Common Signs of destructive cults
The word "cult" is used in so many
different ways that it is almost devoid of
meaning. Some ways in which the term is used are:
- Some people use the term in a
very narrow sense, only to refer to destructive, doomsday groups that are
dangerous to their membership. The Peoples'
Temple, Heaven's Gate, and Branch Davidians were three destructive cults.
- Others use "cult" as a universal religious "snarl" world (like
"heathen," "Pagan" and "Witch"). It is frequently used
intentionally to generate hatred and fear of a faith group.
The counter-cult movement (CCM) describes
some benign groups as cults because of the latter's untraditional religious beliefs. e.g. the CCM has targeted the Mormon
church because of the Latter-day Saints' unique beliefs about Jesus Christ and
heaven. These deviate from historical Christian dogma.
The anti-cult movement describes many
high-intensity/high demand faith groups as cults, because the of the high
level of dedication that they expect from their membership. The Jehovah's
Witnesses and Hare Krishna are often
On this web site, we use the term "cult" in a
very narrow sense -- only to refer to destructive, doomsday groups that have caused
loss of life to their membership. Among the thousands of religious groups in North America, there
are only a handful which have been a real threat to the safety of their members. Our essay on doomsday,
destructive cults lists only eight religious groups that have proven to be
dangerous in this way; we also include two which may prove hazardous in the
future. We prefer to use the term "new religious
movement" when referring to small, benign faith groups with non-traditional
Factors commonly found in destructive, doomsday Groups
There is no objective, precise checklist of danger signs to watch for in religious and
other groups. It is impossible to rate a group's danger level on a numerical scale
and to give it a passing or failing grade.
However, some individuals and organizations have written guidelines that give a
general idea of the degree of manipulation and danger found in religious and other groups.
Each of the following approach the problem from a different perspective. They list some
symptoms that are found to some degree in most perfectly legitimate religious groups. It
is when the symptoms become extreme that one should become concerned:
The Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc. has a web site at: http://www.berkshire.net/~ifas/ They promote
freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. They oppose various political
activities of conservative Christian groups. They have checklist of symptoms to be
sensitive to when you, a friend or family member becomes involved with a religious group.
These early warning signs were prepared by former deprogrammer and current exit counselor,
Rick Ross. Ross was recently found guilty of conspiracy to limit the civil rights to
freedom of religion of a member of a Pentecostal church. However, the above guidelines
appear to have merit in spite of the background of the author.
James R. Lewis has written an essay called: "Safe sects? Early
warning signs of 'Bad Religions' " It is available
on this web site.
The AFF describes itself as an anti-cult group. However,
they appear to have a major counter-cult component in their
activity. Its home page is at: http://www.csj.org/. They
have a checklist available to help you determine if you or a friend is involved in a
mind-control cult. See: http://www.csj.org/infoserv_cult101/checklis.htm
P.E.I. Bonewits, founder of the Druidic group ArnDraiocht Fein. In 1979, he
developed a checklist of 15 items to consider when evaluating the potential danger of
religious (or similar) groups. This was published in Real Magic, Revised Edition,
(Samuel Weiser, NY, 1989). He has since updated this checklist with Version 2.0. See: http://www.neopagan.net/ABCDEF.HTML or http://www.witchvox.com/basics/cultaware.html
Daniel Goldman published an article 'Early warning signs for the detection of
spiritual blight', in the journal of the Association for Transpersonal Psychology (1985-Summer).
He lists some "typical pitfalls" of deceptive groups. He comments:
"Of course, in one or another context each of these signals may be a false
negative - a benign symptom with no underlying pathology. But more often than not, they
mean that an open-minded, skeptical inquiry is called for." An edited version is
available at: http://www.globalideasbank.org/BI/BI-279.HTML
Our list of danger signs:
We have studied a number of organizations
that have lost membership through suicide or killing. They have exhibited most or all of
the following ten factors, to an intense degree:
The leader's preaching concentrates heavily on the impending end of the
world, often at a great
battle (e.g. War of Armageddon). In addition (as in the case of the Solar Temple and
Heaven's Gate groups) the leader preaches that through group suicide at
a particular instant,
they will all be transported to a wonderful place and escape the devastation that is about
to come to the earth.
- The group is expected to play a major, elite role at the end time.
- They are led by a single male charismatic leader.
- The leader dominates the membership, closely controlling them physically,
sexually and emotionally.
- They are a small religious group, not an established denomination.
- The group (or at least the core members) lives together in an intentional community
which is isolated from the rest of society.
- There is often extreme paranoia within the group; they believe that they are in danger
and that they are being closely monitored and heavily persecuted by governments or people
outside the group. People on "the outside" are demonized.
- Information and contacts from outside the cult are severely curtailed.
- The group leadership assembles an impressive array of guns, rifles, other murder weapons,
poison, or weapons of mass destruction. They may prepare defensive structures.
- They follow a form of Christian theology (or a blend of Christianity with another
religion), with major and unique deviations from traditional beliefs in the area of
Many intentional communities and most religious groups exhibit a few of the above
factors. They are probably not dangerous, because:
- Some of the factors are absent and/or
- Because the factors are not practiced to an intense degree.
For example, some fundamentalist Christian groups are led by a single male
charismatic leader, concentrate on end-of-the-world scenarios in the near
future, predict oppression by the government or the New World Order, and
recommend that their members do not socialize with "non-believers."
However, they are not a danger to their members' lives.
If you are involved with a group in which many of
the above factors are present to a high degree, we would urge you to consider leaving the organization for
your own safety.
Other dangerous faith groups
Some religious groups are destructive, but are a hazard more to the public
than their own membership. They disseminate hatred against minorities,
typically non-whites, communists, homosexuals, and Jews. They do not usually
for direct and immediate violence against these minorities. However, they
often inspire some of their less mentally-stable members to target
minorities randomly. The Christian Identity
movement and The Creativity Movement (formerly called
the World Church of the Creator are
typical. Their members have been responsible for dozens of assaults and
random murders in the U.S.
Some religious groups recommend that their membership withhold
medical treatment from their children, or themselves. The Jehovah's
Witnesses suggest that their membership refuse blood transfusions. The Christian
Science church suggests that their membership avoid medical help, and seek healing through prayer -- perhaps with the help of a
Christian Science Practitioner. Although no hard data is available, it
is likely that the avoidance of standard medical practices will cause
some deaths among the membership. There is no reliable data on the disability and loss of life that is directly
or indirectly caused by these and other anti-medical groups. However it seem
obvious that the total is much greater for these groups than it is for doomsday,
Copyright © 1996 to 2008 by
Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Essay first published: 1996-MAR-16
Latest update: 2008-JUL-10
Author: B.A. Robinson