Brochure of the Peoples Temple, portraying its founder Jim Jones as the loving father of the "Rainbow Family."
Brochure of the Peoples Temple,
portraying its founder Jim Jones as
the loving father of the "Rainbow Family."

Cult definitions coined from 1920 onward1 refer to a cohesive social group and their devotional beliefs or practices, which the surrounding population considers to be outside of mainstream cultures. The surrounding population may be as small as a neighborhood, or as large as the community of nations. They gratify curiosity about, take action against, or ignore a group, depending on its reputed similarity to cults previously reported by mass media.

The spelling c-u-l-t has at least nine defined meanings2 divided among positive, negative, and neutral connotations:

  • Positive: In common or popular usage, "cult" has a positive connotation for fan groups of art, music, writing, fiction,3 and fashion devotees. "Cult" also has a positive connotation when used in the original and classic sense of veneration by any group of worshipers, though this meaning is usually applied to groups known from antiquity, including historic cults of the major religions.
  • Negative: Also in common or popular usage, "cult" has a negative connotation for new religious, extreme political, questionable therapeutic, and pyramidal business groups.4 Theological cults also have a negative connotation as defined by fundamentalist Christians to include both new and major religion groups.5 For these reasons, most, if not all, non-fan groups that are called cults reject this label.
  • Neutral: In 20th century and some current scientific usage, "cult" is a technical term with a neutral connotation6. Neutral usage of "cult" in sociological science has been partly replaced by the phrase new religious movement (NRM) – but not entirely: because not all sociologically-defined cults are new or religious, there was a formal objection to the term-replacing campaign as "politics of representation",7 and ultimately the public didn't accept the replacement term.8

Between 3,000 and 5,000 neutrally-defined sociological cults existed in the United States in 1995.9 Since less than 200 groups have been reported by governments as cults entangled with the law,10 and less than 20 have been described as destructive cults,11 the vast majority of non-fan groups referred to as cults are well-behaved and known only to their neighbours.


Historical Overview

Despite the existence of popular cult checklists, anthropologists and sociologists have argued that no one has been able to unambiguously define "cult" in a way that identifies only groups who will become illegally abusive or destructive. However, without attempting to predict crimes or torts by groups, scientific criteria of characteristics attributed to cults do exist. A little-known example is Alexander and Rollins' 1984 study, which concluded that the socially well-received group Alcoholics Anonymous is a cult by using the model of Lifton's thought reform techniques12 and applying those to AA's group indoctrination methodology.13

During the 20th century, groups referred to as cults by governments and media became globally controversial. The televised rise and fall of fewer than 20 destructive cults known for mass suicide and murder tarred hundreds of NRM groups having less serious government and civil legal entanglements, against a background of thousands of unremarkable NRM groups known only to their neighbors.

Following the Solar Temple incidents on two continents, France authorized the 1995 Parliamentary Commission on Cults in France. This commission set a mostly non-controversial standard for human rights objections to exploitative group practices, and mandated a controversial remedy for cultic abuse, known in English as cult watching, which was quietly adopted by other countries. The United States does not have a classification for cults in its legal system.14 The US responded with human rights challenges to French cult control policies, and France charged the US with interfering in French internal affairs. In recent years, France's troublesome public cult watching lists appear to have been retired in favor of confidential police intelligence gathering.

New religions are often considered "cults" before they are considered religions by social scientists,15 by Christian Evangelical/Fundamentalist theologians, and by the public, yet these three groups do not usually have the same understanding of the term "cult". People understand the term "cult" through the most popular usage in their cultures and subcultures, which can result in homonymic conflict, a communicative conflict with people who hold a different definition of the same term. This often results in confusion, misunderstanding, and resentment between members of "cult" groups and non-members.

Word origins

The literal and traditional meaning of the word "cult" is derived from the Latin cultus, meaning "care" or "adoration",16 from which the word "culture" is also derived. In English, "cult" remains neutral and a technical term within this context to refer to the "cult of Artemis at Ephesus" and the "cult figures" that accompanied it.

By comparison, the non-English European cognates of "sect" mean what "cult" does in English: secte (French), secta (Spanish), sekta Russian, and sekte (German) which also has other definitions.

Conservative Christian authors, especially evangelical Protestants, define a cult as a religion which claims to be in conformance with Biblical doctrine, yet that is believed to deviate from it based upon Evangelical interpretation. Walter Martin, the pioneer of the Christian countercult movement, gave in his 1955 book the following definition:

By cultism we mean the adherence to doctrines which are pointedly contradictory to orthodox Christianity and which yet claim the distinction of either tracing their origin to orthodox sources or of being in essential harmony with those sources. Cultism, in short, is any major deviation from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith. People who join cults are usually at a very vulnerable part of their lives.17

Author Robert M Bowman Jr defines a cult as "A religious group originating as a heretical sect and maintaining fervent commitment to heresy," while noting that the adjective "cultic" can be applied to groups approaching this standard to varying degrees.18

Dictionary Definitions

Dictionary definitions of the term "cult" include at least nine different meanings. These include both classic and unorthodox religious practice, extreme political practice, objects or concepts of intense devotion including popular fashion, and systems for the cure of disease based on dogmatic teachings.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary lists five different definitions of the word "cult."19

  1. Formal religious veneration
  2. A system of religious beliefs and ritual; also: its body of adherents;
  3. A religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also: its body of adherents;
  4. A system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator;
  5. Great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book).

