What Makes a Cult a Cult?

Every year, The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society alters their doctrine. They call it, “the light gets brighter.” In their history, their doctrinal changes have moved from the radical to the sublime, and sometimes, their doctrines were changed, changed back to what they originally were, changed back to their changes, and then changed back again. Yet if you talk to a Jehovah’s Witness about their doctrines and their understanding, they will say that they are a restoration of the true church, they have always held fast to the same level of truth, and that they are the only group in existence who has any truth. Anyone with any common sense can look at Watchtower history and prove their changes, prove their shifts, and prove that their claim is simply claim not true.  Yet millions of Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide believe these claims, despite facts that prove otherwise.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are only one of numerous groups that have received the label of being a cult. Some other more common groups include The Unification Church (“the Moonies”), Scientology, Theosophy, Mormonism, The Branch Davidians (David Koresh), Church Universal and Triumphant, Remnant Fellowship, The House of Yahweh, many of the Sacred Name and Hebrew Roots associations, the World Mission Society Church of God, and the various Armstrong churches. There are also hundreds of other smaller groups and churches, fronting as “non-denominational” or otherwise “independent” religious organizations that also fit the bill as a cult.

The question that many do not understand is, why do they remain in these organizations? There is so much evidence to prove that membership with such groups can prove harmful, so why do they believe despite evidence to the contrary? Answering this question answers the question, “What makes a cult a cult?”  Read on to discover why cults are so dangerous in so many ways to those taken in by fancy claims.

In the 1950s, American psychiatrist and author Robert J. Lifton studied prisoners of war during the Korean War and civilians who had been held in Chinese prison after 1951. He also studied Chinese intellectuals who had been subject to brainwashing in their universities. By examining these different subjects, he was able to identify eight different points of control that relate to thought reform and ways that people’s thinking patterns, independence, and ideals, forsaking their individuality and freedom for the sake of a larger group.

These eight points, plus some subheadings that fall under the heading of the eight larger points, are what define a cult. It’s important to state upfront that odd or unusual doctrine is not what makes a cult, even though that is often the “criteria” that many establish in defining and discrediting alternate groups. Cults are also not made based on a refusal to be “Christian” or adhere to Christian perspective. Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews are not cults, and none of them adhere to a Christian perspective. What makes a cult a cult lies in the eight different points of understanding that relate to the way a person thinks and erodes their sense of independence, free thinking, and sense of self-sufficiency. Groups that have some semblance of all eight points meet the definition of a cult. Groups that have I believe it’s four points or more are considered “high control.”

  1. Milieu Control

Cults control the amount of communication one can have within the cult environment.  This is the reason why some (but not all) cults live together, thereby limiting members’ access to mainline television, radio, news broadcasts, and people.  Often members are encouraged to break ties with family or friends who are not members of the group, citing that they will not “understand” or “support” the level one will reach as a member of the cult through their involvement.  The level of control one accepts is often dependent upon the level one has attained within the group, i.e., different levels of control exist within some organizations.  For example, a nun in a convent has a much higher level of milieu control guarding her existence than a nominal member of the Catholic Church.  An individual who lives and works closely with a pastor of a control group, working in their business or working alongside them in the church, will have a much higher level of milieu control than someone who only attends the church for services or who only attends when it crosses their minds. Another example would be a member of Bethel, the Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters living situation, versus an average Jehovah’s Witnesses member.  Although both may shun certain types of programming, Bethelites are completely controlled by the Watchtower society in terms of their access to the outside world.

  1. Mystical Manipulation

Cults manipulate people’s emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and even their spiritual experiences to produce the result of total surrender to their leaders.  In other words, people are having a certain experience that they believe to be genuine, a sign that they belong within this group and that this is what God or a supreme being has planned for them, but in reality, it isn’t.  When one has been manipulated in this manner, they come to believe that they have a certain calling to be fulfilled within the group that can only be fulfilled within the group, and nowhere else.  People manipulated mystically often do, say, and surrender whatever is asked of them over to cult leaders.  Examples of mystical manipulation include the experiences in Mormon temple ceremonies involving drama, staged healings and falsified mystical experiences performed due to clever stage acts by Jim Jones in The People’s Temple back in the 1960s and 1970s, and the creation of certain atmospheres, environments, smells, sounds, sights, and feelings that are manufactured thanks to stage hands and emotional fervor in various sects and groups around the world, even today (such as in the “soaking music” subgroup and many of the movements of Third Wave Charismatic churches, such as Bill Johnson’s Bethel Church in California [ as an example, watch the movie “Holy Ghost”] or Rick Joyner’s Morningstar Ministries in North Carolina).

