Cults

Group of people camping in the woodsCults are close-knit and often secretive organizations that may recruit members through false premises, such as the promise of religious salvation. Although not all cults are religious, most subscribe to a particular belief system unique to their organization and do not permit members to deviate from their strictures. Members who wish to break free of a cult often have difficulty doing so and may experience psychological effects after leaving.

Understanding Cults

People who join cults often do so from a basic desire to belong to something, to feel protected and secure, and to live a life that has meaning. Cults that are based on tenets of Christianity can fulfill this longing in some people, as the promise of eternal salvation is the primary draw for many adults who join cults.

When recruiting new members, cults often discern a need in a person and promise to satisfy it, whether the need is religious fulfillment, political activism, self-actualization, or simply a sense of belonging. Those who are most likely to be recruited by a cult tend to come from an economically sound background, be educated and idealistic, and exhibit above-average intelligence.

Cults tend to be led by a charismatic and compelling leader who demands loyalty. Because cults require absolute commitment to their leader and discourage questioning of the belief system set forth, often using manipulative, exploitative, or abusive tactics to prevent and punish dissent, they are generally considered to be destructive and controlling by outsiders. In fact, cult members may adhere to the doctrine to the point of cutting off family and friends who are not also part of the cult.

Potential members are usually not aware of the extent of the cult’s beliefs before entering and only realize the totalitarian structure, abuse of members, and other harmful practices after joining. However, by that point, a person may be so committed to the cult’s promises that he or she becomes able to accept beliefs and practices he or she would have rejected before joining the cult, especially upon seeing other members obey without question.

What Constitutes a Cult?

The criteria that determine a cult are not definitive, and some organizations are classified as cults by some definitions and not by others. This incongruity can especially be seen with the classification of certain religious organizations, which are only considered to be cults by some.

Organizations that are recognized as cults typically have a charismatic leader who is self-appointed and whom members obey without question. They often form a totalitarian society and also tend to exhibit most, if not all, of the following traits:

  • The use of manipulation or coercion to recruit and teach new members.
  • A dislike, distrust, or general devaluation of outsiders.
  • A claim to offer the only path to salvation or possess unique powers.
  • An involvement in illegal and harmful practices, such as child abuse, physical or sexual abuse, and illegal drug use.
  • The discouragement and punishment of doubt or dissent.
  • The discouragement or prevention of members from leaving.

How Are Cults Harmful?

Not all cults are considered to be harmful, which is partially due to the fact that the defining factors of a cult are not always clear. For example, organizations such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses are considered to be cults by some, while others think of them as simply a strict religious organization. Their members typically live peacefully among the greater community, but some who have left these organizations report lasting psychological effects resulting from abusive and/or exploitative practices.

In general, cults are thought of as being dangerous and harmful, as their practices can be manipulative and can have a detrimental effect on the mental and physical well-being of members. Many people who have left cults report practices of physical and sexual abuse, both of adults and children. Other tactics used to control members within cults include starvation, humiliation, and verbal and emotional abuse. Cults also can have a negative effect on society, as some cults have been shown to evade taxes, violate immigration laws, participate in fraud, and deny the children of cult members an appropriate education.

Sometimes cults may also harm outsiders by committing acts of terror or murder: The Aum Shinrikyo cult, for example, murdered nearly 30 people in Tokyo with sarin gas in 1995, injuring 5,000 others. There have also been several publicized instances of group murder/suicides within cults, such as the People’s Temple suicides in Jonestown in 1978 and the Heaven’s Gate suicides that occurred in 1997 when the Hale-Bopp comet neared the earth.

Harmful effects of cults can also be seen in individuals who have left cults. Even those who have willingly left a destructive cult may experience withdrawal. After leaving a cult, a person may feel guilt, anxiety, or depression; fear large groups; have emotional outbursts; and experience insomnia, amnesia, or sexual dysfunction. Children who were raised in a cult may find it difficult to integrate into society, and those who were sexually abused may become hypersexualized.

