- Modern Day Cult Signs
- Mind Control and Brainwashing
- It Happened So Slowly
- Definitive Cult Signs
- Zealous, almost Idol-like commitment to the Leader
- You should never disagree with the Leader or Teachings
- Psychological Manipulation practices are used
- No free will. Must ask permission for certain activities.
- Cults can do anything, legal or not
- The Group Is Elitist
- A Strong Us vs Them Mentality
- Total Lack of Accountability
- Selective Membership
- Group Members begin to cut ties with their families
- Shame and Guilt become widespread throughout the group
- Preoccupied with money
- MLMs and Cults
- Is Homeschooling a Cult?
- The BITE Model
- Deprogramming, is it possible? Is it the same as Conversion Therapy?
- Deprogramming of LBTGQ Individuals – Conversion Therapy
- The Cult I’m currently writing about: Word of Life Christian Church Cult – Sad Death of Lucas Leonard
- What to do if you or someone you love may be in a cult
Let’s talk about Scary Cults. A cult in modern English is defined as a “social group” that is further defined by its unusual practices for spiritual, philosophical, or religious reasons. Of course, any time you ask “What is a Cult” or “What are the Signs of a Cult” it is very controversial.
If you simply look up the word “Cult” on Google, you’ll see several variations of what a cult *could* be. In fact, as I was researching for this post, I did just that. I found “Jerry Fallwell, Liberty University” as just such a cult. Now, I don’t believe that Liberty University is a cult, necessarily, but in the modern usage of the word, I guess it could be.
Modern Day Cult Signs
When I think about “Cult”, my mind usually goes toward Charles Manson, The Manson Family, David Koresch, the Branch Dividians, Jim Jones, the People’s Temple, and so forth. What I did find out is that several learned individuals now consider anyone that is sort of outside the mainstream religion to be a cult. Like Liberty University.
Another couple of examples of the modern-day cult are the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints. This was Jeff Warren’s “cult” and in no way represents the mainstream Latter Day Saints (traditionally known as Mormans). Scientology is also known in modern examples as a cult.
My purpose isn’t to define Cults, necessarily, but to define factions or social groups of people that go beyond the realm of what’s acceptable. So my research will be more along the lines of People-based, rather than Religious based.
Mind Control and Brainwashing
One cannot have a conversation about “Cults” without also considering “Mind Control” or “Brainwashing”.
Do I believe in mind control? Well, sort of. I believe that if you hear something enough times and are convinced beyond reason that it is true (over long periods of time), then it’s possible.
Is that mind control? Maybe. But let’s face it, all cult leaders have some form of “mind control”. They don’t necessarily control the mind with some voodoo or magic powers, but they do control the person by persuasion if nothing else. See also the section below on Psychological Manipulation.
It Happened So Slowly
Almost everyone that has left a cult says the same thing. “It happened so slowly.” Bringing members into a cult doesn’t happen overnight. It all starts out simple enough. Lots of love and understanding. No one but the cult members understands what you’re going through.
It’s a slow-moving process that happens before you even realize it. Many former cult members say that they woke up one morning and sort of said “How did this happen?”
Definitive Cult Signs
These are just some of the signs that you are probably in a cult. Of course, even one of these signs should make you go “hmmmm”. At least question what’s happening before your eyes.
Destructive cults, groups, movements and/or leaders “maintain intense allegiance through the arguments of their ideology, and through social and psychological pressures and practices that, intentionally or not, amount to conditioning techniques that constrict attention, limit personal relationships, and devalue reasoning.”
Zealous, almost Idol-like commitment to the Leader
Charismatic leaders are common for cults. Think about David Koresch. He’s followers LOVED him. Or Jim Jones. His charismatic personality led over 900 men, women, and children to commit suicide by cyanide-laced kool-aid. Typical leader’s reaction is that the leader is always right. Normally, the leader is the only one that knows the “truth” or communicates with God. No one else should be able to do so.
