Most if not all religions, churches, and similar groups will have requirements for adherents. Catholic and other churches encourage members to observe Lent and take the sacraments (bread and wine), tithe, pray on a certain schedule, and the list goes on.
Some churches might be more demanding than others; many fundamentalist religions strongly condemn sex outside of marriage, for example, even insisting congregants not date until they’re ready for marriage.
Since religious demands and requirements are commonplace, when might they be considered extreme and the sign of a cult?
Of course there are no definitive, black-and-white answers, and everyone’s opinion of “extreme” is different. For instance, one person might not like going to a weekly mass or confessing to a priest, whereas someone else might find these rituals uplifting.
All that being said, it’s not always difficult to spot extremes that might label a group as a cult, or at least unhealthy and overly controlling. Consider a few examples.
No one can say that “X” amount of hours spent in religious activities is extreme, but consider if you feel like your entire life revolves around working for the church. This should be a red flag, as many cults purposely put demands on their followers so that they have no time to research the group, listen to dissenting opinions or criticisms, or even think for themselves!
You might also be working just to enrich the cult, perhaps by constructing or maintaining their properties, recruiting new members, and soliciting funds. Consider how much time you spend on activities that benefit the group itself and that have little to do with spirituality or bettering society.
It’s also good to ask how much time is spent in the group’s activities versus time to yourself, for your family, personal pursuits, or just relaxation. Insisting that congregants spend all their free time in group activities versus hobbies and personal interests keeps a person from getting disinterested in the religion; the more time you spend pursuing hobbies, the more you enjoy time spent away from the religion and the less interested you are in the church!
One last consideration is how much time you spend listening to the message of the cult. This includes reading literature, watching online programming, attending classes or services, and the like. If it seems as if your entire schedule revolves around the group’s preaching, however it’s disseminated, consider that the religion might be trying to choke out outside messages and especially criticisms!
By going to the extreme of insisting that virtually all of your time is spent in group activities and indoctrination, you are then given less of a chance to tune into your own thinking and evaluate that group on your own. This can be the mark of a cult, or of a very controlling organization.
Cults are famous for ensuring their members stay isolated from people who don’t follow their teaching, or who are critical of the church itself. Friendships with anyone, even family, and especially marriage outside of that group are often strictly controlled if not outright forbidden.
This type of extreme demand is a sure sign of a cult; a religion or church might encourage members to only marry other members or warn about outsider thinking, but a healthy church will also allow for differing opinions, respecting a member’s personal decision when it comes to marriage and friendship. They may even welcome outsiders to their gatherings, church sessions, or social clubs.
A church, religion, or other group that does the opposite by stubbornly and adamantly chastising, or even outright shunning someone for having associations with nonmembers is going to extremes. They are not just encouraging members to be dedicated to the church but are isolating members, and for their own selfish gains. In turn, such a group can be considered a cult, or at least overly controlling and abusive.
Another sign of a cult is when a member must meet certain demands without question or exception, and without any consideration for the opinion or comfort level of the congregant.
Consider a few examples. A church might require members to participate in a mission or preaching work, hold counseling sessions with others, or attend counseling sessions themselves. The religion might also require members to solicit money from people inside and outside the church.
A congregant may be very uncomfortable with these demands and not even feel that they should be requirements, based on their understanding of the bible or another holy book. They may struggle physically with this work or have anxiety over preaching, soliciting funds, being away from home, and so on.
Yet, the church may not allow someone to forego these requirements or “bow out” of volunteer work, regular preaching activities, or a ministry away from home. Counseling sessions or interviews might also be required, even if they’re awkward and uncomfortable, such as when a woman is counseled alone by a man in the church.
Absolutely requiring these types of activities could be considered extreme; even following the commands of a holy book should not involve work that is embarrassing, uncomfortable, or unsafe, such as for young adults away from home. A healthy church might encourage members to “share the gospel,” or organize missionary work of some sort, but for those who are able to volunteer and in a way that is reasonable and balanced.
“we’re right, they’re from Satan”
Some religions teach that they have the truth about the bible or god, or their way is best for attaining spiritual enlightenment and wisdom. Even so, those religions often have a certain tolerance for outsider opinions and dissenting voices; some churches might even teach that any way of worship is fine as long as a person lives a good life, provides for their family, and doesn’t hurt anyone.
However, one sure sign of a cult is when an “us versus them” thinking is taken to an extreme; cults teach that other church members are demonic, agents of Satan, false prophets, blasphemers, unholy, or somehow out to hurt you. Not endorsing another religion or set of teachings is one thing, but claiming that those churches or individuals are somehow evil and Satanic and dangerous is an extreme position.
Most groups enforce punishments for those who break rules; employers demote or fire someone, a sports team might bench a player and levy fines, and certainly parents have the right to punish children as needed.
Religious groups might also mete out punishments to members; priests may require an erring congregant to say certain prayers or remove them from positions of authority. A church also has the right to excommunicate members who don’t adhere to various standards.
These punishments are typical and might be expected, but extreme punishments are signs of a cult. These punishments might include humiliating confessions of sins or a public announcement of sinful behavior. Demanding congregants shun someone, even family, when they have supposedly sinned is also an extreme punishment.
If someone lives in a mission or compound, extreme punishments can include physical deprivation (not allowing someone a bed or proper nutrition, for instance), confinement, cutting off communication with family back home, and the like. Extremes can also include the threat of punishment; for example, saying that congregants who don’t live up to certain standards will die a fiery death, suffer demonic possession or hellfire in the afterlife, or other such brutal scenarios is extreme and abusive.
Punishment can also be considered extreme if it’s meted out for matters that shouldn’t be up to the church; for example, some churches tell congregants they’re no longer welcome at services if they don’t pay a certain tithe. This can be a devastating punishment for a lifelong church member; however, exact financial contributions themselves should also not be up to a church to dictate! Not only is it extreme to demand a certain financial contribution from members, but it’s also extreme to then say that they’re no longer welcomed at the church because of failing to meet that demand.
Keep this in mind when evaluating the beliefs or practices of any group. Having certain requirements is not necessarily a sign of a cult, but when those teachings, rituals, and demands become extreme and something no one would ever consider reasonable, this might be a sign of a cult, or at least of a very controlling and unhealthy group that should be strongly questioned if not outright avoided.