How can you tell if a group of people who seem to share many of your beliefs, values, and goals is a genuine supportive social environment or one that has a rather hidden or peculiar agenda of its own?
Personal stories of many people who have been brought up in religious cults or who have willingly joined as adults have shown that, most of the times, life in these communities is not as idyllic or as enlightened as one would have imagined or expected it to be.
Given the fact that many times, the struggle to separate from a religious group generated significant psychological turmoil or produced direct physical harm to active or former members or their loved ones, I think it is safe to believe that not many would willingly join a cult if the group’s agenda and methods would be openly presented to the general public.
Anyone can be targeted by a cult or can become a victim of a religious sect. Sometimes, the methods of a cult can be rather naive and easy to spot, but other times, their modus operandi is really complex and can confuse many people, regardless of their intelligence level or academic or professional training.
So what can one do in order to minimize or eliminate the chances of becoming a victim of a religious cult?
The easy answer is to assimilate information about the topic and especially that type of information that can be used prior to becoming involved in the activity of the group. Informed assessments of the early stages of interaction with cult representatives can make the difference between a life lived in freedom or one lived in fear.
To summarize the aspects on which one needs to focus when deciding whether a group is a risk-free community or a trap that one cannot easily escape, I would say that one needs to pay attention to signs that can be linked to Manipulation and/or Delusion.
The list I will provide below is not a comprehensive “How To” guide for dealing with cults, but a collection of perspectives or lenses, if you will, through which one can assess a group in order to try to establish whether that group has the potential of being a religious cult, and therefore the potential to inflict harm on the person or those close to them.
But what exactly is a Religious Cult?
The meanings of the word cult relevant to the purpose of this article are the following:
1. a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies.
4. a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.
A reasonable question that may arise from the present topic is whether any religious group is safe to join in the first place, but that is a stand-alone subject and I will not address it in this blog post.
*This information is particularly useful in those stages prior to a person actually joining the group. After one has joined and became an active member, the techniques involved in helping a person leave the group and start an independent life are rather aimed at dissolving the irrational beliefs inoculated by the group and building a stronger, independent Self. These techniques are not part of this article.
The Initial Contact – The Approach
How did you find out about the group and how did you get in contact with the representatives/agents?
1. Did one of them approach you? Manipulators rather select their victims and prefer to initiate contact.
Have you read about the group? Check the platform where the information occurred. Has the information been recommended to you? By whom, in what context, and why?
2. Somebody you know recommended you to read about this group/ideology.
Chances are they are already members trying to recruit others. Of course, someone you know may have stumbled accidentally upon a piece of information regarding a group or set of beliefs and thought you might be interested, so they refer you to it, but that is rarely the case of cults, who often operate in the shadow. So, when a person actually directs you toward a specific website or hands you a book or leaflet, it is rather sensible to consider that they’ve already resonated with the message in those materials. And that, in this context, most of the time, happens with members of groups.
3. Somebody you don’t know approached you and recommended you to read, listen or watch a material regarding the group.
Consider why would a complete stranger start talking to you almost immediately about their beliefs and the amazing benefits of their newly found source of happiness, quiet and success. It usually means that it’s a pretty important part of their life. And when religious beliefs take over one’s life, we may be talking about a radical approach to religion. Cults are known for that.
4. Were you invited to a presentation for something?
This technique is a winner among cults, sects and shady business ventures. Their agents will invite the targets to private presentations for… things they will not explicitly name. It may be as vague as “something that will definitely interest you”, “something that will change your life”, “an amazing thing I found”, “something that is only available to a selected few” etc. The vague formulation is needed for two purposes: to generate curiosity and provide a veil for the real subject. People would rather decline the invitation if the pitch would say something in the range of “I found a new religion/type of spirituality, I think it’s really great and they say we need more members. I need to recruit you so that I could climb the ladder in the association. Join us”. Pretty blunt, right? And a turn-off. My example is an extreme one, but even the first part of the sentence would be enough to make many people decline the invitation, thus cutting the cult’s chances to inflict any direct influence during the spiritual sales pitch.
5. You were searching for a certain type of information and that somehow lead you to the group’s website or to information about their ideology.
You need to consider the things you were searching for and the relevance of the result to your search. What were your needs and expectations and how could those be used to turn you into a potential victim of a cult? Please read further.
The Initial Contact – The Presentation and Public Image of the Group
Analyze the information that you found so far about the group.
6. Is it a strong public image? – Who mentions the group (online and offline) and in what light?
Is information about the group mainly generated by its leaders? – If so, why aren’t regular members openly talking about it? Is the information provided in an anonymous manner? – Why isn’t anyone claiming responsibility for it? Also, consider the level of transparency about the official information regarding the organization – location, headquarters, contact information, main figures/representatives. Is there a reasonable motivation that would justify any of these elements missing?
