Updated: Feb 19, 2022
How do we know whether a group of like-minded and like-hearted people coming together is a cult or a community? The post aims to educate on our understanding of the difference.
Do We Really Understand The Word ‘Cult’?
I don’t think it would be too corny to say that today’s society seems to have a cult-like fascination with cults! Stories of controlling and manipulative cults, such as the infamous Jonestown and NXIVM cults, which have damaged and destroyed many lives, including those of children, have both shocked and fascinated people for decades and become the go-to association for most people whenever the term is used.
Because of these extremely negative associations it’s a word that can strike fear into the hearts and minds of those who hear it. However, the word itself can also have very positive connotations and it’s important not to forget or lose sight of this.
We must recognise how the word cult itself has become marred with a lot of sensationalism and misinformation and how it's often abused when incorrectly referring to groups of people and close-knit communities. This article will help make the necessary distinctions in line with this and take an in-depth look at what a ‘cult’ actually is, when people use the term negatively, as well as define how that specifically differs to what a genuine community is and why people confuse the two.
First: A Problem of Definition
The term cult is closely related to the words culture and to cultivate. Originally these words meant to prepare the land for the cultivation of crops, but later became associated with the cultivation of human knowledge and understanding too. In the 15th century, the word 'culture' came to mean "cultivation through education, systematic improvement and refinement of the mind". Following that, the word cult itself, in the 17th century, came to mean "a particular form or system of worship", which later in the 19th century came to also mean, "devoted attention to a particular person or thing". So, in fact, the chances of you being part of a cult in some way or form is almost certain, if there is any particular set of beliefs or culture that you are part of that you revere and feel any form of worship towards (I will explain more on this later).
The term 'cult' can be and is used very positively and harmlessly and in ways you have likely used yourself. For example, 'cult following' is a term frequently used in the media to positively describe a status of popularity achieved by something or someone. Certain very popular movies, for instance, can build a 'cult following' in a dedicated fan base which includes endless rewatching, dialogue quoting, extensive merchandising and all kinds of fan clubs and discussion groups being created around it. Indeed movie executives want to build a 'cult' around their movie franchises because of the guaranteed audiences and repeat business that brings. Think of Star Wars and the Marvel franchise as two highly popular ‘cult’ fan bases in existence today... which also makes it clear to me that I could consider myself part of a ‘cult’ myself given my obsession with the 1990’s Warner Bros. TV Sitcom “Friends”! Is that a bad thing? It hasn’t exactly consumed my life or warped my mind and belief systems, although I have lost count of the number of times I have watched it and I did give up my Netflix account so I wouldn't watch it as religiously as I used to.
'Religiously' also being a keyword that emphasises how much the true meanings of words can become distorted and abused. Have you ever watched a movie, a TV show, listened to a particular song or musical artist, gone to the gym or visited that one pizza place you love ‘religiously’? We can say we pray to God religiously, but we can just as much reject the idea of God ‘religiously’ too. The word 'religion', much like the word 'cult' is a word that is widely misunderstood and misused. In fact, author and renowned psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck, writes in his seminal work, The Road Less Travelled, that, whether someone believes in God or not, everyone, without exception, has a religion, saying “the fact of the matter is that everyone has an explicit or implicit set of ideas and beliefs as to the essential nature of the world”. Christianity can be seen as a religion, but so can listening to the Beatles be a religion too. In fact Jimi Hendrix is quoted to have said that “music is my religion” and both of these artists also had 'cult followings' and still have so today. People can be just as ‘religious’ about their atheism as Christians can be about Christianity, yet very rarely do people recognise or make this important distinction with the word which, when heard, is assumed to apply only to organised and structured spirituality according to a particular faith. When the group R.E.M. wrote the song “Losing My Religion” its lyrics can be just as applicable to someone’s worldview and set of beliefs as a whole; either atheistic or agnostic, as well as theistic. In fact, it can be said that we are ‘losing our religion’ every time we go through a major life shift / revolutionising change in our perspectives. Where one set of ideas and beliefs we held give way to new ones. One of the most common examples of this is when people become a parent for the first time and, in an instant, they become directly responsible for the life of another human being, something that changes every aspect of life for them, compared to before.
So, like the word 'religion' which is now used to describe everything from fitness regimes to worldview religions, the word 'cult' is often used very one-dimensionally by people who have a warped and/or very superficial idea of what ‘cult’ actually means. ‘Cult’ in the modern vernacular can be used to describe anything from a sinister, manipulative and murderous group in a Netflix documentary or horror movie, to a group that someone feels is just a “bit too lovey dovey”. The point being that, just as faith in God gets boxed up under the label, 'religion', so can a community of people following a common culture be boxed up under the label 'cult'.
The problem here is that this appropriation obscures a clear path towards understanding what a true community is by inappropriately distorting it into something it is not and which is why we need to learn more clearly what true community is, in order to build and grow this more in our society, to solve more problems and flourish more effectively, as we are meant to. Human beings are social beings, we are not meant to be isolated or become ‘rugged individuals’. We grow, flourish and face and solve our challenges best and most effectively when we are part of a community with others.
So why be fascinated or interested in cults if it is not for the purpose of learning, distinguishing and gathering the knowledge necessary to avoid becoming part of that negative aspect of cult; the secretive and manipulative form? Don't we want to be able to know the difference between that and a true, healthy, open community of human beings with a healthy, positive, upbuilding and progressive culture that enables and empowers people so we can identify it when we find it?
What Is a Cult? Fear and Misinformation
I’ll preface this by saying, there are a lot of resources out there on what (negative) cults are. Some are very specific, but others, when you take a step back, could be describing almost any group of people, so it’s important to know the distinct differences and which uniquely apply to a cult in the negative form and which do not. So what’s the difference between a 'cult', a group perceived as ‘weirdos’ (by whatever subjective criteria that might be) and a religion involving worship or anything else? Because not all religions are cults and not all cults are religions, so what is at the root?
Cults, as has been mentioned, have cultures and systems of belief, just as communities, organised religions, businesses or many other structures do too. This means that even the army, the government, museums, families, universities, quite frankly any institution can be called a cult by that very measure, i.e. they possess a particular culture and belief system that forms their very identity, framework and system of operation. In fact, cult used to be a word used for any branch from a major religion that had slightly differing views. Now, however, when people think of cults, they think of stories like that of Jonestown, the horrible case in which a negative cult leader of a remote settlement in Guyana orchestrated the mass murder/suicide of more than 900 people and children. Or NXIVM, where their negative cult leader Keith Raniere convinced women they were high-ranking Nazis in their former lives and the only way to cure their karma was to have sex with Raniere and recruit other people to have sex with him too. So when saying 'cult' most people lean towards these references, meaning a negative cult, a group which is in some way controlling and/or damaging and even abusive and life-decimating to its members. It is a word now that bears the weight of the abuse and deaths of all those who were misled by a psychotic narcissistic leader. And gradually, as with all words, it has begun to lose its true and varied meanings.
These (negative) cults, sometimes called “High Control Groups”, such as the example of Jonestown, can be formed anywhere people feel they share a common identity and where they can feel like they are a part of something. BUT, what will determine whether a group is a cult (in the negative sense) or not will be - and this is what is MOST crucial of all - the underlying pathology of the people involved. For instance, being a part of something with people you identify with alone isn’t what makes something a cult in the negative sense - although many resources about cults online will not be specific in the language they use to make this distinction and that is a problem. It is a problem because by that characteristic alone any club or society or group of people can also be called a ‘cult’ and that would be technically correct under the true definition of the word because they share a particular ‘culture’ together, shared interests, shared values, shared ways of doing things, from cross-stitching clubs to chess clubs to bible studies and film fan groups. The distinction that needs to be made is that, where lying, scheming, manipulating, coercion and the slow robbing and stripping away of one’s individuality becomes the way in which a group achieves its aims, is what determines whether it is a cult in the negative/destructive sense, or not.
So the more dark, narcissistic, psychopathic and God-complexed the individual leaders within the group are and the more passive, unquestioning, submissive and uniform the group following them are, the more likely the group is or will become a negative and destructive cult, rather than a genuine community with a healthy culture. This usually happens because the individuals who join were likely seeking a healthy community, but were so damaged and unfounded in their own character and competence that they easily surrendered to and fell under the influence of an often enigmatic and charismatic, but also dark and narcissistic pathology. (Later I will give examples of leaders with good charisma and those with bad charisma, as in charisma being a means to a depraved or evil end) It is a pathology that is seeking significance and to control and manipulate, rather than to empower and enable growth in its members, as a genuine community ought to and would do.
We Need To Know The Difference Because We Need Community
What is so critical about making this distinction between cult and community very very clear is that this world desperately needs more community, healthy, positive and upbuilding community.
Climate change, children drinking pathogenic water due to poor sanitation, the physical and sexual abuse of children and many more horrifying issues are happening around the world every moment and such problems can not and will not be solved by rugged individuals. People so rigidly individualistic that they prevent genuine community because they cannot be interdependent with others. These problems require community and a communal human response on a level that this world has not yet seen, which is why they still exist!
Rugged individuals, who don’t know what a cult is, thereby often break down attempts to develop genuine community because of their own lack of understanding, OR they do in fact know what a (negative) cult is and try to deliberately break down communities anyway because of a destructive pathology in their own psyche. Perhaps even because they don’t want to feel left out of a genuine community they know they are not healthy enough individually to be a part of.
