most of us hear the word "cult," we see a bunch of brainwashed
zombies feeding their children cyanide-laced fruit drink, mass
murders, a burning compound in Waco, Texas -- it's not a pretty
picture. But is it a true picture? What exactly is a "cult," and
how is it different from a "religion"? Are all cults dangerous?
Are people who join destructive cults mentally disturbed, or are
all of us equally susceptible?
this article, we'll separate fact from propaganda and learn
what a cult actually is, what practices characterize a
destructive cult and look at some of the more notable cult
incidents in recent history.
The cults that make the news and drive fear through the hearts of
parents sending their kids to college are the exception, not the
rule. At its most basic, a cult is simply a small, unestablished,
non-mainstream religious group that typically revolves around a
single leader. The American Heritage Dictionary defines "cult"
- A religion or religious
sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with
its followers often living in an unconventional manner
under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic
- A system or community of
religious worship and ritual.
first definition is closer to the common usage of the term
today, but you'll notice there's no mention of brainwashing,
murder or mass suicide. There is no meaningful difference
between a cult and a religion in terms of faith, morality or
spirituality. The primary differences are that a "cult" operates
outside of mainstream society, often calls on its followers to
make an absolute commitment to the group and typically has a
single leader, whereas a "religion" usually operates within
mainstream culture, requires varying levels of commitment from
its members and typically has a leadership hierarchy that, in
practice, can serve as a series of checks and balances.
cults are a different story. There is a
big difference between a destructive cult and a non-destructive
religion (or a non-destructive cult). A destructive (or totalist)
cult exploits its members' vulnerability in order to gain
complete control over them, often using unethical psychological
techniques to bring about thought
reform. It can be said that a non-destructive religion or
cult attempts to alleviate its members' vulnerability through
spiritual guidance in an effort to help them exercise control
over their own lives.