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This article is about abusive or destructive cults. See also: cult film, cult television, cult radio.
The literal and traditional meaning of the word cult, from the Latin cultus, meaning "care" or "adoration", is "a system of religious belief or ritual; or: the body of adherents to same." In formal use, and in non-English European terms, the cognates of the English word "cult" are neutral, and refer mainly to divisions within a single faith, a purpose to which "sect" is put in English. Hence, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant are cults within Christianity.

Since the 1960s, in English-speaking countries, especially in North America, most English speakers have adopted the term in a pejorative sense to denote groups, many of them with religious themes, that exploit their members psychologically and financially using group-based persuasion techniques (sometimes called “mind control”). Unlike legitimate religious movements, cults are characterized by high levels of dependency, exploitation, and compliance with demands of leadership that are unrelated to religion.

90% or more of cult members ultimately leave the group. [2,3]

Table of contents

Definitions of the term "cult," and alternative language

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 [1]

Cult: 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 . . . designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community. [7]

The best characterisation of use of the term cult is that it remains controversial.

Critics have tried to apply the cult label to legitimate religious movements in an effort to discredit them. Some conservative Christian writers have been particularly quick to call any religious movement that they disagree with a cult. There are also some spiritually abusive[?] churches that have many cultlike characteristics, but are not cults. The largest cults are well-financed and have active, ongoing public relations efforts. A major goal of these efforts is to load the language (see below) by broadening the popular definition of a cult to the point where the term becomes meaningless.

Such groups often defend their position by comparing themselves to more established, mainstream religious groups such as Catholicism and Judaism. The argument offered in this case can usually be simplified as, "Christianity and Judaism can also be defined as cults under some definitions of the term, therefore the term cult is superfluous and useless."

Some serious researchers of religion and sociology prefer to use terms such as New Religious Movement in their research on cults. Such usage may lead to confusion because there do exist fringe religious movements that are not abusive.

Psychologists and other mental health professionals use the terms cult, abusive cult, or destructive cult. These are also the most common terms in the popular press.

Historical Examples

Here are some extreme examples of destructive cults:

  • In 1997, 39 followers of the Heaven’s Gate cult died in a mass suicide. Male members of the cult underwent castration in preparation for the suicide

  • Aum Shinri Kyo murdered 12 subway passengers with sarin gas in a Tokyo subway. Over 5000 others were wounded. The group still operates and has over 7,000 members, though it has changed its name to "Aleph".


As of 1995, between 3,000 and 5,000 cults existed in the United States. [5] The majority of these groups vigorously protest[?] the label "cult" and refuse to be classified as such, but the more well-known and influential of these groups are often viewed as "cults" by the public at large. These groups often expend large amounts of energy and money engaging in public relations campaigns to rid themselves of the association with the term "cult." A number of these groups appear in the Wikipedia list of purported cults.

Shared Practices

While the religious, philosophical, and spiritual beliefs vary widely from one cult to the next, the actions of cults have striking similarity. Many checklists of cult behavior have been published, and sources differ in the terminology they use and how they group the behaviors together. [1,3,5] Some common items that set abusive cults apart from other organizations include:

  • Milieu control – Cults seek to control members' sources of information and social interaction. They encourage members to sever communication and relationships with friends and family members.
  • Infallibility, or “The Sacred Science” – Cults teach that the chosen philosophy or experiential panacea is the only path to salvation. Cults discourage critical and rational thinking. Those that question or challenge what the cult offers are denied access or exiled.
  • Mystical Manipulation – Cults ascribe events to supernatural influences even where these are not present.
  • Demand for purity – Cults have unreachably high standards for the behavior of their members.
  • Confession – Even trivial violations of the group’s demand for purity must be confessed immediately and thoroughly, often to a large group.
  • Loading the language – Cults redefine common words and use thought-terminating catchphrases as an answer to questions.

Additionally, many cults have the following characteristics, though they are not as unique to cults as the ones listed above:

  • Authoritarianism -- Control of the organization stems from an absolute leader or a small circle of elite commanders
  • Secret doctrines - certain "secret" (esoteric) teachings that must not ever be revealed to the outside world
  • Promised Ones - members of the cult are encouraged to believe they were chosen, or made their choice to join the cult, because they are special or superior
  • Fire and Brimstone - leaving the cult, or failing at one's endeavor to complete the requirements to achieve its panacea, will result in consequences greater than if one had never joined the cult in the first place.
  • Shunning -- members who leave may not contact members who remain

External Links Note: The Internet offers a great deal of material beyond the following list:

  • Cult Index (http://www.csj.org/infoserv_groups/grp_index.htm). An anti-cult site.

  • Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation Frame (http://www.neopagan.net/ABCDEF) (ABCDEF), by Isaac Bonewits (a pseudonym, we presume). A somewhat tongue-in-cheek 15-point "checklist" of the factors that the author suggests can be used for personal evaluation of groups that may be classified as cults.

See also

sect, New Religious Movement, mind control, brainwashing, deprogramming, purported cults, homicidal cults, shunning


  • 1 William Chambers, Michael Langone, Arthur Dole & James Grice, "The Group Psychological Abuse Scale: A Measure of the Varieties of Cultic Abuse", Cultic Studies Journal, 11(1), 1994. The definition of a cult given above is based on a study of 308 former members of 101 groups.

  • 2 Barker E. "The Ones Who Got Away: People Who Attend Unification Church Workshops and Do Not Become Moonies". In: Barker E, ed. Of Gods and Men: New Religious Movements in the West. Macon, Ga. : Mercer University Press; 1983.

  • 3 Galanter M. "Unification Church ('Moonie') dropouts: psychological readjustment after leaving a charismatic religious group". Am J Psychiatry. 1983;140(8):984-989.

  • 4 Enroth, Ronald. Churches that Abuse

  • 5 Singer, M with Lalich, J (1995). Cults in Our Midst, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

  • 6 Aronoff, Jodi; Lynn, Steven Jay; Malinosky, Peter. “Are cultic environments psychologically harmful?” Clinical Psychology Review, 2000, Vol. 20 #1 pp. 91-111

  • 7 West, L. J., & Langone, M. D. (1985). Cultism: A conference for scholars and policy makers. Summary of proceedings of the Wingspread conference on cultism, September 9–11. Weston, MA: American Family Foundation.

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