This talk explores the role of mainstream media in providing public education about the dangers and dynamics of cults. Very often we notice mainstream media focusing on exposing specific corruptions or injustices from cultic groups, or highlighting sensationalized anecdotal situations or personal stories from former cult members.
Phil Lord is an Assistant Professor at Lakehead University’s Bora Laskin Faculty of Law.
Recovery from cults is a multifaceted process; initially it is the separation from the group, group practices, and meetings that bound us to the group. Therapy helps address the emotional aspects of group involvement – feelings of betrayal, abuse and vulnerability to recruitment. It helps to develop and understanding of how the group’s doctrine was used to manipulate and encourage commitment.
Our focus in this article is the development of an intellectual understanding of the characteristics of cultic groups – how they differ from non-cultic groups – and of the tactics often used to engender a high level of commitment, a key element of recovery.
Deception lies at the core of mind-manipulating and cultic groups and programs. Many ex-members and supporters of cults are not fully aware of the extent to which they have been tricked and exploited.
The following checklist of characteristics helps to define such groups. Comparing the descriptions on this checklist to bring your attention to aspects of the group with which you were involved may help bring your attention to areas of group life that are a cause for concern.
If you check any of these items as characteristic of the group, and particularly if you check most of them, you might want to consider reexamining these areas of the group and how they affected you. Keep in mind that this checklist is meant to stimulate thought. It is not a scientific method of “diagnosing” a group.
Checklist of Cult Characteristics
We suggest that you check all characteristics that apply to you or your group. You may find that your assessment changes over time, with further reading and research.
q The group is focused on a living leader to whom members seem to display excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment.
q The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
q The group is preoccupied with making money.
q Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
q Mind-numbing techniques (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, debilitating work routines) are used to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
q The leadership dictates sometimes in great detail how members should think, act, and feel (for example: members must get permission from leaders to date, change jobs, get married; leaders may prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, how to discipline children, and so forth).
q The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and members (for example: the leader is considered the Messiah or an avatar; the group and/or the leader has a special mission to save humanity).
q The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which causes conflict with the wider society.
q The group’s leader is not accountable to any authorities (as are, for example, military commanders and ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream denominations).
q The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify means that members would have considered unethical before joining the group (for example: collecting money for bogus charities).
q The leadership induces guilt feelings in members in order to control them.
q Members’ subservience to the group causes them to cut ties with family and friends, and to give up personal goals and activities that were of interest before joining the group.
q Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
The Distinction Between Cultic Groups and Non-Cultic Groups
Making the distinction between cultic groups and non-cultic groups is significant. Group propaganda often tries to blur the distinction between cults, sects, communes and society’s organizations, (“The Catholic Church is a cult.” “The Marines are a cult.”).
“I have had to point out why the United States Marine Corps is not a cult so many times that I carry a list to lectures and court appearances. It cites 19 ways in which the practices of the Marine Corps differ from those found in most modern cults….
Cults clearly differ from such purely authoritarian groups as the military, some types of sects and communes, and centuries-old Roman Catholic and Greek and Russian Orthodox Orders. These groups, though rigid and controlling, lack a double agenda and are not manipulative or leader-centered. The differences become apparent when we examine the intensity and pervasiveness with which mind-manipulating techniques and deceptions are or are not applied.
Jesuit seminaries may isolate the seminarian from the rest of the world for periods of time, but the candidate is not deliberately deceived about the obligations and burdens of the priesthood. In fact, he is warned in advance about what is expected, and what he can and cannot do….
Mainstream religious organizations do not concentrate their search on the lonely and the vulnerable … Nor do mainstream religions focus recruitment on wealthy believers who are seen as pots of gold for the church, as is the case with those cults who target rich individuals …
Military training and legitimate executive-training programs may use the dictates of authority as well as peer pressure to encourage the adoption of new patterns of thought and behavior. They do not seek, however, to accelerate the process by prolonged or intense psychological depletion or by stirring up feelings of dread, guilt, and sinfulness …
And what is wrong with cults is not just that cults are secret societies. In our culture, there are openly recognized, social secret societies, such as the Masons, in which new members know up front that they will gradually learn the shared rituals of the group … In [cults] there is deliberate deception about what the group is and what some of the rituals might be, and primarily, there is deception about what the ultimate goal will be for a member, what will ultimately be demanded and expected, and what the damages resulting from some of the practices might be. A secret handshake is not equivalent to mind control.
How the United States Marine Corps Differs from Cults
- The Marine recruit clearly knows what the organization is that he or she is joining … There are no secret stages such as people come upon in cults. Cult recruits often attend a cult activity, are lured into ‘staying for a while,’ and soon find that they have joined the cult for life, or as one group requires, members sign up for a ‘billion year contract…’
- The Marine recruit retains freedom of religion, politics, friends, family association, selection of spouse, and information access to television, radio, reading material, telephone, and mail.
- The Marine serves a term of enlistment and departs freely. The Marine can reenlist if he or she desires but is not forced to remain.
- Medical and dental care are available, encouraged, and permitted in the Marines. This is not true in the many cults that discourage and sometimes forbid medical care.
- Training and education received in the Marines are usable later in life. Cults do not necessarily train a person in anything that has any value in the greater society.
- In the USMC, public records are kept and are available. Cult records, if they exist, are confidential, hidden from members, and not shared.
- USMC Inspector General procedures protect each Marine. Nothing protects cult members.
