By Aara Ramesh
Going off the sheer volume of content generated about it, if there’s one thing Americans can’t get enough of, it’s a story about a cult. Be that NXIVM, which made headlines a few years ago when it emerged that some female members were being sexually enslaved and branded with the leader’s initials, or the infamous Manson family that carried out brutal murders in the 1970s at the behest of their leader.
According to one expert that CBS News spoke to, there may be as many as 10,000 active cults in the U.S. today, though many of them are small and do not attract attention as they do not break any laws.
At its root, “cult” has just become a negative term associated with an extremist group or belief in the popular consciousness. On the one hand, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees every American the inalienable rights to free speech, association, assembly, and religion.
Anyone is free to start a group with whoever they please and practice whatever they want. There are, according to some, “benign” cults. That is, groups that are just “unorthodox” or outside the mainstream, who do not exploit or deceive members, or control who their members speak to and what they read. These groups allow you to leave without threatening dire consequences.
On the other hand, if a group begins preaching or practicing violence against someone else, or if they start to break laws, that is where an offshoot religion or group united by one belief may veer into being considered a cult. Some of the most famous examples of cults in history have had documented cases of financially, sexually, or physically exploiting members; trafficking people; engaging in unfair and illegal labor practices; getting involved in child marriages or polygamy; etc.
They may also pop up on law enforcement’s radar if there are indications that they are amassing a vast amount of weapons or are developing explosive devices to prepare for a potential doomsday scenario. Of course, every American is constitutionally guaranteed the right to arm themselves, and police would never interfere with a group exercising their Second Amendment rights. But if they suspect illegal activity is going on, or that the group is planning to carry out an attack of some kind, they may be concerned.
Thus, when it comes to law enforcement officers or others involved in the criminal justice system, there is a fine line to navigate when looking at an unorthodox group and determining whether they are benign or destructive.
Here are some identifiers that experts have noted that may ring true for those who suspect they or someone they love may be part of a cult.
- For one, members of a cult apply pressure on their members. The expert who spoke to CBS said to watch out for “[a]ny kind of pressure to make a quick decision about becoming involved in any intensive kind of activity or organization.”
- By nature, most groups that can be described as cults work hard to “remain secretive.” They will compel members to keep the silence and not share their workings with the outside world.
- Another red flag is any group leader who claims that they have “special powers” or knowledge, or that they are a messiah.
- The group has a core “inner circle” that maintains utmost secrecy and is closed to “lower-ranked” members. These people will often obey the leader without questioning directions.
- Another feature is that the pitch made when recruiting someone turns out to be completely different from what life is actually like inside the program. For example, NXIVM was billed as a professional development course, but those recruited from the larger pool for the inner circle found themselves branded and treated as sex slaves.
- The leader may have a history of run-ins with the law, either through arrests, investigations of possible previous wrongdoings, etc.
- One key thing to look out for is members being financially exploited, whether that’s through billing them for repeated programs or classes that they are told are necessary to achieve whatever goal has been promised by the group’s leadership, or whether that is through charitable donations.
- A sense of isolationism can be a red flag as well — a “us vs. them” attitude about non-members or ex-members. Also, cults often threaten severe consequences if a person leaves. That can take the form of shaming, excommunication, or even making a person believe that they will fall ill if they leave.
- The extreme doctrines preached by cults rarely have nuance. It is almost always a binary thought process — black or white, good or evil, etc.
- Cult members are often cut off from the outside world in other ways too. For instance, they may not have free access to things like the internet, TV, newspapers, other information sources, etc. Conversely, they may be told to only trust particular sources of news.
- If you notice that a loved one has suddenly changed their belief system or their manner of acting after joining a group or deciding to follow someone, it may be worth monitoring to see whether they are being brainwashed, as often happens in cults.
- If a person’s sleep patterns change drastically or if they are suddenly fasting or sticking to a very restrictive diet on the orders of someone they know, that can also be a warning sign.
- Much like in cases of intimate partner abuse, the group might cut off a member from their old friends, family, and support network, thereby isolating them and leaving them feeling they have little recourse if they want to leave.
It is important to remember that no one is immune to falling prey to a cult. People who choose to start these types of groups are often expert manipulators and work on eroding a person’s free will over long periods of time, sometimes even years. Often, joining a destructive group like this can just be a question of timing — for instance, right when someone is emotionally vulnerable, anyone can swoop in and promise to help them change everything.