While most scholars no longer refer to any new religious movements as cults, some sociologists still favor retaining the word as it was used in church-sect typologies. For this value-neutral use of the word, please refer to new religious movements. Other scholars and non-academic researchers who use the word do so from explicitly critical perspectives which focus on the relationship between cult groups and the individual people who join them. These perspectives share the assumption that some form of coercive persuasion or mind control is used to recruit and maintain members by suppressing their ability to reason, think critically, and make choices in their own best interest. However, most social scientists believe that mind control theories have no scientific merit in relation to religious movements.
- People are put in physical or emotionally distressing situations;
- Their problems are reduced to one simple explanation, which is repeatedly emphasized;
- They receive unconditional love, acceptance, and attention from a charismatic leader or group;
- They get a new identity based on the group;
- They are subject to entrapment (isolation from friends, relatives and the mainstream culture) and their access to information is severely controlled.
This view is disputed by scholars such as James Gene, Bette Nove Evans, Margaret Singer and Dennis Tourish, among others, while the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion stated in 1990 that there was not sufficient research to permit a consensus on the matter and that “one should not automatically equate the techniques involved in the process of physical coercion and control with those of nonphysical coercion and control”.
Potential for harm
In the opinion of Benjamin Zablocki, a professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, groups that have been characterized as cults are at high risk of becoming abusive to members. He states that this is in part due to members’ adulation of charismatic leaders contributing to the leaders becoming corrupted by power. Zablocki defines a cult as an ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and the demands total commitment. According to Barrett, the most common accusation made against groups referred to as cults is sexual abuse (See some allegations made by former members). According to Kranenborg, some groups are risky when they advise their members not to use regular medical care.
Michael Langone gives three different models for conversion. Under Langone’s deliberative model, people are said to join cults primarily because of how they view a particular group. Langone notes that this view is most favored among sociologists and religious scholars. Under the “psychodynamic model,” popular with some mental health professionals, individuals choose to join for fulfillment of subconscious psychological needs. Finally, the “thought reform model” posits that people do not join because of their own psychological needs, also because of the group’s influence through forms of psychological manipulation. Langone claims that those mental health experts who have more direct experience with large numbers of cultists tend to favor this latter view.
Some scholars favor one particular view, or combined elements of each. According to Marc Gallanter, typical reasons why people join cults include a search for community and a spiritual quest. Stark and Bainbridge, in discussing the process by which individuals join new religious groups, have even questioned the utility of the concept of conversion, suggesting that affiliation is a more useful concept.
There are at several ways people leave a cult: Popular authors Conway and Siegelman conducted a survey and published it in the book Snapping regarding after-cult effects and deprogramming and concluded that people deprogrammed had fewer problems than people not deprogrammed. The BBC writes that, “in a survey done by Jill Mytton on 200 former cult members most of them reported problems adjusting to society and about a third would benefit from some counseling”.
Ronald Burks, in a study comparing Group Psychological Abuse Scale (GPA) and Neurological Impairment Scale (NIS) scores in 132 former members of cults and cultic relationships, found a positive correlation between intensity of reform environment as measured by the GPA and cognitive impairment as measured by the NIS. Additional findings were a reduced earning potential in view of the education level that corroborates earlier studies of cult critics (Martin 1993; Singer & Ofshe, 1990; West & Martin, 1994) and significant levels of depression and dissociation agreeing with Conway & Siegelman, (1982), Lewis & Bromley, (1987) and Martin, et al. (1992).
Sociologists Bromley and Hadden note a lack of empirical support for claimed consequences of having been a member of a “cult” or “sect”, and substantial empirical evidence against it. These include the fact that the overwhelming proportion of people who get involved in NRMs leave, most short of two years; the overwhelming proportion of people who leave do so of their own volition; and that two-thirds (67%) felt “wiser for the experience.”
According to F. Derks and J. van der Lans, there is no uniform post-cult trauma. While psychological and social problems upon resignation are not uncommon, their character and intensity are greatly dependent on the personal history and on the traits of the ex-member, and on the reasons for and way of resignation.
The report of the “Swedish Government’s Commission on New Religious Movements” (1998) states that the great majority of members of new religious movements derive positive experiences from their subscription to ideas or doctrines which correspond to their personal needs, and that withdrawal from these movements is usually quite undramatic, as these people leave feeling enriched by a predominantly positive experience. Although the report describes that there are a small number of withdrawals that require support (100 out of 50,000+ people), the report did not recommend that any special resources be established for their rehabilitation, as these cases are very rare.
Stuart A. Wright explores the distinction between the apostate narrative and the role of the apostate, asserting that the former follows a predictable pattern, in which the apostate utilizes a “captivity narrative” that emphasizes manipulation, entrapment and being victims of “sinister cult practices”. These narratives provide a rationale for a “hostage-rescue” motif, in which cults are likened to POW camps and deprogramming as heroic hostage rescue efforts. He also makes a distinction between “leavetakers” and “apostates“, asserting that despite the popular literature and lurid media accounts of stories of “rescued or recovering ‘ex-cultists'”, empirical studies of defectors from NRMs “generally indicate favorable, sympathetic or at the very least mixed responses toward their former group.”
According to the anti-cult movement
Secular cult opponents like those belonging to the anti-cult movement tend to define a “cult” as a group that tends to manipulate, exploit, and control its members. Specific factors in cult behavior are said to include manipulative and authoritarian mind control over members, communal and totalistic organization, aggressive proselytizing, systematic programs of indoctrination, and perpetuation in middle-class communities.
While acknowledging the issue of multiple definitions of the word, Michael Langone states that: “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.” A similar definition is given by Louis Jolyon West:
- “A cult is 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 (e.g. isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of [consequences of] leaving it, etc.) designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.”
