and the need of an effective paradigm for progressive ranking the strength of cult indicators

What is "a cult"? The word 'cult' is widely used in many different ways, and often as a vague 'down-putting' generalisation. Anything from relatively harmless sporting and entertainment "personality cults" to the most dangerous, world-shaking secret and political despotisms are named 'cults'. What it is right to consider a cult is a subject of much dispute. Some so named are relatively harmless, others are extremely dangerous (and may not even be generally referred to as cults but as 'terrorist organizations', for example Al Quaida - which is nonetheless an extreme cult by almost whatever indicator one may choose). Each cultist grouping has unique features, but the word 'cult' refers to features it has in common with many other more or less unique groupings. The various kinds of cult can be defined and categorized according to the type and number of indications observed, from mild or loose cults to the extreme kinds.

Most generally, perhaps, a cult is "a system of religious worship; devotion, homage to person or thing" (The Concise Oxford Dictionary). However, the world became familiar with diverse non-religious cults since the Second World War, where the Nazi Party in Germany, the Italian Fascists and Stalin's totalitarian Soviet Union embodied extreme, highly organized and largely clandestine cults. These exercised most effective social and mental control over a very large percentage of the population. Such political 'cults' are widely in disfavour in civilised countries, of course, though their elimination is still a problem which exercises many minds.

The history of cults shows that, in many cases, they develop on the basis of high ideals of regeneration of society, of positive values. Briefly consider first how successful leaders were with ideologies that started as apparently positive - but soon became extremely negative - such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Millions sacrificed own lives for those leaders or their ideals, many willingly. The Hitler personality cult - Nazism - was democratically elected, due to belief in its propaganda and proceeded to revitalise a failing society and economy. Therefore it was subsequently accepted and even embraced by a majority of Germans. Likewise, religious sects often begin as a reaction to corrupted values and practises, preaching goodness and light - yet, where the cultist indicators are too many or too strong, they devolve into exclusive and clandestine operations to the detriment of nearly all those involved or affected. The same positive image was cultivated in mainstream religions. In the name of God and goodness, most terrible horrors have been perpetrated, for example the Islamic slaughter of infidels from the time of Mohammed onwards, the Christian slaughter of Moslems and others, including the not least the gruesome extermination of a the population of Jerusalem after its capture by Christian Crusaders. The Catholic Inquisition had most of the indicators of an extreme power cult. Even today, the scriptural motivations of old recur in the emergence of extreme closed religious cults, though society no longer tolerates murderous cults (which have often reacted with mass suicide).

Here I contend that the appeal of an ideology of universal spirituality is an increasing danger that can further threaten the secular world and its genuinely 'human' values. 'Human values' in this sense must not be confused with specifically religious values, which include beliefs in historical and 'eternal' events or entities and the imagined or believed effects of these on human actions (as in divine commandments, divine retribution for sins or rewards for prayers, sanctity etc.). I assume that it is an humanitarian ideal that will advance civilization, but not any theocratic one. The profusion of religious cults are overwhelmingly against secular ideals and their influence on mainstream religion is often subtle and most effective in the longer term (as the historical origins of mainstream religions demonstrate). Proposals made by various sects and compromisers for a unified religion or a hoped-for unity of religions - through mutually recognizing values shared by each other - are increasingly attractive to those disillusioned by the exclusivity of doctrines in the major religions or churches. The unification of believers in God of whatever denomination, however unlikely such 'inter-faith' agreement can be achieved on any appreciable scale, would create a powerful lobby against secular human values and probably also would weaken various hard-won human rights which many religions undervalue, tend to deny or even forbid.

"People who end up in cults are normal people. They are usually intelligent, open-minded and honest. They're willing to make sacrifices for the greater good of the group. They're interested in self-improvement and in the improvement of the world. The best kinds of people, in a way, are targeted by cults. Their very decency makes them desirable as cult members."
Dr J W West, Professor of Psychiatry, University of California

Charismatic leadership and the personality cult: There are good reason for the term 'personality cult' since charismatic and authoritarian leaders are invariably involved in most groupings one would reasonably call 'cults'. Thus, Kramer and Alstad perceptively define a cult as distinct from a traditional religion or sect that has become an accepted part of the culture. It refers to "groups with an authoritarian structure where the leader's power is not constrained by scripture, tradition, or any other "higher" authority". (p. 32) "In a cult, absolute authority lies in a leader who has few if any external constraints. This means the leader (who is usually the founder) is not merely the interpreter but also the creator of truth, and thus has free rein in what he proposes." ((The Guru Papers and Authoritarian Power by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, p. 33). Further, when examined closely, most cults prove to have a very traditional and largely 'fundamentalist' agenda (fundamentalist, that is, in the sense Prof. Dawkins describes, see here).