The Random House Unabridged Dictionary's eight definitions of "cult" are:

  1. A particular system of religious worship, esp. with reference to its rites and ceremonies;
  2. An instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, esp. as manifested by a body of admirers;
  3. The object of such devotion;
  4. A group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc;
  5. Group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols;
  6. A religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader;
  7. The members of such a religion or sect;
  8. Any system for treating human sickness that originated by a person usually claiming to have sole insight into the nature of disease, and that employs methods regarded as unorthodox or unscientific.

Webster's New World College Dictionary defines "cult" as:

  1. A system of religious worship or ritual
  2. A quasi-religious group, often living in a colony, with a charismatic leader who indoctrinates members with unorthodox or extremist views, practices or beliefs
  3. Devoted attachment to, or extravagant admiration for, a person, principle or lifestyle, especially when regarded as a fad [the cult of nudism]
  4. The object of such attachment
  5. A group of followers, sect

For authoritative British usage, the Compact Oxford English Dictionary of Current English definitions of "cult" and "sect" are:


  1. A system of religious worship directed towards a particular figure or object.
  2. A small religious group regarded as strange or as imposing excessive control over members.
  3. Something popular or fashionable among a particular section of society.


  1. A group of people with different religious beliefs (typically regarded as heretical) from those of a larger group to which they belong.
  2. A group with extreme or dangerous philosophical or political ideas.

British "sect" formerly included a contextually implied meaning, of what "cult" now means in both USA and the UK.22 Some other nations still use the foreign equivalents of old British "sect" ("secte," "sekte," or "secta" etc) to imply "cult." Both words, as well as "cult" in its original sense of cultus (e.g., Middle Ages cult of Mary), must be understood to correctly interpret 20th century popular cult references in world English.

Modern Definitions

Sociological Definitions of Religion

According to one common typology among sociologists, religious groups are classified as ecclesias, denominations, cults or sects.

A very common definition in the sociology of religion for cult is one of the four terms making up the church-sect typology. Under this definition, a cult refers to a group with a high degree of tension with the surrounding society combined with novel religious beliefs. This is distinguished from sects, which have a high degree of tension with society but whose beliefs are traditional to that society, and ecclesias and denominations, which are groups with a low degree of tension and traditional beliefs.

According to Rodney Stark's A Theory of Religion, most religions start out their lives as cults or sects, i.e. groups in high tension with the surrounding society. Over time, they tend to either die out or become more established, mainstream and in less tension with society. Cults are new groups with a novel theology, while sects are attempts to return mainstream religions to what the group views as their original purity.23 As set out by Stark and Bainbridge, the term "cult", is used distinctly among the general definitions, and is closely related to the historically changed definitions of "sect." In this contemporary view, a "sect" is specifically "a deviant religious organization with traditional beliefs and practices," as compared to a "cult" which indicates a "a deviant religious organization with novel beliefs and practices."24

Since this definition of "cult" is defined in part in terms of tension with the surrounding society, the same group may both be and not be a cult at different places or times. For example, Christianity was by this definition a cult in 1st and 2nd century Rome, while in fifth century Rome it became rather an ecclesia (the state religion). Similarly, very conservative Islam could constitute a cult in the West but also the ecclesia in some conservative Muslim countries. Likewise, because novelty of beliefs and tension are elements in the definition: the Hare Krishnas are not a cult but a sect in India (since their beliefs are largely traditional to Hindu culture), while they are by this definition a cult in the Western world (since their beliefs are largely novel to Christian culture).

The English sociologist Roy Wallis25 argues that a cult is characterized "epistemological individualism" by which he means that "the cult has no clear locus of final authority beyond the individual member." Cults, according to Wallis, are generally described as "oriented towards the problems of individuals, loosely structured, tolerant, non-exclusive", making "few demands on members", without possessing a "clear distinction between members and non-members", having "a rapid turnover of membership", and are transient collectives with vague boundaries and fluctuating belief systems Wallis asserts that cults emerge from the "cultic milieu". Wallis contrasts a cult with a sect that he asserts is characterized by "epistemological authoritarianism": sects possess some authoritative locus for the legitimate attribution of heresy. According to Wallis, "sects lay a claim to possess unique and privileged access to the truth or salvation and their committed adherents typically regard all those outside the confines of the collectivity as 'in error'".2627

Psychological Definition

Studies of the psychological aspects of cults focus on the individual person, and factors relating to the choice to become involved as well as the subsequent effects on individuals. Under one view, an important factor is coercive persuasion which suppresses the ability of people to reason, think critically, and make choices in their own best interest.

Studies of religious, political, and other cults have identified a number of key steps in this type of coercive persuasion:2829

  1. People are put in physically or emotionally distressing situations;
  2. Their problems are reduced to one simple explanation, which is repeatedly emphasized;
  3. They receive unconditional love, acceptance, and attention from a charismatic leader;
  4. They get a new identity based on the group;
  5. They are subject to entrapment (isolation from friends, relatives, and the mainstream culture) and their access to information is severely controlled.30

Definition According to Secular Opposition

Secular cult opponents tend to define a "cult" as a group that tends to manipulate, exploit, and control its members. Specific factors in cult behavior are said to include manipulative and authoritarian mind control over members, communal and totalistic organization, aggressive proselytizing, systematic programs of indoctrination, and perpetuation in middle-class communities.31

While acknowledging the issue of multiple definitions of "cult",32 Michael Langone states that "Cults are groups that often exploit members psychologically and/or financially, typically by making members comply with leadership's demands through certain types of psychological manipulation, popularly called mind control, and through the inculcation of deep-seated anxious dependency on the group and its leaders."33 A similar definition is given by Louis Jolyon West:

A cult is 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 [consequences 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.34

In each, the focus tends to be on the specific tactics of conversion, the negative impact on individual members, and the difficulty in leaving once indoctrination has occurred.35

Christianity and Definitions

Since at least the 1940s, the approach of orthodox, conservative, or fundamentalist Christians was to apply the meaning of cult such that it included those religious groups who used (possibly exclusively) non-standard translations of the Bible, put additional revelation on a similar or higher level than the Bible, or had beliefs and/or practices that were not held by current, mainstream Christianity.