- A military legal system is provided within the USMC; a Marine can also utilize off-base legal and law enforcement agencies and other representatives if needed. In cults, there is only the closed, internal system of justice, and no appeal, no recourse to outside support.
- Families of military personnel talk and deal directly with schools. Children may attend public or private schools. In cults, children, child rearing, and education are often controlled by the whims and idiosyncrasies of the cult leader.
- The USMC is not a sovereign entity above the laws of the land. Cults consider themselves above the law, with their own brand of morality and justice, accountable to no one, not even their members.
- A Marine gets to keep her or his pay, property owned and acquired, presents from relatives, inheritances, and so on. In many cults, members are expected to turn over to the cult all monies and worldly possessions.
- Rational behavior is valued in the USMC. Cults stultify members’ critical thinking abilities and capacity for rational, independent thinking; normal thought processes are stifled and broken.
- In the USMC, suggestions and criticism can be made to leadership and upper echelons through advocated, proper channels. There are no suggestion boxes in cults. The cult is always right, and the members (and outsides) are always wrong.
- Marines cannot be used for medical and psychological experiments without their informed consent. Cults essentially perform psychological experiments on their members through implementing thought-reform processes without members’ knowledge or consent.
- Reading, education, and knowledge are encouraged and provided through such agencies as Armed Services Radio and Stars and Stripes, and through books, post libraries, and so on. If cult do any education, it is only in their own teachings. Members come to know less and less about the outside world; contact with or information about life outside the cult is sometimes openly frowned upon, if not forbidden.
- In the USMC, physical fitness is encouraged for all. Cults rarely encourage fitness or good health, except perhaps for members who serve as security guards or thugs.
- Adequate and properly balanced nourishment is provided and advocated in the USMC. Many cults encourage or require unhealthy and bizarre diets. Typically, because of intense work schedules, lack of funds, and other cult demands, members are not able to maintain healthy eating habits.
- Authorized review by outsiders, such as the U.S. Congress, is made of the practices of the USMC. Cults are accountable to no one and are rarely investigated, unless some gross criminal activity arouses the attention of the authorities or the public.
- In the USMC, the methods of instruction are military training and education, even indoctrination into the traditions of the USMC, but brainwashing, or thought reform, is not used. Cults influence members by means of a coordinated program of psychological and social influence techniques, or brainwashing.”
Adapted from Cults In Our Midst: The Hidden Menace to Our Everyday Lives, Margaret Singer with Janja Lalich, Jossey-Bass, 1995. Reprinted with authors’ permission.
AFF News, Vol. 2, No. 4, 1996
Revised from a presentation at the International Symposium on Cultic Studies (Bangkok, Thailand), organized by Graduate School of Philosophy and Religion, Assumption University, Thailand and the Institute of Religious Studies, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, China, December 15–16, 2011.
In my presentation today, I will give an overview of definitions for cult. Then I will briefly discuss harm and intervention.
Definitions for Cult
A couple of months ago, a media storm occurred after an American evangelical pastor referred to Mitt Romney, a front-running candidate for the leadership of the United States Republican Party, as a member of a cult because of his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly referred to as Mormons). The pastor later qualified his statement by saying that he viewed the Mormons as a theological cult.
I have often heard the statement, “We all know what a cult is.” In my opinion, however, the belief that we all know what a cult is, is both a presumption and a generalization.
In fact, no one agrees on how to define a cult. For example, in France, a country that has taken an active approach to dealing with cults, the president of MIVILDUES, the French government agency that deals with this issue, recently stated, “There is no legal definition of a cult in France, not more than elsewhere in the world. I don’t know any country in the world with a definition for it.” The many government reports that have focused on cults over more than twenty years confirm this statement.
The word cult may be one of the most confusing terms to use. The word is derived from the French word culte, which comes from the Latin noun cultus, meaning care, labor; cultivation, culture; worship, reverence… And so by this definition we can apply the term cult to any group of religious believers: Southern Baptists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholics, Hindus, or Muslims. However, the term has since been assigned very different meanings. Whereas the original meaning of cult is positive, more recent definitions vary from neutral to extremely negative.
In the past two decades, pejorative connotations to the word cult have become more common. For many, the term raises images of people lining up for their fatal drink of Kool-Aid or carrying out brutal acts at the behest of an omnipotent leader.
Lists of so-called cults have been created, leading to the assumption that all such groups are similar and dangerous. By extension, because a group has not made it to a list does not necessarily imply it does not pose a problem.
At times, I have been criticized for “muddying the waters” with regard to the term cult. Some people have expressed frustration when I do not respond with a “yes” or “no” when asked whether or not a certain group is a cult, or whether it is a cult or a religion, or whether or not the group in question is dangerous. After all, they are directing their questions to theexecutive director of Info-Cult!
Info-Cult’s view is that individuals can have a positive experience in a so-called “bad” group or a bad experience in a so-called “good” group. The reality is that groups in our society exist on a continuum, from groups that value the integrity and opinions of each of its members, to high-demand groups that function according to the leader’s wishes and demands. And a variety of factors may influence the experience someone might have in a group, or the impact a group may have on society. Some such factors to consider include
? the general functioning and evolution of a group;
? the relationships among its members;
? the psychological needs and personalities of the members; and
? the leader’s influence on the members.
In 2006, I co-authored a book entitled The Cult Phenomenon: How Groups Function.This book examines how Info-Cult has evolved over the years with regard to its view on how groups function, the reasons individuals join such groups, and the nature of the relationship between groups’ leaders and their members and society.
I was motivated to write this book, in part, by the thousands of calls Info-Cult had received since its inception in 1980. The callers usually were looking for information and used the termcult to refer to a wide variety of groups, including the following:
? Religious, political, psychological, and commercial groups in which the leader(s) appear(s) to exert undue influence over followers, usually to the leader’s(s’) benefit
? Fanatical groups, regardless of whether or not leaders exert a high level of psychological control
? Terrorist organizations, such as Bin Laden’s group, which induce some members to commit horrific acts of violence
? Religious groups deemed heretical or socially deviant by the person attaching thecult label
? Any unorthodox religious group—benign or destructive
? Communes that may be physically isolated and socially unorthodox
? New Age, psychotherapeutic, “healing” groups that advocate beliefs in a transcendent order, or actions that may occur through mechanisms inconsistent with the laws of physics
? Any group embraced by a family member whose parents, spouses, or other relatives conclude—correctly or incorrectly—that the group is destructive to the involved family member
? Organizations that employ high-pressure sales or recruitment tactics, or both
? Authoritarian social groups in which members exhibit a high level of conformity and compliance to the expectations and demands of leaders
? Extremist organizations that advocate violence, racial separation, bigotry, or overthrow of the government
? Familial relationships in which one member exerts an unusually high and apparently harmful influence over the other member(s)—e.g., certain forms of dysfunctional families or battered women’s syndrome
If a group is labeled as a cult, we should be asking the following questions: Who labeled the group, and how has that label been designated? What criteria have been used and what research has been undertaken to evaluate the group? And, equally significant, what information does the label provide, for example, about the group’s
? rules and norms;
? history and evolution;
? role of leadership and members;
? views on children, women, and the elderly; and
? interactions with the community at large.
Regardless of the label that we use to describe a group, the fact remains that social dynamics of groups, of any kind, are complex; and we should observe and understand each group individually. At all costs, we should avoid the temptation to lump groups together.
At the same time, it is wise to keep in mind how we use terminology related to the issue of cults and new religious movements—in particular, those terms that promote a dichotomy of good versus evil and do little to contribute to a better understanding of this issue, and to support dialogue among those with differing views. Examples of these terms are anti-cult movement, pro-cult movement, and cult apologist. these divisive labels function as “thought-terminating clichés,” to use an expression from Robert Lifton’s seminal book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.
As much as I encourage a nuanced approach to defining the term cult and understanding the cult phenomenon in general, I think we would all agree that there are groups that do harm. To quote Michael Langone of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA): “Some groups may harm some people sometimes, and some groups may be more likely to harm people than other groups.” I would add that contributing factors include a group’s location, the nature of its leadership, and at what period in its history we are looking at it.
In fact, it has been observed that members of groups can be harmed in different ways, including psychologically, physically, and financially. Following are examples of each:
? Denial of affection
? Attacks on self-esteem
? Limited or restricted access to information
? Limited or restricted access to education
? Child neglect
? Dependant-adult neglect
? Physical abuse
? Food and sleep deprivation
? Refusal to provide access to adequate medical treatment
? Financial demands by the group that threaten the individual’s financial well-being
? Nonremunerated work
Whenever there is an imbalance of power, the potential for abuse in many different relationships, such as the following, exists:
? Parent–child: child abuse
? Husband–wife: spousal abuse
? Professor–student: psychological abuse, sexual abuse
? Therapist–client: psychological abuse, sexual abuse
? Boss–employee: workplace abuse
? Pastor–parishioner: sexual abuse, financial abuse
? Government–citizens: human-rights abuse
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that people in religious, therapeutic, New Age, occult, or other types of groups can be at risk of being harmed.
We need to be prudent, however, because in some cases we can view harm subjectively and assign a meaning that is culture-bound. For example, in Russia some groups are seen as harmful and often described as cults because they are perceived as a threat to the traditional culture and religion; they view certain groups as a form of Western imperialism. Recently, a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose publications are considered to be “extremist literature,” was arrested for possession of the group’s writings. In contrast, in North America, Jehovah’s Witnesses not only are free to possess their literature, but also are permitted to hand it out on city sidewalks or by going door-to-door.
At the outset of my presentation, I noted what an American evangelical pastor had to say about Mitt Romney. That example illustrates that some groups are labeled cults because they deviate theologically from some other group’s(s’) beliefs.
In determining whether or not a group poses a risk and the nature of the risk, and in making a fair and informed assessment about an individual or a group, it is important to ask the following questions:
1. To what extent have we accepted the accusatory assessments made by certain individuals or groups, without checking the accuracy of the allegations made?
2. Do we ask for documents or other empirical facts in order to make an informed and critical evaluation?
3. Do we readily accept allegations against controversial groups because we believe they are capable of doing what they are accused of?
4. If there are reports about problems associated with a group, how prevalent are the problems?
5. Do we assume that those involved in a controversial group or the group under consideration have not changed over time?
6. Where and how was the information about the group obtained? How representative is the information, and, depending on the source, what other factors should we be considering?
7. What evidence is there for determining whether the information is accurate?
8. Did the information come from current members, former members, families with a loved one involved, or from professionals/other experts?
9. Has anyone attempted to establish a contact with the individual or group?
10. Have we informed ourselves about what is happening in the group: its origins, its doctrine, its leader(s), the leader’s(s’) role, and the motivations and experiences of the members?
After we have evaluated a particular group, we must be open to the possibility that there may be insufficient facts to support any intervention. This conclusion may lead to a decision either to monitor the situation or to take a wait-and-see approach. We also should consider the simple fact that it may be a case of smoke and no fire.
If an intervention by agencies of the state is warranted, the following questions can help us in coming to a decision about a suitable course of action. These questions can also be helpful for families who are dealing with a loved one involved in a group.
1. What do we hope to achieve in intervening? Have the motives and objectives been clearly and precisely established?
2. What strategies can we take to reach our goal?
3. What are the pros and cons of adopting a particular approach (with a focus on the cons)?
4. What are the criteria for evaluating whether or not an intervention is successful? For example, is the approach making things worse? And if so, how could it be modified?
There are other considerations to keep in mind:
? Laws in different countries require that certain professionals are legally and ethically bound to report to protective services when there is even a suspicion of harm to a child, a senior, or to a dependent adult.
? What appears to function in one country may not be applicable in other countries because of factors such as each country’s history, culture, laws, relationship with religion, and past experience with cultic or totalistic movements.
? Governments have at their disposition an enormous amount of power and, in dealing with any group, should be extremely cautious in wielding that power. Unless there is a serious and legal reason, the state should show restraint.
? Different situations may call for different criteria to determine whether or not an intervention is appropriate and feasible. For example, should a family intervene when they have a loved one in a group they perceive to be harmful? Should state authorities intervene to control certain cultic groups?
In closing, I have raised a number of questions in this presentation that I and others have asked over the years, and I would be very interested in what you have to say. Thank you.
 Anderson Cooper 360°, CNN, October 8, 2011 (http://www.mediaite.com/tv/anti-mormon-pastor-to-anderson-cooper-romney-may-belong-to-a-cult-but-he-is-better-than-obama/).
2 France 3, Sun, July 3, 2011, with guest George Fenech, English translation (http://www.sott.net/articles/show/235545-Georges-Fenech-of-MIVILUDES-Nemesis-of-the-Scientific-Method).
3 Mike Kropveld and Marie-Andrée Pelland, The Cult Phenomenon: How Groups Function,Info-Cult (2006). See Appendix 6: Governments and the Cult Phenomenon, p. 165–168 (http://infosect.freeshell.org/infocult/phenomene/English/HTML/doc0018.htm#R248).
4 Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (http://www.religioustolerance.org/cults.htm).
5 Refers to the manner in which the members of Peoples Temple died in a mass murder/suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, November 18, 1978. Marshall Kilduff and Ron Javers,The Suicide Cult: The Inside Story of the Peoples Temple Sect and the Massacre in Guyana,Bantam Books (1978). Mary McCormick Maaga, Hearing The Voices of Jonestown, Syracuse University Press (1998).
6 Two examples that are especially significant in the province of Quebec where I reside are 1) The Order of the Solar Temple, in which more than seventy people died in three countries, in murder and ritual collective suicides operated in the province of Quebec. The murder/suicides were precipitated by the murder in September 1994 in Morin Heights, a village outside of Montreal, of a husband and wife and their three-month-old baby, who had tried to escape from the group. 2) The group led by Roch “Moses” Theriault had a history of physical and sexual abuse of its members, including the murder by Roch Theriault of one of its members.
7 For example, see the following: 1) France—“Les Sectes en France” Rapport Fait au Nom de la Commission D’Enquête sur les Sectes (le 22 décembre 1995) (http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/rap-enq/r2468.asp). 2) Belgium—Chambre des Représentants de Belgique:ENQUETE PARLEMENTAIRE visant à élaborer une politique en vue de lutter contre les pratiques illégales des sectes et le danger qu’elles représentent pour la société et pour les personnes, particulièrement les mineurs d’âge. (28 avril 1997); Partie I (http://www.lachambre.be/FLWB/pdf/49/0313/49K0313007.pdf); Partie II (http://www.lachambre.be/FLWB/pdf/49/0313/49K0313008.pdf).
8 Mike Kropveld and Marie-Andrée Pelland (see Note 3).
9 See Note 3. See also Mike Kropveld, “Governments and Cults.” Presentation given at the INFORM/CESNUR conference, Twenty Years and More: Research into Minority Religions, New Religious Movements and ‘the New Spirituality.’ London, England (2008) (http://infosect.freeshell.org/infocult/kropveld_inform2008.pdf).
10 Adapted from “The Definitional Ambiguity of ‘Cult’ and ICSA’s Mission,” Michael D. Langone, PhD (http://cultmediation.com/infoserv_articles/langone_michael_definitional_ambiguityofcult.asp).
11 Michael Kropveld, “An Example for Controversy: Creating a Model for Reconciliation,”Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2003, p. 130–150. Accessible athttp://infosect.freeshell.org/infocult/ControversyCSR.doc
12 Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China, W. W. Norton and Company (1961).
13 Michael Langone, Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 18, 2001, p. 1.
14 A previous version of this paper, presented in Bangkok, indicated that the arrested member was sentenced to 2 years in prison. This information came from the article in Asia News, “Jehovah’s Witness gets two years in prison for possession of ‘extremist literature’”(http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Jehovah%E2%80%99s-Witness-gets-two-years-in-prison-for-possession-of-%E2%80%9Cextremist-literature%E2%80%9D-19529.html). I could find no other reference to that information, and other reports indicate that the arrested member was sentenced to 100 hours of community service. Sophia Kishkovsky, “Russian Terror Law Has Unlikely Targets,” The New York Times, November 3, 2011(http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/04/world/europe/russian-terror-law-has-unlikely-targets.html). “Russian court finds Jehovah’s Witness guilty of inciting hatred,” Amnesty International, 3 November 2011 (http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/russian-court-finds-jehovahs-witness-guilty-inciting-hatred-2011-11-03).
