What is a cult?

First, cult is a vague category.

Authoritarian leaders and structures can usually be found in groups that have a clear mission and identity. From the Catholic Church to the U.S. Marine Corps, many organizations rely on strict discipline and obedience. Using the word cult is an easy way to criticize a group, but a poor way to describe one.

Second, mind control or brainwashing theories have problems.

In popular understanding, the leaders of cults use mind control or brainwashing to remake the personalities of recruits by forcing them to do and believe things that they normally wouldn’t accept.

Brainwashing was associated with the Unification Church, or “The Moonies,” founded by South Korean Rev. Sun Myung Moon. The Moonies would isolate new recruits and shower them with attention, a process called “love bombing.”

But, as sociologist Eileen Barker showed in her research on the Unification Church, recruitment rates were still very low. If a sure mark of a cult is using love bombing, mind control or brainwashing, the results weren’t very impressive.

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