Differing Opinions of the Various Definitions

According to professor Timothy Miller from the University of Kansas in his 2003 Religious Movements in the United States, during the controversies over the new religious groups in the 1960s, the term "cult" came to mean something sinister, generally used to describe a movement at least potentially destructive to its members or to society. But he argues that no one yet has been able to define a "cult" in a way that enables the term to identify only problematic groups. Miller asserts that the attributes of groups often referred to as cults, as defined by cult opponents, can be found in groups that few would consider cultist, such as Catholic religious orders or many evangelical Protestant churches. Miller argues:

If the term does not enable us to distinguish between a pathological group and a legitimate one, then it has no real value. It is the religious equivalent of the racial term for African Americans—it conveys disdain and prejudice without having any valuable content.36

The Study of Cults

Among the experts studying cults and new religious movements are sociologists, religion scholars, psychologists, and psychiatrists.

Nonacademics are sometimes published, or their writings cited, in the Cultic Studies Journal (CSJ), the journal of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), a group which criticizes perceived cultic behavior. Sociologist Janja Lalich began her work and conceptualized many of her ideas while an "anti-cult" activist writing for the "CSJ" years before obtaining academic standing, and incorporated her own experiences in a leftwing political group into her later work as a sociological theorist.37

The hundreds of books on specific groups by nonacademic comprise a large portion of the currently available published record on cults. The books by "anti-cult" critics run from memoirs by ex-members to detailed accounts of the history and alleged misdeeds of a given group written from either a tabloid journalist, investigative journalist, or popular historian perspective.

Journalists Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman together wrote the book Snapping, which set forth speculations on the nature of mind control that have received mixed reviews from psychologists. Others mentioned in this article include Tim Wohlforth (co-author of On the Edge and a former follower of British Trotskyist Gerry Healy); Carol Giambalvo, a former est member; activist and consultant Rick Ross; and mental health counselor Steven Hassan, a former Unification Church member and author of the book Combatting Cult Mind Control, who, like Ross, runs a business specializing in servicing people involved with cults or their family members.38

Another example is the work of journalist/activist Chip Berlet, responsible for much of the work on "political cults" which exists today. Current members of the Hare Krishna movement as well as several former leaders of the Worldwide Church of God also have written with critical insight on "cult" issues, using terminologies and framings somewhat different from those of secular experts. Members of the Unification Church have produced books and articles that argue the case against excessive reactions to new religious movements, including their own.

Within this larger community of discourse, the debates about "cultism" and specific groups are generally more polarized than among scholars who study new religious movements, although there are heated disagreements among scholars as well. What follows is a summary of that portion of the intellectual debate conducted primarily from inside the universities:

Cults, NRMs, and the Sociology and Psychology of Religion

Due to popular connotations of the term "cult," many academic researchers of religion and sociology prefer to use the term new religious movement (NRM) in their research. However, some researchers have criticized the newer phrase on the ground that some religious movements are "new" without being cults, and have expanded the definition of cult to non-religious groups. Furthermore, some religious groups who have been seen as cults by some are no longer "new"; for instance, Scientology and the Unification Church are both over 50 years old, while the Hare Krishna groups are current manifestations of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a religious tradition over 500 years old with roots going back much further.

Some mental health professionals use the term cult generally for groups that practice physical or mental abuse. Others prefer more descriptive terminology such as abusive cult or destructive cult, while noting that many groups meet the other criteria without such abuse. A related issue is determining what is abuse, when few members (as opposed to some ex-members) would agree that they have suffered abuse. Other researchers like David V Barrett hold the view that classifying a religious movement as a cult is generally used as a subjective and negative label and has no added value; instead, he argues that one should investigate the beliefs and practices of the religious movement.39

According to the Dutch religious scholar Wouter Hanegraaff, another problem with writing about cults comes about because they generally hold belief systems that give answers to questions about the meaning of life and morality. This makes it difficult not to write in biased terms about a certain group, because writers are rarely neutral about these questions. Some admit this, and try to diffuse the problem by stating their personal sympathies openly.

In the sociology of religion, the term cult is part of the subdivision of religious groups: sects, cults, denominations, and ecclesias. The sociologists Rodney Stark and William S. Bainbridge define cults in their book, Theory of Religion and subsequent works, as a "deviant religious organization with novel beliefs and practices", that is, as new religious movements that (unlike sects) have not separated from another religious organization. Cults, in this sense, may or may not be dangerous, abusive, etc. By this broad definition, most of the groups which have been popularly labeled cults fit this value-neutral definition.

Development of Groups Characterised as Cults

Cults based on charismatic leadership often follow the routinisation of charisma, as described by the German sociologist Max Weber. In their book Theory of Religion, Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge propose that the formation of cults can be explained through a combination of four models:

  • The psycho-pathological model – the cult founder suffers from psychological problems; they develop the cult in order to resolve these problems for themselves, as a form of self-therapy.
  • The entrepreneurial model – the cult founder acts like an entrepreneur, trying to develop a religion which they think will be most attractive to potential recruits, often based on their experiences from previous cults or other religious groups they have belonged to.
  • The social model – the cult is formed through a social implosion, in which cult members dramatically reduce the intensity of their emotional bonds with non-cult members, and dramatically increase the intensity of those bonds with fellow cult members – this emotionally intense situation naturally encourages the formation of a shared belief system and rituals.
  • The normal revelations model – the cult is formed when the founder chooses to interpret ordinary natural phenomena as supernatural, such as by ascribing his or her own creativity in inventing the cult to that of the deity.


