Recognizing and Combating Cults

The Modern Survival Guide #95

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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:

Hot to Spot a Cult

So let’s go back to identifying cults. Cults tend to share some common characteristics:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • “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.

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?

Combating Cults

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.

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.

Searching for truth in a world focused on belief.

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