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A cult checklist is a group of factors proposed to identify objectively which groups, cults, or new religious movements are likely to abuse, exploit or otherwise harm its members.

Several checklists of cult behavior have been circulated by members of the anti-cult movement. These lists vary by the terminology they use, and how they group the behaviors they describe.

The check lists for problematic groups and new religious movements that are generally not labelled "cult checklists" and that have been made by people or organizations not associated by the anti-cult movement, such as sociologists and scholars of new religious movements are treated here too.

See also: Problems surrounding the definition of a cult.

Eileen BarkerEdit

A checklist, made by professor Eileen Barker, in which traits of groups that can evolve to be dangerous are described. Barker stated that her list was based on empirical research. The traits named include:

  1. A movement that separates itself from society, either geographically or socially;
  2. Adherents who become increasingly dependent on the movement for their view on reality;
  3. Important decisions in the lives of the adherents are made by others;
  4. Making sharp distinctions between us and them, divine and Satanic, good and evil, etc. that are not open for discussion;
  5. Leaders who claim divine authority for their deeds and for their orders to their followers;
  6. Leaders and movements who are unequivocally focused on achieving a certain goal.

Shirley HarrisonEdit

In her book "Cults - the battle for God", Shirley Harrison has a list of the characteristics of a potential destructive cult:

  • A powerful leader who claims divinity or a special mission entrusted to him/her from above;
  • Revealed scriptures or doctrine;
  • Deceptive recruitment;
  • Totalitarianism and alienation of members from their families and/or friends;
  • The use of indoctrination, by sophisticated mind-control techniques, based on the concept that once you can make a person behave the way you want, then you can make him/her believe what you want;
  • Slave labour - that is, the use of members on fundraising or missionary activities for little or no pay to line the leader's pockets;
  • Misuse of funds and the accumulation of wealth for personal or political purposes at the expense of members; and
  • Exclusivity - "we are right and everyone else is wrong".

Steve EichelEdit

In his "Building Resistance to Manipulation", the psychologist Steve K.D. Eichel created a checklist of signs of a sect designed to brainwash its members into loyal followers:

  • Isolate them in new surroundings apart from old friends or reference-points;
  • Provide them with instant acceptance from a seemingly loving group;
  • Keep them away from competing or critical ideas;
  • Provide an authority figure that everyone seems to acknowledge as having some special skill or awareness;
  • Provide a philosophy that seems logical and appears to answer all or the most important questions in life;
  • Structure all or most activities so that there is little time for privacy or independent action or thought, provide a sense of "us" versus "them";
  • Promise instant or imminent solutions to deep or long-term problems;
  • Employ covert or disguised hypnotic techniques.

James R. LewisEdit

In his book Cults in America, a scholar named James R. Lewis explains[citation needed] and then summarizes a number of properties he would expect a dangerous sect to have. The summary follows: (direct quote)

  • The organization is willing to place itself above the law. With the exceptions noted earlier (in the full document linked below), this is probably the most important characteristic;
  • The leadership dictates (rather than suggests) important personal (as opposed to spiritual) details of followers' lives, such as whom to marry, what to study in college, etc.;
  • The leader sets forth ethical guidelines members must follow but from which the leader is exempt;
  • The group is preparing to fight a literal, physical Armageddon against other human beings;
  • The leader regularly makes public assertions that he or she knows is false and/or the group has a policy of routinely deceiving outsiders.

Robert J. LiftonEdit

In 1961 Robert J. Lifton wrote Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism after studying the effects of mind control on American prisoners of war under the Communist Chinese. Lifton outlines eight major factors that can be used to identify whether a group is a destructive cult or not[1]:

  • Milieu control (controlled relations with the outer world)
  • Mystic manipulation (the group has a higher purpose than the rest)
  • Confession (confess past and present sins)
  • Self-sanctification through purity (pushing the individual towards an unattainable perfection)
  • Aura of sacred science (beliefs of the group are sacrosanct and perfect)
  • Loaded language (new meanings to words, encouraging black-and-white thinking)
  • Doctrine over person (the group is more important than the individual)
  • Dispensed existence (insiders are saved, outsiders are doomed)