I’ve read a lot about cults online preparing for this article, as you may imagine and I kept coming across lines that said something to the effect of “cults make you feel like you’re important and give you a sense of meaning and purpose”. This definition in the Encyclopedia being an example which says "Once immersed in the cult, members will often cut all ties with their past lives, ending contact with their families and friends as they join a new social order that seems to give them meaning and purpose." The author does frame this to suggest that the victim has been deceived on the pretenses of meaning and purpose, but again we must be really careful here if we want to understand the antonym of a cult which is community.
Assuming we want to avoid being part of a cult, what’s this kind of language effectively telling you to do? To instead seek out and be part of a group where you don’t feel important, where you don’t have a sense of meaning and where you’re disconnected from a sense of purpose? How is that better or healthier? These are not bad things by themselves, meaning and purpose, yet breaking them down in the name of protecting people from joining a negative cult, without fully explaining the pathology of HOW such meaning and purpose is achieved and whether it is rooted in correct principles is fragmenting people from connecting with and building healthy communities that help develop and nurture a positive and upbuilding sense of meaning and purpose.
There is a lot online about cults. And there is a lot of fear and fanaticism driven in some of the resources. For the sake of clarity though, let’s consider a comparison between a cult and a community based on the key components and characteristics of both that determine the difference. We will begin with these 12 community characteristics so that the clear unhealthy nature of a cult can be more accurately understood when juxtaposed against something healthy. Please note, these have been extrapolated from a number of resources including an informative article by Dr Anastasia Somerville-Wong, Humanist Chaplain at Exeter University, the research of psychologist Dr Steve Eichel and the writings of psychiatrist and author, M Scott Peck, notably his book Further Along The Road Less Travelled. If you see anything differently, please do get in touch, we would love to build on this research and learning.
1. Main purpose
Community: The encouragement of individual and collective consciousness and awareness such that members can make a meaningful difference to themselves, the community and society at large in the areas that mean the most to them.
Cult: The development of the individual and collective ego. This cuts the members off from the rest of society developing an Us vs Them mentality. The main purpose of this being to increase the dominance and control that the leader/s of the cult have over their members.
2. Who can join
Community: Inclusive in nature. Attempts to include as many people as possible in being involved as well as benefiting from the community, providing they are not destructive.
Cult: Exclusive in nature. Tends to exclude people based on certain prejudicial ideas and conditioned beliefs. New members are deceived about the intentions of the group and lured in.
3. Conditions of joining or leaving:
Community: Attracts people naturally through its warmth, openness, interconnectedness and applies no pressure for people to stay. Open to scrutiny.
Cult: Highly secretive and reclusive. Manipulative and seductive pressure to join and not leave once joined.
4. Development of members
Community: Leadership based on merit and quality of character. Encourages members to become leaders in and of themselves. Guiding and empowering them to feel and think critically for themselves. The individual purpose precedes the collective purpose.
Cult: An authoritarian leadership that enforces dependency in its followers and prevents their individual growth and development into free-thinking leaders. Brainwashing of members, reducing their freedom to critically choose and make independent decisions, so they lose their individuality.
5. State of members
Community: Community values and flourishes from the extraordinary differences of its members, encouraging their uniqueness and independence.
Cult: There is a culture of sameness, uniformity and conformity imposed upon all members, taking away from and not fostering the value of individuality.
Community: The leader/s is/are appreciated by the members by choice. The members are encouraged to see the leader/s' own humanness and fallibilities. Use charisma to inspire, (examples of good charisma: Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Eva Perón.)
Cult: A singular enigmatic and manipulative leader encourages unquestioning adoration, devotion and worship of themselves. The main purpose of the organisation is to reinforce the leader’s ‘god-like’ dominance over members. Cult leaders do not take any responsibility or admit to any wrongdoing. Use charisma to dominate (examples of bad charisma: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Charles Manson, Jim Jones, David Berg)
7. Core group
Community: A committed core group of people in the community who do not see themselves as above or separate from anyone else in the community, or in society, with the role of providing stability and guidance.
Cult: An inner circle that are held in awe, are feared, envied and gossiped about.
Community: Openness to questions and challenges. Open to the public and media. Dedicated to the truth.
Cult: Operates with great secrecy. Hides away from society at large and from the limelight, media etc. Cult leaders do not risk being exposed in this way as they have much to hide from scrutiny.
Community: Leaders at all levels within the organisation hold themselves accountable, take responsibility readily and will make their wrongs right.
Cult: No accountability for the actions of the leader/s or inner circle.
Community: Openness about the state of the organisation. Private companies may not publicly publish accounts but they are accountable to HMRC and pay their taxes in the UK, or the IRS in the US.
Cult: Financial evasiveness and deep secrecy.
