Secular Liturgies


The 25 Signs you’re in a High-Control Group or Cult by Anastasia Somerville-Wong


It is a really healthy and rewarding thing to be part of a movement for positive change and progress, and to be part of a community which encourages moral and spiritual growth. It can do wonders for our sense of identity, purpose and fulfilment. In fact, the reluctance of many younger people especially to join together and organise these days around shared values and goals, is often to their social, economic and political disadvantage. The Secular Liturgies Network is itself an organisation which seeks to bring together people who share a progressive and humanistic outlook, and to explore how this worldview can be applied to improve human well-being, meet our sustainable living goals and build cohesive communities. I certainly do not want to discourage people from engaging fully in groups that are overwhelmingly positive.

However, it is because of the very real threat that high-control religious and political groups still pose, not to mention the more extreme cults, that I decided to write an article that would help people to spot the tell-tale signs a group is going awry. No group is perfect, and it would be unwise and counter-productive to run away from a group as soon as a problem arises. There will always be mistakes and conflict, even in the best of organisations. Therefore, it is important to be able to discern whether a group’s issues can be resolved or whether it is necessary to ‘jump ship’ for the sake of one’s safety and well-being. As a general rule, if any of the characteristics of high-control and cult groups listed below are relevant to your group, and despite your best efforts, nothing changes, it is time to make your escape!

Most people are aware of the dangers of cults. When we think of terrible tragedies like Jonestown, where 918 people lost their lives (many were murdered by the leader, Jim Jones, and his armed henchmen, including over 300 children, and the rest were persuaded by the leader to commit an insane act of mass-suicide) we are reminded of what happens when people fool for the lies of a sociopath who has mastered the art of persuasive speech and is seen to possess unusual authority and charisma. However, while we hear sensationalist stories in the media about the most extreme religious and political cults, everything from to Scientology to Islamic State, we hear much less about groups that are harmful in more subtle or hidden ways, and we forget that these latter groups have the potential to slide into extremism at any time – they are where extremism begins. For many high-control groups, it would only take the rise within the ranks of a sociopathic leader, someone with sufficient charisma and oratorical skills to exploit the magical thinking and group-think of these communities, for them to become a living hell. By the time serious problems with groups become apparent to wider society, it is often too late to prevent serious harm to the people involved and affected by them. Even when a group does not break the law and is never formally classified as a cult or extremist group, it can still cause considerable and long-term material and psychological harm to involved individuals and their families.

Therefore, in this article, I share not only the characteristics of full-blown cults but the ‘cult-like’ qualities of high-control religious and/or political groups, which should raise red flags in the minds of members and prospective members. You will notice that there is a great deal of overlap between extremist and high-control groups. Yet only a few of the latter develop into extremist groups. This is largely because they remain part of major world religious or political networks and are prevented from becoming too extreme by their dependence on others who keep them accountable, and by other external pressures, such as a dominant secular and democratic culture which empowers individual choice and diversity and makes a population more resistant to manipulation and deceit. However, while wider networks can provide a little more security, ‘cult-like’ groups have often been hidden within larger organisations, and sometimes even protected by them with cover-ups and the closing of ranks among the leadership, especially when that leadership belongs to a social elite who have their reputation to uphold. Some of these ‘sub-groups’ are established and controlled by sexual predators and paedophile rings, for example, in the case of Anglican Bishop Peter Ball’s religious community for young men.

Historically, the terrible crime in Jonestown was what defined the word ‘cult’ in the way we understand it today. Before that, a cult was simply a new religion or new sect of an existing religion, which established religious institutions saw as heretical. Many of these earlier ‘cults’ became established religions, and indeed, it can be said that all religions started as cults, mostly personality cults in which followers gathered around an influential preacher and teacher e.g. Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed. Political cults often start in the same way, with devotees amassing around a leader with a holistic vision for the future of society, whether it be communism, fascism or something else, and these leaders also hold onto their influence long after they have died. Thus, the kind of behaviour that defines a cult, with its resulting mass hysteria and often tragic consequences, is far from uncommon in human history. It could even be said to be a normal cyclical pattern of human behaviour, albeit an ultimately self-destructive one. Indeed, it reveals a flaw in our nature itself; a propensity to trust in the authority of certain persuasive individuals over reason, evidence and our own experience of reality. Sometimes this trust or belief is not only due to ignorance or deception but an underlying preference for what the cult teaches over the truth! If we want something to be true, we find evidence to support it, however unsound, and ignore the evidence against. Other cognitive biases, such as the ‘halo effect’ result in the idolisation (and even deification) of leaders. A person is admired for the power and truthfulness of their speech, for example, and that’s fine as far as it goes, but rather than admire this skill or speech, in and of itself, listeners allow the impression created in this area to influence opinion of this person in other areas, and consequently, the person is seen as altogether righteous and good in everything they say and do.

It is important to note that while we tend to associate the terms ‘cult’ or ‘high-control group’ with religious or spiritual movements, there are many political groups with similar characteristics to those listed below. Indeed, there are a disturbing number of sociopathic and narcissistic persons in positions of power around the world today, including in the West, who are exploiting ideological and prejudiced thinking for their own gains – power, money, sex and attention (some people like negative attention as much as positive!). We are used to seeing such people in power in the developing world and in places that seem primitive and remote but this has caused us to become complacent about preventing such people from manoeuvring into positions of power closer to home. It should be noted that these political groups often have a strong spiritual dimension, providing meaning, purpose and moral instruction that pervades all areas of life, and that likewise, many of the religious groups have radical political agendas. If your religious group takes on an increasingly marginal or extreme political agenda, or your political group takes on an increasingly religious agenda, this will in itself be an indicator that the group wants control over the whole of your life.

Strong democratic institutions with rigorous checks and balances usually filter out sociopathic persons before they become too influential but when these institutions are undermined and under threat, either by internal factions or external forces, or destabilised through in-fighting, a vacuum of power can open up, which risks letting in something far worse than chaos and uncertainty! After all, every society has a small proportion of sociopaths and sociopathic narcissists who will ruthlessly pursue power and their own interests, whatever the cost to others, since they have unrestrained ambition and no ability to empathise with their fellow humans. They will always be first to take the helm when a power vacuum opens up. Nazi Germany is perhaps the most famous example of what happens when an ugly assortment of ruthless sociopaths has the opportunity to seize control and purvey a toxic ideology.

Many of us in the ‘free world’ are deeply curious about cults and ‘cult-like’ political and religious movements because we wonder how anyone could possibly fall for them. However, many of us are in fact members of social groups that are defined by their systems of philosophical or religious belief and/or a common devotion directed towards an object, idea, personality or goal. We would be rather surprised to learn that this is in fact the literal definition of a cult! Cults, according to this definition, can be either good or bad, and invariably, they are a mixture of the two. Even when they are socially deviant – often a criteria thought to define a ‘cult’ in the pejorative sense – they can actually be justified in their cause and useful for bringing about necessary social change. Sometimes a group divides opinion, like Extinction Rebellion, which for some is an extreme group and for others is at the forefront of actions that are urgently needed to save our planet. Some groups start out well and remain an overwhelmingly positive influence, or at least a benign one. Others start with high ideals and enviable examples of community and then degenerate into murderous carnage. Indeed, many of the most extreme cults start out this way, like Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple, which pioneered a multi-racial community at a time of racial segregation and endemic racial prejudice in American society. Occasionally, a group has insalubrious beginnings and evolves in a more positive direction under new leadership or new influences.

Therefore, it is a myth that only stupid or suggestible people ‘fall for’ cults and high-control groups. Most people sleep-walk into them, often collectively, because they simply fail to notice the tell-tale signs or changes within their group that would indicate a serious problem. Nor is it the case that only lonely or vulnerable people join such groups. While such people are more susceptible and more often targeted by nefarious groups, it is very easy to be smug and scornful and forget that we are all lonely and vulnerable at various points in our lives, whether we like to admit it or not! Moreover, we were all young, naïve and no doubt fairly idealistic at one time. Many young people join these groups when they have little or no experience of how quickly and how horribly things can go wrong in a group, and no knowledge of the warning signs to look out for. Most cult members do not go about in robes or live in communes. Cults are not always easy to spot, especially in their early forms. People become victims of cults, often without being aware of it at first. Unwitting cult members may watch documentaries and read about other cults without realising they too are victims. Many victims are members for a long time before they even witness the darker side to the group, since many of these organisations have a secretive inner circle. Others are born into the community and know nothing different. When a group becomes degenerate gradually over a period of years, members can find that by the time they realise something is very wrong, they are already emotionally and materially invested in ways that make it very difficult, and sometimes impossible, to leave.

You will notice that many of the problem characteristics listed below apply to recognised mainstream faith groups. As a friend recently put it “there is a very thin line between good use and abuse!” The reality is that mainstream faith groups can be high-control groups. They can cause considerable harm, and undermine the human rights of individuals, even while they may skilfully refrain from actually breaking the law. Groups like this may not evolve into full-blown cults or extremist groups but they always pose a significant risk to liberal, secular and democratic societies. They require close monitoring by a free investigative press to make sure they do not subvert the law, and in order that they may be challenged if and when they go against the spirit, if not the letter, of human rights and equalities legislation. The harm done by mainstream high-control groups may not be considered grave enough to come under criminal legislation, and sadly, in many cases, a wider awareness of this harm is lacking, with the consequence that legislation has not yet caught up. In many ways, high-control groups like this are far more dangerous than sensationalist cults because they are just as harmful but gain a far greater following, since they do not engage in bizarre and outlandish activities that would put off most prospective members. In nations where there is no real democracy, especially where the state itself is theocratic, the dominant religious group very often has all of the characteristics of a high-control group or cult but it is not recognised as a cult because it happens to be the group in authority, and the group which determines the culture of a whole society that is religiously oppressed. It is exactly the same for nations ruled by one dictator or one party with an extreme political ideology – the dogma doesn’t have to be religious! For reasons of international and inter-racial relations, not to mention geo-politics, these groups and regimes may not always receive the criticism, exposure and condemnation that they deserve.