15 “Counter-cult” groups are composed primarily of conservative Protestant Christians who label groups as cults for having unorthodox or heretical beliefs according to their interpretation of the Bible. Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (http://www.religioustolerance.org/ccm.htm).
16 For more details, see the following: 1) Mike Kropveld and Marie-Andrée Pelland (see Note 3), and 2) Mike Kropveld, “A Comparison of Different Countries’ Approaches to Cult-Related Issues.” Paper presented at the European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Sectarianism (FECRIS) Conference, Cults and Esotericism: New Challenges for Civil Societies in Europe (Hamburg, April 28, 2007) (http://infosect.freeshell.org/infocult/HamburgpresentationFECRISFinal-web.pdf).
About the Author
Mike Kropveld is founder and executive director of Info-Cult/Info-Secte (1980) based in Montreal, Canada (www.infocult.org). He is on the Board of Directors of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) and of the International Society for the Study of New Religions (ISSNR). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
 Anderson Cooper 360°, CNN, October 8, 2011 (http://www.mediaite.com/tv/anti-mormon-pastor-to-anderson-cooper-romney-may-belong-to-a-cult-but-he-is-better-than-obama/).
 France 3, Sun, July 3, 2011, with guest George Fenech, English translation (http://www.sott.net/articles/show/235545-Georges-Fenech-of-MIVILUDES-Nemesis-of-the-Scientific-Method).
 Mike Kropveld and Marie-Andrée Pelland, The Cult Phenomenon: How Groups Function,Info-Cult (2006). See Appendix 6: Governments and the Cult Phenomenon, p. 165–168 (http://infosect.freeshell.org/infocult/phenomene/English/HTML/doc0018.htm#R248).
 Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance(http://www.religioustolerance.org/cults.htm).
 Refers to the manner in which the members of Peoples Temple died in a mass murder/suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, November 18, 1978. Marshall Kilduff and Ron Javers, The Suicide Cult: The Inside Story of the Peoples Temple Sect and the Massacre in Guyana,Bantam Books (1978). Mary McCormick Maaga, Hearing The Voices of Jonestown, Syracuse University Press (1998).
 Two examples that are especially significant in the province of Quebec where I reside are 1) The Order of the Solar Temple, in which more than seventy people died in three countries, in murder and ritual collective suicides operated in the province of Quebec. The murder/suicides were precipitated by the murder in September 1994 in Morin Heights, a village outside of Montreal, of a husband and wife and their three-month-old baby, who had tried to escape from the group. 2) The group led by Roch “Moses” Theriault had a history of physical and sexual abuse of its members, including the murder by Roch Theriault of one of its members.
 For example, see the following: 1) France—“Les Sectes en France” Rapport Fait au Nom de la Commission D’Enquête sur les Sectes (le 22 décembre 1995) (http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/rap-enq/r2468.asp). 2) Belgium—Chambre des Représentants de Belgique:ENQUETE PARLEMENTAIRE visant à élaborer une politique en vue de lutter contre les pratiques illégales des sectes et le danger qu’elles représentent pour la société et pour les personnes, particulièrement les mineurs d’âge. (28 avril 1997); Partie I (http://www.lachambre.be/FLWB/pdf/49/0313/49K0313007.pdf); Partie II (http://www.lachambre.be/FLWB/pdf/49/0313/49K0313008.pdf).
 Mike Kropveld and Marie-Andrée Pelland (see Note 3).
 See Note 3. See also Mike Kropveld, “Governments and Cults.” Presentation given at the INFORM/CESNUR conference, Twenty Years and More: Research into Minority Religions, New Religious Movements and ‘the New Spirituality.’ London, England (2008) (http://infosect.freeshell.org/infocult/kropveld_inform2008.pdf).
 Adapted from “The Definitional Ambiguity of ‘Cult’ and ICSA’s Mission,” Michael D. Langone, PhD (http://cultmediation.com/infoserv_articles/langone_michael_definitional_ambiguityofcult.asp).
 Michael Kropveld, “An Example for Controversy: Creating a Model for Reconciliation,”Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2003, p. 130–150. Accessible at http://infosect.freeshell.org/infocult/ControversyCSR.doc
 Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China, W. W. Norton and Company (1961).
 Michael Langone, Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 18, 2001, p. 1.
 A previous version of this paper, presented in Bangkok, indicated that the arrested member was sentenced to 2 years in prison. This information came from the article in Asia News, “Jehovah’s Witness gets two years in prison for possession of ‘extremist literature’”(http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Jehovah%E2%80%99s-Witness-gets-two-years-in-prison-for-possession-of-%E2%80%9Cextremist-literature%E2%80%9D-19529.html). I could find no other reference to that information, and other reports indicate that the arrested member was sentenced to 100 hours of community service. Sophia Kishkovsky, “Russian Terror Law Has Unlikely Targets,” The New York Times, November 3, 2011(http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/04/world/europe/russian-terror-law-has-unlikely-targets.html). “Russian court finds Jehovah’s Witness guilty of inciting hatred,” Amnesty International, 3 November 2011 (http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/russian-court-finds-jehovahs-witness-guilty-inciting-hatred-2011-11-03).
