“I will be the talk of the town, I will become the ‘bad guy’. They will shun me as if they never knew me and as if I don’t exist. That’s the rule and that is exactly what happened to a friend of mine who decided to leave the church.”
Those are the exact words my best friend from elementary school said after contacting me for the first time in five years. That night, we had the longest conversation we’d had in years; the longest conversation since ideological differences stemming from her joining a cult put our friendship on the back burner.
For her safety and security, let’s call her “L.” L is no stranger to revealing herself on the internet. She currently runs a fairly popular poetry Instagram with adorable koi-themed visuals. Before that, she loved taking selfies of herself in nice clothes because L was a teenager exploring her identity and developing her worldview.
But her pursuit of authenticity, identity, and meaning all ground to a halt after she was invited by a relative to attend a church service.
Fast forward five years and L is now trying to rebuild her understanding of religion and morality.
Many people are quick to jump to the conclusion that a religion that encourages you to change who you are, give up your vices, and stop associating with people that the religion thinks will endanger you is probably just a regular religion. The problem with this assumption is that it assumes a religion is fundamentally different from a cult.
Viewed from another angle, those things could easily be a cult erasing your sense of personal identity. As to vices, it depends on what a cult thinks is a vice. Is it legitimately asking you to stop being an alcoholic or is it teaching you that liking a genre of music is evil? And as for cutting ties with ‘toxic’ people, isolating people from their social network is a common technique employed by cults.
So, what makes a cult a cult?
What Is a Cult?
Believe it or not, cults didn’t always have the negative connotation they have today. In ancient Greece (because of course everything has existed since antiquity) cults were just regular religions centered around one central deity. Major cults of antiquity included the cults of Apollo, Aphrodite, Zeus, and everyone’s favorite, Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry.
These cults, especially the less popular ones, would typically develop their own system of beliefs and core tenets that were heavily influenced by the mainstream religion but still differed in significant ways. After the Greco-Roman religion faded and was replaced by Roman Catholicism, this idea of a big mainstream religion with appendages of related beliefs continued. That’s how you get renditions of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, such as Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Our Lady of Lourdes, along with hundreds of other Catholic saints.
It was the secretiveness of groups like the cult of Dionysus Zagreus that informed our later understanding of the difference between a cult and a religion. By the 19th to 20th centuries, sociologists would come to use the word “cult” as a way to refer to new religions that were held together by charismatic leadership. Later on, the word would take a more charged, often derogatory, meaning.
These days, when we use the word “cult,” we’re usually referring to a religion that doesn’t share our views, in which case, it’s deemed as heretical. It might also refer to a relatively new religion that we feel poses a danger. I say relatively new because few of us would call Roman Catholicism a cult today but that doesn’t mean the religion was never dangerous or isn’t still dangerous.
Common dictionary definitions of the word “cult” identify it as a religion with unorthodox views or that has a small following compared to the major religions of the world. These definitions are inherently lacking simply because they aren’t specific enough to separate your average religion from your average cult. If anything, all it does is put dissenting faiths in a bad light.
So, for the purposes of this article, let’s demarcate cults on the basis of harm, fear, control, and charisma. It’s not the most academically rigorous model you’ll find but it’s a handy way to figure out what makes a cult different from a religion.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s use these three identifiers to help us pin down what we mean by cult:
- Inciting harm towards or fear of groups that are portrayed as a threatening ‘other’.
- Control of what members believe, do, feel, or think.
- There’s a cult of personality, a central charismatic leader, at the heart of the cult itself.
If those three identifiers ring alarm bells in your head, congratulations, you likely know a cult when you see it. But if cults are so obviously controlling and harmful, the next question to answer is why people join cults in the first place.
What Makes a Person Join a Cult?
Short answer: Cults brainwash you.
Long answer: Cults pick out people who are emotionally vulnerable or have mild, easily moldable personalities to indoctrinate. If a person ticks both boxes, then they’re the perfect candidate for cult recruitment.
A good example of this is my experience with a Christian group back when I was in high school. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were a cult, because they did provide necessary guidance to a lot of troubled teenagers, they definitely used some cult tactics that they likely didn’t even realize they were doing.
A good chunk of their young converts at the school were children of overseas Filipino workers who were often left in the care of relatives. Most of these teen converts weren’t getting the full attention and guidance that a parent would have been able to give. This meant that a number of my peers at the time had serious emotional issues about wanting to be cared for and having a parental figure in their life. The Christian group gave them that as well as free snacks whenever there was a Bible study session.
Not that I would personally know they gave attendees free snacks.
But back to my friend L. In her case, the ‘Church’ came into her life at a time when she was having mental health issues. Her family had just moved into a rural area and she was adjusting to country life after living in Metro Manila since birth. Enter L’s aunt, a well-meaning woman who wanted to share her enthusiasm about the Church with L, thinking it would do her some good.
