Warning signs of dysfunctional cults
Ways of Distinguishing Healthy and Unhealthy Cult Movements
© Copyright 1997 / 2007 by Timothy Conway, Ph.D.
Given the suspicion in many quarters about new or exotic religious movements, we need to discuss the nature of cults, both functional, healthy ones and also dysfunctional, unhealthy ones.
The history of religion has seen the rise of hundreds of thousands of religious cults, both benign and destructive. Let's start with a useful and neutral (non-pejorative) definition of “cult”—after all, the word originally comes from the positive Latin term cultus, or “worship.” Thus, a neutral definition of “cult” is any group of persons devoted to a charismatic leader (or leaders) who changes these persons' outlook and behavior by communicating his/her values and views and perhaps a kind of “energy,” spiritual or otherwise.
The word “cult” has quite negative connotations in our society, especially among conservative Christians. For this reason, some scholars of religion want to drop the term from our vocabulary and replace it with sect or New Religious Movement/NRM. Yet the majority of religious cults are quite benign. Indeed, some can be profoundly transformative in an entirely positive way, promoting deep God-realization.
All the traditional major religions either started as cults or involved cultic circles at diverse times and places in their history.
Early Christianity was clearly a cultus or cult centered around Jesus, evidently a benign cult—that is, until it became aligned with the Roman State early in the 4th century, after which it grew oppressive and destructive in some important respects. Over subsequent centuries Christianity would include both positive and negative cult tendencies. The Crusades and Inquisition, for example, manifested insidious and hugely destructive cult behavior. By contrast, the cults (culti) around thousands of saintly persons were, for the most part, extraordinarily beautiful and inspirational affairs. Many present-day Christian denominations and sects display both wholesome and/or unwholesome cultic elements, as do certain circles within other major and minor religions.
Unhealthy cult behavior is not just found in religious groups. Such dysfunction is found within political parties, business corporations, professional societies (e.g., medicine, psychiatry, academia), and other social groups. Hitler’s Third Reich entailed nightmarish cult behavior on political, social and quasi-religious levels. Former Republican John Dean and others have extensively pointed out the dysfunctional "cult" dynamics of the Republican Party or GOP in the United States (Dean bases his analysis on the extensive, impressive work on the "authoritarian personality" by psychologist Robert Altemeyer).
By contrast, numerous religious cults, while appearing strange, eccentric or evil to our general populace, may actually be exceedingly beneficial and uplifting for the cult members and surrounding society. Scores of examplary, quite benign cults abound over the last few hundred years, from the Society of Friends (Quakers) and Methodism to Japan’s Seicho No Ie and India’s huge movements devoted to God through great spiritual adepts like Ramakrishna, Ammachi, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, et al.
Yet numerous other religious cults have achieved terrible notoriety in recent decades. Consider The People’s Temple (Jim Jones’ mass murder/suicide of 913 followers in Jonestown, Guyana, 1978); Scientology (featuring the greed, mania, lust and sinister strategems of cruel swindler L. Ron Hubbard); the Unification Church (led by paranoid right-wing “Christ,” Rev. Sun Myung Moon); the Branch Davidians (80 of whom died with their self-appointed messiah, serial child molester David Koresh, in battle with federal agents in Waco, Texas, 1993); Luc Jouret’s Order of the Solar Temple (over 50 members killed by him in Switzerland, Canada and France in 1994 and 1995); the Children of God (the “Family” of sex-crazed, depraved David Brandt Berg); the Temple of Love (led by murderous, sex-mongering “Brother Love” Hulon Mitchell “Yahweh Ben Yahweh” in Miami); Aum Shinri Kyo (led by sex-and-blood obsessed Shoko Asahara, instigator of the 1995 sarin nerve-gas attacks on innocent people in Tokyo’s subway system, killing 18 and poisoning over 5,500); Heaven’s Gate (38 UFO-obsessed members dead from suicide during Easter week, 1997, following demented leader Marshall “Do” Applewhite); and Uganda’s Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God (over 900 members killed by Joseph Kibwetere and cronies in March, 2000).
