The July 12 and 19 issue of The New Yorker has an interesting book review called "Beyond Belief: What makes a cult a cult?" Here's some excerpts:
If we accept that cult members have some degree of volition, the job of distinguishing cults from other belief-based organizations becomes a good deal more difficult.
We may recoil from Keith Raniere's brand of malevolent claptrap, but, if he hadn't physically abused followers and committed crimes, would we be able to explain why NXIVM is inherently more coercive or exploitative than any of the "high demand" religions we tolerate?
For this reason, many scholars choose to avoid the term "cult" altogether. Raniere may have set himself up as an unerring source of wisdom and sought to shut his minions off from outside influence, but apparently so did Jesus of Nazareth.
The Gospel of Luke records him saying, "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple."
Religion, as the old joke has it, is just "a cult plus time."
Acknowledging that joining a cult requires an element of voluntary self-surrender also obliges us to consider whether the very relinquishment of control isn't a significant part of the appeal.
..."Not passive victims, they themselves actively sought to be controlled," Haruki Murakami wrote of the members of Aum Shinrikyo, the cult whose sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway, in 1995, killed thirteen people.
In his book "Underground" (1997), Murakami describes most Aum members as having "deposited all their precious personal holdings of selfhood" in the "spiritual bank" of the cult's leader, Shoko Sahara. Submitting to a higher authority -- to someone else's account of reality -- was, he claims, their aim.
Robert Lifton suggests that people with certain kinds of personal history are more likely to experience such a longing: those with "an early sense of confusion and dislocation," or, at the opposite extreme, an early experience of unusually intense family milieu control."
But he stresses that the capacity for totalist submission lurks in all of us and is probably rooted in childhood, the prolonged period of dependence during which we have no choice but to attribute to our parents "an exaggerated omnipotence." (This might help to explain why so many cult leaders choose to style themselves as the fathers or mothers of their cult "families.")
...Yet our sense that joining a cult requires some unusual degree of credulousness or gullibility persists. Few of us believe in our heart of hearts that Amy Carlson, the recently deceased leader of the Colorado-based Love Has Won cult, who claimed to have birthed the whole of creation and to have been, in a previous life, a daughter of Donald Trump, could put us under her spell.
Perhaps one way to attack our intellectual hubris on this matter is to remind ourselves that we all hold some beliefs for which there is no compelling evidence.
The convictions that Jesus was the son of God and that "everything happens for a reason" are older and more widespread than the belief in Amy Carlson's privileged access to the fifth dimension, but neither is, ultimately, more rational.
In recent decades, scholars have grown increasingly adamant that none of our beliefs, rational or otherwise, have much to do with logical reasoning. "People do not deploy the powerful human intellect to dispassionately analyze the world," William J. Bernstein writes in "The Delusion of Crowds" (Atlantic Monthly).
Instead, "They rationalize how the facts conform to their emotionally derived preconceptions."
...The process by which people are eventually freed from their cult delusions rarely seems to be accelerated by the interventions of well-meaning outsiders. Those who embed themselves in a group idea learn very quickly to dismiss the skepticism of others as the foolish cant of the uninitiated.
If we accept the premise that our beliefs are rooted in emotional attachments rather than in cool assessments of evidence, there is little reason to imagine that rational debate will break the spell.
The good news is that rational objections to flaws in cult doctrine or to hypocrisies on the part of a cult leader do have a powerful impact if and when they occur to the cult members themselves. The analytical mind may be quietened by cult-think, but it is rarely deadened altogether.
Especially if cult life is proving unpleasant, the capacity for critical thought can reassert itself.