Not all charismatic leaders are cult leaders, but it should at least make you look further to other signs.
You should never disagree with the Leader or Teachings
In this case, dissent is absolute.These organizations discourage you from disagreeing with their theological teachings. Now think about this in terms of standard religious organizations. Most religious organizations encourage you to only agree with their method of theology. Typically, the leader has no tolerance for questions or criticisms. So far, based only on these two signs, ALL religions are cults. But let’s go further.
Psychological Manipulation practices are used
Ok, now we’re talking. But wait… this is difficult to discern. Consider the fact that brainwashing or mind-altering is a controversial subject, I much prefer the term “Psychological Manifestation.”
This is a slow, continuous process, it’s not easily noticed or recognized. In fact, Manipulation isn’t always negative. Think about quitting smoking, or losing weight. Both are positive changes that psychological manipulation is used.
‘Other people can be manipulated, but not me,’ they declare.— Margaret Singer, Ph.D.
Consider that Psychological Manipulation is sometimes used by advancing the interests of the manipulator, often at others’ expense, such methods could be considered exploitative and devious. This, in conjunction with other signs, is considered to be dangerous.
No free will. Must ask permission for certain activities.
This should be a red flag. If you have to ask your “church” or leader for permission to go places, eat places, or engage in sexual intercourse, something’s wrong. In some cases, this goes to extremes and becomes abuse. Former members will talk about the abuses they encountered. There are likely even records or media references that document the abuses of the group leader. Maybe visits from child services, or similar agencies. The abuse does not have to be child abuse. It can be abuse on adults as well. See the blog post about the Word of Life Cult.
What I find sad in this case is the members become dependent upon the leader for all solutions, problem solving, and other actions without any thought about the results. It will appear as if the members cannot think or act independently.
Cults can do anything, legal or not
In extreme cases, especially where illegal activities are involved, the end justifies the means. In other words, it doesn’t matter what they do because they are justified in doing it.
Consider the case of Lucas Leonard and the Word of Life Christian Church. In this case, a murder occurred. But the followers felt they were justified in killing the individual because he was a sinner. The followers accused Mr. Leonard of molesting children. After a while, he agreed, hoping that the beating would stop.
After his death, investigators found that there was no evidence child abuse or molestation ever occurred. Further, in the timeframe accused, there was no physical way it could have happened. See more about this case below at #Case I am currently writing about and at Word of Life Church Cult – the Sad Death of Lucas Leonard.
The Group Is Elitist
Elitists, by definition, feel they are superior to everyone else. Therefore, their group and leader are in a much better position to know “right”. Everyone else is simply “wrong”. Again, sometimes this is manifested in mainstream Churches; however, it still should be a red flag. In many cases you will find that members seem programmed in conversation and even mannerisms. Likely, they will mirror the personality traits of the leader. One thing you may also notice is that members have a dramatic loss of their sense of humor. They may appear to no longer be spontaneous and must check with someone prior to engaging with you in any way.
A Strong Us vs Them Mentality
Cults and their leaders have an irrational fear about the outside world. Most have some sort of “doomsday” prophecy or impending catastrophe, conspiracies, or persecutions. In all cases, it is definitely Us vs Them. You’re either IN or your OUT.
Interestingly enough, this also feeds into the sign that talks about selective membership. You will find that most cults, although wanting more and more members, reach a point that ONLY the members they have are IN. No one else is allowed.
Total Lack of Accountability
For a minute there, I thought we were talking about politics, but I digress. Cult leaders depend on total authoritarianism without any accountability whatsoever. The cult leader is almost obsessive about his lack of accountability and disregards any attempt. Sometimes, these leaders consider themselves “Gods”, therefore there is no reason to question them.
Since the leader is considered “God-like”, the lines become blurred. The followers get angry at anyone attempting to ask for accountability. This is shown in almost every Cult from the past. Consider Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple in Gyana. When Congressman Lee Ryan received complaints from several members of his district that their loved ones were being kept against their will, he started an investigation.
