May 18 2010

The Cult Demarcation Problem

I recently received the following question:

Big fan etc etc but I often (in the podcast, in the Why Are Nerds Unpopular article) hear/see you use the term “cult”. Could you give a definition of what a cult is?

Specifically, could you provide one that distinguishes a “cult” from, say, a Baptist church, or a Buddhist society, while also being encompassing enough to include all of the different groups that people have applied the label “cult” to?

I ask because I do not have such a definition, and from everything that I know about the sociology of religions it is not possible to have such a definition. “Cult” seems to be a derogatory term applied by members of a dominant/popular religious group towards a smaller religious group that they don’t like, and I’m disappointed that you use it so readily and without any qualification.

The questioner is right to question the use of a term like “cult” but is apparently unaware that there has been a great deal written about what a cult actually is. There are many different lists of characteristics of cults, and not one list is definitive, but if you read through them you will find a great deal of overlap and recurring themes. One thing to keep in mind is that a cult is defined more by how it behaves than what it believes – a set of beliefs alone cannot constitute a cult. You can read through the many lists on the link I provided, but I will summarize what I think are the main themes:

1) Totalitarian control – Cults attempt to have total control over their members, which includes absolute dogmatic authority of their leader, who tends to be charismatic.

2) Secrecy – Cults tend not to be up front with their entire belief system. The core beliefs are revealed slowly, as members “progress” deeper into the folds of the cult.

3) Separation – Cults use many methods to separate their members from their former social network and society at large. These methods include instilling an “us vs them” or in-group vs out-group mentality, using jargon that identifies members but is unintelligible to non-members, and physical isolation. Cults also try to convince members that their family and friends are corrupt or impure and interaction with them is destructive. They also require large donations, encouraging financial dependence on the cult.

4) Mind Control – Cults are very manipulative. They use a variety of techniques to indoctrinate or “brainwash” their members. These include things like “love bombing” – overwhelming recruits with positive physical and social attention – using guilt, hypnosis, loss of privacy, deprivation, verbal abuse, and other techniques.

5) Self-contained Belief System – The cult belief system tends to be absolute – the leader has perfect authority and exclusive knowledge, they are never to be questioned, everyone who disagrees with the leader is evil and to be opposed, and members who leave the group are always wrong and degenerate. Meanwhile the doctrine tends to be confusing and only slowly revealed when members are “ready.”

If you read the various lists you will see these themes crop up over and over, separated out to varying degrees. You will notice that most of the features have nothing to do with what the cult believes, but rather how it is organized and how it behaves. There are some features of the belief system itself that is more or less cult-like (specifically those that accomplish the other goals, like separation and total control), but no beliefs are essential.

It should also be noted that cults do not have to be religious. There are self-help cults, financial cults, para-military (survival) cults, medical cults, and UFO cults.

The Demarcation Problem

The real world is often fuzzy and defies our attempts at simple categorization. The recent flap over whether or not Pluto is a planet is a good example of this. We sometimes refer to the “demarcation problem” when try to draw a line that separates two ends of a continuum. Philosophers use this term for the demarcation between science and pseudoscience (or non science).

Often the system that develops is a list of characteristics that define one or the other end of the spectrum; the more characteristics that a group (in this case) possesses the more they are considered to be toward that end of the spectrum. So if we choose our list of cult characteristics, then we can assess any group or institution and check off which one’s they possess. The more they have, the more of a cult they are.

There are two logical fallacies to avoid with such systems. The first is the false dichotomy – dividing the spectrum into a binary system – either you are a cult or not. It has to be recognized that a group can have no cult characteristics, be a little cult-like, very cult-like, a total cult, and everything in between.

However, there is also the opposite fallacy – the false continuum – which essentially is the argument that because a characteristic exists on a continuum, and there is a demarcation problem, that we cannot meaningfully talk about either end of the continuum. This is like saying that because there is no sharp line dividing short and tall, there is no such thing as a tall person or a short person. In the case of cults, some may argue that there is no such thing as a cult because there is no one definition – but that is not a valid argument. In practice we can still use the term “cult” to refer to groups that have a certain critical mass of cult-like features.

Human Nature

It seems that cults basically exploit certain aspects (frailties?) of human nature. We have a tendency to be attracted to charismatic leaders, to surrender to authority – even to surrender our critical thinking to charismatic authority figures. We are also tribal, with a tendency to divide the world into us vs them, and with an intense need for acceptance and belonging. We have a need for simplicity and moral clarity – absolute certainty about what and who is right and wrong.

