Why Do People Join Cults?

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Note on Content: This article may contain references to sensitive topics such as violence and death.

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 figure”the cult leader”who orders the beliefs, behaviors, and customs of all members. Many cults serve as de facto new religions for their adherents, but some are irreligious.


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 malicious.


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 authoritarian leader.

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 group.

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 cultic organizations:

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 in 1978.

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.

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