Chapter 5: Frequently Asked Questions

Since its founding, Info-Cult has responded to tens of thousands of inquiries about “cults” and the cult phenomenon. This chapter provides answers to some of the most common questions asked.

Is the group I or a member of my family belongs to a cult? Is the group dangerous?

These are two of the most common questions received at Info-Cult. In spite of the desire for a simple yes or no answer, the complexity of the cult phenomenon makes it impossible to give a short explanation. Identifying the possible risks to members posed by a given group requires an in-depth analysis of the group.

What is a cult?

The word “cult” can be used to describe:

· Individuals grouped around a common religious ideology or doctrine;

· A system of religious beliefs or rituals;

· Groups that adopt behaviours or practices that appear strange or dangerous from the point of view of the observer.

The current public utilisation of the term “cult” has a pejorative connotation.fn 179

How can I find information on a particular group?

Information on groups can be obtained from:

· The group itself;

· Former members;

· Sites on the Internet;

· Information or research centres on the cult phenomenon and/or new religious movements;

· Individuals who have studied and are familiar with these groups and the cult phenomenon, such as lawyers, researchers, journalists, psychologists, social workers, etc.

When forming an opinion about a given group, it is always a good idea to use as many different sources of information as possible.

Can groups, in certain situations, be harmful to their members?

Some researchers try to quantify and categorize forms of victimization in certain cultic groups;fn 180 however, these statistics are not complete since it is impossible to identify all cultic groups in a given environment.

Despite uncertainties as to the number of victims of cultic groups, various testimonialsfn 181 and studies on the victimization of group membersfn 182 suggest the presence of different types of harm in some of these groups.

Who becomes a member?

It is difficult to pinpoint specific personalities that lend themselves to life within a particular group. However, certain people at certain times in their lives join groups that require a significant investment of time and money. This can occur for example when individuals are:

· In a period of transition, such as young adults;fn 183

· Adults experiencing mid-life crisis;fn 184

· Individuals with addictions, for instance to drugs, sex or alcohol;fn 185

· Individuals experiencing psychological distress from a traumatic event such as the break-up of a relationship or the death of a loved one.

Why join a group?

There are many reasons why people join groups. The motives and explanations provided by members and researchers help to understand why some individuals decide to join a group.

Circumstances that can influence an individual's decision to join a group

Here are a few situations that can influence a person's decision to join a group:fn 186

· Being sick, spending time with people who are sick or considering one's lifestyle to be unhealthy;

· Being in a difficult financial situation;

· Feeling confused about ones values or that one's values conflict with socially accepted ones;

· Feeling that something is lacking in one's interpersonal relationships, for example, feeling lonely;

· Feeling that one's life and role in society are unsatisfactory.

A question of relationship

To understand the process by which an individual becomes a member and commits to a group, it is important to look at the relationship that binds the member to the leader.

A process of influence

The decision to join a group may be based on free choice or the result of a leader's techniques of psychological persuasion.fn 187

Which aspects of a group's functioning can influence a child's development and safety?

Life in a group can be a very enriching and fulfilling experience for all members. However, what are the implications for children who grow up in totalist groupsfn 188 or in a group with a charismatic leader?fn 189 Here are some of the elements of internal group functioning that can have an impact on a child's development and safety:

The image of children in the group

The image and social position of children put forth and promoted by the group can have a direct influence on a child's quality of life.fn 190 For example, a bible group may believe that a child is a fundamentally bad being. In such groups, the child may be viewed, from his or her birth, as a sinner who must be saved. In this case atonement for being a sinner may involve corporal punishment.

In other situations, the age at which a child is believed to become an adult can influence the child's development within a group. For instance, an organization that considers girls as adults at the age of 10 could mean that these girls engage in relations that could prove traumatic. They may be required to marry a man they do not know, engage in sexual relations at a very young age, and assume responsibilities similar to those of older women in the group.fn 191

The role and meaning of family in the group

The importance accorded to the family in a group can have a direct impact on a child's daily life. It is more likely that a child's needs will be met in a group that values family and the parent-child bond than in a group that values total devotion to the leader.fn 192 For example, children who grow up in a group that believes that the leader's mission is hindered by the family may be separated from their parents.fn 193

When examining the role of the family in a group, it is also important to consider parental authority.fn 194 Who has the authority to make decisions regarding a child's education? In totalist groups, the parents' role may be redefined and they may exercise only limited decision-making power regarding the education of their children, how they are disciplined and even the amount of time they spend with their children.fn 195

What possible kinds of harm can members of a group suffer?

Types of harm

Members of a group can be harmed in different ways, including:


· Fraud

· Financial demands by the group that threaten the individual's financial well-being

· Non-remunerated work


· Physical abuse

· Food and sleep deprivation

· Refusal to provide access to adequate medical treatment

· Sexual abuse


· Denial of affection

· Attacks on self-esteem

· Limited or restricted access to information

· Limited or restricted access to education

· Child neglect

· Elder neglect

Why does an individual leave a group?

A number of factors may prompt an individual to leave a group:

· The group's values no longer correspond to the individual's;

· The group expels the individual;

· Troubled relations arise among members;

· The individual is a victim of physical and/or psychological abuse;

· Outside intervention.

How can I assess if the group I belong to or plan to join corresponds to my needs?

It is important to seek out information about the group from different sources.

The following list of questions should not be used as a way to determine whether or not a given group is a cult, but rather if the group can meet your expectations and needs. Answering these questions can help you make an informed choice.

Leadership and power

· Who wields the power in the group?

· Who is the leader/founder?

· What kind of training does the leader have?

· What is the leader's personal history?

· How are decisions made regarding the lives of each member?

· How is power distributed in the group?

· Do members, other than the leader, hold any power?

The group

· Is the group controversial? If so, why?

· What demands does the group make on members?

· What are the group's concerns? Money? Purity?

The members

· Do members have criticisms of their group?

· What are these criticisms?

· How many hours a week does a member devote to the group?

The financial participation of members

· Are fees charged for joining the group?

· Are members required to hand over a portion of their salary to the group?

· Do members have to work for the group?

Perception of the world

· How does the group and its members describe their social environment and non-members?

· Are there restrictions on what a member can read, listen to or see?


· What is the nature of relations between the group and the wider community?

· What is the nature of relations among members?

· What is the nature of relations between members and their family and friends?

· What is the nature of relations between members and non-members?

· What is the nature of relations between the leader and his or her followers?


· What is the social status of children in the group?

· What is the role of children in the group?

· Do children have contact with the outside world?

· Do school-age children go to: public or private school; home schooled; or to the group's school?

· Can children receive medical care offered by a public health service?

· Are children allowed to play with children who are non-members?


· Do group members have access to medical care provided by a public health service?

· Does the group have its own health practices?

Women in the group

· What is the role of women in the group?

· What is the group's view of women?

Intimate relations

· What is the group's view of sexuality?

· Can members of the group freely marry?

· How is a life partner chosen and who makes the choice?



©Info-Cult 2006