To that end, I’m providing some information here to help.
I Know Intimately What Cults Are (Unfortunately)
Here’s some background which will address why I want to talk about his subject.
I was in a cult for ten years in the 1990s.
Been there. Done that. Bought the t-shirt. (Literally. Our cult leader had t-shirts made up that we were encouraged to wear with the logo of the group emblazoned on the front.)When I left, in 2000, I spent the next eight years healing from that experience. And then I wrote a book about what it’s like to be in a cult, and also what it’s like to recover from being in one. As a result, I’m wary of any group or situation that hints at the mind-control (also called thought reform) that cults exhibit.
No One Joins a Cult
An important point to keep in mind is that no one joins a cult on purpose. We join groups of people who have common beliefs or goals.
And when you’re in a cult, no one in the group refers to it as such. In fact, if anyone accuses a cult of being one, the denial will be vociferous.
Also, those who join a cult are not stupid or naive. Cults set out deliberately and methodically to entrap those who stray near them. They often have what appear to be mild, innocuous entry points like personality quizzes or friendly, casual meetings.
The bizarre and dangerous behavior the cult exhibits later is not on display initially. That’s how well-meaning people are fooled.
How Do We Recognize Cult Behavior?
Cults are not just creepy and vaguely weird. And they can be hard to spot. Members don’t necessarily wear orange robes or shave their heads. Sociologists spend a lot of time studying them and have discovered that while each cult is unique in the beliefs it professes, they all have commonalities which we can spot if we know what we’re looking for.
Here are examples of those commonalities:
1. What happens when someone leaves or wants to leave?
This is the easiest way to judge if a group is applying the techniques of a cult. If someone wants to leave, what is the response of the group?
If the group is a cult it will be difficult, or downright impossible, to leave. At the very least, peer pressure will be applied and members will be discouraged from leaving. They will be told things like, ‘You’re life won’t be as good if you’re not in the group,’ or ‘You’ll encounter great difficulty if you leave.’
At the extreme end of this behavior, members are told that if they leave they may not speak to or have any contact with family members or friends who remain in the group. Or they are told they will be damned to hell if they leave, that they are ‘turning their backs on God’.
2. Is the group more important than the individual?
This is a red flag, and one that’s sometimes difficult to see initially.
In a cult, your feelings don’t matter. What matters is that you obey the doctrine of the group.
An example of this would be if someone has questions about the teachings of the group, they are told that their discomfort about a certain teaching should be set aside in favor of toeing the party line. There’s a major religion that advises people to ‘Put it on the shelf’ when someone has awkward or challenging questions about the group’s teachings.
In other words, don’t rock the boat, don’t let your curiosity and moral compass get in the way of the group’s doctrine.
3. Is the thinking black and white?
Cults are very simplistic in their approach to life and their beliefs. Life is boiled down to seem as though it’s very simple. Issues are black and white. There is very little emotional complexity in a cult.
For example, the world is divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’, with ‘us’ meaning those in the group and ‘them’ being everyone outside the group. (
Here’s a sure-fire way to know if a group or area of study is a cult: ask the question and watch the response.
If the group is a cult they will likely either get angry that the question was asked, or dismiss it altogether. Any group that isn’t a cult will be more than willing to explore the question and allow you to find the answer that works for you. A group that isn’t a cult won’t prescribe the answer for you or shame you for asking.
Cults are a complex subject. Sociologists and psychologists can spend a lifetime studying them, so this little blog post is not able to address all that complexity. But hopefully it’s been an informative entry point into this important discussion.
In my experience, and given my history and sensitivity to cult-like situations, I haven’t experienced any of the signs that would make me nervous. The Three Principles are an area of study and exploration rather than a doctrine for people to obey. I’ve felt no pressure or coercion to think certain things or succumb to any sort of pressure.
So my answer to the question are the Three Principles a cult is an unequivocal ‘No’.
I provide the information above so that you can do your own exploring. And I strongly encourage you to do so with any group or movement that you belong to.Have you had an experience with a ‘high demand’ or cult-like group? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.