You might be a member of a cult if…
I don’t want to ghettoize this post by making it about Mormonism, but since that’s why we’re all here, it’s natural to gravitate to that. But this pertains to so much more than one group.
I recently watched a video (not the best) that got me thinking about what it means to be a member of a cult and how we could recognize if we were a member of a cult. I decided to gather a list of characteristics common to cults. [1, 2, 3, 4]
That same day, I heard a radio program about a young woman’s story of joining and leaving a sorority. I got really excited and yelled “She was in a cult!” (Don’t listen to that program yet. Wait until after you’ve read the list.)
So cults aren’t just religious organizations. They could be sororities, political parties, clubs, and so on. And cults exist on a spectrum; some groups are more cultish than others.
The list that follows comes from the most extreme cults,1 but assessing a group against this extreme can help us see where it falls on the spectrum.
I realize that some of these descriptions are general enough to encompass a large number of relatively healthy groups, because we can find some level of cultishness in virtually all groups. A positive answer to any one question is not a smoking gun. The list doesn’t answer a binary yes-no question. It paints a picture. The question is no longer “Is this group a cult?” but has become “How cultish is this group?”
All of the following refer to a single leader, but applies equally to situations with more members in leadership positions.
- Is the leader charismatic? Cults are often created and maintained by the force of the founder’s personality.
- Is the leader always right?
- Does the leader not tolerate or receive criticism, while criticizing everyone else? Does the leader discourage negative feedback about the group?
- Is the leader treated like royalty or considered with reverential awe?
- Is the leader coercive? Does the leader try to compel members by force, intimidation, or authority against the member’s individual will?
- Is the leader self absorbed? Cult leaders are often preoccupied with how people perceive them and seek to aggrandize themselves.
- Does the leader seek sexual gratification from the members?
- Is the group organized in an authoritarian, hierarchical power structure?
- Does the leader claim divinity or special knowledge and authority from God?
- Is disagreeing with the leader considered the same as disagreeing with God?
- Does the leader expect unquestioning obedience?
- Does the leader hold out the promise of salvation, power within the group, enlightenment, or other ultimate rewards in return for membership and obedience?
- Is the leader not held accountable for his actions or the actions of his authority structure?
- Does the leader ask for money as a sign of loyalty, to be in good standing, or to go to the next level?
Cults go to extreme means to recruit new members.
- Does the group provide an instant community by love bombing a newcomer or presenting itself as a happy family?
- Do the members always appear happy and enthusiastic for newcomers? Or have they been encouraged to appear that way?
- Are members unable to tell the truth about the group? Members will often lie or evade the truth about the group in order to present a more palatable vision to newcomers. However, this issue goes much deeper, because members are often unable to acknowledge the truth to each other.
- Does the group withhold the full truth about its ideas and practices from newcomers? Cults often refrain from divulging the complete picture until newcomers have gotten themselves in deep.
- Do group members keep near constant contact with interested newcomers? This prevents the newcomer from having time to rethink their involvement and to think with a cooler head away from the love bombing.
- Does the group isolate newcomers from family and friends? Cults will try through various means to cut off contact between newcomers and outsiders to prevent the truth about the group from coming to light and to replace familial bonds with bonds to the cult.
- Do new members estrange themselves from family and friends? Even if group members don’t actively try to cut off newcomers from outside influences, newcomers may start to distance themselves from others who don’t share their new outlook and seem to misunderstand or be overly critical.
- Does the group emphasize the unimportance or worthlessness of the new member while hyping membership in the group? A cult will seek to break down an individual’s self worth in order to foster dependence on the group. A weakened individual becomes pliable to coercion.
- Does the group solicit confessions of guilt, weakness, or fear? Cults seek to break down normal personal boundaries in order to foster a new identity centered around the group.
- Does the group demand that new members take some action to affirm their loyalty? These demands may start out small and get progressively bigger. This primes the newcomer to follow directions given by group members. It also causes newcomers to unconsciously justify their actions. For example, “I gave money to this group. I’m a smart person who wouldn’t get cheated. This group must be good.”
- Do newcomers need to be trained to think correctly (i.e. according to the group’s ideas)?
- Does the group encourage new members to renounce former values or beliefs?