"Gurus can arouse intense emotions as there is extraordinary passion in surrendering to what one perceives as a living God. The inbuilt potential for violence is likewise great." A cult "protects the purity of the group from outsiders" and the feeling of unity is stronger than in most religious sects. "Relentless group pressure to loyalty and conformity". (ibid)

A 'spiritual' ideology which gains strong enough initial impetus from positive ideals and socially constructive achievements to consolidate itself will - if successful in terms of numbers of participants, funding etc., eventually comes under pressures from factions within or from the social environment which lead to corruption and crime. This may lead to a closing in of the movement to protect itself, to use clandestine methods and blanket censorship to hide its deficiencies (which would affect recruitment, donations, status and influence).

There are diverse such initially 'positive' sects which aim to be 'universal' in approach, trying to extract the positive essence of mainstream religions - brushing away much cultural dogma mistrusted by so many people who have left the religions today. The Bahai faith is a prominent example. Above all, there are a number of such guru movements in India (for want of a better word at this stage) which favour common human ideals (love, peace, service of one's fellows, truth etc.). There is an ever-increasing number of spiritual movements, sects, and ashrams which exploit people in many ways - psychologically, financially and even sexually - through their apparently positive and loving doctrines. Being well protected by Western tolerance of religious differences and unwillingness seriously to consider that indoctrinating spiritual teachings can be classed as of a cultist nature, various cultist movements already exist which have gained much ground around the world, some through very open and public missionizing, others more through low key and often clandestine activities. These always appear to be in accord with some democratic and secular ideals, it can have very wide appeal throughout the educated world, but probably more so among the majority of the lesser educated and deprived population. It would have to develop an international base and generate followers in millions and funds in the billions, while preferably also have the full protection of a powerful national state apparatus.

The definition of a cult given by West & Langone, 1986 is in general accordance with the present viewpoint:- "A cult is a group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, the use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individual critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc. designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community."

Need for a paradigmatic system of evaluation of cults
Since there are so many kind of possible cult. there is an increasing need to be able clearly to distinguish cults from non-cultist social groupings - and of the more and less dangerous cults from one another. This could help make one basis for fairer legislation towards cult victims and also groups which may be falsely accused of being cults. Various thinkers and researchers have suggested various sets of cult characteristics, indicators of a wide variety of behavioural rules, doctrinal elements, actions and reactions which constitute a cult. The most operational of these factors need to be amalgamated into one exhaustive set of possible cult indicators. Then they may be sorted, weighted and so ordered in a progressive series. In this way cults can be classified according to type and, most importantly, level of danger to members and/or society. Here I do not undertake any such a major task, but rather point out the important functions such a paradigm could have in identification regulation the entire range of cults and their deleterious effects on society. I propose two main categories of factors to be considered in making such a classification of cults.

External and Internal influences
on proselytizers In studying the conditions affecting a person approaching, learning about, joining and remaining in any grouping which seems cultist, a key useful distinction is surely that between 'external' and 'internal' influences.

'External influences' include proselytism, economic motives, social prestige, friendships and marriage, group pressures [group effect or group think], pressures of family, local or national tradition to conformity to pertinent values and so forth.
'Internal influences' include personal and/or ‘psychological’ predispositions to accepting a belief and joining some cultist group. Often a 'conversion' to a new doctrine is known to arise from negative personal conditions such as existential despair, compensation need after loss of dear ones, excessive life-tapping negativity (from which one is fairly suddenly liberated). Positive psychological conditions can also predispose, such as enthusiasm at finding a new social group and way of life, a teaching which seems more meaningful than before, and not least as a result of exceptional experiences of a wide variety (supposed 'after-death' awakenings, unusual conditions induced by many varied physiological influences (excessive fasting, inexplicably beautiful and clear psychedelic experiences), not forgetting the pathological conditions of pre-psychosis, hysteria, borderline states and schizophrenia).

Imbibed cultural and social beliefs vary so much that they cannot so readily be classified. These include motives of felt needs/attachments, desires, and ambitions which influence value choices and self-evaluation. Very often those who join what proves to be a cult have developed some kind of personal Weltanschauung which leads on into the beliefs of the particular cult one discovers either through searching or by chance. Further, outer and inner influences can interact in many intricate and consecutive ways, but the inner influences themselves can only be discovered (and with difficulty) through unhindered access to the subjective understanding of the cult member or apostate.

An axiom of the study of indoctrination and/or mind-control
 As a starting point, an unavoidable fact is that no person grows up whose mind is not under the control to a large extent of ‘external’ influences. Doubtless, no one ever be entirely free of external ‘mind-controlling’ factors, but the extent and degree are what make all the difference… that is, whether and how far such external influences are perceived, recognised and accepted or rejected by the person concerned.

By ‘internal influences’ here I mean exclusively ‘internalised’ perceptions, thoughts and ideas or values… that is, the information, attitudes and mind-sets of a person which have been adopted [originally through some ‘external’ influences]. These internalised ideas, preconceptions and latent perceptions are developed and articulated further through self-indoctrination, which is very often a built-in feature of the 'teaching' (clothed in such maxims as 'Examine yourself and do not criticise others', 'Live the teaching to the full if you wish to reach realisation, salvations, liberation...', and many other means of making people regulate their own behaviour so as to become 'pure','blessed', 'good', 'holy' ....