Being a teenager, L was having a grand time listening to Korean pop music and dressing up in toned-down scene clothes. While L didn’t have a full-on goth phase like I did, it was still too much for the Church’s standards and she later had to give it up.
“At first, I was hesitant. I personally didn’t know much about this organized religion except for the fact that they require their women to have long hair as it was said to be a sign of glory and that they need to wear modest clothing as part of their lifestyle.” L told me in our conversation, “The name of the group freaked me out because it gave off a hyper-traditionalist and conservative impression. But my aunt was persistent and because I love her, I ended up attending one of their gatherings.”
And it worked. L described the Church leader’s preaching as “heartfelt.” In just an hour and a half, L was hooked. She later said, “Every time I got home from each session, I felt complete and hopeful, as if part of me that was once broken has started to heal.”
The rest was history. She stayed for five years and, in her own words, “What do we expect?”
Psychological Techniques Used by Cults
Let’s take a moment to put ourselves in L’s shoes. You’re a teenage girl with limited world experience and your personal identity isn’t fully formed yet. So, put away your feelings about being “too smart for indoctrination” because trust me, you aren’t.
Now that a cult has your attention, their next order of business is keeping you coming to their events and eventually having you internalize their belief system. How do they do this? Again, by messing with your head.
A major factor of a cult’s magic is getting you to rely on them, both ideologically and emotionally. Fearmongering is a common technique used by cults to create a sense of community and strengthen the feeling that you need them in your life.
It must be puzzling to think of how fear can foster community, but cults create fear of others in order to support a false “us versus them” narrative. In the context of a religious cult, the “them” is another group that is considered to be sinful or evil like, say, the LGBTQ+ community. Whether it’s gays, Dungeons and Dragons nerds, or, gasp!, the Jews, a cult convinces you that there are evil things in the world and that the only way to stay good and safe is by following their beliefs.
It isn’t all doom and gloom in cults, though. After all, a cult wants you to associate it with good feelings of being loved and cherished as if you’re a Pavlovian puppy that needs therapy. This is where the love-bombing comes in.
While love bombing sounds like a pleasant alternative to nuclear annihilation, it doesn’t end pretty for the victim. By love bombing you, a cult conditions you to rely on them for validation and emotional affirmation. As anybody who’s ever cried at a McDonald’s at 2 A.M. after a bad breakup knows, love gives someone power over you. Now that you rely on the cult to provide you with love, they can easily withdraw it when you do something they don’t like, just as narcissistic psychopaths do.
Narcissists and cults: two peas in a messed-up pod.
Consuming Member’s Lives
“Their gatherings used to last for like, 18 hours a day. It was tiring…The activities were non-stop but they insisted that it was a way to maintain our enthusiasm for service. But all of the concerts, gift-giving, and endless stream of expensive events got my family really close to being broke. Half of our money was going to contributions inside the Church.”
While it seems like it’s just a money-making scheme (and it is) the constant stream of activity that L describes is another way that cults make sure you identify wholly with their group. Think about how time-consuming all of those 18-hour gatherings would be. You would hardly have free time outside of work, school, and the Church.
This is entirely on purpose to prevent cult members from forming bonds with people who aren’t involved in the cult and to keep them from building resources that would empower them to leave. This brings us to our next psychological manipulation tactic.
Ostracization and Isolation
L is careful with who she talks to about her experience. All of this anonymity is to keep her from being identified while letting her tell her story. She’s always been an expressive person, generous with her thoughts and feelings, and she wants to help anyone else that might be in the same situation she is now.
But L knows the dangers of leaving a cult.
L says the news will spread about her departure from the Church. In a shocking twist of irony, she says they’ll likely tell members that she “must be depressed. That’s why it was easy for Satan to manipulate her.” They’ll make her out to be the bad guy, cutting her out of the social groups she’s been in for the past several years.
This fear of being ostracized and isolated is one of the ways cults keep their members under their thumb. L has seen them do the same thing to an old friend that left the Church. As she said, “Have they tried to emotionally manipulate us? Yes. Many times…That’s what they are good at. It is easier to manipulate the flock when they are vulnerable and in fear.”
How To Know If You’re in a Cult
So, you know how cults recruit you and keep you in them. Awesome. But that knowledge is preventative, meaning that it doesn’t do anything for you if you’re already in a cult right now. Luckily, Steven Hassan has your back. The psychologist has all the Infinity Stones of psychology professionalism, complete with an M.A., M.Ed., LMHC, NCC, and a Master’s degree in counseling psychology from Cambridge College.
So, let’s start going over Hassan’s BITE Model of Authoritarian Control and get you out of that cult. Who knows? Maybe we can even break you out of other ways you’re under authoritarian control once you realize certain groups use the same social control techniques as cults.
