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.

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