Some groups might not fit the label of “cult” completely, but are still overly controlling and unhealthy if not downright abusive. Note some questions you might ask about any group you’re in currently, or are considering joining, as these can alert you to an unhealthy, cult-like atmosphere.
how easily can you leave?
Imagine giving notice at a job, and your employer then announces to everyone that you were a horrible worker and a terrible person overall. He or she tells other employees that they’re not allowed to speak to you, even after hours and even if you have family working there, or else they’ll lose their job as well.
While it’s difficult to imagine this scenario at a job, it’s all too common in cults and cult-like groups. When someone leaves, no matter their reasons for leaving, there is often an announcement detailing their supposed sins or at least implying that this person is a sinner, has failed the church, and so on.
The person who leaves is also then labeled an apostate, suppressive, undesirable, a traitor, “mentally diseased,” and the like. Congregants are not allowed to associate or even talk to them, including friends and family.
If that person worked for or with other cult members, they might lose their job, clients, accounts, and so on. In some extreme cases, the cult might retaliate by leaving negative online reviews for their company, making false statements about them on social media, or even suing them.
When there is no way to leave a group without retaliation, this indicates a cult-like atmosphere. A person should be free to leave anyone or anything without punishment; an announcement might be made that such a person is no longer a member simply for the sake of information, but defamatory comments and harm to their reputation, financial situation, friendships, and family relationships especially indicate a cult.
how does the group speak of former members publicly?
A cult often claims that former members criticize the church only because they want their own following, they’re bitter and angry for not being able to live up to the standards of the religion, they want money, etc.
However, first note that many former cult members were never actually removed from the group, but left on their own! Many congregants leave because of abuses in the church, failed predictions, constant petitioning for money, and so on.
Also, cults will often say that they only excommunicate and shun “sinners,” but it’s helpful to ask what they consider “sins.” You might find this means a long, questionable list made up by the church, including disagreeing with its doctrine, certain sexual behavior between married couples, or certain genres of entertainment.
“Sinful” behavior might even include small things that aren’t necessarily positive and healthy, such as smoking or gambling, but which aren’t deserving of a person being cut off from their family!
It’s vital to note these considerations when a church says they remove members only for their “sins.” It’s easy to assume these would be serious actions like adultery or child abuse but, in reality, the church might actually be smearing the reputations of former members with this blanket condemnation of otherwise innocent behaviors.
are you given answers about the church’s history, allegations of abuse, lawsuits, questionable practices, etc.?
All too often, cult leaders will avoid answering questions about accusations, lawsuits, practices like shunning, etc. If a cult member does attempt to address these issues and questions, very often they won’t offer a real answer!
For example, a cult member might say that lawsuits are just “persecution,” even if those lawsuits involve child molestation, financial exploitation, elder abuse, and so on! A government making extreme laws against a particular church might be considered persecution but an organization having to answer in court for horrific, abusive practices is only just and fair.
Also, anyone can review court documents and read news stories online and see if what’s said about an organization is true; however, if a group member dismisses lawsuits and accusations as lies or dishonesties, this is a red flag. This often means that the group’s leaders control the information its members access or that the church has no real, acceptable answer to those accusations.
is a group offering a sense of superiority or other appeal to emotions?
Many religious cults will claim that they have a direct line of communication to god or that they’re the only true religion and all others are false, from Satan, and so on. Other cults may say that their members are the only ones who understand human nature, who can bring peace between cultures, get people off drugs, etc.
These teachings create a sense of superiority in members. Someone who wants to feel superior to others, or who lacks self-esteem in general and needs something to make them feel better about themselves, may find this type of teaching very appealing, despite the fact that it’s not necessarily grounded in reality!
does the group offer a quick fix to problems? is what they offer realistic?
Some groups might say that their courses or teachings help you heal emotionally from past abuses, or that they can help with alcoholism, marriage problems, depression, and so on. However, if the group is not run by trained and licensed counselors, these claims are dubious at best!
Doomsday cults that promise god or their prophet will soon fix everything can even make a person’s situation worse. For example, if you join a church believing that god will soon whisk its members away to a nirvana or paradise, or that you only need to take their courses and spend time in their ministry to solve your problems, you might put off finding a real solution to various mental and emotional distresses or relationship issues.
Congregants might even stay in abusive marriages or struggle with addictions for years because they believe the empty promises of the cult. Rather than getting real help for these issues, they put their faith in the group, looking for that “quick fix.”
Be wary of such religions or self-help based groups; note if they’re run by licensed and trained counselors and if they allow and even encourage members to seek outside counseling for mental and emotional issues. Think seriously about the offer of a quick solution to problems, and if the solutions offered are practical and realistic when held up to the cold light of day.
Remember, too, that these supposed solutions usually come with a very heavy price; this could be a literal financial price or the cost of your mental and emotional health. Believing the promises of the cult also comes at the cost of time and energy devoted to them rather than seeking out qualified, legitimate help.
are they asking too much, too soon?
Cult members are often under a great deal of pressure to recruit new members, and they might want you to sign an agreement or start attending their church before you’re ready simply due to that pressure.
When you encounter anyone preaching to you or talking to you about an organization or group they want you to join, take a step back. Tell them you want to think about things. Be firm and insistent.
As you do, note their reaction; do they ridicule you or make sarcastic statements such as, “Where else do you think you’ll get the answers to life’s problems?” Are they angry and disrespectful or act severely disappointed, as if you’re a child who can’t make a good decision for yourself? Do they continue to push rather than respecting your boundaries?
Consider, too, if that person comes across as a pushy salesperson; if that’s how they are now, with nonmembers, what do you think it will be like inside the group? Do you think you’ll get respect for your time or for lingering doubts once you’ve joined, if they’re pushy and disrespectful before you sign up?
what do friends and family say?
Every adult should make up their own minds about their religious beliefs, political leanings, volunteer groups, and the like, but that doesn’t mean you should simply tune out concerns of friends and family! If someone close to you tells you that they feel a church is overly demanding, or if they point out questionable doctrines and practices, there should be no harm in listening to them and evaluating their words carefully.
Note, too, that many cult members tell potential recruits to expect “persecution,” “opposition,” or “resistance” from friends and family, but consider those words carefully as well. Is your mother actually “persecuting” you by pointing out questionable doctrine, are your friends really “resistant” to you making your own decisions if they talk about negative press they’ve read about the religion?
Keep all these questions in mind when evaluating any group that you might join, and remember that you can and should step back from anyone or anything that “doesn’t feel right,” or that doesn’t offer satisfactory answers to these questions.
You can always go back and revisit the group at a later time, but never feel rushed or pressured to join any organization, under any circumstances, and especially if you don’t feel you’ve gotten acceptable answers to these questions in particular.