The term cult is applied to a wide range of groups. There are historical cults, such as the cult of Isis, non-western cults studied by anthropologists, such as the Melanesian cargo cults, and a host of contemporary cults that have caught the publics attention during the past fifteen years. Websters Third New International Dictionary (unabridged, 1966) provides several definitions of cult, among which are:
These broad definitions do not accurately reflect the concerns generated by contemporary groups often regarded as cults. The following definition focuses these concerns.
Cult: 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 designed to advance the
goals of the groups leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their
families, or the community. Unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control
include but are not limited to: isolation from former friends and family, 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.
Contemporary cults, then, are likely to exhibit three elements to varying degrees:
Because cults tend to be leader-centered, exploitative, and harmful, they come into conflict with and are threatened by the more rational, open, and benevolent systems of members families and society at large. Some gradually accommodate to society by decreasing their levels of manipulation, exploitation, harm, and opposition. Others, however, harden their shells by becoming totalistic, elitist, and isolated. These groups tend to:
Because the capacity to exploit human beings is universal, a cult could arise in any kind of group. Most established groups, however, have accountability mechanisms that restrain the development of cultic subgroups. Some religious cult leaders, for example, began their careers in mainstream denominations from which they were ejected because of their cultic activities. Cults, then, are generally associated with newer, unorthodox groups, although not all new or unorthodox groups are cults.
According to this perspective a "new religious," "new psychotherapeutic," "new political," or other "new" movement differs from a cult in that the use of manipulative techniques of persuasion and control to exploit members is much more characteristic of the latter than the former "new movements." This distinction, though unfortunately ignored by many students of the subject, is important in order to avoid unfairly labeling benign new groups as cults and conversely, giving bona fide cults the undeserved respectability of terms such as "new religious movement."
The perspective put forth here focuses on the psychological processes, in contrast to some religiously based perspectives which focus on the doctrinal deviations of cults. According to this statement, a group may be deviant and heretical without necessarily being a cult.