- Does the group test members before completely accepting them?
Dissolution of Individual Identity and Independence
The cult draws strength through the number of followers and their degree of commitment (as all groups do). Cults secure committed members through damaging a member’s sense of independent identity and will. Cults fill the void with dependence on the group.
- Do members use a language that no one else can understand?
- Do the members have special ways of dressing or other special behaviors that mark them as members? Having a common lingo and similar modes of dress fosters a sense of group cohesion and identity. It also serves to further separate members from the wider society.
- Do the members have solidarity within the group with little or no outside allegiance? Cults will try to become the entity that members are ultimately loyal to instead of more natural loyalties like family or friends.
- Does the group use guilt to motivate obedience?
- Is there a system of punishment and reward? Such a system infantilizes the member, creating a relationship that resembles that between parent and child.
- Do members feel a sense of powerless, dependency, covert fear, or guilt?
- Does the group demand complete loyalty or trust in the group and its beliefs? Is the expression of doubt suppressed through guilt or character assassination?
- Do members feel dependent on the leader? Would they feel lost without the leader’s direction and presence?
- Do members allow the leader to make decisions for them?
- Do members lose the ability to make choices contrary to the group’s beliefs? Nearly all decisions are weighed against how the group would look at the choice.
- Does the group deprive members of the sense of time by removing clocks and watches?
- Does the group encourage child-like or uninhibited behavior? Disinhibition fosters child-like dependence and further opens members to coercion.
- Does the group demand public identification with the group or expressions of solidarity with the group? The more often a member publicly identifies with the group, the more membership in the group dominates individual identity.
- Does the group have rules that govern every aspect of life? Members get in the habit of following rules and the cult comes to dominate their thoughts throughout the day.
- Do members endure verbal abuse or character assassination?
- Are the members malnourished or sleep deprived? Members who are physically weak are less able to resist mental coercion.
- Does the group employ peer pressure and the desire to belong to change member’s behavior?
- Are members punished and rewarded for similar behaviors? This confuses the members and keeps them off balance.
- Do members report each other’s misbehavior to the leader?
- Does the group keep members so busy with activities and meetings that they don’t have time and energy to think about their involvement or to spend time with non-members?
- Are the members’ personal boundaries and privacy violated?
Suspension of Rational Thought
If evaluated rationally, the claims of a cult loose most of their appeal. A successful cult manages to suppress rational thought directed at their beliefs and practices.
- Is the member blamed for all failures or dissapointments? (E.g. you aren’t recruiting because your heart is full of sin.) This allows the cult to shift blame for its own failings to the member while simultaneously breaking down their self worth.
- Does the group use hypnosis (sometimes presented as meditation or relaxation)? The difference between legitimate use of these techniques and how cults employ them is that the cult uses them to suppress rational thought in order to make the member more pliable.
- Does the group tell members what they should read or watch? Leaders want members to avoid opposing points of view so the spell the cult has woven over its members won’t be broken.
- Does the group employ thought stopping language, clichs, or slogans? These sayings are presented as self-evidently true, but their true purpose is to shortcut logic and critical thinking.
- Do members repeatedly chant or sing mind-narrowing phrases? These techniques make an end-run around rational thought and implant ideas through sheer repetition.
- Does the group discourage members from asking questions?
- Do they encourage the experiential instead of the logical? For cults seeking to hide the truth or foster dependence, it is simpler to manipulate emotions than to provide a reasonable chain of logic.
- Does the group present incomprehensible doctrine that confuses members and discourages the use of logic? Members may try to reconcile contradictions in doctrine, but their efforts prove ultimately fruitless. At this point, cults can insinuate that logic is impotent and discourage its use.
- Do members neglect to verify information they receive from the group? Do the accept something as the truth simply because it came from the group?
- Do members avoid thinking in ways that are contrary to the group’s beliefs? Members may have a strong mental aversion to merely entertaining an opposing point of view.
Attitudes about the Group
Cults are characterized by a high level of exceptionalism.
- Does the group have all the answers to the important questions in life?
- Does the group claim to be the only or the best source of truth?
- Do members consider themselves to be the elite or the chosen?
- Do members consider themselves the only ones who will be saved or earn the ultimate reward?
