Saturday, July 31th, 2022



Author: Mattanaw, Christopher Matthew Cavanaugh

Former Chief Architect, Adobe Systems

Current President/Advisor, Social Architects and Economists International.



This paper examines the concept of cult to determine if it creates any risks, and it is found that alternative methods of communication are less harmful, and more objective or scientific. A topic of interest is developed, concerning innocuous or necessary human activities which approach behaviors that are proto-cult behaviors, or cult-like behaviors, that also explain what might be considered beneficial in cults. It is explored whether the concept of cult is too biased in its intended uses, to separate out groups fornegative judgement, with insufficient consideration whether the characteristics defining cults would be more generally inclusive of groups that people find themselves in, that might not be considered harmful already, or might have positive traits. It is also consdered whether or not the concept of cult is artificially exclusive. A primary finding of this paper is that basic human activities already include characteristics that trend towards cult-like organization, and that interesting aspects of psychology and group definition and membership that relate to cults, also relate to most other kinds of group membership.

Bias in the word ‘Cult’

Usage of the word ‘cult’ seems oftentimes, if not always, assumptions about what is to be avoided in human behavior. A group, and its adherents, are considered cultlike once a judgement has been formed that the behaviors that they are involved in have characteristics that should motivate others to work towards elimination. Because there are other ways to speak concerning groups, and members of groups, and its benefits and detriments, that does not include assumptions about whether it should or should not exist, it seems these should be preferred. One needs a way to talk about cult-like groups to determine first if they are indeed cult like, and the language utilized for such a purpose should be more scientific and objective, and less concerned with what might really be a final judgement about its value.

If we are to consider a groups history, from its initial formation with its founder or founders, through its collection of membership, to the end of its existence as a separate group, we can easily discuss its properties, and easily describe objectively actions in the group, and beliefs of members, and lives of members, without relying on anything that immediately considers it negative in total. Simple language also seems to supply what is needed to describe its history. A history of a smaller group than a nation, could permit of the same level of objectivity as a national history would. One could simply describe the history of the group as completely as possible, and arrive at a scientific case study of that group. Consideration of whether or not the group is harmful enough to require outside judgement and outside action, to dismantle it, or otherwise diminish it, is not something that would be part of the study. At most it would be something that would arise after such a study is conducted.

Motivations for a study on certain groups may be due to perceptions that actions in the group or the group are especially harmful, but also, that they might be especially beneficial. It is important one way or another, that the work conducted to provide an understanding of a group be one that is objective and separates these motivations from the task of getting details accurate. This is what a scientist is required to do, and this is also what a historian strives to achieve. Motivations for conducting the work certainly tend to involve emotional interests, or interests related to error detection, or desire to fix circumstances; but historical training and scientific training both require objectivity. Complete objectivity is not attained but if one is not at all working towards objectivity, or is showing signs in the course of work, and at the outset, of strong bias, then one is not doing what one is trained to do. It appears the use of the word ‘cult’ is a strong indicator the the thinker who is examining the group is already finished with their judgements about whether the group should be diminished or dismantled by force from the outside. This is certainly not a scientific way of examining human behaviors.

The word ‘cult’ does not appear to have an origin that is entirely systematic. Instead, we have arrived at growth of the word by asysatematic usage; and it must be admitted that this usage does include negative connotations. If one creates a group with a certain mission, one does not want immediately to be considered a cult for this reason. If one’s group were classified as a cult, one could expect actions from outside to diminish or dismantle the work performed to create the group. The word ‘cult’ also defies definition. A work called ‘Cults in America’ works to provide a definition of cult that is a candidate for acceptance, but it appears this definition is intended not to really scientifically define systematically on natural categorizations of group formations and human behaviors (i.e. a taxonomy of natural groups), but instead looks for ingredients that appear common to groups that are predetermined to be negative. It is here suggested, that groups and individual behaviors figure into the natural world, and if we are to unobjectively understand groups, in a systematic fashion, classification would not be done to simply aggregate groups together that are already in mind, but instead to represent the structure of the world apart from benefits and detriments.

An unfortunate issue with words is that once included in a dictionary they can be expected to be used. A dictionary advertises to an extent words which can be used. Dictionaries do not provide any system of rank for value of terms, with the effect that certain words will again appear in culture because some individual or group located and began touse the word again. Many examples of words exist that should have been discontinued. ‘Phlogiston’ is such an example. It is arguable that the word ‘cult’ is one that is better avoided. However, it is not in the power of the current author to train or teach others that the word should be avoided, and that it should eventually be devalued within dictionaries. The author thinks it necessary to understand works which exist, and for that purpose, it is necessary to know what the letters ‘c’‘u’‘l’ and ‘t’ jointly mean. But it is the authors strong suspicion that this word is connected with motives for eliminating groups that are unwanted, and for controlling the growth of groups which may simply be competitors.