These internal influences eventually envelop a large part, even perhaps the totality, of a person’s psyche. This is gradually being demonstrated by various psychological in-depth interview procedures and empirically-oriented disciplines. At issue where internal influences are involved is whether or not one is sufficiently self-aware to understand the processes and external  and/or internalised origins of one’s attitudes, thoughts ideas and  ‘feelings’, and maybe even capable through personal circumstances to perceive, remember and identify from where the major formative elements of one’s mind set were originally derived.

One may doubtless speak of degree of personal emancipation from external and internalised influences in a person’s life. How to determine this – which is very largely beyond current methods of research and measurement techniques - is open to discussion and opinion. However, the contrary – that is, the degree to which a person’s behaviour and attitudes conforms to specific identified forms of external and internalised ‘mind-control’ - can more accurately be defined [ if not always and adequately in practice]. These factors require to be observed, described accurately and, where possible, measured by systematic observers. It is to advance this methodology and the general determinations of mind-control that I see the foundation of a systematic classification and ordering of the spectrum of ‘cult indicators’. This would enable governments and international authorities in detecting cultist tendencies of whatever degree in aberrant - and not least in dangerous - social groupings and so more effectively counteracting them.

One chief indicator of the existence of a cult.
Some thinkers insist that one must observe and classify the group's behaviour, its explicit and implicit rules and how they are enforced, but thereby fail sufficiently to consider those features of a belief system. At the outset, what seem reasonable requirements on followers and the moral theory they should follow draw the initiate gradually further into a labyrinth of doctrine which subtly induces self-indoctrination involving gradually giving up of more and more of personal autonomy and individual rights. As already suggested, this interiorized doctrine (which is 'in'-doctrined) is the sine qua non of most cults, for those which control people without them having at least initially accepted some of the beliefs, premises or rules would not be cultist as such.

The specific belief system - usually extensive and complex and often systematically ambiguous on various tenets - will play a major role in rationalizing group norms and defining social roles for the hierarchy of members. The tendency in much conservative cult research is rather to separate the two - belief and behaviour - and lay most weight on behaviour, because it lends itself to empirical measurement far more readily than do belief systems, doctrines, personal ideas etc. Thus I hold that bias arises when the indoctrination content is not regarded as essential data. By neglecting its role, one may even fundamentally misunderstand the whole nature of the influence or power of the doctrine and how it regulates and dictates inter-personal transactions. This, I claim, is one important reason why so many national cult watch institutions are so passive, ineffective and appeasing in monitoring all those sects and cults which prey in many ways on trusting, unsuspecting persons. This is also why victims and litigants often have to work for decades before they succeed in litigation or get any kind of redress, or usually meagre compensation.

Professor Margaret T. Singer (Berkeley) sets up some well-defined cult indicators. For example, she defines which is a 'Cultic Relationship' as "those relationships in which a person intentionally induces others to become totally or nearly totally dependent on him/her for almost all major life decisions and inculcates in these followers a belief that he has some special talent, gift or knowledge". She includes important provisos, recognizing that the threat (not necessarily made explicit by anyone) of loss of property, social environment, earned privileges, ostracism, libel, and personal crises resulting from any combination of these can and do occur. Singer's definition suffers from a too strict leaning towards 'behaviourism' to be satisfactory to serve as a practical measure of what it is fair or unfair to call 'a cult' in many circumstances. In the interests of operationality, I would point out that in actual practice there are varying degrees of cultist groups, some showing fewer, some stronger cultist tendencies, yet all of which may well deserve the term 'cult'.

A yet more well-conceived and comprehensive study of the indicators of a cult - based on well-considered personal experience as well as a competent insight into most cult research - has been developed by the ex-cult member and prominent anti-cult activist Steve Hassan - see here

There are many different sets of indicators of cultist behaviour... some based on extreme forms of closed cult or clandestine criminal groups and organizations, other on those which employ subtle means of indoctrination and group pressure. Defining what is a cult without having access to well-tested experience and knowledge from participant observation testimonies in a great variety of such groups or movements - preferably from first-hand or other personal involvement - rather than from evaluations made by detached academic observers or persons who have probably never had to liberate themselves from any kind of indoctrination. Thus some persons regarded as scholarly authorities on the cult phenomena sometimes consider the testimonies of cult victims and apostates to be unreliable per se. However, the distance from the phenomena they study from those who depend mainly on books and other media, make their opinions less informed as to the experiences of mind-bending and narrow social dependencies to which cult members are subjected.

Academic environments give little 'ideographic' insight into the actual field of varied and unique cult activity. Detached university people may develop complex systemizations of facts about the behaviour of others which they mostly obtain at second-hand under an umbrella of their moral ideology, like religious tolerance, or the multi-culturalist live-and-let-live. In trying to be hold the more liberal moral high ground, however, they tend towards appeasing proselytizing and invasive or aggressive sects - not calling them 'cults' unless they are of an unduly extreme nature. From the viewpoint of those who have actually be involved with such religious sectarian 'cults', these politically correct viewpoints sometimes appear somewhat artificial, and their way of analysing tends to partition the ‘real world’ of lived phenomena. This seems to occur when one works too much from secondary source materials and incomplete information due to distance from the actual experiences that arise within a cult.