On an even more violent level, of course, are the pseudo-Muslim al-Qaeda international terrorist network and the Taliban of the Afghanistan and northern Pakistan region, and other puritannically, repressively “Islamicist” groups expressing the militant, cancerous strain of Wahhabi Islam. (This fringe form of Islam, centered in Saudi Arabia, over the last 250 years has killed many progressive Muslims and non-Muslims, destroyed mystical Sufi shrines and adherents, etc., and in the last few generations grown far more powerful with substantial financial support from Saudi petro-dollars).
Far less lethal, in some ways quite benign, yet still very problematic are some sizeable Indian or Indian-influenced groups such as the
Sathya Sai Baba cult
(which has done so much service work worldwide but whose leader was finally significantly exposed in 2000 for serial molestation of male youth and other terrible improprieties); and, as further example, the voracious personality cults of three other supposed God-men, American
Franklin Jones or "Adi Da"
(1939-2008); the Indian "Bhagwan"/Lord Incarnate
(1931-90); and the latest "Divine" pretender,
Bhagavan Kalki (Vijaykumar) and his Deeksha Oneness Movement.
Some people have expressed concern over the cult-like nature of America's home-grown Large Group Awareness Trainings, or LGATs, the biggest early LGAT being Werner Erhard's financially successful est Training (est meaning "it is" and referring to Erhard Seminars Training). The est Training became The Forum in 1985, and, in 1991, The Landmark Forum. Much of the philosophy, methods and style of delivery of The Forum have been copied by other LGATs. I have, at a separate
webpage on LGATs
given my "pro & con" in-depth assessment of these "psycho-cult" LGATs, and also provided several substantial media-reports by reporters who've taken The Landmark Forum (or other LGATs) since 1998.
Because of the uproar over the more dysfunctional and/or dangerous groups, and the widespread alarm over the thousands of “strange cults” now pervading our society, and the general suspicion toward any form of charismatic leadership (except, of course, when it occurs within one’s own church, political party or intellectual circle!), it will be worthwhile here to explore the characteristics of unhealthy, destructive cults in contrast to healthy, benevolent spiritual groups.
I sincerely hope that, as more people come to appreciate the qualities of authentic spirituality, destructive cults will no longer be able to take root and encroach upon and degrade so many lives. Thus, widespread spiritual education can usher in the real “truth that shall set us free.”
Dr. Arthur Deikman, a spiritually minded psychiatrist and cult-expert in northern California, has identified...
"four basic behaviors found in extreme form in [destructive] cults: compliance with the group, dependence on a leader, devaluing the outsider, and avoiding dissent. These behaviors are not distinct and independent but interrelated. In my view, they arise in part from what I refer to as the dependency dream, the regressive wish for security that uses the family as a model, creating an authoritarian leadership structure (the parent) and a close-knit, exclusive group (the children).... A continuum of [cultic] behavior exists, from the People’s Temple... to rigid religious groups, corporate cultures, professional societies, [and certain political parties and nations!] and ordinary us/them categories." 
Warning Signs of Dysfunctional Cults
Based on the insightful work of Deikman and other researchers,  as well as my own longtime investigation of spiritual movements old and new, here is a lengthy list of warning signs about cults, interspersed with remarks about signs of healthy spiritual groups. An absence of these warning signs characterizes healthy spiritual groups.
It’s hard to keep any shorter this list of approximately three dozen warning signs. All points covered are crucial. They constitute a useful set of criteria as our traditional religions and new religions unfold in this new millennium. Unbelievably, some cults (like Scientology) have violated almost all these warning signs!
I will have more to say at the end of this essay, but let us here examine the list of criteria...
* Craving for followers; seductive recruiting strategies or heavy-handed tactics of proselytizing or conversion (including “love bombing,” that is, showering prospective recruits with friendly, but strategic, attention). If the spiritual movement is pure and its members are radiant with virtuous qualities and deep spiritual realization, new people will be attracted to the movement intuitively, spontaneously, and naturally. The movement won’t need to pursue anyone with a hyped sales pitch that exploits people’s desires, fears, or insecurities in their quest for meaning and fulfillment.
* Intimidating indoctrination procedures that psychologically break a person down (suppressing old behaviors, attitudes, and relationships) so that s/he can be rebuilt according to the group’s ideal of a docile, unquestioning, compliant member. 
