When is a religion a cult?
Eight Defining Behaviors
Not all religions are cults, and not all cults are religions. Behaviors, not beliefs, are what make a cult a cult.
Is your religion (or other organization) a cult? Below are eight common cultish behaviors. The more of these behaviors that show up, the more you can rightly call your religion a cult.
No one produced this list to describe any one religion. If it describes yours, do not waste time taking offense when you could be leaving the cult.
1. Strong central control, intrusion into personal life and decisions
Cult leaders govern to an absurd level of intrusion and detail. Examples include dictating dictate diet, dress, heath care decisions, thinking, whom to befriend, whom to avoid, whom to marry, rules for sex, how to vote, words and phrases to use or avoid, what to read and not to read, where to live, how many children to have, and more. Challenging questions are seen as an act of disloyalty.
2. “You’re special,” “You’re elect,” or “You see things clearly while everyone else is blind”
There’s something beguiling, even intoxicating about being one of “the elect,” or about knowing that those who don’t see things your way are blind. Among other effects, it lets you reject outsiders’ criticisms of the cult without having to think about them.
3. Recruitment tactics that obligate
Cults shower prospective members with attention, gifts, visits, meals, household help, financial assistance, and more, at a much higher level than mere neighborliness. Such over-the-top “love bombing” is obligating. You don’t want to let your new friends down. In fact, you may yearn to be one of them.
Cults may also obligate by demanding undue commitments of time and money. It’s not unusual for people who have invested heavily in a cult to defend the cult rather than admit that they have been duped.
Extreme behaviors obligate as well. Making your commitment public by behaving before family and friends in ways they deem odd, reckless, or even crazy can be exhilarating, especially when cult members praise your courage, call you a martyr, and encourage you to stay the course.
4. Isolation and “Us-versus-Them”
Given the beliefs and behaviors cult members have in common, it’s not surprising that they identify more with one another than with outsiders. In time, outsiders are viewed with suspicion. In order to avoid contamination, there is pressure to limit outside associations, including avoiding family and old friends. Dissenters in particular are to be shunned as weak, misguided, dangerous, evil, or traitorous.
Cults have various ways from subtle to blatant by which followers can recognize one another and identify outsiders in order to keep their distance. They may set themselves apart by attire, food taboos, insider language, hair styles, tattoos, jewelry, bumper stickers, circumcision, and more, or even by founding a separate community.
Whether cult members establish communities apart from outsiders or simply beware them and their “dangerous” ways, the net effect is isolation. The more cult members isolate themselves, the less likely they are to encounter much less consider information that could challenge their views.
5. “We’re persecuted.”
Cult followers have an incentive to see persecution at every turn. To them, it confirms that they alone are in the right.
Factual descriptions that do not praise, inconvenient laws and their enforcement, criticism, probing questions, outside friendships on the wane, facts that contradict their dogma, and more—things the rest of us would call normal life—are all deemed persecution.
It’s not unusual for cult members to bring upon themselves the very negative attention they bemoan. They may break laws; proselytize in aggressive, interruptive, unwelcome ways; demand undeserved privileges; shun outsiders; dress oddly; harass; boast of being Elect, visionary, or otherwise superior; discriminate; seek to control the behavior of co-workers, friends, and neighbors; and condemn outsiders as misguided, blind, evil, or hell-bound. When outsiders fail to receive such behaviors with warmth, understanding, and good cheer, it’s persecution.
6. “We’re the answer to everything”
The cult offers the solution to all problems. Following the precepts of the cult will bring you true happiness, friendship, fulfillment, and purpose. Think how much better the world would be, think of the problems that would disappear, if everyone belonged to the cult.
Questions that the cult cannot answer do not matter and should not be pursued.
The cult defines your identity and self-worth. If you’re unhappy or unfulfilled, the problem is not the cult, but your failure to live its principles to the fullest.
Cults withhold information when recruiting or proselytizing. It is shared only after you have “progressed,” that is, until you are sufficiently indoctrinated and committed, to a point that you are less likely to turn back.
Cults often justify secrets with analogies like “milk before meat” and “you must learn to walk before you can run.” The analogies don’t hold up. There is no need to protect children who crawl from knowing about walking nor to keep people on a milk diet from knowing about meat.
Besides keeping secrets from new recruits, leaders keep secrets from members. The rank and file are not privy to inner workings such as financial matters, leaders’ private behaviors, high-level decision making, historical details, and so on.
8. “We weren’t wrong; it’s just that ...”
In the event of an unfavorable outcome, falsified claim, or failed prediction, “explanations” like the following are common:
We were right except for an unimportant detail, such as the timing.
We were right except the event didn’t happen the way we expected.
We were right, but a miracle or an exception intervened.
“Explanations” for leaders caught violating cult rules may include:
You can’t expect the leader to be perfect.
The leader has special privileges or lives a higher law.
This is a test of your devotion.
Don’t believe it. It is a lie spread by our enemies.
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