Size and Coherence of Spiritual Movements: As in the study of any cult grouping, its size is a key factor to consider because when very large numbers are involved, there develop one within the other cadres and circles, which have progressively greater access to the centre yet less control of the periphery. Thus, those deeply involved may constitute a cult, while many who perceive themselves as belonging (but not having influence) do not by and large accept the cultist features in full and do not themselves necessarily behave as fully-integrated member. Any sect which develops sufficiently from some initial impetus, usually grows over a long period of time until it reaches what may be called its 'critical mass' whereby a 'chain reaction' works to increase numbers among thousands and even millions who have no means whatever of testing anything, but only of believing whatever they have heard or are told 'officially'. Probably not unintentionally, faith is invariably praised by gurus as the predominant virtue of all spiritual seekers... especially faith in themselves and/or their privileged relationship to God (or even in themselves as being divine incarnations or 'avatars'.

The prevalence and predominance of any belief system is more dependent on its having attained critical mass than on the likelihood of their being in accordance with historical facts or other truths. As to what distinguishes the success of one belief system from the failure of another, there are obviously numerous factors at work. One factor that seems obvious is the achievement by a belief of a 'critical mass' of supporters. Once critical mass is reached, chain reaction starts, sometimes fast, sometimes slower. As soon as a belief is ramified by enough other beliefs and putative evidence to spread to a sufficient mass of people, it tends to spread further. Some beliefs are unable to make much ground, such as the flat-earth theory, say. Others, apparently equally misguided, become hugely widespread, such as the belief that extra-terrestrial beings have visited earth. One major poll in USA found up to 80% of the population believing that UFOs are inter-planetary vehicles!

Such a grouping cannot, for logistical reasons, extend its control of the periphery or even of all of thousands of signed-up members in a wide variety of cultures and countries. Thus, those deeply involved may constitute a cult, while many who perceive themselves as belonging (but not having influence) do not by and large accept the cultist features in full and do not themselves necessarily behave as fully-integrated members.

When a belief or system of such achieves critical mass, however, it may often be as if unstoppable, except by major disturbances or even drastic world events, as history repeatedly demonstrate both in the spread of religions and political ideologies. Beliefs that can be shown to have some real substance, however, is not itself any guarantee that it will continue until reaching critical mass. One factor that helps in this is what might be called 'the mushrooming miracle effect.' This refers to that social phenomenon we observe whenever miraculous events, such as healings, manifestations or other inexplicable and beneficial events are believed to take place... as word spreads, more and more instances are invariably reported. It's a case of 'nothing succeeds like success'. However, close observation and analysis usually shows that many of the increasing claims are bogus or - in the case of 'miracle cures', they are mainly of the nature of a placebo effect or sheer imagination interpreting a natural healing process. The problem of investigation always becomes whether any of the original or early reports sound and based on indisputable evidence?

The Eastern God Supermarket - with Sathya Sai Baba as a prime example So-called 'spiritual communities' - whether Eastern or Western (such as propound 'New Age' religion) are all too often socially dangerous. Yet, due to too little official scrutiny in depth in almost all countries of the world - they succeed in flourishing nationally and internationally. The various kinds of suffering victims of cultism are invariably isolated and not organised and - standing alone - are mostly too weak to obtain any form or redress against the sects. Their situation is seldom recognised by most officially-accredited anti-cult bodies in the West because of the strong tendency towards tolerance of religious beliefs and turning a blind eye to the consequences of most indoctrination.

Among the largest and more influential of the literally hundreds of Indian-based movements in recent times have been those of the Hare Krishna movement (ISKCON), Rajneesh/Osho, Swami Premananda, Amma Sri Karunamayi, Amma Amritananda Devi, Kalki Avatar,  Balasai Baba, Ravi Shankar, and last but far from least, the Sathya Sai Baba movement. Most of these guru-sects have developed many cultist features.

According to most Indian religion and its gurus, anyone can achieve unity with God, infinite consciousness and infallibility. This is perceived as a far bigger offer than Christianity, Judaism or Islam make. The attraction to the seeker includes escaping the concerns and problems attendant on ordinary life and the world by joining a spiritual community which would guarantee personal liberation to anyone who is a genuine renunciant. This is only approached in mainstream religion through the strictest forms of monk hood and nunnery. As Alstead and Kramer point out about the guru: "Whether or not his authority rests upon a tradition or religion, he is revered as either God's unique vessel or as an actual manifestation of the living God or the god-force." (ibid p. 33)

Extreme forms of renunciation, self-denying anchorites, fakirs and other punishments to the body which surpass most ordinary limitations and common-sense judgement and therefore are unbelievable to most Westerners. These mostly arise from an Eastern fundamentalist religious fervour inspired by the desire to become a better person, free of human suffering - not seldom to gain respect, power and money - and the ever-present fear in the religious superstitious atmosphere of the consequences of sin and damnation to fates ranging from hell to constant rebirths. The mental conditions induced are often very volatile. Followers can turn vicious and violent when frustrated by opponents or social sanctions. The sudden outbreaks of tensions in India affecting Hindus, Muslims and Christians in rampages and killings are related to such fevour. The Indian-style guru is seen as the indispensable guide without whom the devotee is most unlikely to attain spiritual experience or unity with God and is quite likely to go mad or suffer yet worse fates. The guru is looked up to as being beyond all normal human constraints and thus beyond human judgement in any matter whatsoever.

