Suggested definition:
‘A cult is a
group of people who share a set of religious or quasi-religious beliefs, often imposed by a charismatic leader, which tends not to conform to society’s norms or conventions, and may sometimes be considered fanatical.’

Some cults, however, may prefer a term such as ‘new religious movement’, because the word cult is linked in the public mind to brainwashing, fanaticism and even mass suicide and murder.

Some extreme cults have indeed turned out to be destructive and abusive towards their members. But they are not all like this. Christianity itself started off as a cult, so it is of course possible that some present day cults will be accepted as mainstream in the future.

Charismatic leaders
Many cults have charismatic leaders. What is meant by this? Examples of charismatic people today could be found among top footballers, pop stars, TV personalities, politicians etc. Followers or fans may flock to hear or see them. They have a certain ‘presence’ and their words carry great weight. We may even follow them against our better judgement, because we trust them so completely.

Some charismatic leaders such as Charles Manson or Adolf Hitler used their charisma in a negative and destructive way, while others such as Martin Luther King or Mahatma Ghandi tried to use it for good purposes.

A dictatorial cult leader is potentially a dangerous person. Members of the cult have to follow the leader’s every whim, especially if they want to achieve salvation. Usually his decisions are claimed to come directly from some higher power, and often he himself acquires a God-like status. (The overwhelming majority of cult leaders have been male).

Blind obedience can lead members to give up all their money or possessions and to cut themselves off from their families. It can lead to sexual and physical abuse and even, in extreme cases to mass suicide and murder...


If you are approached by a ‘cultish’ group, consult the checklist below and heed the advice of Nigel Cawthorne:


‘If in doubt keep your money in the bank and your clothes on!’

On March 20th, 1995, eleven passengers on the Tokyo subway were overcome by the nerve gas sarin, and died horribly painful deaths. Thousands more were hospitalised. Shoko Asahara, leader of the Aum Supreme Truth cult, had ordered the gas attack. His plan was to paralyse the government of Japan.

Asahara formed his cult in 1986 after a ‘divine experience’ in which he was instructed to become a guru (a spiritual leader). He had heard voices telling him to lead God’s armies. He also had more worldly ambitions such as to become rich.

His beliefs drew on a mixture of New Age religion, Hinduism (particularly Shiva the Hindu god of destruction), Buddhism and the Christian idea of Armageddon - scene of the final battle between good and evil and the end of the world. He claimed to be able to levitate and to read people’s minds.

He preached that the end of the world would come in 1997, beginning with an American nuclear attack against Japan.

You guessed it: if you wanted to survive the apocalypse, you had to become a disciple of his and donate huge amounts of money.

Total loyalty expected
Followers had to cut their ties with their families in order to discover the truth. Anguished parents were frequently seen at the gates of the organisation pleading for news of their children who had joined, only to be turned away. All members donated most of their wealth to the cult.

Most members wore electronic helmets in order to ‘tune in’ or ‘connect’ their brainwaves to Asahara’s. These helmets were necessary for ‘salvation’, and were available for rent or purchase at an enormous price.

In 1995 Asahara claimed a following of 40,000, although 10,000 is probably closer to the mark. They were not just the ‘no-hopers’ picked up off the streets that many cults depend upon. Among the team who carried out the murderous attack on the underground were Dr. Ikuo Hayshi, a 48 year-old heart surgeon who had studied in America before joining Aum; Yasuo Hayashi, a 37 year old electronics engineer; Masato Yokogama, a physics graduate, and two other graduates. (1)

The organisation had many laboratories, surrounded by barbed wire, where highly secretive research was carried out - mainly into poison gas. An unknown number of humans, as well as sheep, were used in the experiments. The catalogue of murders is too long to list. People who were caught trying to leave the organisation, for example, were killed. When a young lawyer named Sakamoto took up the case of 23 families who had lost children to the cult, he and his family were all murdered on Asahara’s instructions.

Asahara was arrested in May 1995, a couple of months after the tube attack. Although the evidence against him was overwhelming, the court case dragged on for years, mainly because of Asahara’s refusal to cooperate. He was finally sentenced to death in February 2004. The sentence has not been carried out, however, and his lawyers are appealing on the grounds that he is mentally unfit. A former senior member of the cult, who turned himself in to police in December 2011, Makoto Hirata, insisted that Asahara is only pretending to be ill, by babbling and mumbling incoherently in the court room.

Amazingly the Aum organisation continues to thrive, but not of course in its old clothes! 1997 came and went, and the world did not end. As with other apocalyptic cults which prophesy the end of the world on a specific day, members don’t seem to mind when it doesn’t happen. They usually simply set a new date. It now calls itself the Aleph Group.

Although this is one of the more benign cults, their beliefs are no less strange.

