Do you belong to a group that has you second-guessing and causing you to wonder, “Am I in a cult?” Or perhaps you wonder about a group a friend or family member is in — but how would you know? Read on and get the answers!
Are you in a cult, have you ever been in one, or is someone you know involved with one?
You might think there’s no way you could ever get involved in a cult. You’re not naïve. You weren’t born yesterday, you didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, and all that stuff. You’re smart. You’re savvy. You would know a cult if you saw one.
Am I in a Cult?
Cults pop up in the strangest places, and they’re not always religious in nature. Some actively recruit members in such an outgoing, affable way, you’d swear they were your new best friends. Everyone is welcome. They shower you with love and affection, making you immediately feel like one of the gang (this is called love bombing, which I’ll get to later). They seem like anything but a cult.
Others are more secretive, even to the point of you having to be invited in by a member, then pass a battery of strange (and often offensive and degrading) “tests” to prove your worth. Upon passing, you’ll then be taught highly important, solemn social graces like the group’s secret handshakes and catch-phrases, by a grim-faced guy in a robe and mask (how do you know he’s grim-faced if he’s wearing a mask? You can see it in his body language and hear it in his voice. Ugh.).
Regardless of their modus operandi, cults are dangerous and devastating to families and individuals alike – and often, their bank accounts. Some victims of cults are even murdered.
The late Margaret Singer, one of the great leaders in the realm of identifying and assisting cult victims and their families, at one time put the number of cult organizations in the U.S. at around 5,000.
Signs that You’re in a Cult
Let’s break this down into separate areas of red flags to look for: the attitudes and actions of the group’s leader, and the attitudes and actions of the members in general.
It may be a cult, or at least have cultish leanings if the leader:
- Is controlling of others — manipulating them using by guilt, shaming, threats, intimidation, or even violence
- Is hypersensitive to what others think of him
- Is always right, while everyone else is wrong, bad, out to get him, etc
- Is rigid, insensitive; may be aloof and cold
- Practices gaslighting
- Doesn’t want you to learn from anyone else/any other group or leader
- Hates being questioned and may punish or take revenge on those who do
- Critical thinking is greatly discouraged or flat-out not allowed
- Possesses an arrogant attitude
- Authoritarian, demanding unquestioning obedience
- Makes members publicly confess mistakes/shortcomings/sins
- Has a sense of entitlement
- Answers to no one – no accountability (or pretends to be accountable to a board, or advisors/elders who are in reality nothing more than yes-men)
- May aggressively recruit new members
- May try to prevent members from leaving; believes there’s no legitimate reason for anyone to leave
- Slanders former members, who are also shunned
- Ignores financial, emotional, physical needs of others
- May demand more and more money, with no financial transparency or accountability
- Little to no respect for boundaries
- May take sexual and/or financial advantage of members
- Has secret rites (that are often at best offensive and degrading, and sometimes just plain sick; some may even be illegal)
I want to include the caveat here, that just because a group leader is a gossip or doesn’t seem to care about the needs of others doesn’t mean he’s a cult leader. On the other hand, someone who is a cult leader certainly doesn’t need to have a lot of these attributes to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, either.
Attitudes and Warning Signs of the General Membership
Some warning signs coming from the group’s members:
- May obsess over their leader
- May view him as messiah-like
- Many of them may act like the leader’s clones
- Seem unable or unwilling to think for themselves
- Too dependent on the leader
- Seem to believe the leader is always justified in whatever he says or does
- Participates in and tries to justify the secret rites, no matter how disgusting they are
- Become increasingly isolated from their families and friends (unless they seem interested in joining)
- Practice shunning of former members, because…
- Those who left are angry, bitter, liars, had an axe to grind, are evil, vindictive, crazy, etc
- May practice “love-bombing” new members
The caveat regarding the leader applies here as well. Just because one or two members are, for instance, isolated from their families and/or seem incapable of critical thinking, doesn’t mean you’ve stumbled into a cult. But if the membership, in general, has these warning signs then proceed with extreme caution. Or even run like the devil is on your tail, because he may well be.
What is Love-Bombing?
Love-bombing is when new people are welcomed into a group with opened arms, immediately accepted as-is, no strings attached, given plenty of attention, and loved on unconditionally.
Wait, what? Isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that how people should treat one another?
Well, yes, as long as the love is genuine. And there are places out there populated by genuinely loving, caring people, so please don’t think that everyone who comes across like this is practicing the phony love-bombing “love”.
But the people who run cults aren’t stupid (well, some are, but I’m talking here about the really slick ones). They know that the world is filled with lonely, hurting people – people who may be new in town, or coming out of a bad relationship or have otherwise been hurt; those who are mourning a loss, or don’t feel like they’re part of the “team” at work, or are at odds with their family, or a thousand other things.
We all need love, and we all need to feel like we belong somewhere. That’s where the slick-meisters in some (but certainly not all) of the cults come in, capitalizing on and exploiting these human needs by initially coming across as a loving, caring bunch who wants nothing more than to sit and hear your story, hug you, cry with you if need be, help you and accept you just as you are. To let you know how special you are, and how much you’re loved by them, even if no one else loves you.
Again, these are all lovely traits, and there really are people out there like that – but in a cult, don’t look for it to be real. It’s all a smokescreen designed to suck you in, and the cultists and their leader should be given Tony’s for their performances on the cult’s stage. Most of them, anyway. There might be a few whose interest and caring are genuine, but if so, it’s because they’re new members too — or old members having a severe attack of conscience.
The Good Guys — What to Look For
So far, we’ve looked at a lot of bad attributes of a lot of bad apples. But what about the good guys? Glad you asked! Here are a few things to look for in a new group and its leader.
- Financial transparency
- Encourages critical thinking
- Leader/group does not vilify former members, even those who left in anger (it happens even in good groups)
- Encourages time spent with family and friends, and in other activities
- The leader will answer questions without getting an attitude
- Will admit failures and mistakes
- Accepts constructive criticism
- Doesn’t try to be the only source of learning/knowledge
- Is highly accountable (read: no yes-men!)
- The leader puts others before himself
- Respects boundaries
- Doesn’t expect others to do things he himself wouldn’t do
- Never, ever, forces, manipulates, takes advantage of, or intimidates in any way
So far, we’ve covered the red flags of cult leaders and their rabid followers as well as some positive things to look for in new groups and their leaders. We even talked a little bit about what sort of folks a cult might target as potential
Next week we’ll learn a little bit more about who cults target and why, and how they attract new members. So don’t miss out, and in the meantime, spread the word by sharing on social media!