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Raphael’s School of Athens

Brief answers to the following questions are provided below:

What is a cult?

A cult is an ideological organization, held together by charismatic relationships, and demanding high levels of commitment. 
  • Cults are at risk of becoming exploitatively manipulative and abusive to members. 
  • Many professionals and researchers use the term “cult” to refer to a continuum of manipulation and abusiveness. 
  • Different people respond differently to the same cultic environment. 
  • ICSA does not produce an official list of “cults.” 
  • Because of the ambiguity in the concept “cult,” ICSA tries to use the term judiciously and focus inquirers’ attention on potentially harmful practices, rather than a label. 
For more information on definitions, see the essays, “On Using the Term ‘Cult’,” and “The Definitional Ambiguity of ‘Cult’ and ICSA’s Mission

Is “X” a cult?

Before deciding whether or not you think a particular group is a “cult,” please see our FAQ, “What is a Cult?” above and the definitional articles associated with that FAQ.

Our Checklist of Group Characteristics that tend to arouse concern can focus your attention on the kinds of questions and issues that have caused others to consider the “cult” label for groups. However, much as people may wish that it were so, the fact is that, at least at present, no scientific “test” incontrovertibly establishes whether or not a group is indeed a “cult.”

Because of the current ambiguity surrounding the term “cult,” ICSA does not produce an official list of “cults,” even though some people mistakenly interpret any list (e.g., a list of groups on which we have information) as a list of “cults.” Such a list would have little utility because there are thousands of groups about which people have expressed concern, yet scientific research has been conducted on few groups. A list could even be misleading because some people might mistakenly think that the label “cult” implies that the group in question has all the significant attributes of the hypothetical type “cult,” when in fact it has only some of those attributes, or none at all. Conversely, some people may mistakenly assume that because a group is not on the list, they need not be concerned.

Thus, when inquirers ask us, “Is such and such a cult?” we tend to say, “Study our information on psychological manipulation and cultic groups, then apply this information to what you know and can find out about the group that concerns you.” Our goal is to help inquirers make more informed judgments and decisions, not to dictate those judgments and decisions.

If you go to our Group Page, you may find that we have some newspaper articles, links, or other information on a group that concerns you. Broad Web searches may also turn up useful information.

Keep in mind, however, that much of the available information is simplistic or inaccurate. Tagging a label on a group is not as important as understanding it.

Sometimes talking to former members of the group in question can be of great value, for they often know about what goes on “behind the scenes.” They also know how the leadership deals with dissent and independence. Highly manipulative groups rarely tolerate either.

Our workshops and conferences provide opportunities to meet former group members, families, helping professionals, and researchers – all of whom can help you gain a more nuanced perspective on the group that interests you.

Why do people join cults?
People join cults for many different reasons; there are many ways to enter a cultic group. However, it appears that people are most receptive to joining when they are stressed or in a normal transition, when their normal way of operating in the world is not working for them.

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There is no “personality profile” of people who become involved in cults. All kinds of people become involved for all kinds of reasons. Although some cult members may have had psychological problems before joining their groups, the majority were psychologically normal before becoming affiliated with a cultic group.

People may get involved with cults at any age. ICSA’s research has found that the average age of affiliation is about 25 years old, although some people become involved as children while others join as senior citizens. (For more information, see Prevalence and Research.)

Although a sizable number (about 25%) of cult members were recruited by people who were strangers to them at the time, most affiliate with a group because of friendships or other reasons. Sometimes, however, prospects seek out the group, e.g., because they read group materials that interested them.

The vast majority of people who are approached by cult members—whether strangers or friends—do NOT join. Yet some do. Why some and not others?

Research and clinical work with thousands of former members suggests that those who join cults were experiencing significant stress (frequently related to normal crises, such as romantic breakup, school failure, vocational confusion, or transitions, such as college graduation) prior to their cult conversion. Individuals are especially vulnerable to cult recruitment during late adolescence, when they might be separating emotionally and physically from their families and, therefore, more open to new groups. Because their normal ways of coping are not working well for them, these stressed individuals are more open than usual to people selling a “road to happiness.”

Whether or not prospects “buy” is a function of their personal vulnerabilities (Are they gullible? Afraid to say, “no”? Unable to think critically about what is presented to them?), the content of what is presented to them (e.g., a distressed Christian may be more open to somebody selling an “alive” Christian community than to somebody selling an eastern guru), and the sales techniques of the presenter.

Because some cultic groups utilize highly orchestrated and manipulative programs of recruitment, there is a common misconception that people become involved in cults because they are “brainwashed” into joining by recruiters using powerful “mind control” techniques. Although there are some striking examples of such manipulative recruitment, there are many pathways into a group, and not all involve manipulation.

Dr. Michael Langone has written about three models of cult recruitment: 

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