Cults exploit these features of human nature. In fact, they often deliberately target the most vulnerable people.

But this also means that we will find some cult features in many human endeavors, including those that do not rise to the level of being called a “cult.”  High pressure sales “seminars” often use methods of manipulation similar to cults, including physical exhaustion. Politicians may exploit their charisma and our tribal tendencies. Most religious belief-systems and institutions have an authoritarian structure based upon dogma and moral clarity.

Therefore we need to be on guard for cult-like behaviors even in our everyday lives. We need to keep our critical thinking skills sharp, question authority, question our own motives, and be wary of any group or individual displaying cult characteristics.

Knowledge of cults is really knowledge of how people can be manipulated, and should therefore be part of our Homo sapiens user manual.

32 responses so far

32 thoughts on “The Cult Demarcation Problem”

  1. Lucian says:

    Since i’m the first to comment, I suppose I’ll be the one to correct your spelling; “no clear line dividing short and tall.” Sorry for doing that.
    I like the phrase you coined there, “Homo sapiens user manual,” very nice, or after last weeks SGU podcast I think Homo neanderthalensis sapiens manuel may be more appropriate.
    Under the Mind Control theme, within other techniques, remember hallucinagenic substances. Charles Manson is the obvious example.
    Good post Sir, but after reading I’m beginning to think my Zach Braff Fan Club could be considered a cult.

  2. Lucian says:

    Damn! I correct your spelling and then mess up manual.

  3. bethanyrunkel says:

    In my opinion, giving over our critical thinking skills to the religious is often more dangerous than surrendering them to, say, the leader at a sales seminar. But that doesn’t change the fact that we can be manipulated in a cult-like fashion by the non-religious, and that’s important.

    And I wonder: Steve’s criticial thinking aritcle talks about the pyshcological/neurological processes that take place when we give over our ciritical thinkin skills to someone else. What’s happening to the critical thinking skills of the charismatic leader during this process?

  4. ccbowers says:

    “What’s happening to the critical thinking skills of the charismatic leader during this process?”

    Yeah, really… what is going on with the cult leader and the enablers surrounding him?

  5. SatansParakeet says:

    I’d be curious to see a similar definition of religion based on traits. I tend to think of atheism as a religion and often get a lot of push back from fellow atheists about that. If you use the most simplistic definitions of religion they tend to throw in references to higher powers or deities that would preclude atheism as a religion, but there are at least a few groups that consider themselves to be religions without having any particular higher power in mind.

  6. ccbowers says:

    I guess the enablers would be much like the rest of the followers.

    “I tend to think of atheism as a religion”

    I have certainly seen atheist groups that have cult-like characteristics, but I think religion is the wrong term.

  7. The Dicklomat says:

    Athiesm becomes a religion the moment someone says that he KNOWS God does not exist…as though he has managed to falsify Gotd with certainty. In other words, those who are #7 on the Dawkins scale (even Dawkins himself says he is a #6.5) would be professing a religion of athiesm.

  8. The Dicklomat says:

    No…wait…if someone actually DOES falsify God then his knowledge that God doesn’t exist would not be religious, it would indeed be a proper scientific theory. Not likely to happen any time soon, if at all. What I meant to say was that atheism crosses the line into religion when someone says he knows that he doesn’t exist AS THOUGH it were falsified. Such arrogance is not permitted in science, only in religion.

  9. bethanyrunkel says:

    @ ccbowers:

    I agree that the enablers would be much like the followers, but what can we say about the leaders?

    Is there evidence to suggest that they are also giving over ciritical thinking faculties? Or are they perhaps thinking the most critically of anyone involved, but choosing to ignore it?

  10. Lucian says:

    It’s hard to believe that cult leaders are intellectually more aware than the followers, that is to say they probably aren’t actively deceiving the followers. (excluding the financial cult leaders perhaps) I’d say it’s more likely that the leaders are buying into they’re belief system and surrendering their critical thinking faculties equally, if not more. That’s probably because they’re delusion and mentally unstable to begin with. As far as evidence goes though, beats me.

  11. eean says:

    I agree totally with your definition of cult.

