The Defining Characteristics of a Cult (I)

Cults Inside Out, written by American cult expert Rick Alan Ross, is recommended by many main-stream media, and also well received by other cult experts, scholars and professionals in press and legal circles. In 2005, Mr. Rick Alan Ross accepted the interview with Ms Mindy Bond, who was an editor, writer and journalist from In order to broaden our readers’ horizons and enrich their knowledge of the western counter-cult movement, (aka has translated the interview record into Chinese. The interview record has been divided into seven parts, and added a subheading for every part in view of its relatively independent topic.

Rick Ross, 52, is an internationally known expert regarding destructive cults, controversial groups and movements. He has performed interventions, lectured, consulted, assisted local and national law enforcement, and testified as an expert witness on the subject.

You have your own institute, The Rick A. Ross Institute. What is the purpose of your organization and what does your job entail?

The Institute is a nonprofit tax-exempted effort to essentially maintain a database about controversial groups and movements, some which have been called “cults” for educational informational purposes. There is a blog associated with the site. My professional work includes interventions for families concerned about someone’s cult involvement, lecturing at colleges and universities and court expert testimony.

What are some of the defining characteristics of a “cult?”

Destructive cults typically conform to three basic criteria. (1) An absolute authoritarian leader without any meaningful accountability that so dominates the group he or she virtually comes to define it. (2) A process of intense indoctrination that inhibits critical thinking and ultimately leads to undue influence, often called “brainwashing.” (3) The group is harmful. This can be seen through anything from financial exploitation to physical abuse and medical neglect.

It is important to note though, that not all groups are equally destructive and/or controlling to the same degree, that some are more harmful than others are.

The term “new religious movement” is often thrown around. How are they different from cults?

“New religious movement” is often a euphemism used by cult apologists in an attempt to spin a supposedly “politically correct” term for groups more commonly called “cults.”

You alluded that some “cults” are not that dangerous, what are some other popular misconceptions about cults?

Not all cults are religious, visibly strange and/or have compounds where members live together in a restricted community. Some so-called “cults” may be benign. Wicca, witches and Satanists are often portrayed as “destructive cults” largely by those who don’t appreciate their beliefs. However, most if not all of the stories about the allegedly evil acts of these groups or movements have proven to be little more than urban myths.

The Amish can be seen as a “cult” or exclusive sect, but they have existed in America peacefully since the 1700s. The followers of Ellen White now known as Seventh Day Adventists, formerly called the “Millerites,” are a group that arguably may have started as a personality-driven “cult,” but ultimately became a respected religion.