Are you in a cult?
If you think the answer is “no,” the next question is, are you sure?
There is no easy answer to the question of whether or not a particular religion or other such group could be considered a cult. Like the word “art,” the word “cult” can be very subjective; what is art to one person is an eyesore to another, and what is a cult to one person is a wonderful, nurturing, positive group to someone else.
Very few countries or states will even provide outright legal definitions of this term, much less apply it to certain religions or groups.
Most individuals who study cults, however, will note the level of control a group has over its members, and especially if that control becomes abusive, degrading, or overly intrusive into one’s personal life.
See also: Steven Hassan’s BITE Model
Teachings or practices that are unhealthy, or that cause harm to an individual, are also earmarks of a cult. This includes physical, mental, emotional, or financial harm.
Other indications of a cult include taking advantage of members in some way; for example, a cult might insist members provide them with free labor to build properties that the church then resells for a profit, money that is rarely shared with those members. Sexual exploitation is also a common sign of a cult; this might include child marriages, insistence on sexual acts or favors from members, intrusive questioning as to a congregant’s sexual practices, and so on.
In this section, we will discuss the various ways that a group might fit the definition of a cult. Seeing these traits in a religion or organization can help people coming out of cults; if you see a cult for what it is, this can help you break free mentally and emotionally from the stranglehold it may still have on you. It may then be easier to walk away and be truly free.
This information might also help those who are trying to wake up friends and family members who are in a suspected cult. However, it’s advised that you exercise extreme caution when dealing with current cult members, as isolated cults especially may pose a danger to members wishing to leave.
Note, too that some cult members can be very upset, even suicidal, after having left their church or other such group. This is especially true if that former member is then shunned by family still in the church. If you are unsure of how to assist someone you feel is in a cult, seek the assistance of a trained professional.
Some basics of this information first appeared in the short-run magazine, “Apostate Monthly,” but has been expanded upon and explained in greater depth and detail.
As always, please see a mental health professional if you are feeling depressed or anxious, or have any struggles in coping with your current mental or emotional state. If you are suicidal, self-harm, or cause any harm to others including mental and emotional abuses, contact emergency services or a mental healthcare professional at once.
In this series: