The term cult is now often used to refer to contemporary religious groups whose beliefs and practices depart from the conventional norms of society. These groups vary widely in doctrine, leadership, and ritual, but most stress direct experience of the divine and duties to the cult community. Such cults tend to proliferate during periods of social unrest; most are transient and peripheral. Many cults that have emerged in the United States since the late 1960s have been marked by renewed interest in mysticism and Asian religions, but many others have had Christian roots.
Such major U.S. cults as the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church and Hare Krishna, a movement derived from Hinduism, have stirred wide controversy. Cults' insularity and distrust of society sometimes lead to violent conflicts with the law. In 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana, followers of Jim Jones killed a U.S. congressman who was investigating Jones, and then Jones and more than 900 others committed mass suicide. In 1993 a gunfight near Waco, Tex., between federal officers and David Koresh and his Branch Davidian followers led to a 51-day siege that ended in a blaze that left Koresh and 82 people dead. Other notorious cults have included the Japanese Aum Shinri Kyo, whose adherents were responsible for a number of murders, including a 1995 nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo subway system that killed 12 and injured thousands; the Order of the Solar Temple, whose members died by murder or suicide in Quebec, Switzerland, and France in a series of incidents in the mid- to late 1990s; Heaven's Gate, a group formed in the mid-1970s whose 39 members committed mass suicide in California in 1997; and the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, a millennialist Ugandan church, more than 900 members of which apparently died by mass murder and mass suicide in 2000.
See D. J. Reavis, The Ashes of Waco (1995); J. D. Tabor and E. V. Gallagher, Why Waco? (1995); R. J. Lifton, Destroying the World to Save It (1999).
Any religious movement based on the observation by local residents of the delivery of supplies by ship and aircraft to colonial officials. Cargo cults were observed chiefly in Melanesia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were characterized by the expectation of a new age of blessing and prosperity to be initiated by the arrival of a special “cargo” of goods from supernatural sources. Such beliefs may have expressed traditional millennial ideas, often revived by the teaching of Christian missions.
Learn more about cargo cult with a free trial on Britannica.com.
''This article does not discuss "cult" in the original sense of "veneration" or "religious practice"; for that usage see Cult (religious practice). See Cult (disambiguation) for more meanings of the term "cult".
Cult typically refers to a cohesive social group devoted to beliefs or practices that the surrounding population considers to be outside the mainstream, with a notably positive or negative popular perception. The spelling c-u-l-t also has at least eight homonym meanings that have confused the public since 1920 onward.
In common or populist usage, "cult" has a positive connotation for groups of art, music, writing, fiction, and fashion devotees (see Cult following), but a negative connotation for new religious, extreme political, questionable theraputic, and pyramidal business groups. For this reason, most, if not all, non-fan groups that are called cults reject this label.
A group's cult status begins as rumors spread of its novel belief system, its great devotions, its idiosyncratic practices, its perceived harmful or beneficial effects on members or its perceived opposition to the interests of mainstream cultures and governments. Persistent rumors may follow relatively small and recently founded religious or non-religious groups when they are perceived to engage in excessive member control or exploitation.
New religions are often considered "cults" before they are considered religions by social scientists, by Christian Evangelical/Fundamentalist theologians, and also by the secular public – yet these three groups do not usually have the same understanding of the term "cult". People understand the term "cult" through the most popular usage in their cultures and subcultures, which can result in homonymic conflict, a communicative conflict with people who hold a different definition of the same term. This often results in confusion, misunderstanding, and resentment between members of "cult" groups and non-members.
Laypersons participate in cultic studies to a degree not found in other academic disciplines, making it difficult to demarcate the boundaries of science from theology, politics, news reporting, fashion, and family cultural values.
From about 1920 onward, the populist negative connotation progressively interfered with scientific study using the neutral historical meaning of "cult" in the sociology of religion. A 20th century attempt by sociologists to replace "cult" with the term New Religious Movement (NRM), was rejected by the public and not entirely accepted by the social-scientific community.
Despite the existence of popular cult checklists, anthropologists and sociologists have argued that no one has been able to unambiguously define “cult”, in a way that identifies only non-fan groups who will become illegally abusive or destructive. However, without attempting to predict crimes or torts by groups, scientific criteria of characteristics attributed to cults do exist. A little-known example is Alexander and Rollins' 1984 study, which concluded that the socially well-received group Alcoholics Anonymous is a cult by using the model of Lifton's thought reform techniques and applying those to AA's group indoctrination methodology.
