On Using the Term "Cult"
Even though we have each studied
cults and educated people about this subject for more than 20 years,
neither of us has ever felt completely comfortable with the term
"cult." No other
term, however, serves more effectively the linked educational and
research aims of ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association, founded
as American Family Foundation in 1979), the organization that
we serve as president (Rosedale) and executive director (Langone).
In order to help others who have asked questions about the term
"cult," we here offer some thoughts on the definition and use
of this term.
Review of Definitions
According to the "Compact
Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary"(1971) the term,
"cult," originally referred to "worship; reverential
homage rendered to a divine being or beings...a particular form or
system of religious worship; especially in reference to its external
rites and ceremonies...devotion or homage to a particular person or
thing." More recently,
the term has taken on additional connotations:
3 : A religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious...
4 : A
system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its
5 a. great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement,
or work...b. a usually small group of people characterized by such
Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, 1994)
Robbins's (1988) review of recent
sociological contributions to the study of cults identifies four
(1) cults as dangerous, authoritarian groups;
(2) cults as culturally innovative or transcultural groups;
(3) cults as
loosely structured protoreligions;
(4) Stark and Bainbridge’s (1985) subtypology that distinguishes
among "audience cults" (members seek to receive information,
e.g., through a lecture or tape series) "client cults"
(members seek some specific benefit, e.g., psychotherapy, spiritual
guidance), and "cult movements" (organizations that demand a
high level of commitment from members).
The Stark and Bainbridge typology relates to their finding that
cult membership increases as church membership decreases.
Rutgers University professor
Benjamin Zablocki (1997) says that sociologists often distinguish
"cult" from "church," "sect," and
"denomination." Cults are innovative, fervent groups. If they become accepted
into the mainstream, cults, in his view, lose their fervor and become
more organized and integrated into the community; they become churches.
When people within churches become dissatisfied and break off
into fervent splinter groups, the new groups are called sects. As sects
become more stolid and integrated into the community, they become
defines a cult as "an ideological organization held together by
charismatic relationships and demanding total commitment."
According to Zablocki, cults are at high risk of becoming abusive
to members, in part because members' adulation of charismatic leaders
contributes to their becoming corrupted by the power they seek and are
Definitions proposed at various
times by associates of ICSA tend to presume the manifestation of what is
potential in Zablocki's definition. These definitions tend to emphasize
elements of authoritarian structure, deception, and manipulation and the
fact that groups may be psychotherapeutic, political, or commercial, as
well as religious. One of
the more commonly quoted definitions of "cult" was articulated
at an ICSA/UCLA Wingspread Conference on Cultism in 1985:
Cult (totalist type): A
group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or
dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically
manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (e.g. isolation from
former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to
heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures,
information management, suspension of individuality or critical
judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of
leaving it, etc.), designed to advance the goals of the group's
leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members,
their families, or the community. (West & Langone, 1986,
Because this and related definitions
imply high levels of psychological manipulation, many students of the
field have associated cults with the concept of thought reform (Lifton,
1961; Ofshe & Singer, 1986; Singer & Ofshe, 1990). Although
there are many similarities between these concepts, a cult does not
necessarily have to be characterized by thought reform, nor does a
thought reform program necessarily have to be a cult.
Nevertheless, the two seem to go together often enough that many
people mistakenly see them as necessarily linked.
Definitions advanced by ICSA
associates imply that the term "cult" refers to a continuum,
in which a large gray area separates "cult" from "noncult,"
or add qualifiers to the term "cult," such as
"destructive." These definitions suggest that there may be some debate about
the appropriateness of the term as applied to a specific group,
especially when available evidence indicates that the group is in or
near the gray area of the continuum.
This debate can become more acute when the group in question is
one that varies among its geographic locations, has different levels of
membership with correspondingly different levels of commitment, has
changed over time in the direction of greater or less "cultishness,"
or is skilled at public relations.
Because they tend to focus on
certain practices and behaviors, the definitions advanced by ICSA
associates are implicitly interactionist.
Like all psychologically based models, they presume that
different people will respond differently to the same group environment,
much as twins can respond differently to the same family environment.
Cults are not all alike. Nor
are all cult members affected in the same way, even within the same
group. Nevertheless, a huge body of clinical evidence leads ICSA
associates to contend that some groups harm some members sometimes, and
that some groups may be more likely to harm members than other groups.
Using the Term: Considerations
The concept "cult," as
with other concepts (e.g., "right wing," "left
wing"), is a theoretical type against which actual groups are
compared as best as one can with the information at one's disposal.
The theoretical type should serve as a benchmark, not as an
organizing structure that selects only those observations that confirm a
stereotype. It is vital
that each case be evaluated individually with regard to the group
environment and the person(s) interacting within and with that
Much as people may wish that it were
so, the fact is that, at least at present, no scientific
"test" incontrovertibly establishes whether or not a group is
indeed a "cult." Although
ICSA's Group Psychological Abuse Scale (Chambers, Langone, Dole, &
Grice, 1994) is a useful and promising tool for assessing groups
scientifically, this self-report measure needs further psychometric
development and should be supplemented by observational measures yet to
be devised. Cult research
is in a stage similar to that of depression research when the first
objective measures of depression as a mental and emotional state were
being developed. The lack
of objective measures didn’t nullify the utility of definitions of
depression then in use, but the development of such measures enhanced
definitional understanding and classification reliability.
