Definition of a Cult

You’ve heard my definition of a cult, and some supporting evidence (though not exhaustive…yet).

  • How would YOU define a cult?
  • What characteristics would you say leaders of cults have?
  • What groups would you place (or not place) in that category?

3 thoughts on “Definition of a Cult”

  1. This is one of my favorite list of considerations, from the “Rick Ross” cult site….


    Ten warning signs of a potentially unsafe group/leader.

    1. Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.

    2. No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.

    3. No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget, expenses such as an independently audited financial statement.

    4. Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.

    5. There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.

    6. Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.

    7. There are records, books, news articles, or television programs that document the abuses of the group/leader.

    8. Followers feel they can never be “good enough”.

    9. The group/leader is always right.

    10. The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.

    Ten warning signs regarding people involved in/with a potentially unsafe group/leader.

    1. Extreme obsessiveness regarding the group/leader resulting in the exclusion of almost every practical consideration.

    2. Individual identity, the group, the leader and/or God as distinct and separate categories of existence become increasingly blurred. Instead, in the follower’s mind these identities become substantially and increasingly fused–as that person’s involvement with the group/leader continues and deepens.

    3. Whenever the group/leader is criticized or questioned it is characterized as “persecution”.

    4. Uncharacteristically stilted and seemingly programmed conversation and mannerisms, cloning of the group/leader in personal behavior.

    5. Dependency upon the group/leader for problem solving, solutions, and definitions without meaningful reflective thought. A seeming inability to think independently or analyze situations without group/leader involvement.

    6. Hyperactivity centered on the group/leader agenda, which seems to supercede any personal goals or individual interests.

    7. A dramatic loss of spontaneity and sense of humor.

    8. Increasing isolation from family and old friends unless they demonstrate an interest in the group/leader.

    9. Anything the group/leader does can be justified no matter how harsh or harmful.

    10. Former followers are at best-considered negative or worse evil and under bad influences. They can not be trusted and personal contact is avoided.

    Ten signs of a safe group/leader.

    1. A safe group/leader will answer your questions without becoming judgmental and punitive.

    2. A safe group/leader will disclose information such as finances and often offer an independently audited financial statement regarding budget and expenses. Safe groups and leaders will tell you more than you want to know.

    3. A safe group/leader is often democratic, sharing decision making and encouraging accountability and oversight.

    4. A safe group/leader may have disgruntled former followers, but will not vilify, excommunicate and forbid others from associating with them.

    5. A safe group/leader will not have a paper trail of overwhelmingly negative records, books, articles and statements about them.

    6. A safe group/leader will encourage family communication, community interaction and existing friendships and not feel threatened.

    7. A safe group/leader will recognize reasonable boundaries and limitations when dealing with others.

    8. A safe group/leader will encourage critical thinking, individual autonomy and feelings of self-esteem.

    9. A safe group/leader will admit failings and mistakes and accept constructive criticism and advice.

    10. A safe group/leader will not be the only source of knowledge and learning excluding everyone else, but value dialogue and the free exchange of ideas.

    Don’t be na├»ve, develop a good BS Detector.

    You can protect yourself from unsafe groups and leaders by developing a good BS detector. Check things out, know the facts and examine the evidence. A safe group will be patient with your decision making process. If a group or leader grows angry and anxious just because you want to make an informed and careful decision before joining; beware.


    And to add a bit from my own perspective….

    I like the former list because it makes it clear to me that a “cult” can apply to many different types of groups, not just a religious organization.

    I like to define cults based on ACTIONS and the EFFECTS they have on people; not just BELIEFS. I have far too much respect for freedom of conscience and religion to blindly run down that road.

    1. Jeff,
      Thanks so much for this post! These type of lists have been so helpful for me in recognizing what traits are unhealthy and destructive in a group and leader and what traits are healthy. I have learned a lot from the Rick Ross website, also. I have a lot of respect for the amount of research and data that has gone into that site.

  2. I have a lot of respect for them too. I’m certain there is still a lot I can learn there.

    I do feel however that much can be said for jumping in and working things out for oneself, and this particular site prefers to keep people and all their issues at a distance, I’m not judging, just observing.

    They absolutely direct people to seek professional help for their standard remedy but they have the right to do it as they see fit too. I’ve just been in one thread over their where in that case I believe they are right.

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