Deprogramming and Exit Counseling

Many cults urge their members to cut ties with family members and other loved ones who are “outside” the cult, and these family members may turn to strategies such as exit counseling or deprogramming in an attempt to break the cult’s influence on the cult member. Deprogramming involves kidnapping the cult member and forcing the individual to undergo therapy with the goal of encouraging re-evaluation of involvement in the cult. Because this technique is extremely expensive and involves both the capture and imprisonment of an individual, it has largely fallen out of practice and has been mostly replaced by exit counseling.

In exit counseling, counselors help the cult member’s loved ones find the most effective way to reach the member, who may not willingly communicate with people outside the cult. If they can reach the member, they attempt to convince the individual to participate in therapy sessions similar to those taking place in deprogramming. The main difference between exit counseling and deprogramming is that in exit counseling, individuals are not held against their will.

References:

  1. Haworth, I. (1994). Cult concerns: An overview of cults and their harmful methods in the UK. Assignation, 11(4).
  2. Fortenbury, J. (2014, September 28). The health effects of leaving religion. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/09/the-health-effects-of-leaving-religion/379651
  3. Lalich, J., & Langone, M. (n.d.). Characteristics associated with cultic groups – revised. Retrieved from http://www.csj.org/infoserv_cult101/checklis.htm
  4. Langone, M. (n.d.). How do cults harm society? Retrieved from http://www.csj.org/studyindex/studycult/cultqa5.htm
  5. Layton, J. (n.d.). Cult deprogramming. Retrieved from http://people.howstuffworks.com/cult7.htm
  6. Tyrrell, I. (2006). Exploring the cult in culture. Retrieved from http://www.hgi.org.uk/archive/cults.htm#.VQGvuOHLCM8
  7. Wessinger, C. (1998, January 13). How the millennium comes violently. Retrieved from http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=16602
  8. Stories of former Mormons. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.exmormon.org/stories.htm

Last Updated: 06-6-2016

  • 9 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • Jeni L

    Jeni L

    June 3rd, 2016 at 11:42 AM

    Hello,
    I’d like to start off by thanking your for including cults on your site. They are a real issue that is often trivialized or made a mockery of by mainstream media.

    That being said, I would like to let you know that I do disagree with this paragraph,
    “Not all cults are considered to be harmful, which is partially due to the fact that the defining factors of a cult are not always clear. For example, some people consider certain religious organizations such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to be cults, but the members of these organizations live peacefully among the greater community and do not appear to practice what are generally considered to be abusive or exploitative tactics.”

    As a former Jehovah’s Witness, I assure you that this group is a very harmful organization. Watchtower and its followers encourage a belief system that belittles women, hides pedophilia by leaving it unreported to authorities, encourages shunning, shames victims of sexual and domestic violence, instructs members (even children) to refuse blood transfusions even when death is imminent, and discourages higher education.
    Many have suffered at the hands of this cult and many are currently suffering.

    Additionally, I would like to say that that all cults use undue influence to indoctrinate their members. Even if a cult does nothing but charitable acts, the fact that the mind is being manipulated makes it harmful.

    I would respectfully ask that your entry be amended to reflect the fact that ALL cults are harmful even those who “blend” with the community.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    June 7th, 2016 at 10:13 AM

    Hi Jeni,
    Thank you for your comment! We have revised the paragraph you pointed out in order to better express the fact that religious organizations such as The Church of Latter-Day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses can have harmful effects on some individuals. However, this page is only meant to provide brief information about all cults, so we are unable to go into specific detail about the harmful psychological effects of the Jehovah’s Witness church you mentioned in your comment.

    We do offer a “Share Your Story” feature on our website, and we think your story may be a good fit! If you would like to submit a piece that goes into more depth about the harmful effects you experienced, we welcome you to do so. Share Your Story submissions are evaluated on a case-by-case basis and, if chosen for publication, are generally published in the order they are received. You can find more information about submitting a Share Your Story piece here: https://www.goodtherapy.org/submit-your-story.html.