During the 20th century, groups referred to as cults by governments and media became globally controversial. The televised rise and fall of less than 20 destructive cults known for mass suicide and murder tarred hundreds of NRM groups having less serious government and civil legal entanglements, against a background of thousands of unremarkable NRM groups known only to their neighbors.
Following the Solar Temple destructive cult incidents on two continents, France authorized the 1995 Parliamentary Commission on Cults in France. This commission set a mostly non-controversial standard for human rights objections to exploitative group practices, and mandated a controversial remedy for cultic abuse, known in English as cult watching, which was quietly adopted by other countries. The United States does not have a classification for cults in its legal system. The U.S. responded with human rights challenges to French cult control policies, and France charged the U.S. with interfering in French internal affairs. In recent years, France's troublesome public cult watching lists appear to have been retired in favor of confidential police intelligence gathering.
Conservative Christian authors, especially evangelical Protestants, define a cult as a religion which claims to be in conformance with Biblical truth, yet that is believed to deviate from it based upon Evangelical interpretation. Walter Martin, the pioneer of the Christian countercult movement, gave in his 1955 book the following definition:
By cultism we mean the adherence to doctrines which are pointedly contradictory to orthodox Christianity and which yet claim the distinction of either tracing their origin to orthodox sources or of being in essential harmony with those sources. Cultism, in short, is any major deviation from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith.
Author Robert M. Bowman, Jr. defines a cult as "A religious group originating as a heretical sect and maintaining fervent commitment to heresy," while noting that the adjective "cultic" can be applied to groups approaching this standard to varying degrees.
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary lists five different definitions of the word "cult."
The Random House Unabridged Dictionary's eight definitions of "cult" are:
Webster's New World College Dictionary defines "cult" as:
For authoritative British usage, the Compact Oxford English Dictionary of Current English definitions of "cult" and "sect" are:
British "sect" formerly included a contextually implied meaning, of what "cult" now means in both USA and the UK. Some other nations still use the foreign equivalents of old British "sect" ("secte," "sekte," or "secta." etc.) to imply "cult. Both words, as well as "cult" in its original sense of cultus (e.g., Middle Ages cult of Mary), must be understood to correctly interpret 20th century popular cult references in world English.
A very common definition in the sociology of religion for cult is one of the four terms making up the church-sect typology. Under this definition, a cult refers to a group with a high degree of tension with the surrounding society combined with novel religious beliefs. This is distinguished from sects, which have a high degree of tension with society but whose beliefs are traditional to that society, and ecclesias and denominations, which are groups with a low degree of tension and traditional beliefs.
According to Rodney Stark's A Theory of Religion, most religions start out their lives as cults or sects, i.e. groups in high tension with the surrounding society. Over time, they tend to either die out or become more established, mainstream and in less tension with society. Cults are new groups with a novel theology, while sects are attempts to return mainstream religions to what the group views as their original purity. As set out by Stark and Bainbridge, the term "cult", is used distinctly among the general definitions, and is closely related to the historically changed definitions of "sect." In this contemporary view, a "sect" is specifically "a deviant religious organization with traditional beliefs and practices," as compared to a "cult" which indicates a "a deviant religious organization with novel beliefs and practices.
Since this definition of "cult" is defined in part in terms of tension with the surrounding society, the same group may both be and not be a cult at different places or times. For example, Christianity was by this definition a cult in 1st and 2nd century Rome, while in fifth century Rome it became rather an ecclesia (the state religion). Similarly, very conservative Islam could constitute a cult in the West but also the ecclesia in some conservative Muslim countries. Likewise, because novelty of beliefs and tension are elements in the definition: the Hare Krishnas are not a cult but a sect in India (since their beliefs are largely traditional to Hindu culture), while they are by this definition a cult in the Western world (since their beliefs are largely novel to Christian culture).
The English sociologist Roy Wallis argues that a cult is characterized "epistemological individualism" by which he means that "the cult has no clear locus of final authority beyond the individual member." Cults, according to Wallis, are generally described as "oriented towards the problems of individuals, loosely structured, tolerant, non-exclusive", making "few demands on members", without possessing a "clear distinction between members and non-members", having "a rapid turnover of membership", and are transient collectives with vague boundaries and fluctuating belief systems Wallis asserts that cults emerge from the "cultic milieu". Wallis contrasts a cult with a sect that he asserts is characterized by "epistemological authoritarianism": sects possess some authoritative locus for the legitimate attribution of heresy. According to Wallis, "sects lay a claim to possess unique and privileged access to the truth or salvation and their committed adherents typically regard all those outside the confines of the collectivity as 'in error'".
