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What Is A Cult / Sect? [22 Characteristics] [Cult Behavior & Thinking]

What Is A Cult / Sect? [22 Characteristics] [Cult Behavior & Thinking]

What is a cult and what are its typical characteristics? In this article, we will discuss various aspects of sectarianism, such as sectarian thinking and sectarian behavior. Read further…

Contents of this page:

What is a cult? Meaning of a sect/cult

There is no consensus on the meaning of the word cult. One of the possible definitions could be: a sect is a closed group with an influential leader.

However, the term ‘cult’ does not have a clear, unambiguous definition. Anyone can give it a different meaning. Yet it is quite clear that sects are separate groups – with their own rules and their own beliefs that must be followed fairly rigorously.

Characteristics of a cult

Let’s look at all the properties to recognize a cult/sect:

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Characteristic 1 – Critical thinking is not allowed

Members are not allowed to introduce other points of view on the sect’s doctrine. Dependence and obedience are promoted, with consequences in the offing if someone’s behavior is not what the cult wants it to be.

Characteristic 2 – External control of personal life

The extent to which power is exercised over the personal life of the members, both over the political and the social and sexual behavior of the members. For example, by the extent to which consent is required for certain major life decisions.

Feature 3 – Claimed wisdom and knowledge by the leaders

The number of verified and unverified statements (credentials) being claimed.

Feature 4 – The infallibility of the doctrine or leaders

There is a central, infallibly tight top-down hierarchy. Discussion is not tolerated. Critics are excommunicated.

Feature 5 – The amount of hatred from members towards internal and external critics

For example, to the critics and the attempts to verify or interpret the doctrine differently. For example, they can be described as ‘amoral’, ‘destructive’, ‘ignorant’, ‘rotten’ or ‘mentally ill’.

Characteristic 6 – Dogma: stiffness in the concepts being taught

The degree of inflexibility in the interpretation of the doctrine. Enmity against relativism. This can also be seen as fundamentalism.

Characteristic 7 – You don’t know where you ended up until after your commitment

Secrets are unknown to new members. An example: once you become a member, everything seems to revolve around just bringing in new members. See next feature.

Feature 8 – Emphasis is placed on recruiting new members

Before joining, for example, the cult seems to be about helping the poor and contributing to the world, but once joining it is clear that all activities are aimed at recruiting new members. This is sometimes referred to as a pyramid scheme.

A feeling of guilt is also imposed on members who bring in too few new members or make too little effort to do so.

Feature 9 – The requirement for all members to recruit new members

Members are pressured to recruit new members, and shame is expressed when they don’t do so enough.

Trait 10 – Members are excommunicated if they leave the sect or have dissent

Members should be ignored and harshly contradicted if they are critical or if they leave the sect. The sectarian community can also gossip about the person with the dissenting opinion, whereby this person can be put away with the help of metaphors such as a rotten apple, cancer or terrorist.

This is because the members who are left behind feel as if someone has left their identity. Indeed, the members have invested so much in and identified with the sect – while your only real identity is your own soul (mere consciousness) – that they even consider excommunicating their own family and friends.

Characteristic 11 – Rigidity in the body of the members

Members of a cult unconsciously do not feel free to move. This is always expressed in the degree of stiffness and cramping in the body. Think of it as the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. You can read more about this in the article about following your intuition , because the opposite of this is living from your own intuition. If you use your own intuition (your soul) more often, you will feel free and light. This radiates from you and is very easy to perceive.

Characteristic 12 – Wealth by the leader

Think Bhagwan (later renamed to Osho to clear the damaged name), who led a life of luxury, including 94 Rolls Royces.

Characteristic 13 – Manipulation of partner choice

The amount of control exercised on, for example, partner choice.

Characteristic 14 – Censorship

Degree of control over access to information by members. The degree of withheld doctrine, the degree of censorship of outside opinions, the degree of discouragement from consulting sources outside one’s own doctrine, or the degree of concealment from the leader.

Feature 15 – Isolation

Communes (villages and monasteries with only members of the sect) are by definition isolated. This may also apply to sects that do not live in communes. In that case, influence is exercised on members not to communicate with non-members, including family and friends.

Why is isolation in communes and monasteries not desirable? It is part of the essence of spirituality to serve and  contribute to the world through your mission . That is not possible if you are only in a monastery. The virtues that you develop through meditation only come into their own if they can actually be of use in the world.

Feature 16 – Control of people leaving the cult

The intensity of the efforts to make inactive members or ex-members active again.

Characteristic 17 – Violence

Amount of group, doctrine, or leader approval of violence. Psychological violence also fits in this category, such as developing fear and paranoia and gaslighting: making members doubt their own mental health, for example with the reason: so that they do not dare to adopt a critical attitude.