  1. The Demand for Purity

Cults have what is known as the “us vs. them” mindset meaning that the world is sharply and irrevocably divided between “us” (the cult, the “pure”) and “them” (the world, everyone else, the “impure”).  Purity is only possible within the group, nowhere else.  Cults also demand strict and difficult standards regarding various forms of purity that are nearly impossible to abide by.  These forms of purity may involve thoughts, study habits, or personal habits and are often in the strange category.  Those who do not remain “pure” face dire consequences.  Examples would include David Koresh’s sexual relationships with young girls to make them “pure,” Scientology’s emphasis on attaining a level of “clear” by going through various levels of Scientology training and teaching, and the teaching that an individual can obtain a sinless and perfect life if they are truly “saved” within the group, regarding all others as impure and not truly “saved” or redeemable.

  1. Cult of Confession

Cults are big on members’ honesty, even though they frequently lie to further membership and maintain their own status.  They tell you that everything you have ever learned is a lie and better yet that the world is marked by conspiracies.  The only place you can ever venture to learn the truth about anything is within the cult.  But lo and behold – cults do not teach that one should be open and honest with outsiders.  The group should be defended at all costs, even if it means being dishonest.  In fact, dishonesty to outsiders is encouraged because they are the “enemy.”  Within the group, one is expected to divulge information one would not normally divulge, including deeply personal information.  What are examples of this?  Divulgence sessions that claim to be “deliverance” but often involve a powerful, central figure berating and criticizing someone until they “confess” some deadly sin or agreement with wrongdoing, even if they have never done whatever they are accused of doing. If a group claims to be able to “absolve” someone of sin, that is probably a sign that someone is in a cult, or group “purgings” in which members confess their faults in terms of falling in the demand for purity.

  1. Sacred Science

The concept of sacred science is that the group is somehow proclaiming something new, innovative, and different that can somehow heal the world of all its ills if the world would just conform to the cult’s specific doctrines.  Sometimes cults claim to be a “restoration” of something ancient or lost (although the restoration concept alone does not make a group a cult).  Other cult groups claim that they are exactly as what has always been, despite the fact that their doctrine has changed excessively throughout its history.  Examples of such include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, Armstrongism, Roman Catholicism, Scientology, the Unification Church (the Moonies), many occult groups, Sacred Name adherents, Hebrew Roots groups, the World Mission Society Church of God, and many other groups far too numerous to list.

  1. Loaded Language

Loaded language manifests in a few ways: a) excessive use of jargon repeated excessively; b) words and terms known only within the group; c) clichés; and d) the use of words and terms that are used by other groups or religions but with a different meaning, while only those within the group know the difference.  Examples: New Age cults (sometimes coined “self-help” seminars or “positive thinking” courses) use excessive jargon; just about all cults use clichés in one form or another, and Mormons, Armstrong groups, Sacred Name and Hebrew Roots cults, and Jehovah’s Witnesses use words in one context although they have different meanings outside the group.  This technique is particularly confounding to those outside the group.

  1. Doctrine Over Person

Cults exercise a great amount of control over individuals.  In a cult, the doctrine is individual versus corporeal, meaning that each person is expected to have a single set of principles and all adhere to them in the exact same way, without interpretation or variety.  There are no exceptions to the rule and one cannot attain the levels of salvation the group promises without this strict adherence.  Sometimes this can be seen in the branding of uniform or dress (as with the Amish and some levels of Scientology, among others) but this visible sign is not always seen.  Sometimes group highly regiment days, routines, diets, jobs or working together in the same line of work or business, or other things of their members, stating salvation is impossible without following these rules.  The rejection of medical care even in time of crisis as seen in Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Armstrongism, many Sacred Name organizations, and other groups to the point where people sacrifice the lives of their own children is also a sign.

  1. Dispensing of Existence

All good things must come to an end in cults.  Although cults do eventually collapse upon themselves, they always contain an essential doctrine: that those outside the group are wholly evil, as the truth of the group is the only truth, fixed and absolute, and those outside the group who do not accept the truth of the group do not have the right to live.  They will therefore cease to exist through a form of annihilation.  This type of doctrine is why the Branch Dravidians of David Koresh believed the siege was apocalyptic: because the group was being persecuted, the FBI would be killed by the cult, and the “righteous” (cult members) would watch the annihilation of the “wicked” (government).