Studies of religious, political, and other cults have identified a number of key steps in this type of coercive persuasion:
While acknowledging the issue of multiple definitions of "cult", Michael Langone states that "Cults are groups that often exploit members psychologically and/or financially, typically by making members comply with leadership's demands through certain types of psychological manipulation, popularly called mind control, and through the inculcation of deep-seated anxious dependency on the group and its leaders. A similar definition is given by Louis Jolyon West:
In each, the focus tends to be on the specific tactics of conversion, the negative impact on individual members, and the difficulty in leaving once indoctrination has occurred.
If the term does not enable us to distinguish between a pathological group and a legitimate one, then it has no real value. It is the religious equivalent of the racial term for African Americans—it conveys disdain and prejudice without having any valuable content.
Nonacademics are sometimes published, or their writings cited, in the Cultic Studies Journal (CSJ), the journal of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), a group which criticizes perceived cultic behavior. Sociologist Janja Lalich began her work and conceptualized many of her ideas while an "anti-cult" activist writing for the "CSJ" years before obtaining academic standing, and incorporated her own experiences in a leftwing political group into her later work as a sociological theorist.
The hundreds of books on specific groups by nonacademic comprise a large portion of the currently available published record on cults. The books by "anti-cult" critics run from memoirs by ex-members to detailed accounts of the history and alleged misdeeds of a given group written from either a tabloid journalist, investigative journalist, or popular historian perspective.
Journalists Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman together wrote the book Snapping, which set forth speculations on the nature of mind control that have received mixed reviews from psychologists. Others mentioned in this article include Tim Wohlforth (co-author of On the Edge and a former follower of British Trotskyist Gerry Healy); Carol Giambalvo, a former est member; activist and consultant Rick Ross; and mental health counselor Steven Hassan, a former Unification Church member and author of the book Combatting Cult Mind Control, who, like Ross, runs a business specializing in servicing people involved with cults or their family members. Another example is the work of journalist/activist Chip Berlet, responsible for much of the work on "political cults" which exists today. Current members of the Hare Krishna movement as well as several former leaders of the Worldwide Church of God also have written with critical insight on "cult" issues, using terminologies and framings somewhat different from those of secular experts. Members of the Unification Church have produced books and articles that argue the case against excessive reactions to new religious movements, including their own.
Within this larger community of discourse, the debates about "cultism" and specific groups are generally more polarized than among scholars who study new religious movements, although there are heated disagreements among scholars as well. What follows is a summary of that portion of the intellectual debate conducted primarily from inside the universities:
Some mental health professionals use the term cult generally for groups that practice physical or mental abuse. Others prefer more descriptive terminology such as abusive cult or destructive cult, while noting that many groups meet the other criteria without such abuse. A related issue is determining what is abuse, when few members (as opposed to some ex-members) would agree that they have suffered abuse. Other researchers like David V. Barrett hold the view that classifying a religious movement as a cult is generally used as a subjective and negative label and has no added value; instead, he argues that one should investigate the beliefs and practices of the religious movement.
According to the Dutch religious scholar Wouter Hanegraaff, another problem with writing about cults comes about because they generally hold belief systems that give answers to questions about the meaning of life and morality. This makes it difficult not to write in biased terms about a certain group, because writers are rarely neutral about these questions. Some admit this, and try to diffuse the problem by stating their personal sympathies openly.
In the sociology of religion, the term cult is part of the subdivision of religious groups: sects, cults, denominations, and ecclesias. The sociologists Rodney Stark and William S. Bainbridge define cults in their book, "Theory of Religion" and subsequent works, as a "deviant religious organization with novel beliefs and practices", that is, as new religious movements that (unlike sects) have not separated from another religious organization. Cults, in this sense, may or may not be dangerous, abusive, etc. By this broad definition, most of the groups which have been popularly labeled cults fit this value-neutral definition.
All cults have several extremely strong characteristics that are hints to it being a cult. Fear, Charisma, and other unstable, and uneasy emotions.