- Does the group see its role as preparing for the imminent end of the world?
Attitudes Toward Outsiders
Outsiders are dangerous to the cult—unless they feel an interest in joining—because they threaten to disrupt the spell of the cult over its members.
- Do members avoid association with non-members?
- Are virtually all of a member’s close associates also members?
- Do the members live together, sequestered from non-members?
- Do members attack the character of critics or those who are not in the group?
- Do members devalue the opinions of outsiders?
- Are non-members considered less enlightened?
- Does the group encourage thinking in us-versus-them terms?
- Do members avoid listening to the perspectives of non-members?
If outsiders are a threat, members who leave are doubly so, especially if they appear to be doing well after leaving. Cults typically demonize those who leave or portray them as miserable and pitiable.
- Is it difficult to leave?
- If members try to leave, are they considered rebellious against the will of a higher power or of the leader?
- Are people who leave considered deserters, weak, or evil by members?
- Do members avoid association with onetime members that have left the group?
So, how do some of your groups measure up? What level of cultishness can we accept in the groups we belong to?
[Crossposted to Blank Canvas.]
1. “Cult” is not generally a technical term with a clear definition. Scholars of religion eschew the term, although it is used in some academic circles. Even though it lacks a technical definition, I’ll use it as a working term since we can all recognize a cult (as long as it’s not our own).
I usually avoid the term “cult” because people assume that there’s a very clear dividing line between what’s a cult and what isn’t.
However, I agree with you that we can identify cult-like characteristics of lots of different groups — and some are more cult-like than others, with a gradation we can identify. I wrote about this (partially to argue against calling Mormonism a cult) in Cults vs cult-like behavior. It looks like you’ve come up with a pretty thorough list.
In compiling the list, I avoided the theological attributes given because—as you point out in your blog post—it seems entirely arbitrary that one person’s religion should be privileged over another. I believe that’s why scholars of religion avoid the term, instead calling them new religious movements.
Additionally, including theological characteristics focuses too narrowly on religion. I wanted the list to apply more broadly.
I don’t think there’s much reason to doubt that human beings gravitate toward cultish centers of gravity. But awareness of this is probably the single most potent innoculator of the extremes. All I ask is that we be willing to speak openly about our natures and the only real cultish behavior that I have a problem with is the one that tries to discourage such open and candid discussion … usually those that have the most to lose. Isn’t it possible to have a cultish experience around seeking the most effective means to understading and truth about human experience?
While Mormonism doesn’t fit all the criteria, and is certainly more open and free than many clearly defined cults, the sheer number of the above criteria that Mormonism fits under should, I hope, show how dangerous it has the potential to be (and in many situations has proven to be).
What’s even scarier to me is how many groups (religious and not) this applies to, and how many humans are under the spell of such organisations.
Now that I’ve left one group I consider to be a border-line cult, I find I’m very leery of authoritarianism in any form, and find obedience to any sort of authority figure disconcerting. One consequence of this is that I’ve become very anti-patriotic (let alone anti-nationalistic) because of how I perceive the cult of patriotism in the US – as especially evidenced by the right-wingers, but also as is part of main-stream American (and to a lesser degree, Canadian) culture. The feeling of revulsion I have towards any sort of collective adulation of a concept or person has made me very suspicious of politics and politicians, and am unwilling to associate myself with someone unless I agree 100% – even if it may argued to serve “the greater good”.
For example I have been told I ought to be less constantly critical of Obama on various issues (gay rights, health care, the wars, freedom of information) because he’s doing the best he can and he needs his base of liberal support to be able to counter the conservative critics. And to me, the idea of silencing criticism to support the lesser of two (or more) evils so at least something good (or less bad) can come to fruition is abhorrent and disturbing.
This is a fantastic list, Jonathan. Maybe you should write a book or article!
Definitely a lot here that fits Mormonism– especially early Mormonism. Also much that fits evangelicalism. When I read the one about singing “mind-narrowing” songs I couldn’t help but think of the old hymn that goes, “Just give me that old-time religion, it’s good enough for me.”
I also noticed quite a few parallels to Communism in China under Mao. Certainly groups don’t have to be explicitly religious to be cultish.
