In all my writings about cults and the terrible things they do, I've struggled to define a cult. After all, much of what they do is also done by religions, political movements, and internet communities that people enjoy participating in and don't think of as manipulative. In fact, most "cult tactics" are simply group cohesion tactics, in that a group that practices them will be closer-knit than a group that does not. So I've often felt that you only get two choices -- a group that isn't very groupish but respects people's freedom, or a group that has all the benefits of groupishness but also is close to being a cult.
However, this last post gave me an insight into the difference. It's this: a healthy group is in a symbiotic relationship with the people in it. They keep it alive, and in turn, it benefits them. The amount the members give the group is the amount they get back.
But an unhealthy group, a cult, is a parasite. It takes from the members and does not give back accordingly. So people are manipulated into making large sacrifices for the group, but when they need something from the group, it's never available -- they might be told they are selfish for expecting anything, or that the goal of the group is some faraway utopia and no one can expect anything yet.
There's also a difference between the leadership of a healthy group and the leadership of a cult. In a healthy group, the leadership tends to give more than they get, while the members get more than they give. So you have a president and secretary and so on who make this a major life project and invest a lot of their energy in it, while some more fringe members just show up to meetings, have a good time, and leave. It's frustrating, but it's how groups work -- the more-committed members pick up the slack for the less-committed members; or if they don't, the group eventually dissolves. In a cult, however, it's the people at the top who get more out of the group than they invest. This parasitical structure, if it exists to serve anyone, exists to serve the leaders. (This is not universally the case; some cults don't have a sneaky leader who started the whole thing as a scam, everyone believes -- so no one benefits.)
So the next time you ask yourself if a group you're in is getting too culty, ask yourself this: how much of your time and effort do you put in? And what benefits do you get back? Do you get spiritual peace, a sense of closeness, support in times of trouble, or opportunities to give back to the larger community? Or are these things half-promised but never delivered? Do you hear "success stories" where other people get a lot of benefits, but you never get those? It's one thing if the whole purpose of the group is to benefit, say, orphans, and you're not an orphan so your only benefit is "I get to be part of helping orphans, which makes me happy." But if the group is supposed to benefit you and doesn't, or if it claims to benefit the community but all it seems to do is recruit and fundraise, it might be a cult.
Meanwhile, it's possible that a group may seem too tight-knit and demanding while not being a cult, just being wrong for you. Some groups are high-demand and high-yield -- you put a lot of effort into the group but it really pays off. I know Mormons who describe their religion in this way. They spend a lot of time and money on it, but if they fall on hard times, the church pitches in and takes care of things. It's like a platinum insurance plan. Not everyone wants that. I don't; I like things to be low-key and I don't want to commit. But that doesn't mean it's a bad thing.
Groups also have a tendency to be wrong -- there's a reason "groupthink" has a negative connotation. As my dad used to say, "None of us is as stupid as all of us." But wrongness is orthogonal to cultiness. For years I assumed Regnum Christi wasn't a cult because it had none of its own beliefs at all, simply borrowed Catholic ones. But I was wrong, because your group can have all the right beliefs and still be a parasitical group. Or it could be super wrong but a low-key, fun group which gives back to the community. Obviously wrongness isn't good, and it's possible that the more culty a group is, the more it short-circuits your reasoning process so you're more likely to be wrong. It's a good rule of thumb to do your thinking and decisionmaking on your own and come back to the community to share your ideas and come up with a plan of action. Just remember, right ideas on their own don't guarantee that a group is healthy.
What do you think, is this a useful distinction? It sure seems an improvement over my tendency to assume everything is a cult.