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What is a Cult?

There are many alternatives to how one might define a cult, and especially destructive cult. We use the definition given by the Interfaith Coalition of Concern About Cults, New York, of which we are founding members.

Destructive Cult Characteristics:

  1. Self-appointed messianic leader(s) who focuses followers’ veneration upon him or her, claims divine selection, and exercises autocratic control over members’ lives.
  2. Use of deception and misrepresentation for purposes of recruitment, retention and fundraising.
  3. Techniques aimed at controlling individual thought and personal privacy that frequently lead to a coerced reconstitution of personality.

To be considered a destructive cult, a group must have all of the above to one degree or another.

Other characteristics:

A destructive cult is almost any kind of organization whose followers have been deceptively and unethically recruited and retained. They use manipulative techniques, which are imposed without the informed consent of the recruit and are designed to alter personality and behavior. These groups are only concerned about advancing the mission or business of the group, and not the well being of the individual members. The leadership is interested in control, power, and self-aggrandizement.


  • Give total and unquestioning loyalty to a leader as a living deity or prophet.
  • Use deception and manipulation to recruit and keep members.


  • Is charismatic.
  • Holds a uniquely exalted position.
  • Claims an exclusive relationship with God, truth, happiness, etc.


  • Complete and total loyalty and obedience to the leader.
  • Complete and literal acceptance of the leader’s teachings.
  • Unquestioning devotion to the group and its leader.


  • Unethical in their practices.
  • Designed to advance the goal of the group’s leader, often to the detriment of its members.
  • Dangerous because they separate people from their families, friends and other support networks. In this way, cults foster in their members feelings of complete dependency and sometimes isolation from outside influences.


What Types of Cults Are There?

Cults come in different forms, and have different areas of interest. They promise to answer a variety of questions, and solve life’s problems.

  • Bible based
  • Eastern Meditation
  • Therapy/self-awareness
  • Political
  • Commercial/corporate
  • New Age
  • Satanic
  • One-on-One (one leader, and one or two followers)
  • Scientific
  • Philosophical

Some cults are a combination of types, and incorporate many beliefs including those idiosyncratic to the leader. Some groups are very small while others are large, with subsidiaries and many aliases.


What are the Marks of a Destructive Cult?

  • UNDUE INFLUENCE: Manipulation by use of psychologically sophisticated techniques such as coercive persuasion or behavior modification. (SEE BELOW)
  • CHARISMATIC LEADER: Claims divinity or special knowledge and demands unquestioning obedience. Doubting or questioning the leader’s authority is not tolerated. Leadership may consist of one individual or a small core of leaders. Leaders live a life of privilege and often one of wealth.
  • DECEPTION: Recruits and fundraises with hidden objectives, without full disclosure of the use of funds or the use of mind controlling techniques. Many cults use "front groups" to conceal their identity.
  • EXCLUSIVITY: Secretiveness or vagueness by followers regarding activities and beliefs.
  • ALIENATION: Separation from family, friends and society; a change in values and substitution of the cult as the new "family;" evidence of subtle or abrupt personality changes.
  • EXPLOITATION: Can be financial, physical, or psychological. This may include pressure to give money, by spending a great deal on courses or by giving excessively to special projects; pressure to work at menial or other jobs for excessive hours without adequate rest or nutrition; and pressure on adults and children to engage in inappropriate and often abusive sexual activities.
  • BLACKS AND WHITE WORLDVIEW (we\they syndrome): Everything in the group is good while everything outside the group (including individual goals) is evil, bad, or crazy. While claiming goodness, unethical behaviors are used to promote group goals.