The Sathya Sai Cult as a case study
One spiritual and religious sect which is increasingly closing in on itself as a cultist grouping in the form of the International Sathya Sai Organization and other Sai Baba institutions in India. This has occurred mainly since massive revelations were made from 1999 onwards by testifiers as to their guru-God's sexual behaviour and other extremely doubtful involvements . The very large number of followers claimed by and for Sathya Sai Baba raises another question as to the definition of a cult. A movement or sect need not operate within strict behavioural boundaries for its affiliates. The Sathya Sai movement is like that, yet it has a hard core of cadres and influential inner circles which have privileged access to the centre and the figurehead and whose activities are strictly regulated according to his demands - both public and secret.

In earlier years, the Sathya Sai Baba movement was largely an open and unrestrictive spiritual movement. However, Sai Baba himself and his closest servitors have always been secretive, protecting their figurehead from external pressures and covering over all problems and untoward incidents. This kind of activity has spread throughout the official Sathya Sai Organizations' hierarchy and his various institutions in India or elsewhere. Adherence to a code of conduct and profuse regulations and customs are strict requirement which apply in down to its lowest voluntary membership ranks. Non-conformity will eventually lead to exclusion from the Organization, and questioning of Sai Baba's definitive disqualifies any member, according to the Charter and its regulations. An overview case study of the Sathya Sai sect to show that this deserves to be classified as a cult, and also as dangerous one for a proportion of its 'victims'. This would help to show the subtlety with which a cult promotes itself as an open and universal spiritual movement while it is controlled or manipulated from a central cultist cadre. See 'the Sathya Sai Baba cult'

Self-programming by interiorizing group norms
A charismatic 'teacher' or well-organised group can indoctrinate persons through supposedly 'spiritual' and supra-rational teachings so that they soon take over their own further 'programming' as believers. This requires initial acceptance of the particular belief system. One 'first step' is - in the case of charismatics - is becoming so impressed as to admire, believe in and often also to worship some living person. This can occur through perceived 'miracles' and also be induced by intense suggestion or 'invisible hypnosis'. This kind of self-indoctrination is potentially more subtle, more powerful and even more difficult to break with than are dependencies or entrapments of a social, financial and physical variety. The psychological price of such idolization in personality cults is mostly self-denial, loss of autonomy and independence of thought and action. There are other physical and material forfeits in many cases. Such indoctrination through 'self-programming' is one key identifier of what is essential to any life disabling cult, be it religious or political. This applies, for example, as in what R.S. Pearson calls hyper religiosity:-

"The word Hyperreligiosity is related to "religiosity" which is the outward form of religion. People make a distinction between religiosity and spirituality, spirituality being the embodiment of virtue. Hyperreligiosity is when the outward forms and other aspects of religion become life disabling." R.S. Pearson
See 'Hyperreligiosity: Identifying and Overcoming Patterns of Religious Dysfunction' []

The problem of 'bias towards tolerance' in the belief-oriented public and by liberal academics. Because the mainstream religions have so many followers, their beliefs and practices are accepted as basically not having cultist features. This is highly questionable in principle and practice, however, for the same cultist behavioural patterns occasionally arise within the mainstream religions just as they do in the more easily identifiable smaller 'cultist' sects.

The problem of 'bias towards tolerance' of large religious movements is a result of agreement in multi-cultural society that, while anti-social behaviour in the name of religion is unacceptable, the doctrines of mainstream religious and the many religious sects that have flourished should not be sanctioned. As is increasingly seen, this liberal attitude has gradually been extended to refusing to criticise religious doctrines, even when they are clearly anti-social in content and highly intolerant of other beliefs (eg. calling non-believers heretics, those who cannot be blessed or saved etc. Two major examples are the current Pope Benedict's encyclicals against disbelievers in Christ, and not least in numerous variants of Islam and Sharea law concerning apostasy, adherence to Judaism etc.). Appeasement even of fanatical religious movements has increased, such as the Mohammed cartoons furore demonstrated all too well.

Recognition of the dangers of groups and practices which are cultist is often difficult for those who have had no contact with and have themselves remained unaffected by religious or spiritual cults. The general tendency in modern, civilised countries is to support tolerance towards all other religious beliefs (even most intolerant ones), and thereby to ignore many of the ill-effects of doctrines, especially extreme forms of belief but also some of the basic tenets of mainstream religions. This live-and-let-live is reflected negatively in the tremendous social barriers that have been put in the way of victims of sexual abuse by religious sects and cults and the and added difficulties they have had to bring their causes to public recognition and eventually begin to obtain some convictions. The bias is very similar to the gender bias against women who have been raped but cannot get justice, a fact which all statistics bear out overwhelmingly.

