A cult is a social group, usually insular, defined by unorthodox beliefs and/or practices. The cult usually shares religious, philosophical, or ideological values and goals. The cult definition of “values” may be greatly outside of mainstream norms.
The term cult is usually taken as a pejorative, for its connotation of excessive devotion to a charismatic leader with a shady past, or blind devotion to questionable practices and unusual precepts. Believers might say they are following a spiritual quest, while their estranged family and friends would say that are being exploited by unscrupulous conmen.
Cults employ various recruitment techniques to grow membership as well as to cement the new belief system into their minds over time. Brainwashing, isolation, sleep and food deprivation, and other tactics help erode the resolve and individuality of recruits until they fully adopt the new way of being the cult leader would prefer for them.
The destructive cult
There have been hundreds and even thousands of relatively innocuous cults throughout human history, but the most famous by far are the destructive cults. A cult of this type involves members physically harming or killing themselves, other members of the group, or other people.
A subset of the destructive cult, a Doomsday cult commits violence inwardly or outwardly due to adoption of an apocalyptic or millenarian belief system whose rules require anything from murder to mass suicide. These groups foretell disaster and catastrophe preceding a massive transformation, or potentially the destruction of the entire world. In the case of millenarian conspiracy theories, their cataclysmic predictions include a period of utopia following the upheaval.
Common themes among millenarian beliefs include claims that contemporary society and its leaders are corrupt, and will soon be destroyed by a more powerful force. The inherent evil of the status quo cannot be purged without this dramatic upheaval of society.
Within millenarianism there are finer groups still, including the easily linguistically confused Millennialism. Millennial movements are a type of Christian millenarianism in which the period of utopia following the apocalypse is expect to last 1000 years.
- The Peoples Temple — Jim Jones and the Jonestown mass suicide
- The Manson Family
- The Unification Church
- The LaRouche Movement
- Ku Klux Klan
- Branch Davidians — aka the cult made infamous by the Waco Siege in 1993
- Children of God
- Heaven’s Gate Cult
- Aum Shinrikyo