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A cult is a group of people who have a religion or a set of beliefs. In modern times the term "cult" usually does not mean a mainstream religion, but a group set up "in opposition to a centre of established authority". New Age religions were often called cults because they were thought to be deviant social movements.
The word cult originally meant a system of ritual practices. It was first used in the early 17th century to mean homage paid to a divinity. It came from an ancient Latin word cultus meaning "worship".
A cult is often a small, newly started religious movement. Cults have beliefs or practices that many people think of as being odd, or that have practices that most people in the world do not practice. More than that, cults have often been led by people who are not elected, and control the group according to their own wishes. Some cult leaders have been dangerous criminals (Charles Manson; Peoples Temple) or even lunatics. Killings and mass suicides have occurred in cults (Order of the Solar Temple; Heaven's Gate). Of course, a "suicide" enforced by armed guards carrying sub-machine guns (Peoples Temple; Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God) is not a simple suicide as generally understood. It is at least an assisted and coerced suicide.
Whether a religious group is or is not a cult can be a hard question to answer. What is at one point in time considered a cult may later be accepted as a religion and what at one point of time is considered an accepted religion may later become a cult.
Treatment of cult members
Some form of persuasion or mind control can be used to recruit and maintain members. The objective is to prevent the faithful from thinking critically, and making choices in their own best interest.
- "I will state that coercive persuasion and thought reform techniques are effectively practiced on naïve, uninformed subjects with disastrous health consequences. I will try to give enough information to indicate my reasons for further inquiries as well as review of applicable legal processes".
- People are put in physically or emotionally distressing situations;
- Their problems are reduced to one simple explanation, which is repeatedly emphasized;
- They receive what seems to be unconditional love, acceptance, and attention from a charismatic leader or group;
- They get a new identity based on the group;
- They are subject to entrapment (isolation from friends, relatives and the mainstream culture) and their access to information is severely controlled.
This view is disputed by some. Society for the Scientific Study of Religion stated in 1990 that there was not sufficient research for a consensus, and that "one should not automatically equate the techniques involved in the process of physical coercion and control with those of nonphysical coercion and control".
Management style of cults
An oft-repeated criticism of cults is that their management style is dictatorial and exploitative. The following is one example:
- "The beliefs of all these cults are absolutist and non-tolerant of other systems of beliefs. Their systems of governance are totalitarian. A requirement of membership is to obey absolutely without questioning. Their interest in the individual’s development within the cult towards some kind of satisfactory individual adult personality is by their doctrines, very low or nonexistent. It is clear that almost all of them emphasize money making in one form or another, although a few seem to be very much involved in demeaning or self denigrating activities and rituals. Most of them that I have studied possess a good deal of property and money which is under the discretionary control of the individual leaders".
Use of violence
Ownership of weapons and violence has occurred in some cults. The Branch Davidians under the direction of David Koresh used violence against Federal agencies, with tragic results for both sides. The later FBI report reveals the extent of their arms stockpile. The People's Temple included guards armed with submachine guns. These guards killed the visiting U.S. Congressman Ryan, and stood around the believers as they committed suicide. Members of the Manson Family were convicted of several murders.
- Bullock, Alan & Trombley, Stephen (eds) 1999. The new Fontana dictionary of modern thought. London: Fontana, p189. ISBN 0-00-255871-8
- OED, citing American Journal of Sociology 85, 1980, 1377: "Cults[...], like other deviant social movements, tend to recruit people with a grievance, people who suffer from a some variety of deprivation".
- Its root was the Latin cultus, meaning "worship", ultimately from colere, to "tend" or take care of something for example a shrine.
- See testimony of John G. Clark Jnr. M.D. to the Vermont legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives: 
- House, Wayne 2000. Charts of cults, sects, and religious movements. ISBN 0-310-38551-2
- Tourish, Dennis 2000. On the edge: political cults right and left. ISBN 0-7656-0639-9
- Esquerre, Arnaud 2009. La manipulation mentale. Sociologie des sectes en France. Fayard, Paris.
- Hassan, Steve 1990. Combatting cult mind control. Park Street Press. ISBN 978-0-89281-311-7
- James, Gene G. 1986. Brainwashing: the myth and the actuality. Fordham University Quarterly, vol 61, June.
- SSSR Council meeting on 7 November 1990
- FBI 2000. Project Megiddo, pages 10 and 26. United States Department of Justice, Operation Megiddo, November 2, 1999. A strategic assessment of the potential for domestic terrorism in the United States undertaken in anticipation of, or response to, the arrival of the new millennium.
- Reiterman, Tom; Jacobs, John 1982. Raven: the untold story of Rev. Jim Jones and his people. Dutton, ISBN 0-525-24136-1
- Bugliosi, Vincent with Curt Gentry. 1974. Helter skelter: the true story of the Manson murders. Arrow Books, 1992 ed: ISBN 0-09-997500-9; W.W. Norton, 2001 ed:ISBN 0-393-32223-8
- Jenkins, Philip 2000. Mystics and messiahs: cults and new religions in American history. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-512744-7
- Snow, Robert L. 2003. Deadly cults: the crimes of true believers. Praeger/Greenwood. ISBN 0-275-98052-9
- Tobias, Madeleine Landau; Lalich, Janja and Langone, Michael 1994. Captive hearts, captive minds: freedom and recovery from cults and abusive relationships. ISBN 0-89793-145-9
- Wohlforth, Tim & Dennis Tourish 2000. On the edge: political cults left and right. Sharpe. ISBN 0-7656-0639-9
- Barrett D.V. 2001. The new believers: a survey of sects, cults and alternative religions. London: Cassell.
- Zellner W.W. & Petrowsky Marc 1998. Sects, Cults, and Spiritual Communities: A Sociological Analysis
- Dawson, L. Lorne 2006. Comprehending cults: the sociology of new religious movements