What is a Cult?
There are numerous definitions of cults. Generally speaking, they include a number of criteria which define a particular group as a cult. It is important to note that few groups fill every criteria and in that respect the definitions should be use only as a guide.
In assessing an individual's involvement in a cult, it is important to look at both the group and the behaviour of the person involved. There are numerous examples of people who become involved in cults on an experimental or 'casual' level. They emerge without suffering any of the long-term effects of cultism. On the other hand there are people who become involved in mainstream religious, political or community groups and whose behaviour has much in common with that of a cult member
In the introduction to Recovery from Cults , Michael Langone Ph.D defines a cult as follows:
"A cult is a group or movement that, to a significant degree, (a) exhibits great or excessive devotion or dedication to some idea or thing, (b) uses a thought reform program to persuade, control and socialize members (i.e to integrate them into the group's unique pattern of relationships, beliefs, values and practices), (c) systematically induces states of psychological dependency in members, (d) exploits members to advance the leadership's goals, and (e) causes psychological harm to members, their families and the community."
According to Robert J. Lifton, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, cults can be identified by three characteristics: (a) a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles which may have sustained the group lose power; (b) a process of coercive persuasion or thought reform; (3) economic, sexual and other exploitation of group members by the leader.
One of best known sets of criteria by which a cult can be judged has been provided by Robert Lifton. Lifton has studied Chinese thought reform of the 1950's as well as the study of the psychology of Nazi doctors. In doing so he has arrived at a list of eight definitive characteristics of cult organizations. These eight characteristics have since become a mental health standard. He suggests that the best way in to determine whether a particular group is destructive is to compare its behaviour and conduct with these eight criteria.
Many people think that cult involvement will invariably involve the donning of a sari, a name change (usually to an Indian Sanskrit alternative), the loss of study or employment opportunity, a major financial commitment and a possible total breakdown in family communication. Whilst some of this imagery and practice may be true, it is rare that a cult will involve everyone of these practices.
Many cults have no visible eastern connections and there is no outward indication whatsoever of affiliation. Some family communication may be maintained and the cult member may remain in employment. What lies at the heart of the cult experience is the process of psychological manipulation whereby the individual loses the individual freedom and ability to make independent decisions. The cult victim becomes totally dependent on the cult's system, authority and environment and essentially substitutes this newfound orientation for their family of origin and earlier belief system.
Not all cults are 'religious' in nature. Many cults use religion and spirituality in order to achieve their goals; however there are many other types of cults. Pyramid selling organizations, psychotherapeutic and personal development groups and even individual therapists can create situation which are no less cult-like than those created by the swamis and the gurus in the ashrams and the temples. If anything, because some of these groups do not present as religious or spiritual in nature, the innocent participant is at even greater risk of being duped and eventually controlled.
Ultimately, the real danger of the cult is the power and control which is vested in the leader and the image of omnipotence which he assumes. In turn their mind manipulated followers continue to surrender their independence and decision making abilities including their most precious possessions including their children, partners, privacy, money and ultimately their minds.