How to Spot a Cult

How do you know if a particular group or motivational awareness program is connected to a cult? Check out the following warning signs and resources so that you can protect yourself – and your loved ones from falling victim to a cult.

Cults come in all shapes and sizes and unless someone is educated in the ways of a cult, they might not know what they’ve become involved in until it’s too late.

For example, the yoga craze has lured many into cults such as Bikham Choudhury’s “hot yoga” which many insiders described as a cult because of how Choudhury surrounded himself with an army of aspiring instructors who described brutal hours spent in a sweltering room practicing yoga. They were expected to attend long pointless lectures by Choudhury and mandatory viewings of Bollywood movies sometimes until 3 a.m. He used a combination of psychological manipulation and professional intimidation to make sure he was viewed as a God by his followers and that he alone was capable of providing the keys to health, happiness and transcendence. A half dozen women eventually brought him down when they sued him for sexual abuse.

Other cults, such as the infamous Scientology, induce people to pay paid thousands of dollars to the Church of Scientology before exposing them to outlandish beliefs and a method of spiritual rehabilitation known as “auditing” which attempts to free people of the scarring effects of painful and traumatic events in their lives. Scientologists scorn the use of all medicines, believing that most physical problems are manifestations of spiritual ailments. Leaving the group can be fraught with difficulties but many famous persons have done so, such as Lisa Maria Presley who said, “I got bad advice. I was insulated with no grip on reality…They were taking my soul, my money, my everything.”

Rick Ross, expert consultant and intervention specialist at the Cult Education Institute, lists these ten signs of a potentially unsafe group/leader.

1. Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.
2. No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.
3. No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget, expenses such as an independently audited financial statement.
4. Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.
5. There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.
6. Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.
7. There are records, books, news articles, or television programs that document the abuses of the group/leader.
8. Followers feel they can never be “good enough”.
9. The group/leader is always right.
10. The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.

We also need to beware of motivational training and self-help seminars, many of which employ cult-like tactics and mind-control techniques.

The most notorious example would be the self-help program known as NXIVM whose founder, Keith Raniere, is currently serving a 120 year sentence for federal crimes ranging from sex trafficking of children to conspiracy. Although it describes itself as a “community…that seeks to empower people and answer important questions about what it means to be human,” it’s actually a pyramid scheme that pushes classes that teach faulty scientific claims and cost thousands of dollars. Behind the scenes, Raniere had formed a secret society in which women were branded with his initials and forced into sexual slavery. The women targeted by NXIVM recruiters were often “trust fund babies” and Hollywood actors – many of whom were also victims of sexual assault.

Another group, known as Landmark, is one of the original self-help programs that came out of the 1970s. The founder, a man who went by the name of Werner Erhard, promised participants that his program would “empower” them to “produce effective action” and enable them to “produce new ways of working.” He did this through a program that was basically just a hodgepodge of philosophies ranging from existential philosophy to Zen Buddhism and Dianetics. The program employs a Zen master approach which is often abusive, profane, demeaning, and authoritarian. Cult Expert Rick Ross has devoted an entire web page to educating the public about Landmark. This page includes court documents pertaining to litigation against Landmark, labor violations, personal testimonies, and a variety of news reports.

We must be careful to do our homework on these kinds of cults, which can also appear in corporate sponsored motivational training seminars.

The Vatican document, Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life, specifically warns against them and how they can masquerade as innocent employee training programs: “In reality company employees can find themselves being submitted to an alien ‘spirituality’ in a situation which raises questions about personal freedom.”

New Age expert Marcia Montenegro lists the following warning signs of cult-like motivational training programs on her website:

1.The organization’s leadership or past participants refuse to share the contents of the seminar beforehand
2. You are required to sign a “hold harmless” agreement which protects the organization from legal action should you be harmed by the program
3. The organization uses hyper language offering self-transformation
4. Strong sales-type techniques are used to get you to participate
5. The organization portrays its critics as ignorant, evil, or influenced by Satan
6. The organization dissuades you from evaluating the teachings and methods yourself
7. The organization discourages or discounts criticism from participants or others
8. Promises are made to redesign your view of your self and reality
9. Past participants exhibit an elitist attitude toward those who have not participated
10. Past participants are pressured to recruit

Religious cults are also very prevalent, such as the Twelve Tribes which was founded by Eugene Spriggs, a former high school teacher and guidance counselor, who believed he was destined to restore the ancient Twelve Tribes of Israel and produce an army of 144,000 male virgins who would prepare the way for Christ’s second coming. Spriggs convinced members that he was a modern-day “super-apostle” and that his teachings came directly from God who wanted them to cut themselves completely off from modern society – no television, radio, books, or anything else that embodied secular culture.

When it comes to alleged “Bible-based” cults, we need to watch out for any group that:

1) ignores or distorts the teachings of the Gospel;
2) is run by a charismatic leader who sets himself/herself up as a God, the equivalent of God, or as a special prophet;
3) uses the fear of losing salvation as a way to control members;
4) teaches an “us vs. them” doctrine;
5) forbids any criticism of the leader or the group’s policies;
6) professes to be the only truth.

All of the above may seem perfectly sensible to us, but should we ever find ourselves in one of the trying times described in the previous post entitled, Can You Be Swept Into a Cult, when we are emotionally or spiritually challenged, we may not be thinking rationally and may find ourselves being swept away by the hyper language and promises made by the leaders of these groups.

The best choice of action is to educate yourself, and your loved ones, about cults and learn how to avoid involvement in them before it’s too late.

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