According to Dr. Eileen Barker, new religions are in most cases started by charismatic but unpredictable leaders. According to Mikael Rothstein, there is often little access to plain facts about either historical or contemporary religious leaders to compare with the abundance of legends, myths, and theological elaborations. According to Rothstein, most members of new religious movements have little chance to meet the Master (leader) except as a member of a larger audience.
Some scholars favor one particular view, or combine elements of each. According to Gallanter, typical reasons why people join cults include a search for community and a spiritual quest. Stark and Bainbridge, in discussing the process by which individuals join new religious groups, have questioned the utility of the concept of conversion, suggesting that affiliation is a more useful concept.
According to this research, social out-groups are perceived as unable to experience complex human emotions, share in-group beliefs, or act according to societal norms, moral rules, and values. The authors describe this as "extreme discrimination revealing the worst kind of prejudice: excluding out-groups from full humanity." Their study provides evidence that while individuals may consciously see members of social out-groups as people, the brain processes social out-groups as something less than human, whether we are aware of it or not. According to the authors, brain imaging provides a more accurate depiction of this prejudice than the verbal reporting usually used in research studies.
Anti-cultists in the 1970s and 1980s made heavy accusations regarding the harm and danger of cults for members, their families, and societies. The debate at that time was intense and was sometimes called the cult debate or cult wars.
Much of the action taken against cults has been in reaction to the real or perceived harm experienced by some members.
Around two hundred or more groups referred to as cults have become notably entangled with the law. These entanglements historically include trivial infractions such as those related to mass begging, and civil suits for sexual abuse, but more significantly include serious crimes ranging from tax felonies to murder.
Media reports of cultic-related crimes cause a negative public perception of all groups labeled as cults in the populist sense. Therefore, groups labeled as cults usually deny that they are cults, even though they may fit the definition of a cult in the neutral sociological sense.
The media have referred to Aum Shinrikyo as a doomsday cult, and to several others as suicide cults, or destructive cults, because they killed, otherwise harmed, or threatened the well-being and lives of their own members, uninvolved persons, and society in general. Fewer than 20 groups, including Aum Shinrikyo, Peoples Temple, The Manson Family, Heaven's Gate, Order of the Solar Temple, and Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, have been publicly characterized as examples of destructive cults. A group that is sued or charged with a crime less serious than life-threatening, is generally not called a destructive cult, but is sometimes labeled an "abusive cult," or is just referred to as a cult, since that is sociologically plausible in avoiding a libel case.
The Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995 was carried out by fanatical core-adherents of Aum Shinrikyo, a self-styled 'peaceful religious' group, instigated in 1984 by the self-styled 'Shoko Asahara' or 'Great Enlghtened One', given name, Chizuo Matsumoto - a traditional Japanese masseur with previous criminal convictions for fraud and violence. Aum Shinrikyo ran a laboratory in the early 1990s where medically-qualified adherents cultured and experimented with botulin toxin, anthrax, cholera and Q fever. In 1993 members traveled to Africa to learn about and bring back samples of the Ebola virus. Subsequent to the Tokyo attack, 150 tonnes of chemical constituents of Sarin gas were found on properties controlled by 'Aum's' Leadership. This was sufficient to produce enough Sarin to kill up to 10 millions individuals. 'Aum' also kept an ex-Soviet attack-helicopter and a small-arms factory in Japan staffed by Russian technicians who were building hundreds of AK47 assault rifles. The group is known to have previously tried to acquire a nuclear weapon in Russia.
According to John R. Hall, a professor in sociology at the University of California-Davis and Philip Schuyler, the Peoples Temple is still seen by some as the cultus classicus, though it did not belong to the set of groups that triggered the original 1970's cult debate in the United States. Its mass suicide of over 900 members, and murders of nonmembers including USA Congressman Leo Ryan on November 18, 1978, led to increased global public concern and scrutiny of cults by governments.
European public pressure following the 1994 infant murder and subsequent mass murder-suicides of the Order of the Solar Temple colonies in Canada and Switzerland led to the 1995 Parliamentary Commission on Cults in France. This legislation resulted in uncontroversial human rights standards for judging cultic exploitation and abuse, the controversial remedy of cult watching with close enforcement against lesser crimes to discourage greater ones, as well as a later-deemphasized list of groups which France determined as cults to be watched.
