What is a cult? A cult is simply a group of people who have a shared interest. This shared interest could be a particular religion, a type of computer, UFOs, a movie, a rock band, a political idea.
If you are asking what is a cult because you think the group you are in, or a group a friend or family member is part of, might be a cult, a better question would be 'what is a destructive cult?'
A destructive cult is something else entirely. A destructive cult is a group where the leader basically tricks people into joining his group and then controls the lives of the members of the group for his or her own benefit. The leader has brainwashed or mind-controlled the members into giving up their previous beliefs and adopting his. The members are unaware of the extent of this and they adore the leader and his ideas and are typically fanatical about using these ideas in their own lives and having others do the same.
Let's take a closer look at the characteristics of a cult.
While the earliest cults were mostly based on religious ideas as well as spirituality and human consciousness, nowadays we have destructive cults based on all sorts of ideas.
There are yoga classes that fit the definition of a destructive cult. There are martial arts classes, all sorts of sports groups, child rearing groups, church choirs, hair dressing salons and dental clinics that function as destructive cults.
Of course, we continue to have many religious groups that are cults as well. Sometimes this can be a group set up as a separate religion by a controlling leader who wants to run his own cult. Or it can be a pastor or priest running the church in his area as a destructive cult but the church is part of a larger organization (that the pastor does not control).
There are also many personal development groups, using all sorts of tools and techniques, that are actually cults as well. They offer to teach you to be the ideal you, the real you, how to access the authentic self, create realities and access the life of your dreams.
An extension of this are the leadership programs which offer all sorts of benefits. Many of these, too, are destructive cults.
Another group are those offering employment and other ways to access money. Often called get rich quick schemes, some are fairly basic con jobs but a great many of them are destructive groups.
The internet has been a boon for cults giving them easy access to people all over the world. Today, many online discussion groups function as destructive cults, with members only knowing each other and the leader through their writings on the forum.
The alternative health industry is riddled with cults. Alternative health therapies, herbs and plants that cure everything from allergies to cancer, vitamin and mineral combinations that provide extraordinary health benefits and various energy measuring devices are all used to draw people in with promises of better health, longer lives and massive riches.
In destructive cults, the leaders are all powerful. They act as judge and jury and their word is final. They typically do not answer to anyone.
They present themselves as benevolent, caring, considerate souls who are wise beyond their years. They often talk of having had a very difficult childhood or a history severe difficulties and they somehow managed to overcome these by using a particular program or by discovering their own technique. Now they are on a path of sharing this wonderful technique with the world, for a price, of course!
If anyone takes the time to investigate the past story, they often find it to be a combination of exaggeration, embellishments and outright lies.
The leaders take advantage of the group members in various ways. First off, they manipulate the members into believing, thinking and acting in a certain way. They basically create clones of themselves.
These clones are programmed to make the leader's life better while the members are completely convinced that the leader is making their lives better. You can read more about the contradictions in cults here.
As well as having the members earn him more money, the leader uses the skills of the members to his advantage. One member may design a web site, another runs it. Another creates business cards. A fourth acts as a taxi service for the leader when he or she travels. The leader will expect free legal advice, free car repairs, free massages, free everything, depending on the skills available in the group.
The leader will take and take, irrespective of the cost to the members. While charismatic and controlling, they are also cold hearted and cruel. In fact, many of them fit the profile of a psychopath. The relationships these types have is based on domination and coercion and they never feel bad for anything they do because they are basically creatures without emotion. They are not called predators and snakes for nothing!
The leaders set themselves up as the authority and while they use the theme of the group to attract members, they very quickly have the members adoring them instead. They claim to be unique and special, offering something that cannot be got elsewhere. They make out that their lives are magnificent and successful and lead the members to want to emulate their glorious leader.
When members refer to the group, they are basically referencing the leader even if they think they are separate things. The groups ideas are those of the leader. The groups rules are those of the leader. The groups direction and purpose is that of the leader. Everything about the group comes from the leader.
People don't join a cult, they join a church, or a political organization, or a support group for people with abusive parents. The unsuspecting victims are lured in with the promise of getting something they are looking for and once in the door, they are led through the recruiting process of the cult. What the person desires is subtly but carefully shifted to what the cult is offering.
"You want better relationships? What if you learned how to be more of who you really are, more confident, more self-assured, more determined? If you could be like that, would your relationships be better? Of course they would! So why don't we start there? Let's work on getting you to be the best you there is. Come on in and take a seat..."
This is the start of the changes imposed on the members. Very quickly their beliefs are altered. Their decision making process is altered. Their thinking processes are altered to be more like the leader's. Their behaviors are changed with a system of rewards and punishments. The members emotions are very heavily controlled. Initially they are made to feel special, unique, cared for and even loved (love bombing). Later, fear and guilt are added in large doses to maintain the control.