* Expensive entry fees or initiations. In fact, the less the group has to do with money, the better. The greatest spiritual masters charge no money whatsoever for sharing their love and guidance. Their work is supported via voluntary donations from those who can easily afford it or are inspired to give without being asked. Beware groups that demand from members much or all of their assets. (Presently some 500 cults in the United States, most of them Christian, demand all assets from members.) A small tithe isn’t necessarily exploitative if all monies serve reasonable purposes and can be accounted for upon request.
* A hidden agenda that becomes known to a group member only after s/he is heavily invested in the cult membership. In a healthy spiritual group, completely informed consent is standard policy. Hence, there should be no use of front names masking the group’s real affiliation.
* Excessive demands on the time and energy of the group members. Slave labor, overwork, or sleep/food deprivation demanded on behalf of the group as proof of loyalty. Obsessive scheduling, such that every moment of one’s waking life is controlled by the group. In a healthy group, members’ donation of their time and energy are a voluntary gift, not compelled.
* Trapping or holding onto members. People should be able to leave the group at any time for any reason without fear of damnation, reprisal, scorn, or being pursued or shunned by cult members.
* Theological thought control. Members should be free to worship Divinity under whatever Name and Form they so choose (God the Father, Goddess Mother, formless YHVH/Allah/Godhead, Christ, Krishna, Siva, Brahman, Amida, Tao, Buddhata), short of harming or grossly offending others.
* Cultivation in members any attitude of childish dependency upon exploitative, authoritarian leaders who require absolute, exclusive devotion. Jesus enjoined us to be “child-like,” not childish. Surrender to God is fine, and even some forms of hierarchical relationship are healthy and empowering (e.g., student-teacher, apprentice-master, and disciple-guru). But let us beware any disempowerment strategies that leave members feeling inadequate, without autonomy or inner locus of control, and no real hope of ever reaching the same (or nearly the same) spiritual level as the leader. A leader may teach that we need to lose egocentricity and selfish desires, but s/he will always articulate an empowering view that Divine Spirit is as much within our hearts as within the leader. This immanent Divinity is accessible via our own direct, interior connection with the God-Self, without mediation by the leader and any delegates or cronies.
* Chronic group feeling of righteous anger, revenge, turmoil, anxiety, shame, guilt, self-pity, fear, despair, mindless euphoria, ego-excitement, adrenaline rushes, self-inflated fervor or futuristic anticipation. Authentic spiritual movements are permeated by a deep feeling of genuine love, kindness, peace, freedom, bliss, ease of being, spontaneity, focus on the present situation and trust in Spirit or God.
* Flat affect (zombie-like absence of emotions). Excessively automatic, robot-like behavior. Radically de-automatized behavior (produced via sleep deprivation or sensory overload) that breaks down normal, responsible functioning.
* Crusading agenda to save the world or convert all souls to “the true way.” A healthy spirituality emphasizes becoming individually transformed so that one is better aligned with the God-Self and involved in a simple, non-grandiose form of service to one’s fellow beings. For a healthy spiritual group, service and giving are defined primarily as charitable assistance and generosity toward one’s community, family, friends, and the world at large, not slavish service toward the narrow, voracious cult.
* Proud feeling of being the chosen people, of possessing the exclusive truth or means of salvation, or being superior to those outside the group. Heavily polarized “us-them,” adversarial thinking, projection of one’s own shadow qualities onto others, seeing outsiders as homogeneously negative, devoid of positive qualities (“they” are “bad” and “we” are “good”). Rigid boundaries and isolation between insiders and outsiders. Petty criticism, stereotyping or devaluing of outsiders. (Deikman: “Devaluing the outsider is... preliminary to harming others.... Whether the conflict is between nations or individuals, the attacker devalues the victim prior to the violent act.... The person you devalue becomes easier to kill.”  ) Dysfunctional groups chronically emphasize the differences between group members and outsiders, at the expense of seeing the essential oneness we all share on human and spiritual levels.
