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A cult is a sect or group with a charismatic leadership that demands considerable control over members. The term carries a negative connotation of reducing the judgment and free will of the members, perhaps with psychological techniques similar to those used by Asian Communist groups in thought reform, such as North Korean treatment of prisoners of war[1] or Chinese Communist pressures to comply to group norms.[2] Indeed, "secular religions" may exhibit cult-like behavior, such as the suicide rather than capture by special forces operators of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The borderline between cults and ordinary religious groups is often subjective and blurry. At the extreme end, some cults have been known to engage in mass suicide or homicide. Non-doomsday cults exercise significantly less control but may still require followers to move into a group house, recruit others, donate some or all of their money and possessions to the group, and cut off communication with friends and family who are not members of the group.

Critics of cults argue that cults target psychologically vulnerable people who are seeking identity affirmation. University and college students and other young adults who have recently left home are often alleged to be the prime targets of cults due to their openness to new ideas and their desire to form an independent identity and social support network. Members of cults and of new religious movements alike tend to be intelligent, well-educated, creative and often technically adept, and also many tend to believe strongly that they are independent and educated enough not to be taken in by cults.

New religious movements

Academics and scholars studying cults often refer instead to New Religious Movements, which tries to capture the subject matter of 'cult' discussions without the negative stigma that the name carries with it.

Members of Aum Shinrikyo (the name combines 'Aum' - the meditative sound considered holy in Hinduism - and 'Shinrikyo', the Japanese for 'Supreme Truth') - now known as Aleph - committed numerous murders including the release of sarin, a nerve gas, in a Tokyo subway station on the 20 March 1995, which killed 12 people and injured over 5,000 more, and the murder of anti-cult lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family in 1989.

Based on existing religions

Emphasizing the complexity of the term, recognized religious communities, such as monastic orders, may demand a high degree of control -- yet their members exert a high degree of independence. Members of the Society of Jesus take vows of obedience, chastity and poverty, yet Jesuits certainly follow no single intellectual path in teaching or social activities. Perhaps one of the differentiators is that the Father General of the Order is considered the steward of a long tradition, rather than a prophet or reincarnation.

Some cults will use the religious ideas of existing religions or cast their leaders as modern-day incarnations of religious figures. Applewhite cast himself as having the same role as Jesus ("I am in the same position to today's society as was the One that was in Jesus then. My being here now is actually a continuation of that last task as was promised, to those who were students 2000 years ago."[3]), and followers of Aum Shinrikyo believed Shoko Asahara, the founder and leader of the group, to be Christ. The Bible and other scripture is used by many cult groups, but often in ways which are theologically unorthodox.

In March 1997, Heaven's Gate, a cult based near San Diego, California (U.S. state), gained an extraordinary amount of media coverage for a mass suicide. 39 people committed suicide in order to ascend to the next plane by riding on the passing comet Hale-Bopp following the instruction of leader Marshall Applewhite (known as "Do" to his followers).


At the fringes of mainstream religions like Christianity and Islam, there are groups and leaders who many consider to be cult-like. Al-Qaeda has been accused of being a destructive cult by Steven Hassan at a meeting of the American Psychological Association. While al-Qaeda is certainly extreme, others consider it within a cultural tradition, perhaps one that is being manipulated. Ironically, there are takfir groups that have attempted to kill al-Qaeda leaders as insufficiently devout.

The Nazi Party, especially the Schutzstaffel (SS), has been described as exhibiting cult-like behavior with the total obedience to Adolf Hitler and his designees.

Commercial and quasi-commercial

Christian televangelists including "prosperity gospel" preachers like Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland and Joyce Meyer have been accused of combining evangelical Christianity with a cult of personality that exploits followers for financial gain.

Not all cults are religious. Many accuse Werner Erhard's training and counselling groups - est, Landmark Education and The Forum - of being cult-like, even though they preach a gospel of personal empowerment, productivity and success in business rather than anything religious, because of the way it requires participants to recruit others, and because of the emotional manipulation many report while taking the seminars. Others, who have taken seminars, regard them as situations where learning to say "no" to demands can make for a valuable learning experience.

The same charge is made against Dianetics, the psychotherapeutic component of Scientology, as well as Scientology's various outreach programs like Narconon, which targets drug users, as well as Scientology's volunteering at the site of disasters.


  1. Albert D. Biderman (1957 September), "Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions from Air Force Prisoners of War", Bull N Y Acad Med. 33 (9): 616–625
  2. Lifton, Robert Jay (1989), Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China, W.W. Norton, ISBN 0-8078-4255-2
  3. Intro: Purpose - Belief, reprinted from the Heaven's Gate website on the website of the Rick Ross Institute.