October 04, 2011

Warning Signs Of A Harmful Cult

The next installment of the Survival Kit Series is being worked upon, I promise.

Would you be able to tell right now whether the group to which you belong, whether religious or secular was a dangerous cult? After all, basic group dynamics that prioritize conformity are at play in almost every organization. Is there an objective method to differentiate innocuous groups from cultic or extremist ones that seek to deprive individuals of an unreasonable amount of their autonomy and power?


Below are some warning signs that can help you reasonably determine whether or not a group is likely to be a destructive cult, and if you should be concerned about a friend, co-worker, or loved one or even yourself.

Now chances are that you will find at least one or two warning signs may apply to most groups and organizations. This is normal as belonging to any cohesive social group naturally requires at least some level of individual compromise on certain freedoms.

The key is the extent of compromise being asked and for what purpose? In my opinion, if MORE THAN TWO of the warning signs presented below apply to your group, your red flag should go up immediately. It may not necessarily mean that you are in a destructive cult but you are certainly in a high-control group that may rob you of your self-autonomy and self-actualization if you let it.

Try to be as objective as possible and ask yourself if the following criteria apply to the group you are concerned about.

1. Total control of its members' behaviour.
Cults are likely to dictate in great detail not only what members believe, but also what members wear and eat, when and where members work, sleep, and bathe, and how members think, speak, and conduct familial, marital, or sexual relationships. You are strongly discouraged from pursuing your unique talents and ambitions. Doing what is best for your individual needs and circumstances and thinking for yourself using your own common sense, is strongly discouraged. To outsiders members of your group are like clones of one another acting and speaking the same way, using special language and symbolism exclusive only to members of the cult.

2. Lack of privacy for members but total privacy for management
Members are urged not only to be obedient within the cult and carefully follow the rules but are also encouraged to be overly revealing and honest within the group. You are urged to refrain from keeping secrets and must constantly confess all to the leaders, even telling the intimate secrets of other members. Tattle-tailing is rewarded and encouraged. You cannot somehow have your “own private business” or “private family life”. Members pry, interrogate and instigate themselves in your life all the time and you have no space, no room to just be.

Meanwhile, the inner workings at the top levels of the group regarding things like appointments, finances and decisions that affect the entire group are kept strictly under wraps. The rank and file have no idea how or why certain decisions are made. They just are! And all must comply or else.

Are you feeling like you are losing your identity?

3. Dishonesty
While full-disclosure is encouraged inside the group, outside the group the members are encouraged to be secretive and even dishonest, especially in defence of the group or leaders of the group. You may be encouraged to act unethically by manipulating outsiders or non-members by not being forthcoming about the true experience within the group, especially when trying to attract new members. Things that most would find unpleasant, offensive and objectionable are sugar-coated or hidden until it is too late and the convert has already sealed their commitment in some way.

4. Suspicious double standards
Even though your group may claim all must abide by one set of ethics you clearly see that there is a pecking order and levels of justice and freedom depending on hierarchy or other forms of classification. Undue amount of sacrifices may be asked of the lower rank and file in the group, like living frugally, avoiding certain diversions, celibacy, abandoning or altering their families, friends, and careers to suit the group. Yet the higher ups in the group seem to enjoy special dispensation from these sacrifices.

5. An over-emphasis on recruiting new members and fund-raising.
Many altruistic movements, established religions, and other honourable groups also recruit and raise funds. However, these actions are incidental to improving the lives of its members, community and of humankind in general. Destructive groups on the other hand are obsessed with recruiting and fund-raising. Their goal is clearly to increase the prestige and often the wealth of the leader or group of leaders. The followers' possessions, money, time, and lives become totally wrapped up in furthering the cause of the cult and they spend a disproportionate amount of their time and resources recruiting new members. Successful recruiters are rewarded either financially or given more respect and rank within the group.

6. Exclusive and isolationist
The group presents itself as the ONLY viable system for change that will solve life's problems or the world's ill or the ONLY true path. You spend most of your time learning how to defend this stance instead of actually examining the validity of the “absolute” claims of the leader and the cult. You are either physically, emotionally or mentally isolated from the rest of the world- sometimes all three. You are encouraged not to have any meaningful social interaction with anyone outside the group, even family members. You are encouraged to see the cult as “special”, “privileged” and the rest of the world as misguided, evil and doomed.

7. Subtly or strongly discourages questioning, investigation
Natural doubt and curiosity is seen as disobedience or “lack of faith”. You are forbidden from reading, watching or interacting with sources of different information or challenging information. Certain limitations are placed on academic study, children are indoctrinated early and are then kept ignorant about anything different or outside the teachings of the cult or are told such things are “totally evil” and taught to fear them. Any discussion or interchange with different views or outside media is strongly discouraged. Various forms of pressure are used to illicit total compliance. You do not feel free or able to have a different opinion without fearing some kind of reprisal. You do not feel free to interact with people of differing views, beliefs, cultures etc. You feel scared, frustrated and flustered when you question anything you have been taught.

8. Authoritarian in its power structure.
The leader/s of the group is regarded as the supreme authority and members are discouraged from questioning their actions or do not feel emboldened to do so. Power may be delegated to subordinates but it is for the purpose of seeing that members adhere to the leader's wishes. There is no appeal outside the leader’s power system to any greater system of justice. If you are ill-treated within the group, you are discouraged from going outside for help. Injustice or conflicts resulting in loss or bodily harm are kept hush-hush. Members police one another to be submissive to the power structure, anyone caught “bad-mouthing” a superior is quickly reported (See No. 2) because the leaders are seen to have some kind of special divine knowledge, revelation or power that set them apart from others and exempts them from human scrutiny.

