Since most religions, civic groups, political parties, families of origin, and interpersonal relationships will involve a certain amount of influence over their members, how do you tell a benign or harmless group or person from one who is abusive? While there are no concrete answers, note a few factors to consider:
Autonomy of Members
A safe group will respect the autonomy or individuality of members, and especially in personal decisions such as hairstyle, dress, grooming, choice of employment, and time spent in group-related activities.
A cult or abusive group will demand compliance in appearance, attitude, thought processes, etc. Such a group might also make demands on a person’s schedule, career choices, and marriage mate selection, and in issues of sexual morality and behavior. Cults also often put extreme pressure on its members to donate money and time to the group’s cause(s).
Criticism of the Group and Its Leader(s)
A safe group is open to criticism and critical thinking from members. Leaders and those responsible for policies and decisions acknowledge mistakes and apologize when needed.
A cult will cut off critical thinking about its teachings and shut down doubts, questions, or personal criticisms and especially of its leaders, doctrine, prestigious members, history, and policies.
A safe group will protect a person’s relationship with their own family even if family members are former members of the group or are critical of it. A safe group will not put itself in the position of one’s “new family” or expect congregants to take precedence over familial relationships.
A cult will often see family outside of the group, and especially those who are critical of the group or who discourage their relatives from having as much participation as expected, as the enemy. An abusive group will expect congregants to consider themselves as family to other congregants; some might even expect members to cut off all association with nonbelieving relatives as a test of loyalty to the group.
Questions or Accusations
A safe group will respond to questions respectfully and willingly. They will operate as an “open book,” meaning that their records regarding alleged financial, sexual, and other such abuses will be available for all to see. Safe groups also cooperate with legal investigators and government inquiries.
A cult will respond to criticisms with threats; this might include threats of ostracism or excommunication, or may include verbal and physical threats. A cult will work diligently to hide records, accusations, court cases, or any proof of past bad behavior.
Life Outside the Group
A safe group or religion will encourage a person to nurture their spirituality, personality, and passions outside of the religious structure itself. A cult will teach that all pursuits outside of their group are inherently wrong or wasteful, and insist that they are the only means to fulfilling a person’s spirituality or emotional needs.