If you are like me, the word “cult” might bring some very disturbing events to mind. Things like the Jonestown Massacre or the murders perpetrated by the Charles Manson “family.” Maybe you think cults always lead to sex orgies, murders and suicide?
Well there certainly has been way more of that than the world needs. But not all cults are defined by physical and sexual violence. Sometimes cults are eerily “normal” and seem similar to other organizations we consider positive features of our cultural landscape.
In fact, it can be a little confusing to know whether something is a cult or not. For instance, I have for years joked that Alcoholics Anonymous is a cult. But in reality it doesn’t fit the profile of a cult. Here is one way to identify a cult:
Cult Definition: A group or movement exhibiting great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea or thing, using unethical, manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control.
While some individual members of AA might seem fanatical in their devotion or dedication to “the program,” 12 step organizations do not resort to unethical, manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion or control.
For me, what sets a cult apart from other groups is the existence of an authoritarian and often charismatic leader. That top down hierarchy demands obedience from those who are “under” the leader. And really, there are many organizations that operate on that premise so unless you are going to give large organizations the nod of approval while relegating smaller organizations to the status of cult, it makes sense to question any group that uses coercion to control others.
Today, the word “cult” has come to refer to everything from religious worship to music fans but that negates the very real suffering of cult survivors. What it means to survive a cult, even one that might seem rather innocuous, is the topic of my latest podcast. You see, I was raised in a Christian cult and what truly defined my experience was the sense of feeling “special” and the keeping of secrets. This intoxicating combination almost always leads to abuse of power and the resulting trauma that abuse of power inflicts on the psyche of cult members.
Whether you are curious about cults and cult survivors or if you are questioning a group you belong to, I know you will find this often humorous conversation with cult survivor and stand up comedienne, Rachel Wolf, intriguing. Be sure to post your comments below!