Jim Jones and his followers tried to stop the investigation in every way possible. Finally, they allowed the Congressman and his group to come to Guyana. Congressman Ryan and his group were treated to a wonderful meal, and even shown all around. However, followers of Jim Jones were giving Congressman Ryan’s entourage notes depicting their desire to leave. The Congressman went to leave, stating that anyone that wanted was welcome to go too.
Jim Jones allowed the group to get to the airport, then had his followers open fire. The massacre that followed included Congressman Ryan and several members of his delegation. After that airport masacre, Jim Jones followed through on his mass-suicide mission, killing over 900 people.
If the group is very small, there may be a push for new members. At some point, however, the group will be only the very few “True Believers”. Anyone that leaves the cult will be looked upon in a negative light, or worse. Some were considered evil or bad influences. In any case, these former members cannot be trusted and the leader will insist you cut them from your life (known as shunning in most instances).
Group Members begin to cut ties with their families
In almost all cases, Cults will require group members to cut ties with their family members. It starts as a suggestion, “your family won’t understand”, or your family verbally expresses displeasure in your choices. Eventually, it won’t be a request anymore, but a requirement. If your family members show an interest in the group, that’s great, but otherwise, they’re out.
Shame and Guilt become widespread throughout the group
This one kind of cracks me up. ALL religions practice shame and guilt. If you are Catholic, well, you know. The difference is that in a cult, members are made to feel they can never be “good enough”. Members are in a constant state of “I’m sorry”, apologizing for the simplest things. Public shaming is a regular occurrence, shaming individuals and families for “wrongs” that the leader has found or traits lacking in their behavior. Big red flag.
Preoccupied with money
Again, this is a normal trait in ANY religion, I think. Always passing the “collection plate” or asking for money for the “building fund”. A cult takes it further. In most cases all your worldly possessions are given to the cult to sell, dispose, or whatever.
The theory is that the cult will take care of your every need. You don’t need anything. This goes way beyond any standard tithing requirements. Also, you’ll never see any public budget or independently audited financial statements from this type of group. As a member, you will have no idea where the money goes and what it’s used for.
In the case of the Word of Life Christian Church, members found that the top floor of the building, used for the family of the leader, contained such extravagances as a movie theater, spa, sauna, and other luxury items used ONLY by the leader and his family.
There are a few cults that want their people to be rich, but that’s just an outside layer. You’ll find that even though the individuals may have money, the cult still controls it all.
Bottom line, be aware. Protect yourself from groups and leaders by understanding these signs. Most cults look for people that are searching for something. Those individuals usually feel a bit lost, or unsettled, or even just stressed looking for a way out.
Such was the next case.
MLMs and Cults
As I was researching, I found an interesting article about Multi-Level Marketing comparison to cults. Things like Amway, Mary Kay, Tupperware even have cult-like mannerisms. Now, I don’t think ALL MLMs are cult-like, but it does make you wonder. I mean, after all, it IS a pyramid scheme, so only the top folks make real money and that money is not from selling products! Read the article at: How MLMs use the Same Techniques as Cults
Is Homeschooling a Cult?
I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine, Crystal Connoly, who is a veteran homeschooler. In today’s climate, with COVID-19, homeschooling has become not just a trend, but a necessity. Home School Simplicity has a new and interesting way of homeschooling. Join her Facebook Group at Home School Simplicity Facebook Group. It’s free and Crystal does a bang up job of explaining and helping you through the stress of it all. She’s almost always doing a FB live sometime during the day or evening, and is very active in the group. In addition, her website has lots of information. Find her at: Home School Simplicity
When most people think of homeschooling they think of cults. Think about the Duggars. They were prominent Bill Gothard followers. Bill Gothard’s “cult” was the Institute in Basic Life Principles which is very similar to Quiverfull Movement. However, in Gothard’s case, it was sexual abuse that finally brought him down, as well as many other false teachings and deceptions (according to his followers). Bill Gothard’s homeschooling method was used by the Duggars until very recently. It has been found to be full of deceptions. In fact, the sexual immorality of the writers of the material (perverse sexual conquests, many affairs, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, etc.), including Gothard himself. The Duggars continued to use his material.
