David Brear: The Universal Identifying Characteristics of a Cult


Apart from its use in the sense of ‘a popular fashion especially followed by a specific section of society’’ or ‘a person or thing popularised in this way’, the traditional definition of the English noun, cult (Latin cultus worship), has been ‘a system of religious worship (Latin religiosus obligation, bondage) especially as expressed in ritual’, or ‘devotion or homage to a person or thing’. However, the word is now also used as shorthand for what is more accurately described as a destructive or criminogenic* cult. This phenomenon can be briefly defined as: any self-perpetuating, esoteric**ritual belief system established or perverted for the clandestine purpose of human exploitation.


Such groups are identified by the following, essential characteristics:

1). Deception. Destructive cults are presented externally as traditional associations. These can be arbitrarily defined by their instigators as almost any banal group (‘religious’, ‘cultural’, ‘political’, ‘commercial’, etc. etc.). However, internally, they are always totalitarian (i.e. they are centrally-controlled and require of their adherents an absolute subservience to the group and its patriarchal, and/or matriarchal, leadership above all other persons). By their very nature, destructive cults never present themselves in their true colours. Consequently, no one ever becomes involved with one as a result of their fully-informed consent.


2). Self-appointed sovereign leadership. Destructive cults are instigated and ruled by psychologically dominant individuals, and/or bodies of psychologically dominant individuals, often with impressive, made-up names, and/or ranks, and/or titles. They steadfastly pretend moral and intellectual authority whilst pursuing various, hidden, criminal objectives (fraudulent, and/or sexual, and/or violent, etc.). The leaders of destructive cults hold themselves accountable to no one.


3). Manipulation. Destructive cults employ coordinated techniques of social and psychological persuasion (variously described as: ‘mental manipulation’, ‘coercive behaviour modification’, ‘group pressure’, ‘thought reform’, ‘ego destruction’, ‘mind control’, ‘brainwashing’, etc.). These are designed to fulfil the hidden criminal objectives of the leaders by provoking in the adherents an infantile total dependence on the group, to the detriment of themselves and of their existing family, and/or other, relationships. Destructive cults manipulate their adherents’ existing beliefs and instinctual desires, creating the illusion that they are exercising free will. In this way, adherents can also be surreptitiously coerced into following potentially harmful, physical procedures (sleep deprivation, protein restriction, repetitive chanting/moving, etc. etc.) which are similarly designed to facilitate the shutting down of an individual’s critical and evaluative faculties without his/her fully-informed consent.




* criminogenic adjective (1) crime-producing. (2) produced by crime.


** esoteric adjective (1) intelligible only to those with a special knowledge. (2) (of a belief etc.) intended only for the initiated.

4). Radical changes of personality and behaviour. Destructive cults can be of any size, duration and level of criminality. They comprise groups, and/or sub-groups, of previously diverse individuals bonded by their unconscious acceptance of the self-gratifying, but wholly imaginary, scenario that they alone represent a positive or protective force of purity and absolute righteousness derived from their leadership’s exclusive access to a superior or superhuman knowledge, and that they alone oppose a negative or adversarial force of impurity and absolute evil. Whilst this two-dimensional, or dualistic*, narrative remains the adherents’ model of reality, they are, in effect, constrained to modify their individual personalities and behaviour accordingly.



5). Pseudo-scientific mystification. The instigators of destructive cults seek to overwhelm their adherents emotionally and intellectually by pretending that progressive initiation into their own superior or superhuman knowledge (coupled with total belief in its authenticity and unconditional deference to the authority of its higher initiates) will defeat a negative or adversarial force of impurity and absolute evil, and lead to future, exclusive redemption in some form of secure Utopian existence. By making total belief a prerequisite of redemption, adherents are drawn into a closed-logic trap (i.e. failure to achieve redemption is solely the fault of the individual who didn’t believe totally). Cultic pseudo-science is always essentially the same hypnotic hocus-pocus, but it can be peddled in an infinite variety of forms and combinations (‘spiritual’, ‘medical’, ‘philosophical’,cosmological’, ‘extraterrestrial’, ‘political’, ‘racial’, ‘mathematical’, ‘economic’, New-Age,’ etc. etc.), often with impressive, made-up, technical-sounding names. It is tailored to fit the spirit of the times and to attract a broad range of persons, but especially those open to an exclusive offer ofsalvation (i.e. the sick, the dissatisfied, the bereaved, the vanquished, the disillusioned, the oppressed, the lonely, the insecure, the aimless, etc. etc.). However, at a moment of vulnerability, anyone (no matter what their age, sex, nationality, state of mental/physical health, level of education, etc.) can need to believe in cultic pseudo-science. Typically, obedient adherents are granted ego-inflating names, and/or ranks, and/or titles, whilst non-initiates are referred to using derogatory terms. Although initiation can at first appear to be reasonable and benefits achievable, cultic pseudo-science gradually becomes evermore costly and mystifying. Ultimately, it is completely incomprehensible and its claimed benefits are never quantifiable. The self-righteous euphoria and relentless enthusiasm of cult proselytizers can be highly infectious and deeply misleading. They are invariably convinced that their own salvation also depends on saving others.



* dualistic adjective describing the theological/philosophical concept first recorded in the 6th. century BC in the ‘Zend-Avesta’ (the founding text of ‘Zoroastrianism’, a traditional ritual belief system named after the Iranian/Afghan Prophet, Zoroaster, or Zarathustra), that the forces of good and evil are equally balanced in the universe.


