The following is an excerpt from Joe Szimhart’s Cult 101 page.
Socially problematic cultic characteristics include combined behaviors such as:
1. Compliance with a group
2. Dependence on a leader
3. Avoiding dissent
4. Devaluing outsiders
(for more on these characteristics, see Them and Us by Arthur J. Deikman (2003). The more extreme these behaviors, the more potential for abuse in any group activity or relationship.
In general Cult activity refers to any devotional or ritualistic attention to a person, doctrine or object. Most religions have cult activity, or a cult, that is central to devotional activity.
Cult in perspective: Christianity in its various forms has the cult of devotion to Jesus Christ. (btw, I’m a practicing Catholic). Catholics have the cult of the Eucharist during which they receive the “body and blood” of Jesus. In ancient Judaism they had the cult of the Ark of the Covenant. Some Asian religions have the cult of ancestor worship. Vampires of legend practice the cult of drinking blood. Northwest Native Americans have the cult of totem animals. I have many books with cult in the title that do not focus on destructive groups, for example, The Japanese Cult of Tranquility by Karlfried Durckheim (1991), The Plato Cult by David Stove (1991), and Cult of the Cat by Patricia Dale-Green (1980).
Labeling something a cult tells us little or nothing about the morality or ethics of the person or group that supports such cult activity. You must answer the question: What kind of cult are you talking about and what do they do?
If cult participants follow the four patterns suggested by Deikman above, they become vulnerable to thought reform and mind control.
Thought reform occurs when the psychological environment of someone is manipulated to engineer and sustain a change in personality, goals, and attitudes that conform with a group agenda. Mind control occurs when the participant in a thought reform environment has internalized the suggestions and adopted the behaviors to the point where the recruit “polices” his or her thoughts and actions according to stated agendas. If there are hidden agendas the deception can undermine a group member’s ability to question or criticize. If the group member is privy to the hidden agenda, the “secret” controls their loyalty and ability to communicate with outsiders who do not deserve to know secrets because they have not yet been initiated.
Sometimes these secrets are so guarded that rejection of them or revealing them to undeserving hordes or undeserving persons is punishable. 2500 years ago the cult of Pythagoras is an example of the elite, initiatic sect that punished “traitors” with threat of death. Modern Mormonism, Scientology and Masonic movements have similar, guarded secrets. They would argue that it their right to keep secrets as they are “sacred.” Many gangs that operate like cults institute such vows, and we can also find evidence of scret oathsin the history of the Mafia or Casa Nostra. Punishment can be overt as in harassment, lawsuit, assault or even homicide. It can also come in less tangible forms like the suggestion (phobia indoctrination) of returning karma, of hell, of mental and physical illness, of demon possession, of accident and other “deserved” misfortune.
In summary, the more intense or closed the influence/thought reform/brainwashing the more likely a person will suffer psychological closure, thus making of them a more effective or deployable agent of the group agenda. Exiting the cult thereafter has powerful implications as one’s new identity, life investment and group relationships are a high price to pay for rejecting the group. Walking away ain’t so easy.