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A Word About Cults

Knowledgebase > A Word About Cults

Corinne McLaughlin and Gordon Davidson elaborate on the differences between growth-enhancing intentional communities and “cults” — groups that may restrict individual free will and personal freedom.

At the same time that the hippie communes were attracting major attention in the ’60s and early ’70s, the so-called “cults” — manipulative, authoritarian mass movements — began growing in popularity and attracting many young people who were generally confused and lost, or burned out on drugs. Today, the cults are still recruiting large numbers of people, and are still sensationalized in the media.

Many people are desperate to change themselves and to change the world. Some are so lonely and alienated from family, religion, or friendships that any group that looks loving and supportive is very magnetic, even if the price is one’s personal freedom. The very legitimate search for truth, personal and spiritual values, and transcendence is easily exploited by power-driven “cult” leaders.

There is a problem, though, in defining exactly what a cult is. The point at which a group actually crosses the line between what is acceptable and what is not depends a great deal on a person’s values. As Ken Keyes, author of The Handbook to Higher Consciousness, expressed it:


A “cult” is a term you would use to apply to that which you don’t like…so I don’t really have much use for that term. I could tell you [about] the groups that I feel are sincerely trying to do something good for the world and that I like…I don’t consider them “cults.” 
It may be hard to define exactly what a cult is since it is such a subjective, emotionally laden label. However, we would warn people about a group that manifests many of the following traits. 
  • encourages the violation of personal ethics or encourages deception to prove loyalty to the group 
  • encourages relinquishment of personal responsibility for actions 
  • restricts access to outside people or information 
  • inhibits critical thinking so that “group think” predominates, and many subjects are taboo for discussion 
  • restricts the ability to leave the group 
  • restricts privacy 
  • uses intense indoctrination 
  • demands absolute obedience 
  • applies intense pressure toward groupconformity 
  • demands stereotyped behavior 
  • physically or psychologically encourages overdependency 
  • manipulates feelings in a conscious way 
  • appeals to fear of not being saved or enlightened 
  • appeals to greed 
  • appeals to power 
  • appeals to the glamour of being one of the elect 
  • appeals to vanity and flattery 
  • uses guilt or humiliation to control behavior 
  • employs intimidation or threats 
  • plays on low self-esteem or feelings of inadequacy 
  • encourages sexual relationships with group leaders 
  • uses high-pressure sales pitches and plays on loyalty of friends to attract members 
  • evidences extreme paranoia, as in stockpiling of firearms for “protection” 

A common element that distinguishes a cult from a healthy, participative community is interference with a person’s free will rather than the nurturing of its use. Free will is the most basic and inviolate spiritual principle on earth. A benevolent community or spiritual teacher will respect a person’s free will and encourage members to freely make their own choices, to take responsibility for any mistakes made, and to learn from them.



Deikman, Arthur J., “The Evaluation of Spiritual and Utopian Groups,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology (Summer 1983), and The Wrong Way Home: Uncovering the Patterns of Cult Behavior in American Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990), $19.95.

McLaughlin, Corinne, and Gordon Davidson, Builders of the Dawn: Community Lifestyles in a Changing World (Shutesbury, MA: Sirius Publishing, 1985), $17.95 plus $1.50 postage.

Vaughn, Frances, “A Question of Balance: Health and Pathology in New Religious Movements,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology (Summer 1983).


[Editor’s note: Inclusiveness was a guiding value in creating the Directory; so information on a wide array of choices is offered. As editors we have relied primarily on information provided by local community sources, and are not in a position to judge the quality of some of this information. Still, there are “cult” communities — so the above guidelines may be helpful in distinguishing them for the vast majority of benevolent and self-affirming intentional communities.]

About the Author

Corinne McLaughlin and Gordon Davidson are cofounders of Sirius, an educational center and ecological village, and are both Fellows of the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. Corinne has taught Transformational Politics at American University in Washington, D.C., and worked for the President’s Council on Sustainable Development. Gordon formerly served as Executive Director of the Social Investment Forum where he coauthored the CERES Principles, a pledge of ecological responsibility for corporations seeking recognition as socially responsible investments. Gordon and Corinne’s latest book is Spiritual Politics: Changing the World from the Inside Out published by Ballentine Books, 1994. Their discussion of cults is adapted from the fourth chapter of their basic reference work on intentional community, Builders of the Dawn: Community Lifestyles in a Changing World by Sirius Publishing, 1985 (reprinted with permission).

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