(This is a slightly revised version of material from Chapter 9 of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? We’ll post the rest of the chapter’s material on cults over the next week in installments.)
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There are almost as many definitions of the world “cult” as there are experts on the subject. One thing virtually all definitions of the word have in common is that they’re quite broad.
Two of the definitions given by the Random House Unabridged Dictionary are fairly typical: “a group of sect bound together by devotion to or veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.”; and “a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols.”
Such definitions–as opposed to lists of attributes–could well apply to a great number of groups, many of which most people would never consider cults. Thus, the crucial question becomes what are the specific characteristics that distinguish cults, especially cults that are dangerous both to their own members and to society?
The following list of 23 cult characteristics are based in part on Robert Jay Lifton’s list in Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (see Some Notes on Cults for the full list), to a much lesser extent on Margaret Singer’s list in Cults in Our Midst, and to a large extent on my own research into cults preparatory to writing this book, direct contact with several cults (Church of Scientology, Unification Church, Kerista Village, and the chameleon-like Larouche political cult), and considerable contact with ex-members cults (primarily ex-members of the Church of Scientology and Transcendental Meditations). I would note, though, that not even the most obviously dangerous cults always exhibit all of the following characteristics, though a few do. (The most dangerous cults typically exhibit roughly 80% to 95% of these characteristics.)
1. Religious Orientation. Cults are usually centered around belief in a higher power; they often have elaborate religious rituals and emphasize prayer. Current and recent religious cults include the People’s Temple, Branch Davidians, International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishnas), Church of Scientology (which is primarily a therapy cult), The Way International, Children of God, Unification Church (Moonies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, the numerous Mormon polygamist cults (Church of the Blood of the Lamb of God, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, etc.), arguably the Mormon Church itself, Islamic religious cults, such as ISIS (ISIL), Al Nusra, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al Shabab, the Moro Islamic Libertion Front, and arguably Islam itself.
While secular cults also exist, they are not as numerous as religious cults. The most obvious example of a secular cult is the Larouche organization (the group which in 2010 was responsible for the Obama/Hitler photo during the turmoil leading up to the Affordable Care Act; the oft-renamed renamed group goes back to the 1970s). Another obvious example is the puritanical, dictatorially controlled Revolutionary Communist Party. Other examples include, arguably, multi-level marketing (MLM) organizations, though some, notably Amway, are religious and have a specifically Christian-conservative orientation. (Whether Amway, Herbalife, and other similar MLM companies are commercial cults, pyramid schemes, or legitimate businesses is an open question.)
2. Irrationality. Cults discourage skepticism and rational thought. As James and Marcia Rudin note in Prison or Paradise: The New Religious Cults:
The groups are anti-intellectual, placing all emphasis on intuition or emotional experience. “Knowledge” is redefined as those ideas or experiences dispensed by the group or its leader. One can only attain knowledge by joining the group and submitting to its doctrine. One cannot question this “knowledge.” If a follower shows signs of doubting he is made to feel that the fault lies within himself, not with the ideas… (p. 20)
It’s also common for cult leaders to tell their followers that doubt is the work of the devil. The Unification Church in particular has institutionalized the practices of equating doubt with sinfulness and satanic influence, and of attempting to stamp out independent thought. Some of the Church’s most common slogans (for internal use) are “Your Mind Is Fallen,” “Stamp Out Doubt,” and “No More Concepts” (cited in Crazy for God, by Christopher Edwards).
If members of cults persist in having doubts, they’re accused of being under satanic influence and excommunicated or, in extreme instances, murdered, as in Ervil LeBaron’s Lambs of God.
3. Dogmatism. Cults invariably have The Truth and are highly antagonistic to to those who question it. The Truth is invariably revealed in a cult’s sacred texts or in the pronouncements of its leader(s). It is beyond question, and to voice doubts is seen as, at best, a sign of being under satanic influence. This is clearly the case in the Unification Church, where doubts invariably come directly from Satan, and it’s common in secular cults. In Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Robert Jay Lifton notes that the Chines Communist true believers attribute deviation from revealed Truth to “bourgeois influence.” (p. 432).
4. A Chosen-People Mentality. Given that cultists are alone in possessing a very precious commodity, The Truth, they almost always view themselves as better than other people, which means that nonbelievers and members of rival sects are frequently seen as less than human, if not outright tools of the devil. This attitude of superiority often manifests itself in an “ends justify the means” mentality and in the use of violence against outsiders or against heretic’s within the group. The most lurid examples of such violence are currently being provided by Islamic cults such as Boko Haram and ISIS, though such violence also occurs in Christian and Mormon cults, such as The Church of the Blood of the Lamb of God.