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What Is a Cult? - Definition, Characteristics & Behavior

Instructor: Deborah Teasley

Deborah has 4 years of teaching experience and a master's degree in program development & management.

When is a following or group of believers considered a cult? In this lesson, we will review the many ways in which this term is used as well as behaviors that are associated with it.

What Is a Cult?

The word cult is defined as a system or group of people who practice excessive devotion to a figure, object or belief system, typically following a charismatic leader. The term is commonly connected with highly unorthodox religious sects that take part in sinister practices and demonstrations. In some cases, this is true; however, cults can be non-religious too.

Characteristics & Behaviors of Cults

Charles Manson, leader of the cult known as The Family, was arrested and later convicted of first-degree murder.
Charles Manson

So what makes a group a cult? One characteristic that we reviewed already is that there tends to be a leader that the group follows with unquestioning faith. The leader supports and preaches a particular doctrine, belief system or ideology that members adhere to. Members are usually so committed to this belief system that they are easily persuaded to commit unethical if not illegal acts that have been deemed justifiable by the leader. Let's take a look at two examples that highlight some of these key characteristics of cult culture and their often dangerous behaviors.

In 1967, Charles Manson founded the cult known as, 'The Family'. This is one of the few examples of a nonreligious but dangerous cult. Manson believed that the United States would soon fall into an apocalyptic war between the races. He recruited members and brainwashed them into believing that after the race war was over, they would be asked to lead the country into the dawning of a new age. This supposed war was not happening quickly enough for Manson and in order to speed up the process he successfully convinced his followers to commit a series of brutal murders. Eventually, they were caught, and Manson was sentenced to life in prison.

This is a depiction of a scene from the Book of Revelations. Applewhite believed it was about interactions between humans and extraterrestrials.
Book of Revelations

Another cult called Heaven's Gate was founded by Marshall Applewhite and had a belief system mixed with UFO ideology and biblical scripture. Applewhite preached that the human body was only a 'vehicle' to experience this plane of reality. He also believed that the world would be ending soon, in compliance with the book of Revelations from the Christian Bible. He slowly convinced his members that it was possible to leave this world behind and transcend to a higher realm. Applegate aligned this belief with the coming of the Hale-Bopp comet, which he thought had a hidden spaceship in its tail. In March of 1997, in conjunction with the arrival of the comet, Heaven's Gate made the news when 39 of its members committed suicide hoping to 'join' the aliens within the spaceship.

Cults and Pop Culture

Justin Bieber could be referred to as having a cult following because his fans are very dedicated and passionate.
Justin Bieber

Even though the term cult often has negative connotations, this is not always the case. In fact, we use the word to describe parts of our pop culture as well. Famous actors/actresses and singer/songwriters who have a strong fan base whose behavior borders on the extreme are often described as having a cult following.

This is when parts of the general public idolize someone who is famous. Fans of pop culture phenomenon Justin Bieber went as far as naming themselves 'Beliebers.' In addition to buying his music and attending his concerts, they often write letters, fan fiction, and send him gifts to show their undying affection.

The fans of Star Wars loved the films so much that they created the organization called the 501st Legion, where members dress up as stormtroopers to promote interest in the movie.
Star Wars 501st Legion

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