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Clinical Update on Cults

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Clinical Update on Cults
Who Joins Cults?
Why Do People Join?
What Happens to Cult Members?
Counseling Families
Exit Counseling

by Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

Historically, cult refers to a system of worship and more specifically to an innovative religious system, as opposed to a sect, which is a breakaway group from an established religion. During the past 30 years, however, cult has taken on a pejorative connotation arising from disasters such as Jonestown and Waco, and hundreds of media reports of individuals and families devastated by involvement in cults.

Although some scholars of religion now favor the term new religious movement over cult, many mental health professionals, perhaps because they are more likely to see the casualties of new groups, feel comfortable using the term cult (Langone; Singer and Lalich; Tobias and Lalich).and colleagues; Temerlin and Temerlin) or political (Lalich).

A factor-analytic study of 308 former members of 101 groups resulted in the development of the Group Psychological Abuse Scale (Chambers and others).with cultic environments: compliance, exploitation, mind control and anxious dependency. The following definition emerged from this study:

"Cults are groups that often exploit members psychologically and/ or financially, typically by making members comply with leadership's demands through certain types of psychological manipulation, popularly called mind control, and through the inculcation of deep-seated anxious dependency on the group and its leaders."

According to this perspective (and that of this author) cults can be distinguished from new religious and other new groups in that the latter are not characterized by high levels of exploitation, compliance, mind control and anxious dependency. Of course, a spectrum of groups exists along each of these dimensions. As the Group Psychological Abuse Scale is given to large numbers of people from a variety of groups (mainstream and nonmainstream),the word cult.