because of this and they will usually believe that their group has the right answers or is better than other groups in some ways.
This is all part of normal society, people are free to believe what they want and the differences are what make the world interesting.
However, there is another, more sinister answer to the question what does cult mean?
There are cults that are considered to be destructive and these are very different altogether. In these groups, the members beliefs, attitudes and behaviors are changed without their consent by unscrupulous leaders. These changes are made without the members being aware of them. In fact, the members actually believe that they are fully in control and making their own decisions.
If you tell a person in such a group that they are in a cult they will typically argue, often aggressively, to defend their beliefs, their group and the leader.
These are the groups where everyone thinks the same, uses the same language, acts the same, and in some groups they even dress the same.
In effect, the leadership very heavily influences the decision making of the group members, takes away their free will and makes the members dependent on the leader(s). In contrast, the members typically believe that they are freer and more independent than ever before and that the decisions that they are making are for their own good.
In such groups, the members are not actually free to decide, the ideas are being imposed upon them and the leader is, in reality, taking advantage of them for his own selfish purposes, no matter how much the members think that the leader is helping them.
Read about various cult definitions here.
Nobody joins a cult. They are recruited into the group. They are tricked into joining. Each cult has an outer façade that it presents to the world. It may be martial arts, politics, religion, personal development, hairdressing, yoga and a host of other things. People join to do a sport, or to better their relationships or their communication, or they go to a sales training seminar.
When they go along, they do learn something about the topic. They learn some karate moves, or they do yoga exercises or they learn about sales techniques. But they are also fed ideas about what the leader thinks. The leader typically has a unique twist to what he is teaching. He or she offers something special, something different that is unique to this group. And from there, the leader also begins to offer their opinions on people, relationships, the government, health and the world in general.
At the same time, the new members are made to feel especially welcome by the older members. They are told that they are talented, intelligent, and special and that they will do very well in the group. This extremely friendly approach makes new people feel very good about the group and it is designed to do just that. Those 'warm, fuzzy feelings' make the new members feel accepted, wanted, loved even.
These very strong emotions shut down people's critical faculties and stop them from analyzing what exactly is happening. It stops them from being able to think rationally about the leader and his or her ideas. On top of this the leader claims to want to better the world in some way and it's difficult to argue against that. This effusive praise is called love bombing. The destructive cults do it because it works! You might think that you would spot that and not get caught by it, but when you are on the receiving end of it, it is a very persuasive technique. Which is why all the cults do it...
Those new members who are 'caught' then decide to stay for more. But it's not really their decision. They are being fed information about the group that is not true and they are basing their decisions on this false information.
So they come along to more talks or meetings, or however the group is set up. They begin to learn about the ideas of the group. They are really being led through a process that the cult leader has set up for new members. This process includes presenting information to the new members piece by piece. Once the new member accepts one idea, the next one is introduced. When that is accepted, the next idea is presented and so on. In this way, the victim believes that they are choosing to continue along the path and that they are still in control.
I use the word victim because they are now being indoctrinated into the belief system of the cult without realizing that it is no longer their choice. Whenever they have questions, doubts or criticisms, the leader and the cult members have answers that alleviate doubts and counter the criticisms. The leader has usually heard all these objections before and has already worked out responses that work to keep the victim involved in the group and believing in his ideas, even if the answers are lies!
The member is introduced to the language and jargon of the cult. This is a very significant aspect of the indoctrination because it makes the member feel special among other things. You can read more about this and other cult tactics here.
All this new information makes the member think that they are learning new things and expanding their awareness. What is actually happening is that the beliefs, ideas and thinking of the cult are being imposed on the person. They start to think like the leader, they start to believe the same ideas as the leader and they start acting the way the leader wants them to act. If they stray from these things, they will be quickly corrected by the leader or by other members. In effect, they are imitating the leader. Even if they are imitating the more senior members of the group, or their group mentor, these people are also imitating the leader, so in effect each member is becoming a clone of the leader.
The cult member feels that they are learning special and important things, things that outsiders do not know anything about. This gives them a sense of being special and separate from outsiders. A sense of elitism builds. There is also a sense that the group members are good and outsiders are bad or defective in some way. This kind of black and white thinking is encouraged and shows up in many ways in the cult members. There are more details about cult psychology here.
It is commonly recognized that cults change people. The cult members all have the same ideas, the same way of talking, the same behaviors and the inability to think independently of the group. Parents often talk about their son or daughter going to a seminar or joining a group and when they return home the parents hardly recognize them. They have new strange ideas, what used to be good is now bad, what was bad is now good, they seem to be repeating things parrot fashion, they no longer give any importance to what their parents say and they adore the leader and the group.
This new personality is the personality that the group has imposed on it's members. It is called a pseudopersonality because it is a false personality. It dominates and suppresses the real personality but never destroys it.
The cult basically unfreezes the new members personalities, makes changes and freezes these changes in place. These changes are very much for the benefit of the group leader although the members themselves believe very strongly that the group leader is helping them. This is one of many cult contradictions in totalitarian groups.
This pseudopersonality is programmed by the group leader in various ways. It is programmed to accept and believe what the leader says. It s programmed to put the group and the leader before itself. It is designed to believe that what the group is doing is the best thing that can be done and is the most important thing in life. For this reason the leaders ideas spread into all aspects of a person's life. Someone goes along for martial arts classes and ends up taking the advice of the leader on what to eat, whom to have relationships with, where to live, how to deal with problems, how to introduce the ideas to people at work and so on. Contrast this with, for example, a normal chess club, where people go along two nights a week to play chess. They may read some chess books at home in their own time, but they are not eating, breathing and sleeping chess and trying to recruit all and sundry into the chess club and chatting to the chess teacher about their problems and difficulties with a view to getting the teacher's opinion on what to do.