Below is the list of characteristics that reveal the true nature of high-control and cult groups. They indicate your group has gone beyond the tipping point and is more harmful than helpful. If you have tried, and cannot find a way to address the points below that are relevant to your group, then it is most definitely time to leave, even if the group still possesses some attractive qualities, and even if quitting the group involves leaving behind family members, friends and whatever funds and work you have invested in it. While some of the signs may not, in and of themselves, indicate the group is a cult or high-control group, they may do when taken together with other signs. Remember, extreme cults can be closer to home than you might think. It might surprise you that there are at least two of them, sadly, which have sites fairly near where I live in the South West of England! These cults are named Twelve Tribes and Universal Medicine. High-control groups are often even closer and their harmful activities frequently fall below the radar of the press. Warnings issued, all that is left to say is that I wish you well in finding safe, healthy and productive groups which will give you a sense of identity, belonging and purpose. Safe and healthy groups will help you to grow in character and understanding. They will put your skills to good use, develop your talents, and provide you with long-term friendships. Loneliness is a killer, so never give up on finding a community or communities where you can be valued and find value in others.

(for a quick reference summary go the bottom of the article)

Characteristics of High-Control and Cult Groups:

  1. There is opposition to critical thought…

High-Control Groups

  • The group has no official forum or channel for critical enquiry or for formally raising concerns, complaints and grievances. Failure to facilitate critical thought and to create times, spaces and procedures for criticism of the group and its leaders, is a sign that the leaders do not value the safety, perspectives and meaningful participation of members. If such a forum exists but is only accessible to certain members e.g. only male members or long-term members, this is just as concerning, since it is a clear admission on the part of the leadership that they are unwilling to hear or value the voices of many of their members.
  • Group leaders encourage questioning but only in the early stages of your association with the group, and only on their own terms. For example, they hold meetings where the leader/leaders are present and ready to use any question as a means of presenting pre-prepared arguments which affirm the dogma of the group. Like politicians, they are skilled in answering questions that haven’t really been asked and in constructing answers that may sound plausible but which rely on untested assumptions, assumptions that on closer inspection are themselves highly implausible. Such meetings give prospective members a false sense of security because they may be persuaded that their questions have been properly considered. They also serve to reinforce the beliefs of those already in full membership.
  • Group leaders will encourage you to check things out but they will steer you only in the direction of ‘approved’ sources, which defend the doctrine of the group. They will create the impression that these sources have wider recognition, acceptance and authority than they in fact do. Many of the books, authors and other sources will have been critiqued and discredited by subject experts at mainstream academic and research institutions and by the free investigative press. They will be written by the same narrow group of authors and published by the same few sympathetic publishing companies. Equally, group leaders will create the impression that certain other sources of information, which do not necessarily support their teachings, are unreliable or false, and these will include works by widely respected scientists, academics, researchers, journalists and other experts.
  • The dogma taught by the group is contradictory, confused and internally inconsistent. One common example from high-control Christian groups is that you are told the group’s God loves all people or that “God is love” but soon you are also told that he hates gay people and/or infidels. You may also be told that God loves you but then later told that he also hates the way you are – sinful (even though he himself made you) – and that you deserve punishment, even death, which you can only avoid by constant repentance, self-denial, religious practices and/or believing certain things.
  • The dogma of the group does not fit your experience, especially your experience prior to involvement with the group or the experience of your family and friends outside the group (you may have had unusual and confusing experiences in group rituals). For example, you are told miracles occur or shown supposed miracles but have never experienced a miracle prior to joining the group. Your family and friends outside the group have never experience such things.
  • The group dogmas are not backed up by evidence or information cross-referenced from multiple reliable sources. You can see no real evidence, for example, that proclaimed historic supernatural occurrences or miracles are anything but mythical stories – all cultures have their myths and legends after all – or that the proclaimed contemporary miracles are anything but illusions brought about by mass hysteria or hallucinogenic drugs.
  • The group and its leaders oppose or deny mainstream research findings and what is accepted and taught at leading universities and research institutes. For example, they deny the overwhelming evidence for climate change and evolution. Instead, they share alternative ‘research’ and arguments from their own far less qualified and heavily biased sources, which would not stand up to rigorous external peer-review processes. Group leaders do this to keep members ignorant and suspicious of wider networks so that they can be more easily brainwashed and controlled.
  • The group uses thought-reform methods of indoctrination. The hallmark of this practice is the use of thought-terminating clichés and religious platitudes; general, vague and overused statements that may contain a grain of truth but which in reality, are only true in certain contexts or metaphorically speaking. When taken literally or misapplied they can be completely false and they express cheap sentiment rather than real concern or empathy with others. These clichés are repeated over and over again so that members don’t have to critically analyse complex issues and are likely to become complacent. Indoctrination or “brainwashing” is the process by which a group like this slowly breaks down a person’s sense of identity and ability to think rationally and independently. If your serious questions are answered with clichés, you are probably in a high-control group or cult. Group members are likely to become angry and upset if you point out the cheapness and hypocrisy of these clichés in many of the contexts in which they are used.

Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • Group leaders ignore or discourage questions and forbid criticism and dissent. The group views critical-thinking and scepticism as an infectious disease, making vigorous efforts to suppress it. Doubt or questions may even be punished.
  • Members who question the group leader or group tenets are considered to be traitors and a danger to the group as a whole.
  • Outsiders who question or criticise the group are viewed as persecutors and are given labels like “anti,” “apostate,” or “suppressive person.”
  • Doubting members are encouraged to focus solely on the doctrine of the cult and isolate themselves from outside influences.
  • The leader/leaders become impatient, anxious and even angry, when a potential member expresses the desire to make a careful and informed decision before joining.
  • Cult leaders convince members to forfeit their critical-thinking ability in return for a sense of belonging, authority and purpose.

Safe Groups

Scepticism is a healthy trait when it comes to making decisions that affect a large group of people. It allows many minds to consider a problem from different perspectives, and after deliberation, a better decision becomes more likely. In a safe group, leaders will encourage members to question everything and will take time to answer directly, without preaching, becoming judgmental, or repeatedly failing to address the intended meaning of the question (if your politicians do this they are bad leaders as well!). Safe leaders will encourage critical-thinking by suggesting that members do their own research, examine the evidence, and check things out for themselves. They will not seek to supervise this process. They will be patient with your decision-making process, and will even tell you more than you want to know. They may recommend texts and other sources that support the group’s dogma or show the group in a good light but they will not put pressure on you to read these or attempt to dissuade you from accessing wider sources of information.

  1. And self-doubt is encouraged.

High-Control Groups and Full-Blown Cults

  • This is common in both cults and high-control religious and political groups as a means of control. It reinforces their fight against critical-thinking. You are encouraged to doubt yourself and your own moral and/or intellectual ability to discern the truth and you are encouraged to rely increasingly on the leader’s teachings or on a religious/political text and those leaders who can supposedly interpret it correctly for you. Members are frequently reminded of the leaders’ qualifications, knowledge, intelligence and experience and these are often over-played and exaggerated so that members view them as experts and sages. You are encouraged to see them as having a much greater ability to discern the truth than you do.
  • You are told to doubt your doubts or to accept them but view them as temptations coming from an evil external source, like the devil, or supposedly ill-meaning outsider groups.
  • You are taught theological dogma that directly undermines your confidence in yourself. For example, you are told that everything good in you is from God alone and that everything bad in you is from you alone and therefore entirely your fault! This leads to self-loathing and a great deal of confusion as you struggle to discern which of your thoughts, actions and decisions are your own, and therefore probably from the Devil, and which are coming from God – an impossible and absurd situation!! The community fails to celebrate your (and other individual’s) talents and achievements but when you make a mistake you find yourself in receipt of much disapproval and criticism.
  • Members who get sick or suffer other misfortunes are accused of not having enough faith/belief or commitment to the group dogma, leaders or cause, or of not praying hard enough or performing other rituals/duties correctly. If when your turn comes for misfortune, you find yourself adding insult to injury by blaming yourself for your misfortunes along with everyone else, then you are most certainly in a high-control group or cult.
  • Those having persistent doubts or considering leaving the group are told they have lost their faith because it was predestined and predicted in scriptures or teachings that some members would have a weak or superficial faith which would be taken away from them. Either that, or they are told they never had genuine faith in the first place, even when the person had clearly been extremely devout.

Safe Groups

A safe group and its leaders will nurture feelings of self-esteem and self-confidence among members, both in a general sense, and particularly when it comes to people’s decisions as to what to believe. They will do so not just at first acquaintance but always. They will reassure members that doubts and questions are normal and should be pursued. Misfortunes will never be blamed on those suffering them. In a safe group, you are trusted in what you say when you openly discuss your beliefs and doubts, without accusations or insinuations that you have ulterior motives (e.g. to be disruptive or promote your personal interests within the group) or that you are being disingenuous and trying to mislead people.

  1. Magical thinking is prevalent…

High Control Groups or Full-Blown Cults

  • Many cults and high-control groups indulge in a great deal of magical thinking. Doctrines include beliefs in divine beings, gods, angels, supernatural forces, demons, dominions, realms, spirits, devils and other mythical creatures which they claim interfere with our lives and world. Group leaders often conduct magical events such as faith healings, exorcisms and communications with the dead. The group may also express other supposed “gifts” or “powers” such as speaking in tongues, prophesying, interpreting prophecy and being ‘slain in the spirit’.
  • If you are expected to accept dogma about the supernatural and your group leaders emphasise this in ways that make you feel shameful or afraid, you may well be in a cult or high-control group. Creating fear and dread of supernatural evils, and then claiming you can offer protection from it, is an excellent way of getting people to believe and do exactly what you want. Thus, high-control/cult group leaders frequently use this as a tool of control. Equally, creating fear of the judgment of a perfect, holy deity can make people continually afraid they are not good enough. Then they are keen to accept the group/leader’s offer of a way to escape this judgment. Even political organisations indulge in magical thinking, by claiming leaders have special powers, for example, the power to detect disloyalty and misdemeanours among followers. Magical abilities, events, beings and places, by very definition, cannot be tested, measured or proven using our senses. They can be literally anything one might desire or imagine, and anything desired or imagined by leaders of the kind described in this article is surely going to be very bad news indeed!
  • These beliefs in supernatural beings and forces will not only frame the worldview of members but it will affect many aspects of their lives, in some cases, even to the point of obsession. Members may pray or perform certain rituals before taking the simplest of daily decisions or before participating in simple daily activities like having a meal or washing. Members may be often frightened of dark spiritual forces/beings or the judgment of God. Some of those who have left high-control groups speak of sleeping with the lights on even in adulthood because their fears were so great!
  • If you have magical beliefs and experiences in the group which do not reflect your ordinary experiences of what is possible or what happens in real life, or which do not reflect the experiences of your friends and family outside the group, then you are most likely in a high-control group or cult.
  • In high-control or cult groups, everyone is expected to share in these supernatural experiences in order to be considered a sincere member of the group, or in order to be welcomed into the inner circle. Those members who do not connect with these beliefs and experiences (e.g. you didn’t feel intense emotion or connection with God when you recited scriptures or prayed, you cannot speak in tongues, you didn’t get healed when the leader laid hands on you etc…) are held in suspicion as not being true believers or are even seen as a pernicious influence.
  • You feel constantly worried about not doing or believing things ‘correctly’ because you think that it could cause something very bad to happen. Many people have their little superstitions, whether they are religious or not and whether they are members of a group or not. However, if your superstitions are many, persistent or concerning trivial everyday matters – and especially if they cause you to experience anxiety on a regular basis – then it is very likely you are in a high-control group or cult.

 Safe Group

A safe group applies reason and evidence in coming to its beliefs and developing its practices, and encourages members to do the same. It respects the range of spiritual/psychological experiences (or lack of them) among people, and leaders/members do not expect others to share in their own particular experiences. There is no ‘spiritual hierarchy’ based on people’s ability to access supernatural beings or abilities.

  1. And leaders claim to have special insight and supreme knowledge.

High-Control Groups

  • Both cults and religions begin with a charismatic leader who claims some special or supreme knowledge, messages and/or insight from a supernatural, other-worldly source. They may call themselves a prophet, an enlightened teacher, a messenger, a messiah, or even claim to be divine. They may be peasants, nobles, politicians, CEOs, military officials, self-help gurus or from any other walk of life. Such leaders often claim they have a particularly strong connection to God or persons beyond the grave.
  • The leader is unusually certain and dogmatic about this supposed knowledge, whether it originates with the leader him/herself, and is presented through his/her own preaching or writings, or whether it is revealed through the leader’s interpretation of existing scriptures, teachings and traditions.
  • If you cannot explain the dogma of your group without using rote learnt lines, clichés or asking a leader to help you, then you are very likely in a high-control group or cult.

 Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • In a cult there is usually only one supreme leader who claims supreme knowledge rather than a group of leaders. After all, how could there be room for more than one extraordinarily oversized ego!?
  • In some cases, cult leaders do not merely claim they are on a mission from God, they claim to be god!
  • Unlike leaders of groups belonging to major world religions, cult leaders tend to emphasize special doctrines outside the more widely agreed scriptures and traditions. Often these will be considered unorthodox, heretical and deviant by mainstream faith organisations because they cross boundaries of sexual behaviour or undermine personal ownership.
  • Cult leaders increasingly claim knowledge outside their own experience and expertise. If your religious group takes on an increasingly marginal or extreme political agenda, or your political group takes on an increasingly religious agenda, this should set alarm bells ringing, since it indicates the group seeks control over every aspect of its member’s lives.

 Safe Groups

Good leaders are modest about their knowledge and abilities, acknowledging those things that they do not know. They will only claim expertise in specific areas that they are trained and qualified in, and will defer to the greater knowledge of others in other areas. They will share their own doubts and struggles in discerning the truth and will make it clear that no one has special access to spiritual knowledge. There will be no formal or informal/unspoken spiritual hierarchy, where the leader/leaders are put on a pedestal as being more holy, spiritual or wise than others.

5.   The leadership is authoritarian, charismatic and narcissistic…

High-Control Groups

  • You notice narcissistic tendencies in the leader: They seem unusually confident in their appearance and dress in a distinctive manner. They talk in an emotive, powerful and poetic way, using plenty of colourful metaphors and superlatives. They are perceived to be charming, charismatic and alluring. Many people of the opposite sex appear to be enamoured of them and the community or congregation attracts larger numbers of women than men or vice versa.
  • There is a strict hierarchy in which some members are trusted as leaders because they are more dogmatic about group doctrine and steadfastly loyal to the overall leader, and others are kept at arms-length from the leader/leaders and out of the ‘inner circle’. ‘Inner circle’ members are seen as holy and wise, while those who have expressed any doubt about the dogma of the group and/or show less devotion to its leaders are seen as immature or insincere in their faith and not suitable for leadership roles, however long and hard they have worked and contributed to the group and its causes.
  • There is disapproval from other members when you make fair criticism of the leaders or do not show as much admiration or reverence for the leaders as others do. You may even be ostracised for showing negative thoughts or feelings towards the leader/leaders, even if these are very mild.
  • Leaders use trickery in their public presentations. They conduct supposed faith healings, exorcisms or communications with the dead or with supernatural beings in order to reinforce magical thinking and the idea that the leader has special powers. (Derren Brown and other illusionists, mentalists and magicians have done a lot to debunk these performances and show how they are done.)
  • As well as drama and theatrics, leaders use rhetorical skills in their speeches and preaching in order to circumvent people’s critical faculties, and persuade them to believe the group dogma.

Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • There is absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability. The leader is the ultimate authority and is always right. The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation. No other process of discovery is seen to be acceptable or credible. The group leader is never wrong. If there is a problem it is always someone else’s fault.
  • If criticism of your leader is forbidden, however justifiable it is, you are in a cult.

 Safe Groups

In safe groups, the leadership is democratic, and decision-making is shared with members. Leaders are subject to rules, accountability, transparency and oversight as much as anyone else and can be removed from leadership for serious misdemeanours. The leaders will admit failings and mistakes, accept constructive criticism and seek advice. They will value dialogue and the free exchange of ideas and opinions, including where these relate to their own role and performance.

6.   And leaders are not accountable to other authorities.

High Control Group

  • The group has been set up by someone with no relevant or widely respected qualifications, accreditations or formal memberships/associations with established organisations and institutions.
  • The leader/leaders may claim they answer to a higher power (e.g. God) or that they are accountable to wider networks and structures, or even a direct chain of command, but in practice they distance and separate themselves from these authorities, institutions or supporting/sponsoring bodies and work independently and unsupervised.
  • Separation from established parties, denominations and other institutions is not always the sign of a problem, since larger established groups can become degenerate and corrupt and it may be that a new independent organisation is actually safer. However, it is very unlikely that there are no sympathetic external advisors or potential collaborators among other groups. Any safe group will endeavour to work with others where possible, even if only in terms of a loose affiliation or the occasional joint event. If the leader of your group appears to conceal the group’s activities from relevant or interested parties, is unwilling to seek the support and advice of other organisations and resists inspection or supervision by them, then you are in real danger.

Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cult

  • In a cult, the leader or leaders take sole charge of the group. Most cult leaders set up their groups alone without consultation or collaboration with others. They do not answer to any other authorities, not even state/national law enforcement, and when investigated by the police or other legal representative, they will typically be uncooperative and resistant.
  • In spite of their magical thinking, many cult leaders will not even admit to being answerable to supernatural authorities, since they will claim to be the supernatural authority themselves!

 Safe Groups

In safe groups, leaders will work collaboratively and within wider networks of authority, subjecting themselves and their work to inspection and scrutiny. They will be willing to receive external audit and advice, and will seek to combine forces with other groups whenever possible, to tackle shared problems and meet common goals.

7.   There are draconian and intrusive rules for members…

 High-Control Groups

  • Members must abide by guidelines set forth by the leader regarding aspects of life that are normally private e.g. rules when it comes to dating and marriage, lifestyle, how to raise children, where they should live and/or work, what schools (if any) their children should attend, what foods they should and shouldn’t eat, what they should or shouldn’t wear and rules any other aspects of family life.
  • In high-control groups there are often unspoken rules. For example, members may be expected to seek ‘spiritual’ advice before making important personal decisions about their lives, even if there are no explicit group rules about such things. This may apply to decisions about whether or not to get married or whether or not to marry a specific person, deciding where to live or deciding what job to do etc. Leaders may exert pressure upon individuals to make the decision the leader thinks is right, even when it comes to trivial matters such as the choice of what clothing to wear to group meetings.
  • If members break group rules they receive a great deal of criticism or are shunned. Members who resist the intrusive influence of leaders in their personal/family affairs are seen as less committed and kept out of the groups ‘inner circle’.
  • If at a group meeting you hear leaders discussing individual members behind their backs in a negative way and/or including personal details about the individual which they should not know or should not be sharing, then you should be very concerned.
  • If you experience pressure to take part in any (or all) services, rites or rituals, and feel it would be socially costly not to take part (i.e. you might be excluded from other things, disapproved of or left out of friendship groups), you should be concerned.

Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • Members must abide by intrusive rules that apply to their personal lives and seek permission when making decisions about their lives. These rules and absolute dependency on the leader cover every aspect of their lives rather than just one or two areas. A cult leader often insists on being consulted before members engage in any activity which could affect their time/financial commitment to the group e.g. moving job, moving home, getting married, or becoming the member of other groups etc.
  • Just like a controlling partner, cult leaders like to know where you are, what you are doing and who you are with. They may even use technology for surveillance of group members. If you break their rules they may use physical and other punitive methods to punish you as well as social exclusion.
  • Again, rather like a controlling partner, cult leaders may use physical tools of control, such as taking possession of your passport or other identity documentation. There may even be evidence of human trafficking.
  • If you feel it would be not just socially costly but dangerous not to take part in specific (or all) group events and activities, you are definitely in a cult!

 Safe Groups

In a safe group, decisions about the extent to which you want to participate and about your personal affairs are left up to you as an individual. You are encouraged to reflect and come to decisions about things like where to work and who to marry on your own. Safe group leaders respect individual autonomy and recognise reasonable boundaries and limitations when dealing with others. Safe groups include individuals and families with a wide range of lifestyles and cultures. They encourage diversity and individuality.

8.   But the leaders are above the law.

High-Control Groups

  • Leaders show stricter standards of behaviour for members than they keep themselves.
  • Leaders close ranks rather than discipline one of their own when he/she breaks the rules and/or is criticised by members. This is particularly common when leaders are of a higher social class and are members of privileged and elite social networks.

 Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • Hypocrisy: There is one rule for the leader and another for everyone else. If you are held to a different moral standard, especially in regard to sex, you are in a cult.
  • Cult leaders believe they are above the law, be it human or divine. This idea allows them to exploit their followers economically and sexually without repercussions. Sexual grooming of members is common.
  • When confronted, leaders do not confess but create justifications for their impropriety. They claim the end goals of the group justify their actions.
  • Loyal cult members will perform any amount of “mental gymnastics” to justify, deny or ignore the leader’s bad behaviour. It does not matter what the evidence or logic suggests, members always find ways to defend the leader and justify his/her misdeeds.

 Safe Groups

In a safe group, the same rules and standards apply to all equally, including the leaders. Leaders go through exactly the same enquiry and disciplinary processes as members when they break the rules. In well-established groups, there will be a record of leaders being demoted or even removed for inappropriate conduct, since it is unlikely that a long-running group has never had a problem leader!

9.   The flow of information is subject to censorship and control…

High-Control Groups

  • You’re encouraged to learn about the group from leader-approved sources which are notably positive and uncritical of the group.
  • You are discouraged from accessing journalistic or academic studies/research on your group and its history.
  • If you show awareness or interest in wider sources of information on your group, leaders immediately undermine the reliability of the sources and claim the authors are biased and motivated by unjustified hostility towards the group.
  • In general, you are discouraged from watching, reading or listening to wider mainstream channels and media sources produced by the free investigative press.
  • The group is luddite and retrogressive, preferring its members to live very simply without technology and access to information beyond the group. This makes followers much easier to control!
  • Members are encouraged to remove their children from personal and social education classes at mainstream schools or even encouraged to home-school their children in order to make sure they are not exposed to ideas, lifestyles and viewpoints the group disagrees with. Once they can afford to, most high-control groups open their own schools (sometimes only for a select few, such as boys only) in which children undergo a programme of religious and/or political indoctrination.
  • The group does not admit openly to having any internal problems, for example, financial issues or issues of misconduct and abuse. They refuse to allow public access to their records or to involve external agencies and auditors. They try to justify keeping their ‘dirty linen’ hidden by arguing that airing it in public would bring unnecessary disrepute to the group and its cause.

Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • You are only allowed to study your organization through approved sources and members are forbidden from consuming any material that is critical of the group.
  • There is strict censorship of mainstream news and media outputs.
  • The leader controls the flow of information from the outside, and is in fact, the only conduit for it.
  • The group produces its own propaganda; literature and media, which puts the group and its leader in a glowing light.
  • The group produces or makes use of fake news and inaccurate/fake historical accounts which appear to support its dogma. It has no credible evidence to back up its claims.
  • Conspiracy theories abound.
  • The group is luddite and retrogressive to an extreme e.g. members live in a commune in the middle of nowhere so that leaders can be sure they cannot access external information.

 Safe Groups

Members are encouraged to read the mainstream press and to read widely in general. A safe group is completely transparent regarding its internal problems and engages openly with the press and law enforcement. Any group worth its salt will face and outlive public scandal and humiliation where an unfortunate one-off incident has taken place. Indeed, it will grow stronger and safer because of it. There will be no paper trail of records, books, articles and statements about the group in wider sources, which highlight serious problems with the group.

10. And the group as a whole is elitist, with an elite ‘inner circle’ at its core.

High-Control Groups

  • Outsiders and external groups are looked down upon to some degree as morally inferior. The group and its leaders consider themselves to be holier, wiser, special, enlightened, righteous, elect and/or superior to those outside the group.
  • Group members believe themselves to be ‘called’ or ‘chosen’ for a special mission to save humanity by radically transforming individual lives and the entire world. The group believes it, and/or its message, is the sole solution to the world’s problems.
  • There are elite groups or ‘inner circles’ within the group, and a spiritual hierarchy among members with the leaders at the top.
  • This elitism is maintained with subtle methods of exclusion based on unspoken prejudices, including passive aggression (indirect aggression) and micro-aggressions. There is often, in other words, a culture of bullying that would not necessarily be obvious to outsiders.

Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • This elitism creates a strong sense of group unity and responsibility centred on a united purpose. Cult leaders manipulate this sense of responsibility by coercing members into risky financial behaviour, free manual labour, sexual favours or heightened recruitment efforts in order to further the cause.

 Safe Groups

Safe groups do not consider themselves to be superior or special in relation to other groups and outsiders, nor do they have internal hierarchies in which some people are considered more holy, worthy or wise than others.

11. Threats are made against members who leave…

High-Control Groups

  • You are penalized for leaving. You stand to lose money you invested or other privileges, or you are socially penalised with members saying they can no longer be your friend if you leave.
  • Members who leave are given derogatory names such as “apostate” or “traitor” or “infidel”. They are called foolish, sinful, ‘lost to sin’, worldly, misled or even evil. They are seen to have come under bad influences, are no longer trusted and personal contact is avoided. Former followers are always wrong in leaving. The group perpetuates a false narrative that former members were deceived, proud, immoral, or lazy.
  • If former members speak out, they are dismissed as bitter, angry, dishonest or evil.
  • You are told you will go to hell and be punished for all eternity if you leave. People in the group who claimed to love you, including close family, accept this is true and righteous and the will of God. In some cases, they may become angry and even try to physically keep you from leaving. In other cases, they express sadness at your decision but they do not listen to or consider your reasons fully and fairly.
  • If you cannot think of a legitimate reason for leaving your group, you are probably in a high-control group or cult. Clearly the group considers itself the ultimate authority on truth and cannot imagine anybody leaving it with their integrity intact.
  • High-control groups often impose some kind of shunning to shame former members and prevent them from ‘infecting’ other members with their ideas.

 Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • You are shunned by members you were once very close to, including close family and friends.
  • You are threatened with physical punishment if you leave. Members may even say that you will be hunted down and killed if you leave, and that they will never stop looking for you.

 Safe Groups

A safe group or leader will not become angry and impatient if you say you want to leave or are thinking about leaving. They will listen to your reasons, give you time to think, and respect your decision. While a safe group leader may have disgruntled former followers, he or she will not vilify, excommunicate or forbid others from associating with them.

12. And outsiders or outsider groups are slandered and vilified.

 High-Control Groups

  • Outsiders are demonised and looked down upon as morally inferior. For example, outsiders are seen as “worldly” or “of the devil” while members are considered part of a heavenly realm or Godly kingdom.
  • There is a strong “us versus them” or “in group / out group” mentality, along with feeling justified in breaking the rules of wider society. This can lead to conflict between group members and non-members.
  • False generalisations are made about outsiders and wider society e.g., that non-members are all dissolute, promiscuous drunks or that they are all set against the group etc. A common claim made by high-control religious groups is that liberal and secular societies seek to destroy them, when in reality, religious groups are protected by these societies. Indeed, it is in high-control religious societies that all groups except the majority faith group are persecuted and oppressed. Liberal societies demand that the laws that protect individual human rights are respected by all groups. Sometimes this results in conflict with high-control religious groups which consider their dogma and traditions to be more important than individual liberties, well-being and equality.
  • The group is paranoid about the supposed dangers of the outside world. There is unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, infectious ideas, evil conspiracies and persecutions. High-control groups position themselves as the sole refuge from an evil outside world that is intent on their destruction.
  • Members spread untruths about other groups. For example, in evangelical/fundamentalist groups, the beliefs and practices of other religious groups or denominations and those of non-religious groups are frequently misrepresented, misunderstood, oversimplified and ridiculed.

Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • Outsiders are demonised and dehumanised to the extent that their lives are considered of much less worth than the lives of members (or of no worth at all). It is considered acceptable for outsiders to be sacrificed for the cause of the group.
  • If your group insists the end of the world is near, you are in a cult! Cults thrive on conspiracy theories, catastrophic thinking, and persecution complexes.

