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The term cult can apply to any small group dedicated to a common set of spiritually oriented beliefs or philosophies, but because of tragedies associated with cults, the term has taken on a decidedly negative meaning. For many, the term refers to a particular kind of group, one with a self-appointed, dogmatic, and charismatic leader who promotes deceptive-coercive recruitment practices to ensnare individuals to join a totalitarian community organized to solicit funds and secure favors that benefit neither the group's members nor society.
However, not all cults fit this negative description, and a good many do demonstrable good. Some cult experts prefer the terms "new religious movement" and "alternative religions" as ways to label these groups without negative bias. Among experts, then, there are roughly two groups generally referred to as "cult critics" and "cult sympathizers." Regardless of the type of expert, the most frequently posed research questions have been:
Why do cults emerge? Who joins cults? Why do some cults become violent or lead to violent endings?
To some extent, cults emerge as reactions to social movements and societal change. For example, many of the cults that emerged in the 1970s were reactions to the social upheavals of the 1960s, particularly to the widespread rejection of white, middle-class values of the 1950s that included narrow conceptions of the role of women and a value system that was insensitive to diversity. Even before the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam demonstrations, American youth in particular began to challenge conventions. The cults of the 1970s were, then, extensions of these efforts to challenge convention.
As for who joins cults, no single stereotype applies. Members of cults have at one time or another been described as young and idealistic and easily manipulated by authority figures. However, there is no distinct type of individual likely to join a cult or new religious movement-at least not according to the available research.
There are, however, conditions that support or encourage people to join cults. These conditions include mild depression; being in a transitional stage, and being dissatisfied with traditional, mainstream religious institutions. For example, young people entering college may feel unusually lonely and lost; so that joining a cult may help them feel connected and oriented. As another example, the members of Jim Jones's cult, the "People's Temple," were mostly poor African Americans who had suffered from racism and poverty. They found in the socialist and egalitarian philosophy of the People's Temple support that they could not find elsewhere. In short, cults serve important functions for members that have more to do with specific circumstances than with character traits. The question of why some cults turn violent or lead to violent endings is central. The two most-discussed examples are the People's Temple and the Branch Davidians. In each of these cases, the majority of members died in a tragic ending. Many fault the leaders, Jim Jones and David Koresh, respectively. However, many also fault the poor judgment of outsiders (e.g., government officials) who exerted what some say was unnecessary pressure and force that precipitated the violence. In each of these cases, it was not the beliefs of the organizations that precipitated government intervention and led to their demise, but the suspected abuse of members.
Regardless of who is to blame for their tragic endings, these two cults have served as the main examples of "bad cults." The control that both Koresh and Jones had over their organizations did not allow for negative feedback or criticism, whether from inside or outside of the group. This lack of internal criticism created a dangerous level of conformity, which ultimately led to the tragic endings.
Cults such as the People's Temple and Branch Davidians have forced others to develop questions to evaluate whether a particular cult is "bad." The main questions are the following:
Does an individual charismatic leader control the group? Are the members isolated from the outside world? Are the members restricted from criticizing their leader or questioning the beliefs of the group? Are extreme commitments demanded or excessive requests made for monetary contributions? Does manipulation, deception, or "brainwashing" occur? Does abuse occur, such as sexual abuse and corporal punishment of children that qualifies as child abuse?
Asking these questions helps to identify "bad" cults, but it also helps to distinguish bad cults from those that may be doing good. In many cases, the answers to all of these questions may be "no." For example, certain cult groups of young people have been described as "off-road religion" and age-appropriate insofar as they provide ways for young people to try out new identities to see what "fits." Other cult groups provide needed emotional support, as in the case of certain Wicca groups that attract women who have suffered from disappointments and discrimination.
In sum, there are bad and good cults, and the differences between the two are becoming increasingly clear. Furthermore, while there is no single type of person who tends to join a cult, there are common conditions encouraging people to join. Finally, we should remember that virtually all of the world's great faith traditions began as cults, so that we need to be especially thoughtful and avoid stereotyping when speaking about cults.