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Common Signs of destructive cults

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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 targeted. 

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 beliefs. 

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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: 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. See: 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: They have a checklist available to help you determine if you or a friend is involved in a mind-control cult. See:   
  • 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: or
  • 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:

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:

  • Apocalyptic Beliefs:
    • 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.
  • Charismatic Leadership
    • They are led by a single male charismatic leader.
    • The leader dominates the membership, closely controlling them physically, sexually and emotionally.
  • Social Encapsulation
    • 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.
  • Other Factors
    • 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 end-time prophecy.

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 call 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, destructive cults. 

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

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