In December 1973, Claude Vorilhon, a French sports journalist and former racing driver, was climbing a mountain when he saw a spaceship hovering above him. An alien took him aboard to give him his instructions. Evidently the aliens (or ‘elohim’ - which is an ancient Hebrew word for God), who are 25,000 years more advanced than we are, had decided that we were now ready to handle the truth about ourselves. They, the aliens, created us in their own image using genetic modification or cloning. (In fact, all life on earth was created in alien laboratories - including the small pox virus and the mosquito presumably!) Among other things, Raël has also learned that cloning is the way to immortality.

Latest of the cloned prophets
Prophets such as Jesus, Moses, Buddha and Mohammed were all cloned by them and sent to earth to guide us in their ways. According to Vorilhon, who changed his name to Rael, he is the latest of these prophets. He teaches peace, self-love and that we should get in touch more with our spiritual and sensual side through meditation. Eventually money will become obsolete as machines and robots take over the production of food, clothes and most other goods.

In the meantime members are expected to give 10% of their income. The Raelians claim a membership of about 55,000 in 84 countries, but this is difficult to verify. (2)



Raël stands next to a model of a spaceship similar to the one he claims to have travelled on. The model is one of the exhibits at the Raelian UFOland in Quebec.
Raël has written several books. In one of them - ‘Beings from Outer Space Took Me to Their Planet’ - he describes how a robot-making machine on the elohim’s planet produced six perfect young women for him, and they all had a lovely, sensuous time sharing a bath together! (You may well wonder why we spend time on such clearly batty cults as this. The problem is that its membership is fairly large and many of the members appear to be normal and intelligent people. To understand how this can be so, we need to know more about them).

Their success in recruitment seems to derive from a tempting message: our alien creators evidently want us to be beautiful and sexy and to forget about stuffy religious morality! Hmm.

All members wear the Raelian symbol. It is made up of a star formed by two triangles, like the Star of David, with a ‘galaxy’ in the centre, which represents ‘the cycle of infinity in time’. The image of our galaxy is important to Raelians, who believe that everything is linked, from the smallest atoms to whole planets.


Anyone for a clone?
A controversial aspect of the Raelians is their offer to make a human clone for anyone interested - at an enormous fee of course. According to them ‘this service offers a fantastic opportunity to parents with fertility problems, or homosexual couples, to have a child cloned from one of them’. They also offer to freeze and store (for £50,000) some of your cells in case you die, so your clone can then be made. A “clonapet” service is also on offer.

Eve - world’s first cloned baby?
In 2002 the movement made the dramatic announcement that they had cloned a baby girl called Eve, and were willing to allow scientists to verify this by doing a DNA test! The world held its breath, and the Raelians became famous overnight. This would be the world’s first human cloning - a sensational scientific development, and also a very controversial one. As you might have guessed, in January 2003, the Raelians reneged on their decision and announced that no-one could do tests on the baby after all.

You might think that a setback such as this could be fatal to the cult, and that disillusioned members would leave in droves. However, this would be to under-estimate the hold which an organisation and its charismatic leader can have over the devotion and blind loyalty of the members.

Hello Dolly!
In 1997 the birth of Dolly the Sheep was announced. It was a scientific sensation - the first time a mammal had been cloned.
How was it done?
Oversimplifying greatly, this is how it was achieved:

(i) They took a cell (not an egg, just a cell) from a sheep’s breast. This cell of course contains all the DNA necessary to make a whole sheep. This is the donor animal and the one which is identical with Dolly.

(ii) They also took an unfertilised egg from another sheep, female of course, and removed the nucleus (which includes the DNA).

(iii) Then they injected the nucleus from the donor cell into the egg.

(iv) Then they passed an electric pulse through the egg, which helps to fuse the donor nucleus with the egg, and kick-starts the cell division process.

(v) This egg was then transferred into a third sheep, the ‘surrogate’ mother sheep, where, if all goes to plan, it becomes an embryo and grows into a lamb, which is identical to the original donor sheep.

There was no male involved in this case, but there is no reason why a male cannot be cloned. Dolly died in 2003.

How would you like to ‘go clear’ and ‘cross the bridge to total freedom’? This means that, using scientific equipment, you will rid your mind of all blockages and unpleasant memory traces (often subconscious). You will eventually achieve super-powers such as the ability to do mathematical calculations and chess problems in seconds, as well as the power of total recall. Sounds intriguing and well worth a try. After all, Scientology can claim John Travolta, Tom Cruise and other celebrities among its members.

So off you go to one of their offices (the British HQ, opened in October 2006, is in an imposing Victorian building in the City of London, near St Paul’s Cathedral) and have a free ‘personality test’. The diagnosis is flattering and you discover that you have all these talents - which you rather suspected you had. A short course in scientology would uncover these abilities and improve your mental powers.