In asking these questions in regard to the LDS religion, I think a distinction has to be made between the general membership and the (young) full-time missionaries. The missionaries pretty clearly would rack up more, and more definite, “yes” answers (e.g., #29, special dress, is much more true of them than members in general). Of course, full time missions are time-limited, which I’m sure makes a big difference to those who serve them. But to the public in general, the missionaries are a continuous presence, and the LDS church is thereby putting forward one of its most “cultlike” facets rather prominently.
I wonder about others with full time church commitments, such as those who work in the church office building and the upper levels of the hierarchy. I certainly have an impression that they would also score higher than the general membership on the “cult” scale presented here, but it is based on very little real information.
I might get jumped for saying that, but when I look at some of these items, I think that modern Mormonism is surprisingly tame. I mean, there are plenty of items here that I think, “Yeah, that definitely fits the church.” But then there are other items that I think, “No…not really…” or “No…not to a damaging extent…” or “There’re mixed signals.” Some of these could be very prevalent in some wards, but not as prevalent in others…so you could get away with “more” in other wards, but in some wards, it would be more constricting. Similarly, some general authorities have said some things that are more constricting, and others have said more liberating things. If members can pick and choose to give the benefit of the doubt, I will go that direction to, within reason.
That being said, seeing that the church fares (in my opinion) better than expected against this rather lengthy checklist doesn’t give me any desire to get involved again.
I definitely had that feeling when I got involved with the campus communists (as I described in the commies and me). They didn’t have the leadership points, but the organization entailed such an investment of time and money and had such a huge focus on proselytizing that it reminded me of Mormonism. It left me going “Egads, I’m getting sucked into a cult…”
Very true. This is why — as I said in #2 — I object to a conception of “cult” that places a clear-cut line between organizations that are cults and those that aren’t. There’s a huge spectrum of how cult-like an organization is.
I disagree, only inasmuch as I’ve found that many people experience varying degrees of cultishness in Mormonism. My experience was extremely cultish/orthodox/extreme, whereas I know others whose experience didn’t fit nearly as many as the above categories as did mine. I therefore see the official LdS church organisation perhaps more cynically than others might given different circumstances and experiences. I think on a local level or regional level there is a lot of variance and diversity, but I do think that the further up the chain towards SLC you go, the more authoritarian it becomes, and the more the church begins to resemble the characteristics of a cult. It is my strong belief that those at the very top who run the church are cult leaders – though I do admit that even at its worst, there are still worse organisations and even religions out there than Mormonism – but not too many.
>>the church fares (in my opinion) better than expected against this rather lengthy checklist
I agree. There are definitely things that fit the modern Mormon church, but modern Mormonism doesn’t meet a disproportionate number of these criteria, I think. Now the early Mormon Church, that’s a different story.
I once made my attempt at determining whether the Church is a cult here.
… you’ve ever forced yourself to smile back at your oddly-dressed mother during a temple ritual while the words “Oh crap, I was born into a cult” scream in your head.
I don’t want to downplay the danger posed by the cultish aspects of the LDS church, but I agree with everyone who said that its not an extreme case anymore. The church of Joseph and Brigham, however, seem to have been very cultish. The modern church has gotten better, but I think there’s still lots of room for improvement.
I wasn’t hoping to brand any church with the label “cult”. My hope is that knowing these characteristics could help us recognize those cultish qualities in our own groups so we can avoid the danger personally and possibly improve the health of the group.
@M: I’m pretty sure that we could form a cult around anything.
@Craig: The patriotic hysteria in parts of the GOP surrounding the illusion of death panels, etc. and the euphoria surrounding Obama’s election seem pretty cultish to me.
@Christopher Smith: When I came across the mind-narrowing songs criteria, I thought of lots of LDS children’s songs, especially “Follow the Prophet”.
@Badger: It is interesting that the LDS church is sending a very cultish message with its young men and women, living together, dressing alike, reading only church-sanctioned material, etc. I doubt that there’s been any focus groups or anything, but it would be interesting to see how people would react to a less cultish missionary program.
@LdChino: I think I had the same idea screaming in my head the first time I saw someone dressed in full regalia. That was the first time I really had to force down the impression that I was participating in a cult.
