Cults: Characteristics of Cults

Cults: Characteristics of a Cult

There are several characteristics of a cult in terms of religious groups. Many cults have similar underlying signs that categorize them as a cult. Sometimes when a person thinks of the word “cult”, they imagine a Satanic group, and assume that people must be worshipping the devil, wearing black, and burning crosses to be considered a real cult. That is not the case. The indications may even shock you.

The International Cultic Studies Association has been a prime source for myself and many, including those in the medical and psychology field, to obtain more in-depth information on the inner workings of religious cults. The ICSA association is comprised of the world’s leading experts in the field. There are numerous studies and articles that have been created regarding the impact of various cults. The International Cultic Studies Association lists various characteristics of cults. I have compiled the most important indicators of a religious cult below, in a basic list form. This list is based on the work of Michael D. Langone, Executive Director of ICSA who received a Doctorate in Counseling Psychology. See his original findings here, or view a consolidates list below.

Characteristics of a Cult (A condensed list; The original complete list courtesy ICSA)

  • The group has an authoritarian leader who commands control, loyalty, and allegiance from group members.
  • The leader claims to have special knowledge or insight that others don’t have.
  • The cult maintains practices that are different from normal behavior.
  • The cult maintains that they are the only ones to have the truth, and that leaving will pose risks.
  • The cult separates itself socially from others, and is usually practicing elitism. They may also isolate followers from other people outside the cult.
  • Members of the cult feel or profess that they are the subject of persecution from people outside the cult.
  • The cult has its own terminology and phrases.
  • The cult leaders maintain control over members by using certain forms of mental manipulation. They remind the group that if they stick to the group’s beliefs or teachings, they will get special rewards (ie: spiritually).
  • The leader or leaders maintain control over the lives of members. (This may include counseling them on their sex lives, marital choices, time spent dedication to the group and even college or other advanced education which may be frowned upon).
  • Members are encouraged to contribute money or property to the group. (This may be conveyed to the members in a manner in which they believe that the cult is suffering financially when they are not.)
  • Recruitment of new members may be done in a deceptive way. (This may be accomplished by members not explicitly sharing the true inner workings of the religious organization with prospective members, including the losses or damage that will result if they leave).


Society’s View of Cults

Society today may label cult members as weak, or in some way not mentally sound. They may state that there is something wrong with anyone who joins a religious cult. These types of personalities may be generally aware of the realities of cults, however they themselves may not even realize how quickly or easily one may get absorbed or manipulated into a religious cult. Victims are often shamed once they realize they have been identified with a group that is labeled a “cult”. This may lead to humiliation and embarrassment, as well as anger. Victims may believe they were foolish or naive to have become involved in the first place. This can lead to confusing emotions and feelings which victims are not prepared to cope with or handle in a healthy manner, once they are removed, or leave the cult.

Denial of Cult Victims

Many members of cults may be in denial, as they do not realize the facts regarding the identification or characteristics of religious cults. It is also possible that the cult to which they belonged had painted an entirely different picture of what a cult looks or behaves like.

Emotional Damage from Cults

It is typically normal for victims to experience intense difficulties emotionally, both while they are inside of, and once they are outside of the religious cult. Anger, sadness, rage, humiliation, embarrassment, a sense of lost or wasted time, resentment, and hostility may be the biggest emotional hurdles to overcome. Those who have been exposed to cults for long periods of time, or especially throughout childhood upbringing may find comfort in seeking professional counseling or support groups.

There is no shame in having been a victim. Anyone can be a victim under any circumstances. Millions of people in the world are either now involved with, or have at one time been involved in a religious or other type of cult. In fact, 2/3 of the people who unknowingly become victims of cults live a happy life and have happy relationships prior to joining.


Different types of Cult can consist of the following:

  • Religious cults
  • Doomsday Cults
  • Sales cults (Multi level marketing)
  • Political Cults
  • Racist Cults
  • Anti-Government Cults
  • Self Improvement Cults
  • Psycho-spiritial Cults including transcendental meditation
  • Psychic (Secret Wisdom) Cults
  • Satanic cults
  • Social Movements, Extremist Cults

TOP 4 Religious Cults, most well known, still operating today:

Mormons – claim to have 14,000,000 members as of 2015.

Scientology – 10,000,000 members worldwide

Jehovah’s Witnesses -claim to have 8,200,000 members as of 2015.

Unification Church (Moonies) – Membership unknown, estimated to be approximately 100,000 by Washington Post.

Please share this article on Facebook or in your Social Media. You may help someone escape from a cult.

Want to join the ICSA? Click here and get invaluable information to assist former cult members in healing from the trauma of cultic involvement.  

Some information contained in this article, more specifically the bulleted list at the top of the article, “Characteristics of a Cult”, has been obtained from the ISCA. You may see a more in-depth, revised article here, where Michael D. Langone, Ph.D. offers his professional viewpoint. Additional information has been gathered from various internet resources and research studies.


For more reading regarding leaving the church, see this article.

The Doctrines of Faith blog is a Christian website which offers spiritual guidance, biblical studies and Christian devotionals to those seeking to grow stronger in their spiritual walk with Jesus Christ. If you are a person experiencing Christian Suffering, please feel free to stay a while and read some articles. You may also be interested in some scripture studies or other Christian topics. Please see the list of topics at the bottom of the website and browse for things that may interest you.

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