Are You, or Is Someone You Know, Involved in a High-Demand Group or Movement ("cult")?
Checklist of Characteristics
Deception lies at the core of mind-manipulating and high-demand ("cultic") groups and programs. Many members and supporters of these groups/movements are not fully aware of the extent to which they have been abused and exploited. This checklist of characteristics helps to define such groups. Comparing the descriptions on this checklist to aspects of the group with which you or a family member or loved one is involved may help determine if this involvement is cause for concern. If you check any of these items as characteristic of the group, and particularly if you check most of them, you might want to consider reexamining the group and its relationship to you. Keep in mind that this checklist is meant to stimulate thought. It is not a scientific method of "diagnosing" a group.
We suggest that you check all characteristics that apply to your or your loved one's group, then print this browser page for future reference. You may find that your assessment changes over time, with further reading and research.
- The group is focused on a living leader to whom members seem to display excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment.
- The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
- The group is preoccupied with making money.
- Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
- Mind-numbing techniques (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, debilitating work routines) are used to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
- The leadership dictates sometimes in great detail how members should think, act, and feel (for example: members must get permission from leaders to date, change jobs, get married; leaders may prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, how to discipline children, and so forth).
- The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and members (for example: the leader is considered the Messiah or an avatar; the group and/or the leader has a special mission to save humanity).
- The group has a polarized us- versus-them mentality, which causes conflict with the wider society.
- The group's leader is not accountable to any authorities (as are, for example, military commanders and ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream denominations).
- The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify means that members would have considered unethical before joining the group (for example: collecting money for bogus charities).
- The leadership induces guilt feelings in members in order to control them.
- Members' subservience to the group causes them to cut ties with family and friends, and to give up personal goals and activities that were of interest before joining the group.
- Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group.
- Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
Copyright 1996 ICSA/AFF, Inc.
ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association, formerly AFF), is a secular, nonprofit, tax-exempt research center and educational corporation.
P.O. Box 2265, Bonita Springs, Florida 34133.
Tel: (941) 514-3081, Fax: (941) 514-3451.
All rights reserved. Opinions of individual authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of ICSA, its board, or its staff.
For a special note about the "Cult Awareness Network" (CAN), please scroll to the end of this page.
How do you define a "cult"?
ICSA, a cultic studies research and educational nonprofit organization, published this definition accepted by many researchers:
Cult: A group or movement exhibiting:
- great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and
- employing unethical manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgement, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it),
- designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders,
- to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.
Excerpted from Cultic Studies Journal, 3, (1986): 119-120.
If a group that you belong to has many of the following criteria to a significant degree, you have cause for concern:
- The group is led by a one or a few individuals, charismatic, determined, domineering.
- The leader(s) are self-appointed and claim to have a special mission in life. Frequently, that mission is messianic or apocalyptic. Leaders answer to no higher authority, such as an oversight board. They are sole interpreters of doctrine and policy -- which may change frequently and whimsically.
- The group centers its veneration on the leader(s) directly, rather than on God, a higher political power, science, or whatever.
- The group structure is hierarchical and authoritarian. Rarely will you find an open election in a cult.
- The group tends to be totalitarian, with elaborate rules and rituals that occupy large parts of every day. To break a rule or ignore a ritual carries the danger of expulsion from the group.
- The group usually has two or more sets of ethics: one for the leadership, another for the membership; one for outsiders, another for insiders; a relaxed set for recruiting purposes, a much more demanding set for the committed member.
- The group usually presents itself as innovative and exclusive, even elitist.
- The group has two main purposes: recruiting new members and fund-raising. It's unlikely to support or even encourage legitimate charity work, except as a front for recruitment.
What about "New Age" groups?
Are all New Age religions cults? No.
Many New Age, Pagan, Eastern, and other new religious movements are known for their openness to other traditions, democratic structure, and fiercely noncommercial values. These are in direct opposition to cultic values.
Just like any other human tradition, however, there are cults based around New Age, Eastern, UFO, or other alternative philosophies -- just as there are Christian cults.
The cultic structure can be created around any belief system or human activity whatsoever.