    The person who emailed you is correct though. I remember listening to a Christian tape about the “cult” of the LDS. This use of the word has nothing to do with the definition above. You could make a reasonable argument that Mormons bishops and such directly interfere with private matters more then most churches, but this tape wasn’t making that argument. It was called a cult because of its ‘incorrect’ beliefs.

    But just because some folks use a word in an offensive matter, doesn’t mean we can’t use it.

  12. Fred Cunningham says:

    The basis of the word “religion” means to bind or link together. The most essential factor is the specification of altruistic and mutual altruistic behaviors. The worship of deities and rituals are add-ons for reinforcement. Atheism by itself should not be considered a religion but there are atheistic religions and organizations dedicated to promoting atheism. I personally feel that groups that are bound together only by atheism and nothing else should not be considered a religion. Otherwise, almost any group could be considered a religion. This is just another demarcation problem.

  13. ccbowers says:

    I think that its likely that many cult leaders are thinking clearly when they manipulate their followers, but at the same time believe their own crap that they feed their followers. Its a bit analogous to the person who is both a true believer and scam artist in other areas.

  14. HHC says:

    Mind control can easily achieved by cultists by the choice of drugs/substances that they provide their members. They gain compliance and the behavior they condone through this method.

  15. GeorgeFromNY says:

    The two biggest “This Is A Cult” markers, for me, are Secret Doctrines and the Us vs Them attitude.

    However, I should note that secrecy need not be sinister. One thinks of the mystery cults of antiquity which were deliberately secretive and still sincere.

    By ‘sincere’ I mean the leaders were not cynical Svengalis out for material wealth or herding their gullible followers to a bloody end. They believed that enlightenment was gradual, hierarchical and initiatory – you couldn’t just walk in off the street, sit down and say “Tell me about god(s)” and receive gnosis.

    Some things must be earned.

    I have some sympathy for this stance. Not because I think there actually are gods but rather from the seeing how extraordinary effort and sacrifice can enable extraordinary achievement.

  16. Jon J says:

    Easy way to differentiate:

    Cult: A small, unpopular religion.

    Religion: A large, popular cult.

  17. The Dicklomat says:

    @Fred C:

    Although the word “religion” may or may not have had it’s roots in “bind or link together”, it’s present usage as I understant it is supported by OED, which defines it as “(1) the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. (2) a particular system of faith and worship. (3) a pursuit or interest followed with devotion.”

    I can live without definition (1) which is overly specific, preferring the more broad (2), specifically “a particular system of FAITH”. It is in this context that I say athiesm becomes religion when its proponents make absolute claims about the non-existence of God. However likely to be true, certainty of it’s truth is a faith-based position and as such ventures into the realm of religion as we understand it.

  18. TeddyBream says:

    For a New Zealand and Christian perspective on (predominantly) Christian themed cults the Cult Watch site ( is particularly good (if a little amateurish). With in New Zealand they have developed a reputation for unequivocal identification of cult-like properties within mainstream Christian organisations.

    I think this is an important thing as it highlights the tendency within major denominations to develop cult-like practices and helps young Christians make better informed decisions about specific churches. They include all the identifiers you’ve mentioned as well as some which have value specifically for Christian themed cults.

  19. zoe237 says:

    There do seem to be certain people who define “the enemy” as a cult just for pure punch (e.g. Obama’s cult of personality). It’s kind of similar to invoking Godwin’s law.

  20. racingstu says:

    So… is North Korea a cult?

  21. SatansParakeet says:

    I still think the religion question is somewhat up for debate, but I understand that atheism lacks many of the common characteristics of most religions which makes it hard to categorize that way. So here is the question I’m left with if we don’t want to consider atheism to be a religion. What is it instead?

    Is it its own thing? Is it a philosophy? Not that there aren’t cases of things that are entirely unique, but it is often helpful to be able to categorize these sorts of items/ideas. I don’t like atheism as a unique case and neither do most writers of religious surveys or library catalogers

  22. Eric Thomson says:

    Am I religious because I don’t believe in Zeus? If you want the definition to be that elastic, fine. Strange, but fine I guess the definition is partly conventional.

  23. HHC says:

    Atheism is the disbelief in a god or gods. It does not fit the classification of religion. The religionists believe in and worship the Supernatural, Human Controlling Power. It is a system of faith followed with devotion. Disbelief refers to a lack of faith. Hence atheists lack faith and do not devote themselves to worship.