6). Monopoly of information. The leaders of destructive cults seek to control all information entering not only their adherents’ minds, but also that entering the minds of casual observers. This is achieved by constantly denigrating all external sources of information whilst constantly repeating the group’s reality-inverting key words and images, and/or by the physical isolation of adherents. Cults leaders systematically categorize, condemn and exclude as unenlightened, negative, impure and absolutely evil all free-thinking individuals and any quantifiable evidence challenging the authenticity of their imaginary scenarios of control. In this way, the minds of cult adherents can become converted to accept only what their leadership arbitrarily sanctions as enlightened, positive, pure and absolutely righteous. Consequently, adherents habitually communicate amongst themselves using their group’s reality-inverting jargon, and they find it difficult, if not impossible, to communicate with negative persons outside of their group whom they falsely believe to be not only doomed, but also a threat to redemption.


7). False justification. In destructive cults, a core-group of adherents can be gradually dissociated from external reality and reformed into deployable agents, and/or de facto slaves, and/or expendable combatants, etc, furthering the hidden criminal objectives of their leaders, completely dependent on a collective paranoid delusion of absolute moral and intellectual supremacy fundamental to the maintenance of their individual self-esteem and related psychological function. It becomes impossible for such fanatics to empathise with non-adherents. Their minds are programmed to see the manipulation, and/or cheating, and/or dispossession, and/or destruction, of inferior outsiders (particularly, those who challenge their group’s controlling scenario) as perfectly justifiable.


8). Structural mystification. The instigators of destructive cults can continue to organize the creation, and/or dissolution, and/or subversion, of further (apparently independent) corporate structures pursuing lawful, and/or unlawful, activities in order to prevent, and/or divert, investigation and isolate themselves from liability. In this way, some cults survive all low-level challenges and spread like cancers destroying the lives of countless individuals in the process. At the same time, their leaders acquire absolute control over capital sums which place them alongside the most notorious racketeers in history. They operate behind ever-expanding, and changing, fronts of ‘privately-controlled, limited-liability, commercial companies’, and/or ‘non-profit-making associations’, etc. etc. Other than ‘religious/philosophical’ and ‘political’ movements and ‘secret societies’, typical reality-inverting disguises for cultic crime are: ‘charity/philanthropy’; ’fund-raising’; ‘lobbying’ on topical issues (‘freedom’, ‘ethics’, ‘environment’, ‘human rights’, ‘women’s rights’, ‘child protection’, ‘law enforcement’, ‘social justice’, etc.); ‘publishing and media’; ‘education’; ‘academia’; ‘celebrity’; ‘patriotism’; ‘information technology’; ‘public relations’; ‘advertising’; ‘medicine’; ‘alternative medicine’; ‘nutrition’; ‘rehabilitation’; ‘manufacturing’; ‘retailing’; ‘direct marketing’; ‘multilevel marketing’; ‘network marketing’; ‘regulation’; ‘personal development’; ‘self-betterment’; ‘positive thinking’; ‘self-motivation’; ‘leadership training’; ‘life coaching’; ‘research and development’; ‘investment’; ‘real estate’; ‘sponsorship’; ‘bereavement/trauma counselling’; ‘addiction counselling’; ‘legal counselling’; ‘cult exit-counselling’; ’financial consulting’; ‘management consulting’; ‘clubs’; etc. etc.


9). Chronic psychological deterioration symptoms. The long-term core-adherents of destructive cults are psychotic (i.e. suffering from psychosis, a severe mental derangement, especially when resulting in delusions and loss of contact with external reality). Core-adherents who manage to break with their group and confront the ego-destroying reality that they’ve been systematically deceived and exploited, are invariably destitute and dissociated from all their previous social contacts. For many years afterwards, recovering former core-adherents can suffer one, or more, of the following psychological problems (which are also generally indicative of the victims of abuse): depression; overwhelming feelings (guilt, grief, shame, fear, anger, embarrassment, etc.); dependency/inability to make decisions; retarded psychological/intellectual development; suicidal thoughts; panic/anxiety attacks; extreme identity confusion; Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; insomnia/nightmares; eating disorders; psychosomatic illness (asthma, skin disorders, headaches, fatigue, etc.); sexual problems/fear of forming intimate relationships; inability to trust; etc. etc.


10). Repression of all dissent. The leaders of the most-dangerous destructive cults are megalomaniacal psychopaths (i.e. suffering from a chronic mental disorder, especially when resulting in paranoid delusions of grandeur and self-righteousness, and the compulsion to pursue grandiose objectives). The unconditional deference of their deluded adherents only serves to confirm, and magnify, the leaders’ own delusions. This type of destructive cult leader maintains an absolute monopoly of information whilst perpetrating, and/or directing, evermore heinous crimes. They sustain their activities by the imposition of arbitrary codes (secrecy, justice, punishment, etc.) within their groups, and by the use of humiliation, and/or intimidation, and/or calumny, and/or malicious prosecution (where they pose as victims), and/or sophism, and/or the infiltration of traditional culture, and/or corruption, and/or intelligence gathering and blackmail, and/or extortion, and/or physical isolation, and/or violence, and/or assassination, etc. etc., to repress any internal or external dissent.


Copyright David Brear  2006-09-18





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