Recognizing and Combating Cults
The Modern Survival Guide #95
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And I don’t like cults. I don’t think they’re helpful, useful, or safe. For those reasons I’m not part of a cult… at least, I don’t think I am.
But if I was, would I know?
This is a non-trivial question, because cults are insidious and cult-like behavior is pervasive in modern religions and political organizations. You probably know someone who is now or has been in a cult — even if it was just a cult of personality. It’s entirely possible that you have been in a cult and simply didn’t (or don’t) realize it. And cults are bad for you. Recognizing, addressing, and when necessary combating cults are therefore prominent survival issues.
So pull up a chair, friend, and grab the e-meter, ’cause I want to chat about cults, how to spot them, why they’re bad, how people fall into them, and how to oppose them.
Maybe by the end I’ll know if I’m part of one or not…
What Is a Cult?
So let’s start at the beginning, as we often do, with a definition. According to Wikipedia, a “cult” is “a social group with socially deviant or novel beliefs and practices,” which is somewhat incomplete. The word has derogatory overtones that need to be addressed, so let’s amend that definition to the following:
A cult is a social group with socially deviant or novel beliefs and practices, which harms its members’ financial, emotional, or physical well-being, and which attempts to control its members’ actions and opinions.
Did I just open a box of worms? I feel like I opened a box of worms. That may be because you could argue, from a certain point of view, that a lot of mainstream religions are cults. The key word, and the word that separates a cult from a mainstream religion, is generally “harm.” Harm indicates injury, in the sense that something has taken something from you (cash, emotional distress, pain, etc.) without providing compensation or sufficient explanation to assuage your loss.
Most “mainstream” religious institutions exist on a quid pro quo basis (whatever their ideals might say, someone has to pay for the church roof). They provide a service in exchange for clearly structured requests for support, with well-understood roles, limits, and rules of behavior for all parties. With that being said, there is nothing that stops a “mainstream” religion from devolving into a cult, in whole or in part, aside from the constant vigilance of its institutional bureaucracy and a constant demand for accountability by its members.¹
Similarly, there are a lot of fringe philosophical and political groups out there that qualify for cult status. One could argue, with some justification, that the major political parties are rapidly drifting in the direction of cult-like behavior in the US. But by the same token, political parties are generally voluntary associations, and although tempers may run high, in very few cases do they attempt to directly control their membership.
On top of that, it’s important to realize that there are cults, there are cult-like groups, and there is such as a thing as culty behavior, and these things may all exist in shades of gray. But in general, for this article, when I use the word “cult,” I’m referring to an organization that holds most (if not all) of the following qualities of a cult.
Hot to Spot a Cult
So let’s go back to identifying cults. Cults tend to share some common characteristics:
- Glorification of the leader: Probably the defining point of cult organizations is an unreasonable glorification of their leaders — everything the leader does is perfect, no one may criticize the leader, and all the leader’s decisions are correct. Cult leaders are (almost by default) extremely charismatic but also extremely self-centered.
- An answer for everything: Most cults lure in new members with a core philosophy or religious explanation that provides simple answers. This makes them very attractive to people who are looking for answers.
- Restrictions on travel or movement: Cults often claim there is no legitimate reason to leave their community, may physically prevent people from leaving, and excommunicate, demonize, or otherwise shun people who manage to leave.
- Pressure to make quick decisions: Cults often pressure their members to make rapid decisions on matters of finance, personal matters, matters of faith, or decisions regarding membership in the cult. The defining characteristic of a “rapid” decision in this case is that there is insufficient time to think through all the implications.
- Exploitation of members: Cults often demand that members contribute financially, emotionally, in labor, or in sexual favors. These demands are accompanied by the threat of being shunned, emotionally traumatized, or physically harmed by the cult membership if they refuse.
- Closed groups: Cults often have an inner circle, or series of inner circles, whose activities are kept secret from people who are not “inside the onion.” Financial matters, in particular, are likely to be handled by a closed group — beware of any religious organization that won’t talk about its finances.
- Demonization of outsiders: Cults often encourage members to only associate with other members of the cult, and encourage the belief that those who are not members of the cult are sinners, worth only their value as potential converts.
- Claims of divinity or special powers: Cult leaders often claim divinity, supernatural abilities, special powers, or simply divinely inspired wisdom.