According to Dr Eileen Barker, new religions are in most cases started by charismatic but unpredictable leaders. According to Mikael Rothstein, there is often little access to plain facts about either historical or contemporary religious leaders to compare with the abundance of legends, myths, and theological elaborations. According to Rothstein, most members of new religious movements have little chance to meet the Master (leader) except as a member of a larger audience.

Many religions have been deeply influenced by charismatic leaders, such as Jesus, Martin Luther, Saint Francis of Assisi, John Calvin, Joseph Smith, etc. These leaders are either the central teacher and founder of the religion (e.g. Muhammad, Jesus, or Gautama) or reformers or prominent persons. Failed or violent new religions were also founded by charismatic leaders, such as Jim Jones.

There is some similarity to the role played by charismatic figures in politics.

Theories about Joining

Joining Cults

Michael Langone gives three different models regarding joining a cult. Under the "deliberative model," people are said to join cults primarily because of how they view a particular group. Langone notes that this view is most favored among sociologists and religious scholars. Under the "psychodynamic model," popular with some mental health professionals, individuals choose to join for fulfillment of subconscious psychological needs. Finally, the "thought reform model" posits that people join not because of their own psychological needs, but because of the group's influence through forms of psychological manipulation. Langone states that those mental health experts who have more direct experience with large number of cultists tend to favor this latter view.40

Some scholars favor one particular view, or combine elements of each. According to Gallanter,41 typical reasons why people join cults include a search for community and a spiritual quest. Stark and Bainbridge, in discussing the process by which individuals join new religious groups, have questioned the utility of the concept of conversion, suggesting that affiliation is a more useful concept.42

Joining NRMs

Jeffrey Hadden summarizes a lecture entitled "Why Do People Join NRMs?" (a lecture in a series related to the sociology of new religious movements, a term Hadden uses to include both cults and sects43)44 as follows:

  1. Belonging to groups is a natural human activity;
  2. People belong to religious groups for essentially the same reasons they belong to other groups;
  3. Conversion is generally understood as an emotionally charged experience that leads to a dramatic reorganization of the convert's life;
  4. Conversion varies enormously in terms of the intensity of the experience and the degree to which it actually alters the life of the convert;
  5. Conversion is one, but not the only reason people join religious groups;
  6. Social scientists have offered a number of theories to explain why people join religious groups;
  7. Most of these explanations could apply equally well to explain why people join lots of other kinds of groups;
  8. No one theory can explain all joinings or conversions;
  9. What all of these theories have in common is the view that joining or converting is a natural process.

Reactions to Social Out-groups

One issue in the study of cults relates to people's reactions to groups identified as some other form of social outcast or opposition group. A new study by Princeton University psychology researchers Lasana Harris and Susan Fiske shows that when viewing photographs of social out-groups, people respond to them with disgust, not a feeling of fellow humanity. The findings are reported in the article "Dehumanizing the Lowest of the Low: Neuro-imaging responses to Extreme Outgroups" in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science (previously the American Psychological Society).45

According to this research, social out-groups are perceived as unable to experience complex human emotions, share in-group beliefs, or act according to societal norms, moral rules, and values. The authors describe this as "extreme discrimination revealing the worst kind of prejudice: excluding out-groups from full humanity." Their study provides evidence that while individuals may consciously see members of social out-groups as people, the brain processes social out-groups as something less than human, whether we are aware of it or not. According to the authors, brain imaging provides a more accurate depiction of this prejudice than the verbal reporting usually used in research studies.

Genuine Concerns and Exaggerations

Some critics of media sensationalism argue that the stigma surrounding the classification of a group as a cult results largely from exaggerated portrayals of weirdness in media stories. The narratives of ill effects include perceived threats presented by a cult to its members, and risks to the physical safety of its members and to their mental and spiritual growth.

Documented Crimes

Around two hundred or more groups referred to as cults have become notably entangled with the law. These entanglements historically include trivial infractions such as those related to mass begging, but more significantly include civil suits for sexual abuse, and serious crimes ranging from tax felonies to murder.

Media reports of cult-related crimes cause a negative public perception of all groups labeled as cults in the populist sense. Therefore, groups labeled as cults usually deny that they are cults, even though they may fit the definition of a cult in the neutral sociological sense.

The media have referred to Aum Shinrikyo as a doomsday cult, and to several others as suicide cults, or destructive cults, because they killed, otherwise harmed, or threatened the well-being and lives of their own members, uninvolved persons, and society in general. Fewer than 20 groups, including Aum Shinrikyo, Peoples Temple, The Manson Family, Heaven's Gate, Order of the Solar Temple, and Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, have been publicly characterised as examples of destructive cults. A group that is sued or charged with a crime less serious than life-threatening is generally not called a destructive cult, but is sometimes labeled an "abusive cult," or is just referred to as a cult, since that is sociologically plausible in avoiding a libel case.

The Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995 was carried out by fanatical core-adherents of Aum Shinrikyo, a self-styled 'peaceful religious' group, instigated in 1984 by the self-styled 'Shoko Asahara' or 'Great Enlightened One', given name, Chizuo Matsumoto - a traditional Japanese masseur with previous criminal convictions for fraud and violence. Aum Shinrikyo ran a laboratory in the early 1990s where medically-qualified adherents cultured and experimented with botulin toxin, anthrax, cholera and Q fever. In 1993 members traveled to Africa to learn about and bring back samples of the Ebola virus.46 Subsequent to the Tokyo attack, 150 tonnes of chemical constituents of Sarin gas were found on properties controlled by Aum's leadership. This was sufficient to produce enough Sarin to kill up to 10 million individuals. Aum also kept an ex-Soviet attack-helicopter and a small-arms factory in Japan staffed by Russian technicians who were building hundreds of AK47 assault rifles. The group is known to have previously tried to acquire a nuclear weapon in Russia.

According to John R Hall, a professor in sociology at the University of California-Davis and Philip Schuyler, the Peoples Temple is still seen by some as the cultus classicus,4748 though it did not belong to the set of groups that triggered the original 1970s cult debate in the United States. Its mass suicide of over 900 members, and murders of nonmembers, including US Congressman Leo Ryan on November 18, 1978, led to increased global public concern and scrutiny of cults by governments.

European public pressure following the 1994 infant murder and subsequent mass murder-suicides of the Order of the Solar Temple colonies in Canada and Switzerland led to the 1995 Parliamentary Commission on Cults in France. This legislation resulted in uncontroversial human rights standards for judging cultic exploitation and abuse, the controversial remedy of cult watching with close enforcement against lesser crimes to discourage greater ones, as well as a later-deemphasized list of groups which France determined as cults to be watched.

The 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack, involving salmonella typhimurium contamination in the salad bars of 10 restaurants in The Dalles, Oregon was traced to certain members of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh/Osho group.4950 The attack sickened about 751 people and hospitalized forty-five, although none died. It was the first known bio-terrorist attack of the 20th century in the United States, and is still known as the largest germ warfare attack in US history. Eventually Ma Anand Sheela and Ma Anand Puja, one of Sheela's close associates, confessed to the attack as well as to attempted poisonings of county officials. The biological warfare incident is used by the Homeland Defense Business Unit in Biological Incidents Operations training for Law Enforcement agencies.51

Warren Jeffs, the polygamist sect leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was charged with several crimes but fled to avoid lawful prosecution until he was apprehended. He was found guilty of two counts of being an accomplice to rape as he had conducted a forced marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin in 2001. Jeffs also faces felony sex charges in Arizona for his alleged role in another two underage marriages.52

In 1979, eleven highly placed leaders of the Church of Scientology were convicted in United States federal court regarding Operation Snow White, and served time in a USA federal prison. Operation Snow White involved infiltration, wiretapping and theft of documents in government offices, most notably those of the United States Internal Revenue Service (IRS).53

Edward Morrissey, husband of The Reverend Mary Manin Morrissey, in 2005 pled guilty to money laundering and using Living Enrichment Center church money for the personal expenses of himself and his wife. Edward Morrissey spent two years in federal prison.5455

Dera Sacha Sauda, headquartered in Sirsa, Haryana, India with branches all over India, was named by the Indian Government’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in three criminal cases charged during 2007. There are pending cases for murders of a journalist and a former member allegedly committed by group members including leader Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh.56 Leader Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh was separately charged for the alleged sexual exploitation of Sadhvis. Sadhvi (woman follower) is a name used by the group for unmarried female disciples, who have decided to stay unmarried, dedicated their lives to the service of the leader, reside and work at the group's headquarters.57 Dera Sacha Sauda and its leader were earlier blamed for inciting rioting in Punjab, "…some of the worst rioting in a decade after a newspaper advert placed by the leader of a controversial religious sect sparked outrage in the region's Sikh community."58

Prevalence of all NRMs Compared to Destructive Cults

The number of destructive cults is less than 20, compared with the tens of thousands of new religious movements which are estimated to exist.59 Destructive cults includes groups that are extremely violent or doomsday-oriented, but the term is not used to refer to groups that are only psychologically destructive.

Of the groups that have been referred to as cults in the United States alone, only a hundred or so have ever become notorious for alleged misdeeds either in the national media or in local media. The disproportionate focus on these roughly 3% of misbehaving NRM groups gives the public an inaccurate perception of new religious groups generally.

Potential Harm to Members

In the opinion of Benjamin Zablocki, a professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, groups that have been characterized as cults are at high risk of becoming abusive to members. He states that this is in part due to members' adulation of charismatic leaders contributing to the leaders becoming corrupted by power. Zablocki defines a cult here as an ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and that demands total commitment.60

There is no reliable, generally accepted way to determine which groups will harm their members. In an attempt to predict the probability of harm, cult checklists have been created, primarily by anti-cultists, for this purpose. According to critics of these checklists, they are popular but not scientific.

According to Barrett, the most common accusation made against groups referred to as cults is sexual abuse. See some allegations made by former members. According to Kranenborg, some groups are risky when they advise their members not to use regular medical care.61 Barker, Barrett, and Steven Hassan all advise seeking information from various sources about a certain group before getting deeply involved, though these three differ in the urgency they suggest.

Non-religious Groups Characterised as Cults

According to the views of what some scholars call the "Anti-Cult Movement," although the majority of groups described as "cults" are religious in nature, a significant number are non-religious. These may include political, psychotherapeutic or marketing oriented cults organized in manners similar to the traditional religious cult. The term has also been applied to certain channeling, human-potential and self-improvement organizations, some of which do not define themselves as religious but are considered to have significant religious influences.

