What is a Cult?
Who in our over-stimulated, media-saturated, hyper-connected world would ever go and knowingly join a cult? The answer is no one.
No one wakes up one morning and decides to join a cult. Even if someone did, good luck trying to look up the address for the nearest local cult, for there isn’t a single group that would ever admit to or advertises as being a cult. And why would they? The word ‘cult’ is explosive, loaded with connotations of brainwashing, lunatics, and mass suicide — not exactly an ideal marketing strategy. For the most part, cults are keenly and obsessively aware of their public persona and consciously labor to maintain a positive image.
Scrolling through their websites, their mission statements are warmly fuzzy and vague; they promise redemption, renewal, rejuvenation, and reinvention. They offer answers, solutions, and happiness. It’s all there, yours for the taking. What isn’t included is the reality beneath the surface, the leader’s demands for obedience from its members, the psychological pressure, the ability to subordinate all activities to the leader’s will.
But most people don’t find and join cults through internet searches. Most people stumble upon them accidentally. A flyer in the laundromat for a free meditation class. A listing in the newspaper for a community service project. A poster at the library for a musical performance. Recruitment is purposefully subtle; the pull is gentle, gradual. Events are welcoming; attention is lavished on the visitor with the intention to create an environment that feels inclusive, nonthreatening, and safe. The visitor is warmly encouraged to return, to step in closer. It is not until later, often much later, that one may look around and, with great surprise, discover the strange terrain upon which one now stands.
Cults, whether they are offshoots of eastern or western traditional religions, are surprisingly similar in their methods and means. The tactics and techniques used to recruit, maintain and disown noncompliant members seem pulled from a universal handbook of do’s and don’ts. With all of their rules and restrictions, laws, and codes, ultimately cults are about grasping and preserving absolute and unconditional control. Cults are fueled by and thrive on control. The willingness to surrender control comes from excessive devotion to the leader and the leader’s vision. The leader’s personal agenda is presented as a universal elixir, one that will eradicate both personal and global moral, ethical, and spiritual maladies. The follower’s faith becomes both the provider and the enabler. Faith in the mission, faith in the leader is an agent used to unify a disparate collection of strong individuals from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. The loss of the individual is the gain of the group. Individual achievements are discouraged, downplayed, and finally eradicated while the group’s achievements are encouraged, celebrated, and memorialized.
To maintain the unity and cohesion of the cult, there is a clear separation between those ‘inside’ and ‘outside.’ members are holy, special, chosen; outsiders are unholy, ignorant, toxic. Contact with the outside world — often including family — is discouraged, and family is redefined as the group itself. In this new family, subjugation and subservience are expected and obedience and control are demanded. From one’s sexuality to one’s personal hygiene, the leader possesses unquestioned, absolute authority over its members’ lives. For a cult leader, it is imperative to seem infallible, to possess the answers, the solutions, the only route to salvation. The leader is fierce in singular righteousness, in the design to hail oneself absolutely. A narcissist with insatiable needs for power, control, and, very often fame, the leader seeks affirmation of supreme authority through alignment with public figures and celebrities, achieving large numbers of recruits, and amassing private fiefdoms.
Through the need to please the leader, to ascend the ranks, to work to fulfill the leader’s vision, cults dictate followers’ actions and thoughts. Obedient members receive exalted status and conformity is enforced through notions of guilt, shame, and failure by both the leader and other members. A system of reporting on members for transgressions creates both an internal police force and opportunities for promotion and rewards for turning in brother and sister members. Those who violate the rules are punished and eventually, to maintain the coherent group unity, expelled. After time, the group assumes all roles — family, friends, church, home, work, community, and departing, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, after years or even decades, without having a concrete safety net is challenging, and sometimes utterly impossible. The world on the other side appears frightening and overwhelming.
Just who is so easily swept up in the group-think and loss of individuality that are hallmarks of cults? A misconception is that there is a certain ‘type’ — usually imbalanced, weak — that not only finds themselves caught inside a cult but that isn’t able to extract themselves from it. The truth is, there isn’t one typical profile, ‘type.’ people with advanced degrees and people without any formal education are both equally likely to find themselves swaddled in orange robes or holed up in a compound. The urge to be a part of something is elemental, raw, and natural. To have a defined goal, a purpose, offers meaning. Most people strive for acceptance within social groups and long for affirmation from others. Be it in an office or country club, adjustments are made to conform, to gain approval, and to advance.
In cults, extremism is the norm. When hyper devotion is expected behavior, for acceptance new recruits tend to rapidly thrust themselves into the prescribed lifestyle much to the chagrin of their family and friends on the ‘outside.’ there is no blame, no-fault for having the audacity to plunge into belief, into faith so deeply, so forcefully that critical and analytical red flags, even if they once appeared, are snapped off. Belief and faith are such intoxicants that logical reason and facts become blurry and nonsensical.
While the boundary between cults and religion often feels confusing — the Oxford English dictionary’s definitions differ only slightly with cults being “small” in size and possessing “beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.” Deciding what is strange or sinister certainly depends on the beholder. When accusations of being in a cult appear, members quickly and vehemently deny they are in a cult — they are part of a ‘spiritual path,’ a ‘special church,’ a ‘progressive movement’ — other groups are cults, but not theirs. No way.
Perhaps it is more useful to discern what a religious movement is or what a cult is by comparing its impact upon members’ lives: does it compliment or control? At their best, healthy religions and organizations complement rich, full lives by offering balance, community, comfort. At their worst, they lapse into vehicles demanding control. Cults limit lives into narrow, claustrophobic existences whose singular purpose is the cult itself. Cult leaders, experts in psychological manipulation, prey on both the follower’s ability to believe and need to belong. But this type of behavior is hardly limited to cults. After all, the aptitude and capacity to exploit human beings are universal, and, with the right ambitious and charismatic leader, any group easily could morph into a cult. What prevents that from occurring is that most established religions and groups have accountability mechanisms that restrain that from happening; cults, however, are purposefully designed so that the only restraints are the ones placed upon the people who, without even realizing it, have just done what they never thought they would do — join a cult.
Is it a cult? The top ten signs the ‘group’ you’ve joined is not what it seems
- The leader and group are always correct and anything the leader does can be justified.
- Questions, suggestions, or critical inquiry are forbidden.
- Members incessantly scramble with cramped schedules and activities full of largely meaningless work based on the leader’s agenda
- Followers are meant to believe that they are never good enough.
- Required dependency upon the leader and group for even the most basic problem-solving.
- Reporting on members for disobedient actions or thoughts is mandated and rewarded.
- Monetary, sexual, or servile labor is expected to gain promotion.
- The ‘outside’ world — often including family and friends — is presented as rife with impending catastrophe, evil, and temptations.
- Recruitment of new members is designed to be purposefully upbeat and vague about the actual operations of the leader and group.
- Former members are shunned and perceived as hostile.
Jayanti Tamm is the author of Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult (Three Rivers Press). She is a visiting professor in the MFA program at Queens College, Cuny.