A cult can be either a sharply-bounded social group or a diffusely-bounded social movement held together through shared commitment to a charismatic leader. It upholds a transcendent belief system (often but not always religious in nature) that includes a call for a personal transformation. It also requires a high level of personal commitment from its members in words and deeds.
This definition is not meant to be evaluative in the sense of implying that a group is good, bad, benign, or harmful. Rather it is meant to convey a systemic view of such a group, which is comprised of a charismatic relationship, a promise of fulfillment, and a methodology by which to achieve it.
Cults differ in their specific ruling ideologies and in their specific requirements, practices, and behaviors; a single group may even differ over its lifetime or across different locations. These groups exist on a continuum of influence (regarding a particular group’s effect on its members and on society, and vice versa) and a continuum of control (from less invasive to all-encompassing).
Cults can be distinguished from other non-mainstream groups—for example, religious or political sects, fringe or alternative groups or movements, communes and intentional communities—because of their intense ideologies and their demand for total commitment from at least some of the members. Each group must be observed and judged on its own merits and its own practices and behaviors as to whether it falls within this category type, which is not meant to be dismissive or one-sided.
Cults are frequently totalistic and separatist. Some cults are totalistic when they are exclusive in their ideology (sacred, the only way) and impose upon their members systems of social control that are confining and all-inclusive (encompassing all aspects of life). Some cults are separatist when they promote withdrawal from the larger society.
People in such cults tend to
- Espouse an all-encompassing belief system
- Exhibit excessive devotion to and dependency on their “perfect” leader
- Avoid criticism of the group, its leader(s), and its practices
- Have an attitude of disdain for non-members
Frequently, the totalistic and separatist features of some cults makes them appear alien and threatening, and those features have attracted great attention in the mass media.
This is drawn from Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults by Janja Lalich (University of California Press, 2004). Copyright 2004.