Sunday, October 24, 2021

What Is A Cult?

There's a lot of misunderstandings about what a "cult" really is, which are not helped by the fact that the term is often used inaccurately. Some use the term too broadly, to apply to any intense religious group whose ideology they disagree with. Others use it too narrowly, to refer only to extreme cases like Heaven's Gate or Lev Tahor.

In fact, there is a very specific set of criteria by which to define cults. But unfortunately, cults are sometimes extremely good at concealing their true nature. Here, then, is a list of twenty characteristics by which to identify cults, which I compiled from a wide range of online resources. Not every cult will check off every criterion in this list, but they will check off most of them.

1. The Charismatic Leader

The key ingredient in the creation of a cult is a highly charismatic leader. Such a person is usually brilliant, charming, and has a commanding presence. He may possess all kinds of genuine talents and accomplishments, and is certainly talented at motivating people. He might even start out with noble goals. But if he possesses delusional, egomaniacal, narcissistic and/or sociopathic tendencies, then he can end up creating a cult.

2. Adulation of Leader

With a cult, the leader of the group is not merely respected. He is revered, adulated, and near-idolized.

3. Infallibility of Leader

The leader creates a group which will regard his ideology and practices as the absolute Truth. He is never considered to be seriously wrong. He might have made mistakes in the past, but he is never considered to be making them now.

4. Exclusivity of Truth/Salvation

The leader is the exclusive means of knowing "truth" or receiving validation. Nobody else and no other process of discovery and no other group, not even a similar one, is acceptable. This also means that the group is elitist, believing that its leader and itself possess an exalted status.

5. Absolute Commitment

The group is zealous in requiring absolute and unquestioning commitment.

6. Polarized Mentality

The group has a polarized, us-versus-them mentality. There is constant negation and/or condemnation of outsiders.

7. Suppression of Criticism

Dissent and doubt or even questions about the leader and the correctness of the mission are discouraged or even punished.

8. Psychological/ Emotional Manipulation

The leadership teaches varies ideas and induces feelings of extreme shame and/or guilt in order to influence and control members. Sometimes this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion. In other cases, mind-altering practices (such as chanting, denunciation sessions, or debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader.

9. Negation of Members

The educational (if it can be called that) technique is to break the students down so that they can be recreated as mindless followers. Sometimes this is explicitly taught as the ideal - for a student to be "mevatel" themself to the leader.

10. Dangling Validation Out Of Reach

Privileges are accorded to a Chosen Few who are part of an elite Inner Circle. Followers are often made to feel that they are not yet (or ever) "good enough."

11. Control of Members

The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should act, think and feel. This includes major life decisions, such as what to do with one's life, who to marry, and where to live.

12. Replacing Members' Interests with Cult Interests

The culmination of this process can be seen by members of the group often doing things that are not in their own best interests, but which are in the best interests of the group and its leader. This is where much of the long-term damage is done. 

13. Exploitation of Members

The group exploits its members to further the cult's interests. This can take different forms. Sometimes it can be financial. In other cases, members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

14. Ends Justifying Means

The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered inappropriate or unethical before joining the group.

15. Isolation from Others 

The cult programming requires the removal of other sources of influence. Anyone apart from the leader who teaches in the cult are themselves graduates of the cult. Members are encouraged to live and/or socialize only with other group members. Efforts are made to isolate members from any external relationships which are influencing them against the cults' interests - including their families, previous schools, other rabbis.

16. Concealment of Nature, Mission and Practices

The true nature of the group, its mission and its techniques and practices are carefully concealed from outsiders and new recruits.

17. Preoccupation with Recruitment

The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members. (Doing so necessarily involves a level of concealment of the mission and its practices, as above.)

18. Pressure against Leaving 

The group rarely, if ever, lets its members believe that there is a legitimate reason to leave, and immense pressure and psychological/ emotional brutality is inflicted upon those who consider doing so. Former members who left are condemned. Remaining members are conditioned to believe there is no other way to be, and subconsciously fear severe consequences to themselves or others if they leave, or  if they even consider leaving.

19. Commonality of Accounts of Former Members

Former members often relate similar stories of abuse and grievances. They are psychologically and emotionally scarred. (These are a separate class of victims from those who are still stuck in the cult, compromising their own interests in favor of the cult's interests.)

20. Lack of Accountability

There are no checks or balances upon the leader's actions. He is not accountable to any authorities. Nor would he listen to anyone criticizing him.

As you can see, while religious groups may match some of these criteria, they certainly don't match most of them. On the other hand, an institution can match this definition without any overtly bizarre behavior that would identify it as a cult. It can be a group or institution or yeshiva which conceals the true nature of its operation. Following what I wrote about in previous posts, I will be giving examples.

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  1. Are you talking about your alma mater?

  2. Slifkin is unapologetically honest and will say what needs to be said when no one else will say it. I am falling off my seat as I wait for your next post.
    Love you Natan.

