America has probably supplied the world with more new religions than any other nation. Since the first half of the 19th century, the country's atmosphere of religious experimentation has produced dozens of movements, from Mormonism to a wide range of nature-based practices grouped under the name Wicca.
By 1970 the religious scholar Jacob Needleman popularized the term "New Religious Movements" (NRM) to classify the new faiths, or variants of old ones, that were being embraced by the Woodstock generation. But how do we tell when a religious movement ceases to be novel or unusual and becomes a cult?
It's a question with a long history in this country. The controversy involving Hollywood writer-director Paul Haggis is only its most recent occurrence. Mr. Haggis left the Church of Scientology and has accused it of abusive practices, including demands that members disconnect from their families, which the church vigorously denies.
To use the term cult too casually risks tarring the merely unconventional, for which America has long been a safe harbor. In the early 19th century, the "Burned-over District" of central New York state—so named for the religious passions of those who settled there following the Revolutionary War—gave rise to a wave of new movements, including Mormonism, Seventh-Day Adventism and Spiritualism (or talking to the dead). It was an era, as historian Sydney E. Ahlstrom wrote, when "Farmers became theologians, offbeat village youths became bishops, odd girls became prophets."
When the California Gold Rush of 1849 enticed settlers westward, the nation's passion for religious novelty moved with them. By the early 20th century, sunny California had replaced New York as America's laboratory for avant-garde spirituality. Without the weight of tradition and the ecclesiastical structures that bring some predictability to congregational life, some movements were characterized by a make-it-up-as-you-go approach that ultimately came to redefine people, money and propriety as movable parts intended to benefit the organization.
Many academics and observers of cult phenomena, such as psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo of Stanford, agree on four criteria to define a cult. The first is behavior control, i.e., monitoring of where you go and what you do. The second is information control, such as discouraging members from reading criticism of the group. The third is thought control, placing sharp limits on doctrinal questioning. The fourth is emotional control—using humiliation or guilt. [This has beend highlighted here as the BITE mechanism.] Yet at times these traits can also be detected within mainstream faiths. So I would add two more categories: financial control and extreme leadership. [So, we're still firmly on Legion territory, n'est-ce pas?]
Financial control translates into levying ruinous dues or fees, or effectively hiring members and placing them on stipends or sales quotas. Consider the once-familiar image of Hare Krishna devotees selling books in airports. Or a friend of mine—today a respected officer with a nonprofit organization—who recalls how his departure from the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church was complicated by the problem of a massive hole in his résumé, reflecting the years he had financially committed himself to the church.
Problems with extremist leadership can be more difficult to spot. The most tragic cult of the last century was the Rev. Jim Jones's Peoples Temple, which ended with mass murder and suicide in the jungles of Guyana in 1978. Only a few early observers understood Jones as dangerously erratic. Known for his racially diverse San Francisco congregation, Jones was widely feted on the local political scene in the 1970s. He was not some West Coast New Ager gone bad. He emerged instead from the mainstream Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pulpit, which sometimes lent a reassuringly Middle-American tone to his sermons.
Yet every coercive religious group harbors one telltale trait: untoward secrecy. As opposed to a cult, a religious culture ought to be as simple to enter or exit, for members or observers, as any free nation. Members should experience no impediment to relationships, ideas or travel, and the group's finances should be reasonably transparent. Its doctrine need not be conventional—but it should be knowable to outsiders. Absent those qualities, an unorthodox religion can descend into something darker.[Bold in this paragraph mine. Obviously, clergy will always have their own canonical hoops to jump through, but the RC laity can easily recognise these all of these problems in the Movement.]
Mr. Horowitz, the editor in chief of Tarcher/Penguin in New York and the author of "Occult America" (Bantam), is writing a history of the positive-thinking movement.
Aaron adds a very helpful list of elements from this source:
If you have a family member in a cult, understanding the restriction of their critical thought can be very useful:
1. All-or-nothing thinking. Cults teach black-and-white thinking, such as “Everyone outside the group is controlled by Satan or is evil," "The leader is God and cannot make mistakes," and "You must always strive for perfection in order to reach the group's goal." Such thinking stifles personal growth and keeps a person pitted against the rest of the world.
2. Overgeneralization. Simply making one mistake can cause a former member to leap to the conclusion that her leader's predictions that dire consequences will befall those who leave are indeed coming true. Former members often have difficulty allowing themselves to make mistakes without hearing harsh criticisms in their heads. Reviewing actions at the end of the day, no matter how simple, can help counterbalance this internal cult chatter.
3. Mental Filter. Cults teach people to dwell on their mistakes and weaknesses. In many cults, each day’s activities are reviewed, with concentration on alleged sins, errors, slippages, or wrongdoings. All thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are cause for criticism and repentance. After such training, a person may obsess about a smallmistake and lose sight ofpositive things that are happening. Anything negative becomes a lens that filters out everything else.
4. Disqualifying the positive. One means of cult control is to not allow members to take pride in their achievements. All that is good comes from the Master, while members are made to feel stupid and inadequate. Making lists of personal strengths and accomplishments may counteract this reaction.
5. Jumping to conclusions. There are two forms of jumping to negative conclusions, which are probably familiar to former members:
· Mind reading. Those who were in New Age or Eastern cults may have been led to believe that mind reading is real. This belief is used to make assumptions about others. Doing the same now may be counterproductive. Don't jump to conclusions about another person's actions or attitudes. Don't substitute assumptions for real communication.
· Fortune telling. Cults predict the failure of their critics, dissenters, and defectors. Former members sometimes believe that depression, worry, or illness is sure to hound them (and their family) forever. Remember that such phobias and distortions have nothing to do with reality, but rather have been instilled by the cult.
6. Magnification (catastrophizing) and minimization. Magnifying members' faults and weaknesses while minimizing strengths, assets, and talents is common in cults. The opposite holds true for the leader. This trend has to be reversed in former members in order for them to rebuild self-esteem, although reaching a balanced perspective may take time. Feedback from trustworthy, nonjudgmental friends may be helpful here.
7. Emotional reasoning. In groups that place emphasis on feeling over thinking, members learn to make choices and judge reality based solely on what they feel. This is true of all New Age groups and many transformational and psychotherapy cults. Interpreting reality through feeling is a form of wishful thinking. If it truly worked, we would all be wealthy and the world would be a safe and happy place. When such thinking turns negative, it is a shortcut to depression and withdrawal – “I feel bad and worthless: therefore I am bad and worthless.”
8. “Should” statements. Cult beliefs and standards often continue to influence behavior in the form of “should,” “must,” “have to” and “ought to.” These words may be directed at others or at yourself; for example, if you think “I should be more perfect.” The result is feeling pressured and resentful. Try to identify the source of those internal commands. Do they come from the former cult leader? Do you truly obey him anymore?
9. Labeling and mislabeling. Ex-members put all kinds of negative labels on themselves for having been involved in a cult: stupid, jerk, sinner, crazy, bad, whore, no good, fool. Labeling oneself a failure for making a mistake (in this case, joining the cult) is mental horsewhipping. It is over-generalizing, cruel, and, like the other cognitive distortions, untrue and self-defeating. Labeling others in this way is equally inaccurate and judgmental. If there must be labels, how about some positive ones? For instance, you could see yourself as trusting, idealistic, imaginative, dedicated, or loyal.
10. Personalization. A primary weapon of cult indoctrination is to train members to believe that everything bad is their fault. The guilt that accompanies this sort of personalizing is crippling and controlling. You are out of the cult now, so it is important to take responsibility only for what is yours.