What Is A Cult?
Ask the average person what a cult is and they'll likely reference a religious group with offbeat beliefs or illicit intents.
In the United States, you may even hear a reference to Jonestown, Heaven's Gate, Waco, or "drinking the Kool-Aid".
Let's just call that a start...
On this page, we're diving deep into the question: "What is a cult?"
We'll talk popular conceptions, scholarly definitions, coercive control, and much more.
Table of Contents
Why It's Important To Define Cult
"Cult" is often used to describe groups with strong religious beliefs, charismatic leaders, and zealous followers. Thanks to popular movies, tv shows, newscasts, and documentaries, we're used to thinking of cults as oddly dressed, hyper-sensational, cult-leader-focused ultra-religious groups.
These dangerous and destructive settings deserve to be identified, understood, and treated with caution.
But the word cult isn't just about labelling extremist or fringe groups. We'll talk more about that in a second.
PLC sees it as important to challenge the popular concept of cult for one major reason: improved cult recovery accessibility.
For many who leave high-control situations, it's empowering to say "I left a cult". It's also just as empowering for someone to use more specific language to describe their experience and avoid using the word "cult".
This applies equally to someone who left a spiritually abusive church or any other type of cult.
Regardless of how former members choose to label their experience, the important element is that they are able to understand what the word cult means to them.
So while popular concepts of the term cult are a starting place, we aim to offer a more nuanced perspective.
It's not about "X cult behavior" or drumming up anti-cult movements.
It's not about cult deprogramming or selling movie tickets.
It's about people, their experiences, and why they joined, and how they left.
We choose to respect the label that one chooses to describe their experience.
The last thing you want to do to a person coming out of a controlling system is tell them how they should or shouldn't define their experience.
To that end, the definitions we're exploring are meant as frameworks. They can help people who feel that it applies.
The Popular Concept of a Cult
The reality is that the word "cult" feels like it's lost its meaning these days.
Political movements are called cults.
Celebrity fan bases are called cults.
Popular media are said to have a "cult following."
In a way, "cult" has just become a word that means:
"A group of people I think are weird/wrong/bad because I don't believe the same thing they do."
An oversimplification maybe, but the concept is there.
If these ideas ring true to your idea of a cult, please know that we don't blame you - and you probably shouldn't either.
To make matters worse, "cult" is often used pejoratively - or to express disdain/contempt.
The way these groups have been shown in films, media, and our education system lead to these rather logical conclusions.
It's like how Europeans didn't always want to eat tomatoes because they were a nightshade - a dangerous family of plants. Tomatoes are fine to eat however, and cults can provide beneficial and harming experiences simultaneously. Both can be true.
The problem is, current popular ideas miss out on the nuance of being a cult member (and by extension, being a former cult member).
And if left unchecked, these ideas have the potential to create prejudice toward former cult members.
While charged emotions toward dangerous cults is understandable, it's often a barrier to recovery, rehabilitation, and post-cult relationships for many survivors. Being seen as a "cult member" can be a source of guilt and shame.
If someone says to you "I used to be in a cult" you may have preconceived ideas that color your ongoing opinion of that person. They're probably not warm and fuzzy ideas.
A clearer answer to "what is a cult?" can help you see that many of these people are victims themselves.
And don't get us wrong - we're not here to dismiss any illegal, harmful, or unethical behavior. Rather, we aim to provide grace for people who make mistakes, learn better, and adjust. That's a much better future for everyone.
So, what's a better definition of cult? Well... we're going to explore two.
A Modern Definition of Cult
One of our favorite definitions of cult is as follows:
A group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (such as: 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 judgement, promotion of total dependency on the group in fear of leaving it), designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.
We want to ensure full credit is given to its original wordsmiths too: Louis West and Michael Langone.
The definition above is built on decades of research, discussion, and dedication from some of the 20th century's best minds in the cult recovery field. It is worthy of consideration, study, and further discussion.
This definition is groundbreaking for a number of reasons:
It doesn't say that cults have to be religious in nature.
It doesn't say that a cult has to have a charismatic leader.
It emphasizes devotion or dedication to a person, idea, or thing.
The end being aimed for is not distinctive, although themes exist.
These ideas are helpful because they move beyond the ideas of "charismatic cult leader and religion" as the defining features of cults. Instead, it focuses on harms, the lived experiences of cult members, and coercive control.
