What is a cult?

Today, I came across this definition of a cult on www.meadowhaven.org. Meadowhaven is treatment center for former cult members. Each of these 8 points describe my “school” experience to a t:

Robert J. Lifton, in his seminal work on thought-reform, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, proposed the following eight characteristics of a high-control group.

  1. Milieu Control – Control of communication from without and within the group environment, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from the surrounding society. Includes other techniques to restrict members’ contact with outside world and to be able to make critical, rational judgments about information: overwork, busyness, multiple lengthy meetings, etc.
  2. Mystical Manipulation – The claim of divine authority or spiritual advancement that allows the leader to reinterpret events as he or she wishes, or make prophecies or pronouncements at will, all for the purpose of controlling group members.
  3. Demand for Purity – The world is viewed as black and white and group members are constantly exhorted to strive for perfection. Consequently, guilt and shame are common and powerful control devices.
  4. The Cult of Confession – Serious (and often not so serious) sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed, either privately to a personal monitor or publicly to the group at large.
  5. The “Sacred Science” – The doctrine of the group is considered to be the ultimate TRUTH, beyond all questioning or disputing. The leader of the group is likewise above criticism as the spokesperson for God on earth.
  6. Loading the Language – The group develops a jargon in many ways unique to itself, often not understandable to outsiders. This jargon consists of numerous words and phrases which the members understand (or thinks they do), but which really act to dull one’s ability to engage in critical thinking.
  7. Doctrine over Person – The personal experiences of the group members are subordinated to the “Truth” held by the group – apparently contrary experiences must be denied or re-interpreted to fit the doctrine of the group. The doctrine is always more important than the individual.
  8. Dispensing of Existence – The group arrogates to itself the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. Usually held non-literally, this means that those outside the group are unspiritual, worldly, satanic, “unconscious,” or whatever, and that they must be converted to the ideas of the group or they will be lost. If they refuse to join the group, then they must be rejected by the group members, even if they are family members. In rare cases this concept gives the group the right to terminate the outsider’s life.

For more info visit: http://www.meadowhaven.org/problem.html

5 thoughts on “What is a cult?

  1. Johanna says:

    By Rick Ross, Expert Consultant and Intervention Specialist

    Ten warning signs of a potentially unsafe group/leader.

    Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.
    No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.
    No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget, expenses such as an independently audited financial statement.
    Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.
    There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.
    Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.
    There are records, books, news articles, or television programs that document the abuses of the group/leader.
    Followers feel they can never be “good enough”.
    The group/leader is always right.
    The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.
    Ten warning signs regarding people involved in/with a potentially unsafe group/leader.

    Extreme obsessiveness regarding the group/leader resulting in the exclusion of almost every practical consideration.
    Individual identity, the group, the leader and/or God as distinct and separate categories of existence become increasingly blurred. Instead, in the follower’s mind these identities become substantially and increasingly fused–as that person’s involvement with the group/leader continues and deepens.
    Whenever the group/leader is criticized or questioned it is characterized as “persecution”.
    Uncharacteristically stilted and seemingly programmed conversation and mannerisms, cloning of the group/leader in personal behavior.
    Dependency upon the group/leader for problem solving, solutions, and definitions without meaningful reflective thought. A seeming inability to think independently or analyze situations without group/leader involvement.
    Hyperactivity centered on the group/leader agenda, which seems to supercede any personal goals or individual interests.
    A dramatic loss of spontaneity and sense of humor.
    Increasing isolation from family and old friends unless they demonstrate an interest in the group/leader.
    Anything the group/leader does can be justified no matter how harsh or harmful.
    Former followers are at best-considered negative or worse evil and under bad influences. They can not be trusted and personal contact is avoided.
    Ten signs of a safe group/leader.