Isaac BonewitsEdit

Isaac Bonewits provides an "Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation Frame" [2] (first published in his book "Real Magic" in 1979) intended to evaluate the degree of resemblance of a given religious or secular group to what the observer using this tool might consider a "cult." As he puts it,

"The purpose of this evaluation tool is to help both amateur and professional observers, including current or would-be members, of various organizations (including religious, occult, psychological or political groups) to determine just how dangerous a given group is liable to be, in comparison with other groups, to the physical and mental health of its members and of other people subject to its influence."
His checklist, known as the ABCDEF ("Because understanding cults should be elementary"), allows the user to evaluate groups on a scale of 1 to 10, on the basis of 18 factors, namely:

  • Internal control
  • External control
  • Wisdom or knowledge claimed by leaders
  • Wisdom or knowledge credited to leaders
  • Dogma
  • Recruiting
  • Front groups
  • Wealth
  • Sexual manipulation
  • Sexual favoritism
  • Censorship
  • Isolation
  • Dropout control
  • Violence
  • Paranoia
  • Grimness
  • Surrender of will
  • Hypocrisy

The ABCDEF is available in multiple languages, including German, French, Italian, Polish, and Portuguese, on Bonewits's website.

Anthony StorrEdit

Anthony Storr, a psychiatry professor in the United Kingdom, discusses common traits of good and bad gurus in his book, Feet of Clay - A Study of Gurus.

Storr defines the term guru as people having "special knowledge" who tell, referring to this special knowledge, how other people should lead their lives. He applies the term "guru" to figures as diverse as Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Gurdjieff, Rudolf Steiner, Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Jim Jones and David Koresh.

He argues that most gurus promise followers "new paths to salvation", share common character traits (e.g. being loners without friends) and that some suffer from a mild form of schizophrenia. He also wrote in the book that the gurus who are eloquent, authoritarian, or interfere in the private lives of followers are the ones who are more likely to be unreliable and dangerous. He further refers to Eileen Barker's list to recognize dangerous situations in religious movements.

Canadian Security Intelligence Service - Report # 2000/03 on Doomsday CultsEdit

A report [3] by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, dated December 18, 1999, regarding severely destructive cults include the following apocalyptic cult checklist:


Apocalyptic BeliefsEdit

  • dualism
  • the persecuted chosen
  • imminence
  • determinism
  • salvation through conflict

Charismatic LeadershipEdit

  • control over members
  • lack of restraint
  • withdrawal

Actions by AuthoritiesEdit

  • lack of comprehension
  • unsound negotiation
  • hasty action
  • spiral of amplification


Weapons AcquisitionEdit

  • firearms
  • explosives
  • chemical / biological weapons

Institutional InfiltrationEdit

  • political
  • business

Criminal ActivityEdit

  • crimes against individuals
  • transnational crime

Early warning signsEdit

  • Intensification of illegal activities
  • Humiliating circumstances
  • Relocation to a rural area
  • Increasingly violent rhetoric
  • Struggle for leadership


A 1979 Cult checklist, from a United States Congressional Research Service report.

  1. Largely divorced from normative religious tradition and practice and at variance with larger religious community.
  2. highly syncretic, mixture of beliefs and practices
  3. individual experience and satisfaction is basis for membership and for unity
  4. relatively small and short-lived
  5. charismatic leadership centered in exemplary figure to be emulated in "parallel spontaneities"
  1. Intimately related to normative religious traditions in belief and practice, but in "separatist" (purified) form (re larger religious community)
  2. central beliefs derive from normative religious tradition
  3. selective membership based on commitment to "revitalization" of religious tradition
  4. durability, deriving from withdrawal yet continuity with normative tradition
  5. charismatic leadership subordinated to ethical and doctrinal teaching

See alsoEdit


  • Steve K.D. Eichel. "Building Resistance to Manipulation". The Journal of Professional & Ethical Hypnosis, 1, (Summer 1985), pp. 34–44.
  • Lewis, James. Common Signs of Destructive Cults. Available online
  • Lewis, James R. (1998). "Early Warning Signs". Cults in America : A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, California, USA: ABC-CLIO. p. 42. ISBN 1-57607-031-X.
  • Shirley Harrison. "Cults - The Battle for God" ISBN 0-7470-1414-0 (May 24, 1990)

External linksEdit

nl:Lijst van vermeende sekten


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