I definitely had that feeling when I got involved with the campus communists
One of the books I’ve read that best parallels my experiences with Mormonism is “Black Boy” by Richard Wright. In the first half, he talks about the cruelty he experienced in the various churches his family members belonged to. He writes things like
In the 30s in Chicago he joins the communist party, but has a falling out with them over their rabid anti-intellectualism. After watching a struggle session, he concludes that they are terrified of free thought, and says,
The book helped me recognize and understand many things about my own religious and political training. Plus it’s an excellent account of race relations in the early 20th century, and flat-out one of the best American autobiographies ever written. I really recommend it.
Oops–this bit should not be blockquoted, because I’m saying it:
The book helped me recognize and understand many things about my own religious and political training. Plus its an excellent account of race relations in the early 20th century, and flat-out one of the best American autobiographies ever written. I really recommend it.
Thanks for this post.
I agree that the LDS church really can fit on a spectrum – and that the church of Brigham and Joseph was probably more cult, cult-like than the current modern church in many areas. I can also see the comparison with communism, although with Soviet communism, I don’t think there was a certain way of eating or dress. Unless you count that there was only one type of food/clothing available in parts of the former soviet union….
On a separate note, I attend al-anon meetings (a 12 step program). Some people have claimed in the past that 12 step meetings are cults or cult-like, and I can see where that criticism comes from.
But when you get into sense of time, food, clothing, leadership, from my experience, the 12 step programs don’t really fit all the criteria. Fascinating.
@Holly: I’ll have to check out that book.
@aerin: You mentioned that you can see where the criticism of al-anon comes from. What are some ways that al-anon fits the cult description?
First of all, this is all my own experience.
The twelve step programs I’ve attended have usually appeared fairly happy about the group and try to welcome newcomers (#15, 16).
Although I will say, usually people start attending because of very difficult life situations (with alcoholics or addicts) so it’s not always very happy – sometimes it can be quite painful (loss of a person’s home, health, job, children, marriage, incarceration, abuse, etc.).
There is this idea where “if you follow our program, you will find serenity” (#59??). There is a new language and various terms that most meetings use, #28 (btw, this is the same thing in most companies I’ve worked for). Sometimes people are encouraged to attend many meetings and to seek out friends within the groups (20, 21, 64). Slogans are used (#57).
One argument that people have made is that addicts (in the US court system) are usually forced to attend some sort of 12 step program, and they question whether or not that is legal. I can understand this argument, particularly since an insistence in a higher power is a part of most 12 step programs. I think that what a higher power is is debatable, and I think atheists are welcome, but I can understand how court-mandated recovery might be seen as a violation of separation of church and state.
I am not sure I feel comfortable going into more here. At first I typed up some notes about why I don’t see that it fully fits the description, but that wasn’t your question Jonathan!
For the record, I don’t feel like I have to defend either position, just wanted to give more information from my own experience.
I can certainly understand why someone else’s experience would be completely different and they might have a different perspective. I respect that.
I suppose I just agree that humans in general tend to search for answers in various places, and at times, seek an authoritarian structure (someone or a group that will tell them what to do).
I don’t want to make you defend al-anon. I was simply curious, especially since I recently read Roger Ebert’s column about his experience in AA.
I really hope people don’t use this list as a bludgeon to beat another person’s group. I think it would be far more valuable as a way to evaluate human nature, our personal history, a group that we want to join or are a member of, etc.
Thanks Jonathan. I can understand the curiousity. I also don’t believe in secrecy, so I wanted to speak up about what my experience. I don’t think I’ve crossed any anonymity boundaries or attraction vs. promotion boundaries either.
A great book about addiction (with some about al-anon) is beautiful boy by David Sheff.
It’s difficult labelling different organisations as cult because it’s not a cut-and-dry thing. How many of these categories must be satisfied before “cult” can be applied, and if one less, is that organisation completely not a cult? Obviously not.
I think it’s more like a continuum where one organisation can be compared to others with comparative degree of cultishness, but I think almost any organisation which has hierarchy inherently has certain elements which are cultish. That I think makes it less useful to make a two category determination of “cult” and “not-cult”. Perhaps giving a rating of 98% cultish or 57% depending on how many and to what degree the characteristics of a cult are (or aren’t) satisfied.
