No, NLP is not a cult. Indeed, it isn't clear where this claim originated. The following explanation could be true, but I wouldn't 'bet the farm on it'.
Who says NLP is a Cult?
In 1996, a book entitled Sects, 'Cults' & Alternative Religions, written by a David V. Barrett, was published, which included a section on what Barrett thought NLP was about.
In fact Barrett seems to be the kind of person who can't tell the difference between a menu and real food, so to speak, and his views on NLP appear to be based entirely on a mixture of (a) information from a single NLP training company, and (b) his own assumption that if two things look alike, no matter how superficial the similarity may be, they are alike. In fact Barrett makes three rather irrational allegations about "NLP":
But what valid point is Barrett making here?
Firstly, we should note that Barrett only supplies the name of one "movement" which allegedly fits his description. At this stage of his argument, then, the existence of any other such groups is therefore entirely hypothetical.
But let's suppose, just for the sake of the argument, that there really are other groups and other people who fit the description. Barrett hasn't actually presented us with evidence of anything at all which would support his overall argument. To make the point, let's make a small change in Barrett's wording and see what effect it has:
"... a substantial number of coaches openly use NLP-related techniques in their work, and some are NLP Master Practitioners."
Since this is undoubtedly true - the University of Derby runs an accredited MA course in Applied Coaching - can we take it that "NLP" is actually a form of coaching?
In practice, the FoNLP (field of NLP) is first and foremost about communication skills. The kind of skills which can be usefully applied in a wide range of contexts.
Moreover, working details of many (or most?) of the basic NLP-related techniques can be found in literally dozens of books available in run-of-the-mill High Street bookstores. And no one is required to describe their personal beliefs before they are allowed to buy a book on the subject.
Likewise companies offering training in NLP and NLP-related techniques do not 'vet' potential trainees to weed out people because of their special interests or affiliations. Thus the use of NLP-related techniques is in no way restricted to any specific group of people.
If we believe this claim then any training course is an inherently "religious" activity!
This, I'm afraid, is sheer nonsense.
Back to front down under
A second possible candidate as the origin of this myth may be an article in an Australian newspaper.
The article was cited on the Wikipedia NLP page and in the list of references for a Knol article on NLP that basically consists of cut and pasted elements from the Wikipedia page. However the reference has now been dropped in both cases and so far I have not been able to find it again through Google.
Why NLP is NOT a cult
According to one web site that carries accurate and useful information about cults (see the Cult Information Centre):
"Every cult can be defined as a group having all of the following five characteristics:
Having investigated a number of cults myself, over a period of more than 10 years, in my opinion this is as good a basic definition of a cult as we are likely to find, though I would like to add one further characteristic:
And that being the case, how does NLP measure up as a cult? Whereas cults invariably create a number of physical "centres" (cult-owned buildings) in the areas where they operate, the various elements within the NLP-related community are very loosely organised and - so far as I know - have no means of isolating people, either physically or mentally.
Since there is no central organisation to join, clearly people cannot be "recruited" to NLP in the sense that a genuine cult recruits members. By the same token, since there are no "members" they cannot be "indoctrinated" in order to "retain" them.
Whilst it is true that some people may imagine that being trained in NLP-associated techniques makes them superior in some way, this is a misconception and there is nothing vaguely resembling "an elitist totalitarian society" within the field of NLP.
Whilst a certain amount of hero worship goes on amongst some sections of the NLP community, since there is/are no overarching organization(s) controlling NLP-related activities, to be strictly accurate, NLP has no "founder", let alone "founder leader," in the sense that it is used in this definition.
Richard Bandler originated what is now known as NLP, and Bandler together with John Grinder were the original co-creators. Neither of these people, so far as I know, has ever claimed to be a re-incarnation of Jesus or any other "messianic" figure, though some NLP seminar ads have implied that Bandler is to NLP what Mozart was to piano playing - in a teaching capacity, that is.
Again, there is no central body so there is no one to "solicit funds" - though naturally companies offering NLP-related training usually charge for their courses, and NLP-related "professional bodies" such as the Professional Guild of NLP charge subscription fees in the same way as professional organisations in any other activity. Still, there are no "solicited funds" (donations) involved.
No central organization, no "solicit[ed] funds", so no "wealth" which could be accumulated.
Even NLP training seminars are usually held in public locations - hotels, hired university facilities, etc. - as few training companies have room for groups of more than a dozen or so people, if any. Moreover, whilst some people go on numerous NLP-related training courses (one or two every year), it is likely that the majority of NLPers have only been on one or two courses (an 'introductory' or 'taster' and a 'practitioner' course, or a 'practitioner' and a 'master practioner' course) in all their time as members of the NLP community. In addition to the courses or seminars there are NLP 'practice groups' in some towns and cities which meet regularly - usually for just one evening per month. And finally, there are a number of online 'chat groups', though even the largest such groups are unlikely to number more than a few thousand members, the vast majority of whom tend to be 'lurkers' - people who may read posts that seem interesting to them, but who otherwise take little or no active part in the group.
But perhaps the crucial influence is the fact that NLP and the NLP-related techniques are primarily concerned developing an individual's communication and social skills. For NLPers to be isolated from the wider community would therefore be illogical and totally self-defeating.
NLP and "Spirituality"
Let me start by saying that I personally know of at least half-a-dozen people, quite well-known within some parts of the NLP community, who have tried to invest "NLP" with a layer of spirituality. None of them, however, has been successful in establishing their ideas as part of the catalogue of authentic NLP-related concepts.
Mr, Dilts, in spite of the direct tutelage offered by each of the co-creators of NLP has managed to miss the point with astonishing consistency. It is precisely because there is no requirement to subscribe to particular beliefs and values that NLP moves so easily across cultural and linguistic barriers and is easily and respectfully incorporated into these distinct systems. What he is taking credit for is a degradation of the very technology in which he makes his living. ... A modeling, for example, of the processes by which our species in its apparently compulsive search for the illusion of stability and security generates and then embraces its own creations - the beliefs, values and "deeper aspects of life" … - would be a brilliant and useful piece of modeling work - but to arbitrarily present a PARTICULAR SET - any specific set of values, beliefs and even hierarchies of these amazing creatures - as if they had some validity and/or stability across individuals let alone distinct cultures is a travesty and an imposition of content. The mentioned characteristics leave such work far, far below the minimum ethical and precision standards that have allowed NLP to flourish. Yes, a modeling of the PROCESSES by which we as humans create such constructions would be a legitimate and likely useful task but to fall to the level of imposing one's own beliefs, values ... is quite astonishing.
In short, no, the NLP community doesn't constitute any kind of 'cult' in the normal meaning of the word. Though it is also fair to say that there are certainly people involved with FoNLP (field of NLP) who, as in almost any field of human activity, tend to exaggerate the importance and efficacy of the techniques they have learnt about, and the brilliance of certain NLP trainers. This behaviour is, however, under the control of the individual and is certainly not inherent within NLP and the NLP-related techniques.
Just as it would be wise to treat exaggerated claims about the benefits of NLP with a hefty dose of scepticism, it would be equally advisable to disregard the claims of the self-styled experts who, in describing the FoNLP as a cult, only demonstrate that they are misinformed about cults, or the FoNLP, or both.