11. Spirituality & relationship with God
Community: An openness to all spiritual beliefs and worldviews with a culture of seeking truth and reality. Openly curious and questioning as to whether there is an intelligence behind all creation that is openly questioned and discussed.
Cult: Dogmatically defines a singular idea of spiritual belief and try to lay claim to God as exclusively theirs to define.
12. Basis for teaching and change
Community: While the fundamental thinking behind what the community does may initially be provided by the founders as well as other sources, they encourage all changes from within and without that will help to improve the general welfare of all involved and beyond.
Cult: Very dogmatic and set way of doing things. Not open and flexible to change. Members are not involved in changing the way things are done.
In short, a cult is a perverted community. A cult opposes critical thinking, deliberately isolates its members, seeks adoration, and devotion from its members, often whilst exploiting them. A community is fair, principled, open and receptive to scrutiny and questions as it seeks to advance, improve and innovate.
What Is a True Community?
Following that side by side comparison, consider what it is like to be part of a group that exhibits the following traits of a true community.
• Inclusivity, commitment and consensus: Members accept and embrace each other, celebrating their individuality and transcending their differences. They commit themselves to the effort and the people involved. They make decisions and reconcile their differences through consensus.
• Realism: Members bring together multiple perspectives to better understand the whole context of the situation. Decisions are more well-rounded and humble, rather than one-sided and arrogant.
• Contemplation: Members examine themselves. They are individually and collectively self-aware of the world outside themselves, the world inside themselves, and the relationship between the two.
• A safe place: Members allow others to share their vulnerability, heal themselves, and express who they truly are.
• A laboratory for personal disarmament: Members experientially discover the rules for peacemaking and embrace its virtues based on universal laws and principles. They feel and express compassion and respect for each other as fellow human beings.
• A group that can fight gracefully: Members resolve conflicts with wisdom and grace. They listen and understand, respect each others' gifts, accept each others' limitations, celebrate their differences, help bind each others’ wounds, and commit to a struggle together, towards consensus rather than against each other.
• A group of all leaders: Members harness the “flow of leadership” to make decisions and set a course of action. It is the spirit of community itself that leads and not any single individual. A third alternative is sought in the event of a gridlock: third alternative meaning not my way, not your way, but a better way.
• A spirit: The true spirit of community is the spirit of peace, love, wisdom and power. Members may view the source of this spirit as an outgrowth of the collective self or as the manifestation of a Higher Will but it is their choice of how they see it and experience it.
The highest standards of community can only be achieved through the quality of the individuals in the group and the quality of the 1-to-1 relationships within the community. If the relationships have communion, the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially on a mental or spiritual level, then and only then can they forge true community together.
True Communities Come From Chaos
It can be hard to tell the difference between pseudo community and genuine community if you only judge it by an external appearance of people getting on and look for the positives. But a true community is not nirvana - it is hard work!
True communities don’t need to be paragons of virtue to not be cults. A lot of critics of communities who call them cults expect the people within it to completely fit THEIR idea of how a person ought to behave, a perfect person, which is an impossible species. The people in communities are fallible and can be prone to making mistakes, even behaving in narcissistic ways that could lead to a cult if left ungoverned. All of us have narcissism in us, the difference between those forming communities and those who form a cult is the responsibility taken to nurture their personal growth, humble themselves, curb their narcissism as much as possible, admit their faults and mistakes and to make their wrongs right.
The process of being honest with oneself in order to have healthy relationships with one’s own spirit and then to be able to commune healthily with other people is not done through a linear pain-free process. The dynamic of a healthy community needs chaos. As M Scott Peck writes in A Different Drum, the process of community requires chaos where individual differences and ideals create conflict and dissonance in the group, followed by a process of emptiness - a kind of emotional unpacking where, as Peck describes, the group “need to empty themselves of barriers to communication”. The barriers include expectations and preconceptions, prejudices, ideology, theology and solutions, the need to heal, convert, fix or solve and the need to control. When a community is able to embrace the unknown together and find shared communion in universal and eternal laws and principles, then the group is able to come to community. Dr Peck writes:
“True community emerges as the group chooses to embrace not only the light but life's darkness. True community is both joyful and realistic. The transformation of the group from a collection of individuals into true community requires little deaths in many of the individuals.”
Unlike communities, cults are built on ego and thus would never allow the breakdown of their structure to happen in the stages of chaos or emptiness that precedes community, likely because the leaders of that group created the group for the purpose of maintaining a very particular structure of coercive control, not empty it.
Communities that have formed and continually go through regenerative processes of growth and change through chaos are the communities that will be called cults by their critics and trolls because the love that is built in that bond of growth is inconceivable to someone who is not willing to go through that regenerative process of death and rebirth. True communities forge themselves by how they deal with problems, transform through chaos and the people within them learn to become communal.