Someone recently asked me if I was leading a cult. Once I got over the shock, I decided to explore what makes a spiritual group a cult. Here’s what I came up with.
A “Cult” is defined as a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc. Although the term is typically applied to religious groups, other types of groups can be considered cults such as multi-level marketing companies, political organizations, self-help groups, and spiritual groups! Cults tend to be viewed negatively by outsiders because they generally involve manipulation to get you involved and committed to the group.
Most people say, “I would never get involved in a cult! I could see that coming a mile away.” If that were true, there wouldn’t be between 3,000- 5,000 cults operating in America today with 180,000 new recruits per year. If you doubt that a spiritual group could be a cult, take a look at some generalities about cults and see what you think.
Cults rely on lies to keep recruits coming in, members interested, and members working towards their goals. If they were straight-forward and honest, few would be interested in their agenda. Legitimate groups don’t have to hide what they believe or practice.
Does your group have beliefs, truths, or teachings that are supposed to be kept secret? Are these secrets ancient or exclusive teachings that come from some very important source? Are outsiders forbidden to know about them? If so, this is a sign that you are in a cult. They don’t want you telling others what is going on for fear that someone who is not under their spell will burst your bubble.
Like it or not, we are all attracted to exclusivity. That’s why we pay so much for a Bentley or a Rolex. Cults use exclusivity to get you hooked. They say things like, “You were one of the few invited….” or “We don’t normally let outsiders in, but because of (fill in the blank), we can see you are special.” Some legitimate organizations limit membership to people belonging to certain groups (like women, members of a fraternity, or Catholics), but they don’t try to make you feel special to get you to join. Cults tend to be small groups because they are easier to control.
Most cults play on your fears to get you to stay. The most notorious play on the fear that the end of the world is coming, but only members of their group will be saved – or something to that effect. In the spiritual world, it may be more like the covert or overt threat that your growth will be severely limited if you are not a part of the group.
Intimidation and Intolerance
In cults, few will criticize the all mighty leader. It’s not tolerated. There may be threats of being kicked out or harmed in some way for disobedience. In legitimate groups, the choice to stay or go is always open. Investigating information on the group isn’t seen as dangerous or undesirable. It’s just what free thinking people do.
Cults tend to be emotionally isolated from the rest of society. In extreme situations, they may also be geographically isolated. This isolation is self-imposed to keep them “pure” or keep them away from the “evil” outside world. Contact with outsiders is extremely limited. In the spiritual world, this may mean that students can’t go to other teacher’s workshops or events. They can only do things that are sanctioned by their teacher.
Anyone can be caught up in a cult. They tend to attract people who are in a low time in their lives and in need of love (and who among us hasn’t experienced that at some point?) Cults play on this vulnerability by surrounding new comers with love, friendship, support and a feeling of being welcome. This can be very hard to give up if you are in a bad place in life. It also can keep you from looking too closely at what is behind it. If you start asking questions, the love may be withdrawn. Think of how many people feel beautiful or important, some for the first time in their lives, by the seductive approval and honeyed compliments of their leader.
A Single Charismatic Leader
Cults tend to have one leader who has an ability to make others love her. She doesn’t tolerate disobedience or questions and can’t be held accountable for anything. She seems paranoid about people outside of the group and feels safest when surrounded by group members. Although she can be quite charming, she can switch to being very cold at the drop of a hat if it suits her goals.
Sound Like Any Group you Know?
I am not suggesting that any spiritual groups are cults. Many legitimate groups that have some of these characteristics, so how can you tell the difference between a healthy group and a cult?
- Healthy groups have an open relationships with the outside world.
- Healthy groups won’t intimidate to stay or try to keep you from doing your own research on their group or other groups.
- Normal businesses don’t try to isolate you from your family and friends and encourage you to leave your former life behind.
- Healthy groups also don’t encourage you to work for them for little or nothing.
The comparison of spiritual group to a cult started out as a bit of a joke, but any relationship that robs you of self-esteem, functions from a place of manipulation, and works for the benefit of one person isn’t a healthy place to be. I sincerely hope that your group doesn’t have these characteristics, but if it does, maybe you should consider moving on to another group that has a give and take attitude, space to grow and ask questions, and the freedom to make informed choices.
I’m flattered that anyone would think that I am a charismatic leader with the power to sway people, but seriously, I have no desire to amass groupies. If you have any questions about any of my intensives, tours, workshops, or coaching, just ask. I have plenty of third party testimonials as well. And by all means, do what your heart tells you. If something looks fishy or weird, trust your gut. Nobody wants to get blindsided by a cult or even feel like they have to be on their guard. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Not every opportunity is right for everybody – regardless of what other people say.