What is a Cult?

From mass suicides to child brides, cults have shocked and horrified those outside the fanatical groups. So let’s learn more about cults, what they are, how they work, and the damage they can do.

Polygamist cults

History of Cults

Cults have been commonplace in European history since ancient times, particularly in the Greek and Roman world. The Bacchanalia, worshippers of Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy, is an example of an early cult.

In Medieval times there were devotees of saints like St Francis of Assisi. In early modern times, there have been breakaway factions of Protestantism like the Shakers, Amish, and Mormons, who have also been labeled cults.

Since the 1920s, the term has been used to describe minority religious groups whose beliefs and practices might seem strange or dangerous to outsiders.

Cults through the ages have not all been dangerous or violent, but many modern cults have contained these aspects.

Common Features of Cults

It is difficult to say what features define a cult as they are value judgments and a matter of opinion, but many modern cults do share similarities.

Cults usually have a charismatic leader who encourages members to pursue a transcendent goal. They encourage ideological purity, and members are discouraged from questioning the beliefs of the leader or the cult.

Cults claim their message will transform society and often encourage religious experiences through rituals. Many cults have been known to use mind-altering practices like sleep deprivation, meditation, and drugs.

To encourage a devoted following, cult leaders often encourage members to break ties with their friends and family, all while showering them with love and praise. Many cults have an apocalyptic message or aspects of religious fanaticism. Leaders often encourage members to spread the cult’s message, and some cults may use aggressive recruitment tactics.

Types of Cults

There are different types of cults, but these categories are not distinct, and many cults fall into more than one type.

Destructive cults encourage excessive devotion to a person or idea and may plan to cause harm to members of the group or others. Many destructive cults have ended in mass suicide and murders.

A doomsday cult believes in an apocalyptic end or trying to bring about a violent event. They are often concerned with preparing for a catastrophic event and may have a cache of money, food, weapons, and medical supplies.

Polygamist cults practice and teach marriage between two or more people, usually one husband with multiple wives. In some polygamist cults, there have been instances of child abuse, sexual abuse, and underage marriage.

Terrorist cults can be linked to religion, where terrorism is used as a strategy to achieve religious goals. Sometimes a terrorist cult is based on the ideas of patriotism and a sense of duty to one’s country.

What Makes Someone Susceptible to a Cult?

Different types of cults recruit people based on the needs of the cult itself.

Cult members often have a higher education level and are willing to learn about new ideas. Cults also look to recruit members with a weaker spiritual background and those who don’t have a deeply ingrained faith system. This makes it easier to convince them to embrace the cult’s beliefs.

Cult members are often younger because they are impressionable during this transitional phase. The cult offers companionship, stability, and comfort at a time when young members are discovering who they are.

Many people attracted to cults often have low self-esteem, which makes them more vulnerable to the manipulations of charismatic cult leaders. They are more likely to be manipulated by promises of a better life and respond to the ‘love-bombing’ method that cults use. ‘Love-bombing’ is a process where a new member is showered with love and praise and made to feel valued and accepted by existing cult members.

Cult Indoctrination

Cults are known for convincing their members to blindly believe the leader’s teachings.

They promote an illusion of comfort by making unattainable promises like financial security, health, peace, and eternal life. They provide answers to members seeking the meaning of life and trying to find their ultimate purpose.

Cults draw new members deeper into the fold through love-bombing, which trains new members’ brains to associate the cult with love and acceptance. Cult leaders also offer members an Us versus Them mentality. This is designed to isolate members from their friends and family so that they replace old relationships with new ones from within the cult.

Cult leaders also convince their followers that they are superior and are working towards a higher purpose. Many cults use mind control as a form of indoctrination. By isolating members, they give up their personal possessions and money, which makes them reliant on the cult. They also use brainwashing techniques through meditation, repetitive chanting, and rituals.

Lasting Effects of Cult Membership

Cult membership can have lasting emotional damage for members after leaving the cult.

They can often be irritable and have heightened paranoia and self-esteem problems. Mental disorders and depression are common among past cult members.

Ex-members can also have feelings of guilt associated with being part of a cult. Often members have seen instances of child abuse, sexual abuse, forced marriage, and mass suicide.

Many cult members also suffer from Post-Cult Trauma Syndrome, which can result in spontaneous crying, a sense of loss, alienation from friends and family, confusion about right and wrong, and disassociation. It can also cause Stockholm Syndrome, where members have intense and conflicting emotions about their time in the cult.

Cult members experience a loss of identity through brainwashing, indoctrination, and a sense of familial attachment. This can be very difficult to deal with upon leaving the cult, and ex-members may struggle to find themselves in a post-cult situation.

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