Also, be aware that most cults activate in the shadow. They are not all as bold as The Church of Scientology is. Therefore, you may not even find official materials about the group or the ideology. They may be conveyed only by their members, through discussions and presentations. At the same time, not all organizations who fail to have a strong or favorable public image are harmful, they may be just badly organized or represented.
7. Would you like to be associated with that image? Does it fit your image about yourself?
8. Are there any negative rumors about the group?
Although there are situations in which people may have their own reasons to try to falsely present persons or organizations they were previously linked with, pay attention to any testimony or information that may be genuine. There may be a person or a group of persons who are willing to disclose information about their present or previous experience with the group. What they have to say may help you or others not to become a victim of a dangerous group.
The Initial Contact – The Triggers
For manipulation to work, certain aspects need to be activated by its message. The manipulative message contains a trigger or triggers that will activate relevant features or thoughts in a person’s mind. Let’s take a look at some of these triggers.
9. They make you feel special. – Messages will contain the idea that membership to this group is reserved to special persons, who display certain traits. “Only those with an open mind are able to understand messages of spiritual nature”, “Only those with a high level of intelligence”, “Only those who are ready”, “Not everybody will understand this, but you can” etc. They will make you feel you are part of an elite who has access to hidden and important messages and to a lifestyle not meant for the ordinary.
10. They may seem to offer emotional support. -“We know what you are going through. We need to stay together and get through this together.”
11. They make you feel accepted and included. – They chose you to be on their team, haven’t they? So you are important to them.
12. They seem to provide a nurturing social environment. – “We will be here for you when no one else will”, “We have the same values”, “We have the same goals” etc.
13. They may seem to offer protection from people or contexts that were problematic for you before. You will never have to deal with certain uncomfortable things again. The group will make them go away. Also, the group may consider itself and its practices to be above the law. Many times, they may use faith to justify actions that are against the law.
The Hook – The Promise
The triggers may work at a subliminal level and one may not be aware of the emotions being activated. But the things these groups claim to achieve, the promises they make on behalf of the group or religion, those are usually direct and aimed to seal the deal regarding membership.
Basically, this part will let you know, at least partially and in a favorable manner, about the way your life is expected to change after you join the group.
14. (Hidden) Knowledge and/or Specific Abilities
The group may claim that members hold information that is not accessible to other people or that the means they have in order to receive that formation is specific to the group. Because these are religious cults, the information usually regards scenarios about the end of the world (modality, dates and perhaps way to survive it or to pass in the afterlife with a privileged position) and the means is often of supernatural nature (spiritual communications with certain deities or spiritual beings). Also, members may be trained to develop alleged supernatural abilities, like being able to communicate with supernatural beings. Most of these claims fall in the delusions category.
15. Promises of Personal Success
Join them and you will have financial success, personal success in the social environment of your desire and basically, the power to be the best version of yourself, but only in the context of group membership. A type of promise Christians have been warned about, yet many fail to appropriately identify and resist it when the social context is changed or skillfully veiled in manipulation.
These types of promises – money, fame, power – have to do with the triggers I mentioned before and other types of psychological traits sensitive to these types of goals.
16. Power and a place among the elites
Although I could have included this section in the previous one about personal success, I think power at a social, hierarchical level, needs to be mentioned separately when talking about religious groups, since it is one of the strongest baits they use to lure people in.
The group provides a hierarchical system where members can be promoted based on the value of their activity within the group (usually member recruitment or member supervision) and at the same time, the system itself is considered (by its members) as an elitist one in the general social context. You are in one of the best groups there are/the best group and you can become the best in that best group. What more could a narcissist with antisocial traits wish for? Cult leaders often fall into that category. But you don’t have to be a narcissist or antisocial to want to be promoted to that privileged position in the group. You just have to want to be the best, to have high aspirations and be a high-achiever. This is why sometimes, they get great people to join their groups.
The Membership – How Would You Join and What Does Membership Imply?
17. How do you become a member of this group? – Is the initiation process an open one? Does it imply a ritual? Of what sort? If not disclosed, what is the reason? Make sure that the answers are not related to the triggers mentioned above.
18. Once you become a member, what would that imply from your part? And theirs?
Some groups require money. Openly. And a lot. Usually, the amount of money they require is linked to the idea of elite and that of member position within the group. More money, better position. Very spiritual, right?
Other groups require members to renounce all their worldly possessions, cut ties with their family and friends, and move in an area specifically designed to accommodate believers. What reason, other than direct control over the members (financial and emotional), would justify these requirements?
Of course, there are groups that require all of that and maybe other things.
Also, consider what the organization puts in in this collaboration. Usually, it’s very little, or nothing at all. And what it puts in, is, most times, of virtual value or supported through members’ resources (financial, social or personal).
And by the way, who is the direct beneficiary of the group’s activity? Is it actually the group (i.e. all members) or just leaders and agents?
The Membership – The Other Members and The Community
19. What are the other members saying about the group? – What? You can’t reach them? There’s a problem. Those you managed to reach are saying the same things? There’s another problem. They only have good things to say about the group and leaders? … You get the idea.