Some critics of media sensationalism argue that the stigma surrounding the classification of a group as a cult results largely from exaggerated portrayals of weirdness in media stories. The narratives of ill effects include perceived threats presented by a cult to its members, and risks to the physical safety of its members and to their mental and spiritual growth.
Criticism by former members
The role of former members, or “apostates,” has been widely studied by social scientists. At times, these individuals become outspoken public critics of the groups they leave. Their motivations, the roles they play in the anti-cult movement, the validity of their testimony, and the kinds of narratives they construct, are controversial. Some scholars like David G. Bromley, Anson Shupe, and Brian R. Wilson have challenged the validity of the testimonies presented by critical former members. Wilson discusses the use of the atrocity story that is rehearsed by the apostate to explain how, by manipulation, coercion, or deceit, he was recruited to a group that he now condemns. The hostile ex-members would invariably shade the truth and blow out of proportion minor incidents, turning them into major incidents. Bromley and Shupe similarly discuss “captivity narratives” that depict the time in the group as involuntary and point out that the apostate is likely to present a caricature of his former group. Introvigne found in his study of the New Acropolis in France, that public negative testimonies and attitudes were only voiced by a minority of the ex-members, who he describes as becoming “professional enemies” of the group they leave. Scholars who tend to side more with critical former members are usually critical of cults themselves and include Margaret Singer, Benjamin Zablocki and Philip Lucas. Zablocki performed an empirical study that concludes that the reliability of former members was equal to that of those who stayed in one particular group. Lucas found the same empirical results.
Stigmatization and discrimination
Because of the increasingly pejorative use of the words “cult” and “cult leader” since the cult debate of the 1970s, some scholars and groups referred to as cults argue that these are words to be avoided.
Catherine Wessinger (Loyola University New Orleans) has stated that the word “cult” represents just as much prejudice and antagonism as racial slurs or derogatory words for women and homosexuals. She has argued that it is important for people to become aware of the bigotry conveyed by the word, drawing attention to the way it dehumanises the group’s members and their children. Labeling a group as subhuman, she says, becomes a justification for violence against it. At the same time, she adds, labeling a group a “cult” makes people feel safe, because the “violence associated with religion is split off from conventional religions, projected onto others, and imagined to involve only aberrant groups.” This fails to take into account that child abuse, sexual abuse, financial extortion and warfare have also been committed by believers of mainstream religions, but the pejorative “cult” stereotype makes it easier to avoid confronting this uncomfortable fact.
The concept of “cult” as an epithet was legally tested in the United Kingdom when a protester refused to put down a sign that read, “Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult”, citing a 1984 high court judgment describing the organization as a cult. The London police issued a summons to the protester for violating the Public Order Act by displaying a “threatening, abusive or insulting” sign. The Crown Prosecution Service ruled that the word “cult” on a sign, “…is not abusive or insulting and there is no offensiveness, as opposed to criticism, neither in the idea expressed nor in the mode of expression.” There was no action taken against the protester, and police would allow future such demonstrations. In Scotland, an official of the Edinburgh City Council told inquiring regular protesters, “I understand that some of the signs you use may display the word ‘cult’ and there is no objection to this.”
Sociologist Amy Ryan has argued for the need to differentiate those groups that may be dangerous from groups that are more benign. Ryan notes the sharp differences between definition from cult opponents, who tend to focus on negative characteristics, and those of sociologists, who aim to create definitions that are value-free. The movements themselves may have different definitions of religion as well. George Chryssides also cites a need to develop better definitions to allow for common ground in the debate.
These definitions have political and ethical impact beyond just scholarly debate. In Defining Religion in American Law, Bruce J. Casino presents the issue as crucial to international human rights laws. Limiting the definition of religion may interfere with freedom of religion, while too broad a definition may give some dangerous or abusive groups “a limitless excuse for avoiding all unwanted legal obligations.”
Some authors in the cult opposition dislike the word cult to the extent it implies that there is a continuum with a large gray area separating “cult” from “noncult” which they do not see. Others authors, e.g. Steven Hassan, differentiate by using words and terms like “Destructive cult,” or “Cult” (totalitarian type) vs. “benign cult.”
An additional commonly used subcategory of cult movements are the doomsday cults, characterized by the central role played by eschatology in these groups’ belief systems. Although most religious movements adhere to some beliefs about the eventual end of the world as we know it, in doomsday cults, these tend to take the form of concrete prophesies and predictions of specific catastrophic events being imminent, or in some cases, even expected to occur on a particular calendar date. This category of religious movements includes some well-known cases of extremely destructive behavior by adherents in anticipation of the end of times, such as the mass suicide by members of the Peoples Temple in 1978, the Branch Davidians in 1993 and the Heaven’s Gate in 1997, although many examples are known of doomsday cults that do not become nearly as destructive. This latter class of doomsday cults are of theoretical interest to the scholarly study of cults, because of the often paradoxical response of adherents to the failure of doomsday prophesies to be confirmed. Social psychologist Leon Festinger and his collaborators performed a detailed case study of one such group in 1954, subsequently documented in “When Prophecy Fails“. The members of a small, obscure UFO cult in question were very quick to amend their world-view so as to rationalize the unexpected outcome without losing their conviction about the validity of the underlying belief system, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary. The authors explained this phenomenon within the framework of the cognitive dissonance theory, which posits that people are in general motivated to adjust their beliefs so as to be consistent with their behavior, in order to avoid the painful experience of a dissonance between the two. On this account, the more committed one is at the behavioral level to their beliefs being true, the more driven one is to reduce the tension created by dis-confirming evidence. An important implication of this theory is that common, universal psychological factors contribute to the persistence of what otherwise appear to be bizarre and even absurd set of beliefs.