In the years ahead, we hope to see similar progress in cultic
Because of the current ambiguity
surrounding the term "cult," ICSA does not produce an official
list of "cults," even though some people mistakenly interpret
any list (e.g., a list of groups on which we have information) as a list
of "cults." Such
a list would have little utility because there are thousands of groups
about which people have expressed concern, yet scientific research has
been conducted on few groups. A
list could even be misleading because some people might mistakenly think
that the label "cult" implies that the group in question has
all the significant attributes of the hypothetical type
"cult," when in fact it has only some of those attributes.
Conversely, some people may mistakenly assume that because a
group is not on the list, they need not be concerned.
Thus, when inquirers ask us, "Is such and such a cult?”
we tend to say, "Study our information on psychological
manipulation and cultic groups, then apply this information to what you
know and can find out about the group that concerns you."
Our goal is to help inquirers make more informed judgments and
decisions, not to dictate those judgments and decisions.
try to direct inquirers’ attention to potentially harmful practices,
rather than to a label. In essence, we say:
"These are practices that have been associated with harmful
effects in some people. To
what, if any extent, are these practices found in the group in question?
And how might you or your loved one be affected by these
practices?" One of us
(Langone) tries to focus a family’s concerns by saying: "Assume,
even if only for the sake of argument, that your loved one were not in a
`cult.' What if anything about his or her behavior would trouble
you?" After the
troubling behaviors are identified, then the family can try to determine
how, if at all, these behaviors are related to the group environment. A label tends to be superfluous at this point in the
Thus, we advocate a nuanced,
evidence-based approach to definition and
classification. We do not
ignore or disparage evidence indicating that some groups may closely
approach the theoretical type, “cult.”
Nor do we deny the necessity to make expert judgments about
whether or not a particular set of group processes harmed a specific
person or persons, a judgment that mental health clinicians and other
professionals sometimes have to make in therapeutic or forensic
contexts. We do, however,
advocate that these kinds of judgments should rest on careful analyses
of structure and behavior within a specific context, rather than
a superficial classification decision.
Such analyses sometimes result in
the conclusion that some groups that harm some people are not
necessarily cults. A new
age group that is neither manipulative nor authoritarian might harm some
people because it advocates a medically dangerous diet or
psychologically harmful practices. A church may harm some believers because its pastor is
domineering and abusive. A
psychotherapist may harm some patients because she or he doesn't
adequately understand how memory works and may, with the best of
intentions, induce false memories in clients.
These are all examples of individual harm related to
interpersonal influence. They are all examples of situations that might understandably
arouse the concern of the harmed person's family and of ICSA.
But these situations are not necessarily "cult"
situations, even though they may have a family resemblance to the
concept "cult." On
the other hand, because appearances can deceive, especially in cults,
further investigation of such cases may reveal the presence of cultic
dynamics. The important point to keep in mind is that classification
decisions should be based on the best available evidence and should
always be subject to reevaluation.
Even though the term
"cult" has limited utility, it is so embedded in popular
culture that those of us concerned about helping people harmed by group
involvements or preventing people from being so harmed cannot avoid
using it. Whatever the
term's limitations, it points us in a meaningful direction.
And no other term relevant to group psychological manipulation
(e.g., sociopsychological influence, coercive persuasion, undue
influence, exploitative manipulation) has ever been able to capture and
sustain public interest, which is the sine qua non of public education.
If, however, we cannot realistically avoid the term, let us at
least strive to use it judiciously.
W., Langone, M., Dole, A., & Grice, J.
(1994). The Group
Psychological Abuse Scale: A
measure of the varieties of cultic abuse. Cultic Studies Journal,
R. J. (1961).
Thought reform and the psychology of totalism.
New York: Norton.
collegiate dictionary, tenth edition.
MA: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated.
R., & Singer, M. T. (1986). Attacks
on peripheral versus central elements of self
and the impact of thought reforming techniques. Cultic Studies Journal, 3(1), 3-24.
Cults, converts, and charisma.
M. T., & Ofshe, R. (1990). Thought reform programs and the production of
psychiatric casualties. Psychiatric Annals, 20, 188-193.
R., & Bainbridge, W. (1985). The
future of religion: Secularization, revival and cult formation.
Berkeley: University of California (cited in Robbins, 1988).
compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. (1980).
L. J., & Langone, M. D. (1986).
conference for scholars and policy makers. Cultic Studies Journal,
B. (1997). Paper presented
to a conference, “Cults: Theory and Treatment Issues,” May 31, 1997
in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Langone, Michael: " History of the American Family Foundation"
Zimbardo, Philip, Ph.D.: "What messages are behind today's cults?"
+ AFF News, 02.06: Rosedale, Herb: "Annual Report From the President"
+ AFF News, 03.06: Rosedale, Herb: "Annual Report: Letter From the President"
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "On Using the Term "Cult"
Rosedale, Herb: "Legal Analysis of Intent As a Continuum Emphasizing Social Context of Volition"
Rosedale, Herb: "Legal Chapter.pdf"
Rosedale, Herb: "AFF Statement Mass Wedding of Sun Myung Moon"
Rosedale, Herbert L., Esq.: "Legal Considerations: Regaining Independence and Initiative"
Rosedale, Herbert, Esq.: "Cult Litigation Doesn't Threaten Religion"
Rosedale, Herbert, Esq.: "Women and Cults: A Lawyer's Perspective"
‡ Rosedale, Herbert L.: "NPR One-sided on Moon Movement", CO 11-4, 1994
Ω Conference 1997: PA Presenter
Ω Conference 2003 CA: Presenter
√ Child Abuse in Cultic Groups - IP03
√ Giambalvo, Carol: "Boston Movement: Critical Perspectives on the ICC"
√ Video: "Symposium - Theory and Cults: In search of the Perfect Explanation, Sociological Theories, Psychological Manipulation: The Abuse of Women Conference"