In highlighting the elements at play in a cult, it also shoves an unavoidable truth into the spotlight:
Unfortunately, everything involving cults is complicated.
For the sake of brevity, we won't spend much more time on the definition above. In many ways, we feel it speaks for itself and is a worthy explanation of the word "cult."
Where we recommend making a detour is on the idea of coercive control - a foundational element of destructive cults. We'll cover it in a bit more detail in the next section.
A Simpler Definition of Cults
So what is a cult?
Complex definitions are great for debates and scholarship.
But unless you like to memorize things, the definition above probably won't stick with you.
To help make things a bit more memorable, here's the definition that PLC's very own Ashlen Hilliard put forth when discussing "What is a cult?":
A group that is united by a particular cause, person, or idea that involves thought reform, coercive control, and restriction of autonomy.
You may notice that it's significantly shorter. whew
Let's break this one down a bit more:
Group - A minimum of two people
United by a cause, person, or idea - A focusing lens that helps with identification and labeling
Involves thought reform/coercive control - Explains the mechanisms of recruitment and ongoing harm in these settings.
In this definition, the goal is to highlight harm.
A group can be united in a cause, but that doesn't make them a cult per se. The focus for cults is on thought reform and/or coercive control.
The idea is to hone in on how these groups harm - which could be extreme as physical safety, the psychological/spiritual realm, social interactions, or even financial matters. It's broad enough to encompass religious cults, political cults, and much more.
Understanding Coercive Control
The key aspect under consideration in the two definitions above is coercive control.
In recent years, coercive control has begun to make its way into legal conversations. For instance, the UK's 2015 Serious Crimes Act made coercive control an illegal act.
Section 76 of the Act refers to coercive and controlling behavior as a form of domestic abuse, particularly because it represents such a “violation of trust” for victims who have an intimate partner who is putting them through repeated patterns of abuse.
Controlling and coercive behavior is something that can occur over a period of time in order for the perpetrator to exert power, control, or coercion over the victim.
Oftentimes, exerting power and control does not happen overnight, but over an extended period of time through different channels.
The type of force/threat at play can be as simple or sophisticated as the imagination of the cult members or cult leaders involved. Coercive or controlling behavior may look like:
Physical violence or threats of physical violence
Isolating a victim from their sources of support
Businesses taking advantage and using financial power to control employees.
Depriving someone of the means they need for independence.
Cult leaders relying on heightened emotions to convince group members of cult doctrine
Political groups using propaganda or violence to suppress opposition or minority groups
Family relationships where resources, relationships, or opportunities are restricted or forbidden without proper justification.
Manipulating a belief system to secure social and financial support at the expense of low-income participants
A new religious movement using popular media or new language to appeal to young people
Online forums using thought-stopping rhetoric and "brainwashing" techniques to convince readers of false narratives
Coercive control is also distinguished by a continuation of controlling behaviors over time to form a pattern of assaults, threats, humiliation, and intimidation or other forms of abuse used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.
The result of a pattern of abuse can be more insidious than one act of violence too, according to research published by Evan Stark in 2009.
And from our experience working with former cult members, coercive control can lead to complex PTSD, disassociation, and other psychological conditions.
This sort of shows you just how open the flood gates are. For instance, is a criminal organization (like an old-school mafia gang) using coercive control? Well, yeah.
How about the mom group that kicks a friend out and spreads rumors? It's hard to say, but you can't rule it out!
One of the most damaging effects of controlling and coercive behavior is that it creates a trauma bond between perpetrator and victim known as a trauma-coerced attachment.
There's almost a universality of experience with coercion.
Here's where things get trickier - Not everyone who experiences coercive control has been in a cult. But everyone who's been in a cult has experienced coercive control.
Abuses exist everywhere once you start to peel back the wrapping paper.
Coercion is a fact of life for many, and labeling their communities as a "cult" in a pejorative sense can actually push people to further identify with and defend their group.
So in addition to being vigilant for coercion, you'll hopefully be a bit more cautious when using the term cult in the future.
People Join Cults. People Leave Cults.
So what is a cult?
If only it were simple to say!
In the text above, we explored two definitions.
We explored coercive control and why it's important to empower recovery for former cult members.
Here's what we want to leave you with:
Education on coercive control is vital.
Cults exist on a spectrum.
As more people leave harmful cults, recovery, resources, and love will flourish.
Talk to us!
Everyone's situation is unique.
If you are interested in resources, curious about intervention, or want to help spread cult awareness, get in touch!