5 signs that you may belong to a dangerous cult

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.

What are the warning signs to look out for?

What are the warning signs to look out for?

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!

12 Responses to 5 signs that you may belong to a dangerous cult

  1. […] many ways, The Rick Ross Institute provided the indirect influence for my ‘5 signs that you may belong to a dangerous cult‘ article that has proven popular here, as it was one of the first sites that really opened my […]

  2. Kcraug0694 says:

    I am worried about my friend.  She has become very religious over the past few years and now she is telling me “I am not of this earth”.  Should I be concerned?

    • Anonymous says:

      It depends on whether her beliefs are connected to a specific group, and the manner in which that group conveys their belief system to members.  Do you know if she belongs to a particular group or movement?  That will help know whether or not you should be concerned.

      People have lots of strange beliefs, and lots of beliefs we presume to be normal could actually be seen as quite strange if they weren’t so common.  The difference comes from the manner in which beliefs are created, moulded, promulgated and acted upon.  There’s a lot of nuance here, so it’s important not to judge somebody merely because of a strange belief.  

      If you have any more information that would help figure it out.

  3. grace says:

    I was going to go to this religion program backed out because they wanted me to give all my things to goodwill they said it was only material things. wanted me to sell my car and put my cat in the pound… they are wishy washy said they would find her a temporary home until I got out of this program… Now they backed out the program is secluded out in the country with no car or my cell phone that is scary as hell! even their registered with the attorneys general mean nothing to me… sounds like a cult to me all in control…

  4. Anonymous1989 says:

    Nation Of Islam scored 3 out of 5. Fro my knowledge and experience.

  5. chris60 says:

    This sounds like any group where the activities, mistakes and unacceptable behaviour of the leader/s are not allowed to be challenged or criticised. Psychiatrists and psychologists tend to attract vulnerable people and then rip them off for extended periods of time under the guise of bringing needed changes to their personality. Sexual abuse if rife within the industry and the psychiatrists often act like demi gods who know you better than yourself – for a massive fee. Abusive families, corrupt governments, entrenched religious bodies and tyrannic bosses/partners mirror this exploitation of the workers and there is often sexual abuse as well as financial and personal exploitation occurring that favours the master and adversely affects the servants. The Catholic church, schools, military and wacky cults all have come under close scrutiny for the sexual abuse of members – in particular, children in their care – and the exploitation of their members to fund the inner sanctum. We need some bodies to provide protection for the community, but giving too much authority to elite leaders creates a false division between those who power and those they supposedly serve. Who stockpiles the most weapons at the moment to ward off supposed invasion from outsiders? Arguably, America controls the world through its military arsenal and exploitation of the countries it has invaded under the guise of bringing democracy. Is democracy itself a cult movement designed to justify attacking non-democratic realms. This is all quite confusing when you travel and witness the effects of war on those countries that have been attacked or invaded by NATO. I sometimes feel ashamed to be from the West and know my safety and benefits have been gained at someone else’s expense. The West grows fat at the expense of others being impoverished to provide for us. Not a pleasant thought. Maybe Islam-phobia has merely replaced the red under the bed threat once posed by Communism.

  6. […] 10.  5 Signs You May Belong to a Dangerous Cult […]

  7. Dan says:

    I read this because I was looking for the meaning of the pound symbol didn’t find nothing but I put it together with cult and the symbol. The symbol was put on a text sent to me.

    Thank you hunn….£›

    I was suspicious because we’ll let me go back. First off I am not apart of any cult or grouping any firm at all. I’m a regular guy that lives for my children and Jesus chrst and family. So I found this on this text and was curious as to what it ment u still don’t know but it some how brought me to your sight. I was also interested in the sight because as I read I kind felt some of the things you mention were happening in my life not with s noticeable circle but one input together because of a certain girl that came into my life wen I was down and out about loosing my kids and wife to a drug problem. I’m not liking or feel the real need for help but because of what u read here I would like to know more about the source of the girl or if it really is a circle. It begins with minipulation, sex, and other things. The point of circle and no circle is that they act as if they don’t know each other so they say but one of a friend some how nose a person from others but certain one don’t know eachother but some how in my presence meet one another pretending as if for first time. More important cause I’m tired wen u party with the girl or another girl that they don’t no one another they tent to make remsrjs as if theyvnewbi was hanging out with one or the other. And some thing I feel they have in common is liberal with sex nit to hard to get. The other is I always get sleepy and sleep and wake up to where wen t continue to party the substance I was using is not quite the same it some how is different so I guess that in being taken for and being probably poised by another substance and if I bring it to ones attention I am being told that I am tripped and shroud do this or that much cause it’s affecting my jugment. I say bulldhit and know better then to continue in with but for some reason even after fights or arguements I still invite them back just to replay the same shut and well in sure you as a sovy person in your field can probably figure this out with what I have written. Lower class families then mine I am not rich but have had a decent upbringing. Most of the people I tak about are living close by withsimeonebwho is giving them a place to stay. The one I was seeing mostly says she lives before at her dads in a converted single room I met the dad not sure if he is or not . She stayed with me for s few years and since I couldn’t handle her she now suposadly lives in a homeless place where she is seeking an apartment so long as she does well at a program they have. Anyhow I have done thing slot different then I normally would and not happy. I am loosing slit and financially am struggling with things because of my own fault but I don’t know they always make me feel as if my phone is hacked my dog changes from calm to panicky all the time lots of other stuff to

  8. […] 5 signs that you may belong to a dangerous cult […]

  9. Pale.Emperor says:

    I left the Jehovah’s Witnesses 4 months ago and im being shunned by my entire family and everyone i know. I have no one. No one single person in the world. Because a good Jehovah’s Witness will refuse to socialize with any non-Witness.

    By the way, the Jehovah’s Witnesses scores 5 out of 5 on this.

    • Ashley says:

      As a former born in myself. I can back this comment up. They are a very harmful cult. I left 10 years ago and lost everything I’d ever known and had to start over. My whole family are Jw’s they are all brainwashed and would never see them for what they are… weather from stubbornness or fear of going through what I went through who knows. It’s just sad how they suck people in and then rip families apart.

  10. Natalie says:

    I have been harassed by unknown people and “looked for” all my life. Recently I heard them saying they are part of a couple of groups I said they are/asked if their from a certain group they said no they are from (told me what group) and one group that was against people protesting about taxes or something. I am not protesting about taxes so I don’t know what they want with me. My parents also are aware what is happening but they want me to pretend I am not aware what they are all doing.
    I get harassed by my father who also works for someone? I think he said I’m adopted hes not my father. He said he advises I go to moms she doesnt want to be reasonable !?!?!?

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