The Oxford English dictionary entry for 'Cult' states: 1.a system of religious worship, esp. as expressed in ritual. 2.a devotion or homage to a person or thing. 2b. A popular fashion esp. followed by a specific section of society 3. denoting a person or thing popularised in this way.

It is clear that the above description could easily apply to any of the organised religions prevalent today. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism (and others) are replete and indeed founded on ritual and "devotion to a person or thing." However, they are not generally referred to as 'cults'. It seems that the term cult, in its modern and widely understood form, is reserved for any group formed under a hierarchical structure, where some form of coercion or manipulation of the group members exists. Generally there is also some focus of worship, be it the group leader(s) or some other outside personage or thing. The justification for worship or allegiance is usually tied to the perceived or stated benefits or potential benefits to be derived from same. (I know, sounds rather like accepted mainstream religions - go figure.)

It seems at a practical level however, that the key element in distinguishing a 'cult' from a mainstream religion is the existence of overt, identifiable coercion (physical or mental) or manipulation of members.

Having said that, physical coercion or "attacks on the physical integrity of members" in such groups or 'cults', while not without precedent, is less common, (physical coercion being a more obvious violation of free will and therefore more easily identified). A much more subtle, and for this reason effective form of coercion is intellectual, or more commonly emotional, manipulation. This is generally achieved through the aforementioned worship principle where members are encouraged to give of their time, energy, financial resources etc. in the hope, or with the promise of achieving the stated goal and/or benefits for the individual or group.

Very often the allegation that 'mind control' is used on cult members is made. Proving such a claim is problematic however, since the definition of mind control is broad to say the least. There can be many forms of 'mind control' varying in subtlety, although they are not called by that name (see the mass media coverage of the Gulf war for one example or the marketing techniques used against shoppers in supermarkets for another).

In relation to alleged 'cults', it is usually via the observation of the results of 'mind control' that assertions are most often made as to whether it is in use or not in any given group. These results include a by now widely known list of supposed 'indicators'. For example: members joining 'communes' giving up possessions, extreme devotion and allegiance to a leader, and in a few cases giving up their lives by way of apparent suicide.

In line with this more practical understanding, Wikipedia gives the following definition of Cult:
"Since the 1960s, in English-speaking countries, especially in North America, most English speakers have adopted the term in a pejorative sense to denote groups, many of them with religious themes, that exploit their members psychologically and financially using group-based persuasion techniques (sometimes called "mind control"). Unlike legitimate religious movements, cults are characterized by high levels of dependency, exploitation, and compliance with demands of leadership that are unrelated to religion. 90% or more of cult members ultimately leave the group."
Using the above definition then, we can deduce that 'cults' are groups characterised by "high levels of dependency, exploitation, and compliance with demands of leadership that are unrelated to religion", while legitimate religious movements can supposedly use the same "high levels of dependency, exploitation, and compliance with demands of leadership", as long as they are related to religion.

The problem then is, what defines religion? One commentator suggests the following:
"...religion always begins in an experience that some individual has or that some small group of people shares. The response that this person or group makes to the original experience is what begins the process of interaction between the religion and the community. In extreme cases we can imagine a religion which lived and died unknown to all but the original experiencers, because their response turned inward and never created an interaction with others in the community; or a religion in which the response to the original experience so quickly and completely assimilated it to the traditions of the community that the germinal religion never acquired an independent identity. Most recognizable religions fall somewhere between these extremes, and thus acquire the identity by which we can recognize them.

Religion originates in an attempt to represent and order beliefs, feelings, imaginings and actions that arise in response to direct experience of the sacred and the spiritual. As this attempt expands in its formulation and elaboration, it becomes a process that creates meaning for itself on a sustaining basis, in terms of both its originating experiences and its own continuing responses."
If the true definition of religion is based on "belief that is a direct experience of the sacred and spiritual", then most of today's mainstream religions that are founded on the experience or hearsay of another cannot constitute a valid 'religion' and therefore are in fact not religions at all. They continue nevertheless to retain "high levels of dependency, exploitation, and compliance with demands of leadership", essentially (under the above definition) making them 'cults'.

Essentially there would seem to be two approaches that can be taken when attempting to assess the cult status of a group: One can approach it from a theological point of view or from a sociological point of view.

