Some might say that every religion is a cult, and if that is how you want to treat religion in your fictional worlds, go for it! However, there are specific defining features to cults that are not present in every religion. If you need a true cult in your world, for story reasons, here are some* vital aspects you should consider.
*There are more factors, but for the sake of space, these are the ones we will cover for this blog post.
A Charismatic & Authoritative Leader
Cult leaders are attractive. Not necessarily in a physical sense, but there is something innate about them that draws people to them. Many people who join (and later leave) cults express that the leader of the cult was able to give them affection and answers that no one else was able to.
Isolation from the World
A cult always establishes a baseline of “you only need us” and outside attachments are seen as weakness or betrayal. Their belief system is the only belief system, and no questions are allowed. This is often the defining factor of a cult vs. a religion. Religions will welcome questions, and even outright doubt, without being threatened. A cult is always threatened by the presence of questions and doubt.
Obedience at Any Cost
Just as questions and doubt are not tolerated, neither is disobedience within the cult membership. What the leader says is the final word, and it might be anything from giving over a certain amount of money, to drinking poison. There is usually a significant amount of brainwashing involved as well.
Anyone Can Become the Victim of a Cult
Throw out any stereotypes you have about people who join cults. They are not all weak-minded, or poor, or people who have a habit of being taken advantage of. What the defining factor is, though, is vulnerability, and anyone can be vulnerable in different ways. Cults will often seek out wealthy and successful people, too, because they want them to contribute those assets to the cult.
- At the time your story is set, are there any cults in existence? Do they intertwine with any of the religions?
- What promise, however unrealistic, do the cults in your world make to attract followers?
- In the past, have any cults actually evolved into an established religion? What about the other way around—have any religions devolved into a cult?
- How do those cults recruit new members?
- What would one of your characters have to do to escape one of these cults?
Leave a comment below if you have any questions! Thanks for stopping by!
Rebekah Loper began creating epic worlds and stories as a child and never stopped. She is the author of The A-Zs of Worldbuilding series, and has a fantasy novella published in Beatitudes and Woes: A Speculative Fiction Anthology.
She lives in Tulsa, OK with her husband, dog, two formerly feral cats, a small flock of feathered dragons (…ok, ok, they’re chickens), and an extensive tea collection. When she is not writing, she can be found battling the elements in an effort to create a productive, permaculture urban homestead.