Another bias in the word cult and its development and current application, is that it is not as inclusive as one might think it should be. In my estimation, many large religious groups really do qualify for the designation, and so do some entire nations; however, artificially groups that one is a member of already, or groups that are well established, are not designated. Instead, groups that are immediately considered unwanted, or are competitive with religion, or are different and misunderstood, for having no history or case study, are lumped in as ‘cults’. A better system of group classification would be more inclusive and more descriptive about details of the nature of human aggregates, and would include groups that are both considered positive and negative in traits. Consider that in the system of animal taxonomy, whether a particular animal is harmful or not, or beneficial or not, is not the method of classification. Instead, an animal that has natural traits representing some structure in the Earth’s history that permit its placement in the taxonomy, and that animal might have unexpected traits that are positive, negative, or neutral, depending on the person examining it. Likewise, proper group classifications would not be a dumping ground for groups based on individual judgement. Instead, they would be expected to have positive and negative traits, and even if negative, would not instantly be candidates for elimination.

Another approach to the determination of whether groups are especially harmful could simply involve checklists around symptoms, which can be used after careful and accurate case studies and histories are performed. In this way, determination about the harmfulness of a group is really about measuring characteristics in a way this is similar to medical practices. It appears to me that using the word ‘cult’ for this purpose is not really feasible, for it hasn’t been determined if certain cults are not beneficial. Instead, a way of measuring a groups strengths and weaknesses, and harmfulness is necessary, and the result would be far more interesting and diagnostic than simply applying a term with a judgement, having no diagnostic method at all to use.

Who Joins Groups

A friend recently shared some comments and observations about the susceptibility of people to different kinds of cults. This has stimulated the author’s interest in revisiting this topic, and upon reflection, it appears to me that cult-membership susceptibility relates to more basic interests in information and knowledge that is highly desired, and creation of social relationships which are satisfying. These behaviors are, in the author’s opinion, not only related to cults but to much of human behavior, including group formation and group joining. This means we can understand perhaps better, the inclination to join groups which others might think are cults, because this activity of joining is related to any group that can be joined, and not only one kind of group. Similarly, it also relates to basic human desires for social companionship that seems meaningful, and desire for knowledge that one cannot have alone.

In order to understand who joins groups, one has to consider when groups can be joined, and how people come into contact with them. One cannot join a cult if one does not know it exists, which means that exposure is a necessary ingredient in group membership. In order to join a cult in the state of Iowa, for example, one would have to be exposed o it in Iowa, or else be exposed in another way through some communication. This simply means one has to be able to connect a person to a group, spatially and in time, to have any relationship at all that can be called membership. This is very similar to a business and customer relationship. A customer of a restaurant in Iowa cannot exist until someone is in Iowa, and is exposed to the restaurant, and then goes into the restaurant.

People who join groups also somehow end up becoming aware of them. The exposure includes becoming attentive to their existance. The author resides part time in the State of Alaska. There are many businesses in Alaska, so of course, it is not realistic to think that he will be a customer to all these businesses, or be aware of them all. He can easily learn of new businesses, by being exposed, or becoming attentive out of some learning. Exposure creates attention, or attention exists and then one gets directly exposed.

People who are more knowledgeable about cults understand that there is more than one type. Striving to understand certain harmful groups, it is recognized that certain groups having unwanted characteristics exist in different market industries. There are churches, clubs, businesses, political groups, military groups, race promoting groups, and other types of groups which are cult-like. One can join a business and find that it really is similar to a religious cult in a number of ways, and that strict adherence to its rules and values are required and are not optional, and that one must try to believe in a product or company mission even if it is false. Knowing that businesses are quite diverse, it is clear that there is a very large number of groups which could have cult-like qualities. Group forms that have any type of formalization, or structure, tend to resemble corporate forms and are even modeled on corporate forms. Groups themselves relying on structures learned from other types of groups which might be cults, might also have the characteristics of cults. It is not clear what category of human groups classification would be immune from having cult-like qualities, and it is in the authors opinion that it is better simply to drop the word ‘cult’ and simply attend to human behavior in joining and group structures, and group benefits and detriments, related to their properties. The point here though, is that groups themselves are the subject of interest, and that many group types have those qualities that might be considered cult like, if examined objectively. We can expect that this would be the case because of the number of types of cults that have already been identified that exist in, apparently, each of the major ways of organizing people.