* A chronic need to find and persistently maintain enemies inside or outside the group. Targeting or isolating of anyone inside or outside the group as a source of evil or contamination or “bad energy.” Negative thought-forms aimed at others. By contrast, in healthy spirituality, the leader and group promote empathy, compassion, respect, and seeing the Divine in all beings: “Love thy neighbor” and “love thy enemy” (who is therefore no longer “the enemy”).
* Paranoia—either delusions of grandeur by the leader or group, or self-pitying feelings of being persecuted and misunderstood by outsiders. Healthy, continuing contact and discussion with people and institutions outside the group will usually prevent or obviate any persecution and misunderstanding that might arise.
* Turning cult members into watched objects who have no privacy in their solitary behavior or relationships with others. Manipulative system of rewards and punishments. Totalitarian structure of permission and non-permission regarding basic behaviors including personal hygiene, interpersonal communication, etc. Orwellian system of informers who convey information to leaders about persons behind their back. Machiavellian techniques of setting members against each other or against outsiders.
* Ganging up on individual members to criticize or humiliate or coerce them; “working on them” to violate their own sense of conscience or autonomy. Brainwashing or mind-control techniques or high-pressure group dynamics coercing members to conform to a worldview, agenda, or code of conduct. Physical or psychological violence. Giving and withholding of love or praise as a manipulation technique. Frequent testing of members for loyalty, commitment, or obedience.
* Preventing contact with outsiders, ex-members, and even certain fellow members of the dysfunctional cult. Breaking up couples and families to gain power over individuals and prevent coalitions that could more effectively criticize unsound, corrupt leadership. Rigid isolating of cult members in an exclusive "family" away from their relatives and friends outside the cult so that the cult becomes the sole source for support, self-esteem and interpersonal connection. Isolating cult members from other members , even for short periods, in solitary confinement or quarantine to break them down and manipulate their views/behaviors.
* Blind obedience to harmful or unwise directives from on high. Abusive, domineering top-dog leadership. In healthy groups, the leader(s) functions more as an advisor and inspirer rather than as “control freak” dictating how members should think and act. Members are never threatened or subordinated in ruthless, bullying manner. There may be a period of time where an authentic spiritual director/abbot/guru needs to test the disciple, but this is done within the overall context of genuine love, trust, and emotional safety, not as a power-trip by the leader. Any tests must be for the sole purpose of strengthening the student’s own skills and virtues, not demanding obedience and loyalty.
* Hoarding of money, power or prestige by anyone— corruption and intrigue are not far behind. Beware lavish accommodations and lifestyle for leader and close assistants, while everyone else is reduced to inferior living standards. Beware the presence of sycophantic subordinates who inauthentically emulate and slavishly propitiate the leader and act as the leader’s agents of control and punishment of cult members.
* Double standard of behavior for leader(s) and members. Spiritual leaders should maintain high moral standards and exemplary virtuous behavior. Beware any rationalizations given to excuse the leader’s unvirtuous behavior as well as self-aggrandizing, vanity and excessive self-referencing by the leader (e.g., “I am the World Teacher,” “I am the greatest incarnation of God to appear on this planet,” “think always and only of me,” etc.). A genuine spiritual leader is humble, giving, self-sacrificing, loving, blissful and serene —consistent with an authentic, trans-egoic realization of Divine Spirit (God, Tao, Buddhata, Brahman). Any claims by the leader of being divine should be balanced with declarations that the followers have divinity within them as well, as part of an overall theology of immanence (best balanced with a teaching of divine transcendence—see below). Important here, too, is how the leader came to be the leader. Grandiose promotional claims (either by the teacher or by his/her followers) or one-upsmanship and huckster techniques are not acceptable. Beware fallen yogis and their flashy charisma and psychic powers, which can seem quite impressive. If other respected spiritual masters recognize the leader as a spiritual master, this is a promising sign, but still does not insure anything. Bottom-line criterion: “By their fruits you shall know them.” If the leader doesn’t have an inspiring, healthy, positively transforming effect on students, promoting qualities of mature and balanced spirituality, the students would do best to leave.
* Reinforcing or excusing unethical behaviors (killing, injuring, lying, stealing, plagiarism, bribing, gossiping, sexual misconduct). Also: Inflexible ethical rules that keep people stuck on lower levels of moral development. For example, watch out for moral codes based on “an eye-for-an-eye” mentality or “the ends justify the means.”
