(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 cult characteristics over the next week in installments.)
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5) Ideology Over Experience, Observation, and Logic. Cults not only demonize doubt and doubters, but they are also nearly immune to experience, observation, and logic that contradict their claims. Cult leaders claim to have The Truth–and their followers believe them– so anything that contradicts that Truth must be wrong. The Catholic Church’s insistence that the Earth is the center of the universe, coupled with its persecution of Galileo and Giordano Bruno, and its attempted suppression of the Copernican view of the solar system (well supported by observational evidence, even in the early 17th century), provides but one famous example of this phenomenon. To cite another, the leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses–claiming inspiration directly from God–stated that doomsday would come in 1914, and then in 1925. Yet when the appointed days came and went, the Witnesses suffered relatively minor defections. When their claims are proven false, cult leaders normally either ignore the contradictory evidence or invoke the fathomless Will of God to explain the turn of events. Their flocks never seem to notice this.
6. Separatism. Cult members almost always view themselves as outsiders, as different from the rest of society. This sets up an “us versus them” mentality, and it’s common for cult members to believe that only they and their fellow cult members can understand each other.
One manifestation of separatism is the use of specialized terms; almost all cults develop a jargon peculiar to themselves. Another, though less common, manifestation of separatism is the abandonment of “old” personal names and the taking (usually the assigning by cult leaders) of “new” ones, as was done by The Source cult in Southern California. A third is the adoption of distinctive dress and/or other alterations in personal appearance. The practice of head-shaving among the Hare Krishnas and in Synanon, and the required wearing of read and orange hues by the Rajneeshees are examples of this.
And then there’s the matter of physical separation from the outer world. Many cults isolate their members in remote areas, making it physically difficult for members to leave. The People’s Temple Jonestown settlement is but the most lurid example of this. Other cults that have set up compounds in isolated areas include the Rajneeshees, the FLDS (and other Mormon polygamous cults), the Moonies, Synanon, and the Church Universal and Triumphant.
7) Exclusivity. Cults invariably view themselves as the only path to salvation. Normally that salvation is spiritual, though, as with the LaRouchites and other political sects, it can be secular. Again, this leads to arrogance, dehumanization of nonbelievers, and an “ends justif the means” mentality. The Moonies have even adopted a “spiritual” term (for internal use only) for lying and cheating in pursuit of Church goals: “Heavenly Deception.”