FAQs – What kinds of “cults” are there, and what are some criteria?

Some people label certain theologies, or authoritarian churches or ministry movements as “cultish.” But what does that mean? Is it only about having right or wrong theology, or can it be about other things?

Some researchers distinguish between a sociological cult (an organization based on control behaviors) and a religious cult (an organization based on particular religious or doctrinal beliefs). A religious cult might also be a sociological cult, depending on whether it exerts influence over the lives of its members, to the point of extensive control and damage to the person, families, and other social relationships.

When Christians talk about “cults,” they usually mean groups with unorthodox/heretical doctrines. As far as I’ve been able to study, every heretical Christian group (i.e., a religious cult with unorthodox Christian beliefs) ends up a sociological cult. They typically have a charismatic leader who espouses what I call an “inerrant theology,” and they dominate people with the self-serving systems they set up. They may even talk about the Bible as being sufficient … but to get it “right,” their theologian or interpreter is absolutely necessary.

So, the planks in what you believe to be “orthodoxy” are important criteria for figuring out whether a group or ministry or church or movement is a heretical cult. But what are the criteria for identifying a sociological cult?

I was recently reading something about Robert Jay Lifton, who was one of the first researchers (1950s/60s) on psychological conditioning/brainwashing in Communist China. He developed probably the first set of criteria for a “total institution” or sociological “cult” (like the Cult of Mao) that ultimately controls every aspect of its members life. He talked about “the psychology of totalism,” not “the psychology of totalitarianism,” because he said this kind of social control was not found only in countries and their political systems. A lot of spiritual abuse survivors refer to his research to explore dynamics of authoritarian leaders in churches.

In case interested, here’s a link to a two-page PDF that summarizes Robert Jay Lifton’s eight criteria for identifying a sociological cult, with a paragraph or two for each criterion.

Here’s a link to a longer PDF on Lifton’s eight criteria. It includes those summary paragraphs, plus expanded descriptions (about a page each), plus a study guide. I put this together in 2012 as part of a larger study on The Hunger Games trilogy and how it relates to dystopian societies based on compliance, chaos, or charisma.

For intermediate and advanced materials, you’ll also find a select list of titles on this website, in the Spiritual Abuse Book Lists, in section 3 on Cults and Extreme Abuse Organizations.

Also worth looking into is this checklist of Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups – Revised, by Janja Lalich, Ph.D. and Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., both of whom are well known in the academic field of “cult studies.” See also the International Cultic Studies Association.


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  1. Pingback: NARCISSISM NOTES #10–Systems and Narcissism, Ch. 6: “Understanding Narcissistic Systems.” | futuristguy

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