    Thank you again for bringing this to our attention. We appreciate your input and look forward to reading your Share Your Story submission!

    Kind regards,
    The Editorial Team
    GoodTherapy.org

  • Vincent G.

    Vincent G.

    November 26th, 2016 at 6:19 PM

    Thank you for the above comments. As a former Jehovah’s witness of 44 years and just left two years ago, I believe they are extremely dangerous. Mostly due to the fact that they and the people appear benign. They only “encourage Bible reading”, then bang, the cult begins. Sacrificing loved ones due to no blood policy. Extreme shunning of loved ones. Not finding a JW for a mate, thus giving up marriage and children and future grand children. Spending all your time on weekends and other days on organizational activities. Your mind being controlled by undue influence. Children not experi experiencing normal childhood. “Waking up” from it all and contemplating suicide due to not knowing who you are. Millions of people being controlled by seven narcissist psychos in New York. No, it is a cult on ALL levels. It appears as a docile kitten, but it is a vicious lion that will destroy you if you dare open your mouth or leave. I feel I need counseling. But who can help? I need to know what I need to look for in this field. Thank you for this excellent article.

  • Simon

    Simon

    April 26th, 2017 at 8:35 AM

    I need help finding a deprogrammer, can you help? UK

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    April 26th, 2017 at 9:20 AM

    Hi Simon,

    A mental health professional might be able to help you with your concerns. Please feel free to go to https://www.goodtherapy.org/international-search.html and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area.

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. From this list you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. You are also welcome to call us for assistance finding a therapist. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time; our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext. 1.

    We wish you the best of luck in your search.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Judy hofer

    Judy hofer

    May 15th, 2017 at 7:30 AM

    Hi my name is Judy I and my husband left a Hutterite community 13years ago my husband has struggled with different addictions and I truly beleive would really find it helpful to talk to a counsellor who has experience with people who have left a religious group there are so many ideas put in your head when you live that life style I would love some feedback we live in Abbotsford British Columbia

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    May 15th, 2017 at 10:12 AM

    HI Judy,

    Thank you for your comment. If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage, https://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area.

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. From this list you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. You are also welcome to call us for assistance finding a therapist. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time; our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext. 1.

    We wish you the best of luck in your search.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Oliver

    Oliver

    July 31st, 2018 at 7:48 PM

    I left a group called ReJOYce in Jesus Ministries, a bible based high demand church that is cult-like in a lot of its operations. It seems harmless, with a statement of faith that looks as legitimate as any other. I was a member for many years and I left because I couldn’t live up to the demands of the organization, and because all that I had given up to be in the organization left my life in shambles. I made the mistake of thinking that I could leave and get help at another church without repercussions, but I was gradually shunned and abandoned by all of them. I gave up so much in loyalty to God and that organization. I have no career. I have no jobs skills anymore. I am poor. I have no family. I have no friends. I have nowhere that feels like home. I don’t know how to fit in and I am scared to join other groups. I struggle to know who I am and what to do with my life. Everything feels meaningless and predatory. When churches shun you they want you to be alone, they want you to die, they want you to be miserable. So I go on every day out of spite and fueled by a bit of hatred for them, but really I just want to die.
    Cults, abusive organizations and manipulative gurus are destructive. Lives and families can be lost in their wake.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    August 1st, 2018 at 8:43 AM

    Hi, Oliver. Thank you for sharing your comment. If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage, http://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area. If you’re looking for a counselor that practices a specific type of therapy, or who deals with specific concerns, you can make an advanced search by clicking here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/advanced-search.html

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. From this list you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. Please contact us if you have any questions.

    If you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency, in danger of hurting yourself or others, feeling suicidal, overwhelmed, or in crisis, it’s very important that you get immediate help! Information about what to do in a crisis is available here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

Therapist   Treatment Center

Advanced Search
GoodTherapy.org is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptom or medical condition. Never disregard professional psychological or medical advice nor delay in seeking professional advice or treatment because of something you have read on GoodTherapy.org.