Similarities between cults and violent extremism

Step Together recently looked at the push and pull factors that influence an individual’s interest in using violence for social, political or religious change (also known as Violent Extremism). When examining these drivers, researchers found many commonalities with other types of organised groups, such as cults or gangs. This month we take a look at cults – in particular what drives people to join, and also to leave, these groups and the common links to extremist involvement.

What are cults and extremist groups?

A cult can be described as a small group of people who have extreme religious beliefs, but are not part of any established religion, or a group who commit themselves to certain extreme ways of life or doctrine. Violent extremist groups are likewise committed to all encompassing, rigid, overvalued beliefs. The main difference with violent extremists groups is that they justify or use violence to achieve ideological, political or social change.

Types of violent extremist groups include ethno-nationalist or separatist groups (those involved in violent political struggles based on race, culture or ethnic background), ideological/religious groups (such as far right, far left, Islamist or Christian fundamentalist extremists), and issues based extremists (such as animal liberation or environmental activism).

There are many different types of cults including religious cults, where groups reinterpret and reimagine traditional scripture – usually lead by someone who sees themselves as a type of prophet (such as The Children of God), occult or satanic cults (such as the Church of Satan), “family” cults (such as The Family in Australia or The Communities in the USA), and new age cults, often founded on beliefs that its members are the spiritual leaders, and who rely on new age attachments such as shamanic links and spirit beings.

Similarities between extremist groups and cults

Social health issues and individual vulnerabilities are at the core of involvement in both cult and extremist groups. People often become involved as a perceived solution to problems in their own life – they could be feeling isolated or lack a sense of belonging, or they may feel marginalised, or worried about political or social injustices (perceived or real). Cults and extremist groups pray on these vulnerabilities and offer a perception that a “simple” solution can be found in the dogma and rules of their organisation.

As Author James Fry wrote, involvement in a violent group meant “I didn’t need to look at my part in my own downward spiral… All life’s troubles, it seemed, were the doing of non-whites. It was a relief to no longer feel responsible for my own – and others’ – suffering, but better than that, I was now being called upon to be a vital part of “the solution”.

Other similarities between cults and extremists groups include:

  • Recruitment techniques: Recruiters for both types of groups carefully select their target and engage in “love bombing”, showering new recruits in attention and promises of change. While the Internet and social media can play a part in joining a group, it is often a close contact that will recruit people, making them feel welcome and cared for.
  • Control: Both groups use emotional control techniques to keep individuals committed to a certain doctrine, including similar promises and threats (often offering rewards or punishment in the afterlife).
  • Isolation: Both groups seek to isolate people from any social or family networks outside of the group, to ensure they give all their time (and often money) to the cause. They then aim to replace existing connections with those who support the same leader or ideology- punishing anyone who associates with “non –believers”.
  • Lack of critical thinking: Groups do not allow for “grey areas” in the way converts act or think. People can be exiled from the group for questioning any of the “laws” of the group. Groups seek to create an in group and out group, and to be part of the in group you must agree with all black and white thinking about themselves and others.
  • Promise of adventure: Extremist groups often try to appeal to a sense of adventure in the first instance – focusing on exciting life changes (rather than on the violence or isolation involved in fighting in a foreign country or leaving family behind). Cults likewise offer a utopian vision, where people are given the opportunity to move to a compound or community exclusive to the cult or group. This tactic further isolates recruits from the structures and communities they know.
  • Laws: Both cults and extremists groups see their beliefs as above traditional laws – and view the leaders of these groups as their leaders rather than elected officials.

Differences between extremist groups and cults

  • Change to society vs individual community: Many extremist groups will link themselves to a whole of society philosophy, and will seek to undertake actions that impact the world around them. This is not always the case with cults, whose impacts are often limited to group members (and their family members and friends who are often left behind).
  • Role of leader: Extremist groups and cults both rely on charismatic leadership to convert and lead others around a certain cause. However, cults consistently rely more strongly on the charisma and power of the one leader and converts become committed to this leader above all else. Cult leaders are often seen as god like figures, with disciples who work to recruit others   – the leader often becoming the cause.
  • Use of Violence: Violent extremist groups almost always advocate for the use of violence as a key to change, whereas this is less common with cults. While cult members are often subjected to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, again this most often occurs within the cult and does not impact people in the wider population.

Leaving a cult or extremist group

literature review by Chapman University in 2016 looked at the main reasons that people disengaged from ideologically based or violent organisations, and again the findings show many similarities between cults and terrorist groups. The only major difference was that the research found that not being comfortable with the use of violence was an additional (and main) reason for people leaving extremist groups.

Disillusionment, which the review describes as a “disjunction between expectations and reality” was a key reason for people leaving both types of groups. In other words, the promises used in during the recruitment processes did not live up the reality. Likewise, social relationships and the influence of third party outsiders, in particular family and friends, were significant throughout the process of disengagement.

So, knowing that the influence of those around you is key to disengagement (and also in early intervention), how can you help if you are worried that someone you know is showing an interest in violent extremism, or cult involvement?

How you can help?

It can be hard to know how to tackle these issues at an individual level, but there are many things we can do to look out for, and support, those we care about:

Advice and support

If you would like further advice and support on how best to help someone you care about, contact our Step Together helpline workers.

Last updated:

18 Oct 2023

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