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How can you spot a cult?

Updated on June 22, 2012
Cults have been around for ages. Learning how to spot them is key in avoiding getting trapped in them.
Cults have been around for ages. Learning how to spot them is key in avoiding getting trapped in them.

General Hallmarks of Cults

Although you may not want to think about it, you are surrounded by people that are members of cults. Some of these cults are obvious and others operate at a very subtle level. With the number of cults abounding, the question almost becomes “How deep are you in a cult?”

When you hear the word “cult”, you may have images of meetings conducted in dark places where immoral acts are performed or animal entrails used to forecast the future. Although groups that engage in such practices have cult qualities, that is not the limit of cults.

So what are the hallmarks of a cult? There are many indications that indicate the presence cults and of cult-like mindsets. Below is a list of some of the more common indicators.

One of the common characteristics include the use of pseudo-sciences. Cults often hide what they do under the pretense of science. Cult groups often present a façade of being scientific in their approach, yet on closer examination, they do not pass basic scientific scrutiny of looking at facts, making decisions based on observable and verifiable phenomena. By associating the cult with ‘pseudo-science’, then when outsiders question members of the cult the questioners are dismissed as being un-scientific or ignorant.

There is an emphasis on leadership. One person is identified as the “great leader”. The cult focuses on the teachings of the ‘leader’. The leader may be alive or dead. The cult consists of people following the leader without thinking. They mindlessly follow what they are presented without questioning the leader. The leader is often surrounded by others in leadership in a pyramid-type structure.

Cults often focus on structural control. The leadership often want to control the behavior of their followers. The cult followers often surrender control of parts of their lives over to the leadership of the cult.

Cults often use religious books, including the Bible. The emphasis is on extra-Biblical revelations. Rather than allow the people to read and think about what the Bible says, the cults rely on either what the leaders interpretation is or what some extra-Biblical book says. They may say they believe the Bible, yet on closer scrutiny they rely on the extra-Biblical book to guide their lives. By having their extra Biblical book associated with the Bible, the authority of the extra Biblical book is elevated to the level of divine inspiration.

Cults prefer closed meetings. They convey their teachings in settings where the leaders control what is said and what occurs.

Cults often claim to have a ‘special revelation’. The special revelation is often treated as a ‘secret’. The cult often keeps the secret within a special group. By limiting access to the secret or special revelation, they maintain control over the group as a whole. Outsiders are viewed as being ignorant or uninformed since they do not have the ‘special revelation’. The special revelation is often hidden until the cult members are at the point of ‘enlightenment’. Once they reach the level of enlightenment, the secrets are provided to the initiates. Cults often use the Bible to entice the followers, yet then after a while, they focus on extra-Biblical books in order to create a unified mindset. This ‘secret club’ mentality appeals to many people. Followers want to gain access to the secrets and the secret club.

Cult groups often change the meanings of words and terms. This is often called ‘Semantics”. When you approach them on the street and ask them about what you consider common terms, they provide ‘respectable’ answers. It is only when you have cult members define their terms that it becomes clear as to how they have unique meanings to the words. When you talk about terms like ‘hell’, ‘being saved’, ‘holiness’, and justification have different meanings within the cult group as opposed to the meanings used by outsiders.

Cults gain much of their power by keeping the members in a state of uncertain hope. By keeping initiates in a state of uncertainty concerning the security of their position, the cult group gains power. The initiates become dependent on the leadership to have spiritual security. The cult relies on the insecurities of the followers to keep them coming back. When you do not have security, you keep coming back to the cult. They have the secrets and the security to keep people imprisoned.

Cults often have one set of values for followers and another for their leaders. The leaders often define what is acceptable or unacceptable for themselves. By not having objective standards, they often excuse many excesses. The leaders often excuse their excesses by claiming that they are ‘special’. The specialness allows them to have control and freedom to indulge in private indiscretions.

Cults want to know details of the lives of their followers. The secrets are then used as way to maintain control over them. When followers wander away from accepted ways of the cult, they are threatened with being ostracized or their secrets being exposed. The threat of being isolated or having their secrets out is often enough to keep the followers in the cult.

Cult leaders often promote teachings that are ambiguous. By keeping the teachings ambiguous and generic, they sound palatable to potential followers. It is only after followers are deep into the group before they find out what those ambiguous teachings were really conveying. The vague messages also provide a source of power for the leader. The leader often provides interpretation of the ambiguous teachings.

Cults often dictate who the followers can marry and associate with. They often want to keep the members within the group itself. By keeping the group in a closed mindset, there is increased uniformity within the group. This helps foster a ‘groupthink’ mindset among the followers. Some groups go so far as to dictate what the members eat or even how they dress.

These are some of the more common indicators of cults. There are some that are unique to each specific group. Some cults even go so far as to threaten the lives or welfare of those who leave the group. When such threats are used, fear is added as a method of controlling members or speaking out against the group. Since the spiritual security is tied up with the cult, to be ostracized carries with it spiritual ramifications. The person leaving no longer has the promise of heaven or afterlife since they left the cult. Leaving the cult is associated with a form of damnation.

Some cults use special symbols or words to maintain control of their members. These symbols or words are occasionally combined with hypnotic techniques which gives greater mind control over the followers. The symbols or words are often used as triggers to set off specified reactions in the follower. These symbols may seem innocuous to those outside the cult. Since the cult has unique meanings to things, those common phrases or symbols become a secret language conveying the message of the cult to its members.


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