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What makes a cult, culty?

Determining whether a group is a cult or not can be a complex and sensitive issue, as there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes a cult. However, there are some potential warning signs that could indicate that a group may be a cult. As a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW), I help millennials to older adults struggling with anxiety, complex trauma and PTSD, and cult recovery in Boston and virtually across Massachusetts. I have worked with a number of people who are exvangelical; who have removed themselves from their religious groups, and are navigating their new lives cult-free. In this article, I discuss the fundamentals of what makes a cult, culty and what makes them this way.

Followers gathering in a cult. Holy cross mounted on the wall. Men and women cheering to cult leader.
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What defines a cult?

The term "cult" is often used to describe a group or movement that is seen as deviant or unconventional and is typically associated with a negative connotation. However, there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes a cult, and the term can be used to refer to a wide range of groups or organizations that share some common characteristics.

In general, a cult is often characterized by:

  • Charismatic Leader: Cults are often led by a charismatic individual who is seen as having special knowledge or powers.

  • Isolation: Cults often isolate their members from the outside world, creating a sense of exclusivity and fostering dependence on the group.

  • Mind Control: Cults often use mind control techniques, such as manipulation, brainwashing, and indoctrination, to shape the beliefs and behaviors of their members.

  • Financial Control: Cults often exert strict control over their members' finances, demanding large sums of money or requiring them to give up their possessions.

  • Exploitation: Cults often exploit their members, using their labor or resources for the benefit of the group's leaders.

  • Fear Tactics: Cults often use fear tactics to keep members in line, such as threatening them with punishment if they try to leave or challenging their loyalty to the group.

  • Group Identity: Cults often create a strong sense of group identity, making members feel like they are part of something special and important.

Woman placing her hand over her face. Depressed woman from benig in a cult. Woman and religious following or cult leaders.

Cult Leaders and Authoritative Figures

Cult leaders and other authoritative figures within their religious following often hold significant power over their followers, which they use to manipulate and control them - but this strategy usually does not happen right away. Let me explain…

This process usually starts out slow and is not in the beginning stages of joining a cult. When someone new enters a community like this, most times, they are not questioning who or what God is. They have yet to be isolated, therefore perpetuation the confusion around God and vulnerability. In turn, the leader positions themself as the link between followers and the divine, meaning that a follower is likely not able to question how God is presented because they may not feel like they have access.

After some time has passed, the cult leaders state that they are a direct link to God, which leads people to question who and what God is. Once the follower becomes vulnerable and confused, they are limited to communicating with the outside world, preventing the person from challenging the leader or group.

The main focus of the cult leader is to enforce and seek to control every aspect of their followers' lives, including their thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. They often use manipulation and deception to maintain control over their followers through fear-mongering, gaslighting tactics, intimidation and exploitation.

Sexual Exploitation within Cults

Sexual exploitation is, unfortunately, a common feature in many cults. Cult leaders may use their power and influence to sexually exploit their followers, often under the guise of spiritual or religious practice, especially with women.

Cults often have very narrowly defined roles for women, such as childbearing, mothering, and housekeeping - where women may only exist in these contexts. Oftentimes, women have a strict dress code; long hair, no makeup, covered arms, long skirts, and no jewelry.

Likewise, these groups also have strict rules around sex and do not allow the use of birth control. Sex is highly controlled by the leader, and the context is always in favor of the man. And if the woman does not follow these rules, then they are believed to be disobeying God; he is ready to punish you at any time. Talk about terrifying!

Man passing religious cup or chalice to another cult follower. Cult leader controlling his followers. God is waiting to punish you.

Punished within a Cult

Punishment within a cult can take many forms and may be used to maintain control over members or enforce compliance with the group's beliefs and practices. This is often referred to as ‘fear mongering’; the belief that God is waiting to punish you at any time. This is the biggest and most pervasive tactic used in cult groups because it normalizes followers to mimic group behaviors.

Cult leaders also inflict the fear of suffering, enforcing the idea that God condones suffering, which in turn promotes the idea that suffering and its effects are more appealing to God.

In order to refrain from being punished by “God”, cult followers are encouraged to ‘pray away’ something undesirable in order to stay loyal to their community. For example, praying away sickness or illness instead of medical intervention. If they seek medical attention outside of their given rights, they may be punished physically, mentally, or emotionally for disobeying the cult leader.

Final views on what defines a cult or religious group

Now, it isn’t fair for us to lump all religions together and label them a cult because it can weaken the impact that cult characteristics have on people. Knowing the difference and defining traits of a cult ensures you have the correct support when leaving the cult.

If you or someone you know is involved in a group that exhibits several of these warning signs, it may be worth seeking support. If you would like to speak with me regarding cult recovery, religious trauma or self-exploration, schedule a free consultation with me today.

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1 Comment

I was in group therapy run by a guy who was licensed, had a PHD and CGP certification and ran groups for 40 years, 'taught' at Harvard, was active in NAGPA (group therapy association). He did almost all the cult leader stuff like a legit malignant narcissist psychopath. He kept some patients for 20-30 years, would take turns mocking and abusing them. He would redirect and gaslight people when they raised concerns about him. One time a therapy student joined out group, and third session they quit saying, 'If this is what you are learning, I don't want to learn it. My friends and nobody I know speaks like you speak in the group. What this man is teaching you…

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