Good Cult, Bad Cult

Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate

I love cults. This might seem like an odd, even offensive thing to say. “Tell that to the people who were abused or even murdered by the Peoples Temple, Aum Shinrikyo, or Scientology,” you might fire back. Yes, those groups are/were absolutely awful, as are many groups that get labeled cults. But at least some (I suspect many) of the groups that get called cults are amazing. Why this inconsistency?

Because the word “cult” sucks. It could be a very useful word. We need a word like it. But popular usage has rendered it a toothless ad hominem.


Both the problem and potential usefulness of the word “cult” stem from its negative connotation. A cult is something that has a bunch of cult-defining characteristics. It’s also a bad and dangerous thing. Combine these two facts, and it follows that all of the cult-defining characteristics must be bad. This isn’t necessarily the case.

Let’s look at some of what some of these “cult-defining characteristics” are:

  • Leader worship
  • Extraordinary enthusiasm
  • Jargon
  • Proselytizing
  • Unusual metaphysical, religious, and/or sociopolitical beliefs
  • Intense ritualistic practices
  • Isolation from society, family, and loved ones
  • Members giving away large sums of money and free labor to the organization
  • Ritual suicide
  • Sexual and physical abuse
  • Intimidation of and/or violence toward ex-members and/or media
  • Suppression of questioning or challenging attitudes within the organization
  • Secrecy

The word “cult” is obviously somewhat vague. Few organizations meet all of the characteristics listed above (People’s Temple arguably did – those guys really went all out). Are there any characteristics that are, or should be, absolute pre-requisites for earning the “cult” label?

Presumably, there’s a reason these characteristics tend to come together into a recognizable composite that we have a specific name for. These characteristics are manifestations of an underlying phenomenon: a sense, shared by a group, that they’ve hit on a fundamental insight that the rest of society is missing.

The insight (sometimes more of an experience) is usually, at least in broad strokes, actually very insightful. When people who fall for Scientology go in for their initial auditing, there’s a reason they come back, and it’s not because they’re dupes. It’s because they get an immensely valuable and liberating experience out of auditing. There’s something really there.

The intensity of that liberating insight, combined with the fact that most of society really has no idea about that insight, leaves people with a good reason to trust the provider of that insight over society. The insight is usually something way out of the ordinary and unexpected. So, if the cult leader suggests another insight – perhaps a farfetched, even dangerous one – well, why not trust him? He was right the first time. And this is how cult leaders end up in a position of power over people.

I’m sure some people understand this mechanism and go out of their way to exploit insights of this kind, in order to gain power over people. In most cases, however, I think cult leaders start out as genuine free thinkers, often geniuses. Their courage and bold vision provides immense value for the people willing to listen. It is providing that value which gives the would-be leader power. And power corrupts, both for good and bad people.

Once we get to this stage, the institutions which might be there to protect people from the leader’s exploitation lose their effectiveness. The cult member no longer trusts mainstream institutions, because they have no clue about the insight.


This all happens because the insights in question really are intensely powerful and liberating. So, is it possible to deliver insights of this kind without creating this unfortunate set of incentives? What if I have a life-altering insight I want to share with everyone who will listen, but I don’t want to become a cult leader? What can I do?

It is the power of the cult leader that is the problem. And in order for the cult leader to maintain his power, he needs to be isolated from open questioning. This is why cults repress inquiring attitudes and encourage members to isolate themselves from family and society. Make a point of keeping the “cult” as open as possible – open to media, open to criticism, open to new ideas – and power will not consolidate. If the cult’s insight is good, it will spread despite all the criticism.

Gandhi was a cult leader. His cult was open. It is now mainstream, and we don’t even think of it as a cult.

I have participated in a handful of organizations that sometimes get called cults: Praxis, Landmark, and Freedomain Radio. I’ve also briefly been introduced to a couple others that are gaining popularity today: Mama Gena’s and OneTaste immediately come to mind. Are they cults?

In one sense, they all obviously are. They all involve insights of the kind I’ve been discussing: wildly out of the mainstream beliefs and practices. Participants are hugely enthusiastic. They proselytize. They use jargon.

But here’s the key question: are they open? No organization that practices physical or sexual abuse, or encourages suicide, or intimidates ex-members, will be open. They will put up a welcoming veneer to bring in new members. But it’ll always be clear that what’s really going on is hidden from view.

Consider the organizations I’ve been personally involved with. I have never encountered anything remotely secretive about Praxis’s operations. While its leader is an important figure, relatively little of what goes on at Praxis revolves around him. Landmark encourages sharing and communication pretty much above all else – that sharing applies to what goes on at Landmark as well. Participants tend to become much more socially integrated and connected after participating in Landmark’s programs. Landmark also has no single leader figure.

Freedomain Radio, on the other hand, has a history of encouraging listeners to leave their families if those families don’t agree with the leader’s big insights. The group is all about the leader’s personal insights and opinions. This isn’t to say I’m willing to call Freedomain Radio a cult – it rates low to nil on most of the more problematic characteristics mentioned above. But that tendency to encourage isolation is a red flag. Power dynamics might not be entirely healthy within that group.


Now to return to the question I posed at the beginning: what would be a useful definition of cult? To answer that, let me be a good cult member and proselytize for a moment.

Praxis thinks that they know something about education and value creation that is vastly and fundamentally important, and that mainstream society is totally missing out on. Most Praxis participants would agree that missing this insight is a major cause of many of society’s ills. I think they’re right.

Landmark thinks that the attitudes most people have toward the meaning of their lives, their past, their possibilities, and ultimately their very selves, are limited, disempowering, and easily transformed. Most Landmark participants would agree that if many more people got Landmark’s insights, the world would be a vastly better place. I think they’re right.

The insights these two organizations have to offer are remarkable. I don’t think this makes them unique. I’m sure there are many organizations like them, with insights just as valuable. When we call organizations like these cults, we miss out on benefiting from the insights they offer.

So here’s my proposal: the word “cult” should not group Landmark and Praxis with People’s Temple and Scientology. It should not group together radically transformative groups that are open with those are that closed-off. The closed-off ones are dangerous. The open ones can sometimes be the source of tremendous value to people, and ultimately to society.

We need to get in the habit of treating the tendency toward isolation and secrecy as a requisite for labeling an organization a cult. Failing to do so robs us of being introduced to incredibly powerful insights, and dilutes warnings of genuinely dangerous groups.

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