Safe Groups

Safe groups speak of outsiders and outside groups in a respectful, fair and balanced way. They are open to learning from and exchanging ideas with other groups, and they collaborate with other groups whenever they have shared goals, challenges or problems to solve.

13. Members become increasingly isolated from former companions…

 High Control Groups

  • Group leaders and members encourage you to spend less time with your family and friends outside the group and more time with group members in group activities. Subtle but increasing pressure is applied to get members to attend more and more group meetings and to give up other groups and responsibilities, however essential or commendable the latter are.
  • Members become increasingly isolated from family and friends outside the group who do not demonstrate an interest in the group and leaders.
  • The group separates itself from the rest of the world both mentally and physically, persuading members to move away from their homes, families and prior connections.
  • The group tries to tightly control the education of members’ children, often setting up their own schools. Thus, children of members are denied a broad education, and increasingly, all member’s basic needs are catered for within the group, so that they have fewer and fewer reasons to use outside or public services.

Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • Group members are forced to cut ties with any family members and former friends who are outside the group. There may be a requirement to socialise with fellow members only, unless you are actively engaged in trying to convert a non-member to the group. Your contact with outsiders is therefore extremely minimal. This could mean not engaging with outsiders anymore in your everyday life or even choosing to live among members and refusing to acknowledge there is an outside world at all.
  • Group members may have to make other drastic changes to their lives. They might have to radically alter their personal goals and abandon all the activities they engaged in before joining. Members may be required in the early stages to change their diet or other habits but over time the demands will escalate, even as far as insisting members leave their homes to move into a compound.
  • You become convinced that there is nothing worth pursuing outside the group and its goals. In a cult, the most devoted members are convinced that there is no worthwhile life outside the context of the group. Every decision they make, every thought they have is focused on what is best for the group and its leader.

Safe Groups

A safe group or safe group leader will expect and encourage members to remain in communication with their families and friends outside the group to the same extent as before they joined. They will suggest members consult and seek support from their wider networks when making important decisions. They will also encourage wider interaction in the community, including membership of any other groups that members may find beneficial.

14. And group identity takes precedence over (or replaces) individual identity.

High Control Groups

  • In high-control and cult groups, group rights trump the rights of individuals when the two are in conflict or competing. This is especially true with regard to the human rights of women, children and minorities. Thus, a group’s belief and tradition in which, for example, men are permitted to beat their wives and children may be considered more important by members of the group than a woman or child’s right not to be physically abused!
  • The leader or leaders regularly whip up the crowd or congregation into a feverish emotional frenzy with commanding oratory or intense ritual. This creates the ideal conditions for ‘groupthink’, which is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Cohesiveness, or the desire for cohesiveness in the group produces a tendency among its members to agree at all costs. This minimizes conflict but a consensus is reached without critical evaluation.

 Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • As a result of isolation, an understanding of individual identity, the group, the leader and/or God as distinct and separate categories of existence becomes increasingly blurred. Instead, in the follower’s mind, as his or her involvement with the group or leader continues and deepens, these identities become increasingly and substantially fused. Criticism or questioning of the group or leader is characterized as “persecution of us all”.
  • Members develop uncharacteristically stilted mannerisms and seemingly programmed conversation, and there is cloning among the group (or of the leader) in personal behaviour.
  • There is a dramatic loss of spontaneity, individuality and sense of humour in those who have become members.

Safe Groups

Members of a safe group retain a strong and distinctive individual identity, personality and independent mindedness. Individual well-being and human rights always trumps the rights of the group to outdated religious or cultural practices.

15. The group performs secret rites and rituals…

High Control Groups

  • Only the elite or ‘inner circle’ of the group holds meetings to discuss the dogma, theology and practice of the group and its overall direction. These are often exclusively for the members most loyal to the leader and often held in secret. They may also be closed to certain members, for example, women or minorities.
  • Intercessory prayer meetings for specific people, such as those targeted by the group for conversion, are held in secret, without asking those people for their consent. People’s private lives and personal issues, originally disclosed with the expectation of confidentiality, are shared and discussed at these meetings behind their backs.
  • There are bizarre initiation rites that involve discomfort, danger and pain. Often, these initiations are confusing, bizarre and offensive. The mental dissonance between their sense of confusion and their loyalty to the “inner circle” convinces the initiate to double their efforts in order to properly appreciate the proceedings, since they believe the problem is with their own lack of understanding and effort rather than with the group. They become further entrenched in a shame cycle, making them even more susceptible to manipulation.
  • There are group activities, events and teachings centred on negative thoughts, emotions and punishment. For example, there are denunciation services where members who are leaving or who have broken the rules are denounced and humiliated in front of other members. Another example is a service denouncing or exorcising the devil or an evil spirit. This negative focus on evil rather than good, gives undue attention and attributes undue power to evil forces. It creates fear and terror in participants, which is used to control them. Moreover, the evil that is denounced tends to be closely associated with specific people and external groups. A stirring up of hatred against more than mere imaginary beings is the usual outcome of such meetings!

Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • If there are secret teachings or ceremonies you did not discover until after you joined, you are probably in a cult. Cults use secret rituals as rites of passage that solidify a member’s loyalty to the group. Initiation into these rites usually only comes after a member has undergone certain tests or made adequate financial contributions.

Safe Groups

All the activities of a safe group will be open, transparent and yes, you guessed it, safe! Participation in activities will not normally be restricted based on how long you have been a member, how much money you have donated or on single facets of your being such as your gender, race, able-ness, health, age, sexual preferences and so forth (unless an event is specifically organised to support a vulnerable minority group).

16. And in general, their events involve mind-altering practices.

High Control Groups

  • Many safe groups use mind-altering practices for real benefits, practices such as meditation, chanting, prayer, rituals and movements or dance. High-control groups misuse these and other mind-altering activities, like speaking in tongues and listening to emotive speeches and music which can whip up crowds into an emotional frenzy. They do so in order to direct and control people’s thinking and emotions and suppress doubt. It can be hard to tell the difference between the good use and misuse of these practices but the clue is in the content. It is crucial to examine the content of a meditation, chant, sermon etc., independently, and with a cool head, when outside of any emotionally charged situation, especially if you first heard it in a group situation where intense feeling or mass hysteria was evident. After cool-headed reflection, you may find the message and activities far less impressive and appealing than they first seemed.
  • You are encouraged or expected to take part in ‘spirit led’ activities such as prophecy, speaking in tongues, praying aloud, preaching and emotional displays and prostrations, which you cannot always connect with or induce genuine feelings for. You either quietly distance yourself and watch from the side-lines, which may result in members becoming suspicious, perceiving you as lacking faith or commitment, or you may force yourself to take part in spite of feeling deeply uncomfortable and false. If you feel alienated or marginalised in your group for not taking part in such activities with the same enthusiasm as others, or if you feel pressured to act in ways you find uncomfortable, you are definitely in a high-control group or cult. It is important to remember that we humans are social creatures. If a person sees their friends and contemporaries participating in some sort of group activity, however unfamiliar, they will want to join in. Going against the grain could mean losing friends or being left on the periphery of your friendship group. It is important to recognise when you are acting out of a desire to be included, to belong or to conform, rather than out of a genuine desire to participate in the specific activity.

Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • Ascetic practices and repetitive behaviours like excessive fasting, prayer, hypnosis, scripture reading, chanting, meditation, or drug use are used to increase people’s vulnerability to the leader’s suggestions.
  • Extreme rituals involving sexual acts, physical punishment, substance misuse (and even mass suicide!) are proposed, carried out or planned for the future.

 Safe Groups

In safe groups, mind-altering practices will only be used with full prior disclosure of the content so that all members know (or can easily find out) what will happen and what will be said, and can therefore give full consent. The practices will be within the law (i.e. they won’t involve hard drugs, bodily harm or non-consensual/underaged sex) and will allow room for reflection, critical-thinking and individual expression. You will not be criticised or penalised in any way for choosing not to take part or for leaving part-way through an activity. Indeed, safe group leaders usually state openly that participants are welcome to leave at any time if they feel uncomfortable.

17. Members frequently experience feelings of shame, guilt, fear and dread…

High Control Groups

  • Shame and guilt are common tools of control and are instilled through subtle persuasion and peer pressure. Humans are social creatures who long to be part of a group. If they are made to feel guilty or shameful for something they are or have done, they are more likely to fall in line and conform to the rest of the group. Sometimes, the shame following a single mistake is enough to keep them in line forever.
  • Followers engage in group activities and feel they are having some success. Then they are knocked down again with the suggestion that their efforts are not good enough. They soon find they can never be good enough. High-control groups create and rely on these shame cycles – a form of long-term emotional abuse. If you need the good opinion of your group in order to feel worthy, loved, or sufficient, your group is doing you more harm than good.
  • Much of the guilt and shame arises in these groups from the suppression of member’s true natures. For example, women are expected to stifle and be ashamed of any abilities, desires, feelings and ambitions not seen by the group as ‘feminine’ or compatible with group dogma about women’s roles. LGBTQ persons are expected to be ashamed of their feelings because these are often seen by high-control groups as unnatural and immoral.
  • Leaders use theology to undermine you and make you ashamed. For example, they convince you that there is nothing good about you because anything good you think, say or do comes from God and everything bad that you think, say or do comes from you. There is no praise for individuals’ artistic or other talents, abilities and contributions, since that would be considered to be idolatry! However, there is plenty of criticism and unkindness flowing in your direction when you make a mistake or break the rules.
  • You experience fear and dread in relation to belief in magical beings such as demons or the devil, as discussed earlier. If you sleep with the lights on or fear people with mental health issues because you think they might be possessed, then you are most likely in a high-control group or cult.
  • You experience fear and dread of the leader or other members when you do not feel comfortable with something the group is teaching or doing because you feel that speaking out or not participating fully would be dangerous.
  • Sometimes fear and dread is in relation to the group’s theology, caused for example, by the constant threat of hell fire and eternal punishment for those who don’t believe (or don’t believe zealously enough), or for those who don’t do exactly the right thing all of the time according to group rules and ideals. If you suffer from persistent anxiety about your belief (or that of close family and friends who are not members of the group) on a regular basis or engage in obsessive and compulsive behaviours to cope with your beliefs or with life in your group, you can be sure your group is harmful and dangerous.
  • Members are made to believe they are insufficient or unworthy on their own, and that the only way to become worthy is to confess their shortcomings to the group or leader. The leader then becomes the mediator of worthiness and the foundation of the member’s self-esteem.

Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • Members feel deeply ashamed when they have doubts about the group doctrine or curiosity about the outside world. They might vow never to question the leader’s teachings again and may become useful and even zealous in dissuading others from doing their own questioning.
  • Leaders trap members in shame cycles by imposing abnormally strict codes of conduct, such as prescriptions about diet, appearance, sex, relationships and use of media. Inevitably, members struggle to keep to these rules, and when they fail they are made to feel ashamed of their shortcomings. Leaders then position themselves as the unique remedy to these feelings of guilt, which they themselves created! Leaders who can make followers feel bad about anything can manipulate them into doing anything, even if it is very much against their own interests or better judgment.
  • Most cult members feel a lot of fear. It may be set aside during group activities but it always returns. Even the most devoted members are fearful of what may happen should they ever choose, or merely consider, leaving the group.

Safe Groups

In safe groups, members are very unlikely to feel guilt, shame or fear as a consequence of being in the group. If they ever do feel such things they are encouraged to voice their feelings and concerns and are respected for it. Those feelings and concerns are then fully addressed and where possible alleviated. Safe groups will never foster feelings of shame, fear and guilt by telling members they deserve to or should feel that way.

  1. And show zealous commitment, loyalty and dependence upon their leaders.

 High Control Groups

  • There is a reluctance to see any weaknesses or flaws in a group leader or in his or her teaching.
  • Praise and admiration for the group leader exceeds that given to others in the community.
  • Some high-control groups encourage members to pledge love and loyalty to an abstract supernatural being (God), and to put this loyalty before the needs and well-being of fellow human beings and themselves. Members will devote their time and energies to group priorities such as evangelism and prayer. They will be led to believe that loving and caring for others “too much” is akin to idolising them, and that the bulk of their love – it is assumed to be finite – should be reserved for this abstract deity. This is of course, just another way to distance members from their kin and even from each other so that they put the group’s activities and goals first. This kind of theology makes it much harder for members to empathise with their fellow humans and much easier for them to learn to hate certain other groups.
  • Young people especially seem to be enthralled by the leader, and there is an element of sexual attraction. For example, in many fundamentalist congregations, lots of young women and girls are in attendance due to the attractions of one or more handsome young male preachers. There are plenty of people who cannot resist a handsome member of sex to which they are attracted, talking tenderly about love and firmly about justice! This unfortunately blinds people to serious errors, contradictions and other problems with the leader’s message.
  • There is zealous commitment to the leader, whether he or she is living or dead, which goes far beyond mere admiration or fondness. Members revere the leader with absolute devotion. His or her thoughts, opinions, and belief system are considered to be the absolute truth. If anything comes to light about the leader, which is not wholly praiseworthy, they will perform any amount of mental gymnastics, using any argument however convoluted and implausible to justify the behaviour and claim is wasn’t as it seemed. Sometimes the leader is deified by followers whether or not he or she ever claimed to be God.

 Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • There is extreme obsessiveness regarding the group and leader, resulting in the exclusion of almost every other practical consideration, including personal goals, relationships and former commitments. Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and sometimes this can reach a state of hyperactivity in which members do not sleep or eat sufficiently. They may be expected to commit to various “missions” and activities of the group which are unreasonable in duration and intensity.
  • Members are dependent upon the group or leader for problem solving, solutions, decision-making, definitions and even their self-worth. They seem no longer capable of independent reflective thought, analysis and judgment.
  • Anything the group or leader does can be justified no matter how harsh or harmful, including violent abuse and even murder!

 Safe Groups

Members of safe groups will have healthy balanced lives, which involve plenty of time and energy spent outside the group with family, friends, colleagues and with other groups they are members of. They will accept that the group leaders are imperfect and sometimes wrong, and they will be able to come to their own decisions and opinions independently of the group.

19. Groups have a preoccupation with new members and proselytising…

 High Control Groups and Full-Blown Cults

  • High-control groups and cults are often focused on getting new members, with the exception of some fundamentalist communities which are self-sustaining because of sufficient generational replacement. Bringing more people “into the fold” is an ego boost for the leader/leaders, who feel powerful for having control over a growing number of people. Also, additional members means more money and other resources. Members may be expected to pay dues or tithes to the group, or in extreme cases they may be persuaded to sell possessions or take out loans to give money to the group. Members spend a considerable amount of time trying to convert others and convince them to join the group. They do this using both a ‘carrot’ and a ‘stick’. On the one hand, they present the group in its best possible light and offer benefits that they are unlikely to follow through on. On the other, they make people feel ashamed of the way they are outside the group by playing on any pre-existing feelings of guilt they may be harbouring about the life they have led or something they have done in the past. This is why prisoners and ex-convicts are so vulnerable to indoctrination and even radicalisation by high-control groups!
  • These groups are often very aggressive and mechanical in their recruitment efforts, going door to door, targeting certain vulnerable groups and repeating rote learnt lines and arguments. They justify this by insisting they are “saving” people from an evil world. Those who reject the group’s message are seen to be ignorant, deceived, un-elect, prideful, evil, or stupid.
  • This emphasis on proselytising and a narrow range of tightly controlled activities comes at the expense of individual creativity and character. Members are unable to explore and express their talents in music, drama, dance and the other arts in the group, apart from perhaps in very limited and scripted ways, nor can they meaningfully pursue any other cultural interests. Thus, members end up stunted in their emotional, creative and intellectual development and are unable to live their life to the fullest. This is why it is often artistic, creative and intellectual types who challenge high-control groups and leave them. They are the first to find the control and censorship in these groups intolerable.

 Safe Groups

Safe groups may want to actively promote their community and agenda but it will not be their priority. They will not see themselves as having exclusive access to the truth and as being in a position to ‘save’ everyone else from ignorance and evil. Their focus will be on the values, goals and activities of the group rather than on increasing the membership. They will naturally draw people in if what they stand for and do is appealing. They will never engage in underhand conversion tactics or coercion.

20. They target the vulnerable with ‘love-bombing’ and idealistic goals.

High Control Groups and Cults

  • Potentially unsafe groups or leaders come across as very nice at first. They may even affirm your autonomy and intelligence and massage your ego. They often target vulnerable people who are looking for answers or lonely, and are very good at making people feel they really care about them and even love them. This practice is known as “love-bombing”. Some group members may even have deceived themselves into thinking they really do love the people they are targeting, by trying hard to engineer the feeling over time. Only later do their actions, or lack of them betray the shallowness or falseness of that emotion. There is often a steep decline in interest in and care for new members once they have been converted. Many members go through a troubled period when they find all that love is mostly replaced with judgment or indifference. Those who have not been indoctrinated to the fullest extent sometimes become disillusioned and leave at this point.
  • These groups target young people in particular, especially when they are studying or working away from home, because young people have certain vulnerabilities they can exploit. For example, young people lack enough experience of the world to recognise the tactics and disingenuousness of these groups. By offering half-truths or a kernel of truth within the overlay of group dogma, and by simultaneously concealing all the rot behind the façade, they can persuade young people that they are worth joining. Only when people have been members for a while, or when they are included in the inner circle of the group, do they start to notice its more unpleasant side.
  • Many of these groups have high ideals and noble causes which attract people in. However, these tend to quickly reveal themselves as overblown, fantastical and too good to be true (e.g.) they may claim to be the “kingdom of God on earth”, the only good people on earth, and the community that will save the world. Even the most extreme cults start out with lofty goals. For example, the People’s Temple cult and its leader strongly affirmed the equality of all races and formed an impressively multicultural community. Osho preached that every human being is capable of unconditional love and Father Yod was an advocate for natural health and a utopian lifestyle. And yet, cult groups are so rotten that they result in tragedies like Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate and The Children of God.

Safe Groups

Safe groups have realistic goals and sensible plans to achieve them. Members do not show more interest in and affection for others than they really feel; they treat strangers with respect and compassion but understand that it is only when you take the trouble to get to know another individual as your equal, with their own beliefs and experiences, that you have the potential to feel more deeply for them. In other words, safe groups and safe group leaders are authentic in the way they treat you – they have nothing to hide!

21. There is evidence of economic or financial exploitation…

High Control Groups

  • All organisations require donations to upkeep their buildings, rentals and to pay for activities etc. However, if group leaders target and repeatedly ask individuals (as opposed to the group as a whole) for money, then you are most likely in a high-control group or cult. In such groups, members may be asked personal questions about their finances and asked to donate more than they would do voluntarily, or more than would be prudent given their circumstances, expenses and responsibilities.
  • The group does not provide reasonable and specific explanations regarding their requests for money – they do not make clear exactly what the donations are going towards. You cannot easily access hard evidence of how much people are donating to the group and how the group’s funds are being spent.
  • Followers may be encouraged to spend their money on the community rather than on family and friends outside it.

