Definition of a 'Cult'

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What makes some religions "cults" and others "mainstream"?

This is taken from Margot Adler's book Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America, a guide to contemporary neopaganism. She quotes P.E.I. Bonewitz on what to look for and avoid in any organization that promises wisdom by participating in its activities.

Score each item on a scale of 1 to 10 (or whatever is your favorite scale):

  1. Internal control: the amount of internal political power exercised by leader(s) over members.
  2. Wisdom claimed by leader(s): the amount of infallibility declared about decisions.
  3. Wisdom credited to leader(s) by members; the amount of trust in decisions made by leader(s).
  4. Dogma: the rigidity of reality concepts taught; the amount of doctrinal inflexibility.
  5. Recruiting: the emphasis put on attracting new members; the amount of proselytizing.
  6. Front groups: the number of subsidiary groups using names different from that of the main group.
  7. Wealth: the amount of money and/or property desired or obtained; the degree of emphasis on members' donations.
  8. Political power: the amount of external political influence desired or obtained.
  9. Sexual manipulation of members by leader(s); the amount of control of sex lives of members.
  10. Censorship: the amount of control over members' access to outside opinions on group: its doctrines: or its leader(s).
  11. Dropout control: the intensity of efforts directed at preventing or returning dropouts.
  12. Endorsement of violence when used by or for the group or its leader(s).
  13. Paranoia: the amount of fear concerning real or imagined enemies: the perceived power of opponents.
  14. Grimness: the amount of disapproval concerning jokes about the group, its doctrines, or its leader(s).

This list of warning signs preceded a list of neopagan groups, mostly American ones. Margot Adler stated that she hoped that there would be no groups on her list that scored too high on this scale.


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