The members basically undergo a personality change. They have a cult personality imposed upon them. This cult personality, or pseudopersonality, is programmed to trust and revere the leader. It is programmed to believe what the leader says and to follow his or her instructions, no matter how indirect. And it is designed to be very dependent on the group and the leader.
The members come to believe that the work of the group is the most useful thing they can be doing with their lives. They typically feel that if they were not doing 'the work' (a phrase used by many groups) their lives would be meaningless. They often cannot imagine not doing the work. For them, there is nothing else but this.
In this way the ideas of the cult infiltrate every aspect of their lives. The eat, sleep and breathe the group. They try to introduce the ideas into their workplaces. They introduce the ideas into their social and personal lives. They talk about it with friends and family. About two thirds of cult members say that they were introduced to the cult by a friend or family member. After all, you trust them not to deliberately do you harm, right?
In fact, the members will talk about the cult to anyone who will listen. This is because they are programmed to recruit new people. Cults will start people recruiting as soon as possible for several reasons. Having to convince someone of something helps solidify the ideas in the speaker's head. Explaining the ideas of the cult to others helps to reinforce the ideas for the new member. A second reason is that the excitement and enthusiasm of the new member is contagious. It alone will attract attention because people will feel that they want some of what that upbeat person has. This draws people to the cults events to find out more.
This is why cults don't want people with mental health problems or severe difficulties. They want normal, healthy, energetic go-getters, because these types are better recruiters than for example, shy, timid types with anxiety or depression.
Social pressure is one of Robert Cialdini's weapons of influence. It is particularly powerful because people are often not aware of exactly how much pressure a group can have on them. (It's actually a lot!)
The cult leaders use this in many ways. For example, senior members are often allowed to return to do courses for a reduced cost. What happens then is that when some strange or weird cult idea is introduced to the new members, they look around, they see the senior people unfazed and acting as if it is normal. Such social proof makes it much easier for them to try it out.
A second way in which the group is utilized by the leader is when people ask awkward questions or criticize the teachings. The leader will typically come down hard on such people, being aggressive, abusive and generally making them feel very uncomfortable. This has the result of not only stopping the 'disruptive' member from repeating the questioning but it also acts as a warning to anyone else who was thinking of doing the same. The message is that if you doubt or criticize the leader or the group's ideology (basically the leader, as I mentioned above) then you will get the same treatment. The leader will typically not let even one person away with this because if he or she allows one dissenting voice, it emboldens others to speak up about their concerns as well. So that kind of behavior is very quickly stamped out, literally.
The identity of the members becomes blended or enmeshed with that of the group. How this is done I will discuss in another article. The result of this is that the members of the group police each other. If one member sees another breaking the rules or doing something that may be damaging to the coherency of the group, they will typically feel compelled to do something about it. They may reprimand the member directly or they may go to the leadership and tell what they have seen, with the expectation that the leader will do something to correct it. The reason they are driven to 'fix' the situation is that they are so bonded to the group that the threat to the group feels like a personal threat. The boundary between them and the group is so blurred they no longer know where it is and the rule breaking feels like an attack on their own personal well being.
The group also develops an 'us versus them' mentality towards outsiders. The cult members believe they are learning special stuff that is not available to those outside the group. This puts them above the uninitiated. They feel elite, special, different. The 'work' they are doing is, after all, going to change the world.
Outsiders are considered to be inferior, sinners, defective, ignorant or weak, but the members are programmed to recruit them into the group. In that way they can be 'saved' as well.
The cult members are not the only ones who are losing out. (They lose money, time, friends, creativity, their own development, often their jobs and so on.) Families and friends lose, too.
Loved ones are taken away, often not to return for years. Families may be sending money to the cult member, thinking that they are helping when it is, in fact, just going straight into the pocket of the leader.
Friends, when they try to point out to the cult member that they may be in a cult may end up in an argument or a series of arguments, with the cult member siding with the leader. This can lead to a breakdown in the friendship. These friendships may or may not recover.
Some people end up blaming the cult member for leaving them or for treating them badly because they believe that the cult member is deliberately making these decisions in relation to the group. This can cause many problems. The reality, of course, is that the decisions are not those of the member themselves, they are the decisions of the pseudopersonality which was imposed by the leader. Failure to recognize this leads to many misunderstandings.
And society also loses out, with the loss of productivity, bright minds led to do meaningless cult duties, families separated, businesses led astray doing things to enrich psychopathic cult leaders instead of focusing on creating value and so on.
You can find more details about what is a cult in these articles about recruiting techniques, the pseudopersonality, how specifically the pseudopersonality is created, mental abuse and recovery from a psychopathic relationship.
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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