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A delusion held by one person is a mental illness, held by a few is a cult, held by many is a religion. --(source unknown to me)
The term 'cult' expresses disparagement and is usually used to refer to unconventional religious groups, though the term is sometimes used to refer to non-religious groups which appear to share significant features with religious cults. For example, there are some who refer to Amway and Landmark Forum as cults, but I think the term is best reserved for groups such as Scientology, the Order of the Solar Temple (74 suicides in 1984), Heaven's Gate (39 suicides in 1997), the Raëlians, the Urantians, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Transcendental Meditation program, the followers of Sathya Sai Baba or Prem Rawat, and the group that followed the Rev. Jim Jones to Guyana where more than 900 joined in a mass murder/suicide ritual in 1978.
Three ideas seem essential to the concept of a cult. One is thinking in terms of us versus them with total alienation from "them." The second is the intense, though often subtle, indoctrination techniques used to recruit and hold members. The third is the charismatic cult leader. Cultism usually involves some sort of belief that outside the cult all is evil and threatening; inside the cult is the special path to salvation through the cult leader and his teachings. The indoctrination techniques include
1) Subjection to stress and fatigue
2) Social disruption, isolation and pressure
3) Self criticism and humiliation
4) Fear, anxiety, and paranoia
5) Control of information
6) Escalating commitment
7) Use of auto-hypnosis to induce "peak" experiences
Of course, there is a positive side to cults. One gets love, a sense of belonging, of fulfilling a special purpose, of being protected, of being free from the evils of the world, of being on the path to eternal salvation, of having power. If the cult did not satisfy needs that life outside the cult failed to satisfy, cults would probably not exist.
One common misconception about cults is that their members are either insane or brainwashed. The evidence for this is insubstantial. It consists mainly of the subjective feeling that no one in their right mind could possibly choose to believe the things that cult members believe. For example, the 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult believed a space ship was coming to get them to take them to a "higher level." They believed that their leader, Marshall Applewhite (a.k.a. Do), was Christ coming to take the chosen few to a better life somewhere in outer space, perhaps to work on a starship like the Enterprise one sees in movies and on television. They believed they would be given new bodies in the new world, asexual bodies with no hair or teeth, but vestigial eyes and ears (not those gross bug eyes one sees in so many alien pictures). To many people, these beliefs sound like the delusions of lunatics and it seems inconceivable that anyone in his or her right mind would accept such beliefs.
Examined closely, however, the beliefs of Heaven's Gate or Scientology are no stranger than the beliefs that billions of "normal" people hold dear in their sacred religions: heaven and hell, angels, Satan, crucified gods, resurrections, reincarnation, messiahs, trinities, transubstantiation, and so on. As has been noted by others: The delusions of one person is insanity, delusions by a few a cult, and by many a religion.
It is true that the cult leader or religious founder often shows signs of brain disease, such as hearing voices or having delusions of grandeur. But the followers need not be mad. Some are undoubtedly deranged, but most probably are not. The cult leader must be extremely attractive to those who convert. He or she must satisfy a fundamental need, most likely the need to have someone you can totally trust, depend on and believe in: someone who can give sense and direction to your life; provide you with purpose and meaning. But above all, life with the messiah and the other cult members must satisfy some fundamental need. Some studies have found that a significant number of cult members are depressed before joining, and the cult lifts their spirits, makes them feel much better. Even if they aren't depressed, cult membership must be more satisfying than life in the real world with one's real family.
Cult members are certainly deluded and manipulated. Severe control tactics may be used to keep them in the flock, like cutting them off from the rest of the world, especially from their family and friends, communally reinforcing the cult's dogmas, and inculcating paranoia. Isolation, communal reinforcement, and the inculcation of paranoia as control tactics are used by some parents over their children, some political leaders over their citizens, and even some therapists over their patients. So, cults are not unique in attempting to control people using these tactics. And one should not overlook the possibility that one's loved one truly believes in what he or she is doing, and that the ones left behind simply do not see the truth.
Cult members may gradually become paranoid and be led to believe that the government, their family, and former friends can't be trusted. They may gradually become more isolated and militant. They may even begin to stockpile weapons for the coming Armageddon. They may turn themselves over completely to their savior and be willing to kill or die for him or her. This is not to say that they are leading meaningful lives, but they are not necessarily lunatics, morons, or zombies.
books and articles
Lifton, Robert Jay. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China (University of North Carolina Press, 1989). [concludes brainwashing or mind-control is not a defensible explanation for defection]
Martin,Walter. The New Age Cult (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1989).
The Watchman Expositor Index of Cults, Occult Organizations, New Age Groups, New Religious Movements, and World Religions with Related Terms and Doctrines
The "Not Me" Myth: Orwell and the Mind by Margaret Thaler Singer Ph.D.
Operation Clambake - the fight against Scientology on the Net