What Is a Cult and Why Do People Join Them?

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If you’ve ever asked yourself, “what is a cult?” then you’re not alone. Throughout history and the pop culture zeitgeist, cults have drawn mass fascination from the general public. But it’s not clear just how many of them exist — and how easily people are sucked into joining them.

According to experts like professor and psychologist Steve Eichel, up to 10,000 cults still exist today in the United States. Most exist under the radar and rarely draw national attention the way NXIVM has. The universally agreed upon definition of a cult is a group or movement with shared belief systems and a charismatic leader that seeks to isolate their members from the rest of society through psychological manipulation and pressure strategies.

Here’s more info about what a cult is and why people join cults.

What is the difference between a cult and a religion?

The primary difference between a cult and a religion is social acceptance. Originally a term synonymous with worship and religious veneration, “cult” has evolved over the years and eventually gotten “co-opted […] by sociology”, according to University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Robin Clark. Somewhere in the 19th century, the word started referring to beliefs and practices “deemed ‘socially deviant.’”

Ultimately, the difference between emerging religions and what we consider a cult comes down to a matter of perspective. Scientology and Mormonism, for instance, are groups that have outlived their charismatic leaders. Like with any group, cults are technically legal so long as they don’t break any actual laws.

What are the characteristics of a cult?

Most can be classified within four categories: doomsday cults (i.e. David Koresh in Waco), religious cults (i.e. Jim Jones in Jonestown), political cults and sex cults, though there may be some overlap. Still, it is hard to find a singular definition of “cult” that everyone can agree on, including researchers. Therefore, it is easier to recognize them by looking for specific warning signs. According to the Cult Education Institute, these include:

  • Authoritarianism without accountability (the leader’s word is the law)
  • No tolerance for questions or criticism
  • Lack of financial disclosure
  • Unreasonable fears of the outside world (ranges from a fear of persecution to apocalyptic thinking)
  • A belief that former followers were wrong to leave because they claim there is no legitimate reason to
  • A history of abuse (physical or psychological) of its members
  • Records, books, news articles, and television programs documenting this abuse

It is generally accepted that cults have a leader, thus they almost always can be considered a cult of personality. Examples of cults include Heaven’s Gate, whose followers believed they would be taken to heaven by a UFO, and The Peoples Temple, an apocalyptic group that founded a settlement in Guyana. Both of these organizations ended in mass suicides. In other cases, law enforcement got involved. The FBI raided David Koresh’s compound in Waco, Texas, while various members of the Manson family were imprisoned after their killing spree in the summer of 1969.

Content retrieved from: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/what-is-cult.

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