8 Key Characteristics of Cults

Hello again! This is the second in a series on what is and isn’t a cult. Its a hot topic, a hurtful topic for some and one that I’ve only written because of the overwhelming amount of questions I’ve, well, avoided. Look after yourself as you read. Remember this isn’t about me branding a group as a cult. Its about education and understanding. I won’t brand a particular group a cult in this series (except those named in the article that have already been publically scrutinised a lot. Scientology for example). That is not my job, my right, nor my intent. But I hope it helps you understand what you may be concerned about, to form your own thoughts, and know where to go for help if you need it.

Okay people. On with the show. Here are 8 key characteristics of cults

Dr Robert Lifton was a psychologist with a special interest in mind control. His work, “Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China” outlined eight criteria for so-called thought reform. This has been quoted in many a cult-related document, but many of them are quite academic (targeted, for example, at counsellors who help exiting or post-exit cult members). They are profound points though, and when you go and watch or read up on cults (such as Scientology, Rajneesh Purim, The Family, The Children of God, Heaven’s Gate, Jonestown etc) you will see many or all of these points in action. Your particular experience may not be as hardcore as some of the cults I just mentioned, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t profoundly damaging and difficult to leave. I’m going to try and paraphrase it so it’s a bit easier to digest, but it all comes from Lifton’s. I’ll pop the deets in the bibliography at the end.

Point 1 from Robert Lifton: Milieu Control

This is a fancy term for control of communication and information within the group. It may involve control of information and communication within the environment and ultimately to the individual. It can result in a significant degree of isolation from society.

What do you look for? On one end of the spectrum, it may involve certain publications being frowned upon. They may be mocked rather than expressly forbidden. On the other end of the spectrum, you may only be allowed to read or watch certain things and others may be explicitly forbidden. Information about people may be another thing that can be strictly controlled or contrived. If you feel isolated from society because of your involvement with a group, then this is a big red flag. If your information isn’t kept confidential, or if it gets twisted, then this may be another sign.

Point 2: Mystical Manipulation.

This is a tricky one. It involves “the manipulation of experiences that appears spontaneous but is, in fact, planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority, spiritual advancement or insight that sets the leader and/or group apart from humanity, and that allows reinterpretation of historical events, scripture and other experiences. Coincidences and happenstance oddities are interpreted as omens or prophecies.”

I say its tricky because, although its incredibly common, it can also be genuine. I don’t know what Lifton says about it, but my thoughts (and they are just my thoughts) on what to watch for include:

–          Extra Biblical revelation, or self-proclaimed apostles or prophets. Who gave them their credentials? Does what they say reinterpret the Bible or line up with it?

–          The belief that your group has a superior truth to other groups or the rest of humanity.

–          Do you feel peaceful about it? Or do you feel controlled by it. The Bible says that “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” If the so-called “Truth” being presented to you causes you to be further within someone else’s control, then it isn’t the kind of truth the Bible was talking about. God’s truth brings freedom, liberty and peace.

Point 3: Demand for Purity

A cult believes that its ideology is superior to that of the rest of the world. You have to stay pure and loyal to that ideology or you are at odds with the group. There’s a certain irony in the fact that every cult believes it is unique and holds a superior truth. When does it become problematic? Ask yourself the following questions:

Does your group take a black and white view of the world? Are your members constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection? Are guilt and shame used to control members? These are your warning signs here.

Its important to note that no one in a cult is going to outright say “I’m using guilt and shame to control you.” This is subliminal. You may believe the cult leader is superior and you are inferior, that you must strive to reach their approval. You may feel shame and guilt when you fail and then ride a constant merry go round of failure, shame/hiding and then re-engagement.

Point 4: Confession

In Scientology, “audits” are used to extract peoples secrets. In other cults, programs of reform are used to extract confessions and replace old mindsets with new ones. The information given/extracted in these sessions can later be used to control members. Other groups may use confession to various degrees to control. “Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members’ “sins”, ”attitudes,” and “faults” are discussed and exploited by the leaders.

Your brain might go straight to Catholic confession. I don’t believe Lifton was referring to that. I think that for two reasons: Sins were defined by the Bible, and not by individual priests and confidentiality is an enshrined rule and value – a highly political topic right now.

Your brain might also go to Romans 12:1-2 – “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind that you might prove the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” This scripture may be used in a good, kind, uplifting way. It shouldn’t be used in a controlling, coercive, shaming or threatening way. Listen to your heart here.

What do you look for? Stringent accountability structures, information being exchanged without confidentiality, information being used against people, whole groups of people knowing and discussing personal sins, sins being defined by the group.

Decent groups respect people and their confidentiality. They recognise humans are imperfect. If your group doesn’t, then warning, warning.