The pseudopersonality is also very dependent on the leader and the group. For all intents and purposes, the identity of the member is blended with that of the group. This has all sorts of important implications for the members. For example, people report feeling that they have lost themselves, that they don't know who they are anymore. This indicates the level of influence that the leader of a cult has on it's members. People are changed at their very core, without their consent or knowledge.
By now the cult is not just making the person feel good. They are also making members feel very bad. That unconditional care and love during the love bombing phase has now been made very conditional. If you want to be accepted by the group, you have to follow the rules. All of the rules. And you have to follow all of them all of the time. No deviation is accepted. There can be severe punishments for breaking the rules. Whatever power or privileges that a member has can be lost in an instant for any infractions, no matter how small. Learn more about this aspect of cult control here.
That benevolent, caring, considerate leader? Well, it turns out he has a vicious temper. But that was hidden from members until they were well and truly committed to the group. In other words, until the pseudopersonality was well and truly in place and stable, the member did not find out what the leader was really like. Turns out he is very strict, very demanding, he has one set of rules for himself and another set for the members. He can do things that the members are not allowed to do. It turns out that he also lives very well, with money, good clothes, the best of everything, while the members may be struggling to pay their way in the group. But he also knows how to justify these discrepancies. And, of course, the members are programmed to accept these inequalities.
There are lots of other things that cult members are not allowed to know until they are deeply involved, that is, until the pseudopersonality in in place.
The real purpose of the group is to recruit new people and take their money. Not, as was initially offered, to change the world. And recruiting is a very important part of the members tasks. The member will typically be 'trained' how to get people interested in the group. Lies, deception and trickery are made to seem acceptable in recruiting new people because it is, after all, for their own benefit! "Look how happy you are!" the member is told. "If they join, they will be that happy, too, so it's worth doing whatever to get them in." In this way the members are tricked into changing their morals and ethics, although the members are oblivious to these modifications.
You will find an extensive list of cult characteristics here and an explanation of what the manipulative leader says to catch and keep people.
A destructive cult is a group that has an all powerful leader (or group of leaders) who is judge and jury and answers to no one. They make the rules, they change the rules and whatever they say goes.
This leader tricks the people into joining and staying in the group, ostensibly offering something that seems to be of value. In reality what the members get is something else. They get a pseudopersonality, they get a new purpose in life (look after the leader) and they lose years of their life in the cult.
There is also a program of thought reform in place, also known as undue influence, manipulation or mind control. The ideas and beliefs of the members are forced to change without the member being aware of the psychological influence techniques being used against them to create such change. You can read about what brainwashing is and how to brainwash someone.
The interest that brought the member to the group is transformed into adoration of the leader and the leader's ideas. This bond with the leader is usually much stronger than the affinity of the member for the original interest that brought them to the group.
The members are exploited by the unscrupulous leader. He or she will take advantage of the members weaknesses, strengths, skills, abilities and their desire to make the world a better place. The benefits go to the leaders, the members lose.
You can read here about Margaret Singer's criteria for destructive cults.
Cults used to be thought of as a brigade of orange robe-wearing hippies chanting funny songs or as groups of religious nuts. Today the reality is very different. Cults have evolved and many cult members today live in their own homes, they hold down jobs outside the cult, they have relationships and seem like normal people. The cult leaders are happy with this situation because it means the members have the funds to pay for courses, seminars, personal sessions with the leader, DVDs, books and so on.
The variety of cults nowadays is staggering. There are cults based on health, everything from alternative and sometimes crazy therapies to selling health products that offer all sorts of things. The same products are offered to help lose weight or gain weight, to reduce the amount of sleep you need or to help you to fall asleep, to help speed up your brain or to slow down your brain.
There are also destructive cults organized around hair dressing, dentistry, sports of all sorts, politics, religion, many different types of personal development programs, leadership trainings, eastern medicine, western medicine, psychology, fashion, yoga, relationships, sex, finding employment, making money, and on and on.
In times of stress and crisis, cults seem to thrive. They are offering easy solutions to the complex problems of life. 'Just follow our program and everything will turn out for you!' is their basic message. It doesn't matter what your problem is, the cult offers to fix it.
Make money fast and change your life. Improve your relationships and watch your life transform. Heal yourself and exist in peace and tranquility forever. Empower yourself and create your own realities. If any of these things actually worked, everyone would be happy, healthy and rich. Reality, however, is very different.
There is no particular personality type that is more prone or more vulnerable to being caught in a destructive sect. That means that everyone can be caught. If you happen to be at a turning point in your life and you come across a psychopath or a cult recruiter who is offering you what you want or need, you can be fooled, too.
If you are asking the question what does cult mean because you think you may be in a cult, then there is a quiz here for you. If you suspect the group you are in is a cult, the best thing you can do is to step back and examine what is going on and learn what a cult really is. A cult will cost you dearly, not just in terms of money but also in time, energy, emotions, creativity and even your relationships, your family and your job.
It's important to recognize what is happening as quickly as possible so that you can take the steps to get out and undo the damage that was done to you. That means undoing the pseudopersonality and the beliefs and behaviors that were imposed upon you. They do not serve you. They were put in place for the benefit of the leader and they are going to cause you problems if you don't get rid of them.
An expert in cults, mind control and psychopathy will save you considerable time, money, effort and distress.
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