Some say that the word "cult" or "sect" is a pejorative label used to discriminate against "new religious movements."
However, it seems disingenuous to ignore the historical significance and modern day applications of the word cult or sect.
Today many controversial groups that have been called cults or sects are seeking to either eliminate that description or ignore it.
Some academics with close ties to such groups have become little more than apologists, labeling the word "cult" a "four letter word."
These apologists often prefer the supposedly politically correct title "new religious movement" (NRM).
But historically cults have always been with us and they continue to be a part of the world today.
The word cult can be broadly defined as "formal religious veneration," "a system of religious beliefs and its body of adherents," "a religion regarded as 'unorthodox or spurious,'" "great devotion to a person or idea" as well as "persons united by devotion or allegiance to an artistic or intellectual movement or figure."
These general definitions could potentially include everything from Barbie doll collectors to so-called "Trekkies" and die-hard Elvis fans.
American history is particularly rife with religious groups that can be seen as cults, such as the devoted followers of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, or the Mormons united through their devotion to Joseph Smith. Both of these religious groups were at one time also regarded by many as "unorthodox or spurious."
But the most salient concern to the general public, law enforcement and government officials today regarding groups called "cults" is what potential they might represent to do harm.
Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who once taught at Harvard Medical School, wrote a paper titled Cult Formation in the early 1980s. He delineated three primary characteristics, which are the most common features shared by destructive cults.
1. A charismatic leader, who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose power. That is a living leader, who has no meaningful accountability and becomes the single most defining element of the group and its source of power and authority.
2. A process [of indoctrination or education is in use that can be seen as] coercive persuasion or thought reform [commonly called "brainwashing"].
The culmination of this process can be seen by members of the group often doing things that are not in their own best interest, but consistently in the best interest of the group and its leader.
Lifton's seminal book Thought Reform and Psychology of Totalism explains this process in considerable detail.
3. Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.
The destructiveness of groups called cults varies by degree, from labour violations, child abuse, medical neglect to, in some extreme and isolated situations, calls for violence or mass suicide.
Some groups that were once seen as "cults" have historically evolved to become generally regarded as religions. Power devolved from a single leader to a broader church government and such groups ceased to be seen as simply personality-driven and defined by a single individual. For example the Seventh-day Adventists, once led by Ellen White, or the Mormons church founded by Joseph Smith.
Some groups may not fit the definition of a cult, but may pose potential risks for participants. Here are 10 warning signs of a potentially unsafe group or leader.
• Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.
• No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.
• No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget or expenses, such as an independently audited financial statement.
• Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.
• There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.
• Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.
• There are records, books, news articles, or broadcast reports that document the abuses of the group/leader.
• Followers feel they can never be "good enough".
• The group/leader is always right.
• The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing "truth" or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.