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For decades, cults have perplexed and even terrified
outsiders. These shadowy and isolated organizations have left a trail of
devastation in their wake. Find out what a cult is and how to spot one.
What Exactly Is a Cult?
The term "cult" most commonly refers to a group of
people who live in relative isolation from the rest of the world and have
unusual beliefs. They tend to center on a charismatic figureâ€”the cult
leaderâ€”who orders the beliefs, behaviors, and customs of all members. Many
cults serve as de facto new religions for their adherents, but some are
What Is the Definition of 'Cult'?
The term "cult" is derived from the Latin word
"cultus," which encompasses the concepts of adoration, education, and
cultivation. Initially, it was used as a catch-all term for groups devoted to a
specific subject. This could be something philosophical and religious, or it
could be something more mundane and material. By the nineteenth century, it had
come to refer to an unconventional group of zealous and eccentric believers.
Nonetheless, the definition of "cult" remains
somewhat broad. While it is often associated with destructive movements and
bizarre forms of belief, it can also refer to an ordinary group of people. A
movie, for example, may have a "cult following," which means it
appeals to a specific group of people. This in no way implies that the film is
Characteristics of a Cult
Each cult has a distinct focus, but almost all of these
groups share at least some characteristics, such as:
Authoritarian control: Cultism is based on encouraging the
greatest amount of dependency. People in the cult must believe they are
incapable of living a life apart from the group's norms. These beliefs are
frequently associated with a devotional attitude toward the group's
Extremist beliefs: Members of cults hold dogmatic and
extreme beliefs. They are also unable to question these belief systems without
fear of retaliation or punishment from the leader or other members of the
Isolation from society: When new members join a cult, other
members work hard to keep them away from family and friends. This contributes
to the leader's desire for mind control. It also creates a sort of hive mind
between the newcomer and the other members.
Individual adoration: Charismatic leaders are frequently at
the center of most cults. Consider the late 1960s Manson family. As the name
implies, they adopted the beliefs of their leader, Charles Manson, and carried
out his orders. The same pattern can be found in almost every other cult,
albeit with less violent outcomes in many cases.
Cults are classified into four types.
There are numerous types of cults, each with its own set of
end goals or beliefs. Here are a few examples of broad categories:
1. Doomsday cults: Certain cults band together to prepare
for what they believe is the impending end of the world. For example, in the
1980s and 1990s, the Branch Davidians stockpiled firearms and explosives in a
Waco, Texas, compound in preparation for the apocalypse. This resulted in a
well-known standoff with the federal government.
2. Political cults: Political organizations on both the left
and right can become cults. Janja Lalich wrote a detailed account of her own
experiences in such a setting.
3. Religious cults: Many cults are founded on spiritual
beliefs. Some cults are sects of mainstream religions, while others offer
entirely new dogmas and theology.
4. Sex cults: While all types of cults may include sexual
abuse, some prioritize sex as one of their primary functions. For example,
before disbanding, New York-based NXIVM encouraged rampant sexual behavior
among its members.
Examples of Cults
Cults have made headlines for their outrageous and sometimes
tragic behavior over the years. Perhaps you've heard of some of these notorious
The Gate to Heaven: Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite
founded Heaven's Gate as a doomsday cult with a focus on UFOs, inspired by the
Book of Revelation. In 1997, all of the members committed suicide in an attempt
to ride a comet passing by Earth.
The Temple of the People: Before moving to Guyana, Jim
Jones, a charismatic preacher from the United States, founded the Peoples
Temple to spread his own brand of Christianity. There, he established
Jonestown, a compound for his religious followers. They committed mass suicide
The Unification Church: A new religious movement that began in
South Korea and spread throughout the world. All adherents follow Sun Myung
Moon's teachings, hence their colloquial nickname (the Moonies).
What Motivates People to Join Cults?
People join cult movements for a variety of reasons, the
most common of which are a desire for meaning and community. Many people who
join such organizations come from troubled backgrounds and struggle to fit in.
They may also believe that mainstream culture has no place for them and has
nothing of spiritual value to offer.
Former cult members frequently describe the deep loneliness
and nihilism they felt before becoming a part of something bigger than
themselves. This encourages them to lower their guard and accept the strangers
in their new communities. Of course, in extreme cases, this has resulted in
horrific and even fatal outcomes.