The Definitional Ambiguity of Cult
ICSA Today, Volume 6, Number 3, 2015, pages 6-7
The Definitional Ambiguity of Cult and ICSA's Mission
Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.
A central component of ICSA’s mission is to study psychological manipulation and abuse, especially as it manifests in cultic and other groups. Different people, however, attach different and usually imprecise meanings to the term cult (see “On Using the Term Cult”). Those who have sought information from ICSA have—properly or improperly—used cult to refer to a wide variety of phenomena, including, but not limited to
Groups—religious, political, psychological, commercial—in which the leader(s) appear(s) to exert undue influence over followers, usually to the leader’s(s’) benefit.
Fanatical religious and political groups, regardless of whether or not leaders exert a high level of psychological control.
Terrorist organizations, such as Bin Laden’s group, which induce some members to commit horrific acts of violence.
Religious groups deemed heretical or socially deviant by the person attaching the cult label.
Any unorthodox religious group—benign or destructive.
Covert hypnotic inductions.
Communes that may be physically isolated and socially unorthodox.
Groups (religious, New Age, psychotherapeutic, “healing”) that advocate beliefs in a transcendent order or actions that may occur through mechanisms inconsistent with the laws of physics.
Any group embraced by a family member whose parents, spouses, or other relatives conclude—correctly or incorrectly—that the group is destructive to the involved family member.
Organizations that employ high-pressure sales and/or recruitment tactics.
Authoritarian social groups in which members exhibit a high level of conformity and compliance to the expectations and demands of leaders.
Extremist organizations that advocate violence, racial separation, bigotry, or overthrow of the government.
Familial or dyadic relationships in which one member exerts an unusually high and apparently harmful influence over the other member(s) (e.g., certain forms of dysfunctional families or battered women’s syndrome).
The majority of those persons who attach the cult label to these phenomena share a disapproval of the group or organization they label. That is why some people have dismissed the term cult as a meaningless epithet hurled at a group one doesn’t like. Although this position may appeal to one’s cynical side, it ignores the reality that many common concepts are fuzzy. Lists of diverse phenomena could also be drawn up for terms such as child abuse, neurotic, right wing, left wing, learning disabled, sexy, ugly, beautiful, and so on. We don’t banish these fuzzy terms from our vocabularies because, contrary to the cynic’s claim, most people most of the time use these fuzzy terms with enough precision to be meaningful and understood by others.
Nevertheless, fuzzy terms leave much to be desired. Hence, scientists often make up new terms (i.e., jargon) to avoid the imprecision of “natural” language. Even within the scientific disciplines that propagate jargon, however, disputes may simmer for years about how to define properly a term in common use. In the late 1970s, for example, sociologists of religion abandoned the term cult in favor of new religious movement; yet they still debate the meaning and merits of new religious movement. Thus, even within scientific disciplines, terminology is rarely as precise as scientists wish.
We have, then, three choices with regard to fuzzy terms:
We can pretend that a particular term (e.g., cult) is more precise than it actually is, thereby inviting misapplication of the concept to which the term refers.
We can so narrowly define the term that it becomes useless in a practical sense.
We can strive for a practical level of precision while acknowledging the unavoidable ambiguity in our terminology.
ICSA has chosen the latter course (see “On Using the Term Cult”). We acknowledge the term’s ambiguity, but we also recognize that, for better or for worse, cult is the term that our inquirers, particularly on Internet searches, are most predisposed to use. Although we try to focus the meaning of the term, we must, nonetheless, also try to respond constructively to the wide spectrum of phenomena that our inquirers collectively associate with cult, however misguided their linguistic usage may sometimes be.
Generally speaking (although certainly not always), the phenomena to which they attach the term cult constitute a “conceptual family.” The members of this family are distinct, and it is inappropriate to give all of them the same name (e.g., cult). Yet they do have a family resemblance that rests on the inquirer’s perception that the group exhibits one or more of these characteristics:
It treats people as objects to be manipulated for the benefit of the leader(s).
It believes that and behaves as though the group’s supposedly noble ends justify means that most people deem unethical.
It harms some persons involved with or affected by the group.
On one hand, although some individuals may associate any one of these characteristics with the concept cult, frequently other terms may be more appropriate descriptors. That is why we are interested in psychological manipulation, psychological abuse, spiritual abuse, brainwashing, mind control, thought reform, abusive churches, extremism, totalistic groups, authoritarian groups, exit counseling, recovery, and practical suggestions for families and individuals as areas for which we provide information. And that is why central components of our mission are to study psychological manipulation and abuse, especially as it manifests in cultic and other groups, to help individuals and families adversely affected by psychologically manipulative groups, and to protect society against the harmful implications of group-related manipulation and abuse.
On the other hand, not everybody who contacts us is troubled. Some are merely curious. Others are looking for information on a group that is not harmful. Others seek information on helping techniques. And still others want to teach young people how to recognize and resist the lure of spurious philosophies and manipulative groups. That is why we provide information on new religious movements, alternative and mainstream religions, and group dynamics, and offer practical suggestions for helping professionals, clergy, journalists, researchers, students, educators, and others interested in these topics.
Given the wide range of phenomena that we study and the wide range of individuals and organizations we try to assist, we emphasize that our having information on or researching a particular group does NOT imply that it is a cult or even that it is harmful. We do NOT maintain a list of cults or “bad groups,” and we have no intention of compiling such a list. We do, however, provide information on and conceptual tools for analyzing diverse groups that inquirers may—correctly or incorrectly—associate within the conceptual family of the term cult.
As you explore the information on our website, we hope that you will keep in mind the issues discussed in this essay. We also hope that in your own endeavors you apply the term cult judiciously and with an acute awareness of its ambiguity and limitations.
About the Author
Michael D. Langone, PhD, a counseling psychologist, received a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1979. Since 1981 he has been Executive Director of International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA). He has written and spoken widely on cult-related topics and is Editor-in-Chief of ICSA Today.
This article was originally posted on the Web in the late 1990s. The current, slightly modified version was published in ICSA Today, 6(3), 2015.