Is there any difference between Religions and Cults? Some commentators say that the only difference is that Religions may have started out as Cults, but they have simply been around long enough to be institutionalized and accepted by the general community as ‘Religions’!

Since the beginning of the Covid pandemic the world has been bombarded with conspiracy theories, ‘fake’ and distorted news reports, and promises of false cures from a variety of manipulative individuals and organizations. In this issue we examine the disturbing phenomenon of Cults that affect so many people and their families today.

So, what are ‘Cults’ as compared to established ‘Religions’? Let’s have a look at some definitions:

A Religion:

  • The service and worship of God or the supernatural, or a commitment to religious faith or observance: By this definition religion is typically about God or the Gods and a passionate commitment to these principles. It can also mean ‘Supernatural’, in that religion deals with some things that might be considered supernatural by many people including aliens, ghosts, angels, or gods that may be foreign to our everyday activities.
  • A cause, principle, or system of belief held with ardour (passion) and faith: By this definition religion could be about a cause or principle with or without a godlike figure instead focus on the belief system and principles instead.

A Cult:

  • Is really a religion which currently is regarded as unorthodox: This definition is problematic in that it is entirely subjective. What I view as unorthodox might be completely normal for someone else. By calling something a Cult, you are already showing your internal bias. It’s unconventional and untraditional to you.
  • A great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement or work: Cults usually venerate a person, a figurehead at the head of the church instead of the values that they claim to practice.

What makes something a Cult versus a ‘legitimate’ Religion?


Religions and practices have usually been around for a long time and therefore have more social capital. New religions might seem outlandish to some but that’s very often because they are new.

Imagine if the story of Christ and the Crucifixion was claimed to have happened now. If someone claimed they had comeback from the dead and that belief in him was the only way to salvation! The ‘Jesus Movement’ of Judaism during Jesus lifetime and soon thereafter, would likely have been perceived the same way that some newer religions have been treated.

Older faiths have the benefit of thousands of years of history to legitimize them.  They may even have religious texts which prophesize the coming of their leader centuries before they are born (as some see in Christianity).

Therefore, newer religions are likely to be labelled as ‘Cults’ as opposed to Religions that have been called ‘Religions’ for thousands of years.


The more secret an organisation is, the more likely that people will view it as dangerous. What is there to hide?

  • Often there may be ideas or books which are not available to the public.
  • There may be places that only members can go.
  • There may be secrets that only long-time members have access to.

If a group is open and transparent it is much harder for people to feel threatened. A common thread with cults is that people feel that they may be dangerous. Why?


If a group is taking your money they will be perceived as possibly dangerous.

Cults often:

  • Costs money to join.
  • Demand regular payments.
  • Give up all money/possessions.

Most Religions, on the other hand, rely on Donations or Tithing.

Cults often ‘Demand’ money. If you have to pay for knowledge or privileges it appears to be more of a money-making scam as opposed to a legitimate religion.

The cost to society:

  • Groups that practice undue influence as a means of controlling people often have tax-exempt or even charitable status, which means citizens pay the taxes for any properties they own and the services required to maintain those properties.
  • While a group may receive billions of dollars from its members, they often do not put that money back into society to help people other than the cult leadership.
  • To meet the demands placed upon them by a high-control group, many members of Cults are subsidized by the social welfare system, including the medical system, costing society even more money.


Cults often ask you to give up friends and family if they are not members of the Cult. In most groups commonly known as cults, members must leave their friends and family:

  • Relocate to a confined living space with other believers.
  • Disassociate with non-believing friends and family even if they are not actually moving away. They do this because family and friends have the most sway over our opinions and so by removing them from family and friends they will have the greatest control over them. So, if you notice a family member or friend who is involved with a sect or cult and they start distancing themselves from you, this is a warning sign of cult membership.
  • Compare with what most of the great Religions say which is to surround yourself with family and friends and not leave them behind.


Most cults are distinctive in having a strong and charismatic leader. They idolize a person.  He/she may have a couple of psychic powers (siddhis) which doesn’t mean he is especially a ‘spiritually advanced’ person. This charisma is usually the first thing to draw a new member into the sect. Criticising this figure is an offense that could remove you from the organization. Cults ask you to give up your own moral sense to the Cult Leader by convincing followers that he knows better than we know. In this we betray own inner voice of what is right and wrong and so we can be led into serious moral dilemmas through to even committing crimes at the behest of the Cult leader, for example the Manson Cult responsible for the Sharon Tate murders in 1969 celebrated in the recent film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

When undue influence is initially imposed on the minds of unsuspecting recruits by extremist cults or pseudo-religious groups, it often starts with “love bombing” and a promise of life in an idealistic fantasy world where they might “never have to die” and could “live forever,” achieve some elite status in a better society to come, etc.

Once recruits have bought into all the initial promises and hype, they are incrementally introduced into a systematic method of control, one small step at a time.

This methodical system of control—undue influence—disrupts the person’s authentic identity and reconstructs a new identity in the image of the group or leader. In the process, an individual’s ability to think rationally and act independently is undermined, enslaving even the brightest, educated and most functional people.


