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On Using the Term "Cult"

Herbert L. Rosedale, Esq.
Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

Even though we have each studied cults and educated people about this subject for more than 20 years, neither of us has ever felt completely comfortable with the term "cult." No other term, however, serves more effectively the linked educational and research aims of ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association, founded as American Family Foundation in 1979), the organization that we serve as president (Rosedale) and executive director (Langone).  In order to help others who have asked questions about the term "cult," we here offer some thoughts on the definition and use of this term.

Review of Definitions

According to the "Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary"(1971) the term, "cult," originally referred to "worship; reverential homage rendered to a divine being or beings...a particular form or system of religious worship; especially in reference to its external rites and ceremonies...devotion or homage to a particular person or thing."  More recently, the term has taken on additional connotations:

3 : A religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious...

4 : A system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator...

5 a. great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work...b. a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion." (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, 1994)

Robbins's (1988) review of recent sociological contributions to the study of cults identifies four definitional perspectives:

(1) cults as dangerous, authoritarian groups;

(2) cults as culturally innovative or transcultural groups;

(3) cults as loosely structured protoreligions;

(4) Stark and Bainbridge’s (1985) subtypology that distinguishes among "audience cults" (members seek to receive information, e.g., through a lecture or tape series) "client cults" (members seek some specific benefit, e.g., psychotherapy, spiritual guidance), and "cult movements" (organizations that demand a high level of commitment from members).   The Stark and Bainbridge typology relates to their finding that cult membership increases as church membership decreases. 

Rutgers University professor Benjamin Zablocki (1997) says that sociologists often distinguish "cult" from "church," "sect," and "denomination."  Cults are innovative, fervent groups. If they become accepted into the mainstream, cults, in his view, lose their fervor and become more organized and integrated into the community; they become churches.  When people within churches become dissatisfied and break off into fervent splinter groups, the new groups are called sects. As sects become more stolid and integrated into the community, they become denominations.   Zablocki defines a cult as "an ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and demanding total commitment."  According to Zablocki, cults are at high risk of becoming abusive to members, in part because members' adulation of charismatic leaders contributes to their becoming corrupted by the power they seek and are accorded.

Definitions proposed at various times by associates of ICSA tend to presume the manifestation of what is potential in Zablocki's definition. These definitions tend to emphasize elements of authoritarian structure, deception, and manipulation and the fact that groups may be psychotherapeutic, political, or commercial, as well as religious.   One of the more commonly quoted definitions of "cult" was articulated at an ICSA/UCLA Wingspread Conference on Cultism in 1985:

Cult (totalist type): A group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (e.g. isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc.), designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members,  their families, or the community. (West & Langone, 1986, pp. 119-120)

Because this and related definitions imply high levels of psychological manipulation, many students of the field have associated cults with the concept of thought reform (Lifton, 1961; Ofshe & Singer, 1986; Singer & Ofshe, 1990). Although there are many similarities between these concepts, a cult does not necessarily have to be characterized by thought reform, nor does a thought reform program necessarily have to be a cult.  Nevertheless, the two seem to go together often enough that many people mistakenly see them as necessarily linked.

Definitions advanced by ICSA associates imply that the term "cult" refers to a continuum, in which a large gray area separates "cult" from "noncult," or add qualifiers to the term "cult," such as "destructive."  These definitions suggest that there may be some debate about the appropriateness of the term as applied to a specific group, especially when available evidence indicates that the group is in or near the gray area of the continuum.  This debate can become more acute when the group in question is one that varies among its geographic locations, has different levels of membership with correspondingly different levels of commitment, has changed over time in the direction of greater or less "cultishness," or is skilled at public relations.

Because they tend to focus on certain practices and behaviors, the definitions advanced by ICSA associates are implicitly interactionist.  Like all psychologically based models, they presume that different people will respond differently to the same group environment, much as twins can respond differently to the same family environment.  Cults are not all alike.   Nor are all cult members affected in the same way, even within the same group.  Nevertheless, a huge body of clinical evidence leads ICSA associates to contend that some groups harm some members sometimes, and that some groups may be more likely to harm members than other groups.        

Using the Term: Considerations

The concept "cult," as with other concepts (e.g., "right wing," "left wing"), is a theoretical type against which actual groups are compared as best as one can with the information at one's disposal.    The theoretical type should serve as a benchmark, not as an organizing structure that selects only those observations that confirm a stereotype.   It is vital that each case be evaluated individually with regard to the group environment and the person(s) interacting within and with that environment.

Much as people may wish that it were so, the fact is that, at least at present, no scientific "test" incontrovertibly establishes whether or not a group is indeed a "cult."   Although ICSA's Group Psychological Abuse Scale (Chambers, Langone, Dole, & Grice, 1994) is a useful and promising tool for assessing groups scientifically, this self-report measure needs further psychometric development and should be supplemented by observational measures yet to be devised.   Cult research is in a stage similar to that of depression research when the first objective measures of depression as a mental and emotional state were being developed.   The lack of objective measures didn’t nullify the utility of definitions of depression then in use, but the development of such measures enhanced definitional understanding and classification reliability.   In the years ahead, we hope to see similar progress in cultic studies.  