Techniques of undue influence (thought reform)

  • GROUP PRESSURE and "LOVE BOMBING" discourages doubts and reinforces the need to belong through the use of child - like games, singing, hugging, touching, or flattery.
  • ISOLATION\SEPARATION creates inability or lack of desire to verify information provided by the group with reality.
  • THOUGHT-STOPPING TECHNIQUES introduce recruit to meditating, chanting, and repetitious activities which, when used excessively, induce a state of high suggestibility and dependency on the group.
  • FEAR and GUILT induced by eliciting confessions to produce intimacy and to reveal fears and secrets, to create emotional vulnerability by overt and covert threats, as well as alternation of punishment and reward.
  • SLEEP DEPRIVATION encouraged under the guise of spiritual exercises, necessary training, or urgent projects.
  • INADEQUATE NUTRITION sometimes disguised as special diet to improve health or advance spirituality, or as rituals requiring fasting.
  • SENSORY OVERLOAD forces acceptance of complex new doctrine, goals, and definitions to replace old values by expecting recruit to assimilate masses of information quickly with little opportunity for critical examination.

NOTE: Not all of these features need to be present simultaneously for a mind control regime to be operative.



Dr. Robert J. Lifton’s 8 Criteria for Thought Reform

  1. Environmental Control - The purposeful limitation of all forms of communication with the outside world.
  2. Mystical Manipulation - Extensive personal manipulation is used to provoke specific patterns of behavior and emotion in such a way that they will appear to have arisen spontaneously.
  3. The Demand for Purity - The world is sharply divided between pure and impure with the group in the role of ultimate judge. Normal urges and tendencies become sins, and shame is used to control.
  4. Confession - Carried beyond its ordinary expressions to the point of becoming a cult itself. This enhances the group’s hold upon the person and their guilt; is an act of symbolic self-surrender; is a means of maintaining a tone of total exposure; and makes it impossible to attain a reasonable balance between worth and humility.
  5. The aura of Sacred Silence - Prohibiting any questioning of the basic dogma, the cult’s laws, regulations and rules are absolute and must be followed.
  6. Loading the language - Characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most complex of problems are compressed into brief, definitive sounding phrases, easily memorized and expressed.
  7. Doctrine Over Persons - The value of an individual member is insignificant compared to the value of the group.
  8. Dispensing of Existence - The cult environment draws a sharp line between those whose right to existence can be reorganized and those who possess no such right. The religious cult draws a sharp line between not only those who will or will not be saved but other individuals and groups who are not acceptable.

Source: Margaret Thaler Singer with Janja Lalich, "Cults in Our Midst", copyright 1995, John Wiley and Sons Inc., pp. 69-74


Dr. Margaret T. Singer’s 6 Conditions for Thought Reform

  1. Keep the person unaware of what is going on and how she is being changed a step at a time. Potential new members are led, step-by-step, through a behavioral-change program without being aware of the final agenda or full content of the group. The goal may be to make them deployable agents for the leadership, to get them to buy more courses, or get them to make a deeper commitment, depending on the leader’s aim and desires.
  2. Control the person’s social and/or physical environment; especially control the person’s time. Through various methods, new members are kept busy and led to think about the group and its content during as much of their waking time as possible.
  3. Systematically create a sense of powerlessness in the person. This is accomplished by getting members away from the normal social support group for a period of time and into an environment where the majority of people are already group members. The members serve as models of the attitudes and behaviors of the group and speak an in-group language.
  4. Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments and experience in such a ways as to inhibit behavior that reflects the person’s former social identity. Manipulation of experiences can be accomplished through various methods of trance induction, including leaders using such techniques as paced speaking patterns, guided imagery, chanting, long prayer sessions or lectures, and lengthy mediation sessions.
  5. Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences in order to promote learning the group’s ideology or belief system and group-approved behaviors. Good behavior, demonstrating an understanding and acceptance of the group’s beliefs, and compliance are rewarded while questioning, expressing doubts or criticizing are met with disapproval, redress and possible rejection. If one expresses a question, he or she is made to feel that there is something inherently wrong with them to be questioning.
  6. Put forth a closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure that permits no feedback and refuses to be modified except by leadership approval or executive order. The group has a top-down, pyramid structure. The leaders must have verbal ways of never losing. (Singer, 1995)

Source: Margaret Thaler Singer with Janja Lalich, "Cults in Our Midst", copyright 1995, John Wiley and Sons, Inc., pp. 64-69.

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