 “Counter-cult” groups are composed primarily of conservative Protestant Christians who label groups as cults for having unorthodox or heretical beliefs according to their interpretation of the Bible. Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (http://www.religioustolerance.org/ccm.htm).
 For more details, see the following: 1) Mike Kropveld and Marie-Andrée Pelland (see Note 3), and 2) Mike Kropveld, “A Comparison of Different Countries’ Approaches to Cult-Related Issues.” Paper presented at the European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Sectarianism (FECRIS) Conference, Cults and Esotericism: New Challenges for Civil Societies in Europe (Hamburg, April 28, 2007) (http://infosect.freeshell.org/infocult/HamburgpresentationFECRISFinal-web.pdf).
About the Author
Mike Kropveld is founder and executive director of Info-Cult/Info-Secte (1980) based in Montreal, Canada (www.infocult.org). He is on the Board of Directors of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) and of the International Society for the Study of New Religions (ISSNR). Email: email@example.com
Even though we have each studied cults and educated people about this subject for more than 20 years, neither of us has ever felt completely comfortable with the term “cult.” No other term, however, serves more effectively the linked educational and research aims of ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association, founded as American Family Foundation in 1979), the organization that we serve as president (Rosedale) and executive director (Langone). In order to help others who have asked questions about the term “cult,” we here offer some thoughts on the definition and use of this term.
Review of Definitions
According to the “Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary“(1971) the term, “cult,” originally referred to “worship; reverential homage rendered to a divine being or beings…a particular form or system of religious worship; especially in reference to its external rites and ceremonies…devotion or homage to a particular person or thing.” More recently, the term has taken on additional connotations:
3 : A religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious…
4 : A system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator…
5 a. great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work…b. a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion.” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, 1994)
Robbins’s (1988) review of recent sociological contributions to the study of cults identifies four definitional perspectives:
(1) cults as dangerous, authoritarian groups;
(2) cults as culturally innovative or transcultural groups;
(3) cults as loosely structured protoreligions;
(4) Stark and Bainbridge’s (1985) subtypology that distinguishes among “audience cults” (members seek to receive information, e.g., through a lecture or tape series) “client cults” (members seek some specific benefit, e.g., psychotherapy, spiritual guidance), and “cult movements” (organizations that demand a high level of commitment from members). The Stark and Bainbridge typology relates to their finding that cult membership increases as church membership decreases.
Rutgers University professor Benjamin Zablocki (1997) says that sociologists often distinguish “cult” from “church,” “sect,” and “denomination.” Cults are innovative, fervent groups. If they become accepted into the mainstream, cults, in his view, lose their fervor and become more organized and integrated into the community; they become churches. When people within churches become dissatisfied and break off into fervent splinter groups, the new groups are called sects. As sects become more stolid and integrated into the community, they become denominations. Zablocki defines a cult as “an ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and demanding total commitment.” According to Zablocki, cults are at high risk of becoming abusive to members, in part because members’ adulation of charismatic leaders contributes to their becoming corrupted by the power they seek and are accorded.
Definitions proposed at various times by associates of ICSA tend to presume the manifestation of what is potential in Zablocki’s definition. These definitions tend to emphasize elements of authoritarian structure, deception, and manipulation and the fact that groups may be psychotherapeutic, political, or commercial, as well as religious. One of the more commonly quoted definitions of “cult” was articulated at an ICSA/UCLA Wingspread Conference on Cultism in 1985:
Cult (totalist type): A group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (e.g. 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, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc.), designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community. (West & Langone, 1986, pp. 119-120)
Because this and related definitions imply high levels of psychological manipulation, many students of the field have associated cults with the concept of thought reform (Lifton, 1961; Ofshe & Singer, 1986; Singer & Ofshe, 1990). Although there are many similarities between these concepts, a cult does not necessarily have to be characterized by thought reform, nor does a thought reform program necessarily have to be a cult. Nevertheless, the two seem to go together often enough that many people mistakenly see them as necessarily linked.
Definitions advanced by ICSA associates imply that the term “cult” refers to a continuum, in which a large gray area separates “cult” from “noncult,” or add qualifiers to the term “cult,” such as “destructive.” These definitions suggest that there may be some debate about the appropriateness of the term as applied to a specific group, especially when available evidence indicates that the group is in or near the gray area of the continuum. This debate can become more acute when the group in question is one that varies among its geographic locations, has different levels of membership with correspondingly different levels of commitment, has changed over time in the direction of greater or less “cultishness,” or is skilled at public relations.
Because they tend to focus on certain practices and behaviors, the definitions advanced by ICSA associates are implicitly interactionist. Like all psychologically based models, they presume that different people will respond differently to the same group environment, much as twins can respond differently to the same family environment. Cults are not all alike. Nor are all cult members affected in the same way, even within the same group. Nevertheless, a huge body of clinical evidence leads ICSA associates to contend that some groups harm some members sometimes, and that some groups may be more likely to harm members than other groups.
Using the Term: Considerations
The concept “cult,” as with other concepts (e.g., “right wing,” “left wing”), is a theoretical type against which actual groups are compared as best as one can with the information at one’s disposal. The theoretical type should serve as a benchmark, not as an organizing structure that selects only those observations that confirm a stereotype. It is vital that each case be evaluated individually with regard to the group environment and the person(s) interacting within and with that environment.