The 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack, involving salmonella typhimurium contamination in the salad bars of 10 restaurants in The Dalles, Oregon was traced to certain members of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh/Osho group. The attack sickened about 751 people and hospitalized forty-five, although none died. It was the first known bio-terrorist attack of the 20th century in the United States, and is still known as the largest germ warfare attack in U.S. history. Eventually Ma Anand Sheela and Ma Anand Puja, one of Sheela's close associates, confessed to the attack as well as to attempted poisonings of county officials. The BW incident is used by the Homeland Defense Business Unit in Biological Incidents Operations training for Law Enforcement agencies.
The Colonia Dignidad, a German group that settled in Chile, hosted a concentration camp torture center for the Chilean government during the Pinochet dictatorship, circa 1973–1977.
Warren Jeffs, the polygamist sect leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was charged with several crimes but fled to avoid lawful prosecution until he was apprehended. He was found guilty of two counts of being an accomplice to rape as he had conducted a forced marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin in 2001. Jeffs also faces felony sex charges in Arizona for his alleged role in another two underage marriages.
In 1979, eleven highly placed leaders of the Church of Scientology were convicted in United States federal court regarding Operation Snow White, and served time in a USA federal prison. Operation Snow White involved infiltration, wiretapping and theft of documents in government offices, most notably those of the United States Internal Revenue Service (IRS). In 1995, Lisa McPherson, a 36 year old Dallas native line-dancing enthusiast, and a dedicated Scientologist for most of her adult life, died on December 5, after 17 days in the custody of the Church of Scientology in Clearwater. The State of Florida ultimately charged the Church of Scientology with two felonies: abuse/neglect of a disabled adult and the illegal practice of medicine. Although the state chose not to pursue those charges, a wrongful death lawsuit was brought by her estate and subsequently settled on May 28, 2004.
Edward Morrissey, husband of Rev. Mary Manin Morrissey, in 2005 pled guilty to money laundering and using Living Enrichment Center church money for the personal expenses of himself and his wife. Edward Morrissey spent two years in federal prison.
Dera Sacha Sauda headquartered in Sirsa, Haryana, India with branches all over India was named by the Indian Government’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in three criminal cases charged during 2007. There are pending cases for murders of a journalist and a former member allegedly committed by group members including leader Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh. Leader Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh was separately charged for the alleged sexual exploitation of Sadhvis. Sadhvi (woman follower) is a name used by the group for unmarried female disciples, who have decided to stay unmarried, dedicated their lives to the service of the leader, reside and work at the group's headquarters. Dera Sacha Sauda and its leader were earlier blamed for inciting rioting in Punjab, "...some of the worst rioting in a decade after a newspaper advert placed by the leader of a controversial religious sect sparked outrage in the region's Sikh community.
The number of destructive cults is less than 20, compared with the tens of thousands of new religious movements which are estimated to exist. Destructive cults includes groups that are extremely violent or doomsday-oriented, but the term is not used to refer to groups that are only psychologically destructive.
Of the groups that have been referred to as cults in the United States alone, only a hundred or so have ever become notorious for alleged misdeeds either in the national media or in local media. The disproportionate focus on these roughly 3% of misbehaving NRM groups gives the public an inaccurate perception of new religious groups generally. (See #Prevalence of sociological cults, Singer, 1995.)
There is no reliable, generally accepted way to determine which groups will harm their members. In an attempt to predict the probability of harm, cult checklists have been created, primarily by anti-cultists, for this purpose. According to critics of these checklists, they are popular but not scientific.
According to Barrett, the most common accusation made against groups referred to as cults is sexual abuse. See some allegations made by former members. According to Kranenborg, some groups are risky when they advise their members not to use regular medical care. Barker, Barrett, and Steven Hassan all advise seeking information from various sources about a certain group before getting deeply involved, though these three differ in the urgency they suggest.
Groups that have been labeled as "political cults," mostly far-left or far-right in their ideologies, have received some attention from journalists and scholars, though this usage is less common. Claims of cult-like practices exists for only about a dozen ideological cadre or racial combat organizations, though the allegation is sometimes made more freely. Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth are two prominent former members of Trotskyist sects who now attack their former organizations and the Trotskyist movement in general.
The concept of the "cult" is applied by analogy to refer to adulation of non-political leaders, and sometimes in the context of certain businessmen, management styles, and company work environments. Multi-level marketing has often been described as a cult due to the fact that a large part of the operation of a typical multi-level marketing consists of hiring and recruiting other people, selling motivational material, to the point that people involved in the business spend most of their time for the benefit of the organization. Consequently, some MLM companies like Amway have felt the need to specifically state that they are not cult-like in nature.