20. What is the community like?
Is it an isolated community? How isolated and who decides upon the level of interactions between members and the outside world? Why is there even a specific protocol for the relationship with the outside world? Who decides where the community is to be placed? Is the information about the main location public? Can members choose not to be relocated, but still be part of the group? Does the community try to cut all ties with the national, official systems? Does it fight them?
Does the group have specific rules for personal relationships like marriage and sexual relationships? Roles for members in accordance with their hierarchical level? Are some members considered less than others?
Of course people may choose to associate in any way they consider appropriate and that accommodates their beliefs, but one needs to pay attention to anything that may involve the cancellation of basic human rights, especially taking away one’s freedom of choice regarding their own life and sexual exploitation.
21. What is the member-community/group relationship like?
What is the level of dependence toward the community? Would you be working for them? Would you be able to maintain your freedom to choose employers and negotiate your financial benefits? Do members choose their spouse or is that decision made by the leaders? How far does the decision of a leader or ideology spread? Do they tell members what to wear, what to say, what to think, who to date, how to raise their children, what they can become, what their life directions and limitation are etc?
22. How do they treat former members?
Are there any testimonials from former members of this specific group? – No? Then, most likely, problem. Are people free to leave the group whenever they consider it no longer fits their views? Are those who leave considered bad or not worthy? Can active members be in contact with former members? Does the group have a name for former members? Or for those who may try to convince members to challenge the group’s beliefs and views and perhaps to consider leaving? Are there any claims of former members being threatened?
23. How free is the thinking process in that group?
Are members encouraged to ask questions and challenge the beliefs of the group? Is there any critical analysis made by the group or active members regarding the methods and claims of the group? Do their views change if new data arise? Are members supposed to only receive and accept information? Can they generate information? Is basic information about the group or generated by the group accessible to everyone, even if they are not group members?
Other Clues That You May Be Dealing With a Cult
Messages of Manipulation and Control
24. Do the agents or leaders make you disclose information about yourself? The type of personal information that you wouldn’t normally share with the public or even your best friends or family? – This is usually a technique to acquire information that can be later used to control a person and determine them to do certain activities on behalf of the group. The price of not doing what’s been required of them would be to have that personal information released to the group or the general public. It’s blackmail material.
25. In order to build you up, they must ensure that you are down. Future members or active members of lower ranks may be told that they are unevolved beings and that it is only through the group’s influence that they may reach enlightenment and their full potential.
26. A religious cult’s religion or perspective upon life may be presented by its agents as the only true religion and they can also present themselves as the only holders of truth.
27. Sometimes, in order to make the group come together, cult leaders and agents may create and present to members, a common enemy: the government, a spiritual being, other persons who may oppose the cult’s activity, etc.
28. In order to convince members to cut ties with their friends and families, cult leaders and agents may present them as enemies or as people who hold the future group member back from achieving their full potential.
29. Many times, cult leaders and agents do not stop at creating/considering just an external enemy, but many times, in order to be able to control the members, they turn members against each other. Even the idea of internal hierarchy enables that view. Members need to be better than others in order to climb the social ladder, but the type of values needed in order to be promoted in these groups may be very different from those active at our workplace, in our education system or society altogether.
30. Humiliating and discrediting members and non-members may be a control technique used by cults in order to make them obedient (members) and silence the voices of opposers (rather non-members).
31. Mainly, religious cults will promote submission over assertiveness, dependence over independence, immature behavior over responsibility and growth.
Of course, many of the things I’ve mentioned in this segment and others would not be openly disclosed by agents themselves, especially before recruitment and most definitely, not in this manner, but I decided to enumerate a variety of ways in which a religious group can try (and succeed) to control and inflict harm on their members, because some of the readers may have encountered different types of information about certain groups, from agents, active or former members, and additional information can help them confirm some of their doubts.
The Critical Analysis of Claims
So, the cult, among other things, makes some promises – of fame, success, money, happiness. Do the lives of group members – regular members, agents, and leaders – support these claims? Are the members famous? Are they successful in their personal and professional lives? Do they live in abundance? Is this valid for all members of the group or just for leaders and recruiters? Are those claims true or expression of manipulation and hypocrisy?
A critical analysis of claims and of any other messages conveyed by a person or a group, through its representatives, should be run before any major life decisions are made. Some statements may sound amazing and may seem like the perfect solution for your life’s struggles or a beautiful, idyllic, healthy-values driven way of living, but words are not necessarily the expression of a genuine intention, agenda or method. Therefore, critical assessment, in order to decide whether there are underlying messages hidden in a miraculous statement or promise that seems too good to be true, is needed, especially when one’s psychological and sometimes, physical well-being, as well as their entire independent living, may be at stake.
cult. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved January 31, 2016 from Dictionary.com website http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/cult
The ideas presented on this website are my own. When reading these articles, keep in mind that Psychology Corner is a blog. Also, I am not a native English speaker.
Article Updates: Featured Image updated March 18th, 2018