The word cult is in itself quite neutral, it does not signify something that is bad or dangerous, however when applied to organizations of very particular religious or political belief, 'cult' is now widely understood to indicate something potentially harmful. Rather like the term 'terrorist' acceptance of the label frequently depends upon whether one is on the 'inside' or the 'outside'. Indeed, the very existence of an 'inside' and an 'outside' is the point at which the 'cult question' must be addressed.
The Cultic Studies Journal of the ICSA a non profit research and educational organisation, published this useful definition:
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
A longer list of characteristics, published Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer and others, serves as a check list for anyone concerned about groups that appear to be cult like. Each item in itself may be innocuous but a group or organization displaying many items from the list would probably be an uncomfortable environment for most people to operate in.
Qualities seen in Cults:
1. The group is led by a one or a few individuals, charismatic, determined, domineering.
2. 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.
3. The group centres its veneration on the leader(s) directly, rather than on God, a higher political power, science, or whatever.
4. The group structure is hierarchical and authoritarian. Rarely will you find an open election in a cult.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. The group usually presents itself as innovative and exclusive, even elitist.
8. 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.
Understanding How Cults Work
To understand more thoroughly what is meant when an organization is called a cult it is useful to ask three questions :
Who joins a cult and what does that mean?
Why does anyone join a cult?
Is thought reform or mind control involved?
Those who have studied cults say that no one type of person joins a cult. People of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds may find themselves unwittingly inducted. Initial recruitment can happen when a person is feeling vulnerable for reasons such as divorce, lacking career goals, loneliness, or bereavement. Of course there are many organizations that are clearly not cults, but which offer supportive membership to those who are living with challenging life events. Cults however may be said to take more from their adherents than the adherents are given back.
Why do they join ?
A newcomer to the organisation may think they are joining a cause, that they will be taught a therapeutic method of self-improvement, or that they will be taught some special meditation techniques. Some may be looking for companionship, searching for spiritual answers, desiring a sense of community and belonging, or wanting to contribute to a cause greater than themselves. Again, these reasons do not define a cult but 'cults' do find a ready membership in those who have a 'need'.
Is mind control involved ?
People who become involved in cults rarely understand that there area hidden agendas being played out or that they are the subject of a process of recruitment and indoctrination. These hidden processes are sometimes described as mind-control although a more accurate term is 'coercive thought reform'. Pioneer psychologist Dr Margaret Thaler Singer, has proposed that there are six conditions required to put a system of thought reform in place, of itself thought reform may be considered as something neutral; in cults the process is invariably a coercive one.
The Six Conditions of Coercive Thought Reform (after Singer)
1. Keep the person unaware of what is going on and how she or he is being changed a step at a time.
Potential new members are led, step by step, through a behavioural change program without being aware of the final agenda or full content of the group.
2. Control the person's social and/or physical environment; especially control the person's time.
Through various methods, newer members are kept busy and led to think about the group and its content during as much of their waking time as possible.
3. Systematically create a sense of powerlessness in the person.
This is accomplished by getting members away from the normal social support group for a period of time and into an environment where the majority of people are already group members.
4. Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments and experiences in such a way as to inhibit behaviour that reflects the person's former social identity.
Manipulation of experiences can be accomplished through various methods of trance induction, including leaders using such techniques as paced speaking patterns, guided imagery, chanting, long prayer sessions or lectures, and lengthy meditation sessions.
5. Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences in order to promote learning the group's ideology or belief system and group-approved behaviours.
Good behaviour, such as demonstrating an understanding and acceptance of the group's beliefs, and compliance with those beliefs are rewarded, while questioning, expressing doubts or criticising the group or its leaders are met with disapproval, redress and possible rejection.
6. Put forth a closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure that permits no feedback and refuses to be modified except by leadership approval or executive order.