Another related term in politics is that of the personality cult. Although most groups labeled as political cults involve a "cult of personality," the latter concept is a broader one, having its origins in the excessive adulation said to have surrounded Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. It has also been applied to several other despotic heads of state.
Because of the increasingly pejorative use of the terms "cult" and "cult leader" since the cult debate of the 1970s, some scholars and groups referred to as cults argue that these are terms to be avoided.
A publisher affiliated with Adi Da Samraj, referred to as a cult leader of the group Adidam, sees the activities of cult opponents as the exercise of prejudice and discrimination against them, and regards the use of the words "cult" and "cult leader" as similar to political or racial epithets.
The concept of "cult" as an epithet was legally tested in the United Kingdom when a protester refused to put down a sign that read, "Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult" – citing a 1984 high court judgment describing the organization as a cult. The London police issued a summons to the protester for violating the Public Order Act by displaying a "threatening, abusive or insulting" sign. The Crown Prosecution Service ruled that the word "cult" on a sign, "...is not abusive or insulting and there is no offensiveness, as opposed to criticism, neither in the idea expressed nor in the mode of expression." There was no action taken against the protester, and police would allow future such demonstrations. In Scotland, an official of the Edinburgh City Council told inquiring regular protesters, "I understand that some of the signs you use may display the word 'cult' and there is no objection to this.
Amy Ryan has argued for the need to differentiate those groups that may be dangerous from groups that are more benign. Ryan notes the sharp differences between definition from cult opponents, who tend to focus on negative characteristics, and those of sociologists, who aim to create definitions that are value-free. The movements themselves may have different definitions of religion as well. George Chryssides also cites a need to develop better definitions to allow for common ground in the debate.
These definitions have political and ethical impact beyond just scholarly debate. In Defining Religion in American Law, Bruce J. Casino presents the issue as crucial to international human rights laws. Limiting the definition of religion may interfere with freedom of religion, while too broad a definition may give some dangerous or abusive groups "a limitless excuse for avoiding all unwanted legal obligations."
Some authors in the cult opposition dislike the word cult to the extent it implies that there is a continuum with a large gray area separating "cult" from "noncult" which they do not see. Others authors, e.g. Steven Hassan, differentiate by using terms like "Destructive cult," or "Cult" (totalitarian type) vs. "benign cult."
In Bounded Choice (2004), Lalich describes a fourth way of leaving — rebelling against the group's majority or leader. This was based on her own experience in the Marxist-Leninist Democratic Workers Party, where the entire membership quit. However, rebellion is more often a combination of the walkaway and castaway patterns in that the rebellion may trigger the expulsion — essentially, the rebels provoke the leadership into being the agency of their break with an over-committed lifestyle. Tourish and Wohlforth (2000) and Dennis King (1989) provide what they consider several examples in the history of political groups that have been characterized as cults. The 'rebellion' response in such groups appears to follow a longstanding behavior pattern among left wing political sects which began long before the emergence of the contemporary political cult.
Most authors agree that some people experience problems after leaving a cult. These include negative reactions in the individual leaving the group as well as negative responses from the group such as shunning. There are disagreements regarding the frequency of such problems, however, and regarding the cause.
According to Barker (1989), the greatest worry about potential harm concerns the central and most dedicated followers of a new religious movement (NRM). Barker mentions that some former members may not take new initiatives for quite a long time after disaffiliation from the NRM. This generally does not concern the many superficial, short-lived, or peripheral supporters of an NRM.
Exit Counselor Carol Giambalvo believes most people leaving a cult have associated psychological problems, such as feelings of guilt or shame, depression, feeling of inadequacy, or fear, that are independent of their manner of leaving the cult. Feelings of guilt, shame, or anger are by her observation worst with castaways, but walkaways can also have similar problems. She says people who had interventions or a rehabilitation therapy do have similar problems but are usually better prepared to deal with them.
Sociologists Bromley and Hadden note a lack of empirical support for claimed consequences of having been a member of a cult or sect, and substantial empirical evidence against it. These include the fact that the overwhelming proportion of people who get involved in NRMs leave, most short of two years; the overwhelming proportion of people who leave of their own volition; and that two-thirds (67%) felt "wiser for the experience.