Groups that have been labeled as "political cults," mostly far-left or far-right in their ideologies, have received some attention from journalists and scholars, though this usage is less common. Claims of cult-like practices exists for only about a dozen ideological cadre or racial combat organizations, though the allegation is sometimes made more freely.62 Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth are two prominent former members of Trotskyist sects who now attack their former organisations and the Trotskyist movement in general.63

The concept of the "cult" is applied by analogy to refer to adulation of non-political leaders, and sometimes in the context of certain businessmen, management styles, and company work environments. Multi-level marketing has often been described as a cult due to the fact that a large part of the operation of a typical multi-level marketing consists of hiring and recruiting other people, selling motivational material, to the point that people involved in the business spend most of their time for the benefit of the organization. Consequently, some MLM companies like Amway have felt the need to specifically state that they are not cult-like in nature.64

Another related term in politics is that of the personality cult. Although most groups labeled as political cults involve a "cult of personality," the latter concept is a broader one, having its origins in the excessive adulation said to have surrounded Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. It has also been applied to several other heads of state.

Stigmatisation and Discrimination

Because of the increasingly pejorative use of the terms "cult" and "cult leader" since the cult debate of the 1970s, some scholars and groups referred to as cults argue that these are terms to be avoided.6566

Catherine Wessinger (Loyola University New Orleans) has stated that the term "cult" represents just as much prejudice and antagonism as racial slurs or derogatory words for women and homosexuals. She has argued that it is important for people to become aware of the bigotry conveyed by the word, drawing attention to the way it dehumanises the group's members and their children. Labeling a group as subhuman, she says, becomes a justification for violence against it. At the same time, she adds, labeling a group a "cult" makes people feel safe, because the "violence associated with religion is split off from conventional religions, projected onto others, and imagined to involve only aberrant groups." This fails to take into account that child abuse, sexual abuse, financial extortion and warfare have also been committed by believers of mainstream religions, but the pejorative "cult" stereotype makes it easier to avoid confronting this uncomfortable fact.67

The concept of "cult" as an epithet was legally tested in the United Kingdom when a protester refused to put down a sign that read, "Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult", citing a 1984 high court judgment describing the organization as a cult. The London police issued a summons to the protester for violating the Public Order Act by displaying a "threatening, abusive or insulting" sign. The Crown Prosecution Service ruled that the word "cult" on a sign, "…is not abusive or insulting and there is no offensiveness, as opposed to criticism, neither in the idea expressed nor in the mode of expression." There was no action taken against the protester, and police would allow future such demonstrations.68 In Scotland, an official of the Edinburgh City Council told inquiring regular protesters, "I understand that some of the signs you use may display the word 'cult' and there is no objection to this."69

Sociologist Amy Ryan has argued for the need to differentiate those groups that may be dangerous from groups that are more benign.70 Ryan notes the sharp differences between definition from cult opponents, who tend to focus on negative characteristics, and those of sociologists, who aim to create definitions that are value-free. The movements themselves may have different definitions of religion as well. George Chryssides also cites a need to develop better definitions to allow for common ground in the debate.

These definitions have political and ethical impact beyond just scholarly debate. In Defining Religion in American Law, Bruce J Casino presents the issue as crucial to international human rights laws. Limiting the definition of religion may interfere with freedom of religion, while too broad a definition may give some dangerous or abusive groups "a limitless excuse for avoiding all unwanted legal obligations."71

Some authors in the cult opposition dislike the word cult to the extent it implies that there is a continuum with a large gray area separating "cult" from "noncult" which they do not see.72 Others authors, e.g. Steven Hassan, differentiate by using terms like "Destructive cult," or "Cult" (totalitarian type) versus "benign cult."


There are at least three ways people leave a cult. These are:

  1. On their own decision (walkaways)
  2. Through expulsion (castaways)
  3. By intervention (Exit counseling, deprogramming).7374

In Bounded Choice (2004), Lalich describes a fourth way of leaving—rebelling against the group's majority or leader. This was based on her own experience in the Marxist-Leninist Democratic Workers Party, where the entire membership quit. However, rebellion is more often a combination of the walkaway and castaway patterns in that the rebellion may trigger the expulsion—essentially, the rebels provoke the leadership into being the agency of their break with an over-committed lifestyle. Tourish and Wohlforth (2000) and Dennis King (1989) provide what they consider several examples in the history of political groups that have been characterized as cults. The 'rebellion' response in such groups appears to follow a longstanding behavior pattern among left wing political sects which began long before the emergence of the contemporary political cult.

Most authors agree that some people experience problems after leaving a cult. These include negative reactions in the individual leaving the group as well as negative responses from the group such as shunning. There are disagreements regarding the frequency of such problems, however, and regarding the cause.

According to Barker (1989), the greatest worry about potential harm concerns the central and most dedicated followers of a new religious movement (NRM). Barker mentions that some former members may not take new initiatives for quite a long time after disaffiliation from the NRM. This generally does not concern the many superficial, short-lived, or peripheral supporters of an NRM.

