A destructive cult is a religion or other group which has caused or has a high probability of causing harm to its own members or to others. Some researchers define "harm" in this case with a narrow focus, specifically groups which have deliberately physically injured or killed other individuals, while others define the term more broadly and include emotional abuse among the types of harm inflicted.
Some researchers including John A. Saliba, Julius H. Rubin, and Lorne L. Dawson assert that the term is used to discredit the groups it is applied to, and to unfairly compare them with historically more harmful groups and movements. Authors including Peter A. Olsson, Steven Hassan, and Masoud Banisadr have linked destructive cults with terrorism, and have used the term to characterize Osama bin Laden as a destructive cult leader.
"Destructive cult" as applied to physical abuse has generally referred to groups which have, through deliberate action, physically injured or killed members of their own group or other individuals. The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance limit use of the term to specifically refer to religious groups that "have caused or are liable to cause loss of life among their membership or the general public."
Some researchers describe the term "destructive cult" more broadly, and include emotional abuse along with physical abuse as a defining characteristic. Steven Hassan, author of the book Combatting Cult Mind Control, defines the term as such: "A destructive cult is a pyramid-shaped authoritarian regime with a person or group of people that have dictatorial control. It uses deception in recruiting new members (e.g. people are NOT told up front what the group is, what the group actually believes and what will be expected of them if they become members)." Psychologist Michael Langone, executive director of the International Cultic Studies Association, defines a destructive cult as "a highly manipulative group which exploits and sometimes physically and/or psychologically damages members and recruits." In the book Into the Rabbit Hole contributor Randall Waters cites psychiatrist Robert Lifton's Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, specifically Lifton's "Eight Criteria for Thought Reform", as criteria to identify a destructive cult. In Perfected Mind Control - The Unauthorized Black Book of Hypnotic Mind Control author J. K. Ellis also cites Lifton's criteria, writing: "If most of Robert Lifton's eight point model of thought reform is being used in a cult organization, it is most likely a dangerous and destructive cult." In a statement which Congressman Leo J. Ryan later read into the Congressional Record, Dr. John Gordon Clark cited totalitarian systems of governance and an emphasis on money making as characteristics of a destructive cult. Dr. Clark later authored the work Destructive Cult Conversion: Theory, Research and Practice.
In Cults and the Family the authors cite Shapiro, who defines a "destructive cultism" as a sociopathic syndrome, whose distinctive qualities include: "behavioral and personality changes, loss of personal identity, cessation of scholastic activities, estrangement from family, disinterest in society and pronounced mental control and enslavement by cult leaders." In The Ethics of Touch: The Hands-on Practitioner's Guide To Creating a Professional, Safe and Enduring Practice, the authors describe their version of destructive cult characteristics in a section on "Cult Mind Control Abuse." In the book, a destructive cult is seen as being either "religious, political, 'therapeutic' or business" and they state that it can cause trauma-related symptoms such as dissociative disorder. In Dr. Susan Gregg's The Complete Idiot's Guide to Spiritual Healing, she cites three main signs of a destructive cult, including giving up one's individuality, having their relationships with friends and family threatened, and being asked to donate large sums of money to the group. In his work Lethal Violence, the criteria of a destructive cult environment is compared to that of battered woman defence.
Criticism of the term
Some researchers have criticized the usage of the term "destructive cult", writing that it is used to describe groups which are not necessarily harmful in nature to themselves or others. In his book Understanding New Religious Movements, John A. Saliba writes that the term is overgeneralized and equated with the deaths of members of Peoples Temple at Jonestown. Saliba sees this as the "paradigm of a destructive cult," where those that use the term are implying that other new religious movements will have similar outcomes to those of the Peoples Temple at Jonestown. Writing in the book Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field, contributor Julius H. Rubin complains that the term has been used to discredit certain groups in the court of public opinion. In his work Cults in Context author Lorne L. Dawson writes that though the Unification Church "has not been shown to be violent or volatile," it has been described as a destructive cult by "anticult crusaders." In 2002, the German government was held by Germany's Federal Constitutional Court to have defamed the Osho movement by referring to it, among other things, as a "destructive cult". The court decided that "destructive cult" and other expressions employed by the government to describe the group had no factual basis to justify their use.