The resulting 'tolerance bias' is also noticeable in some educated researchers who have themselves evidently often grown up within some religious culture to which they remain affectionate and who also favour a liberal degree of religious tolerance. The meaning of the word 'cult' is most often used and defined by academics so as to exclude widespread faiths, even though they may share indoctrination tendencies and social practices with much more limited and exclusive cults. For example, very few point out how Roman Catholicism exhibits clear cultist tendencies, with its excommunications and its strict teachings and various discriminatory rules towards non-Catholics. Increasingly, however, various Islamic religious cultures are coming under criticism because of cultism in more noticeable and extreme forms (sharea law, death fatwas, jihad and more). 'Bias towards tolerance' arises out of the desire to appease religious factions and avoid conflicts, even where human values and human laws are being contravened by religious and spiritual bodies and major sects (such as Mormons, Baptists, Evangelical movements and the like)

"Potentially unsafe groups or leaders "come off very nice at first, they go for vulnerable people who are looking for answers, lonely, what you'd call 'normal people.' They're very good at what they do and can get people to believe anything. You might think you'd never get taken in, but don't bet on it. "   
"The public takes care of their fear by thinking only crazies and stupid people wind up in cults. I've interviewed over 4000 ex-cult members. There's no one type of person who is vulnerable.
"                                                                        Margaret Singer, Ph.D.

Margaret Singer is a major recognised authority on cults (besides much else in related studies), and one who has mostly involved herself with the study of more extreme religious groups. Unlike her, however, a number of liberal university academics tend to favour sects which are cultist, though less obviously so, under the banner of religious tolerance. Relatively few notable researchers who have made cults an academic project for professional engagement have personal experience of cult involvement themselves. Without having been 'on the inside' they can tend to misconstrue the subtlety of the workings and the (often almost imperceptible 'inner') effects of indoctrination as less destructive than it probably often is. Due to the ideological background of university engagement, scholars naturally tend to have a general bias towards tolerance or acceptance of doctrines which appear innocuous 'on paper'. The same 'doctrine' can often be applied or 'lived out' in a repressive and mind-controlling fashion, which is not realised by the actual victims (until they may exit the group), even though they experience it at first-hand! Sometimes, empirical researchers may take sects more at face value than is safe, being 'taken in' by what seems to be most reasonable talk. Non-involvement is often a required prerequisite for being 'neutral' and so taken serious by peers so as to achieve 'objectively'. However, in human studies, genuine objectivity requires both empirical measurement (Erklärung) and deep subjective understanding (Verstehen), and the latter cannot always be adequately generated through empathy. That is where cult apostates can often make the most thoroughgoing studies (eg. Steve Hassan)

However, there are various types of groups which study cults which have an important role to play in counteracting the manipulation and indoctrination of the public at large. There are cult-awareness groups which are concerned to study and counteract harm done by destructive cults, counter-cult groups which examine and analyze the teaching of non-mainstream groups and research-oriented groups - whether academic or university-independent researchers investigating beliefs, practices and comparisons between these.

Fortunately there are also researchers who have themselves gone through a process of indoctrination and self de-programming which puts them in the strongest position to analyze and penetrate the nature of cults far more credibly. A deep personal understanding through direct experience both makes the issues involved clearer and the recommendations more effective at defending the weak. One example of this is the work of Steve Hassan. Another major representative of empirical and first-hand anti-cult deprogramming of cult victims is Rick Ross

The unfortunate modern 'multi-cultural tendency' is on no account to question belief systems or their contents, (even those doctrines which exclude all non-believers from 'grace'), instead putting the entire emphasis on group behaviour. Though behaviour is an essential factor in defining what is or is not a cult, that behaviour and its consequences are simply not intelligible without considering the beliefs and norms enforced, such as group pressures, social roles, in-group norms, and sanctions against perceive doctrinal misbehaviour. This lack of understanding of the role of doctrine and of personal experience is a main reason who academic researchers tend to disavow much of the testimony of sufferers of cults (defining them as 'apostates').

One cannot set up once and for all one definitive and clear dividing line between 'normal, sane' religious culture and extreme religious sects and cults. There will always be exceptions to any rule on such a complex and heterogeneous phenomenon as faith. Therefore, a flexible range of indicators will be suggested as the solution to deciding how far any doctrinal group leans towards the extremes of cultist belief and behaviour, rather than a once-and-for-all definition of 'cult'.

More resources on cult indicators

An extensive document by Andries Kruger Dagneaux on cult resources is here and his perceptive article on the actual elements which are often mistakenly labeled 'brainwashing' is found here

Understanding Devotees' Loyalty - By: Andries Krugers Dagneaux 2-22-02

"Note that Sathya Sai Baba and Daniel Shaw's guru Muktananda have met each other according to Howard Levin's book 'Good Chances' and his contemporary ashram inhabitant Tal Brooke. The history of SYDA provides a good example of how far devotees will go to defend the person they perceive as their savior. In the early 80s, the Siddha Yoga community was shocked to learn that Muktananda, a monk in his late 60s and supposedly a lifelong celibate, had been secretly having sexual relations with western female devotees for at least ten years. While many women thought of themselves as willing participants, others felt coerced and traumatized by the experience. Often his victims were female children in their early teens. Many who were SYDA devotees at the time heard these allegations and ignored them, in spite of wide acknowledgment among those closest to Muktananda that they were true. When several devotees spoke out publicly about Muktananda's sexual abuses, two loyal devotees were dispatched by Muktananda to threaten these whistle-blowers with disfigurement and castration (Rodarmor, 1983).