Defining Cults and High Control Groups: A Checklist

___ Group appears innovative and exclusive; leader claims to be breaking with tradition or restoring an ancient tradition while offering something new, different, or new and different; involvement with the group can heal the world and all its ills.

___ A charismatic, determined, and domineering leader or leaders, totalitarian and messianic in personality; claims to have a special mission in life, and this is it.

___ An authoritative power structure; control and decisions come to the control of one or a few individual persons.

___ Wisdom claimed by leader(s), a great amount of infallibility declared about decisions.

___ Wisdom credited to leader(s) by members; members trust all decisions made by leader(s).

___ A great amount of external political power, influence, or the desire to obtain said power, by political maneuvers or other means including overthrow or revolution.

___ Perspective of the group is absolutely and truly infallible and adequate to explain everything.

___ Concepts taught are doctrinally and morally error-free; doctrines are unchangeable and inflexible, even denying doctrinal alterations occurring historically.

___ Repeated changing of the rules while claiming the same level of infallibility and eternal truth and doctrine that remains unchanged; telling people that these new teachings have in some form always been taught.

___ Altering of history or facts of history to somehow suit the claims of the group.

___ Leader(s) encourage(s) veneration and allegiance to him/her/themselves.

___ Top priority goals, even though unspoken, are recruitment and fundraising.

___ A great amount of internal wealth; a great emphasis upon monetary donations.

___ Potential converts are drawn through a profoundly mystical experience (prophecy, miracle, etc.) from group or leader(s), encouraging potentiate to join the group because of a specific calling that can only be fulfilled within the group; experience often fabricated, manufactured, or unfactual.

___ Denies alternate or negative experiences within the group, citing that those who have left the group were poorly educated, improperly taught beliefs, or are simply spiteful; denies that bad things are done by individuals within the group, particularly leader(s).

___ Great emphasis placed upon attracting new members; excessive amounts of proselytizing.

___ An intensity of efforts directed at preventing or reconverting dropouts through a number of methods including shunning, visitation, and making it very difficult to leave the group from a membership perspective.

___ The practice of branding members through dress, physical markings, or widely practiced behaviors, antisocial or not.

___ Salvation is possible only within the group.  Those who leave the group or do not come to the group are doomed.

___ High demand for purity and perfection only obtainable through the group, and even then, impossible to keep.

___ Pre-group existence and group existence are narrowly and decisively interpreted through absolute doctrine, even when experience contradicts doctrine.

___ Emphasis on experiencing the group and its experience before obtaining information about the group; unwillingness to disclose even simple matters; evasiveness on key issues or even simple issues.

___ Members think within narrow parameters of group’s doctrine; expressed through language specific to the group.

___ Use of jargon, clichés, or expressions repeated over and over again; words and terms used only within the group, and therefore only understood by the group; or using words and terms used by other groups, religious or otherwise, but with radically different meanings intended to confuse non-members and mislead them into thinking the group believes one thing, when in reality, they believe something else.

___ A double-standard of ethics, encouraging openness and honesty within the group, but dishonesty, deception, cover-up, and secret behavior when dealing with outsiders.

___ The willingness to bear the soul; divulging of information that one would normally be unwilling to share and remains unwilling only with those not in the group.

___ The use of censorship and control over members’ access to outside opinions on the group, its doctrines, or leader(s).

___ Encouragement or forbidding members to stop communication with “outside” family and friends except for conversion purposes.

___ Forbidden contact with “outsiders” particularly to discuss religious issues unless in the context of proselytizing.

___ Intense concepts of “us” (the pure, the group) vs. “them” (the world, the impure outsiders) creating an antagonism with society and social behavior(s).

___ Justification of group and leader(s), even when evidence convicts to the opposite of claims.

___ Extreme grimness, particularly on the issue of disapproval concerning jokes about group, its doctrines, or leader(s).

___ Use of sexual manipulation of members by leader9s), or a great control of sex lives of members; outright prohibition on sexual matters, such as birth control; sexual abuse of members, adult, child, or both.

___ Members are all expected to adhere to rigid guidelines, all within the same way, with no exceptions or interpretations.

___ Sacrifice of lives or children’s lives for the sake of the doctrine.

___ Use of occult or pagan symbolism with an alternate or altered meaning.

___ Severe levels of paranoia involving real or imaginary enemies, and the perceived power of their opponents.

___ Endorsement of violence when used by or for the group or its leader(s) while condemning the use of violence when used by opponents or opposing causes.