In 1984, a group of followers of Osho (then known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) carried out what has come to be known as the first bioterrorism attack in the United States. Over seven hundred and fifty individuals became ill from salmonella poisoning, after the group had deliberately contaminated the salad bars of ten restaurants. After epidemiological research, law enforcement isolated the source of the contamination as a clinical laboratory operated by members of the Rajneesh movement. They had intended to influence voter turnout in an upcoming election. The March 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo movement, as well as their prior experiments with anthrax, were also seen as chemical and bioterrorism events.
Since the September 11, 2001 attacks and the prevalence of the War on Terrorism in society, researchers have begun to use the term "destructive cult" to compare and contrast certain characteristics of terrorist organizations with those of other religious groups previously characterized as such. In the book Jihad and Sacred Vengeance: Psychological Undercurrents of History, psychiatrist Peter A. Olsson compares Osama bin Laden to other religious leaders including Jim Jones, David Koresh, Shoko Asahara, Marshall Applewhite, Luc Jouret and Joseph Di Mambro, in a section of the book called: "The Psychology of Destructive Cult Leaders". Olsson asserts that each of these individuals fit at least eight of the nine criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Olsson goes into some of these issues in more depth in his work Malignant Pied Pipers of Our Time: A Psychological Study of Destructive Cult Leaders from Rev. Jim Jones to Osama bin Laden. In the book Seeking the Compassionate Life: The Moral Crisis for Psychotherapy and Society authors Goldberg and Crespo also refer to Osama bin Laden as a "destructive cult leader."
At a 2002 meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA), Steven Hassan asserted that Al Qaida fulfills the characteristics of a destructive cult. Panelists at the convention asked the APA to investigate mind control among destructive cults. Hassan spoke of the commonalities between researching destructive cults, and the war on terrorism: "We need to apply what we know about destructive mind-control cults, and this should be a priority with the war on terrorism. We need to understand the psychological aspects of how people are recruited and indoctrinated so we can slow down recruitment. We need to help counsel former cult members and possibly use some of them in the war against terrorism."
In an article on Al Qaida published in The Times, Mary Ann Sieghart wrote that al-Qaida resembles a "classic cult", commenting: "Al-Qaida fits all the official definitions of a cult. It indoctrinates its members; it forms a closed, totalitarian society; it has a self-appointed, messianic and charismatic leader; and it believes that the ends justify the means." A similar comparison was made by former UK Home Secretary Charles Clarke, as well as UK Home Secretary John Reid, who stated that "..fanatics are looking to groom and brainwash children, including your children, for suicide bombings, grooming them to kill themselves in order to murder others."
Although not specifically mentioning al Qaeda, former Mujaheddin member and now author and academic Dr. Masoud Banisadr stated in a May 2005 speech in Spain :
If you ask me: are all cults a terrorist organisation? My answer is no as there are many peaceful cults at present around the world and in the history of mankind. But if you ask me are all terrorist organisations, some sort of cult? my answer is yes. Even if they start as ordinary modern political party or organisation, to prepare and force their members to act without asking any moral question and act selflessly for the cause of the group and ignore all the ethical, cultural, moral or religious code of the society and humanity, those organisations have to change into a cult. Therefore to understand an extremist or a terrorist organisation one has to learn about a Cult.
Dr. Banisadr mentions al Qaeda several times in a talk entitled "The Use of the Philosophy of Martyrdom within Religious Cults for Acts of Terrorism" delivered at an INFORM seminar at the London School of Economics in May 2007.
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- "Destructive Cults", A text by Panhellenic Parents Union for the Protection of the Greek-Orthodox Culture, the Family and the Individual, Orthodox Research Institute
- Cults: Fierce Love, Violent Death - slideshow by Life magazine