You know you’re in a cult if…
The word “cult” is a controversial one, and there has been considerable debate as to what a cult is and is not. Some people (like the Church of Scientology) object to the use of the term at all. Others claim that all religions started as cults, and one should only use the term “new religions.” And some people use the term so broadly that it could be used to describe everything from vegetarians to Miley Cirus fans.
All of which masks a very real problem. There have been and are real cults: the People’s Temple, the Solar Temple, Aum Shinrikyo, Heaven’s Gate, the Unification Church, and many, many others. Sometimes the true danger of these groups was revealed only after the worst happened – mass suicides or murders. But years of prior abuse went unnoticed, sometimes masked by slick PR.
So what is a cult? How do you spot one? And, most importantly, how do you know if you’re in one? Well, I’ve been studying the subject, on and off, for the last five years, since I left the Church of Scientology. I’ve read a number of books and articles on the subject, trying to make some sense of it. Here’s my own analysis of seven points that define a cult:
Isolation: Most cult groups have a way of gradually isolating their members from non-members. Members are encouraged to spend more time with other group members, and less time with friends and family who are not group members. With increasing involvement and commitment, group members tend to socialize with, and even work with, only other group members. One’s ability to communicate to non-group members atrophies, and communication to non-group family and friends becomes awkward. Group members start to think of their non-group family and friends in whatever negative term the group applies to the outside world: “bourgeois society,” “unbelievers,” “wogs,” etc.
Most cults also have a method of isolating members from former members who have left the group. Expelled or escaped members are denounced and demonized by the group. They are considered enemies and non-people, “agents of Satan,” etc. Members are forbidden to communicate to them, on threat of being expelled themselves. “Shunning” ex-members is common to most cults.
Do you find yourself associating socially or professionally only with members of your group? Are you associating less and less with non-group family or friends? Are you forbidden to see family or friends who are ex-members? If so, chances are, you’re in a cult.
Information Control: A free flow of information is the enemy of any cult, therefore cults always attempt to censor and control the flow of information to their members. Not only are cult members discouraged from reading outside sources of information (which are “from Satan”), they are fed a constant false mythology about the cult and its leaders. Membership numbers are exaggerated. The influence of the cult in the world is fabricated and exaggerated. The leader’s reputation is embellished. Members are told to read and listen only to cult sources of information, and never to look at outside information about the cult.
At the same time, the activities of the cult leadership are shrouded in mystery? Who is running the group? Who makes decisions? Where does the money go? Members are not allowed to know these things.
Does your group attempt to tell you what you can and cannot read, watch, or listen to? Does your group demonize outside sources of information? Is your group secretive about their operations and finances? Does your group make unverifiable boasts about its size and accomplishments? If so, chances are, you’re in a cult.
Black and White Thinking: To a cult, the world is black and white, with no shades of grey. The cult and its leaders are always good and well-intentioned. Outsiders are bad, ignorant, misled or evil. Anyone questioning, challenging or criticizing cult beliefs is an enemy to be destroyed. Cult members come to think of themselves as superior to those outside the cult, and this can bring out a judgmental and self-righteous attitude in cult members, an “us versus them” attitude. People either agree with and approve of the cult, or they are enemies.
If you think of your group and its leaders as perfect, beyond reproach or criticism, and if you automatically think that anyone who questions your group or its leaders or doctrine is an enemy to be destroyed, chances are, you’re in a cult.
Suspension of Critical Thinking: Some try to define a cult as “a group whose beliefs and practices are considered strange.” That’s pretty vague, as many groups, including most major religions, believe in things that might be considered strange by outsiders. Who cares what people believe? That’s not the point. What makes a cult, in my mind, is that the group does not permit members to question, challenge, or even think about core beliefs.
While some cults make a show of saying things like “you can accept or reject the Master’s words” to new recruits, the fact is that rejecting the Master’s words is not an option as one becomes more and more involved. Disagreements are handled condescendingly – you “don’t fully understand,” you “have to ascend to a higher consciousness to really understand,” and so on. Anyone who persists in disagreeing or challenging the Master’s words is eventually ostracized and shunned.
In a cult, the Leader and the Doctrine is always perfect. Any failure is the fault of the individual member, who is flawed and imperfect.
When someone asks you for your opinion, do you tend to quote or paraphrase something the Leader wrote rather than thinking it through for yourself? When faced with critical decisions in your life do you work it out yourself, or do you tend to ask “what would the Leader do?” Do conversations between group members sometimes consist of quoting the Leader to each other? If you were to voice a disagreement with the Leader or Master, would you be looked down upon, shunned, or even ostracized? If so, chances are, you’re in a cult.
A Culture of Confession: Confession is a powerful experience, and is a key part of many religions. One confesses one’s sins in confidence, is heard and receives forgiveness. It can be a tremendous relief. That’s not how cults use confession. They use it for control. The member is expected to open up and completely expose all of their sins, transgressions, bad thoughts and so on. The boundary between private and public is destroyed. Cult leadership wants to have each member’s intimate secrets so as to control them through guilt, shame, and fear. Nothing is ever forgiven.
Does your group require that you confess your most intimate secrets? Do members spend many hours in confessions? Is the information ever used by the group to silence former members? If so, chances are, you’re in a cult.
Control: Cults try to increasingly control the lives of their members, to blur the boundaries between self and group. The cult tries to get members to re-frame their own lives in terms of the cult’s absolutist, black versus white worldview. Thus there are no personal choices, every choice is a group choice. Should I buy a car? Should I send my son to college? Everything becomes judged in terms of “what’s best for the group.” The group lays claim to your time, your money, your resources.
Has your group ever criticized you for buying a car or sending your child to college instead of giving that money to the group? Has your group ever pressured you to divorce someone? To stop seeing someone? Have you ever been made to feel guilty for going to a movie or a party or going on vacation instead of engaging in group activity? Have you ever been pressured to take out a second mortgage and give the money to the group? Or to give an inheritance to the group? If so, chances are, you’re in a cult.
Perfection of the Leader: Some definitions of cults talk about “following a charismatic leader.” Well, that’s a little vague. After all, Steve Jobs could be considered a charismatic leader and few would call Apple a cult. No, in a true cult, the leader is not just charismatic or admired, he (or she) is perfect and flawless. The Leader can make no mistake. Any failure is the fault of underlings or “the work of Satan.” The leader’s words are always true and right and brilliant. He never lies. His intentions are always pure. Anything the Leader produces is amazing and wonderful. Any forward progress or success of the group is always due to the Leader. To question or criticize the leader is an enemy action.
Money, fancy clothes, luxurious houses and cars, personal service are all his by right. No one may question his wealth and power.
Is your leader perfect? Has your leader ever admitted a mistake? What would happen if you publicly voiced some criticism of your group’s leader? Would you be reported? Disciplined? If so, then chances are, you’re in a cult.