The word “cult” has been in and out of public discourse for many decades.
For a lot of people, just the sound of the word piques interest and a natural curiosity, likely due to the initial dictionary definition.
So let’s take a look at some dictionary definitions.
The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines the word “cult” as “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious.”
The Cambridge Dictionary defines the word “cult” as “a religious group, often living together, whose beliefs are considered extreme or strange by many people.”
For years the freedoms that we have enjoyed in our country have allowed us to engage in unorthodox religions, if we so chose.
These same freedoms also allowed us, if we so chose, to live together with others who shared our beliefs, regardless of whether society generally considered the beliefs to be extreme or strange.
Of course, those who had chosen to participate in what some in society perceived as, or even specifically designated as, a “cult” still had to abide by existing laws.
Now over the course of time, the word “cult” began to be used more frequently. It also began to be applied more broadly and even took on a negative connotation, which then allowed it to be used to insult or disparage an individual or group.
I contend that the word “cult” has actually crept into our common vernacular and is creating a significant problem. Because societal members think they are talking to one another, when they are really talking past one another.
They are operating on distinctly different denotations and connotations of the word, which will inevitably result in confusion and friction between parties.
Sadly, some people are simply unaware of what is taking place. Other people are being deliberately provocative and are actually desirous of the negative outcomes that are flowing.
Let’s delve a little deeper into cults themselves.
Cults were initially and more commonly associated with religion. But as I mentioned earlier in this article, the definition has broadened over time and may now encompass types other than religious ones, such as ideological, communal, etc.
Psychologist Sharon Farber distinguishes between groups that are merely unconventional religious organizations from those that she calls “destructive cults.”
According to Farber, destructive cults are “groups that use manipulative techniques and mind control to heighten suggestibility and subservience.”
She writes that these destructive cults “tend to isolate recruits from former friends and family in order to promote total dependence on the group.”
These are the dangerous groups that employ mind control techniques to become the sole masters of the individual or individuals, whom they seek to subjugate. The end goal is to break down will and obliterate individuality.
“The aim is to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, which is to have total control over members,” Farber explains.
A powerful tool used by dangerous cult leaders to control the minds of their members is the creation of cognitive dissonance.
Human beings have an innate need to seek intelligibility and maintain order within their minds in accordance with what they perceive to be the outside world.
“Dissonance,” a word borrowed from the world of music, comes from the word “disharmony,” which is an unpleasant combination of musical notes.
In the event a conflict exists between an individual’s thoughts, emotions, and/or behaviors, he or she will feel compelled to reduce such a conflict and seek resolution.
Cognitive dissonance occurs when what one is doing is at odds with one’s worldview and internal belief system.
Dangerous cult leaders are those who deliberately try to foment dissonance within the minds of others, specifically those whom they seek to control.
This may be accomplished by denying an individual or individuals the access to certain information, while oftentimes simultaneously conveying misinformation or disinformation.
The ultimate goal is to successfully manipulate the thinking process, emotional state, and outward behavior of those that the dangerous cult leader or leaders seek to control.
In an effort to secure this goal, members are separated from family, friends, and peers and are typically kept in isolation for extended periods of time.
Materials that may serve to undermine a dangerous cult message, i.e., newspapers, television, the internet, and the like, are kept away from the individual or individuals, who are in the process of being conditioned.
The emotional state of the individual or individuals, which is oftentimes the more insidious portal of access, may be further manipulated through use of contradictory messaging that quickly transitions; this may result in the experience of numerous emotions moving rapidly from one to another, which imparts the sensation of intense instability.
Indoctrination may also be accomplished by severely filtering the content of the information that is allowed to be seen by the individual or individuals, so only that which will reinforce the dangerous cult narrative is permitted.
Dangerous cults manipulate language itself, with certain words and phrases being banished from use and others undergoing a constant redefinition.
Isolation continues to grow in length and depth, and the individual or individuals being conditioned are further manipulated into thinking ill of people and circumstances that exist outside of cult bounds.
When dangerous cults implement these types of mind control techniques, the consequences are destructive to the very inner essence of the human being, according to Farber.
This kind of cultic mind control is “the intentional attempt to stamp out or compromise the separate identity of another person,” Farber asserts.
Esteemed psychoanalyst Leonard Shengold calls it “soul murder.”