Not all cults are religious – they can be political, therapy based, or even built around a passion. So, what does define our modern understanding of cults and why do people join them?
Usually a cult is a group or movement with a shared commitment to an extreme ideology that is typically embodied in a charismatic leader. Most cults share some basic characteristics.
A typical cult requires a high level commitment from its members and maintains a strict hierarchy, separating unsuspecting supporters and recruits from its inner workings. It claims to offer answers to lives biggest questions through its doctrine, along with a required recipe for change which shapes a new member into a true believer. Most importantly it uses both informal and formal systems of influence and control to keep members obedient with little tolerance for internal disagreement or external scrutiny.
A cult will seek to control areas of a members live and seek obedience to the cult leader or leaders, who tend to be highly persuasive people with narcissistic and authoritarian streaks motivated by money, power, sex or all three. This is kept hidden from the cult member.
Further expansion acts like a pyramid scheme with more recent members recruiting new ones on behalf of the cult. Cults are skilled at recruitment, with a tendency to focus on those more vulnerable or who are looking for answers.
What makes a cult destructive?
According to Lifton, there are 3 characteristics which provide a basic for the nucleus of a destructive cult. These include:
- An absolute authoritarian leader(s) who is the focus of worship. This leader is the driver of the group.
- You can identify a thought reform program and the group manipulates people to use undue influence over them to pull them in. The program breaks people down and stops critical thinking, gaining undue influence over the person.
- The group hurts people and exploits. It may exploit financially, sexually, psychologically and/or physically.
It is important to note that the beliefs of a group does not determine whether a group is destructive. It is the harm and destruction the group creates, the control implemented and the lack of questioning allowed.
Remember: people do not join cults – they are tricked and manipulated into joining them. Most intelligent and sophisticated people can be tricked and coerced into being trapped into a destructive cult. Cults need productive, dedicated and loyal workers! This is why it is critical that we educate ourselves in areas such as undue influence, mind control, thought reform, coercive persuasion and manipulative sales techniques.
What is a Cult and How Does it Work?
[An excellent comprehensive overview by M. Singer]
Dr. Robert J. Lifton on Destructive Cults