    A safe group/leader will answer your questions without becoming judgmental and punitive.
    A safe group/leader will disclose information such as finances and often offer an independently audited financial statement regarding budget and expenses. Safe groups and leaders will tell you more than you want to know.
    A safe group/leader is often democratic, sharing decision making and encouraging accountability and oversight.
    A safe group/leader may have disgruntled former followers, but will not vilify, excommunicate and forbid others from associating with them.
    A safe group/leader will not have a paper trail of overwhelmingly negative records, books, articles and statements about them.
    A safe group/leader will encourage family communication, community interaction and existing friendships and not feel threatened.
    A safe group/leader will recognize reasonable boundaries and limitations when dealing with others.
    A safe group/leader will encourage critical thinking, individual autonomy and feelings of self-esteem.
    A safe group/leader will admit failings and mistakes and accept constructive criticism and advice.
    A safe group/leader will not be the only source of knowledge and learning excluding everyone else, but value dialogue and the free exchange of ideas.

  2. Hi Johanna,

    Yep, that unsafe-group leader list is sounding awfully familiar. Now that I’ve been one of the “disgruntled ex-students” for over a year, I’m amazed that I didn’t see the warning signs, or more accurately, I let my fears of leaving override those doubts. Thank God the doubts won out in the end!

    Thanks for sharing the Rick Ross warning signs.

  3. Johanna says:

    I saw this list today and it got me thinking about how “addictive” a cult can be…

    Behavioural addictions
    Clinical criteria of addiction (Carnes 1991):

    A behaviour that is out of control
    Severe consequences
    Inability to stop despite these consequences
    Persistent pursuit of self-destructive or risky behaviour
    Desire to stop the behaviour
    Use of the behaviour as a coping strategy
    Increasing levels of the behaviour needed to get the same effect (tolerance)
    Lots of time spent both in trying to engage in the behaviour as well as recovery
    Severe mood changes when carrying out the behaviour
    Social, occupational, and recreational activities sacrificed

    Griffiths (1996) believes these ten criteria can be subsumed nicely into the following six:

    1. Salience:

    The behaviour becomes the most important thing to the person and they have it on their minds for much of the time. Alcohol and nicotine addicts tend not to be so obvious in this regard, since they are able to combine their addiction with other behaviours in social settings. However, once deprived of their fix, salience becomes far more apparent.

    2. Mood modification

    The addict gets a rush or buzz when engaged in the behaviour. The addict is also able to use their behaviour to bring about a mood change. Interestingly, the same chemical or behaviour can alter mood in different directions depending on time or setting. Nicotine can stimulate in the morning or relax before sleep.

    3. Tolerance

    Usually associated with chemical addiction such as alcohol or heroin, this one can also be applied to behaviours. Basically the addict needs bigger and bigger hits to get the same effect as they did initially with smaller amounts. Risk-taking behaviour, for example, tends to get more extreme over time.

    4. Withdrawal symptoms

    Changes in mood, shakes, irritability etc. as a result of cessation. Applies to behavioural as well as chemical addiction.

    5. Conflict

    The pursuit of short term pleasure can cause conflict with other; parents, spouse, friends and can also result in conflict within the person.

    6. Relapse

    A tendency to return to the behaviour, months or even years after an apparent ‘cure.’ Again this is just as common with behavioural addiction as it is with chemical.

    Griffiths believes that all six need to be present for a diagnosis of addiction. However, others disagree, believing that addiction doesn’t always result in undue disruption to a person’s lifestyle and occasionally no withdrawal symptoms are experienced on cessation.

    Addiction or enthusiasm?
    If it adds quality to a person’s life: Enthusiasm
    If it detracts from a person’s life: Addiction

  4. Johanna says:

    Someone introduced me to this book recently:
    In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Maté

    Very interesting. Check it out…

  5. Hi Johanna, I’ve definitely seen my dependence on school as a type of emotional addiction. I experienced that strange mixture of getting a high from it, and then the fear of losing that high. I still have a craving for that type of high, b/c it felt like a spiritual experience, something that lifted me above the caterpillar quality of my life. At the end of my tenure very little enthusiasm, lots of desperation.

    I will check out the book!

    Thanks for writing! GSR

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