This is just all really just a thought experiment to satisfy my need to categorise everything into neat little packages, tied up with strings. 😉
To speak to the idea that early Mormonism was more cultish and modern Mormonism less, I agree mostly, though I think there are certain cult-aspects which modern Mormonism has adopted which weren’t present or perhaps nearly as widespread until the past 50 years or so (Correlation resulting with very rigid rules of orthopraxy and -doxy being the main one which springs to mind). I also think that Mormonism became less cultish for a while in the early 20th century before becoming more authoritarian again.
Part of the problem with endeavours like this is that the commentariat tends to give short shrift to all things teleological so as to conveniently frame the investigation in more or less generally accessible sociological or psychological terms.
Contra those arguing that the early church was somehow more cultish than its modern iterations, I tend to think that the presence (or absence) of distinctive mutually held animating ideas matters.
@Craig: I hadn’t thought of the implication of correlation. That’s a good point. In that aspect, I agree that the church has become more cultish.
@LdChino: Can you expand what you mean? I don’t quite follow.
Here’s what I was imagining when I typed that word salad:
Two photos. The first shows a Japanese kamikaze flying his plane into a US warship. The second shows an old Japanese pilot huddled behind the barricade at the entrance to his small Pacific island cave, twenty years after his country’s surrender.
Or maybe it was these two: One is a photo taken during the war showing a column of goose-stepping Nazi soldiers. The other was taken twenty years later and shows a group of American neo-Nazis posing in German WWII military costumes.
Or maybe I should just register my agreement with Craig’s last paragraph and step away from the keyboard 😉
Jonathan, I really like your approach of trying to measure where an organization falls on a scale of cultishness. Your list of questions is extremely thorough!
Regarding the point several people have made about the LDS church being perhaps less cultish now than it used to be–I wonder if size is a factor. Lots of Jonathan’s questions require direct contact between general members and either leader(s) or real zealots. As an organization gets bigger, it’s hard to admit only the zealots. Then some of the people tasked with keeping the organization pure end up being half-hearted and the organization as a whole becomes less controllable.
Craig, regarding your point, I wonder if Correlation wasn’t the Church’s attempt to respond to this issue.
I think correlation was designed to do exactly that – to turn a rather disparate grouping into a more cohesive, orthodox whole. Before correlation, things like homosexuality, breaking the word of wisdom, and even the role of women were less strictly controlled or punished. There was far more heterodoxy and -praxy and far more room for intellectualism and critical analysis of church doctrines and history. That all disappeared with correlation and ended up turning the church back into a very strictly monitored authoritarian religion. The church leaders who enacted correlation didn’t like the diverse nature and sought to control and unify it. To then it certainly seemed like a positive thing to enact changes which would make people have less diverse beliefs and practises, and would discourage people from going off-script. To most of us here though, I think we recognise that as limiting basic human freedoms and being the root of a lot of the homophobia, anti-feminism, and anti-intellectualism that so plagues and harms the church.
Mission, BYU, temple marriage at a young age, magical underwear and dietary restrictions, information control.
i disagree with anyone who says mormonism is tame. As an obedient and faithful mormon mother of 4 children who GAVE herself to her husband in the temple and he RECEIVED her unto himself all while wearing a baker’s hat and a green apron i’m pretty sure i was in a cult.
i honestly feel brain damaged. i hope i can heal from the hell that is mormon womanhood someday.
What does mormonism promise the faithful mormon woman in the afterlife except another version of hell as one of her husband’s wives eternally bearing children. i knew something was wrong the first time i admitted to myself i absolutely dreaded the thought of the celestial kingdom.
It took 3 more years to work up the courage to google my own “religion.”
If I had to rate my personal experience in Mormonism on a scale of cultishness, today I would probably give it a 6 or 7 out of 10. It’s very cultish, but there are much worse cults out there.
Of course everyone has different experiences, and I’m not going to disagree with someone who says their experience was much worse than my own.
It’s funny, now that you mention it, I remember being afraid to Google Mormonism. Now there’s nothing that I can think of that I’d be afraid to Google. What a difference a few years make!
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