Point 5: Sacred Science

This one has been hinted at in previous points. Perhaps that was Robert Lifton. Perhaps that was me seeing the interplay. Either way, sacred science is the belief that the groups doctrine or ideology is the ultimate truth. It is beyond question or dispute. Truth doesn’t exist outside the group. “The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.”

What to look for? Does your group seem so special, so unique that it cannot be found anywhere else in the world? Are you allowed to question or disagree with something? What happens if you do? Would you be punished, shamed or shunned? These are your warning signals.

Now, the office of the prophet can be a dicey one here. It is my belief that prophets do exist and are bona-fide gifts to the body of Christ. But. This comes with caveats. If a prophet demands, even tacitly, unquestioning obedience to their word, then you have a possible problem. If they are self-proclaimed, you may have a problem. If they are unchecked, you may have a problem.

How do you check a prophet? Look at what they’ve said and ask if it has come true. Try to avoid coincidence. If they’ve seen someone playing a musical instrument and prophesied a music ministry, then that’s pretty obvious. That’s not necessarily prophecy. That’s an educated guess about what someone might want to hear.

Point 6: Loading the Language

Are there words or phrases that mean something different to your group than to the rest of the world? Is your groups jargon such that the rest of the world wouldn’t understand what you mean unless you explain it? According to Lifton, “This jargon consists of thought-terminating clichés which serve to alter members’ thought processes to conform to the groups way of thinking.”

That might sound tricky. So I’ll break it down. Is there a word you use to describe a person who should be avoided perhaps? Scientologists call them “Suppressive persons.” Other pseudo-Christian cults may brand a person a “jezebel” for example. This is quite a common one actually. Again, not a statement about a particular group. Jezebel was a problematic Biblical character and churches may use this term legitimately. It’s only a problem, in my opinion, if it causes a person to go “oh ok, avoid them. They can’t be trusted” and further thought is terminated.

Are there words you use to describe aspects of your doctrine that a ‘normal’ person or a person outside of your movement wouldn’t understand? When you hear these words used, do you actually think about them, or just think “Yes, I agree/I know what that means” and  move on?

Point 7: Doctrine over person.

“Members personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.” Okay this one is loaded! Does your group cover up abuse? Does it talk about bad or abusive experiences as being the will of God, or somehow a qualifying factor for promotion? Do you have to look back on abuse or misfortune and feel thankful for it or apologise for it? Do you have to look back on experiences you may otherwise have enjoyed and feel guilty over it? Does the doctrine come before you or other people in terms of value? Does leadership gloss over abuse/poor treatment of people because the “end justifies the means”?

If it does, warning, warning.

Point 8: Dispensing of existence

Okay this one is one that is scary, but be brave as you read. With Lifton’s final point, he talks about the group deciding who has the right to exist and who doesn’t. “This is usually not literal, but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the groups ideology.” If they don’t they ought to be shunned, excommunicated or rejected by members.

This “convert or reject” mentality can isolate cult members  from their families. It can also make people very scared to leave because they will lose friendships.

This is going to come across harsh: but if your ‘faith’ or ideology isolates you from family or friends, or brings distance between you causing you to distrust them, warning, warning. If you can’t leave a group you are uncomfortable with because you will lose friendships, warning, warning. This is a cult characteristic and those friendships aren’t genuine.

There’s a lot to think about. If you’ve Googled this because you’re in crisis, check out the help resources below. I’ve got another post coming soon on things cults have in common with each-other. In the meantime, know this: unless your personal safety is immediately at risk (in which case get in contact with the police, a cult service or a domestic violence service now to ensure your safety), you have time. You don’t have to change your life today.

If you are in a cult though, your information will be used to control you and your thought processes. This might hurt to hear, but it really isn’t wise to confide in members of the cult. This information will likely filter through to leadership and be used to keep you in the group or excommunicate you before you are ready.

Do your thinking in private. Take your time. Consider your options. Make your plan, then take action. I know the crisis is now. I know it hurts like heck. But a successful plan takes time. I’m not the expert on exiting cults but I have done a little research (ahead of writing this piece) on where you can find help if you need it. I didn’t want anyone to read this post and feel alone and scared. There is help available.

Now! If you are in a cult, and people may be keeping an eye on your communication, here’s how to clear your browser history. https://www.computerhope.com/issues/ch000510.htm

Good luck. Below is a list of resources that might help, including a couple of experts you can contact if you need to. Give this blog a follow so you don’t miss any of the good stuff, but the next instalment in this series is HERE.



7 Comments Add yours

  1. Rational Skeptic says:

    >Either way, sacred science is the belief that the groups doctrine or ideology is the ultimate truth. It is beyond question or dispute.

    >is a Christian

    Hilarious doublethink.


    1. Kit K says:

      Lol. True – but perhaps you’re assuming what “Christian” means to me. It might not be the same as those you’ve encountered. Some of us are ok with questioning, liminal spaces, and the existence of doubt


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