Q: What characteristics define a cult?
A: Cults, or more specifically, destructive cults, are characterized by the following differences from mainstream groups:
1) In religious cults the leader is the central focus of belief. In mainstream religions, G-d is the central focus.
2) Cult recruitment includes deception and concealment of identity and requirements of affiliation. Mainstream groups use no deception and new members are fully aware of the teachings and expectations before they make a commitment.
3) Cults use mind-control techniques and forms of hypnosis to indoctrinate followers. Emotional needs are exploited and people are held psychological hostages through peer pressure, guilt, and fear. Mainstream groups do not resort to unethical means to persuade members.
4) Leaders of cults make their own rules and laws which are often contrary to the rules and laws of society. They often reframe criminal acts (cheating, lying, stealing, even murder) as the will of G-d. Mainstream groups uphold and value the laws of society.
5) Cults separate and alienate people from family, friends, and society. Mainstream groups value healthy involvement with family, friends and society.
6) Cults are self-serving, often amassing financial fortunes for the leaders at the expense of the followers. In mainstream groups, leaders serve the people and contribute to the welfare of society in general.