cult recovery 101


On Using the Term "Cult"

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

The Definitional Ambiguity of “Cult” and ICSA’s Mission

(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:
  1. 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.
  2. We can so narrowly define the term that it becomes useless in a practical sense.
  3. 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:
  1. It treats people as objects to be manipulated for the benefit of the leader(s).
  2. It believes that and behaves as though the group’s supposedly noble ends justify means that most people deem unethical.
  3. 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.

Starting Out in Mainstream America

Starting Out in Mainstream America offers information about life in the USA today. 

Adjusting to any new culture can be slow, difficult, and painful. If you are entering or preparing for re-entry into mainstream American life after a long absence, or perhaps for the first time, you may have many questions about where to find and how to do things.

This book provides practical solutions for people with needs like:
  • getting a driver’s license
  • finding a place to live
  • finding a job or job training
  • getting health care
  • finding your way around the legal system

and information about broader concepts like

  • Abuse and neglect
  • Communications skills
  • Relationships
  • Parenting skills
  • Aspects of mainstream culture like music, movies, and sports