The Definitional Ambiguity of
“Cult” and ICSA’s Mission
(This essay is a follow-up to
Using the Term Cult.")
A central component of ICSA’s mission is to
study psychological manipulation and abuse, especially as it manifests in
cultic and other groups. Different
people, however, attach different and usually imprecise meanings to the term
Using the Term Cult). Those
who have sought information from ICSA have – properly or improperly –used
“cult” to refer to a wide variety of phenomena, including, but not limited
- Groups – religious, political,
psychological, commercial – in which the leader(s) appear(s) to exert undue
influence over followers, usually to the leader’s(s’) benefit.
- Fanatical religious and political groups,
regardless of whether or not leaders exert a high level of psychological
- Terrorist organizations, such as Bin
Laden’s group, which induce some members to commit horrific acts of
- Religious groups deemed heretical or
socially deviant by the person attaching the “cult” label.
- Any unorthodox religious group – benign or
- Covert hypnotic inductions.
- Communes that may be physically isolated and
- Groups (religious, New Age,
psychotherapeutic, “healing,”) that advocate beliefs in a transcendent
order or actions that may occur through mechanisms inconsistent with the laws
- Any group embraced by a family member whose
parents, spouses, or other relatives conclude – correctly or incorrectly –
that the group is destructive to the involved family member.
- Organizations that employ high-pressure
sales and/or recruitment tactics.
- Authoritarian social groups in which members
exhibit a high level of conformity and compliance to the expectations and
demands of leaders.
- Extremist organizations that advocate
violence, racial separation, bigotry, or overthrow of the government.
- Familial or dyadic relationships in which
one member exerts an unusually high and apparently harmful influence over the
other member(s), e.g., certain forms of dysfunctional families or battered
The majority of those persons who attach the
“cult” label to these phenomena share a disapproval of the group or
organization they label. That is why some people have dismissed the term
“cult” as a meaningless epithet hurled at a group one doesn’t like.
Although this position may appeal to one’s cynical side, it ignores the
reality that many common concepts are fuzzy. Lists of diverse phenomena could
also be drawn up for terms such as “child abuse,” “neurotic,” “right
wing,” “left wing,” “learning disabled,” “sexy,” “ugly,”
“beautiful,” etc. We don’t banish these fuzzy terms from our
vocabularies because, contrary to the cynic’s claim, most people most of the
time use these fuzzy terms with enough precision to be meaningful and
understood by others.
Nevertheless, fuzzy terms leave much to be
desired. Hence, scientists often
make up new terms, i.e., jargon, to avoid the imprecision of “natural”
language. Even within the
scientific disciplines that propagate jargon, however, disputes may simmer for
years about how to define properly a term in common use.
About twenty years ago, for example, sociologists of religion abandoned
the term “cult” in favor of “new religious movement”; yet they still
debate the meaning and merits of “new religious movement.” Thus, even
within scientific disciplines terminology is rarely as precise as scientists
We have, then, three choices with regards to
- We can pretend that a particular term, e.g.,
“cult,” is more precise than it actually is, thereby inviting
misapplication of the concept to which the term refers.
We can so narrowly define the term that it becomes useless in a practical
- We can strive for a practical level of
precision while acknowledging the unavoidable ambiguity in our terminology.
ICSA has chosen the latter course (On Using the Term
acknowledge the term’s ambiguity, but we also recognize that, for better or
for worse, “cult” is the term that our inquirers, particularly on Internet
searches, are most predisposed to use. Although we try to focus the meaning of
the term, we must, nonetheless, also try to respond constructively to the wide
spectrum of phenomena that our inquirers collectively associate with
“cult,” however misguided their linguistic usage may sometimes be.
Generally speaking (though certainly not
always), the phenomena to which they attach the term “cult” constitute a
“conceptual family.” The members of this family are distinct, and it is
inappropriate to give all of them the same “name,” e.g., “cult.” Yet
they do have a family resemblance resting on the inquirer’s perception that
the group exhibits one or more of these characteristics:
It treats people as objects
to be manipulated for the benefit of the leader(s).
It believes that and
behaves as though the group’s supposedly noble ends justify means that most
people deem unethical.
It harms some persons
involved with or affected by the group.
individuals may associate any one of these characteristics with the concept
“cult,” frequently other terms may be more appropriate descriptors. That
is why our mission sidebar lists “psychological manipulation, psychological
abuse, spiritual abuse, brainwashing, mind control, thought reform, abusive
churches, extremism, totalistic groups, authoritarian groups…exit
counseling, recovery, and practical suggestions for families, individuals”
as areas for which we provide information.
And that is why central components of our mission (see
About ICSA) are “to study psychological manipulation and abuse,
especially as it manifests in cultic and other groups…to help individuals
and families adversely affected by psychologically manipulative groups and to
protect society against the harmful implications of group-related manipulation
On the other
hand, not everybody who contacts us is troubled.
Some are merely curious. Others
are looking for information on a group that is not harmful. Others seek
information on helping techniques. And
still others want to teach young people how to recognize and resist the lure
of spurious philosophies and manipulative groups.
That is why our mission sidebar also says that we provide information
on “new religious movements, alternative and mainstream religions, group
dynamics…and practical suggestions for…helping professionals, clergy,
journalists, researchers, students, educators, and others interested in these
wide range of phenomena that we study and the wide range of individuals and
organizations we try to assist, we emphasize that our having information on or
researching a particular group does NOT imply that it is a “cult” or even
that it is harmful. We do NOT
maintain a list of “cults” or “bad groups,” and we have no intention
of compiling such a list. We do,
however, provide information on and conceptual tools for analyzing diverse
groups that inquirers may – correctly or incorrectly – associate with
cults and other groups within its conceptual family.
explore this Web site, we hope that you will keep in mind the issues discussed
in this essay. We also hope that
in your own endeavors you apply the term “cult” judiciously and with an
acute awareness of its ambiguity and limitations.