Because of the current ambiguity surrounding the term "cult," ICSA does not produce an official list of "cults," even though some people mistakenly interpret any list (e.g., a list of groups on which we have information) as a list of "cults."   Such a list would have little utility because there are thousands of groups about which people have expressed concern, yet scientific research has been conducted on few groups.   A list could even be misleading because some people might mistakenly think that the label "cult" implies that the group in question has all the significant attributes of the hypothetical type "cult," when in fact it has only some of those attributes.   Conversely, some people may mistakenly assume that because a group is not on the list, they need not be concerned.   Thus, when inquirers ask us, "Is such and such a cult?”   we tend to say, "Study our information on psychological manipulation and cultic groups, then apply this information to what you know and can find out about the group that concerns you."   Our goal is to help inquirers make more informed judgments and decisions, not to dictate those judgments and decisions.

We try to direct inquirers’ attention to potentially harmful practices, rather than to a label. In essence, we say:   "These are practices that have been associated with harmful effects in some people.   To what, if any extent, are these practices found in the group in question?   And how might you or your loved one be affected by these practices?"   One of us (Langone) tries to focus a family’s concerns by saying: "Assume, even if only for the sake of argument, that your loved one were not in a `cult.'  What if anything about his or her behavior would trouble you?"   After the troubling behaviors are identified, then the family can try to determine how, if at all, these behaviors are related to the group environment.  A label tends to be superfluous at this point in the analysis.

Thus, we advocate a nuanced, evidence-based approach to definition and classification.   We do not ignore or disparage evidence indicating that some groups may closely approach the theoretical type, “cult.”   Nor do we deny the necessity to make expert judgments about whether or not a particular set of group processes harmed a specific person or persons, a judgment that mental health clinicians and other professionals sometimes have to make in therapeutic or forensic contexts.   We do, however, advocate that these kinds of judgments should rest on careful analyses of structure and behavior within a specific context, rather than a superficial classification decision.

Such analyses sometimes result in the conclusion that some groups that harm some people are not necessarily cults.   A new age group that is neither manipulative nor authoritarian might harm some people because it advocates a medically dangerous diet or psychologically harmful practices.  A church may harm some believers because its pastor is domineering and abusive.   A psychotherapist may harm some patients because she or he doesn't adequately understand how memory works and may, with the best of intentions, induce false memories in clients.   These are all examples of individual harm related to interpersonal influence.  They are all examples of situations that might understandably arouse the concern of the harmed person's family and of ICSA.    But these situations are not necessarily "cult" situations, even though they may have a family resemblance to the concept "cult."   On the other hand, because appearances can deceive, especially in cults, further investigation of such cases may reveal the presence of cultic dynamics. The important point to keep in mind is that classification decisions should be based on the best available evidence and should always be subject to reevaluation.

Even though the term "cult" has limited utility, it is so embedded in popular culture that those of us concerned about helping people harmed by group involvements or preventing people from being so harmed cannot avoid using it.   Whatever the term's limitations, it points us in a meaningful direction.   And no other term relevant to group psychological manipulation (e.g., sociopsychological influence, coercive persuasion, undue influence, exploitative manipulation) has ever been able to capture and sustain public interest, which is the sine qua non of public education.   If, however, we cannot realistically avoid the term, let us at least strive to use it judiciously. 


Chambers, W., Langone, M., Dole, A., & Grice, J.   (1994).   The Group Psychological Abuse Scale:   A measure of the varieties of cultic abuse. Cultic Studies Journal, 11(1), 88-117.

Lifton, R. J.   (1961).   Thought reform and the psychology of totalism.   New York: Norton.

Merriam-Webster's collegiate dictionary, tenth edition.   (1994).   Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated.

Ofshe, R., & Singer, M. T.  (1986).   Attacks on peripheral versus central elements of self   and the impact of thought reforming techniques. Cultic Studies Journal, 3(1), 3-24.

Robbins, T.   (1988).   Cults, converts, and charisma.   London: Sage.

Singer, M. T., & Ofshe, R.  (1990). Thought reform programs and the production of psychiatric casualties.   Psychiatric Annals, 20, 188-193.

Stark, R., & Bainbridge, W. (1985).   The future of religion: Secularization, revival and cult formation.   Berkeley: University of California (cited in Robbins, 1988).

The compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. (1980).   Oxford:   Oxford University Press.

West, L. J., & Langone, M. D. (1986).   Cultism:   A conference for scholars and policy makers.  Cultic Studies Journal, 3, 117-134.

Zablocki, B. (1997).   Paper presented to a conference, “Cults: Theory and Treatment Issues,” May 31, 1997 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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