- Rejection of critical thought: Cults often reject questions or rational concerns out of hand, and refuse to ascribe any incorrect action to their leader. Rote regurgitation of talking points and failure to address questions are potential signs of cult behavior.
- Documented abuses: Cults usually leave a paper trail of newspaper articles, court filings, and personal testimonials detailing and documenting past abuses.
Similarly, cult members tend to share some common markers as well:
- Obsession: Cult members are often utterly focused on the cult leader, to the exclusion of other considerations, and may copy their mannerisms.
- Persecution complex: Cult members often refuse to engage in rational discussion, and if challenged may claim that they are being persecuted for their beliefs.
- Dependency: Cult members are often encouraged to become dependent on the cult or cult leader to resolve everyday issues and life challenges.
- Loss of self: Cult members often lose the ability to distinguish between their individual identity and that of the cult, particularly in terms of the cult’s ideology, philosophy, or religious worldview.
- Rationalization: Cult members often rationalize any bad thing done by the cult or cult leader in such a way that they cannot admit that bad things actually happened.
- Isolation: Cult members often become increasingly and deliberately socially isolated, may cut off relationships with non-cultists, and may see former members of the cult as evil or too sinful to associate with.
Also, watch out for the following key phrases from members within an organization you’ve joined or are thinking about joining:
- “It’s totally optional, you can leave whenever you want.” — If anyone says this to you, odds are that no, you cannot leave whenever you want.
- “I just need $99.95 to pay for your copy of the (insert religious or philosophical text required by the organization here).” — No legitimate religion charges you for their Bible. At least not directly.
- “The next counseling/prayer/e-meter session is only $50!” — No legitimate religion charges you for counseling or prayer.
- “If you leave, you’re condemning yourself/your family/us to damnation!” — Ok, mainstream religions say this all the time too, you got me there.
- “If you leave, you can never talk to us again!” — This is the one to really watch out for. It also means it’s time to bail.
- “The media criticized our leader! We can never trust the media again! Only our group holds the truth.” — #politicalovertones
- “Don’t talk to them, they’re sinners.” — This is also a big warning sign. Anyone who thinks they can control your association dreams themselves your master.
Not every cult will have all of these markers, but almost every cult will have most of them. Remember — cults generally do not advertise on billboards and most of them try to stay under the radar as much as possible. They do not come equipped with flashing neon signs over their members’ or leaders’ heads, and a cult-run building of meeting or worship will look just like any other building. This means that you have to be alert and aware of the groups and people around you if you want to spot a cult.
Why Cults Are BAD
This isn’t hard. Cults are bad because they push lies, isolate people from their neighbors and family, inspire conflicts, decrease their members’ ability to reason, and inflict emotional, physical, and financial harm on their members. If it wasn’t for the 1st Amendment most of them would immediately be classified as predatory organizations and forcibly disbanded. Because we have freedom of religion and freedom of association, and because cult members arguably join of their own free will, this generally isn’t possible and cults are often left free to prey upon their members until they cross a major line.²
So Why Do People Join Cults?
Cults prey on the vulnerable. It’s really that simple. And we need to talk about this, because “vulnerable” is a loaded term and provokes an instant “That’s not me, I could never be that weak to let someone take advantage of me!” reaction in most people. And then some of those people join cults anyway. So what the hell’s going on?
Let’s examine this concept of “vulnerability.” What does that entail? Well, all kinds of things make us vulnerable in all kinds of different ways. Losing our job, losing a spouse or a lover, moving to a new place, losing friends, financial trouble, existential crises, fear of death, near-death experiences, culture shock, loss of faith, loss of property — on and on it goes. Life is basically one giant meat grinder that produces vulnerable people. Everyone — everyone — is vulnerable at some point, probably many points, in their lives. Everyone. So don’t go getting all high-horse on this.
Vulnerability is characterized by having a serious problem and not knowing how (or not being able) to solve it on your own. That’s all it means. If you’re vulnerable, you need help.
And then along comes a cult, with an outstretched hand.
They’ll come at you with a smile and a hug. An offer of friendship here, an invite to a group event there. Maybe a discussion on philosophy, or an offer of counseling with the group leader. Possibly there will be talk of “a better way,” or words to that effect. And all you have to do is join the group or come to the meetings.
At this stage, there’s no way to tell a cult apart from any other civic organization, because it sounds like they want to help. And the hell of it is… the cult members really do want to help. They really do think they’re offering a better path. Remember, very few people get up in the morning and think to themselves, “Today, I’m going to be an unmitigated bastard, mwahaha!” Most people do what they do for what they think are good reasons, and cult members are no different.