Because there are diverse group types, there are diverse reasons to join groups. Here we will need to be a bit narrower in order to focus attention on groups which the reader can be expected to relate to cults that have existed. To do this, let’s think of groups for now that are outside of work. These are groups one would join in leisure time to satisfy interests that are not necessarily money-related. One joins with a zealous political group, or religious group, or race-promoting club outside of work. It is interesting to consider that these groups may have very compelling reasons for joining, because livelihood itself, via acquisition of necessary funds for living, are not involved. What is desired in this kind of context would be more closely related to those two key drivers to group joining I have indicated:

  1. The desire to have valuable information
  2. The desire to have social relations that feel meaningful

Having social relationships that relate to valuable information that is agreed upon seems very fundamental to human group membership. It appears that people who are married come to agree on much, and may not be satisfying at all, without agreement on many areas of life. Families can be expected to vote similarly on politics. People enjoy being together if they feel they have similar views, and perhaps uniqueness in relation to the value of the information and knowledge had.

Some will join groups because they were invited. In that case, some other human characteristics about sociability are the initiating factors in group membership. If this is how a group is joined, sometimes coming to find information valuable, and agreeing with other group members about the value of information comes later. This is familiar because even in marraige, information agreement can come after certai sexual advances and sexual behaviors, and other behaviors relating to mating and courtship, and not complete agreement of minds. Over time, there is a trend, probably related to social pressures, for married parties to express shared views on many aspects of life, which clearly indicates that marriage groups are initiated for social reasons, sexual in nature first, and then agreement about information and valuation of that information comes later. In any case, something satisfying socially was involved and it is considered meaningful.

Others will join groups after they are exposed and realize that it fulfills an information related need, that is not fulfilled in a solitary way, and may include a way to fulfill social needs additionally. One might join this type of group to learn more, and do so independently at first. One might find that the information is really agreeable to certain interests which existed. Perhaps one studied religion, and without finding satisfaction with the information alone, sees new information that seems powerful and improved, with some authority. Scarcity of information and ability to develop religious information alone is changed suddently to what feels like a large and abundant amount of information that feels like it has authority and value. One can come to feel that one is depenant on this new abundance of information that could not be created or developed in a solitary way. This explains two types of phenomena: firstly, when one finds a group that has a very well developed culture that one feels one belongs in immediately, because of existing interests; and secondly, the meeting of powerful minds that seem already to have high development and extreme abundance of guidance and teaching. Anyone who has experienced a really good teacher in school, or in college, will recall the feeling of having something very valuable suddenly, that permits growth, where one was already interested. One perceives one could not necessarily come to the same information withoutsolitary effort that is too great, or very difficult.

The reader can likely find a number of groups that they have joined or know someone has joined that has either succeeded in providing these benefits, or have tried to.

The author has considered that, additionally, the causes of group membership can happen before one is even with other people. These situations can be cult-like as well. Suppose one is intensely interested in a particular topic, and spends time talking with friends and family regarding that topic. Suppose when alone, one thinks about that topic often. Then suddenly, one becomes aware of some documentaries about that topic, or a book on that topic, that suddenly “provides a new world of information”. Maybe a field exists that one did not know about, or a group or school of thought, that various people have already contributed writings for. The reading of a book, or watching of films, can have a very powerful influence, which also relate to the two above factors. Firstly one is suddenly aware that there are others with the same interest, and that they have valuable information that one cannot simply create on one’s own. It makes things more clear. Secondly, since others are involved, there is a social component that is pleasing, even if one has not actually had conversation with anyone in person, or in a group setting. One feels quickly that one is a part of something that is happening that is alive and matters.

