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How do you define a "cult"?
AFF, a cultic studies research and educational nonprofit, published this definition accepted by many cult researchers:

Cult: A group or movement exhibiting
  1. great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and
  2. employing unethical manipulative or coercive 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 judgement, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it),
  3. designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders,
  4. to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.
    Cultic Studies Journal, 3,1 (1986): 119-120.

If a group that you belong to has many of the following criteria to a significant degree, you have cause for concern:
  • The group is led by a one or a few individuals, charismatic, determined, domineering.
  • The leader(s) are self-appointed and claim to have a special mission in life. Frequently, that mission is messianic or apocalyptic. Leaders answer to no higher authority, such as an oversight board. They are sole interpreters of doctrine and policy -- which may change frequently and whimsically.
  • The group centers its veneration on the leader(s) directly, rather than on God, a higher political power, science, or whatever.
  • The group structure is hierarchical and authoritarian. Rarely will you find an open election in a cult.
  • The group tends to be totalitarian, with elaborate rules and rituals that occupy large parts of every day. To break a rule or ignore a ritual carries the danger of expulsion from the group.
  • The group usually has two or more sets of ethics: one for the leadership, another for the membership; one for outsiders, another for insiders; a relaxed set for recruiting purposes, a much more demanding set for the committed member.
  • The group usually presents itself as innovative and exclusive, even elitist.
  • The group has two main purposes: recruiting new members and fund-raising. It's unlikely to support or even encourage legitimate charity work, except as a front for recruitment.
    After Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer and others.
Wouldn't Jesus have been called a "cult leader" today?
We laugh out loud whenever a cult spokesperson trots out this old chestnut.

Have you ever heard any reports of Jesus physically, sexually, or emotionally abusing any of his disciples? Did Jesus amass a huge secret fortune? Was he ever accused of stockpiling guns? Selling drugs? Abusing children?

And while we're on the topic, we're not aware of such allegations against Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna, Lao Tse, or other great spiritual leaders. Cult apologists define concepts they find uncomfortable as broad and fuzzy as possible so that soon any organization or any leader could be termed cultic. Don't fall for it.

Aren't the Marines a cult?
Nope. Nor are the Jesuits for that matter.

While cults, military organizations, and legitimate spiritual groups share some superficials, they are fundamentally different.

They share an indoctrination process, strict codes of behavior and ethics, uniform dress, restricted diets and exercise regimens.

Where they differ most is deception. Anyone signing up for bootcamp has no doubt in his or her mind that he will be going through a severe mental, emotional, and physical trial meant to improve their physique and sharpen their mind. There are no secrets.

Whether a curious person attends an introductory seminar for Transcendental Meditation, the Church of Scientology, the Moonies, or smaller cults, the speaker will conveniently forget to mention that new members will undergo what the California Supreme Court has called "brainwashing, thought reform, or mind control," may end up "donating" hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of their lives to the cult.

It should be pointed out also that legitimate organizations like the Marines and Jesuits care for their members with health care, food, lodging, clothing -- and that when members leave they will have been trained in a trade, received an advanced degree, or received other value.

Are cults a modern phenomenon?
Definitely not.

They appear throughout recorded history. In the 19th Century, messianic groups like the Millerites flourished in the US. The Boxer Rebellion in China was triggered by a cult leader who believed he was Jesus Christ. There are indications of similar groups in the Middle Ages, Biblical times, before the Christian Era, and in non-Western cultures.

Do all cults end in suicide?
No. In fact, it's highly unusual.

Conway and Siegelman, in Snapping talk about the unique events and pressures that bring about the "death spiral" of a Jonestown, Waco, or Heaven's Gate.

There is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that takes place when the cult leader begins to fear the loss of his or her power, whether through intrusion of or exposure to outside authorities, internal defections, a rival group, or the leader's real or imagined impending death. The members may begin to stockpile weapons or make strange public pronouncements, which in turn invite public scrutiny -- eventually igniting the final holocaust.

Most cults end gradually through defections, ceasing operations when the leader is exposed, dissolution on the leader's death, splitting into many rival groups, or gradually evolving into a more open society, such as a mainstream religion or political party.

Are all New Age religions cults?
No way.

Many New Age, Pagan, Eastern, and other new religious movements are known for their openness to other traditions, democratic structure, and fiercely noncommercial values. These are in direct opposition to cultic values.

Just like any other human tradition, however, there are cults based around New Age, Eastern, UFO, or other alternative philosophies -- just as there are Christian cults.

The cultic structure can be created around any belief system or human activity whatsoever.

There are vitamin cults and multilevel marketing cults. Some critics believe that organizations within Amway, for instance, are the largest cultic groups in America.

There are many different flavors of cults, including Bible-based, Large Group Awareness Training, Eastern Meditation, Commercial/Multilevel Marketing, Political/Terrorist, Psychotherapy, Occult/Satanic, New Age, Miscellaneous (built around charismatic personalities in the arts, for instance).

Some cults are hybrids. The Moonies, for instance, mix Christian and Eastern influences.

How big is the average cult?
There is no true average.

Cultic relationships can exist in groups as small as two or as large as hundreds of thousands, if not millions. An excellent book, Captive Hearts, Captive Minds by Tobias and Lalich, discusses recovery from "one-on-one" cults (abusive relationships) side-by-side with issues from much larger cults.

Which are more dangerous, large or small?
Which is more dangerous, an asteroid or a bullet?

To the individual who meets up with either, it doesn't matter.

Small cults tend to be more physically and emotionally abusive, largely because their size ensures that they don't appear on the media's radar screen.

Large cults can psychologically damage hundreds of thousands of people. Wealthy organizations like Transcendental Meditation, Scientology, and Rev. Moon's Unification Church can also influence legislation and elections.

How many cults are there?
Even experts only offer estimates: in the thousands.

How many people have been involved with cults?
Noted psychologist Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer, author of Cults in Our Midst, estimates that 10 to 20 million Americans have been involved to some degree with cultic organizations in the last 20 years.

What other groups are cults?
Here are links to hundreds of groups that critics or former members have alleged are cultic.

What about freedom of religion?
What about it?

trancenet.netand most former cult members are fiercely in favor of all psychological freedoms, including freedom of belief and religion.

Cult critics by and large are not concerned about issues of doctrine. If you believe that Christ was an alien, that's fine by us.

Our concern is with behavior, criminal behavior. The groups that we track are charged by critics with psychological and physical abuse, undue influence, fraud, and countless other offenses that are actionable in a court of law.

Is everyone who believes in UFOs a cultist?
Absolutely not.

Beliefs that appear bizarre or irrational to the society at large can sometimes fuel tremendous breakthroughs. After all, they tortured Galileo and laughed at Marconi for unusual beliefs.

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