Trait 18 – Paranoia and a sense of ‘us’ versus ‘the rest of the world’

The extent to which it is forbidden to talk to former members and critics – and the amount of fear that is sown about real or imagined enemies. Exaggeration of the power of opponents and setting up conspiracy theories about this.

For example, members are told that it is dangerous to learn about other religions. Members must also delete books, emails and materials from other religions.

Also: the degree to which fear is being sown about the unstable and violent state of the world, which the sect’s doctrine offers protection against.

Finally, this hatred can take place in a more subtle way because the members of the sect are repeatedly reminded that the rest of the world cannot be trusted or is less trusted and has no moral values. This allows members of the cult to look at the outside world with bias, believing that usually no kindness and love can be found in the people in society who are not part of the cult.

Feature 19 – Mandatory donations by members

Members are being financially abused, so members are persistently announced or forced to donate. Donating can also be framed as a privilege.

Within a sect there may be compulsory donations. If it is not officially compulsory, it can still be expected unofficially from the members. The donations are then used to convert new people or to finance the administrative structures.

For example, it can be introduced as a continuous rule of life to keep donating. It can also present itself, for example, in the form of buying ‘indulgences’, with which you purify your own life – or the life of a loved one – for the hereafter.

Feature 21 – Framing worthless or harmful acts as good

Specific words can be used to get members to perform time-consuming or harmful tasks. A cult leader may state in his doctrine that it is a sacred duty for all female members to sleep with him, or that it is beneficial for their spiritual development.

Characteristic 22 – Mind control through confusion, abstraction and indoctrination

Members should read long texts with abstract language, difficult terms and jargon so that they become confused. Metaphors can also be used frequently to support every possible point. In addition, they have to read sentences aloud to be indoctrinated.

Gaslighting can also be used to doubt your own mind, opinion, mental health and memories. A good opportunity to apply this is when someone criticizes the doctrine or disagrees.

Are cults dangerous?

sect dangerous

That sects are dangerous comes, among other things, from the example of the mass murder within the sect of Tim Jones, who on November 18, 1978 in Guyana persuaded about 900 members to commit suicide. This has created an (extra) dangerous edge around the word ‘sect’, especially when the leader speaks of a Jesus complex.

You could also see sects as dangerous, because it is very tempting for people who feel lonely for a long time and want to feel like belonging to a group. They are more likely to join a cult, and they are especially vulnerable because they seek outside approval. This makes them excellent successors to orders.

On the other hand, many highly educated, logically-thinking people end up in sects. That’s because they have been brought in in a rational and seductive way, and because of their lack of intuitive development, they can’t sense what’s right for them. For example, the ‘seeker’ may be declared seriously spiritually ill, after which he / she is told that the only cure is in the cult. This kind of manipulation can be harmful to people who are not very confident.

Examples of dangerous sects

Whether we are talking about JW, CoS, Bhagwan (Osho) or new communes: sects exist, and not only in America.

What makes a cult seem so real and ‘true’ to a member?

sectarianism explanation

No sect will admit to be a sect, and no member of a sect will admit it. How is that possible? The answer can be captured in one word:  illusion . It is because they themselves believe so strongly in their illusion that they come to see it as absolute truth. This illusion is fully maintained by … the ego.

Let’s take sect A and sect B. The members of both sects see their truth as absolute and exclusive truth. They are encouraged to convert people regularly.

One day a member of sect A meets a member of sect B and they have a discussion about why their sect is the one. They pretend to be very friendly. After all, their sect is about love and liberation.

At the end of the day, a member of sect A comes to the meeting of sect A. He tells what he had experienced that day: ‘I have contact with someone who is a follower of sect B, but he just doesn’t want to get through to be truth. How should I respond to that? ‘ Members provide tips for converting the other.

What almost never gets through to the members of sect A is that the member of sect B is doing exactly the same thing, perhaps at exactly the same time, but with the members of his sect: ‘I am in contact with someone who is a supporter of sect A, but it just won’t get through to him that we are the truth. How should I respond to that? ‘

The members of sect A and sect B are both in an illusion. If you are a member of sect A, you don’t understand if someone from sect B says to you, “How can you believe in such a thing?” It is so absurd because you say or think the same thing about the other: “How can you believe in such a thing? Christ said he alone is the way to heaven (salvation)?” And then another comes over and goes over all of that and says, “How can you believe in such a thing?”

We are only at the beginning of this issue… What is the solution?

Read more about this in the article on religions and conflict.  It explains the difference between a superficial experience of religion and a respectful, detached experience of religion.

About The Author


Hello! Thanks for reading these articles. My intention is to make happiness as simple and clear as posssible. By the way, excuse my English. I am not a native English speaker since I live in Amsterdam. Much appreciated if you use the comments to make suggestions on my grammar. See ya in another blogpost!