Exit Counselor Carol Giambalvo believes most people leaving a cult have associated psychological problems, such as feelings of guilt or shame, depression, feeling of inadequacy, or fear, that are independent of their manner of leaving the cult. Feelings of guilt, shame, or anger are by her observation worst with castaways, but walkaways can also have similar problems. She says people who had interventions or a rehabilitation therapy do have similar problems but are usually better prepared to deal with them.75

Sociologists Bromley and Hadden note a lack of empirical support for claimed consequences of having been a member of a cult or sect, and substantial empirical evidence against it. These include the fact that the overwhelming proportion of people who get involved in NRMs leave, most short of two years; the overwhelming proportion of people who leave of their own volition; and that two-thirds (67%) felt "wiser for the experience."76

Popular authors Conway and Siegelman conducted a survey and published it in the book Snapping regarding after-cult effects and deprogramming and concluded that people deprogrammed had fewer problems than people not deprogrammed. The BBC writes that in a survey done by Jill Mytton on 200 former cult members most of them reported problems adjusting to society and about a third would benefit from some counseling.77

Burks (2002), in a study comparing Group Psychological Abuse Scale (GPA) and Neurological Impairment Scale (NIS) scores in 132 former members of cults and cultic relationships, found a positive correlation between intensity of thought reform environment as measured by the GPA and cognitive impairment as measured by the NIS. Additional findings were a reduced earning potential in view of the education level that corroborates earlier studies of cult critics (Martin 1993; Singer & Ofshe, 1990; West & Martin, 1994) and significant levels of depression and dissociation agreeing with Conway & Siegelman, (1982), Lewis & Bromley, (1987) and Martin, et al. (1992).78

According to Barret, in many cases the problems do not happen while in a movement, but when leaving, which can be difficult for some members and may include psychological trauma. Reasons for this trauma may include: conditioning by the religious movement; avoidance of uncertainties about life and its meaning; having had powerful religious experiences; love for the founder of the religion; emotional investment; fear of losing salvation; bonding with other members; anticipation of the realization that time, money, and efforts donated to the group were a waste; and the new freedom with its corresponding responsibilities, especially for people who lived in a community. Those reasons may prevent a member from leaving even if the member realizes that some things in the NRM are wrong. According to Kranenborg, in some religious groups, members have all their social contacts within the group, which makes disaffection and disaffiliation very traumatic.79

According to F Derks and J van der Lans, there is no uniform post-cult trauma. While psychological and social problems upon resignation are not uncommon, their character and intensity are greatly dependent on the personal history and on the traits of the ex-member, and on the reasons for and way of resignation.80

Criticism by Former Members

The role of outspoken former members of groups they report as cults, sometimes called "apostates," has been widely studied by social scientists. Former members in some cases become public opponents against their former group. The former members' motivations, the roles they play in the anti-cult movement, the validity of their testimony, and the kinds of narratives they construct, are controversial with some scholars who suspect that at least some of the narratives are colored by a need of self-justification, seeking to reconstruct their own past and to excuse their former affiliations, while blaming those who were formerly their closest associates,81 and that hostile ex-members would invariably shade the truth and blow out of proportion minor incidents, turning them into major incidents.82 Other scholars conclude that testimonies of former members are at least as accurate as testimonies of current members.

Scholars that challenge the validity of critical former members testimonies as the basis for studying a religious group include David G Bromley, Anson Shupe, Brian R Wilson, and Lonnie Kliever. Bromley and Shupe, who studied the social influences on such testimonies, assert that the apostate in his current role is likely to present a caricature of his former group and that the stories of critical ex-members who defect from groups that are subversive (defined as groups with few allies and many opponents) tend to have the form of "captivity narratives" (i.e. the narratives depict the stay in the group as involuntary). Wilson introduces the atrocity story that is rehearsed by the apostate to explain how, by manipulation, coercion, or deceit, he was recruited to a group that he now condemns. Introvigne found in his study of the New Acropolis in France, that public negative testimonies and attitudes were only voiced by a minority of the ex-members, who he describes as becoming "professional enemies" of the group they leave. Kliever, when asked by the Church of Scientology to give his opinion on the reliability of apostate accounts of their former religious beliefs and practices, writes that these dedicated opponents present a distorted view of the new religions, and cannot be regarded as reliable informants by responsible journalists, scholars, or jurists. He claims that the reason for the lack of reliability of apostates is due to the traumatic nature of disaffiliation that he compares to a divorce and also due the influence of the anti-cult movement even on those apostates who were not deprogrammed or received exit counseling. Scholars and psychologists who tend to side more with critical former members include David C Lane, Louis Jolyon West, Margaret Singer, Stephen A Kent, Benjamin Beith-Hallahmi and Benjamin Zablocki. Zablocki performed an empirical study that showed that the reliability of former members is equal to that of stayers in one particular group. Philip Lucas found the same empirical results.

According to Lewis F Carter, the reliability and validity of the testimonies of believers are influenced by the tendency to justify affiliation with the group, whereas the testimonies of former members and apostates are influenced by a variety of factors.83 Besides, the interpretative frame of members tends to change strongly upon conversion and disaffection and hence may strongly influence their narratives. Carter affirms that the degree of knowledge of different (ex-)members about their (former) group is highly diverse, especially in hierarchically organized groups. Using his experience at Rajneeshpuram (the intentional community of the followers of Rajneesh) as an example, he claims that the social influence exerted by the group may influence the accounts of ethnographers and of participant observers.84 He proposes a method he calls triangulation as the best method to study groups, by utilizing three accounts: those of believers, apostates, and ethnographers. Carter asserts that such methodology is difficult to put into practice.85 Daniel Carson Johnson86 writes that even the triangulation method rarely succeeds in making assertions with certitude.87

James T Richardson contends that there are a large number of cults, and a tendency among scholars to make unjustified generalizations about them based on a select sample of observations of life in such groups or the testimonies of (ex-)members. According to Richardson, this tendency is responsible for the widely divergent opinions about cults among scholars and social scientists.88