Once a new member joins the cult it’s typically very difficult to get out, because at that point the cult is solving their problem.
Imagine you’re a lonely person in your mid-twenties. You’re in a new city, you have no friends, you have limited income. You’re bored, broke, probably horny, and suffering from a lack of purpose. Along comes a nice group of people who seem to genuinely like you, want you around, maybe even offer you a sexual outlet, and offer you a purpose beyond just getting up and going to work for not enough money.
Wouldn’t you jump at that? Hell, mainstream religions have been playing this card for thousands of years, and it works great.
It’s only later that the cult turns exploitative, controlling, and harmful. In some cases it’s only over the long term that these effects are noticeable. And by then, it’s generally too late for a cult member to extricate themselves. By then, they may not want to. Given sufficient motivation, almost everyone drinks the Kool Aid.
This brings us to the topic of how to combat cults, and there’s only so much you, personally, can do. But it’s not nothing, and it’s worth knowing.
On a personal level, you combat cults by not joining them and helping people who have joined them to get out.
Cults exist to exploit their members for the benefit of their leadership. Starving them out is possible, and you can do your part by not joining a cult. This is harder than it sounds, but it boils down to remembering the bullet points we listed earlier and then getting the fuck out of any group that starts to mark them off.
On the flip side, helping people who want out of a cult is trickier. For one thing, if you’re on the outside and they’re on the inside, they’re going to have a very hard time reaching out to you in the first place. If you don’t know them at all, odds are you will never even know they’re there (remember — isolation is a key tactic of cults). So keep an eye out for people who you know in passing, or knew before they joined a cult, and try to reach out to them if you think they’re in trouble.
This is tricky in itself, because it’s not a good idea to lead with, “Sooooo I hear you’re in cult! How’s that working for you?!” Triggering people’s defensive reactions is usually not helpful. Instead, it’s worthwhile to offer the very things that the cult is falsely promising: community, friendship, assistance, and support. Maintaining a connection and then offering things the cult member thinks they can only get from the cult may help to remind the cult member that there’s a whole outside world out there, and they don’t have to stay in the bubble.
Also, do not criticize the cult. It’s important to remember that cults lead with positive messaging, cult members buy into that messaging, and therefore criticizing the group = criticizing the message = criticizing the person. Again, avoid defensive reactions. Instead, just keep them talking. Even keeping them talking about the cult may be a good idea — saying things like “I’m glad that group makes you happy” can, counter-intuitively, cause the person to more critically examine their relationship with the cult.
Then, be prepared to offer a safe space. Remember that cult members are often kept in line by threats of physical, emotional, spiritual, or financial retribution. If you can offer a haven from any of these things, you represent a potential avenue of escape. The phrase you’re looking for is “If you ever need anything, just let me know.” Repeat that at regular intervals until they know you’re serious.
Last but not least, if you believe or have evidence that a group is physically, emotionally, or financially abusing its members, it may be worth your while to report that group to the authorities and/or the local news organizations. Local police and the FBI tend to monitor suspected cults precisely because of their harmful effects, and they’re just a phone call away. And newsies love to publish stories on cults. Just love ’em. They’re juicy topics.
But never, ever assume that the authorities are going to ride in on a white horse and sort everything out. That happens in movies and TV shows. In reality, the authorities usually show up just in time to clean up the mess, pick up the pieces, arrest a few people, counsel the survivors, and bag the bodies. That’s one of the downsides of living in a system where you’re presumed innocent until proven guilty — the cops can’t act until someone breaks the law.
Am I in a Cult? Are You?
Closing the loop, no, as far as I know I’m not in any cults. None of the groups with which I associate tick the relevant boxes, and I don’t kowtow to a Great Leader. I’m not in a cult. I’m on my guard against cults.
I have been targeted for recruitment, though. So have you, most likely, especially if you live in a big city. There’s always someone on the subway who wants to talk to you about their own personal vision of Jesus, there’s always someone at work who wants to invite you to a meeting to save your soul, and there’s always a charismatic wonder-worker offering the solution to everything on infomercials.
I’m not in a cult, but there are a LOT of them out there.
So… are you in cult?
Are you sure?
¹Which is to say that while I would not consider Christianity to be a cult, for example, certain churches are definitely cults.
²No one ever said freedom was nice.