Criminal Justice Degrees Guide

9 Ways Groups Become Cults

The line between religions and cults can be a blurry one at times. Although some prefer to distinguish between cults and religions, there are some indisputable similarities. For example, both sometimes encourage donations from their followers and promote the sacrifice of food and other luxuries in the name of ritual observances. However, cults significantly differ in their belief systems, rituals and indoctrination. A religion that uses mind control techniques, deception and exploitation to teach its followers has strayed further away from a religion and is much closer to a cult. Here are 9 ways groups become cults:

  1. Mind control

    Cults were built upon the foundation of mind control. Cults use mind control and brainwashing techniques in virtually every aspect of their teachings, recruitment and policies. Cults aim to reduce one’s critical thinking skills and gain control of one’s thoughts, emotion and behavior through the use of mind control techniques. Researchers may argue that mind control is nothing new to religion and most religious groups use some form of brainwashing to get their members to alter the way they perceive the world, but there is certainly a fine line between coercive thinking and suggestive interpretations of the truth.

  2. Charismatic leader

    A signature characteristic of cults is their charismatic leader. Although many religious leaders are considered charismatic, cult leaders have a different kind of magnetism and power that wins over followers. A cult leader is considered the supreme authority of the group, and he or she typically becomes the object of worship. This figurehead commands the upmost respect and compliance from its members and they have the only and final ruling on matters. Cult leaders lead the pack in using mind control and brainwashing techniques, so they can take full advantage of the members financially, physically and psychologically.

  3. Deception

    When it comes to religion people will do anything to seek the truth. Cults know this and use it to their advantage. Unlike most religions, cults will use deceptive and manipulative ploys to get people to join the cult and stay in it. They are notorious for using deceptive recruitment efforts, such as not indentifying themselves and not being transparent about their organization or message. Cults often use confusing terms and languages to control their followers’ minds and strengthen the group’s belief system.

  4. Exclusivity

    One way for religious groups to become cults is to claim exclusivity. Cults are notorious for claiming that they have an exclusive line to God and have a special revelation of the truth. Most groups believe they are an elite and secretive group that is expected to recruit and fundraise with hidden objectives and limited disclosure to protect their sacred mission.

  5. Offer explanations and solutions to everything in life

    Most religions will admit that there are many things that can’t be easily explained or easily solved. This is a concept that many cults refuse to believe. Cults have a tendency to give ambiguous explanations for the most complex things in life and suggest unethical solutions to the world’s problems. These deceptive teachings are all part of the cult’s totalitarian worldview and brainwashing.

  6. Exploitation

    One major way religious groups become cults is through exploitation of their members. Cults are notorious for exploiting members physically, psychologically and financially. Typically, cult members are forced to give money and spend countless hours working and recruiting for the group. In many cases, women are sexually exploited in cults and are raped or forced to have sex with the leader. These unethical practices are justified by the cult’s promotion of totalitarian control and emphasizing the goals of the group over the individual.

  7. Information control

    Religious groups can be considered cult-like when they exercise information control. In keeping with their totalitarian worldview, cults take it upon themselves to manage the non-cult information that their members are allowed to hear or see. Instead, they will emphasize their own teachings through meetings, magazines, journals, videos and other forms of propaganda. Information control keeps cult members from thinking critically and questioning the group’s beliefs.

  8. Isolation and total dependency on the group

    Religious groups become cults when they enforce isolation from family, friends and society and emphasize total dependency on the group. Cult members are generally forced to cut ties with old family and friends and replace them with their new "family." In order to ensure this separation, cult leaders will remove members from society and live together in an unconventional manner. In addition to physical isolation, cult members also become disconnected from their previous values and beliefs.

  9. Totalitarian worldview

    Cults are distinctly different from traditional religious groups in that they have a totalitarian worldview that promotes the goals of the group over the individual. Cult leaders embody the totalitarian worldview by claiming an exclusive relationship with God or a higher force and controlling virtually every aspect of their members’ lives. As part of totalitarian control, cults often approve unethical behavior, whether it’s violence, deception or brainwashing, in order to foster the group’s beliefs.