* Suppression of dissent, doubt, critical thinking, sincere questions, discussion or independent judgment. Regarding of leader’s or sacred text’s teachings as infallible. Attachment to doctrinal certainty. Members should be free to follow their own informed reason and moral conscience in preference to the directives of the leader, group or text. Yet healthy spirituality also challenges one to develop the conscience to its utmost through ongoing learning and maturation.
* Irrational thinking or magical thinking. Among healthy, empowering groups, supra-rational thinking and use of paradox is fine, in accordance with the mature mystical traditions as found within circles of Christianity, Judaism (Hasidism), Islam (Sufism), Vedanta, Buddhism and Taoism. These authentic mystical traditions are based in rationality and proceed from that into the "trans-mental" realm. By contrast, in unhealthy groups, there appears to be very little rationality anywhere in their attitudes and behavior, and the group dynamics are rife with dysfunctional thinking.
* Anti-scientific thinking. Healthy persons and groups can constructively express criticism of reductionist scientism and limitations in the current scientific paradigm. But the danger with dysfunctional cults is their frequent emphasis on pre-scientific, mythical thinking and on bizarre, unverifiable claims that can’t be consensually validated by rational persons.
* A “uni-level” obsession with health and wealth on the material plane (Richard Anthony). Healthy groups promote authentic (“multi-level”) spiritual growth and “adaptation to transpersonal structural stages” (Ken Wilber).
* Emphasis on quirky, flaky, untested ideas. Obsession with fantasy or mythic thinking. Obsession with “the Evil One” (though an understanding of evil and the psyche’s shadow side is important for mature spiritual persons). Scary apocalypse-thinking, battleground mentality, or construing of events or souls in excessively dualistic categories of “Good” vs. “Evil.” In a healthy spiritual group, the human being is viewed neither as totally evil nor totally perfect but seen realistically as a fallible human whose source and true identity is Infinite Spirit, and whose potential is profound peace, bliss, freedom and love in authentic realization of God/Spirit. Beware excessive talk of heaven and hell, which promotes egocentric, authoritarian thinking about reward and punishment. A healthy group adheres to a time-tested worldview with a balanced theology, emphasizing complete transcendence of the Divine as well as the complete immanence of the Divine: God is beyond all yet within all. That is to say, there is neither imbalance toward an otherworldly, biophobic “ascender” orientation, nor a this-worldly, non-mystical, “descended” position.
* Intellectual parochialism or isolation from other worldviews; censorship or control of what people read; prevention of studying sacred texts from other traditions or visiting other genuine spiritual masters. A healthy spiritual group is open to spiritual truth from whatever source, and knows how to distinguish wise from unwise teachings (for example, see my criteria for genuine spiritual realization elsewhere in the Healthy Spirituality section of this website [see menu tabs at upper left of this webpage]).
* Orwellian double-speak (Deikman: “manipulating language to suggest a meaning and value opposite to the real situation”). Codewords or buzzwords. Excessive use of slogans to bypass critical thinking. Manipulative rhetoric based on cunning or emotionalism. Reinvention of language—e.g., excessive amount of jargon—to widen gulf between insiders and outsiders and exert mind-control. Adopting new names and titles for members can also be suspect, especially when it is done to create insider group-dynamics. However, we must be aware that, in a positive vein, changing members’ names can facilitate a new sense of identity, less conditioned by former ego tendencies; monastics in major religions, for instance, undergo name changes to help effect a psychological “death” to the old ego-persona.
* Beware enforcement of conformity in apparel and external behavior. These are not, in themselves, negative things, but, like new names for members, can be part of an overall unhealthy cult strategy to amplify insider/outsider dichotomies, destroy autonomy and insure compliance.
* Fascination with secrets or occult teachings and practices that promote an insider-outsider split. Beware any series of initiations that create intrigue and stratify group into levels with higher, elite superiors outranking inferior, lower members. Beware obsessions with magical rituals for empowering egoic aims.
