In this article, I would like to take a bit of a different approach than we normally do. I think it would be more fruitful to examine the social and cultural dynamics of cult membership as opposed to any neurochemical correlates (and to be frank, the neurological underpinnings are anyone’s best guess as you can imagine doing functional imaging on cult members may be a difficult enterprise). That being said, much of the information in this article will come from opinion based sources.
Let’s start off in the most polarizing way possible: what differentiates a religion from a cult? Well this question, while often brought up, comes down to the way we define cults, so let’s start there. I have spent the last hour trying to answer this question and I have genuinely come up with nothing. It seems everyone has their own definition. For the sake of argument I will pose my own definition, however I am not a cult leader, so don’t feel like my definition has to be yours (We try to stray away from authoritarianism here!). Based on our discussion with Dr. Hassan, I define a cult as a group of people who follow rituals and ideals in an authoritarian manner. Based on this definition, the question of whether or not traditional religion is cult-like or not truly depends on the level of devotion and unwillingness to question (Rodia, 2019). That being said, you may define things differently and I respect your opinion and right to do so!
Next, let’s talk about how you can identify whether a group exhibits cult-like behavior based on these 5 characteristics that I gathered through my reading:
- Discouragement of critical thinking
- Isolating members from outside influences such as family and friends
- The leader and/or guiding principles must never be questioned under any circumstances
- Members of the group have superior status compared to outsiders (facilitates an “Us vs Them” mentality)
- The group must come before all else
(Herrington, 2014; Qualities & Characteristics of a Cult, 2021).
I’d like to end our discussion by looking back at our conversation with Steve Hassan. A common factor in a lot of people who fall prey to cults, is a desire to find an accepting and loving community (Rousselet et al., 2017). The recent rise in cult-like behavior is truly a reflection of the deep loneliness and isolation faced by people around the globe. As Dr. Hassan so eloquently stated, we need to come together in times like these and treat each other with love and kindness. Ridiculing those who have fallen prey to mass manipulation only serves to further isolate them. If we truly want to help those around us and strive toward a better future, we must do so with compassion, not vitriol.