While it’s beneficial to note the trademarks of a cult or cult-like abuse, it’s also vital to consider common myths and misconceptions about cults. This ensures you don’t argue against a group being abusive and controlling by saying, “I thought a cult always…” or, “This group can’t be a cult because they don’t…”
myth: cult members live in communes
Seclusion and isolation are signs of a cult, but this doesn’t mean cult members always live in communes, a shared home, isolated farm, etc. Having cult members live in such accommodations helps isolate them from the outside world, and allows cult leaders to take advantage of their members without outside interference.
However, cults also isolate congregants by teaching an “us versus them” mentality, keeping those members mentally and emotionally cut off from other people. In turn, cult members may physically live and work in everyday neighborhoods and attend public schools, but they’re mentally and emotionally isolated, perhaps even being afraid of or hateful toward outsiders.
myth: cult members wear robes, chant, shave their heads, or otherwise dress and act “weird”
Cult leaders might insist on certain guidelines for how members dress and groom, but these guidelines aren’t always so severe that their members wear “weird” clothes or hairstyles. Some religious sects might even insist that their members dress modestly so as to avoid calling attention to themselves.
In some cases, it’s actually to a cult’s advantage that members blend with the general public so that congregants hold down everyday jobs and contribute financially to the cult, or be better able to recruit new members.
myth: cult members follow one person
Members of the public are often familiar with the names of cult leaders such as Jim Jones, Charles Manson, David Koresh, etc. In turn, it’s easy to assume that a cult always follows one person.
In some cases, an individual begins or takes over a group for their own power and prestige. In other cases, a church or organization might select a group of leaders, but this group is typically very small. A small group reduces potential differences of opinion and the risk of splinter groups and factions breaking off from the cult itself.
A limited number of leaders also makes it easier for congregants to “attach” to those men or women personally, hanging onto their every word, like fans of a popular celebrity.
However, a cult does not always follow just one person and may not be known by an individual’s name, such as “The Church of Reverend So-and-So.” Don’t assume that a group led by a board of directors, governing body, circle of prophets, advisors, etc., isn’t a cult; instead, consider the control exercised by those people, whatever their number.
myth: cult members have lots of wives and children
Some cults encourage or force members to marry young and have as many children as possible; young congregants with children are often dependent on older generations in the cult, so they’re less likely to leave. Some cults do encourage or allow multiple wives even if those marriages are not legal, often as a means of producing more children or because men in the cult demand multiple sex partners.
However, this is not always the case; some cults might not dictate many details of a congregant’s family, while others might even discourage members from marrying and having lots of children, often so that those congregants can spend time recruiting or working for the church.
The control that leaders have over the relationships of their members is what marks a cult, not simply the number of marriages and children.
myth: cults are very small
In past decades, cults may have had a somewhat limited membership; a cult leader could only reach and control a certain number of persons, so cults were often no larger than a few hundred members, or a few thousand at most.
Today, however, the internet and social media allow a cult to flourish throughout the world. Automated translation services allows speeches, teachings, doctrine, and demands of a cult leader translated into various languages rather quickly.
Many cults even use the internet to proactively recruit members from all over the world, sometimes targeting groups they find on Reddit, Facebook, and so on, or just posting recruiting information on social media channels. In turn, a cult’s membership can easily reach into the thousands and even the millions today, and span many countries and languages.
myth: cults are always religious
Cult members may be more likely to follow a human leader if they see that person as being divine, chosen by god, or a prophet. However, many groups that fit the description of a cult have nothing to do with religion.
For example, consider “alien conspiracy,” doomsday groups. Hobbyists who meet to discuss beliefs about the “unknown” aren’t necessarily cult-like, but some such groups live in seclusion, preparing for the end of the world and frightening members into allegiance with stories of ghost possession and exorcisms.
Some militias might be considered cult-like if members isolate themselves, preparing for a civil war or uprising. While not all survivalists are dangerous, when leaders of these groups take financial or sexual advantage of members or threaten those who want to leave, they might then be considered a cult.
Some group leaders might also instill an “us versus them” thinking that makes followers afraid of or hateful toward those on the outside. This, too, is a sign of a cult, despite a group not having any religious affiliation.
myth: cult members are simpletons; smart and successful people don’t join cults
Cult leaders often appeal to an emotional need of their members, as discussed. Members feel a need to belong to something bigger than themselves, or want to think that they’re somehow superior to other people.
See also: Why People Join Cults
Some cult members might join certain groups out of fear; militias may feed upon someone’s fear of current events or political and social climates. A person might fear the end of the world and will join a cult that they think will save them.
Some persons even get involved in cults with the best of intentions; they want sincerely to get people off drugs, help with disaster recovery efforts, and so on. A group that performs some charitable works might then appeal to their giving nature.
On the opposite side of that coin, many cults allow certain members to have authority over people that they wouldn’t have otherwise, and some people join or stay for the sake of that power. This can be especially true if that authority allows a congregant to exploit someone financially, sexually, and the like.
All of these individuals may be very intelligent and successful, but they join a cult because it fulfills another need for them, not necessarily because they agree with the cult’s teachings on an intellectual level.
Many cult commentators study the workings of cults in general, as well as the teachings and practices of a particular group or religion, for many years before noting if that group fits the description of a cult. They may not have any personal ties to that group so that they have no reason to insult it in any way.
It’s good to objectively consider the reasons why someone might suggest that a group is a cult, evaluating those reasons fairly, rather than dismissing their concerns and opinions as mere insults.
It’s also worth noting that a person’s motivations for speaking up against a cult shouldn’t negate what they’re saying. If a cult is controlling the information its members receive, exploiting them financially or in other ways, or hiding horrific instances of abuse, that information stands on its own merit.
The attitude, mental disposition, or reasons for former members or commentators speaking out doesn’t take away from the truth about whether or not a group is rightly labeled a cult.