Cults: definition and prevelance?

I have always been fascinated by cults, and am actually surprised that in “troubling times” more people don’t join cults, given the sense of “security” and “family” that cults can provide. I believe that cults are more common than we think (by nature they are secretive), but also find their way into business scams. When I start thinking about prevelance, it makes the world look different–like, does that coworker belong to a cult? What about that woman in line at the grocery store? How would I know–and does it matter? Are all cults “bad”? How do people get “chosen”? How fine is the line between cult and religion?

I understand that this is really more a stream of consciousness, and I don’t even know if this thread belongs here, but I’m really interested in doper’s thoughts about all things cult.

ETA: sorry for the lame title. Couldn’t think of anything better.

If everyone who read, replied, this thread would be 188 posts long by now.

Mostly because we do not see any debate here. Are we expected to talk about your beliefs, your borderline paranoia, or your obsession with a subject that hasn’t been tabloid fodder since the '80s?

With examples like the Manson Family, Heaven’s Gate, Aum Shinrikyo, and Scientology, why would anyone turn to cults in troubled times? You never know when your group mates are going to decide that it’s time to drink the kool-aid, and take you with them.

I thought I may have posted in the wrong place. Tough crowd!

Ok let me ask this then: what differentiates a cult from religion? Actually, it’s not just 80’s…what got me thinking about this today was how a small child was abducted from a friend’s hometown and there is suspicion that the father is involved with an extremely “religious” group which has been soliciting financial support for nothing having to do with the search. I am not riding a conspiracy wave, but it’s fishy. With so much free outreach available through technology, what does a hyper-religious family need with fundraising?

That seemed harsh and felt like you were attacking me personally. I was just making conversation.

What do you mean “by nature”?

Not all cults are “secretive” in the sense that the keep (or try to keep) their very existence a secret.

Hmmm. I guess I assumed that cults who aren’t secretive would never identify as such? I know that the organization behind the yellow clothing donation bins has been called “a cult” but no one would necessarily know that, if you didn’t research it.

Well, very few groups self-identify as “cults.”

Heaven’s Gate, Aum Shinrikyo, and Scientology, all mentioned earlier in this thread, are all commonly labeled as “cults,” and yet none of them try (or tried) to keep their existence a secret.

So aside from a religion facade, what businesses do you think could be cult coverups?

What do you mean “coverup”?

If a cult owns a business, I believe (though I might be wrong) that it would be fairly easy to prove that this was indeed the case.

For example, if I remember correctly both Heaven’s Gate and Aum Shinrikyo ran a number of software businesses, and of course Scientology has its book publishing companies and so on and so forth. There’s no “coverup” to it.

Some cults are negative obviously. I’d say warning signs are when they base their activities on secrecy and deceit. If an organization feels it needs to conceal what it’s really doing, that’s a warning that what it’s doing is wrong.

As far as religious cults go, one objective standard I’ve heard for separating “cults” from mainstream religions is the convert ratio. Any religious group where the majority of believers are converts to the religion is a cult. It’s not an absoulte rule but it’s a decent guideline.

I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

Freemasons, for example, tend to wish to keep the details of their ritual work secret, and yet they are perfectly harmless.

So what do you want? Wait a bit for someone with something interesting to say, or 188 posts that all say “meh. I’ll be back to post again if someone says something worth responding to…”?

OP: You might want to tell the “tough crowd” here what it is you mean by cult.

I’m all set. Thanks.

There are four general meanings of the word cult as it is used in American English.

  1. as a direct cognate translation of the Latin cultus, meaning any well-organized set of religious beliefs. In this sense, all the various sects and denominations of Christianity and Islam could each be called cults, as could Judaism or its individula groups, Hinduism or its individual sects, etc.

  2. any religious group with a strong connection to a living or recently-deceased leader. In this case the LDS could be called a cult only up until the death of Brigham Young, at which point the direct connection to Joseph Smith was broken. On the other hand, Christianity would be a cult of Jesus, in this sense, until the death of the first generation of Apostles.

  3. a nominally religious-based group enforcing control over all aspects of the lives of its adherents in the manner of Jim Jones, etc.

  4. any religious group opposed by various fundie groups.

I am guessing that you intend to focus on definition 3, but I am not sure that you have actually provided enough information, (or a sufficiently observable position), that would allow anyone to actually debate you.

If you are asserting that there are “secret” cults in line with silly claims like the Illuminati*, you will probably find a debate, although I am not sure how profitable it would be.

*(See Cecil on that belief.)

‘A religion is the organization I belong to. A cult is the whacko group you traffic in.’

No, shadowy secret cults are probably rarer than you think because it’s hard to get people to join a group they don’t know about. If you’re the cult leader type who wants money and renown, being a secret may not work for you.

In the broader sense, yes, more people are involved with cults than you might think. Those associations tend to be short-term and don’t end with mass suicide or total ruin, and I’ve heard (I think in a college class on comparative religion) that most people look back on the experience as a positive. I’m very dubious of the ‘54 percent of high school students reported contact with a cult recruiter’ statistic mentioned on this page - I’m not sure about any of the stats there - but I think it gets some of the basic points right, and besides, the other websites I found were worse. :stuck_out_tongue:

There are a handful of traditional “warning signs” of “cultish” behavior. For instance, when a single enlightened guru is at the heart of it, and everyone has to do what he says, and only he knows the truth, etc. Jim Jones, David Koresh, etc.

Another warning sign is powerful resistance to inquiry and dissent. Most of the world’s great religions are somewhat intolerant to dissent; the suppression of heresy has been a big part of theological debate since…well, forever. But, today, most Christians, Jews, and Muslims are free to ask awkward questions, or even to hold unorthodox beliefs. In a cult, of the kind we may be discussing, dissent, and even honest questions, are heavily discouraged.

Another warning sign is physical isolation. Again, Jonestown and Koresh’s Mount Carmel Center, serve as examples. Mainstream religions are generally willing to mingle.

None of these things are formally definitive. The concept probably will always elude strict definition. Heck, define “religion,” while you’re at it! But…if your son or daughter joins a group that practices all three of the traits listed here, you might want to consider worrying.

Hail Fundaligionism! Hallelujahgobble…