Popular authors Conway and Siegelman conducted a survey and published it in the book Snapping regarding after-cult effects and deprogramming and concluded that people deprogrammed had fewer problems than people not deprogrammed. The BBC writes that in a survey done by Jill Mytton on 200 former cult members most of them reported problems adjusting to society and about a third would benefit from some counseling.
Burks (2002), in a study comparing Group Psychological Abuse Scale (GPA) and Neurological Impairment Scale (NIS) scores in 132 former members of cults and cultic relationships, found a positive correlation between intensity of thought reform environment as measured by the GPA and cognitive impairment as measured by the NIS. Additional findings were a reduced earning potential in view of the education level that corroborates earlier studies of cult critics (Martin 1993; Singer & Ofshe, 1990; West & Martin, 1994) and significant levels of depression and dissociation agreeing with Conway & Siegelman, (1982), Lewis & Bromley, (1987) and Martin, et al. (1992).
According to Barret, in many cases the problems do not happen while in a movement, but when leaving, which can be difficult for some members and may include psychological trauma. Reasons for this trauma may include: conditioning by the religious movement; avoidance of uncertainties about life and its meaning; having had powerful religious experiences; love for the founder of the religion; emotional investment; fear of losing salvation; bonding with other members; anticipation of the realization that time, money, and efforts donated to the group were a waste; and the new freedom with its corresponding responsibilities, especially for people who lived in a community. Those reasons may prevent a member from leaving even if the member realizes that some things in the NRM are wrong. According to Kranenborg, in some religious groups, members have all their social contacts within the group, which makes disaffection and disaffiliation very traumatic.
According to F. Derks and J. van der Lans, there is no uniform post-cult trauma. While psychological and social problems upon resignation are not uncommon, their character and intensity are greatly dependent on the personal history and on the traits of the ex-member, and on the reasons for and way of resignation.
The role of outspoken former members of groups they report as cults, sometimes called "apostates," has been widely studied by social scientists. Former members in some cases become public opponents against their former group. The former members' motivations, the roles they play in the anti-cult movement, the validity of their testimony, and the kinds of narratives they construct, are controversial with some scholars who suspect that at least some of the narratives are colored by a need of self-justification, seeking to reconstruct their own past and to excuse their former affiliations, while blaming those who were formerly their closest associates, and that hostile ex-members would invariably shade the truth and blow out of proportion minor incidents, turning them into major incidents. Other scholars conclude that testimonies of former members are at least as accurate as testimonies of current members.
Scholars that challenge the validity of critical former members testimonies as the basis for studying a religious group include David G. Bromley, Anson Shupe, Brian R. Wilson, and Lonnie Kliever. Bromley and Shupe, who studied the social influences on such testimonies, assert that the apostate in his current role is likely to present a caricature of his former group and that the stories of critical ex-members who defect from groups that are subversive (defined as groups with few allies and many opponents) tend to have the form of "captivity narratives" (i.e. the narratives depict the stay in the group as involuntary). Wilson introduces the atrocity story that is rehearsed by the apostate to explain how, by manipulation, coercion, or deceit, he was recruited to a group that he now condemns. Introvigne found in his study of the New Acropolis in France, that public negative testimonies and attitudes were only voiced by a minority of the ex-members, who he describes as becoming "professional enemies" of the group they leave. Kliever, when asked by the Church of Scientology to give his opinion on the reliability of apostate accounts of their former religious beliefs and practices, writes that these dedicated opponents present a distorted view of the new religions, and cannot be regarded as reliable informants by responsible journalists, scholars, or jurists. He claims that the reason for the lack of reliability of apostates is due to the traumatic nature of disaffiliation that he compares to a divorce and also due the influence of the anti-cult movement even on those apostates who were not deprogrammed or received exit counseling. Scholars and psychologists who tend to side more with critical former members include David C. Lane, Louis Jolyon West, Margaret Singer, Stephen A. Kent, Benjamin Beith-Hallahmi and Benjamin Zablocki. Zablocki performed an empirical study that showed that the reliability of former members is equal to that of stayers in one particular group. Philip Lucas found the same empirical results.
According to Lewis F. Carter, the reliability and validity of the testimonies of believers are influenced by the tendency to justify affiliation with the group, whereas the testimonies of former members and apostates are influenced by a variety of factors. Besides, the interpretative frame of members tends to change strongly upon conversion and disaffection and hence may strongly influence their narratives. Carter affirms that the degree of knowledge of different (ex-)members about their (former) group is highly diverse, especially in hierarchically organized groups. Using his experience at Rajneeshpuram (the intentional community of the followers of Rajneesh) as an example, he claims that the social influence exerted by the group may influence the accounts of ethnographers and of participant observers. He proposes a method he calls triangulation as the best method to study groups, by utilizing three accounts: those of believers, apostates, and ethnographers. Carter asserts that such methodology is difficult to put into practice. Daniel Carson Johnson writes that even the triangulation method rarely succeeds in making assertions with certitude.