* Excessive fascination with altered states of consciousness. For instance, chronically being in a mindless trance state (“navel-gazing”) can preclude deeper levels of spiritual realization as well as community service and enacting justice on behalf of fellow living beings who are subject to various forms of economic, social, political, racial/ethnic, gender or environmental injustice.
* Over-use of junk food or adherence to unhealthy diets. Beware any use of mind-altering drugs (unless they are part of one’s ancient tradition, as among the Huichol and other tribal people).
* Beware exploitation of sex in any form. Sometimes this may be rationalized as “good” for the group member. But every person has the right to refrain from sexual activity as s/he sees fit, without any kind of pressure.
* Legalistic obsession with myriad rules. Enslavement to authoritarian, military-style organization and procedure. Every group needs guidelines and rules, but when the form of the religion becomes more important than authentic spiritual experience, the group is in trouble and idolatry is a danger. The group needs to be flexible, adaptable, and open to new developments that would involve changes in guidelines and policies to better serve the members and society.
* Obsession with invisible or other-worldly entities or forces other than God. The issue is not whether these entities/forces exist—the subtle planes of energy and hyper-dimensional realms are evidently filled with all sorts of unusual beings and processes (including the souls of ancestors, saints and spirit guides, troubled souls, et al.). The relevant issue here is that obsession with demons, angels, aliens, ascended masters, ghosts, etc., undermines authentic realization of the transcendent/immanent Spirit, the one Divine Self of us all.
All our religious groups, old and new, large and small, need to be subjected to an evaluation according to something like the above list of warning signs. My own explorations and experiences in spiritual movements indicate that many groups can pass with flying colors an evaluation based on these criteria. Other groups, including some very large, well-known religious denominations, cannot pass muster.
Therefore, if you (or anyone you know) are presently participating in a group that does not fare well according to these standards, then you might want to get out as soon as possible and look for a healthier, more genuinely supportive, egalitarian and empowering spiritual community.
By boycotting unhealthy cults, they will eventually whither and fade away.
As a society, we would do well to actively counter destructive cult behavior, primarily via public education and classes in school, starting at the high school level or earlier—for, as we know, young people are often targeted by predatory cults.
This education can include lesson plans fostering knowledge of authentic spiritual development, based on guidelines from the well-known Perennial Wisdom circles within our sacred traditions. Such education can promote empathy; anti-authoritarian behavior; autonomy; divergent thinking; multiple viewpoints; and what Deikman terms the “eye level view”—adult to adult relationships, instead of situations wherein parent-figures intimidate submissive, disempowered “children.”
Hopefully our new millennium can be a time for outgrowing the sundry unhealthy and insipid activities that usurp the name of religion, so that we discover a mature, abundantly fruitful spirituality. It’s time for all of us to grow up, to genuinely lead lives of integrity, goodness, kindness and other virtues of excellence.
No more excuses.
1. Arthur Deikman, The Wrong Way Home: Uncovering the Patterns of Cult Behavior in American Society, Beacon, 1990/1994, p. 48.
2. My thinking on healthy and destructive cults has come not only through my own extensive observations of various religious and psychological groups, but also through the work of some fine transpersonalist thinkers/scholars who have written on cult behavior such as the previously cited Arthur Deikman, The Wrong Way Home, the best work I have thus far found on cults; Richard Anthony, Bruce Ecker, & Ken Wilber (Eds.), Spiritual Choices: The Problem of Recognizing Authentic Paths to Inner Transformation, Paragon, 1987; Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart: A Guide through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life, Bantam, 1993 (chapter 18, pp. 254-71); Jack Kornfield, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, 2000; and works by Prof. David Christopher Lane on corrupt cults and leaders such as Eckankar (Paul Twitchell, et al), Thakar Singh, and M.S.I.A. (John-Roger Hinkins’ Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness); see David C. Lane, Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical, Garland Publishing, 1994; The Making of a Spiritual Movement: The Untold Story of Paul Twitchell and Eckankar, Del Mar Press, 1983; D.C. Lane (Ed.), Understanding Cults and Spiritual Movements, Del Mar Press, 1989; and various articles. Other useful works on cults include Steven Hassan, Combating Cult Mind Control, Inner Traditions, 1990; Margaret Singer, Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives, SF: Jossey-Bass, 1996; I.M. Lewis, Religion in Context: Cults and Charisma, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996; Andrew Pavlos, The Cult Experience, Greenwood, 1982; and various works by Prof. J. Gordon Melton (all published by Garland), The Cult Controversy: A Guide to Sources, 1992; Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America, rev. ed., 1992; and Melton (Ed.), Cults and New Religions: Sources for the Study of Nonconventional Religious Groups in Nineteenth & Twentieth Century America, 22 volumes, 1992.