  24. The Dicklomat says:

    Lack of acceptance of the existence of a thing (the definition of and Athiest position) is not in itself religion, but conviction that a thing does not exist without falsification or affirmative evidence that the thing doesn’t exist (a position that SOME “extreme” Athiests take) is a religious position.

    I saw a book presentation by Christopher Hitchens where an audience member asked him, “so you say that Jesus didn’t exist?” and his answer was simply, “no, I’m only saying that we don’t have enough reason to believe that he did exist”. I understand that Hitchens doesn’t really deal with whether or not God actually exists (how can he?), his concern and focus is on how people’s belief in God gets them into trouble, just as I am sure that he would have similar concerns with people making blanket statements about God not existing (Perry DeAngelis called hardline Athiests some of the most despicable people he ever met…worse than the most obnoxious Evangelists).

    If I had the opportunity I would ask Hitchens if he sincerely hopes that God does exist, so that one day he (Hitchens) can tear him (God) a new hole for being so elusive.

  25. Fred Cunningham says:

    In my previous post I used the idea of binding together and altruistic behavior basis of religion rather than a dictionary definition to try to give a slightly different perspective of what is a religion. This was in fact an argument used by Joseph Campbell combined with a position taken by Michael Shermer. In fact Shermer used the altruism idea as an argument that Marxism is a religion and I imagine that others have also. I have known people that don’t consider Confucianism a religion. I suspect that defining religions may be as difficult as as defining species.

  26. Xulld says:

    I feel a religion is any attempt to understand nature via revelation, then followed by an attempt to get others to agree and accept such revelation.

    I personally see nothing else involved, I think the moment we start to tack on additional characteristics all it does is confuse the word.

    I am personally 100% certain that tomorrow will come and pass. Is it really possible for me to really know this . . . . well no, is it a religious conviction . . . no, what does that tell us about belief, certainty, and faith in regards to religion?

    Well it tells me that these things are not married together in such a way that faith must be religious, or that conviction must be religious, or that certainty must be religious.

    Religions rely on these things, but these things are not exclusive to religions.

    I am 100% certain that gravity is what is holding me down, not say invisible strings attached to me at every interval . . . do I really “know” this for a fact??? No, am I certain I am right, yes, does that make this a religious conviction? NO.

    The human ability to equivocate is amazing . . . do not underestimate this ability especially as it is presented by your own mind when trying to categorize thing that may share common characteristics.

    To me this makes even hardline atheist very much NOT religious, its just a pop shot by the religious, or a person equivocating religions with other common human behavioral characteristics.

    I don’t care if that person who is hardliner atheist says things like, “there can be no god”. Unless he is saying that a supernatural entity told him so privately through revelation, I will not consider that a religious conviction.

  27. HHC says:

    God is an attitude?

  28. Calli Arcale says:


    In my opinion, giving over our critical thinking skills to the religious is often more dangerous than surrendering them to, say, the leader at a sales seminar.

    I dunno; have you seen some of these multi-level marketing groups? Some of them are pretty scary, and behave very much as a cult. Visit

  29. BillyJoe7 says:


    “I understand that Hitchens doesn’t really deal with whether or not God actually exists”

    Sure he takes the view that religion is man-made and poisons everything, but what exactly does that say about god?

    “how can he?”

    Because of the overwhelming evidence.
    I know it’s politically incorrect to attest that god does not exist but the evidence is almost overwhelming, barring only a god in whom nobody believes anyway. Truth is worth more than political correctness.

    “Perry DeAngelis called hardline Athiests some of the most despicable people he ever met…worse than the most obnoxious Evangelists”

    But Perry DeAngelis is probably not the final and certainly not the only word on that question. And, even if they wer, that does not mean that they are wrong

  30. Jon J says:


    Just heard episode #253 and your comment on my comment. Yay! for anonymous fame…

    I actually _did_ read your complete post, and agree with much of it. My comment was intended to be read humorously, based on its circular reasoning-like structure.

    But I will content myself with being described as “pithy,” if “witty” is off the table.

  31. Febo says:

    BillyJoe7 — Perry DeAngelis is absolutely the final word on every question! His wisdom — as recorded in the podcasts of the SGU — is a flawless guide to Life, the Universe, and Everything. Perry’s foretold return will mark the end of the Age of Woo, and usher in a new age of Skeptical Enlightenment for all humanity!!!

  32. BillyJoe7 says:

    You got me, Febo, I have no idea who Perry DeAnagelis is.

Leave a Reply