Some Hard-Won Wisdom Concerning Cults

27 May 2021 · 5 min read

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image credit: iStock / Planet Flem

As someone who once belonged to an organization later determined to be a cult, I can tell you that the warning signs are not always obvious.

The members of the group I belonged to weren't living inside a walled compound, or even residing together at all. We weren't hiding in some remote location – we gathered in the middle of a big city. We didn't quit our jobs and sign over all of our worldly possessions to the organization in question. We did not wear any unusual garb. And we did not operate as a commune of any sort.

Indicators of a Cult

So what attributes indicate that a group should be treated as a cult?

In hindsight, I realized, these were the telltale signs.

  1. Allegiance to a particular individual, or to the individuals belonging to a particular family, rather than to an institution, an office, or a set of principles.

  2. A set of people and/or proclamations that are offered as infallible, indisputable, and not to be questioned.

  3. The primacy of this group over all others: members may also belong to other groups, but the group in question insists that it be the primary source of identity and meaning and guidance for its members.

  4. A general insistence that the leaders are the only reliable sources of truth on issues important to the group: all other sources are routinely discredited.

  5. Assertions of truth that the followers have no way to test, so that there can be no independent verification of the veracity of these statements.

  6. A bright line drawn between those who are members and those who are not. Unlike other organizations or affiliations, there are no fuzzy lines or varying degrees of gradation: you're either in or you're out.

  7. A particular label or set of terms used to refer to those who are not members. If you're in a cult, then it's usually not enough to give a name to those who are members – the non-believers need to be strongly identified and labeled as “other” and “less than” in some definitive fashion.

  8. Restrictions on mingling and fraternizing with non-members. These may be only implied, rather than stated explicitly; also the group in question may offer so many opportunities for social interaction with other members that chances of forming strong attachments to non-members are minimized.

  9. A tendency to preemptively attack the credibility of anyone who has left the fold. When someone who was once “in” chooses to leave, then the leaders waste no time in assassinating the character and history of those who have left, in order to preemptively discredit any revelations or allegations that may be forthcoming. What's more, there will be a tendency to refer back to prior attributes or actions of the individual(s) who are leaving, suggesting that they were never really “one of us” (even when they were treated as such).

  10. Open-ended expectations of members. Unlike other organizations, there are no precisely defined limits on the amounts of money or time that members are expected to donate – “the more the better” is generally the rule, with frequent suggestions that more sizable donations will bring the donor closer to the inner circle.

  11. Vaguely defined benefits for members. Benefits are often alluded to or hinted at, but there are few concrete promises made.

  12. A lack of transparency about finances and operations of the organization.

  13. A lofty purpose towards which the organization makes little substantial progress. The stated goal helps to rally members around a common cause, but the resources of the organization are often used for other, more worldly, purposes.

  14. A tendency to preemptively assign all of these same attributes listed above to the “other” (however they are labeled), thereby making it seem as if the group in question is the only way to avoid cult membership, rather than what it is: namely, a cult itself.

The Tricky Bits

Now you will no doubt notice that many organizations have one or more of these traits. This is because most of these behaviors help to create group cohesion and, in many cases, such cohesion is a good thing and, perhaps, even necessary.

For example I am a proud graduate of the University of Michigan. This means that I identify as a Wolverine, and favor the colors of maize and blue, and am likely to shout “Go Blue!” when excited by the performance of one of our sports teams, or when coming within hailing distance of a fellow Wolverine. Ohio State Buckeyes and Michigan State Spartans are clearly identified as the “other.” And judging by the number of mailings and phone calls I receive asking for donations, member expectations are clearly open-ended. So yes, we Wolverines show many of the signs listed above.

On the other hand, the group of Michigan alumni, as well as our Alumni Association, and the University itself, do not exhibit all of the signs listed above. And so, with all things considered, I would not identify our group as a cult – although it does exhibit some cult-like traits.

So this is one of the ways it gets tricky, because the difference between a cult and a non-cult is often one of degree, rather than a black-and-white judgment.

Another way this whole thing gets tricky is that many organizations start out somewhat innocently, and then gradually drift or are drawn over the line into definitive cultish behavior.

And, finally, members often join a group with the best of intentions, and then only over time find that their group has become a cult, and they have become cult members.

And so, when a cult is identified as such, it is best not to blame the cult members, or sometimes even the cult leaders. It's enough just to disentangle the members we can influence from their attachments to the cult, help them reintegrate into more normal society, and assist them in finding new, more fruitful, groups with which to associate.


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