There are vitamin cults and multilevel marketing cults. Some critics believe that organizations within Amway, for instance, are the largest cultic groups in America.
There are many different flavors of cults, including Bible-based, Large Group Awareness Training, Eastern Meditation, Commercial/Multilevel Marketing, Political/Terrorist, Psychotherapy, Occult/Satanic, New Age, Miscellaneous (built around charismatic personalities in the arts, for instance).
Some cults are hybrids. The Unification Church, for instance, mixes Christian and Eastern influences.
Aren't the Marines a Cult by Your Definition?
--adapted from Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives, by Margaret Singer and Janja Lalich, Jossey-Bass, 1995. Reprinted with authors' permission.
I have had to point out why the United States Marine Corps is not a cult so many times that I carry a list to lectures and court appearances. It cites 19 ways in which the practices of the Marine Corps differ from those found in most modern cults....
Cults clearly differ from such purely authoritarian groups as the military, some types of sects and communes, and centuries- old Roman Catholic and Greek and Russian Orthodox Orders. These groups, though rigid and controlling, lack a double agenda and are not manipulative or leader-centered. The differences become apparent when we examine the intensity and pervasiveness with which mind-manipulating techniques and deceptions are or are not applied.
Jesuit seminaries may isolate the seminarian from the rest of the world for periods of time, but the candidate is not deliberately deceived about the obligations and burdens of the priesthood. In fact, he is warned in advance about what is expected, and what he can and cannot do....
Mainstream religious organizations do not concentrate their search on the lonely and the vulnerable.... Nor do mainstream religions focus recruitment on wealthy believers who are seen as pots of gold for the church, as is the case with those cults who target rich individuals....
Military training and legitimate executive training programs may use the dictates of authority as well as peer pressure to encourage the adoption of new patterns of thought and behavior. They do not seek, however, to accelerate the process by prolonged or intense psychological depletion or by stirring up feelings of dread, guilt, and sinfulness....
And what is wrong with cults is not just that cults are secret societies. In our culture, there are openly recognized, social secret societies, such as the Masons, in which new members know up front that they will gradually learn the shared rituals of the group.... In [cults], there is deliberate deception about what the group is and what some of the rituals might be, and primarily, there is deception about what the ultimate goal will be for a member, what will ultimately be demanded and expected, and what the damages resulting from some of the practices might be. A secret handshake is not equivalent to mind control.
Wouldn't Jesus have been called a "cult leader" today?
There are some cult spokespersons who often trot out this old chestnut.
Have you ever heard any reports of Jesus physically, sexually, or emotionally abusing any of his disciples? Did Jesus amass a huge secret fortune? Was he ever accused of stockpiling guns? Selling drugs? Abusing children?
And while we're on the topic, we're not aware of such allegations against Buddha, Krishna, Lao Tse, or many other great spiritual leaders. Some cult apologists define concepts as broadly and fuzzily as possible so that any organization or any leader could be termed cultic. We don't buy it.
Aren't the Jesuits or other monastic religious orders a cult?
While cults, military organizations, and legitimate spiritual groups share some superficials, they are fundamentally different.
They share an indoctrination process, strict codes of behavior and ethics, uniform dress, restricted diets and exercise regimens.
Where they differ most is deception. Anyone signing up for bootcamp has no doubt in his or her mind that he will be going through a severe mental, emotional, and physical trial meant to improve their physique and sharpen their mind. There are no secrets.
Whether a curious person attends an introductory seminar for Transcendental Meditation, the Church of Scientology, the Moonists, or smaller cults, the speaker will conveniently forget to mention that new members will undergo what the California Supreme Court has called "brainwashing, thought reform, or mind control," may end up "donating" hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of their lives to the cult.
It should be pointed out also that legitimate organizations like the Marines and Jesuits care for their members with health care, food, lodging, clothing -- and that when members leave they will have been trained in a trade, received an advanced degree, or received other value.
Are cults a modern phenomenon?
They appear throughout recorded history. In the 19th Century, messianic groups like the Millerites flourished in the US. The Boxer Rebellion in China was triggered by a cult leader who believed he was Jesus Christ. There are indications of similar groups in the Middle Ages, Biblical times, before the Christian Era, and in non-Western cultures.