After Gothard was found out, the Duggars were asked specifically about their connection, to which they were fairly silent. A letter to the group was written and can be found at Biblical Research Reports.
So after doing some research, I asked Crystal about her particular brand of homeschooling.
The BITE Model
This is the point I want to point out that many of the traits listed above, and in the BITE model also apply to domestic violence as well as Cults. In fact, if you think about it, Domestic violence offenders and victims fit many of the signs of a Cult behavior.
Read more about Domestic Violence at True Crime Diaries Definitions and Terms.
The BITE model has alerted hundreds of thousands of people to the systematic use of undue influence in totalist cult groups. The BITE model has also been adopted by many scholars –Steven Hassan, M.Ed.,LMHC, NCC
The four components: Behavior Control, Information Control, Thought Control, and Emotional Control, can be used to analyze the healthiness or destructiveness of any relationship or group. Let’s take a look.
B – Behavior Control
I – Information Control
T – Thought Control
E – Emotional ControlBite-Model
Steven Hassan further defined the BITE Methodology with the Influence Continuum shown below.
Deprogramming, is it possible? Is it the same as Conversion Therapy?
Rick Alan Ross is a famous American deprogrammer, cult specialist, and founder and executive director of the nonprofit Cult Education Institute.
Mr. Ross is the only deprogrammer to work with members of the Branch Davidians prior to the Waco siege, however that was met with critical complaints.
There are many accolades to Mr. Ross’ credit, including his working with the CBS television program 48 hours which covered a particularly successful deprogramming of a 14-year-old boy, Aaron Paron, who was a member of Potter’s House Christian Fellowship.
Deprogramming usually begins with a forcible retrieval of the cult member (kidnapping). After the forced removal, it takes hours and hours of intense debriefing, where the deprogrammer or team holds the cult member against their will and uses ethical psychological techniques to counter their arguments, over and over.
Look, I get it, the need for it, but I have serious concerns about anyone being held against their will. And personally, the terms “kidnapping” and “ethical” psychological techniques in the same sentence bothers me. How “ethical” can it be if they kidnap the individual first? I guess there is a time and a place, perhaps. In any case, that is the method of deprogramming.
Debriefing methods can include:
- Education. The cult member is trained on thought-reform techniques. The deprogrammers help the cult member to recognize those methods in their own cult experience.
- Questioning. Deprogrammers encourage the cult member to use critical thinking and praise the member when they get it right.
- Emotions. Deprogrammers will try to entice an emotional response from the cult member by talking about their past with family, friends, and having actual family and friends share their past memories with the cult member.
The same reasons I have concerns listed above, is the same reason that deprogramming has fallen out of favor. In addition, the cost alone of tens of thousands of dollars makes it cost prohibitive in many cases. A new way is Exit Counseling.
Exit Counseling focuses instead on using psychological techniques to hopefully get the cult member to voluntarily submit to debriefing. Kidnapping is out, the family is guided in how to communicate as “outsiders”. However, the family must be non-judgmental, calm and loving, or else it will reinforce their belief that outsiders are bad.
If this first part is successful, then the same debriefing is then practiced over many days and long sessions, the same as deprogramming. The difference being, the cult member is free to leave at any time.
Keep in mind that not everyone is psychologically damaged by becoming a cult member. Some go one with their lives without huge amounts of turmoil. It can take years for a former cult member to readjust to life on the outside, and some never return in total.
In most cases, the more supportive the family, in addition to regular counseling, helps people who’ve been hurt by cult involvement.