Much as people may wish that it were so, the fact is that, at least at present, no scientific “test” incontrovertibly establishes whether or not a group is indeed a “cult.” Although ICSA’s Group Psychological Abuse Scale (Chambers, Langone, Dole, & Grice, 1994) is a useful and promising tool for assessing groups scientifically, this self-report measure needs further psychometric development and should be supplemented by observational measures yet to be devised. Cult research is in a stage similar to that of depression research when the first objective measures of depression as a mental and emotional state were being developed. The lack of objective measures didn’t nullify the utility of definitions of depression then in use, but the development of such measures enhanced definitional understanding and classification reliability. In the years ahead, we hope to see similar progress in cultic studies.
Because of the current ambiguity surrounding the term “cult,” ICSA does not produce an official list of “cults,” even though some people mistakenly interpret any list (e.g., a list of groups on which we have information) as a list of “cults.” Such a list would have little utility because there are thousands of groups about which people have expressed concern, yet scientific research has been conducted on few groups. A list could even be misleading because some people might mistakenly think that the label “cult” implies that the group in question has all the significant attributes of the hypothetical type “cult,” when in fact it has only some of those attributes. Conversely, some people may mistakenly assume that because a group is not on the list, they need not be concerned. Thus, when inquirers ask us, “Is such and such a cult?” we tend to say, “Study our information on psychological manipulation and cultic groups, then apply this information to what you know and can find out about the group that concerns you.” Our goal is to help inquirers make more informed judgments and decisions, not to dictate those judgments and decisions.
We try to direct inquirers’ attention to potentially harmful practices, rather than to a label. In essence, we say: “These are practices that have been associated with harmful effects in some people. To what, if any extent, are these practices found in the group in question? And how might you or your loved one be affected by these practices?” One of us (Langone) tries to focus a family’s concerns by saying: “Assume, even if only for the sake of argument, that your loved one were not in a `cult.’ What if anything about his or her behavior would trouble you?” After the troubling behaviors are identified, then the family can try to determine how, if at all, these behaviors are related to the group environment. A label tends to be superfluous at this point in the analysis.
Thus, we advocate a nuanced, evidence-based approach to definition and classification. We do not ignore or disparage evidence indicating that some groups may closely approach the theoretical type, “cult.” Nor do we deny the necessity to make expert judgments about whether or not a particular set of group processes harmed a specific person or persons, a judgment that mental health clinicians and other professionals sometimes have to make in therapeutic or forensic contexts. We do, however, advocate that these kinds of judgments should rest on careful analyses of structure and behavior within a specific context, rather than a superficial classification decision.
Such analyses sometimes result in the conclusion that some groups that harm some people are not necessarily cults. A new age group that is neither manipulative nor authoritarian might harm some people because it advocates a medically dangerous diet or psychologically harmful practices. A church may harm some believers because its pastor is domineering and abusive. A psychotherapist may harm some patients because she or he doesn’t adequately understand how memory works and may, with the best of intentions, induce false memories in clients. These are all examples of individual harm related to interpersonal influence. They are all examples of situations that might understandably arouse the concern of the harmed person’s family and of ICSA. But these situations are not necessarily “cult” situations, even though they may have a family resemblance to the concept “cult.” On the other hand, because appearances can deceive, especially in cults, further investigation of such cases may reveal the presence of cultic dynamics. The important point to keep in mind is that classification decisions should be based on the best available evidence and should always be subject to reevaluation.
Even though the term “cult” has limited utility, it is so embedded in popular culture that those of us concerned about helping people harmed by group involvements or preventing people from being so harmed cannot avoid using it. Whatever the term’s limitations, it points us in a meaningful direction. And no other term relevant to group psychological manipulation (e.g., sociopsychological influence, coercive persuasion, undue influence, exploitative manipulation) has ever been able to capture and sustain public interest, which is the sine qua non of public education. If, however, we cannot realistically avoid the term, let us at least strive to use it judiciously.
Chambers, W., Langone, M., Dole, A., & Grice, J. (1994). The Group Psychological Abuse Scale: A measure of the varieties of cultic abuse. Cultic Studies Journal, 11(1), 88-117.
Lifton, R. J. (1961). Thought reform and the psychology of totalism. New York: Norton.
Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary, tenth edition. (1994). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated.
Ofshe, R., & Singer, M. T. (1986). Attacks on peripheral versus central elements of self and the impact of thought reforming techniques. Cultic Studies Journal, 3(1), 3-24.
Robbins, T. (1988). Cults, converts, and charisma. London: Sage.
Singer, M. T., & Ofshe, R. (1990). Thought reform programs and the production of psychiatric casualties. Psychiatric Annals, 20, 188-193.
Stark, R., & Bainbridge, W. (1985). The future of religion: Secularization, revival and cult formation. Berkeley: University of California (cited in Robbins, 1988).
The compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. (1980). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
West, L. J., & Langone, M. D. (1986). Cultism: A conference for scholars and policy makers. Cultic Studies Journal, 3, 117-134.
Zablocki, B. (1997). Paper presented to a conference, “Cults: Theory and Treatment Issues,” May 31, 1997 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
(This essay is a follow-up to “On Using the Term Cult.”)
A central component of ICSA’s mission is to study psychological manipulation and abuse, especially as it manifests in cultic and other groups. Different people, however, attach different and usually imprecise meanings to the term “cult” (On Using the Term Cult). Those who have sought information from ICSA have – properly or improperly –used “cult” to refer to a wide variety of phenomena, including, but not limited to:
- Groups – religious, political, psychological, commercial – in which the leader(s) appear(s) to exert undue influence over followers, usually to the leader’s(s’) benefit.
- Fanatical religious and political groups, regardless of whether or not leaders exert a high level of psychological control.
- Terrorist organizations, such as Bin Laden’s group, which induce some members to commit horrific acts of violence.
- Religious groups deemed heretical or socially deviant by the person attaching the “cult” label.
- Any unorthodox religious group – benign or destructive.
- Covert hypnotic inductions.
- Communes that may be physically isolated and socially unorthodox.
- Groups (religious, New Age, psychotherapeutic, “healing,”) that advocate beliefs in a transcendent order or actions that may occur through mechanisms inconsistent with the laws of physics.
- Any group embraced by a family member whose parents, spouses, or other relatives conclude – correctly or incorrectly – that the group is destructive to the involved family member.
- Organizations that employ high-pressure sales and/or recruitment tactics.
- Authoritarian social groups in which members exhibit a high level of conformity and compliance to the expectations and demands of leaders.
- Extremist organizations that advocate violence, racial separation, bigotry, or overthrow of the government.
- Familial or dyadic relationships in which one member exerts an unusually high and apparently harmful influence over the other member(s), e.g., certain forms of dysfunctional families or battered women’s syndrome.
The majority of those persons who attach the “cult” label to these phenomena share a disapproval of the group or organization they label. That is why some people have dismissed the term “cult” as a meaningless epithet hurled at a group one doesn’t like. Although this position may appeal to one’s cynical side, it ignores the reality that many common concepts are fuzzy. Lists of diverse phenomena could also be drawn up for terms such as “child abuse,” “neurotic,” “right wing,” “left wing,” “learning disabled,” “sexy,” “ugly,” “beautiful,” etc. We don’t banish these fuzzy terms from our vocabularies because, contrary to the cynic’s claim, most people most of the time use these fuzzy terms with enough precision to be meaningful and understood by others.
Nevertheless, fuzzy terms leave much to be desired. Hence, scientists often make up new terms, i.e., jargon, to avoid the imprecision of “natural” language. Even within the scientific disciplines that propagate jargon, however, disputes may simmer for years about how to define properly a term in common use. About twenty years ago, for example, sociologists of religion abandoned the term “cult” in favor of “new religious movement”; yet they still debate the meaning and merits of “new religious movement.” Thus, even within scientific disciplines terminology is rarely as precise as scientists wish.
We have, then, three choices with regards to fuzzy terms:
- We can pretend that a particular term, e.g., “cult,” is more precise than it actually is, thereby inviting misapplication of the concept to which the term refers.
- We can so narrowly define the term that it becomes useless in a practical sense.
- We can strive for a practical level of precision while acknowledging the unavoidable ambiguity in our terminology.
ICSA has chosen the latter course (On Using the Term Cult). We acknowledge the term’s ambiguity, but we also recognize that, for better or for worse, “cult” is the term that our inquirers, particularly on Internet searches, are most predisposed to use. Although we try to focus the meaning of the term, we must, nonetheless, also try to respond constructively to the wide spectrum of phenomena that our inquirers collectively associate with “cult,” however misguided their linguistic usage may sometimes be.
Generally speaking (though certainly not always), the phenomena to which they attach the term “cult” constitute a “conceptual family.” The members of this family are distinct, and it is inappropriate to give all of them the same “name,” e.g., “cult.” Yet they do have a family resemblance resting on the inquirer’s perception that the group exhibits one or more of these characteristics:
It treats people as objects to be manipulated for the benefit of the leader(s).
It believes that and behaves as though the group’s supposedly noble ends justify means that most people deem unethical.
It harms some persons involved with or affected by the group.
Although some individuals may associate any one of these characteristics with the concept “cult,” frequently other terms may be more appropriate descriptors. That is why our mission sidebar lists “psychological manipulation, psychological abuse, spiritual abuse, brainwashing, mind control, thought reform, abusive churches, extremism, totalistic groups, authoritarian groups…exit counseling, recovery, and practical suggestions for families, individuals” as areas for which we provide information. And that is why central components of our mission (see About ICSA) are “to study psychological manipulation and abuse, especially as it manifests in cultic and other groups…to help individuals and families adversely affected by psychologically manipulative groups and to protect society against the harmful implications of group-related manipulation and abuse.”
On the other hand, not everybody who contacts us is troubled. Some are merely curious. Others are looking for information on a group that is not harmful. Others seek information on helping techniques. And still others want to teach young people how to recognize and resist the lure of spurious philosophies and manipulative groups. That is why our mission sidebar also says that we provide information on “new religious movements, alternative and mainstream religions, group dynamics…and practical suggestions for…helping professionals, clergy, journalists, researchers, students, educators, and others interested in these topics.”
Given the wide range of phenomena that we study and the wide range of individuals and organizations we try to assist, we emphasize that our having information on or researching a particular group does NOT imply that it is a “cult” or even that it is harmful. We do NOT maintain a list of “cults” or “bad groups,” and we have no intention of compiling such a list. We do, however, provide information on and conceptual tools for analyzing diverse groups that inquirers may – correctly or incorrectly – associate with cults and other groups within its conceptual family.
As you explore this Web site, we hope that you will keep in mind the issues discussed in this essay. We also hope that in your own endeavors you apply the term “cult” judiciously and with an acute awareness of its ambiguity and limitations.