One religious professor in 1994 well summarized the popular perspectives concerning the identification of "cults" in an online posting, shortly after the tragedy at Waco, that deserves some consideration:
"As a professor of religious studies who specializes in research, writing, and teaching about America's alternative religions, I can tell all of you that the word "cult" has become an essentially contested concept. That is, like many other words, there is no universally agreed-upon meaning.

"Before one can know what the term means one must know the user and his or her context religiously and socially. I tell my students there are four major approaches to using the term: journalistic (tends to be sensational), theological (defines "cult" by some standard of orthodox truth), sociological (uses "cult" to describe groups that self-consciously oppose the mainstream of culture), and psychological (uses a standard of psychological manipulation and coercion).

"What counts as a cult differs by these varying definitions. All three may agree on a certain group being a "cult" such as Jim Jones' "Peoples' Temple." But a theologian might label the LDS (Latter-day Saints) church a "cult" simply because it diverges considerably from standard orthodox Christianity, while a sociologist would say it isn't a cult due to its size and influence."
The theological argument then, seems to hinge upon interpretation of religious texts, with various groups attempting to define the boundaries of what it means to be truly Christian. The argument is unlikely to be resolved any time soon given that none of the warring factors actually possess any conclusive proof.

For example, the theological approach is taken by the Christian countercult movement. It considers the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) a cult because the church rejects the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, has scriptures in addition to the Bible, and has various other unorthodox beliefs and practices.

In the end, size and influence seem to play a major part in deciding which religious group gets awarded 'cult' status. The Catholic Church, for example, has approximately a 2,000 year history, 600 million followers around the world, and vast financial resources at its disposal. It seems that this provides all the protection needed from the threat of 'cult headquarters' ever replacing the term 'Vatican' or 'cult leader' the title of 'Pope.'

Rightly or wrongly then, smaller and newly formed religious groups are much more likely to find themselves the object of scrutiny than larger established mainstream religions, regardless of the evidence or lack thereof for provable 'cultic' behavior (if such a thing even exists from the theological point of view). Of course, given the monotheistic nature and monopoly on belief held by the major organised religions, it is certainly plausible that this situation is most acceptable to them, and that they may even contribute to its perpetuation.

The other approach available to 'cult assessors' is the sociological approach. This is the approach taken by most and forms the basis of the most serious allegations, as it precludes the theological argument which is fraught with difficulty and in the end coming down to a matter of belief rather than verifiable facts.

The sociological argument is essentially the 'cultural' argument wherein it is alleged that certain groups self-consciously oppose the mainstream of culture with all its inherent accepted 'norms'. Implicit in this argument is that mind 'control' or 'manipulation' that is alleged to form a part of the make up of many cults does not form a part of the make up of modern civilised society and culture. This argument, as we discuss a little later, is also subjective.

The aforementioned wikipedia definition is interesting in that it states that the term cult in the "pejorative sense" was first adopted en masse in the 1960's. Indeed it seems that prior to this time the term cult did not have negative connotations at all, being generally used (if used at all) to denote any belief system. As noted above the Oxford English dictionary gives the additional definitions of 'cult' as: 2a. a popular fashion esp. followed by a specific section of society 3. denoting a person or thing popularised in this way.

The definition of what is and what is not a cult is not officially defined by any government agency in the US. The term remains open to interpretation and, as is discussed further below, it perhaps better serves the essential goals of government for it to remain that way. As a result the prosecution of 'cults' or 'cult leaders' has generally been carried out under more mundane infractions of the law, for example, kidnapping or extortion, or, in the case of the Waco incident, 'gun control'.

As stated, the main requirement for 'cult' status would seem to be what can be broadly termed 'violation of free will'. For this to be present it seems logical that at the outset there must be some level of deceit in the presentation of what the 'member benefits' will be. No prospective cult would attract many devotees if among the benefits of membership it included: subtle mind control, physical beatings, incarceration, daily insult sessions, etc. In short, 'cults' as they are popularly defined, are definitely not 'what you see is what you get' type organisations.

What can be observed in our society at present, is that in the mind of the average citizen, the concept of a 'cult' is understood as more of a vague threat than anything clearly defined and understood. From the generally ill-informed position of the "man in the street" it can perhaps be likened to the now ever present threat of "terrorists" and "terrorism"; he understands it as something bad, or threatening, but would be hard pressed to give any clear examples of where 'it' is and exactly what level of threat 'it' poses to him, personally. This limited and distorted perception of the common person may be indicative of a certain way in which information is disseminated in our society and about the possible agenda of those that disseminate it.