James T. Richardson contends that there are a large number of cults, and a tendency among scholars to make unjustified generalizations about them based on a select sample of observations of life in such groups or the testimonies of (ex-)members. According to Richardson, this tendency is responsible for the widely divergent opinions about cults among scholars and social scientists.
Eileen Barker (2001) wrote that critical former members of cults complain that academic observers only notice what the leadership wants them to see.
Leaders of groups referred to as cults have used their positions to obtain sexual gratification from followers, or engaged in plural marriages that were not traditional to the culture outside of the group. Former group members have stated the reason why some leaders founded cults was so they could use people for sex.
A sociologically-defined cult has a neutral, scientific definition. According to Singer, 1995, between 3,000 and 5,000 sociological cults existed in the United States in 1995.
Some of the well-known sociological cults have been media-reported in connection with lawsuits or crimes, resulting in a pejorative label as interpreted by the public. As a result, influential groups have vigorously protested and denied the label. They sometimes expend great efforts in public relations campaigns to rid themselves of the stigma associated with media use of the term cult.
However, most of the thousands of sociological cults live below the media's radar and are rarely or never the subject of significant public scrutiny. Such groups rarely need to speak up in their own defense, and some of them ignore the occasional fleeting attention they may get from the media.
There exists a controversy regarding religious tolerance between the United States and several European countries, especially France and Germany, that have taken legal measures directed against "cultic" groups that they believe violate human rights. The 2004 annual report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom states that these initiatives have "...fueled an atmosphere of intolerance toward members of minority religions in France." On the other hand, the countries confronted with such allegations see the United States' attitude towards NRMs as failing to take into account the responsibility of the state for the wellbeing of its citizens, especially concerning children and incapacitated persons. They further claim that the interference of the United States in their internal affairs is at least partially due to the domestic lobbying of cults and cult apologists.
In recent decades, governmental clashes with groups referred to as cults in the United States have been the result of real or perceived violations of the law by the groups in question, rather than unconstitutional religious persecution. The 2008 felony conviction of Warren Jeffs, leader of FLDS, is a recent case of the U.S. government prosecuting a group referred to as a cult, based on its religious yet illegal belief in arranged and compulsory underage marriage. But it is also possible that negative perceptions of a group by prosecutors could make them more quick to prosecute than they might otherwise be; the income tax case against Reverend Moon is sometimes cited as such an incident.
It has been argued that brainwashing theory promulgated by scholars in the psychological anti-cult movement has been a key contributing factor to violent events, including the deaths of close to 100 members of the Seven Seals group of Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. However, as revealed in the subsequent televised congressional investigations into the Branch-Davidian Waco Siege, simple technical incompetence by U.S. law enforcement contributed greatly to the disastrous outcome. (See Waco Siege).
A 1995 Parliamentary Commission on Cults in France issued a Report (unofficial translation), in which a list of groups classified as cults compiled by the general information division of the French National Police (Renseignements généraux) was reprinted. In it were listed 173 groups. Members of some of the groups included in the list have alleged instances of intolerance due to the ensuing negative publicity.
The "Interministerial Mission in the Fight Against Cults" (MILS) was formed in 1998 to coordinate government monitoring of "sectes" (the word meaning "cults" in French). In February 1998 MILS released its annual report on the monitoring of cults. The president of MILS resigned in June under criticism, and an interministerial working group was formed to determine the future parameters of the Government's monitoring of cults. In November the Government announced the formation of the Interministerial Monitoring Mission Against Sectarian Abuses (MIVILUDES), which is charged with observing and analyzing movements that constitute a threat to public order or that violate French law, coordinating the appropriate response, informing the public about potential risks, and helping victims to receive aid. In its announcement of the formation of MIVILUDES, the Government acknowledged that its predecessor, MILS, had been criticized for certain actions abroad that could have been perceived as contrary to religious freedom. On May 2005, former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin issued a circular indicating that the list of cults published on the parliamentary report of 1995 should no longer be used to identify groups.