___ A great number of subsidiary groups using names different from that of the main group with same objective as group.

___ Belief in the coming extinction of all those not affiliated with the group; those who are not in the group are not worthy of life and shall in a coming day be annihilated while the sole “righteous,” the group, shall survive.

What should I do if I suspect someone I know is involved with a cult?

Get some information before you jump to conclusions – I’d be lying if I said that all cults that exist are properly documented and monitored. The truth is that there are probably numerous cults and high control groups that fly under the radar. We live in a world that is hesitant to discriminate against groups that have religious protection, and a number of court cases, custody battles, social services involvements, and the like have created extremely negative PR for the government systems that monitor the welfare of children. Thus, it’s true that many small groups fall by the wayside, appear, and disappear as quickly as they popped up. There are those that live out their time and then those that survive for generations, all the while never being noted for what they really are. I still encourage those who suspect they have a family member or a friend in a cult to look up the group and see if anyone else has tagged it or noted it as being problematic. Many of the larger groups have support networks, information, and websites devoted to telling the truth about these groups. See if there is any information out there about the group, especially words from people who once belonged, but now see things very differently that they are on the other side. It is true that there are always people who are disgruntled or angry having left a group, but if the numbers of disgruntled people is high, especially compared with the number of adherents in the group, listening to what they have to say might be worthwhile.

Love the member – The spiritual aspect of cults isn’t something that gets cast out of a person by screaming at them or trying to reason with them. I know that it’s tempting to want to try and reason or get them to engage, but all they are going to do is rehash their cult understanding. The more you try to get them to be who you remember them being, the more they are going to resist with ‘the way’ they feel they have been shown. I think it’s important to keep the lines of communication open if it is possible (and it is very possible that, no matter what you do, they may shut down the line), and that means it is important to avoid being hostile or belligerent, to avoid confrontations and arguments, and to avoid discussions about doctrine that are not going to resolve the problems, anyway. The more you display your displeasure, the more the group will attempt to draw their newer member into them, saying that such hostility only proves what they are saying about “us vs. them” is really true. People don’t join cults because they are impressed with their stellar doctrine (most cult doctrine is absurd, if you really break it down). They join them because of how the group makes them feel. They make people feel like they matter, are important, a part of something special or unique, that they have a special position in the world, and that by being a part of this group, they can get every need they have met, easily. It’s important to remind a cult member, through loving them, that they do matter to those around them, even if they don’t understand or realize what they are doing.

This one is also important because I think we learn a great deal about cults by monitoring the movements and involvements of those around us. Every cult group was just considered another religion that might be a little odd or strange until someone took the time to notice that they had a family member or friend who started acting differently once they joined. In case further action is needed or further information is needed, knowing what’s going on can be very important later on.

Try to understand the “thinking” that gets someone involved in these groups – I’m not going to blame early life or family life for cult involvement. I’m sure that there are some people who do join cults because they didn’t feel loved by their families or because they are at odds with them, but that is not always the case. The world can come in and besiege us, forcing us to be adults and to have to face and deal with realities that we don’t always like. We’ve all experienced loneliness, trauma, and emotional distresses that make us wish we had the comforts of someone else or a group to take away the hurt or pain that we have experienced. It is my belief that anyone can be susceptible to a cult if they come around and hit them up at the right time and place. Whenever we have a notable void, a cult can swoop in and conquer us because they know how to manipulate our feelings and emotions, whether it’s the need for a father or mother figure or the feeling of wanting to belong and be accepted by others. Keep this in mind every time you wonder why this is going on, and do not blame yourself. It is very likely the acceptance they seek is not something that you even knew they needed or were able to meet as one person.

Pray – Prayer is always a powerful spiritual approach that does make a difference.

Consult someone with information about cults – I am a little cautious in this recommendation because the unfortunate truth is many of these “cult chasers” are nothing more than people who want to make a ministry criticizing any group that is not Baptist, Methodist, or Lutheran. You need to be careful in seeing how a person or organization defines a cult, and see if the definition meets with the standard of psychological mind control rather than just identifying a counter group as anti-Christian. Do some research on cults, learn about how they work, and familiarize yourself with good leaders and good support to help you to get through what you are going through and can help your friend or family member if they need help on the other side.

If you have any comments, questions, or need additional information from this blog, feel free to contact me:

Dr.  Lee Ann B. Marino

(Certification obtained in cults and cult criteria, Apostolic University, December 6, 2001)

Apostolic Fellowship International Ministries, Inc.



© 2005, 2006, 2016 Lee Ann B. Marino. All rights reserved.


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