Nevertheless, to this day, Muktananda is worshipped by SYDA devotees as a deity. How can this kind of loyalty be understood? Under the influence of cult mind control, devotees must make the Guru, who has magically filled the inner void, exempt from all scrutiny and judgment. Devotees come to depend completely on the absolute perfection of the guru. Keeping the terror of emptiness and meaninglessness at bay, no matter how artificially, becomes so crucial to the devotee's survival, that he must deny truth, and sacrifice his pre-cult values and integrity, in order not to lose the all-providing, omnipotent, idealized guru. Long after the glow of the conversion experience fades, regardless of the exposes, the abuse and exploitation, many devotees maintain their unreasoning loyalty, because for them, it has become a matter of life or death
 From: Sathya Sai Baba Discussion Club -

Steve Hassan - author of Combatting Cult Mind Control, 1990. ISBN 0-89281-311-3.
and Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves, 2000. ISBN 0-9670688-0-0.

In his first book, Hassan describes cult mind control using the criteria from Robert Lifton which he relates in detail to his experiences with the Unification Church:
* milieu control (controlled relations with the outer world)
* mystic manipulation (the group has a higher purpose than the rest)
* confession (confess past and present sins)
* self-sanctification through purity (pushing the individual towards an unattainable perfection)
* aura of sacred science (beliefs of the group are sacrosanct and perfect)
* loaded language (new meanings to words, encouraging black-and-white thinking)
* doctrine over person (the group is more important than the individual)
* dispensed existence (insiders are saved, outsiders are doomed)

Ten years later, in Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves, he developed his own mind-control model, "BITE", which stands for Behavior, Information, Thoughts, and Emotions. Hassan contends that cults recruit members through a three-step process which he refers to as "unfreezing," "changing," and "refreezing," respectively. This involves the use of an extensive array of various techniques, including systematic deception, behavior modification, withholding of information, and emotionally intense persuasion techniques (such as the creation of phobias), which he collectively terms mind control. He calls such groups "destructive cults," a term that he defines by the methods used to recruit and retain members, and the effect that such methods have on members, rather than by the theological/sociological/moral views the group espouses. He is opposed to the so-called non-consensual deprogramming of cult members, and supports instead counseling them in order that they withdraw voluntarily from the organization. He writes:

My mind control model outlines many key elements that need to be controlled: Behavior, Information, Thoughts and Emotions (BITE). If these four components can be controlled, then an individual's identity can be systematically manipulated and changed. Destructive mind control takes the 'locus of control' away from an individual. The person is systematically deceived about the beliefs and practices of the person (or group) and manipulated throughout the recruitment process — unable to make informed choices and exert independent judgment. The person's identity is profoundly influenced through a set of social influence techniques and a "new identity" is created — programmed to be dependent on the leader or group ideology. The person can't think for him or herself, but believes otherwise.

Among the foremost cult experts - a professional 'deprogrammer' of cult victims, is Rick Ross (see his informative website here). Rick Ross' summary of warning indicators of a 'potentially unsafe group leader' and those connected to such is very useful (see here). Contrariwise, ten indicators of a safe group or leader are also given. The following comment is informative:-
"To determine whether a group is benign or destructive, Ross - like most professionals in his field - uses Lifton's 1961 book as a diagnostic tool. Lifton details eight characteristics that typify a destructive group environment: dictating with whom members can communicate; convincing members they are a chosen people with a higher purpose; creating an us-versus-them mentality, whereby everything in the group is right and everything outside is wrong; encouraging members to share their innermost secrets and then purge whatever hinders their merging with the group; convincing members that their philosophical belief system is 'the absolute truth'; creating an 'in' language of buzzwords and group speak which becomes a substitute for critical thinking; reinterpreting human experience and emotion in terms of the group's doctrine; and reinforcing the idea that life within the group is good and worthy, and life outside evil and pointless. During an intervention, Ross brings out Lifton's book, usually having picked apart the group's own literature." (from The Observer 12/12/2004)

The example of Eileen Barker and INFORM, which is a chief government-backed policy-making body on cultism in Britain. A checklist, based on some kind of empirical research was made by professor Eileen Barker. However, the extent and nature of the research - such as what methods and pre-empirical suppositions involved, what degree of significance statical results may have achieved - are not available to public scrutiny. Nonetheless, Eileen Barker's conclusions as to which traits of groups that can evolve to be dangerous seem reasonable enough. These traits include:

1. A movement that separates itself from society, either geographically or socially;
2. Adherents who become increasingly dependent on the movement for their view on reality;
3. Important decisions in the lives of the adherents are made by others;
4. Making sharp distinctions between us and them, divine and satanic, good and evil, etc. that are not open for discussion;
5. Leaders who claim divine authority for their deeds and for their orders to their followers;
6. Leaders and movements who are unequivocally focused on achieving a certain goal.