 Extra characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • There is no meaningful financial disclosure and no independent auditor. A group which refuses to disclose its finances should set all your alarm bells ringing! If you are not allowed to know exactly what the group does with its money, you are in a cult.
  • The group has a preoccupation with money. No matter how much money the group brings in, it is never considered enough by the leader. Cult leaders will make increasingly more desperate demands for members to contribute money, perhaps promising that they will eventually get their money back or even get it back with interest when they will not.
  • Cult leaders tend to live opulently while their followers are required to make financial sacrifices.
  • Members are often encouraged to pay their dues, even when it means putting their families at risk.
  • Members may even permit access and hand over control of their finances to the group leader/leaders.
  • Members may be engaged in activities that constitute unpaid labour and even hard labour without pay, which is of course a form of financial exploitation and abuse.

 Safe Groups

A safe group or leader will regularly disclose all the financial information pertaining to the group and will make it easy for members to access this information, including historic statements, by themselves or by request. Their accounts will be made available to all and will be independently audited. Ethical organizations have nothing to hide and will therefore have completely transparent processes, procedures and documentation. They may make general pleas for donations or ask everyone to contribute a reasonable amount to cover a fixed expense from which they are all benefitting e.g. to cover an entrance fee or transport for a group trip. However, they will never pressure members to pay more than they are able.

22. And of punitive punishment, even physical abuse.

High-Control Groups 

  • Punishments for breaking group rules may be disproportionate. A member may be demoted from a position of responsibility, or even excommunicated, for minor infractions, or for expressing their true thoughts and feelings (e.g. expressing doubts about group belief or practice or for coming out as LGBTQ etc.)
  • Former members may voice a similar pattern of grievances. They may relate stories of mistreatment, emotional manipulation, punishment and various forms of abuse.
  • Members who have children may be encouraged to discipline their children using punitive and corporal punishments. Some high-control groups even recommend husbands physically punish their wives!

Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • There may be beatings and physical punishment for transgressing group rules, sometimes these may take place in denunciation services, in which accused members are scorned, abused and humiliated in front of the whole group or ‘inner circle’.
  • The leader displays sociopathic traits such as a lack of empathy and compassion, and an ability to treat others with extreme cruelty and ruthlessness in order to further their own ends. You may notice they appear to enjoy watching other people suffering. At first this may be restricted to enjoying the misfortunes of those outside the group or of those who have left the group (and who are therefore perceived to be enemies), but it will increasingly include current members who are perceived to have transgressed.
  • There may well be records, books, news articles, or television programmes that document the abuses of the group and its leader.

 Safe Groups

Safe groups do not use punitive or physical punishments, nor do they hold services and rituals to humiliate and denounce people. They may demote someone in a position of responsibility for minor cases of inappropriate behaviour but if anyone actually breaks the law, the group will immediately report them to the relevant external authority such as the police force.

23. There is evidence of sexual exploitation…

High Control Groups

  • Safeguarding measures are sketchy and insufficient. The group does not have a safeguarding professional or proper safeguarding procedures and police checks for those working with children or vulnerable adults.
  • Safeguarding is tokenistic. The safeguarding official and procedures are there but not used properly. For example, the safe-guarding officer is not permitted access to all the information or he/she has loyalties to the group leaders or personal interest/investments in the group and so has a conflict of interests.
  • Hypocrisy is in evidence. Leaders teach the importance of sexual purity and fidelity but are unfaithful to their own partners and have sexual contact with vulnerable members who have no family or other looking out for them in the group, or with the wives and daughters of members, or with other vulnerable persons outside the group. Some will have sexual relations with underaged boys and/or girls.
  • There are high levels of abuse within group member marriages, with women, for example, experiencing abuse including sexual violence at the hands of their husbands. Women’s control over their own bodies regarding sex and pregnancy is eroded.
  • Grooming is in evidence: Many high-control/cult group leaders exploit young and otherwise vulnerable people, especially those craving love, attention and affection because they have experienced neglect, loneliness and loss etc. Perpetrators often claim that the abuse is necessary for furthering the group’s cause, and that in performing the acts of abuse, they are a conduit, channel, minister or vehicle for god to work on the member or to further god’s plan. It can be difficult working out whether someone is trying to groom you and you may even believe such a person is your boyfriend or girlfriend. They may begin with inappropriate flirtation and the incremental crossing of boundaries when it comes to propriety. They may ask for personal information about you or someone else rather early on in your ‘relationship’. They may want you to keep your ‘relationship’ a secret from other people in the group and ask to meet with you alone or in secret. They may want you to send them pictures of yourself or of other people, or ask to see things that are private, and they may want to send you pictures of themselves or show you things that are private. They may ask about your sexual experience, or how you feel about doing certain things. They many give you gifts or things that you feel are either excessive – such as things that are very valuable, or very personal – or things that are very ‘grown up’, such as alcohol, tobacco or drugs. They may give you special privileges within the group or allow you to do things other members can’t. They may appear to already know (or claim to know) things about you that you haven’t told them. If you feel pressure to do or say things that make you feel uncomfortable, indeed, if something just doesn’t feel right, even if only slightly, then it probably isn’t. If the leader/member is significantly older than you (especially if he/she is over 18 and you are under 18), or if they are very wealthy or in a powerful position compared to you, then you are at particularly high risk.

 Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • Safeguarding measures may be absent altogether.
  • Many cult leaders become known for their infidelities, and for some, the seduction of members and sexual acts form a central part of their activities. They are routinely unfaithful to their partners and sleep with vulnerable or very young members. They claim these behaviours are in the interests of the group and even essential for the achievement of its goals.
  • There are bizarre and uncomfortable rituals, which you are told require nakedness or near-nakedness, or other activities which make sexual contact easier or more of a temptation.
  • Grooming isn’t something a cult leader does secretively. It is often central to the cult’s activities. The leader is very often male and targets vulnerable women or men, such as young women or boys, or they target people with poor mental and/or physical health, emotional issues and other vulnerabilities. For example, the leader of Universal Medicine targets women who have cancer, claiming to provide healing through things including inappropriate massage. These groups are often composed of one or a few forceful and predatory (usually male) leaders with many vulnerable women or men as followers.

 Safe Groups

In a safe group, everyone has full autonomy over their own body and no one feels pressure to engage in intimate and/or sexual contact under any circumstances. Any leader who chooses to abuse their authority by making unwelcome sexual advances would be asked to leave the group immediately. If a member commits a criminal act, the group will turn them over to external authorities such as the police rather than apply their own punishments and/or conceal the wrongdoing from external authorities. In safe groups, victims of sexual harassment and abuse are encouraged to speak up and are supported wholeheartedly if they want to press charges. They are always listened to and taken seriously.

24. And women, especially, are tightly controlled.

High Control Groups and Full-Blown Cults

  • Men and women are segregated in activities for no good reason, in other words, not just for activities that involve undressing or intimacy but for learning, leadership and other activities. The usual pattern is that men are given certain exclusive privileges such as invitations to attend male-only leadership meetings where the philosophy, theology, teaching and direction of the group as a whole is discussed. They will also have access to training in leadership, teaching, preaching, conducting ceremonies and so forth, from which women are excluded.
  • Women are therefore kept out of important decision-making regarding the group. They are instructed to be busy instead with work that has no influence on group policy, work such as caring, cooking, cleaning and serving others. High-control groups do this because women are an important resource for the continuation of the group, and guarding them from outside influences (including a proper education), infantilising them, and denying them their autonomy, even over their own bodies, is crucial for these harmful groups to maintain and increase their numbers into the future. Women’s roles and activities are therefore tightly controlled, including trivial details such as their clothing, and especially their sexual activities, so that they lose their freedom of expression with regard to sex, and even their ability to refuse sex. Educated, intellectual and capable women with leadership skills are always seen as a major threat to high-control and cult groups.
  • These groups will come up with ever more ridiculous and fantastical arguments as to why this control and subjugation of women is necessary. I won’t bore readers with all the misogynistic arguments that are old news and thoroughly discredited but it is worth noting that such groups often include arguments which demean men also, such as the argument that if women show their talents and strength, take on public and leadership roles and have equal standing with their husbands, they will find that men are so lazy, lacking in mental strength and have such fragile egos that they will refuse to do or take responsibility for anything at all and will most likely become dissolute and abusive! Some modern-day fundamentalist preachers and ‘trad-wives’ who have been brainwashed in high-control groups even blame domestic violence, paedophilia and sexual abuse on women not being submissive enough (a classic case of victim-blaming)! Of course, it is obvious why these views are incredibly dangerous and toxic. The truth is of course that abuse almost always starts with the victim being disempowered, having low self-esteem and being too submissive, and the perpetrator taking full advantage of that. In reality, the more unequal the relationship and the more submissive the victim becomes, the more the violence escalates and the more likely it will end in murder. A fundamentalist preacher once told me that wives need to be loved and husbands need to be respected. He claimed that women didn’t much crave respect and men didn’t much crave love, as if you could ever have genuine love for someone you didn’t hugely respect! And of course, there is the fact that his statement is entirely false to begin with (women do crave respect and men do crave love) and it implies that it is okay for a husband not to respect his wife that much and for a wife not to love her husband all that much either! Sweet-talk about ‘love’ has often been used to trick women into unequal relationships and high-control groups because it sounds warm and fuzzy but is incredibly vague, emotional, and therefore changeable. It can mean pretty much anything and nothing at all, something which high-control groups and leaders take full advantage of. Mutual respect and kindness are much clearer and healthier terms upon which to build a relationship or form a group!