The Church of Scientology (CoS) was founded in America in 1953 and claims to have in the region of ten million members world wide - which if true would make it an extremely large cult.

L. Ron Hubbard (1911 - 1986) was the founder and charismatic leader of the CoS. During World War II Hubbard joined the navy. Scientologists say he was a war hero, but according to his service record he never saw action and became exempt from duty due to illness. But, say the organisation, the authorities falsified the record because he had been involved in top secret operations. When this too was found to be untrue, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, the ‘church’ said that its enemies had tampered with the records. He also claimed to have died twice during the war, once for eight minutes. While still alive Hubbard’s older son publicly declared his father to be insane, and his younger son committed suicide. He was gay and the organisation banned homosexuality. (3)  
The ‘scientific’ basis
Scientology claims to be based upon scientific principles and methods. According to Hubbard the human mind stores the memory of every unpleasant experience, big or small, that has ever happened, including those forgotten by the conscious mind, and even those which happened in the foetal stage. Even memories and blockages from our many past lives are stored! (This belief in past lives was borrowed from Eastern religions). These unconscious memories, called ‘engrams’, get in the way of our thinking and our healthy emotional development.

Using the e-meter to remove your ‘blockages’ The aim of the aspiring Scientologist is to get rid of all engrams, or blockages. To do this you need the help of an auditor (a kind of therapist) who interviews you, and an e-meter. The e-meter measures skin conductivity or electricity in the skin, and is really a primitive lie detector. While you grip a tin can in each hand which connect to the e-meter, the auditor goes through your life in great detail. Every time the needle of the e-meter flickers or moves, it means that an engram or an unpleasant memory has been uncovered. You keep talking about it until the e-meter no longer reacts. In this way, as you continue to get rid of your engrams, your mind becomes more and more ‘clear’ or ‘free’.

At war with psychologists
This technique is therefore a kind of therapy, and it draws a lot on Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Scientologists, however, would not thank you for pointing out this link, and regard psychoanalysts and psychiatrists with loathing. Therapy-crazed America was, however, the ideal ground in which scientology could take root.

The e-meter, sometimes called a Wheatstone bridge, is a device well-known to scientists for measuring electrical resistance. The readings shown on the dial are affected by the moisture on the hands of the person holding the two metal rods - so someone with dry hands will get a different reading from someone with sweaty hands.
An expensive path to ‘freedom’
Many ex-members have complained about losing large amounts of money to the organisation with nothing to show for it. Membership is about $300 for the first year, the introductory book is about $50, audio tapes $40, e-meters about $3,000 each and so on. By the time you ‘go clear’ you are likely to have spent tens of thousands of dollars. Not surprisingly the ‘church’ is extremely wealthy, but by describing itself as a religion and not a profit-making organisation, it doesn’t have to pay tax in America (from 1993). In some other countries the ‘church’ is considered to be profit-making and does have to pay tax. (4)
As a best selling pulp fiction writer advised in 1940: if you really want to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start your own religion. His name? L Ron Hubbard.
The detox programmes Scientology also promotes therapies that “enable an individual to rid himself of the harmful effects of drugs, toxins and other chemicals that lodge in the body and create a barrier to spiritual well being”. It consists mainly of regular exercise, saunas and nutrition including huge doses of vitamins and minerals. The “Purification” programme is supposed to increase your IQ, reduce the risk of cancer, and help you lose weight quickly. The closely related “Narconon” programme more specifically targets drug and alcohol dependency.  
Hubbard’s book ‘Dianetics: the Modern Science of Mental Health’ became a best seller, and by 1995 had sold over 16 million copies.
Not surprisingly these tempting therapies have become quite popular, including in the UK.    

Professor Edzard Ernst of Exeter University, however, is not at all convinced and points out that the detox programmes are:

  • Unproven: it should be easy to measure the levels of toxins in the body after a course of treatment, but by 2012 this does not appear to have been done by the CoS. A Norwegian research team found in 2008 that there was no good evidence that the programmes work.
  • Possibly dangerous: the high doses of the vitamin niacin could pose serious risks to health. (Seven recent deaths of people undergoing the Narconon programme are being investigated in Oklahoma.)
  • Extremely expensive: in 2009, for a course lasting several weeks, you could pay £3,300 - and more for the Narconon programme.

Our galactic origins
What happens after we ‘go clear’? Simple: we work towards becoming an ‘operating thetan’. Scientology doctrine now becomes confusing and extremely weird.

Evidently we all have alien spirits in us, called ‘thetans’, which originate elsewhere in the galaxy. The evil Galactic dictator, Xenu, persuaded or forced billions of beings from other planets to inhabit earth, to relieve the over population in the galaxy!

