A cult is a minority religious group that typically tightly controls the behaviours and beliefs of its members, as well as shunning former members and critics. The term "cult" is usually considered pejorative and certain groups, such as Scientology, take offence being labelled as such. Cults are less controversially referred to as new religious movements. It can be difficult for members to break free of the influence of a cult.
- "When your own thoughts are forbidden, when your questions are not allowed and our doubts are punished, when contacts with friendships outside of the organization are censored, we are being abused, for the ends never justify the means. When our heart aches knowing we have made friendships and secret attachments that will be forever forbidden if we leave, we are in danger. When we consider staying in a group because we cannot bear the loss, disappointment and sorrow our leaving will cause for ourselves and those we have come to love, we are in a cult… If there is any lesson to be learned it is that an ideal can never be brought about by fear, abuse, and the threat of retribution. When family and friends are used as a weapon in order to force us to stay in an organization, something has gone terribly wrong."
When a cult gains significant membership, it usually has to adapt to a wider diversity of beliefs from its members and is instead referred to as a religion or church. It appears to be difficult to strictly maintain homogeneous belief within large group of people without a schism occurring.
Confusingly, the word "cult" can also mean "religion" in a general sense but that is not what is meant in this article.
Characteristics of a cult
Some of the characteristics of a cult include: 
- Shunning of people who disobey or leave the religion,
- Religious leaders must be strictly obeyed and must not be questioned,
- Most or all behaviors, thoughts and feelings of a follower is dictated by the leadership,
- Followers are told not to freely associate with outsiders,
- Belief in an imminent apocalypse, return of a messiah or a culmination of history, seeing signs of its nearness, sometimes making predictions of a specific date,
- Reading literature that is critical of the cult is discouraged or forbidden,
- Access to social or cultural activities outside the group are discouraged or forbidden
- My religion is the one true religion or the belief they are the only path to salvation,
- Mind-altering practices are used, such as drugs, mediation, repetitive chanting,
- Opposition to education or independent thinking,
- Exultation of the leadership as a prophet, avatar or on a special mission,
- Us-vs.-them mentality, or a persecution complex,
- Acting as though the ends justify any means,
- Preoccupied with generating donations or converting new members,
As a result of these characteristics, members of the group find it difficult to leave. A cult does not have to exhibit all of the attributes to be a cult, but the threshold can be rather subjective. Suicide cults like Jonestown are actually unusual within the cult phenomena overall.
While some cults are pacifists, other violent extremist groups fall within the definition of being a cult. For instance the Aum Shinrikyo group executed a plan in 1995 to release sarin gas in the Tokyo subway that killed 12 people and caused 50 severe injuries. Also, extreme Islamist (often extreme Salafi) groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS are cult-like in their practices and understanding of their religion.
Talking to a cult member
It is difficult to convince someone they are in a cult because their beliefs are structured so that they may not be questioned. In fact, telling them this may be counter-productive.
- "the cult member doesn’t believe that he or she is in a cult. Instead, he or she believes that they have achieved a privileged status in an elite group which offers them ultimate salvation. So your attempts to “save” them from their group ring hollow—or sound nefarious—to the cult member."
Specialist advice is available for interacting with friends and family that have joined a cult from support charities such as cultwatch.com.
- Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups - Revised, ICSA Today, Vol. 6, No. 3, 2015, 10