Times of uncertainty create perfect hatching grounds for leaders and groups of all types to spring up, offering peace, comfort, salvation, the clear and true path to enlightenment, or the only way forward. It should be clear that cults do not orient solely around religion, religion just seems to be where it is easier to pick off adherents.
One thing is certain, people have and will continue to fall prey to these ravenous wolves, and it is our purpose and duty to help provide clear and adequate warning signs. Also to provide adequate support for those who do fall in the trap. The most common side effect, just like a drug addict is to berate oneself, to feel stupid, or ashamed – how could I be so gullible?
“Potentially unsafe groups or leaders “come off very nice at first, they go for vulnerable people who are looking for answers, lonely, what you’d call ‘normal people.’ They’re very good at what they do and can get people to believe anything. You might think you’d never get taken in, but don’t bet on it. “
— Margaret Singer, Ph.D.
Early Warning Signs that are Easily Overlooked
1. The group/leader is the only source for direction, validation, enlightenment, and he/she has exclusive rights to your future.
In these groups, your courting, financial choices, place of dwelling, place of employment and many factors of life are chosen by the head of the group. Your early warning signs are events where you can hear from other group members mentioning things like, ‘Oh I wouldn’t do that until you talk to the pastor/leader.’, or ‘You did that? Did you talk to the pastor/leader first? You didn’t?’
This can even go so far as to blame negative circumstances in your life on the fact that you failed to talk to the leader. If you had he/she would have protected you from harm.
As the leader is the only source for right direction in a followers life, connecting and taking direction from any other outside source is condemned and often punished if discovered. Controlling the ability of followers to gain third party information is often the greatest step towards ensuring mind control.
Lastly, this produces a culture where, in religious settings, going to God for help is subsequent or less important than going to the leader. If you go to God and feel led one way, and the leader disagrees, you don’t obey God, you obey the leader.
2. Exclusive group jargon/phrases like ‘When I came in’, or ‘When I found the truth‘.
If group members talk about their membership in ways that make it sound exclusive, distinct from all others, or there was a ritual to join, you have heard a big red bell. This often includes members only jargon and they talk about each other as if they are the elevated ones. Outsiders are not to be trusted with information until they ‘come in’.
This creates organizations where there truly are no outsiders. Either you are in or you rapidly go away. Guests don’t last long. Comply or deny is the rule. Services or ministries within the organization can only be fulfilled by completely loyal followers.
The converse of this warning sign is how members speak about former members, saying things like ‘they left the truth‘, or ‘they walked away from God‘. Often times this is done with seeming sadness as if it was a moral tragedy. Leaving the group is always viewed as the opposite to joining, which is quite natural. If the group is the only way to salvation, leaving the group must then mean damnation.
You’ll notice in these cult-style groups that members rarely refer to each other by name, but rather by title. Furthermore, if members become offended by being called their name, or most importantly, if they correct you for calling the leader by name, you are in the midst of a cult.
3. Cloning of the leader(s) in dress, behavior/patterns, and speech
Cults inevitably have a way of deifying the leader(s), to the extent that members are either coerced or desire to become more like that person. They adopt that person’s way of talking, body mannerisms, dress style and more. Internally they justify this as role modeling but the end result often creates an army of subservient clones. This is what I called, somewhat derogatorily, Attach of the Clones. Sorry George!
This will produce circumstances where the leader and/or someone high ranking will wear a particular article of clothing or style and followers rush to adopt the same appearance. Whispered conversations will occur in which members berate other members for wearing something that the leader or a high ranking member wouldn’t wear, of they often ask themselves each other if it is Ok to wear certain things, only because the leader does not.
In men leaders, young followers will attempt to mimic facial expressions, walking patterns, body language, and clothing style.
In women leaders, young followers will attempt to mimic voice intonation and speech patterns, such as phrases of sweetness to the point that it feels fake to others. If they behave differently around the leader and at home, they are a mimic, or clone to the leader.
As with this articles featured image, you’ll notice almost immediately that everyone looks the same. Most men will wear identical hair styles, same for the women. Cloning is a sign of brain washing. Beware.
4. There is a major emphasis on the rewards of giving as much money as is bearable, and then stretch the limits
All human endeavors require finances and the most commonly overlooked sign of cult style behavior is a major emphasis on boundless financial pledges. Pledges will always be accompanied by a promised return on investment, often expressing such explosive returns that you would be overwhelmed by them. Sadly, for most, just as with Multi-Level Marketing schemes, the payout rarely comes to the little guys, just the ones at the top.
Additionally, there is an equal emphasis placed on judgment, curse, and damnation for not giving of finances. Guilt is a heavily used tool to ensure followers feel a burning desire to give and then to give more. This creates situations where, as with sign #2, negative circumstances in life are blamed on the follower’s lack of giving or obedience to the leader. Thus, the only valid solution is to give more.
Any system or organization that lays the eternity of a soul of the amount of money given is a cult and as easily overlooked as this warning sign is, it should be the loudest and most egregious of them all.
This also produces a system and cult group that finds it intolerable to ask for financial disclosures of the group and its leadership.
5. No tolerance for questioning the leader – adamant members will threaten violence to those opposing the leader
If you are in a group and you hear things such as, ‘If anyone talks about my leader/pastor, they will get part of my five fold ministry.‘ *That’s a fist in case you were wondering* Or phrases such as ‘God will curse you for questioning the man of God‘, this is a warning bell of a cult.
In cults, a leader is an authoritarian person, exercising absolute dominance over the followers and group and has instilled in the hierarchy a will to crush opposition. Words of questioning are met immediately with ‘I don’t want to hear it‘ responses. Friendships and membership are won/lost by your perspective of the leader.
In cults, the leaders are always right, even when they are wrong. You’ll hear things such as ‘If you think I’m doing something wrong, you just obey and stay blessed.‘ This proves there is no accountability. A cult leader has no one over him and his closest council is handpicked, loyal followers. Loyal followers will not question the leadership at times when it should be questioned.
This creates a ship wildly out of balance.
There are many resources out there for gathering information about how to know if you are in a cult. Listed below are a few worth sharing with people who you think may be in a cult or if you feel you might be involved with one yourself.
I for one feel fortunate that I left what I believed to be a cult. There is no denying it followed all the warning signs and structures of what defines cults. Internally, they will call this persecution, the attack of the enemy, but as eloquently relayed at the Cult Education Center, you need to develop a big fat BS detector.
I look forward to hearing responses and most importantly, I would LOVE to hear your stories about coming out (opposing the ‘coming in’ phrasology’) of a cult or loved ones you know who have.