As you may have already realised, here at Future Conscience we are interested in taking a close look at many different areas of our modern lives in order to try and build a common thread of ethical behaviour and universal morality (if such a thing can exist at all!). Today, I will be taking a look at a rather controversial and tricky subject – religious ‘cults’. By highlighting some warning signs that I have seen in various spiritual bodies myself, I hope that somebody reading this may be able to avoid some internal turmoil and emotional, or even physical, pain in the future.
The word ‘cult’ is always one that I don’t like to just throw around. Over the past few decades it has become synonymous with almost any New Religious Movement – many of which are actually quite benign and not in the slightest to be considered dangerous. ‘Cult’ brings up ideas of mass-suicides such as those conducted by the Peoples Temple (Jonestown) or Heaven’s Gate. It brings up connotations of fanatical religious leaders that end up in an apocalyptic clash with the government, with the Branch Davidians group at Waco being the typical example of this. But there are many New Religious Movements that can be useful to those on a spiritual path. As we move into the 21st century, we are seeing many people return from a world of pure secularism to one where they crave spirituality but do not want to return to organised, hierarchical, religion. This is both a blessing and a curse, as it can lead to wonderful personal liberation and insight but also into the arms of manipulative and charismatic leaders or groups that cause harm.
So, below you will find a short list of 5 of the main signs that you need to look for when joining any spiritual group or society. They are not in any particular order, and there are indeed many more signs then this – but this is a good start. If you are involved in a group that shows some of these signs you should become more aware of people’s motivations and movements, take a step back for a bit and use a more objective eye. The more of these signs that the group displays, the more certain you can be that they are not a useful spiritual organisation but rather a dangerous and destructive group that will almost certainly cause you more harm than good.
1. The group is controlled by a single interpretation of belief
The first, and usually most telling, sign to look out for is that the group has one single source of authority within it. This can manifest in many guises but the majority of the time it does so in one of two ways – it could be a single living leader or guru, or a deceased founder that is reverred above all else. Sometimes, this can also be a small inner group of individuals rather than one person; however the effect is the same. By creating a central authority on spiritual knowledge and truth one can be internally manipulated into agreeing with things that they would never have thought previously. This is a long process, but it unfortunately does work and has been well documented.
What happens in these situations is that the individual, or group, that controls the authoritative interpretation becomes increasingly worshipped and unable to do wrong. This uneven balance of power is truly a recipe for destructive group behaviour, as it is a very difficult position to be in without taking advantage of those who give you such power. The vast majority of groups that exist in this manner have some form of destructive behaviour within them.
Signs to look for: Can you ask questions about what you are told? Can you flatly disagree with something you are told and still be accepted by the group? Does the group try to hide or gloss over any leader/s faults and mistakes in life? Do you notice that other members tend to repeat what they have been told rather then come up with their own interpretations? Are others who speak out openly ostracised by the group for doing so?
2. The “Us vs. Them” mentality
Another very common element amongst dangerous organisations is that they overtly foster an ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality – it is the group against the world, against outsiders or oppressors. This can be in the form of government organisations such as the CIA or FBI; it can be against the mental health community in the form of psychiatrists; quite often it is simply a distinction between those ‘blessed’ individuals who belong to the group, and the ‘evil’ outsiders who are damned or tools of some evil force. By creating an environment such as this the group is creating a kind of cognitive dissonance between the life the group member used to lead and the one they do now. By even thinking about leaving the group you will feel guilty (or even worse), as if you are succumbing to evil external influences. The person that you used to be is often seen as shameful and something to be forgotten and discarded. The ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality creates a great deal of group cohesion and bonding – it is incredibly effective at doing so in fact – but it does this in a way that makes it impossible to interact with the opposing group, regardless of their true motives or identities. If that opposing group is literally everybody who does not agree with the teachings of the spiritual community you are a part of, then there is an obvious destructive component that will greatly impact your lifestyle.
Signs to look for: Do you notice that one particular group of people are constantly referred to in a negative light? Are those who leave spoken about as if they have been corrupted or damned? Is there a sense that the group is under attack by their supposed enemies? Are they stockpiling rations, weapons, or other forms of supplies that suggest some future cataclysm or disaster scenario?
3. Exploitation of group members by leaders
It is almost a universal aspect of dangerous spiritual organisations that the everyday members are exploited in one form or another, often for the ‘greater good’ of the cause at hand. In most instances this is from an economic point of view, having many volunteers who will work for free makes an organisation quite cheap to run; particularly if some form of commercial product is being created as a result of that work. In other instances this exploitation can take on a more nefarious nature, such as sexual exploitation. There are many many examples of group leaders taking sexual advantage of their members, and sometimes even their members children. This is usually couched in some kind of pseudo-spiritual language about ‘energy sharing’ or ‘divine love’, and when coupled with a single source of authority within the group can become a vicious cycle that is difficult to break out of. Other forms of exploitation are not as violently destructive in this manner, but can still have a long-term impact on the individual. One of the more common is when group members are expected to tithe a particular amount (or, quite often, all) of their personal income and material belongings to the organisation. Another, basic, form comes from the emotional exploitation of members in order to satiate the leader’s ego and need for control. Exploitation can take many forms, and it can sometimes be very subtle and difficult to identify, but all forms will have a common element – that those in control of the group are benefiting from the general membership in an unbalanced manner.