Just like in the case of an abuser, it is very difficult to leave a cult. I think many of the same reasons that an abuser has a hold on a victim apply here. My friend, Kirsten Weinzierl wrote a great article about the difficulty in leaving an abuser. Why is it so Difficult to Leave an Abuser? Kristen writes about Obtaining Bliss after abuse at Obtaining Bliss.
Deprogramming of LBTGQ Individuals – Conversion Therapy
Somewhere in this process, Conversion Therapy was born. Thank God today, it is unlawful in 20 lstates with proposed legislation pending in 19 additional states. Our hope is that it becomes law in 50 states, of course. But let’s talk about Conversion Therapy.
Conversion Therapy is sometimes also called “Reparative Therapy”. It consists of several dangerous and discredited practices aimed at changing an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. This practice uses a variety of techniques including shaming, emotionally traumatic or physically painful experiences to make their victims associate that stimuli with their LGBTQ identities.
In other words, they will “slap the gay out of you”. Really? Their premise is that being LGBTQ is a mental illness that needs to be cured. All major medical associations disagree. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) considers the attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation by practitioners is unethical. In addition, the United States Surgeon General David Satcher issued a report that stated: “there is no valid scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed.”
Here are some of the conversion therapy techniques that have been known to be used in the United States and Western Europe:
- Ice-pick lobotomies
- Chemical castration with hormonal treatment
- Aversive treatments like electric shock to the hands and/or genitals
- Nausea-inducing drugs, presented with homoerotic stimuli nad masturbatory reconditioning
- Social skills training
- Psychoanalytic therapy
- Spiritual interventions
- Prayer and group support and pressure
But does it work?
Even with the best of intentions, these practices are harmful. It has been proven that this type of counseling, even the prayer and group support and pressure type, introduces suicidal ideation and depression.
Not counting Bad Kharma. I mean really.
The Cult I’m currently writing about: Word of Life Christian Church Cult – Sad Death of Lucas Leonard
This case fascinated me from the beginning. It started as a Bible Study in someone’s home. It progressed to a Church building with the “Pastor” and his family living on one floor of the building. In the beginning, everyone was invited. After the initial “Pastor” died, his daughter, Tiffanie Irwin, became the “Pastor”. Things changed.
No longer were guests or unknown people welcome. It became a closed group, with all guidance given from Tiffanie, who was receiving direct messages from God. No one else received the messages, only Tiffanie.
Before you knew it, Tiffanie was involved in every aspect of the families. Discipline for their children, their home life, the status of cleanliness of their homes, and all other things involving the family. The Church regularly had “Counseling Sessions” after Church with the alleged “sinner’s family”. Through the years, the Word of Life Christian Church went from being a small church of like individuals to a Cult.
In October of 2015, one such counseling session occurred. It seems the Leonard family were on the hot seat. The Leonard Family consisted of Bruce and Deborah Leonard, and their children. Two of those children, both boys, were to be disciplined on October 11, 2015.
Through psychological manipulation and other methods, Pastor Tiffanie had convinced Bruce Leonard’s oldest daughter, Sarah Leonard Ferguson, that the two boys, Christopher and Lucus, were molesting Sarah’s 4 children.
After many, many hours of beatings and abuse, Lucus Leonard died. It should be noted here that there was never any proof of sexual abuse of any kind between the boys and younger children of their family or others. The story from the beginning to the end is told in our post Word of Life Christian Church Cult – Sad Death of Lucas Leonard
What to do if you or someone you love may be in a cult
Do your research
Check things out, know the facts and examine the evidence. A safe group will be patient with your decision making process. If a group or leader grows angry and anxious just because you want to make an informed and careful decision before joining; beware.
If you are a member of a cult or a former member and need help, here are several groups that can help you.
- Directory of Cult Recovery Resources
- EnCourage Survivors of Cults and Abuse
- National Association of Forensic Counselors
- Safe Passage Foundation
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