Hassan breaks down authoritarian control into four dimensions. Cults and other authoritarian groups will use:
A cult controls the way you interact with the world. They might tell you where you can live and who you can interact with. L revealed to me that during her time in the Church, she had unfollowed and blocked a lot of her previous friends, but that she couldn’t bring herself to block me. I get it, I was a “bad” person for the Church.
The Church also made L stop listening to Korean pop music because it was “worldly.” Other worldly things they had her quit included wearing make-up and having dreams of being a fashion designer. Not only were these pursuits wordly, but they were seen as vain.
They also discouraged members from taking courses like law because it “took 11 years of your life that was meant to serve the Church.”
Or maybe because law schools actively teach their students to think critically. Can’t have that in a cult.
This is an obvious one but it’s the hardest to pick out when you’re actually in the position of someone being brainwashed.
Cults deceive their members by deliberately withholding information from the outside world or contradicting beliefs. When that’s not possible, they’ll distort information to make it fit their ideology. A member leaves the cult because they realized they were being taken advantage of? Explain it to other members as them being seduced by Satan. While they’re at it, cults will take the opportunity to hammer in that this is why members need to be careful with worldly temptations.
One of the questions I asked L was, “Did you ever feel like they were isolating you from ideas that don’t match what the Church teaches?”
L’s answer: “They would even prevent you from getting involved in ‘outside’ activities, like politics, that may pose a threat to their belief system. They will also limit you from voicing out your opinions on relevant matters especially online to avoid debate and discussions.”
Cults just don’t like being questioned. They label alternative belief systems as illegitimate, evil, or not useful. Any critical thought about the cult’s doctrine or charismatic central figure is forbidden.
The process of realizing you’re in a cult is painful. L admits that she felt conflicted and was in serious spiritual turmoil. The Church had convinced her that questioning their teachings was a sin and every contradictory, critical thought she had of them came with feelings of worthlessness.
Cults are experts at manipulating their members to believe that they are wrong and selfish when they question their faith. This means that when a member feels like their beliefs may not hold water or that the cult is starting to hurt them, the cult points a finger at them, saying they aren’t praying regularly or they aren’t believing hard enough. Each fledgling feeling of dissent is squashed under socially enforced guilt.
You’re Considering the Possibility That You’re In a Cult
This one is less science and more gut feeling. If you’re still reading at this point and you’re feeling nauseous, getting the sinking feeling that you might be in a cult, you’re very likely right. Hold on to that feeling. It’s that initial feeling that something is off that drives you to question the world around you and to test the truth of your beliefs.
When you’re ready, you can start plotting your escape.
L’s Guide to Getting Out of a Cult
Fortunately for her, L has always been a sharp cookie. Though it took her a while to figure out that the Church may not be the healthiest thing for her, she was able to leverage the COVID-19 pandemic into an opportunity to regain control over her life.
“Quarantine was such a blessing in disguise for me!” L expressed with an undeniable sense of relief, “If it weren’t for my isolation from the Church, I could never think of anything else other than: this is the universal truth, the rest are all wrong.”
In her bid to stay entertained during one of the world’s longest COVID-19 lockdowns, L binge-watched Netflix shows and documentaries. Among these was Cults, Explained, a Netflix documentary that explored the social structure of cults. That’s when she realized that the structure of the Church was a dead ringer for a cult.
“It was also alarming because it was no longer giving me a sense of healing. I was also told that their recent topic revolves around ‘do not question or doubt.’ ‘That’s even more cultish!’, I thought.”
That’s why you’re reading this right now. Because L understands the power of information. Now, here are her tips for getting out of a cult.
Secrecy Is Key
Don’t tell anyone or they’ll try to convince you to stay. Depending on how powerful a cult is and how despicable they’re willing to be, they might try to physically threaten you or actually kill you. In L’s case, she says she’s being guilt-tripped into staying by members coming to her to tell her that she’s being tricked by the Devil or a malevolent spirit.
Build Your Resources
The Church made sure L and her family’s income went largely to them. This lack of money has made it harder for her to leave the rural area she’s currently living in, keeping her just a short walk away from the Church. L is currently saving up every cent for the third part of her plan.
If spending time away from the Church helped L realize she was in a cult, she knows getting away physically would be equally, if not more, impactful. Moving away from a cult makes it harder for them to try and get you back into their ‘church’ and makes it easier for you to form a new social network with people who aren’t involved in that cult.
L says she’ll miss being able to do good things for other people with a community, but she’s emotionally ready to live her truth, not the truth a cult forces on her.
“You can’t limit ‘good works’ to public service and charitable works. Good works may include little achievements in life like being able to make your family happy, comforting a friend who’s hurt, doing chores, forgiving yourself, and more! As long as you are genuine, you are good. You don’t need to adhere to strict rules to be able to gain a guilt-free life. We are humans after all.”
Thanks, L, I think we all need to hear that from time to time.