It’s really, really hard to define what a cult is, and especially what the difference between a cult and a standard, garden variety religion is. The differences are complicated, nuanced, and not always totally convincing.
If you think you’ve nailed down what the criteria for a cult are, try applying them to how Catholic priests and nuns live, or the lifestyle of a Buddhist monk, and see how hard it is to argue that they’re not in a cult.
That’s why it’s not illegal to be a cult leader. Even though most (but not all) people would put Catholicism in the religion bucket rather than the cult bucket, if you started putting cult leaders in jail just for being cult leaders, the Pope would have to get himself a pretty good lawyer.
That said, most cults share a big chunk of the same characteristics.
The leader is a very big deal
In a cult, the leader’s word is absolutely final. If you question the leader, their rules or their motives, you’re being disloyal and had better check yourself. The leader will also usually have a big part to play in the cult’s origin story, and probably started the whole thing. They might – despite a number of fashion and behaviour choices that suggest otherwise – claim to be God, or at least God’s super-tight bestie. The leader has abilities, powers, and understanding that you could never have. The power of healing, perhaps. The power of either avoiding or bringing about the end of the world. The power of folding a fitted sheet into a perfect rectangle without getting frustrated. Cool stuff like that.
Followers don’t get to make all of their own decisions
When you’re in a cult, there’s often an expectation that you live your life in a particular way, and that way is a little bit different to how those outside the cult live theirs. In exchange for whatever the cult is promising – safety from apocalypses, redemption, a ride in a UFO – you give up some of your autonomy. That seems cute and benign when it applies to things like only wearing orange or making sure your pancakes are a specific circumference, but it gets a lot darker when a cult leader decides who you should marry, who you should have sex with and when, where you should live, or how you should be punished when you don’t follow their rules.
Enlightenment is expensive
Okay, so a lot of religions ask for money and expect believers to volunteer their time for free, so this is a tough one. Cults can take it pretty far, though. Tithing – giving 10% of your income to the church – is often just a serving suggestion in the mainstream religions that practise it. In a cult, payment is usually compulsory and expensive. Some take the money followers would have spent on their own decent food and housing only to provide crappy food and housing, pocketing the difference. Some offer teachings at more and more expensive rates, making enlightenment exactly the price of your life savings. Some convince sick people to leave everything to the cult in their will. Bastards.
The us and them thing
In a cult there’ll be a definite and succinct separation – physically, culturally, or philosophically – from the outside world. On the ‘us’ side is righteousness, safety, truth, and superiority. On the ‘them’ side is a bunch of losers who don’t understand life and are going to die, go to hell, or never be successful. Between us and them might be the wall of a compound, a smug and complicated manifesto, an arduous initiation ritual, or an expensive piece of knowledge, all of which are designed to make those that have it better than you, and those that don’t doomed. The thing that separates us and them is made of either bricks or lies, and sometimes both.
It’s a good place to be
Nobody joins a cult. They join a group that makes them feel good, or promises a better life or afterlife. Some use a technique nicknamed ‘love bombing’, where the people already in the group make new recruits feel better, more wanted, and more special than they do anywhere else in their lives. At the beginning at least, cult members will see results – a new lease on life, the ability to understand themselves, more energy, more joy, and in some cases due to many cults’ obsession with vegetarianism, higher quality farts. People even come back to cults after leaving because it’s the only way they can feel that good. Like heroin, it’s an addictive high that does a whole bunch of damage underneath.
Leave at your own risk
There are negative consequences – real or perceived – for those who leave the group. If you leave, your soul might writhe in fiery damnation for eternity, which would be inconvenient. You might be subjected to a hate campaign, labelled ‘supressive’, and have mean things said about you on the internet. On the severe end of the scale, you might get straight-out murdered. It’s a real lucky dip out there.
Everything else is fake news
Cults are spectacular at giving you their own version of the facts. To make you more likely to believe their own version of the facts, cults work extremely hard at making you doubt anyone else’s version of the facts. At the pointy end of the stick, only things written or recorded by the leader are permitted for consumption. More commonly, the purveyors of contrary information are labelled as bad and harmful, including cult members’ family and friends. Doctors and psychologists are often a big no-no, and the list of individuals or groups that cults will call liars will certainly grow every day.
The big thing cults are great at is harm. Extreme cults will inflict physical harm across the spectrum, from corporal punishment through to torture, coerced suicide, and murder. But cults really overachieve in the psychological harm department. Staying in a cult usually means gradually losing any of your autonomy and self-esteem – you’re worth much more to a cult leader as a mentally exhausted, compliant servant with no will of your own than as someone who thinks for themselves or believes that they’re worthy of more. Leaving a cult often means starting again from scratch, trying to trust again, trying to get a job, and trying to rebuild any kind of meaning that feels true or worthwhile.
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