Groups of people intensely devoted to a person, idea, or movement.
Traditionally, "cult" was a term used for any new religious movement. A number of currently well-established religious groups, including the Methodists, Mormons, Christian Scientists, and Seventh-Day Adventists, were considered cults when they were first formed, and Christianity itself began as a cult that broke away from Judaism. Since the 1960s, the term "cult" has taken on a new significance as groups with a wide variety of belief systems and customs have attracted members (often young people) who abandon mainstream lifestyles to devote themselves to these new cults and their leaders.
Although the philosophies and activities of cults vary, most of them have certain characteristics in common, most notably allegiance to a charismatic leader believed to have transcendent or divine qualities who commands complete devotion and strict obedience from cult members. Other common features include unquestioning belief in a body of teachings propounded by the group's leader and adherence to a set of practices based on these teachings. Cults are also known for the high degree of conformity demanded of their members, whose behavior is closely monitored and publicly censured when it departs from accepted behavioral norms. Cult members are commonly expected to sacrifice for the good of the group, often devoting their time to earning money for its support. One of the main ways that cults retain close control over their members is by alienating them from their families and other contacts in the outside world. In some cases, families have fought back by hiring professional "deprogramming" experts to break the psychological control that cults have gained over their children Some cults also isolate members by moving to a remote location. Cult membership is typically associated with an all-encompassing conversion experience or emotional revelation that makes people experience the world differently and can even change their physical perceptions. Cults tend to attract troubled, alienated individuals drawn by the social acceptance and security they offer.
Several of the most popular and best-known cults that have gained followers in the United States in recent decades originated in Asia or have had leaders born in Asia. The oldest is the Hare Krishna movement (officially, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness), which became popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Its members are highly visible in their long robes, chanting, dancing, passing out pamphlets, and collecting money. The men's heads are shaved, with an unshaved strand hanging from the crown. Krishna followers live in strictly run communes, where they spend much of their time meditating. Another Asian-inspired cult popular in the '60s and '70s was the Divine Light Mission imported to the United States from India by the young Guru Maharaj Ji when he was 13 years old. His followers, called "premies," numbered as many as 50,000 in the United States at the height of his popularity. The Unification Church led by the Korean-born Reverend Sun Myung Moon is unusual among Asian-inspired cults in that it is more closely related to Christianity than to Eastern religions. However, its philosophy combines Christianity with Buddhism and Taoism, and its stated goal is control of the world by a single supreme religion. Members are known as "Moonies."
In stark contrast to the asceticism traditionally associated with religious movements and their founders, leaders of modern cults have often amassed great personal wealth. Guru Maharaj Ji was known for his luxurious lifestyle; at the height of his popularity, his organization had an income of about $3 million a year. In the early 1980s the holdings of Reverend Moon's Unification Church were estimated at $100 million and included real estate in New York and California and ownership of two newspapers. Moon himself was living on a sumptuous Hudson River estate valued at $700,000. Federal and local tax authorities contested the Unification Church's claims to tax exemption as a religious organization, and Moon was convicted of tax evasion for failing to report $112,000 in interest on a $1.6 million personal savings account at the Chase Manhattan Bank.
In recent decades, two cults have been associated with major tragedies resulting in multiple deaths. Both were led by mentally unbalanced men in whom grandiosity, paranoia, and an uncanny ability to manipulate an entire community of people proved to be a disastrous combination. In the late 1970s, Jim Jones, a Protestant clergyman, led hundreds of the followers of his People's Temple to a commune in Guyana, a small South American country. After a United States congressman and three journalists investigating the cult were killed, the entire community of over 900 persons committed mass suicide under orders from Jones. In 1993, David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidian cult, also led his followers to their death after a confrontation with the outside world—in this case, a 51-day standoff between the group and federal forces surrounding the Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Over 80 cult members, including Koresh, died when the compound burned down, probably in a deliberate mass suicide.
Many children and adolescents have been affected by cults, either because their parents are members or because
Since the early 1980s, reports by survivors of satanic cults have led to the identification of a pattern of abuse labeled SRA (sadistic ritual abuse). Victims include children, adolescents, and adults. The abuse, which is intended to initiate the victim into satanic beliefs and practices, usually occurs over an extended period of time. It may involve incest, torture, animal mutilation or killing, drug use, death threats, cannibalism, or "marriage" to Satan. Often, survivors (especially those who were under the age of six when the abuse occurred) cannot remember these episodes without the aid of a psychotherapist, either because they were drugged or hypnotized at the time or because of dissociation mechanisms, including multiple personality disorder, that enable them to cope with these traumatic experiences. Once memories of the abuse are brought to the surface, they often result in depression and suicidal feelings.
Although people of all ages join cults, the majority are young adults, and many are adolescents. Cults appeal to adolescents' naiveté and idealism and offer them a way to rebel against their parents. They also offer young people structure, security, and peer acceptance at an unsettling time in their lives. Adolescents who are drawn to cults often have a poor self-image, are heavily reliant on peer approval, and are not having their emotional needs adequately met by their families. Signs of cult involvement among teenagers include secretive or defiant behavior, withdrawal from family activities, odd hours, changes in friends, and a chronic shortage of money.
The surrender of autonomy that cult membership demands makes it difficult for members to decide to leave on their own, and many might not leave were it not for outside assistance, usually by their families. Well-known mind-control expert Ted Patrick invented the term "deprogramming" for the process of breaking down an individual's allegiance to a cult. Often the person must be physically removed from the cult against his or her will by either being tricked or kidnapped. Undoing the effects of the mind control imposed on cult members requires several stages. At first, cult members refuse to talk with those trying to help them and concentrate on resisting them and trying to escape. Eventually, when they become willing to listen and respond to arguments, the deprogrammer begins presenting evidence that discredits the cult and its leader.
Once cult members become convinced that they have been manipulated, deprogrammers focus on restoring their normal thought processes. The full deprogramming process can take weeks. Often cults contact renegade members to try winning them back, and some do return when they find it too hard to readjust to life on the outside. A failed deprogramming attempt makes it even harder for the cult member to leave again. Full readjustment to society by former cult members can take months or even longer, with health, energy levels, decision-making ability, interpersonal relationships, and other facets of life affected.
Deikman, Arthur J. The Wrong Way Home: Uncovering the Patterns of Cult Behavior in American Society. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991.
Galanter, Marc. Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989.
Johnson, Joan J. The Cult Movement. New York: Franklin Watts, 1984.
Melton, J. Gordon. Encyclopedia Handbook of Cults in America. Garland, 1986.