An implication of this is that it may be possible, under another system of group naming and taxonomy, to understand that this is a very early form of group membership, in one person, which would have positives and negatives, benefits and detriments, strengths and weaknesses, in properties that can be examined and measured. Furthermore, it seems to imply that harmful cases would exist that would be desirable to avoid, and that some of these harmful cases would be forms of cult-like grouping at the individual level. This may exist, for example, if a person who is white, who is a very harmful environment, who is really targeted by groups of people who are clearly of other races, on grounds of race hatred, who suddenly becomes aware that there are people who have thought through what he/she is thinking through in struggles. In that case, the person may not have actually joined any group, but has benefitted from information that strengthened them in some ways, by confirming information, and providing some guidance. However, this too would be a case of postives and negatives, strengths and weaknesses, benefits and detriments, and it may be that for one individual, they are in a cult-like membership situation, alone. Gradually, here, however, I will start to refrain more from using the word cult. Because what is plain is that some groups that resolve this persons issue may be much more positive than others, some might be positive enough, with so few negatives, that it is not really worth eliminating, or passing a social judgement on that implies it is totally wrong. Or, conversely, it can have many harms, but these harms can be understood without using the term ‘cult’. Better still, any group of any kind, cult or not, can be understood as something to prserve and keep, or to diminish, on the basis of measured properties which might be harmful or not. If this person is not only receiving strength and true information for overcoming race hatred, but goes much further on other pathways to false scientific views, pseudoscience, and organized crime, then it is something to perhaps discontinue. Either way, one wants to know what is really going on, have a case study created without in-built terms of judgement.

Seeing that it is possible then to have a feeling of joining and belonging a group on one’s own, by simply having access to written information, or entertainment, it seems possible that very harmful group membership can exist in individuals alone. The type of group membership that an individual can exist in in a solitary way is also quite large and can be classified many ways. The example above was about racial information and safety. It depends on the interests of the person who ‘joins’, and what they are exposed to. A person could be in a business type of cult, by simply becoming a remote employee without having much human contact at all. A person can also become a self-proclaimed member of an economic-political organization, that might be harmful, simply by reading about it. Without doing any mesurement, or consideration of the specifics of each group and person involved, at the individual level to the large-scale level, one does not really know what the harms and benefits are. One has to look more closely at the specific details to determine which situation is worth developing and which is not, and when interferrence from outside is justified.

Another thing that is of interest for this topic is the freedom of individuals, and of their freedoms of being able to join groups. Politically in various countries certain freedoms are supposedly provided or protected in writing, for people to be able to explore the world of information and join groups as they decide, to their liking. However, there is also the consideration of what feels most comfortable to a human animal. It is clear that these activities of finding useful information for learning, and joining groups for social reasons really do require autonomy for each person, and that this cannot simply be interferred with by anyone for any reason. Another issue with the word ‘cult’ is that one may find a group and not adhere in negative ways, and extract many benefits. They also know what they require and others do not. Without measuring individuals or groups for harms and benefits in a truthful way, it is hard to know when interferrence makes sense. It’s not totally clear who can and should be able to interfere. But the world cult immediately seems to create some feeling that interferrence is good, and that any interferrence may be overlooked. However, from this examination, it seems more clear that one has to look more closely at individuals, and group classificaitons, and how people join groups, and what the groups really do over time, to know if they are sufficiently harmful to require some kind of interferrence. That would be done in a way that includes knowledge about the situation and not immediate judgement.

From the above it can be seen that a science of individual search for information and group membership can be achieved and this would result in a superior approach to understanding group harms and benefits, and for determining scientifically what might be better avoiding and promoting, and how various natrual comforts and freedoms relate.

Harmful Groups

The author would want to explore in detail any group that is considered to be harmful, in a way that is objective, at first removing any assumption that it is harmful at all, in a total sense. Instead, it would be looked at in all details that relate and are important and relevant. Later what is harmful and positive would be related to specifics, and ideally measurable properties of the people, the group, and behaviors/consequences. There is no objective in this, however, to argue that there are no groups that are not so harmful that they should not be transformed or disbanded. Instead, it is assumed that if all groups are really inspected, many groups, of many types, not necessarily those supposedly fulfilling loose-criteria on cultishness, would be measured as very harmful and worth diminishing, transforming, or eliminating. Some would be well-known and common.

Of particular interest to the author are organizations that are not honest or truthful, use extensive use of propaganda, include information control from above that is not in the interests of education and well-being of people who are members, or who are exposed frequently. Groups that have leadership structures that are individual or not, that have clandestine negative interests would be potentially included among those that are especially harmful.

There are assumptions that groups that were considered really harmful had some characteristics resembling the above. That membership was manipulated, placed in untruth, forced to receive information unreflectively, by leadership of one person who was considered totally necessary for certain necessary benefits. The present author would not restrict harmful organizations to those with only one leader, that uses force of authority to delude members, steal from them, send them to commit violence or harms of others, or to interferrence with others who are free to be members of other groups, or engage in behaviors unrelated. Groups of one or more can do many different forms of harm to others, and I would extend the harms to all actual harms, and not only those harms that one would use to arrive at a group of cults.

[First unedited draft without spell check finished in two hours and 3 minutes. Saturday, July 31th, 2022]