Do all cults end in suicide?
No. In fact, it's highly unusual.
Conway and Siegelman, in the second edition of their book, Snapping, note the unique events and pressures that brought about the "death spiral" of a Jonestown, Waco, or Heaven's Gate.
There is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that takes place when the cult leader begins to fear the loss of his or her power, whether through intrusion of or exposure to outside authorities, internal defections, a rival group, or the leader's real or imagined impending death. The members may begin to stockpile weapons or make strange public pronouncements, which in turn invite public scrutiny -- eventually igniting the final holocaust.
Most cults end gradually through defections, ceasing operations when the leader is exposed, dissolution on the leader's death, splitting into many rival groups, or gradually evolving into a more open society, such as a mainstream religion or political party.
The cultic structure can be created around any belief system or human activity whatsoever.
How big is the average cult?
There is no true average.
Cultic relationships can exist in groups as small as two or as large as hundreds of thousands, if not millions. An excellent book, Captive Hearts, Captive Minds by Tobias and Lalich, discusses recovery from "one-on-one" cults (abusive relationships) side-by-side with issues from much larger cults.
Which are more dangerous, large or small? Which is more dangerous, an asteroid or a bullet?
To the individual who meets up with either, it doesn't matter.
Small cults tend to be more physically and emotionally abusive, largely because their size ensures that they don't appear on the media's radar screen.
Large cults can psychologically damage hundreds of thousands of people. Wealthy organizations like Transcendental Meditation, Scientology, and Rev. Moon's Unification Church can also influence legislation and elections.
How many cults are there?
Even experts only offer estimates: in the thousands.
How many people have been involved with cults? Psychologist Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer, author of Cults in Our Midst, once estimated that 10 to 20 million Americans have been involved to some degree with cultic organizations in the last 20 years.
What about freedom of religion?
ICSA, the staff of RETIRN, and most former cult members are fiercely in favor of all psychological freedoms, including freedom of belief and religion...and freedom from religion as well.
Cult critics by and large are not concerned about issues of doctrine. For example: If you believe that Christ (or Moses, Mohammed, or Krishna,or the Buddha) was an alien, that's fine by us.
Our concern is with behavior, including what we consider the criminal behavior manifested by many cultic groups. The groups that ICSA--and other similar independent research organizations--track are charged by critics with psychological and physical abuse, undue influence, fraud, and countless other offenses that are usually actionable in a court of law.
Is everyone who believes in UFOs a cultist?
Beliefs that appear bizarre or irrational to the society at large can sometimes fuel tremendous breakthroughs. After all, they tortured Galileo and laughed at Marconi for unusual beliefs. We believe that open and honest scientific, philosophical and/or theological debate and inquiry will eventually reveal the "truth" about UFOs and other unusual or presently uproven phenomena. Open debate and free speech are not only necessary for a democratic society, they are at the very root of scientific inquiry.
Open debate and free speech are anathema to cultic organizations...just as censorship, deception and closed mindedness is contrary to the true cult critic.
A special note about the
"Cult Awareness Network" (CAN)
For many years, an independent but controversial organization known as the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) provided thousands of individuals and families with a range of services and information. In 1996, the Church of Scientology, an organization that has been termed a high demand group ("cult") by many of its critics and former members, won a lawsuit against CAN that allowed a member of Scientology to obtain the CAN trademark, website, files, etc. Therefore, the Cult Awareness Network, as an independent organization, no longer exists. The "new" CAN provides information and services that are heavily influenced by the Church of Scientology. Scientology does not always make this connection explicit. We encourage you to obtain information from a variety of sources. Should you seek information and/or advice from the "new" CAN, we encourage you to consider their link with the Church of Scientology when you evaluate that information and/or advice.
If you wish to obtain independent information about cults, we urge you to consult the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), formerly AFF. ICSA can be reached at:
P.O. Box 2265
Bonita Springs, FL 34133.
Tel: (941) 514-3081 • Fax: (941) 514-3451
To go directly to the ICSA Website, click below: