Recognizing Cults and Abusive Groups

One challenge faced by many persons coming out of an abusive religion or family is that they don’t understand what constitutes abuse, or may not think they were ever in a cult. In turn, they may not recognize the damage that was done by their former religion, family of origin, past relationship, political group, and the like.

Understanding the signs of an abusive religion, individual, or group is the first step toward leaving and then healing from that abuse.

While the definition of a cult and other abusive religions and groups might vary slightly from commentator to commentator, note the common denominator typically includes excessive control over members, and especially for the financial or sexual benefit of the group’s leaders, or as an expression of their power over others.

According to Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, the main characteristics of a cult include:

  1. A charismatic leader, who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose power. That is a living leader, who has no meaningful accountability and becomes the single most defining element of the group and its source of power and authority.
  2. A process of coercive persuasion or thought reform. The culmination of this process can be seen by members of the group often doing things that are not in their own best interest.

  3. Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.

Christian Apologetics and Research Ministries notes characteristics that include:

  • Only True Teaching – often considers traditional religious systems to be apostate and it alone possesses the complete truth.
  • Isolationist – to facilitate control over the members physically, intellectually, financially, and emotionally.
  • Controlling – exercises control over the members. Sometimes this is through fear, threatening loss of salvation if you leave the group. Sometimes through indoctrination.
  • Persecution – predictions of being persecuted, often combined with claiming any opposing views demonstrated against them as a form of persecution.

Marlene Winell has discussed what she refers to as “Religious Trauma Syndrome,” which results in cognitive, emotional, mental, and social damage. She states the causes of RTS include religions marked by:

  • Suppression of normal child development – cognitive, social, emotional, moral stages are arrested
  • Damage to normal thinking and feeling abilities -information is limited and controlled;dysfunctional beliefs taught; independent thinking condemned; feelings condemned
  • External locus of control – knowledge is revealed, not discovered; hierarchy of authority enforced; self not a reliable or good source
  • Physical and sexual abuse – patriarchal power; unhealthy sexual views; punishment used as for discipline

Steven Hassan, a leading commentator on cults, outlines a BITE model to determine if a group is abusive; this refers to the level of control exercised over a member’s Behavior, Information, Thoughts, and Emotions. Consider brief excerpts from the BITE model:

Behavior Control

  • Promote dependence and obedience
  • Modify behavior with rewards and punishments
  • Restrict or control sexuality
  • Exploit you financially
  • Restrict leisure time and activities
  • Require you to seek permission for major decisions

Information Control

  • Deliberately withhold and distort information
  • Forbid you from speaking with ex-members and critics
  • Discourage access to non-cult sources of information
  • Divide information into Insider vs. Outsider doctrine
  • Generate and use propaganda extensively

Thought Control

  • Instill Black vs. White, Us vs. Them, & Good vs. Evil thinking
  • Use loaded language and cliches to stop complex thought
  • Teach thought-stopping techniques to prevent critical thoughts
  • Allow only positive thoughts
  • Reject rational analysis, critical thinking, & doubt

Emotional Control

  • Instill irrational fears (phobias) of questioning or leaving the group
  • Label some emotions as evil, worldly, sinful, or wrong
  • Shower you with praise and attention (“love bombing”)
  • Shun you if you disobey or disbelieve
  • Teach that there is no happiness or peace outside the group

*** ***

If you feel you have been the victim of abuse of any sort, please see a counselor; if you are feeling suicidal or have thoughts of harming yourself or others, dial emergency services.