There are specific books on individual cults, such as the People’s Temple, the Unification Church, the Hare Krishna (I.S.K.CON) cult, the Branch Davidians, and the Rajneesh movement. Bent Corydon’s L. Ron Hubbard, Messiah or Madman? and John Atack’s A Piece of Blue Sky, cited earlier, are classic studies of the founder of Scientology, probably the most dangerous religious cult of the 20th century (after the quasi-religious Nazi Third Reich and the Wahabist al-Qaeda and Taliban groups).
An extensive list of general and specific works on cults can be found at the website of cult expert Rick Ross,
See also Anson Shupe & David Bromley (Eds.), Anti-Cult Movements in Cross-Cultural Perspective, Garland, 1994. Along this line, I cannot recommend the works of certain anti-cultists and de-programmers who operate either from a context of anti-spiritual secularism on the one hand, or from xenophobic, conservative, cultic Christianity on the other. Works from publishers such as Prometheus Books would be representative of the former, while the many anti-cult works from publishers such as Harvest House, InterVarsity Press, Zondervan, Thomas Nelson, et al., represent the latter. For such groups, anything outside their own materialistic or Christian thinking is to be ridiculed and rejected. They have no inkling of the Perennial Wisdom or the validity of religious pluralism. More importantly, these groups fail to see the cultic thinking in their own circles. For them, Deikman’s work is highly recommended reading.
3. Margaret Singer and L.J. West have identified ten “indoctrination elements” that characterize destructive cults: “1. Isolation of the recruit and manipulation of his/her environment. 2. Control over channels of communication and information. 3. Debilitation through inadequate diet and fa-tigue. 4. Degradation or diminution of the self. 5. Induction of uncertainty, fear and confusion, with joy and certainty through surrender to the group as a goal. 6. Alternation of harshness or leniency in a context of discipline. 7. Peer pressure, often applied through ritualized struggle sessions, generating guilt and requiring open confessions. 8. Insistence by seemingly all-powerful hosts that the recruit’s survival—physical or spiritual—depends on identifying with the group. 9. Assignment of monotonous tasks or repetitive tasks... 10. Acts of symbolic betrayal or renunciation of self, family, and previously held values, designed to increase the psychological distance between the recruit and his previous way of life.” Quoted in Rachel Andres & James Lane, Cults and Consequences: The Definitive Handbook, L.A.: Commission on Cults and Missionaries (Community Relations Committee, Jewish Federated Council of Greater Los Angeles), 1988, section 3, p. 4.
4. Deikman, The Wrong Way Home, p. 102.
5. The distinction between “unilevel” and “multilevel” comes from Richard Anthony, “The Anthony Typology: A Framework for Assessing Spiritual and Consciousness Groups,” in Richard Anthony, Bruce Ecker, & Ken Wilber (Eds.), Spiritual Choices, op. cit., pp. 35-105.
6. This last point is frequently made by Zen masters and has, in modern times, been strongly emphasized by Ken Wilber. Note, however, that Wilber doesn’t seem clear in some of his more recent analysis about authentic spiritual leadership figures—in some kind of unconscious ode to Nietzsche, he romanticizes the powerful egos of certain “crazy wisdom” “bad boys,” apparently oblivious of or forgetting the kind of megalomania, narcissism, and sociopathy etc., that can result from so many of these figures. The primary two guru-figures of our era that Wilber has publicly endorsed, Adi Da (Da Free John/ Franklin Jones, died in 2008) and Andrew Cohen, have both been exposed as terribly abusive, exploitative, dysfunctional cult leaders. I love most of Ken Wilber's writing; yet I wish he had better taste when it comes to certain modern-era spiritual teachers like Da and Cohen.