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A cult is not necessarily a religious group, although religious cults are common, including breakaway sects from more mainstream faiths. Cults can also take the form of therapeutic, political, commercial, educational, self-help, pseudo-scientific, and various spiritual groups, among other forms. Whatever they masquerade as, and whatever public relations stunts they seek to pull off, what damaging cults have in common is their vindictive abusiveness and their dissociative totalitarianism.

Cults recruit members by various forms of enticement or deception, demanding subservience and the total adoption of their ideas from members, to the exclusion of free thinking. Members are usually exploited both financially and as a labour force. At the same time, to gain acceptance from wider society, cults lobby politicians and the public, using the same ideas of freedom of expression which they deny their members.

  1. Cults are socially and psychologically isolating, separating members from families, friends and colleagues.

  2. Cults create a cognitive dissociation and traumatic dependency in followers.

  3. Cults tend to be psychologically manipulative or abusive in order to exploit and control members commercially or sexually.

  4. Some cults can also be physically abusive.

  5. The guru and/or upper ranks of the cult are supported in a relatively comfortable lifestyle by the exploitation of lower ranking members.

  6. Cults are totalitarian in structure and thrive on master-slave dependency.


There are several useful definitions of a cult. Here is a selection:


First, from Janja Lalich, Ph.D.: A cult can be either a sharply-bounded social group or a diffusely-bounded social movement held together through shared commitment to a charismatic leader. It upholds a transcendent belief system (often but not always religious in nature) that includes a call for a personal transformation. It also requires a high level of personal commitment from its members in words and deeds.


This definition is not meant to be evaluative in the sense of implying that a group is good, bad, benign, or harmful. Rather it is meant to convey a systemic view of such a group, which is comprised of a charismatic relationship, a promise of fulfillment, and a methodology by which to achieve it. Read more here

Robert Jay Lifton described a cult as: having  a charismatic leader, who himself or herself increasingly becomes the object of worship, and in many cases, the dispenser of immortality. Spiritual ideas of a general kind give way to this deification of the leader. Second, in cults there occurs a series of psychological processes that can be association with what has been called “coercive persuasion” or “thought reform” […]. And third, there is a pattern of manipulation and exploitation from above (by leaders and ruling coteries) and idealism from below (on the part of supplicants and recruits). (Foreward, Cults in Our Midst, Margaret Singer and Janja Lalich, Jossey Bass, 1995.)

Alexandra Stein, Ph.D. uses this definition: A cultic system is formed and controlled by a charismatic authoritarian leader or leadership body. It is a rigidly bounded, steeply hierarchical, isolating social system, supported and represented by a total, exclusive ideology. The leader sets in motion processes of coercive persuasion (also known as “brainwashing”), designed to isolate and control followers. ( Attachment theory and post-cult recovery, Therapy Today, September, 2016)

Robert Jay Lifton described eight criteria of an environment in which brainwashing takes place:

  • Milieu Control – The control of information and communication.

  • Mystical Manipulation – The manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated.

  • The Demand for Purity – The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection.

  • The Cult of Confession – Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group.

  • The Sacred Science – The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute.

  • Loading the Language – The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand.

  • Doctrine over person – The member’s personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.

  • The Dispensing of existence – The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. (

There are hundreds of cults operating within the United Kingdom, and thousands operating around the world, often posing as legitimate philosophies or religions and operating through front groups. They range from small, even one-to-one groups to what are in effect unregulated multinational corporations, complete with their substantial financial, legal and public relation resources and political influence.


Cults are prevalent and harmful to society as a whole and result in great damage and distress to individuals within them and to their families. Those born or brought up in cults suffer a variety of abuses and neglect. Leaving a cult can equally be a traumatic experience and many cult leavers lack support in rebuilding lives in the wider society. An individual recruited into a cult will typically have their entire life course altered, and may experience great financial, personal, psychological, social, career, and health consequences. Unwilling involvement in criminal activity led by the cult may also result.

Families and friends of those recruited, whose personalities may become unrecognisable after cultic recruitment, suffer a great deal of grief and upset. Seeing changes in, or hearing of the abuse suffered by, cult victims – or sometimes having to deal with an individual’s disappearance – can cause a great deal of stress, anger and upset in the home. These “cult parents” and “cult families” are therefore also victims of cults, even if they had nothing to do with their child’s recruitment to a cult. All cult victims need help, no matter how they have been involved or harmed.

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