Exploring Cults

Earlier this week, I wrote an article about my experience in YWAM (Youth With a Mission),  asking whether it could possibly be a cult. My final answer is not an absolutely yes or no, but somewhere in the middle. The post elicited a wide range of responses on social media, from people who related to my story, to YWAMers who felt attacked or hurt by the article.

Before I go on with this post, I want to take a moment to address those who feel hurt by the article: it was not my intent to hurt or offend you, though I certainly understand how that was the end result. My writing has had the occasional unpleasant side effect of alienating people I love. My goal, as always, is to tell my story and share my questions. For those of you who were hurt by my post, you are always welcome to reach out to me for conversation. I am always open to discussion, and I encourage it. My articles may sometimes be uncomfortable, but they are only intended to start conversations, not shut them down.

In the meantime, I wanted to continue my exploration of cults, and what makes them tick.

There are already plenty of freaky lists of the most disturbing cults all over the web. Youtube is practically overflowing with them. I’ve also compiled my own list of the best documentaries on religious abuse, which you can check out if you’d like. But I don’t just want to gawk at cults, and marvel at their freakiness. I also want to understand them.

1. Warning Signs of a Cult

I’ve searched far and wide for the symptoms of a cult. Here is the best one I could find. It is written by Rick Ross, and I got this list from culteducation.com.

Ten warning signs of a potentially unsafe group/leader.

  1. Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.

  2. No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.

  3. No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget, expenses such as an independently audited financial statement.

  4. Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.

  5. There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.

  6. Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.

  7. There are records, books, news articles, or television programs that document the abuses of the group/leader.

  8. Followers feel they can never be “good enough”.

  9. The group/leader is always right.

  10. The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.

Ten warning signs regarding people involved in/with a potentially unsafe group/leader.

  1. Extreme obsessiveness regarding the group/leader resulting in the exclusion of almost every practical consideration.

  2. Individual identity, the group, the leader and/or God as distinct and separate categories of existence become increasingly blurred. Instead, in the follower’s mind these identities become substantially and increasingly fused–as that person’s involvement with the group/leader continues and deepens.

  3. Whenever the group/leader is criticized or questioned it is characterized as “persecution”.

  4. Uncharacteristically stilted and seemingly programmed conversation and mannerisms, cloning of the group/leader in personal behavior.

  5. Dependency upon the group/leader for problem solving, solutions, and definitions without meaningful reflective thought. A seeming inability to think independently or analyze situations without group/leader involvement.

  6. Hyperactivity centered on the group/leader agenda, which seems to supercede any personal goals or individual interests.

  7. A dramatic loss of spontaneity and sense of humor.

  8. Increasing isolation from family and old friends unless they demonstrate an interest in the group/leader.

  9. Anything the group/leader does can be justified no matter how harsh or harmful.

  10. Former followers are at best-considered negative or worse evil and under bad influences. They can not be trusted and personal contact is avoided.

Ten signs of a safe group/leader.

  1. A safe group/leader will answer your questions without becoming judgmental and punitive.

  2. A safe group/leader will disclose information such as finances and often offer an independently audited financial statement regarding budget and expenses. Safe groups and leaders will tell you more than you want to know.

  3. A safe group/leader is often democratic, sharing decision making and encouraging accountability and oversight.

  4. A safe group/leader may have disgruntled former followers, but will not vilify, excommunicate and forbid others from associating with them.

  5. A safe group/leader will not have a paper trail of overwhelmingly negative records, books, articles and statements about them.

  6. A safe group/leader will encourage family communication, community interaction and existing friendships and not feel threatened.

  7. A safe group/leader will recognize reasonable boundaries and limitations when dealing with others.

  8. A safe group/leader will encourage critical thinking, individual autonomy and feelings of self-esteem.

  9. A safe group/leader will admit failings and mistakes and accept constructive criticism and advice.

  10. A safe group/leader will not be the only source of knowledge and learning excluding everyone else, but value dialogue and the free exchange of ideas.

2. Sam Harris On Cults

I don’t always like Sam Harris, but I love how smart he is, and how much he makes me think. He shares some interesting thoughts on cults.

 

3. A Few Additional Resources for People Interested in Cults

I sent out a tweet asking people for resources on cults. Here’s what they sent me.

  • One reader wrote: “Do a search for ‘new religious movements’ rather than cults – this is the term religious scholars use these days. They tend to analyze the cults more clinically, whereas documentary producers go for shock value.” He also provided a helpful search link.
  • The blog Surviving Church offers stories, insights, and resources about abuse that takes place within Christianity.
  • The Wartburg Watch offers some interesting stories about cults and religious abuse.
  • Steven Hassan is a controversial expert on cults, and a cult survivor himself. Check out his conversation with Joe Rogan. It’s a fascinating discussion, and while I don’t agree with everything he says, he definitely made me think.

Did I miss anything in this list? Let me know in the comments.

 

  1. The Baptists with whom I grew up shared a common misconception that cults are exclusively religious groups with wacky beliefs. As you’ve shown here, cultishness is a spectrum, not a binary, and the factors that make a cult a cult – and when present in larger degrees, dangerous – have little to do with the group’s doctrines.

    While it goes without saying, I feel like it can’t be emphasized enough that a group doesn’t have to tick all ten warning signs to be worthy of further scrutiny and suspicion. The pastor of the fundamentalist Baptist church in which I grew up showed at least five of the warning signs. For the benefit of anyone still trapped in an unhealthy organization, please don’t wait until you see all of the signs; if your gut tells you to get out, do so as soon as possible.

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