Eileen Barker (2001) wrote that critical former members of cults complain that academic observers only notice what the leadership wants them to see.89

Sexual Gratification by Leaders

Leaders of groups referred to as cults have used their positions to obtain sexual gratification from followers, or engaged in plural marriages that were not traditional to the culture outside of the group. Former group members have stated the reason why some leaders founded cults was so they could use people for sex.90

  • Jim Jones (1931-1978), founder of the Peoples Temple, had sex with many women and men, and fathered children with several followers.91
  • David Koresh (1959-1993), the Seven Seals leader of Branch Davidians only in Elk, Texas, greatly restricted the sexual activity of his followers, while marrying wives as young as twelve92 because puberty was an accepted age for marriage in Old Testament times. A former member described Koresh as "fixated with sex and with a taste for younger girls."93 He began to teach that all the women in the world belonged to him, only he had the right to procreate, and he fathered children with his plural wives.94
  • Charles Manson (1934-), leader of the informal Manson Family, drugged many of his followers with LSD and while women were under the influence, he induced them to service him sexually. Manson fathered children with three of his followers.
  • Raël (1946-), formerly named Claude Vorilhon, founded Raëlism and had sex with hundreds of women, "…a new one every day, all pretty young devotees who thought he was some kind of god." His ex-wife of 15 years continued, "…over the years I began to think the whole Raëlian movement was a trick to have more sex…"95 Raelism openly teaches a belief in sexual freedom, which is used to recruit new members, who are invited to participate in Sensual Meditation sessions.96
  • Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Osho) (1931-1990) has been reported to have had sexual relationships with some of his female followers.97 According to Tim Guest, whose mother joined the cult when he was 4 years old, group leaders in the Osho movement occasionally initiated fourteen and fifteen-year-old girls into sex.98
  • Sathya Sai Baba (1926-) According to, "…the growing number of ex-devotees who decry their former master as a sexual harasser, … and even a pedophile has hardly put a dent in his following."99100 A travel warning was issued by the US State Department about reports of "unconfirmed inappropriate sexual behavior by a prominent local religious leader", which officials later confirmed was a reference to Sathya Sai Baba.101102 The Daily Telegraph has stated that despite all the allegations made against Sathya Sai Baba over the years, he has never been charged with any crime, sexual or otherwise.103
  • Kenneth Emanuel Dyers of Kenja Communication was charged with multiple counts of child sex molestation. As well there were a significant number of allegations relating to women within the group aired on television, in the NSW Hansard and in a recent documentary.
  • Victor Paul Wierwille (1916-1985) founded The Way International. "Stories and widely circulated letters alleging illicit sexual activity by leaders…" was reported in 1995.104 Two women followers separately said that they acquiesced to undesired sexual activity with Wierwille.105106 In 2000, two female employees filed separate lawsuits "with allegations of a sexual nature", against L Craig Martindale (1948-), president since 1982, and others associated with The Way.107108 Both suits were settled. Martindale resigned following filing of the first suit and is no longer clergy of The Way.109
  • Wayne Bent, self-styled "Michael of Travesser" is serving a prison sentence for molesting young girls in his Strong City cult110 and openly admitted consummating "spiritual marriages" with women in the cult, including a woman who had until then been his son's wife.111

Allegations made by Scholars or Skeptics

  • False, irrational or even contradictory teaching, made by David C Lane with regards to Paul Twitchell;
  • False miracles performed or endorsed by the leadership, made by the skeptics Abraham Kovoor, H Narasimhaiah, and Basava Premanand for a variety of gurus and fakirs;
  • Discouraging regular medical care but instead relying on faith healing, made by the magazine with regards to Christian Science;
  • Plagiarism, allegations made by David C Lane;
  • Incitement to anti-Semitism and other forms of hate, as documented in the writings of Dennis King and Chip Berlet;
  • Child abuse, for example subjecting blindfolded children to many hours of meditation, as documented by Dr David C Lane with regards to Thakar Singh;112 and
  • Forced labor and confinement of members, made by Stephen A Kent regarding Scientology.113
  • Threats, harassment, excessive lawsuits and ad hominem attacks against critics. Allegations regarding the use of such tactics have been made against Scientology, the Lyndon LaRouche organization, and the now defunct Synanon drug-treatment cult.

Prevalence of Sociological Cults

A sociologically-defined cult has a neutral, scientific definition. According to Singer, 1995, between 3,000 and 5,000 sociological cults existed in the United States in 1995.114

Media Attention

Some of the well-known sociological cults have been media-reported in connection with lawsuits or crimes, resulting in a pejorative label as interpreted by the public. As a result, influential groups have vigorously protested and denied the label. They sometimes expend great efforts in public relations campaigns to rid themselves of the stigma associated with media use of the term cult.

However, most of the thousands of sociological cults live below the media's radar and are rarely or never the subject of significant public scrutiny. Such groups rarely need to speak up in their own defense, and some of them ignore the occasional fleeting attention they may get from the media.

Relation to Governments

In many countries there exists a separation of church and state and freedom of religion. Governments of some of these countries, concerned with possible abuses by groups they deem cults, have taken restrictive measures against some of their activities. Critics of such measures claim that the counter-cult movement and the anti-cult movement have succeeded in influencing governments in transferring the public's abhorrence of doomsday cults and make the generalization that it is directed against all small or new religious movements without discrimination. The critique is countered by stressing that the measures are directed not against any religious beliefs, but specifically against groups whom they see as inimical to the public order due to their totalitarianism, violations of fundamental liberties, inordinate emphasis on finances, and/or disregard for appropriate medical care.115

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