  3. being at is is that we don't have journalists so we need lone voices in the wilderness. it shouldn't be that way, our collective institutions, should be doing this job but they don't so we have Rabbi Nathan Slifkin and a few other like Rabbi YAKOV HOROWITZ.

    Both are ready to pay the price for doing and saying and fighting for what is right (which is a bad sign for any community - to have the liars and swindlers exalted and the truth sayers marginalized)

  4. A couple of these are not essential. 16 & 17, Concealment of Aims and Emphasis on Recruitment are often absent. Some cults such as Father Divine, the Process Church of the Final Judgement, and the Family were or are extremely candid about what their goals. Recruitment is not always a priority. The Westboro Baptist Church believes its members are the Calvinist Elect and don't care about getting new members. Others emphasize producing children rather than external recruiting. Others are only interested in gaining members with wealth and influence or other desired characteristics.

    1. Note the bit about producing children. The Quiverfull movement, those Muslims who treat their children as weapons to be produced to kill Jews, and Jewish sects who believe that it is important to produce as many members as physically possible without a thought as to how they can provide for them all incorporate aspects of cult behavior in their strategies for increase.

    2. I think your second comment is off the mark. Procreation is not, in of itself, a characteristic of a cult.

      Furthermore, having many children may be a goal in of itself irrespective of whether such children remain loyal to the movement. As far as I know, חזקיהו has not been written out of the Charedi world. As such, procreation is not about recruitment & doesn't warrant to be characteristic #21 of the above list.

  5. Which of these criteria would you attribute to the Slifkin cult? Or the Bennett cult? Or the Zionist cult?

  6. This is one person's definition of a thing, a cult, to which there is no accepted or objective definition.

  7. I think the most Jewish groups fall into this, though no one likes to admit it. Many are cult lite. At least this is impression of coming back into religious Judaism. For me, I do not belong to a particular sect and I do not seek out nor want Rabbi's for their advise. I knew of many people in my own experience who would not do anything unless they got the OK from their rabbi. Even books to read. This, in my opinion is dangerous.

    1. You are wiser than your rabbi. Others, less so. For you such consultation is dangerous. For them it's beneficial.

    2. Most religions fall into this. It's a hopeless situation because it's rooted in the human nature.

    3. If I shocked anyone. oh well. Early on in my life, I thought I needed Rabbi's for everything. Some were excellent people and have admiration for and others just were either functionaries or not very good at anything or whack jobs. But Rabbi's are not demi gods they are just like everyone else in the basic sense. I will go to one to get a question answered regarding Jewish law, but I do not go to one to see who I should marry or what book is good and so. I am of the opinion, I am quite capable of doing that myself. Other people need them, but they should rely on them to the point that they give up their own free will. That is where it gets dangerous.

  8. "an institution can match this definition"

    "while religious groups may match some of these criteria, they certainly don't match most of them"

    11 of the criteria revolve explicitly around the leader. Others implicitly. If the criteria are loose enough for an institution as opposed to a leader, to qualify, surely religions should?

  9. Sounds like the "trust the experts and roll up your sleeve" cult...

  10. So now you've proclaimed yourself dictionary king, too? You get to choose what defines a cult, while others "misunderstand" or "inaccurately" use the term?

    Such Shtuyot. Not only every religion, but every political party, every club, every philosophy, and every school, can be called a cult. Without question academia is a cult, with stricter dogmas than any religion since Medieval Catholicism. And if you want to find others, simply choose the institution you wish to impugn and then work backwards, taking all its identifying hallmarks and then claiming them as indicia of a cult. Not a difficult game to play.

  11. From leading expert on cults...

    Haredism is 100% cult...

    1. Cults start with spurious claims of expertise. Attune to evidence, not self professed experts.

    2. BFTL.
      watched the video. by his definition, all universities and professions, most jobs, and most civic organizations are cults. if everything is a cult, then nothing is a cult, as the term has been rendered useless.

    3. The big two are controls on learning new ideas and freedom of association. I am a professional and attended very woke universities. Nothing I encountered there re the Big Two were anything close to what I encountered as a haredi

    4. The above claim above from "Bread from the Lands" is false. In the first place, the claim is at odds with everything we know about universities today. In the second, he claims he was a "haredi", and also spoke of "haredism" - dead giveaway. No one who is or was ever charedi would never use either word.

    5. Lol... Bro, my kids went to Avi Ezri and Magen Avot... that's Haredi...

    6. So? YOU, obviously, are not. And if you ever were, it was for a short time as a wide-eyed and unsophisticated baal teshuvah. Either way, your assessment is - how to say this nicely? - meaningless.

  12. Education of a society, call it indoctrination if you will, is necessary for any nation that wants to be successful. It must have cult like features:glorious history, superior morality, self righteousness, a belief in it's own exceptionism and uniqueness. Without these characteristics a nation will collapse and be defeated by more vital people. This is very simple. All societies, past and present, have these features. This is the how the human race is.


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