9. Counter-intuitive or dangerous requests made.
Last but not least, any group that asks you to accept as true something that is clearly (scientifically, historically, ethically) untrue or asks you to do anything that will bring serious harm or bring death to yourself or another for any reasons other than legally justified self-defense is not to be trusted.

What to do if you or someone you love is at risk?
If you know someone who belongs to a group that demonstrates at least FOUR OR MORE of these warning signs- THEY ARE DEFINATELY IN A DANGEROUS CULT. How destructive depends on how many more of these warning signs the cult exhibits. The Branch Davidians (David Koresh) for example demonstrated all nine signs.

If you have serious reason to suspect your loved one is in a cult, remember that while your suspicions may be justified, the person you care about may see things very differently. Their judgement of the situation has been impaired by dependency, peer pressure, emotional blackmail and mind control. It’s you, the outsider who has the most objective view of what is going on and will notice changes in their personality and glaring forms of manipulation. But they won't and you will be tempted to jump in, guns a blazing to the rescue.


Here are three dos and donts for helping a person trapped in a cult:

DONT: Say or do anything to make the person feel ashamed or hurt for choosing the cult. Many cults pre-empt family or friend objections by telling converts to expect persecution. Your stern condemnation of your friend or loved one will be seen as persecution and you will be reinforcing in their mind that the cult was right! And while you “persecute” your loved one, the cult will be there to comfort them and gain solidarity in “shared suffering”. Who do you think your loved one will trust afterwards?

DO: Offer unconditional love and support. It will be hard but try to keep your cool and phrase your objections in the form of open-ended, calmly delivered questions that prompt their inner evaluation. For example:

Isn’t it curious that they do not want you to read any opposing information? I always thought it is smarter to hear both sides of an argument before making a decision. If I was ever in court, I would certainly hope the jury deciding my fate was open to hearing both sides of the story. What about you?

DONT: Attack the cult directly or make it all about the cult or its leader. They probably have already programmed your loved one to become defensive on their behalf. This is not about the cult , not really. The cult is just the end result, a symptom of a deeper issue lurking within your friend or family member. That issue may be their self-esteem, their intellectual capacity, their coping skills with life’s challenges, their need to belong, their need to have a purpose in life. Just like a drug addict, that cult is the substitute for something.

DO: Hone in and then try to heal the source of weakness, dysfunction, hurt, pain, loneliness, confusion that has made your family member or loved one vulnerable to a cult. In their evangelizing/recruitment preparation, many cults encourage their proselytizers to seize on any opportunities presented by people who have suffered loss and/or are in a weakened state. When someone is hurt, scared and alone, they are not in a mental or emotional position to make good judgements and ask rational questions. How many of us could resist being bombarded by love, charity and acceptance by a total stranger when we were in a weakened state? Cults are the vultures feeding off family road-kill. So pay attention to your friends and family and their well-being. If you don’t, I guarantee that someone less savoury else will.

The "black sheep" that does not get love, acceptance and understanding from their family and friends is an easy target for cults

DONT: Wait or doubt the signs you see or be fooled by little positive changes like stopping certain vices or addictions or their new convert “euphoria”. Parents who lost children to cults recall how, “I was skeptical and I knew the group was shady but she seemed so happy! After being involved in drugs and unhealthy living, I thought she finally put her life together!”

Political correctness is another dangerous delayer of proper action. Yes, we should all have freedom of religion and you do not want to be a accused of being a bigot or intolerant but religious freedom is NOT AN EXCUSE for someone to be harmed. Many fearing the "intolerant" brush shied away from taking action until it was too late. There are UNIVERSAL signs of somebody being manipulated againt their knowledge or will and guided to give away all their power. These signs DO NOT LIE! Take action! Deal with the accusations later.

DO: Be unrelenting until your friend or loved one is free! Always keep the lines open. Be prepared for that phone call in the night, “I need help! I am scared! Come and get me!” and be prepared to act right away. In fact, if you know the situation is truly bad (6 to 9 signs of a cult), don’t even wait for the phone call. Sometimes physical intervention and extrication is needed and therapy will come later.

There may be certain cases where swift physical intervention may be justified. Families who managed to get their children out of the David Koresh cult before the Waco incident do not regret taking drastic action.

If you are reading this and it strikes home that it’s you who is in a cult, you are fortunate to still have your wits about you.

Do not feel ashamed because you suspect that you have fallen prey to a cult. Shame often leads to a defensive attitude as you try to take your power back by justifying your choice. Master manipulators know that a secretly insecure, defensive group members are loyal members. The more time you spend defending your choice, the less time you spend looking at it critically. That is why cults always need a ‘Them” to their “Us” to keep their members distracted with being on the defense.

Look, even intelligent, confident, decent and accomplished people have fallen prey to cults. It could happen to anyone. You are not a bad person. You are not a stupid person. Remember, these groups and their masterminds are well rehearsed in taking advantage of people who are either deeply wounded by trauma, going through a difficult situation or desperately searching for the meaning of life. Most of us are not taught how to withstand such tactics as a vital part of our upbringing, so we often have no way of even suspecting we are being sucked into a pyramid scheme, sexually exploitative pit or a position as a clueless political pawn. Most of all, it is our nature to want to believe the best about others. It comforts, reassures and keeps us sane.

The only reason some of us are now more vigilant is because of being a former victim. Trust me it is not because we are better people than you or anyone else.

Take heart, you can still find wholesome fellowship to enrich your life, offer you comfort and shelter as you seek for the answers to life’s deepest questions. Just be careful and always alert for signs (blatant and subtle) of manipulation (emotional, mental, social), injustice, invasion of freedom and suppression of individuality.


If you would like more information on how to deal with destructive cults or mind control, here is a good place to start.

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