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Cults as Power Structures

The following article has been excerpted from Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias (Bay Tree Publishing). It is posted at Apologetics Index by permission.

Four interlocking dimensions make up the framework of a cult’s social system and dynamics. You can use this framework to examine your own cult experience. These four dimensions are clearly separated so that former cult members (whose memories of cult experiences are often confused and conflicting) can more easily deconstruct and understand each phase of indoctrination and control:

This combination of transcendent belief systems, all-encompassing systems of interlocking structural and social controls, and highly charged charismatic relationships between leader(s) and adherents results in self-sealing systems that exact a high degree of commitment (as well as expressions of that commitment) from its core members. A self-sealing system is one that is closed in on itself, allowing no consideration of disconfirming evidence or alternative points of view. In the extreme, a self-sealed group is exclusive and its belief system is all inclusive, in the sense that it provides answers to everything. Typically the quest of such groups is to attain a far-reaching ideal. However, a loss of sense of self is all too often the by-product of that quest.

Over the years, some people have used alternative terms or adjectives to identify cult groups, such as high-demand, high-control, totalistic, totalitarian, closed charismatic, ultra-authoritarian, and so on. In academia, some rather acrimonious debate has arisen over the use of the word cult, with some academicians and researchers using their influence to dissuade scholars, legal and helping professionals, the media, and others from identifying any group as a cult.

Frankly we prefer to use the term cult because we feel that it has historical meaning and value. Whatever one decides to call these groups, one must not ignore the structural and behavioral patterns that have been identified through years of study and research, or through the voluminous accounts of people who successfully escaped cult groups and relationships. To sweep cults under the rug or to call them by another name won’t make cults go away nor will it aid us in understanding these complex social systems. Most importantly, cover-ups and whitewashing won’t help former cult members evaluate or recover from their experiences in a whole and healthful manner.

This article has been excerpted from Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias (Bay Tree Publishing). It is posted at Apologetics Index by permission. More information available at

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This post was last updated: May. 26, 2006