Cults normally have beliefs that are not traditional to most people and they vary greatly even from other religious groups:

  • Groups may focus on Aliens and Space, such as Heaven’s Gate that encouraged members to commit suicide as a comet passed overhead.
  • Might be sects of Christianity that vary radically from what is normally understood to be Christian belief., or exaggerate some aspects of accepted Christianity, eg. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists.
  • Some groups are very violent in what they want and demand and violently opposed to the mainstream. A premier example, is Jonestown, a utopian community of the 1970s in Guyana, South America, where over 900 Americans moved and then committed mass suicide or were murdered by drinking Kool-Aid laced with Cyanide in 1979. The term ‘Drinking the Kool-Aid’ comes from this event. This group combined many of the elements we have just talked about: unorthodox way to live in an exotic location away from other people under a strong and charismatic leader.

The BITE Model:

Steven Hassan’s BITE Model in his books–Combating Cult Mind Control, Releasing the Bonds, Freedom of Mind–explains the four overlapping components of control necessary to define Undue Influence. Based on research and theory by researchers who studied brainwashing in Maoist China as well as cognitive dissonance theory developed the BITE Model to describe the specific methods that cults use to recruit and maintain control over people.  

“BITE” stands for Behavior, Information, Thought, and Emotional Control that offers a list of variables that can be easily identified and which quickly show if a group or individual is exercising unethical influence.

Destructive mind control can be determined when the overall effect of these four components promotes dependency and obedience to some leader or cause; it is not necessary for every single item on the list to be present. In fact, there only needs to be a few major behaviours under each of the four components:

Features of BITE Analysis of Cults

Dealing with Family who might be caught up in a Cult:

So, what happens if we have to deal with friends or family who are in a cult. Most people attracted to cults do not see  these organizations as ‘cults’ and all that that implies. So instead of saying to say to them, ‘Watch out this Cult could be dangerous for you’, You could try:

“I don’t like that you have distanced yourself from friends and family”

“It doesn’t seem right to me that you have to pay so much money for this.”

This can be more effective than saying ‘You’re in a Cult.’ – which will draw a defensive posture and, in most cases, no one agrees that they’re in a dangerous situation until it’s too late.

Counselling Cult members wishing to leave:

Victims of Cults are systematically influenced by the beliefs and practices of the group in order for them to adopt the identity and personality befitting the religious cult. This identity and personality that is believed to be God-pleasing, views the outside world as evil and a threat.

In order to maintain cult members in a state which is pure and free from the contamination from the evil world, they are taught to cultivate an antagonistic and resistant attitude towards any person or group contradicting the cults views. Any attempt by an ‘outsider’ to communicate with cult members is usually prohibited.

Any attempt to counsel cult members must be preceded by the establishment of a trust relationship that will overcome the resistance and open up communication. The counselling sessions that follow must address the emotional conditions of anger, false guilt, and fear in order to restore the person’s sense of self-worth and their ability to adapt and eventually function in the outside world.

Deprogramming: a radical approach to leaving Cult-membership:

Deprogramming refers to measures that claim to assist a person who holds a controversial belief system in changing those beliefs and abandoning allegiance to the religious, political, economic, or social group associated with the belief system.

The dictionary definition of deprogramming is “to free” or “to retrain” someone from specific beliefs. Some controversial methods and practices of self-identified “deprogrammers” have involved kidnapping, false imprisonment, and coercion which have sometimes resulted in criminal convictions of the deprogrammers.

Some deprogramming regimens are designed for individuals taken against their will, which has led to controversies over freedom of religion, kidnapping, and civil rights, as well as the violence which is sometimes involved.

The Strategic Interaction Approach (SIA):

Counselling members of destructive cults has come a long way since the old days of “Deprogramming,” There are now, new and compassionate methods such as Steven Hassan’s, Strategic Interaction Approach. His method involves not only the cult member, but his family, friends, and sometimes ex-members. It takes the form of family counselling; an important, even vital way to help the cult member relate to his “pre-cult” self. This method is careful to distinguish between destructive and non-destructive cults, as it has no quarrel with beliefs, only actions.

In the words of Steven Hassan who devised this approach to helping the victims of Cults:

“The Strategic Interaction Approach liberates and then integrates the parts of the pre-cult identity that were co-opted by the cult identity. In addition, we draw out the individual’s “authentic,” or Higher, Self and enlist its help to make new associations with the cult self. For example, we recognize that idealism is an integral part of our loved one’s authentic identity. By pointing out discrepancies between cult doctrine and hypocritical cult policies, the idealistic component of the cult identity can be encouraged to begin the questioning process. Eventually, the cult member becomes disillusioned with the group and feels motivated to walk out or ask for help. The Strategic Interaction Approach provides in-depth counseling that promotes healing. By honoring the authentic self, the pre-cult self, and the core of the cult self, we help your loved one to integrate valuable parts of his identity into a healthy post-cult self.”

The focus now is on freeing the mind, a precious freedom that destructive mind control is intent on taking away.

Further Information:

Steven Hassan: Combating Cult Mind Control, Releasing the Bonds, Freedom of Mind. Freedom of Mind Press, 2000.

Steven Hassan: The Strategic Interaction Approach (SIA):

Book Review: Freedom of Mind by Steven Hassan:

Claire Ashman: Lessons from a Cult Survivor. Claire McAuliffe, 2018. Australian author.

Claire Ashman: Lessons from a cult-survivor – video on You Tube:

Why do people join cults? – video on You Tube:

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