Signs to look for: Is work and labour within the group described as a form of meditation or penance? Does the group promote very particular ideas of sexuality and then proceed to criticise members who do not agree with these values? Is there a ‘divine/universal mission’ of some kind that they are striving towards at all costs? Does the group criticise the needs and wants of the individual, making one feel guilty for wanting anything that is not entirely in the group’s interest?
4. Front-groups and deceptive recruitment tactics
Imagine going to a carpentry class held at your local community center, one which teaches you how to build a table in the particular way that the founder of the class originally did it, and then over time being told that this founder is actually a living divinity that died for your sins and was resurrected following his martyrdom? There is a reason why your local organised Christian body does not recruit followers in this manner – and that is because it is deceptive and manipulative. People attended the class to learn how to build a table, not to embark on a spiritual journey without their knowledge.
Front-groups and other such recruitment tactics are a way for a dangerous group to combat poor public perception of their organisation or beliefs. They are often used as a way for the group to collect money and other forms of funding through the use of seemingly charitable organisations that are actually channelling all of their collections into the group itself. This form of recruitment is particularly destructive and dangerous because when you approach these front-groups you often have no idea that you are becoming involved in a very particular world-view and cosmological ideology. The true teachings of the group will be slowly given to you over time, in a way that you may not even realise what is happening. This is, of course, a way for the group to not scare off potential candidates that may benefit from their teachings – however any organisation that treats potential members in such a deceitful way should warrant a certain amount of suspicion on your behalf. When combined with the exploitation of members, these front-groups are often staffed by volunteers and have very low overheads for the organisation whilst bringing in a new demographic of potential members that never would have considered becoming involved.
Signs to look for: Does the group offer yoga, meditation, philosophy, communication courses without any indication of which group these courses are being conducted by? Does the group have a number of charitable bodies that it controls that similarly do not state their connections to the central organisation? Does the group run public outreach programmes (i.e. for the homeless, poor, addicted) that create converts who then end up being exploited in some way? Are you specifically told not to mention the connection between these front-groups and the central organisation to any outsiders even when asked?
5. Control over members activities and social connections
This final warning sign is one that often takes group members by surprise initially, and is in many ways the most usual culprit for destructive consequences on the individual. It is almost always coupled with some of the other warning signs given above (and some others which have not been mentioned here), and is the most overt form of thought control that these groups tend to utilise. Firstly, the group will attempt to control or dictate daily activities and time. Examples of this include intense periods of meditation, prayer, or confession; coercion to volunteer for the organisation in some capacity; many long lectures and group discussion meetings; dictating what one can and cannot eat, and when they can do so; control over when the individual sleeps and how much they can do so, and many more that are far too numerous to list here but all amount to controlling the individual’s thoughts and movements for as much of the time as is possible. Often these are conducted in such a way that the individual is always tired, has never eaten enough, and never has any time to themselves outside of group activities. This is most likely to be the case amongst groups that encourage members to live in a communal environment only with other members. The destructive effects of such an outcome, particularly when coupled with other warning signs, should be quite obvious…
The second aspect of this warning sign is in the control of social connections. Discommunication with family members, friends, and other associates is a common occurence amongst destructive groups. In many cases, communication of any form is banned – including letters, phone calls, and emails. This is particularly the case when the social connection is overtly critical of the group and its activities. Some of the more dangerous groups will even ask that you break all connections with those outside the group regardless of whether or not they are critical – the ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality lies at the core of this behaviour in most cases. By doing this, the individual loses all support networks outside of the group; making it incredibly difficult to ever leave or seek outside help. There have been many examples of individuals who have stated that they remained in a destructive group for many years longer then they wished simply because they had nothing to return to.
Signs to look for: Does the group schedule your life? Do you have any time on your own to socialise or do activities with people outside of the group? If a family member or friend is critical of your involvement do you have to set them straight or disconnect from them? Do you live in a communal arrangement with other members? Are you allowed to go on extended holidays and not participate in activities? Are you openly judged for not participating in an activity? Are you forced to eat only particular foods and/or sleep for a set amount of time?
Hopefully these few words will help if you should ever come into contact with a group that you feel may offer you some answers but displays a lot of the warning signs given here. Remember however, that these are by no means the only signs to look out for (and indeed I may do a ‘5 more signs…’ post in the future!). Also, just because a group displays one or two of these warning signs to a lesser degree does not mean that they are a destructive/dangerous cult by definition – but if you see a few of these things occuring within the same group, and particularly if they are to an excessive degree, then you can almost certainly be assured that you will be better off steering clear and finding another avenue for spiritual and emotional fulfillment.
If you have any experiences of the things discussed above, or have any other signs that you wish to share with us all please do leave a comment!