What seems to be true is that the 'cult' label is so powerful, and carries so much stigma, and can be used in a directed way to damage and destroy groups and individuals exactly because of the very things that it labels as 'cultic manipulation,' i.e. the susceptibility of the human psyche to programming and subtle suggestive techniques of one sort or another. Governments must employ the force of public opinion in order to take public action. In our modern society in which people of a predatory nature seem to thrive, any accusation can, and often is, made to stick when stated and stated often enough by those in apparent positions of power and influence.

Dozens if not hundreds of incidents in our recent history can be cited where the public was (and continues to be) led to believe something as truth when in fact it was not. The recent Iraq WMD debacle involving various Western governments is but one large-scale example. Human history is indeed replete with "urban myths"- many of them forming some of our most accepted and sacred foundational cows. From science to history to religion to politics, no field of study is exempt.

Information is, and probably always has been, a highly valued commodity. "Knowledge is power," as the saying goes. While originally the stated role of governments was to carry out the will of the people, it is clear today that is no longer the case. The job of governments now, it seems, is purely the control of resources, with the most important 'resource' being the citizenry. The information that society is 'allowed' to receive, shapes the perception of the members of that society. Therefore, control of information is key to control of perception, and control of perception is key to the control of the population. Read any of Noam Chomsky's articles or interviews on the media and control of information here for a more in-depth analysis of the control of information and how it is used to manipulate and coerce the masses of people to serve the elite in governments.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, terms like 'Total Information Awareness' and Terrorism Information Awareness' sprang up, and governments, (most notably the US and British) established a 'cult of information', or 'cult of awareness' allegedly for the purpose of gathering information on "terrorism". This philosophy and it's importance is promoted and implemented from the top level both in government and corporate circles to the extent that civil liberties that were thought to be foundational to the concept of 'Democracy' have been virtually eradicated.

Since 9/11 the Bush government has bombarded the population with fear-based propaganda in the attempt to promote, or rather instill the concept of a "cult of awareness" into the minds of the populace, the goal being to create an environment or atmosphere wherein the population will be convinced that it is in their own interest or that of the country (and thus their 'patriotic duty') to funnel information about their fellow citizens upwards to their 'leaders.' Neighbours are encouraged to keep a watch on each other and report "suspicious behavior", with the list of just what defines "suspicious behavior" being supplied by the office of Homeland Security. Furthermore we have been told many times that mere disgruntled citizens may well constitute the 'enemy in our midst'.

The masses are told that the benefits of compliance with the requirements of the cult of information lie in the fact that we will be safer; more secure in our beds at night. In short, the cult of information is essentially a cult of fear. Fear must first be instilled in the minds of the masses to inspire them to feed this upward flowing stream of information to their leaders - designed to facilitate the extirpation of any contrary source of information - and fear is a principle that humans seem somehow pre-designed and preprogrammed to wholeheartedly embrace.

What this boils down to is this: if you control the knowledge that people have, you control the people. As such, it is not hard to see that if governments understand knowledge as power, and they seek to retain power, they must seek to control the flow of information the aim of which must be to limit knowledge.

If you control the spread of information you can control what people think. If you control what people think, you are, effectively, controlling their minds. And we come around in a circle to what is truly Cultic.

From this point of view, logically, any group that threatens the government monopoly on information and power, and therefore their control of the people, is perceived as a threat that must be dealt with.

As Richard Dolan has written:
"Anyone who has lived in a repressive society knows that official manipulation of the truth occurs daily. But societies have their many and their few. In all times and all places, it is the few who rule, and the few who exert dominant influence over what we may call official culture. - All elites take care to manipulate public information to maintain existing structures of power. It's an old game."
As noted above, the allegation that 'mind control' is used on cult members is often made when labeling any group as a "cult." However, there can be many forms of 'mind control' - including the largely censored mass media coverage of the Iraq war or the Israeli treatment of Palestinians - although these deceptions are not generally understood as mind control. And if we are to rely on the criteria on which assertions of 'cult' are based, that is observation of the results of 'mind control', i.e. members joining 'communes' giving up possessions, extreme devotion and allegiance to a leader, and in a few cases giving up their lives by way of apparent suicide, we certainly find reasonable justification for labeling the current US administration as a cult for persuading hundreds of thousands of Americans to give up their possessions and join the commune of the US military out of extreme devotion to a proven liar, George W. Bush, resulting in what could be termed apparent suicide in Iraq.