He then chained them up in volcanoes in Hawaii and blasted them with nuclear bombs, which dislodged their souls or thetans from their bodies. These spirits were then frozen in alcohol, blasted out across the Solar System, and then inhabited human bodies in clusters.

So at our core, we humans all contain a "thetan" and, through scientology, we can restore the immortal, god-like powers of the "thetan" within us. We then become an ‘Operating Thetan’ or O.T. ….. ENOUGH! There’s more, but I don’t think we need to know it.

You would need to be a very inventive science fiction writer, which Hubbard was, to make it all up.

Even Buddha and Jesus couldn’t quite achieve this, as they never got a lot further than ‘clear’. To become an O.T. is a long and costly business, since the ‘auditor’ (plus e-meter of course) will need to take you 75 million years into the past in order to uncover the causes of your problems! It’s all very secretive within the organisation. The knowledge is considered dangerous for anyone not ready for it, and you only learn about it when at a very advanced level. By then you are already becoming one of the inner, select few.    
How do the scientific claims stand up to scrutiny?
The claim that we have subconscious memories from the foetal stage, which can be uncovered, has no foundation.There is also no scientific evidence of any memories from past lives.

While we may have unpleasant memories in this life which can affect our peace of mind, and even lead to mental illness, it is highly debatable whether these can be simply ‘cleared’ or erased using an e-meter. (A placebo effect may sometimes operate, however, and we may feel much better if we believe that our ‘blockages’ have been removed.)

The detox programmes (see above) are unproven, have a weak scientific basis, and could even be harmful to health.    
The story about Xenu and our extra-terrestrial origins going back 75,000,000 years is pure fantasy, and wholly at odds with what we know about geology and the history of the world. It is difficult to see how otherwise intelligent people can swallow it.    
Scientology has been responsible for dirty tricks aimed at discrediting and intimidating anyone considered to be an enemy. Nine senior scientologists, including Hubbard’s third wife, Mary Sue, were arrested for infiltrating the Inland Revenue offices in Los Angeles and stealing hundreds of relevant tax documents. Mary Sue served a year in prison.
In October 2009 Paul Haggis, an Oscar winning film director, left the “church” (after 35 years) as a result of their acceptance of homophobia. He also pointed to the dishonesty of the church’s denial that they tell their followers to “disconnect” from unsupportive family members. His own wife had been ordered to do so.
In December 2009 Scientology’s chief spokesman, Tommy Davis, walked out of a TV interview with Martin Bashir, after the latter pressed him on his beliefs about Xenu, aliens, thetans and so on.
In Germany, while not banned, scientology is not recognised as a religion, being described by a judge as “a cult masquerading as a religion in order to make money”. In Paris, October 2009, although a court ruled that scientology would not be outlawed in France, it was found guilty of defrauding its followers, by making unjustifiable claims about the benefits of the e-meter. It was fined 600,000 euros. Four leading Scientologists in France also received suspended prison sentences and fines of between 5,000 and 30,000 euros.

On the plus side Scientology funds some drug-rehabilitation, environmental and human-rights programmes, and many claim to have benefited from membership.

These members, however, could be counter-balanced by those disillusioned ex-members who found it authoritarian, highly dishonest, extremely costly and guilty of brain-washing.



Watch out for secretive organisations - There’s an Inner Circle that has the ‘power’ and knows the secrets, and only by going through initiation ceremonies or strenuous training programmes will you too be shown the light, achieve ‘mind power’ or something similar.

Watch out for organisations that want you to hand over significant amounts of money, or that want you to cut off ties with your family.

Avoid charismatic leaders who expect you to feel special or honoured by being singled out for sexual attention.

Avoid leaders who want you to work hard for the group, while they spend their time being waited on, or riding around in fancy cars (bought with the members’ money).

Avoid people who like to fool around with poison, nerve gas or other dangerous things.

Avoid leaders who are sure that Armageddon, the Apocalypse or the end of the world will happen on such and such a day. (You must give all your money to the group to help them prepare for the day - after all it won’t be much use to you in the hereafter!)

Watch out for organisations or leaders who, while professing the importance of humility, appear to have all the answers, and even a hot-line to the Almighty. (Even great minds such as Albert Einstein confessed their ignorance as to the mysteries of our existence.)

Don’t suspend your critical faculties or your rationality.

Nigel Cawthorne:


‘If in doubt keep your money in the bank and your clothes on!’

It is very easy to be taken in by a charismatic leader, by the promises of salvation or liberation, and by the wonderful sense of belonging and mutual support - especially if you’re feeling vulnerable. (There is nothing wrong at all with joining a genuinely supportive group.) Unfortunately there are millions who do not follow these simple rules.  

Back to the top ^