What is a cult? We can define a cult as:
It has its origin in the Latin 'cultus', which means habitation, refinement or worship.
It is also used as 'cult band' or 'cult film' which indicates that the band or film has a small group of devoted followers.
So far, so good! People have a right to be allowed to believe in whatever they like.
The difficulty arises when people are being manipulated/brainwashed to believe in an idea, a person, a religion etc. and they do not realize that they're decisions are being manipulated. This is what happens in destructive cults.
At a large International Cultic Studies Association conference in 1985, they first had to answer the question 'what is a cult?' and they settled on the following 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.
Note the difference here. This is a definition of a destructive cult. Whether a group is destructive or not depends on whether mind control is used or not. It does not have to do with the beliefs of the group, no matter how outlandish they may be.
People should have the freedom to believe in whatever they like. So we do not examine the beliefs or ideology of a group to determine if is dangerous or not. We have to check out the behaviors and practices, i.e., are they using coercive persuasion (mind control/brainwashing) to affect members identities, their decision making etc or not?
A destructive group will also present a facade to the world, in order to attract people. But this facade is simply a trick, a lure to draw people in and it's used to hide the real agenda of the cult, which is to recruit new members and make money off them. Of course, it can be said that any business has this as an agenda, but with a business it's obvious that this is what is going on. To cult members, this idea is completely hidden.
Robert Lifton also points out that in a destructive cult, there are at three conditions present. He says that there is a totalistic or thought reform set of practices being used, there is a shift from worship of broad spiritual practices to worship of the leader, and thirdly, a genuine quest from below (the members are seeking something) is exploited from above ( i.e., by the leadership).
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