Some other considerations from Carol Giambalvo of ISCA, co-author with Lawrence J. Gesey of Today's Destructive Cults and Movements:-
"* No one ever joins a "cult." People join interesting groups that promise to fulfil their pressing needs. They become "cults" when they are seen as deceptive, defective, dangerous, or as opposing basic values of their society.                 
* Cults represent each society's "default values," filling in missing functions. The cult epidemic is diagnostic of where and how society is failing its citizens.                 
* If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything. As basic human values are being strained, distorted and lost in our rapidly evolving culture, illusions and promissory notes are too readily believed and bought--without reality validation or credit checks.                 
* Whatever any member of a cult has done, you and I could be recruited or seduced into doing--under the right or wrong conditions. The majority of "normal, average, intelligent" individuals can be led to engage in immoral, illegal, irrational, aggressive and self-destructive actions that are contrary to their values or personality--when manipulated situational conditions exert their power over individual dispositions.                 
* Cult methods of recruiting, indoctrinating and influencing their members are not exotic forms of mind control, but only more intensely applied mundane tactics of social influence practiced daily by all compliance professional and societal agents of influence.     

By all of the above, religions, corporations, industries, educational institutions, bureaucracies and governments themselves are partial cults by their very nature and the definitions above. Does joining any of these denote gullibility? Hardly. And that is why the nature of cults are shielded from view when a prospective member is exposed to one."

A comment by Brian Steel:- " influential school of academic thought (particularly identified with the late Dr Bryan Wilson, Professor J. Gordon Melton, Emeritus Professor Eileen Barker and other colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic) has stressed that, in the description of an NRM, evidence from ex-followers should not be accepted without careful cross-examination of independent evidence. In fact, such examination should be made equally to the writings listed in all three Parts of this Bibliography. Independent researchers should surely be free to pursue a full and fair assessment of the claims and assertions of Sathya Sai Baba, the Sathya Sai Baba Organisation, and his devotees, as well as those of anyone who writes about him, whether they be ex-devotees, academics, or other commentators."

Former of 'All Souls' College, Oxford, Prof. Bryan Wilson (deceased) did not accept that 'apostates' are in general reliable witnesses. This is a sweeping generalisation which is apparently not based on quantifiable data or widely accepted evidence. Though he did give some room for exceptions in minor admissions that this does not apply to all apostates, he weighted his polemic mostly against victims of cults, whether sexually abusive or other deceptive cults. Consequently, Bryan Wilson did a major injustice to apostates in general, and suffering victims specifically. Such a swingeing imputation is unworthy of anyone, especially against the truthfulness and reliability of the many intelligent, honest ex-cult members who support the weak and defenseless victims of cults.

Those who discover through their own involvement that fraud, manipulation, false indoctrination, suppression and all the other and yet worse aspects of cults are being perpetrated - and who therefore take the painful and often courageous step of speaking out as a public duty - are those who know what is involved from the inside perspective. They have the credentials of first-hand experience. Yet Professor Bryan Wilson seemed not to realise in any depth what damage can be involved and thus he did a serious disservice to the attempts of thousands of people whose lives have been ruined, fortunes stolen through deceit or manipulation. Worst of all, he even asserted that law courts should not consider the testimony of apostates of cults to be reliable and so preempt justice! Yet it is for the law courts and juries to decide in each case, not Bryan Wilson in absentia. I also protest against Bryan Wilson's injustice on my own behalf and point to my own documentation and analyses of the Sathya Sai Baba cult and will characterize his diatribe against the reliability of apostates as a paltry aspersion which smacks of high-handed pseudo-academic conceit.

In my view, it brings home the continued relevance of the words of the great promoter of the scientific spirit, Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), when he wrote of 'learned men' (of the kind I have always avoided at all costs in universities where I have researched and taught):-
"who have withdrawn them­selves too much from the contemplation of nature and the observations of experience, and have tumbled up and down in their own reasons and conceits." and "Far the greater number of persons there are concerned primarily with lecturing and in the next place with making a living; and the lectures and other exercises are so managed that the last thing anyone would be likely to entertain is an unfamiliar thought." (Bacon).

The brilliant Indian polymath, Nirad Chaudhuri, who was awarded an honorary degree by Oxford University and a CBE by the Queen, whose books are the ultimate tour de force of most of Indian life and history, especially that through which he lived near to the centre of events, has made a succinct summary of the kind of attitude Professor Bryan Wilson and her coterie represent:-

Nirad Chaudhuri on academics

Note. My thanks to Carol Giambalvo of ISCA who read a draft and made comments which helped me to express certain points more clearly. However, she bears no responsibility for my opinions or any weaknesses in the content of this article, which is entirely written from my own viewpoint as an apostate of the Sathya Sai Baba sect.

Robert Priddy (Oslo, Norway. February 2008)

See also useful links and publications at