 Safe Groups

Men and women study, learn and work together in safe groups, and both women and men take leadership roles according to their ability and not their gender. They are only separated where an activity involves undressing or intimacy, and this is in consultation with the whole group. For example, most groups have separate toilet, changing and washing facilities for men and women. Some groups have therapeutic single-sex meetings on subjects that affect one gender significantly more than the other, or which might be difficult to discuss openly in a mixed setting. For example, it is appropriate to have female-only meetings for women who have been abused by men, or male-only meetings to discuss experiences of prostate cancer or male suicide.

25. Deception is normalised, and the ends always justify the means.

High Control Groups

  • The group’s dogma and mission is considered so important and so urgent that even the strict morality or rules of how members should behave can sometimes be bent. For example, members are told it is okay to deceive, mislead (or to be economical with the truth) when speaking to those outside the group. Members are told it is okay to commit these transgressions in order to achieve higher ends and the transgressions are downplayed and considered small. The excuse is also used that outsiders are bad people and deceivers themselves so it is okay to lie to them. Mistruths may also be used to help persuade prospective members that they need to join the group and avoid other groups (e.g. other groups may be described in negative and derogatory terms), or they may be used to cover up internal crimes. Deceiving people is so commonly justified in the minds of members that they cease to see it as deception and are no longer aware of their own deviousness.
  • Deception may be used to gain positions of power and influence in wider society, in order to promote the interests and dogma of the group. To give an example of this kind of dishonesty, I once witnessed an influential Evangelical Christian clergyman telling some young men who were training and intending to train for ordained ministry, that it was okay to lie in their interviews and assessments when asked if they agreed with the ordination of women (and whether they were comfortable working with ordained women), in order to get into the Church of Scotland or Church of England!
  • ‘Inner circles’ or leadership groups routinely mislead, deceive and lie to ordinary members, and this is not considered to be immoral or a problem.
  • Events are advertised in misleading ways, which cover up a proselytising agenda. For example, guests are led to believe they are attending a cultural, recreational or social event or excursion, and find themselves instead being preached to for most of the time or they find themselves taking part in a service or other religious ritual!
  • Self-deception is very widespread in high-control groups. Many fundamentalist religious and political extremists believe that they truly love humanity. They see themselves as good and kind people, when the reality is, that the more fundamentalist people get about their group dogma, the less empathy they have with wider humanity, since fundamentalism separates us from others both physically and mentally and prevents such people from understanding the experiences and perspectives of others. While it may look from the outside as though there is a lot of fellowship, loving care and comradery between members of high-control and cult groups (something people often find attractive about them), their dogmatic commitment to abstract dogma, group priorities and group leaders creates distance between individuals and decreases empathy and trust among members, just as it does between members and outsiders. Often members become suspicious and afraid of each other. Relationships between members, even those in the same family, are often strained, complex and unhappy beneath the veneer of closeness.

 Extra Characteristics of Full-Blown Cults

  • Members engage in activities which they would have previously thought reprehensible, in order to further the ultimate goals of the group. These may include lying to their families and friends in order to get their support and even their money. Thus, members are persuaded to harm or sacrifice their relationships and their own long-term interests for the group’s ultimate goals. Members may even collect money for bogus causes and charities, having convinced themselves that lying and fraud is necessary to accomplish the group’s goals.
  • Leaders behave in ways that they may have previously condemned and/or which they have condemned in others. They may be violent, sexually deviant and abusive, with the excuse that this is necessary to achieve the group’s ultimate goals. Cult leaders are usually sociopaths/psychopaths and invariably this will be borne out by their behaviours and actions. For example, they will fail to empathise with the feelings of others. They will harm others in all sorts of ways to achieve their ends, without feeling any guilt or remorse.

 Safe Groups

Safe groups will balance the importance of their goals with other moral principles. The ends will not justify cruel and inhumane means. They will never use violence, threats and blackmail to keep members in line with their rules. Nor will they justify or condone lying and deception in order to further the interests of the group. Safe groups will only break the law of the land or the rules of other institutions in rare and extreme circumstances e.g. in support of a wider campaign against oppression and injustice. This will be alongside other organisations and groups who share their concerns but do not necessarily have anything else in common with the group. For example, multiple agencies, groups and individuals get involved with climate change protests, which cause disruption and result in arrests. Violent protests against an oppressive religious and/or political regime may also at times be defensible but again, such actions will be alongside other groups and violence will be a last resort.


You are in a harmful cult or high-control group if:

There is opposition to critical thought,

And self-doubt is encouraged.

Magical thinking is prevalent,

And leaders claim to have special insight and supreme knowledge.

The leadership is authoritarian, charismatic and narcissistic,

And leaders are not accountable to other authorities.

There are draconian and intrusive rules for members,

But the leaders are above the law.

The flow of information is subject to censorship and control,

And the group as a whole is elitist, with an elite ‘inner circle’ at its core.

Threats are made against members who leave,

And outsiders or outsider groups are slandered and vilified.

Members become increasingly isolated from former companions,

And group identity takes precedence over (or replaces) individual identity.

The group performs secret rites and rituals,

And in general, their events involve mind-altering practices.

Members frequently experience feelings of shame, guilt, fear and dread,

And show zealous commitment, loyalty and dependence upon their leaders.

Groups have a preoccupation with new members and proselytising;

They target the vulnerable with ‘love-bombing’ and idealistic goals.

There is evidence of economic or financial exploitation,

And of punitive punishment, even physical abuse.

There is evidence of sexual exploitation,

And women, especially, are tightly controlled.

Deception is normalised, and the ends always justify the means.

Author: anastasia291

Humanist Chaplain & Celebrant at the University of Exeter and Somerset NHS Foundation Trust | Examiner in History & English at the University of Cambridge | Researcher, Speaker, Writer & Poet with the Secular Liturgies Network.

30 thoughts on “The 25 Signs you’re in a High-Control Group or Cult by Anastasia Somerville-Wong

  1. When this article was first published, a couple of readers jumped to the conclusion that I don’t count humanist/secularist groups as having the potential to be problematic. This is a mistake!

    I make clear in the paper that the 25 points could apply to any group, whether religious or not. It could apply to a group calling itself ‘Humanist’, ‘secular’, ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’. I am well aware of that!

    I talk about groups in general in the article; religious, philosophical, secular, political, spiritual, humanist… My points apply to all groups without exception, since any group of humans, whatever it calls itself, has the potential to become controlling, dogmatic, superstitious and even cult-like.

    I also state in the paper that a group could have one of the characteristics (e.g. magical thinking) but not be high-control unless it has this characteristic alongside or in combination with one or more of the other characteristics.

    There is therefore, an element of discernment and responsibility on the part of the individual/reader when examining any particular group, since I cannot detail every possible scenario in this article.

    • You are very clearly against belief in God and specifically Christianity. You mention this more than a few times in your article. If you spoke from an unbiased perspective, readers might take you more seriously. Cults are a very real thing, yet they are insidious in how they present themselves. If you belief Christian churches are the best example of a cult you can come up with, you’ve never seen a real cult (or were a part of one and didn’t realize it).

      • Firstly, the vast majority of readers have really appreciated my article and you are the only person who has not taken it seriously. I have received many deeply humbling messages from people my article has helped. Only a couple of readers had concerns at the start but they didn’t think I was against belief in God or Christianity. They simply needed further reassurance that I was aware ALL groups, including Humanist and Progressive groups, could experience the same problems and begin to betray the very humanistic and progressive principles they were founded upon. Both people were otherwise very positive about the article.

        Secondly, as all my other articles demonstrate, I have no issue with belief in God in itself, nor with any particular religion. I have myself identified as a Progressive Christian and Secular Buddhist (among other things) for many years! It is simply true that belief in the supernatural, including a supernatural God, is very often used by cult and high-control group leaders to manipulate their victims, and I make this clear in the article. After all, if people believe in the supernatural, it’s so very easy for a charismatic and influential individual to persuade them he/she has some sort of hotline to this being/force or some sort of special knowledge about it and what it wants etc. Also, historically, most religions started off as personality cults, including Christianity, and some of the communities adopting these religions (especially as a result of the conversion of social elites), became high-control groups. In a way, most human groups have a tendency to go that way, unless there are inbuilt protections, check and balances. That does not mean, however, that ALL Christian believers or groups (or believers/groups of any other faith) are cults or high-control groups or members of these. There is a huge diversity of Christian groups with a wide range of beliefs and forms of organisation. These range from cult and high-control beliefs and forms through to liberal, progressive and humanistic ones.

        Thirdly, my article illustrates that there is a spectrum when it comes to human groups, rather than completely separate categories of ‘cult’ and ‘safe’. Many evangelical churches in the UK are, for example, borderline, with high-control characteristics that are tempered by the fact their adherents are integrated into modern multicultural urban societies. I know many people who were harmed in those churches but it wouldn’t be fair to describe all of those churches as full blown cults. In the US, on the other hand, evangelical churches have a greater tendency to take their ideology to its natural conclusions and become fundamentalist and cult-like. This is because so many of these churches are in communities which are themselves isolated and homogeneous and where people are not so often exposed to external people, perspectives and information.

      • Not at all, this is her opening paragraph: “It is a really healthy and rewarding thing to be part of a movement for positive change and progress, and to be part of a community which encourages moral and spiritual growth. It can do wonders for our sense of identity, purpose and fulfilment. In fact, the reluctance of many younger people especially to join together and organize these days around shared values and goals, is often to their social, economic and political disadvantage.” “I certainly do not want to discourage people from engaging fully in groups that are overwhelmingly positive.”

        It seems to me that throughout she simply points out that there are groups, such as Jonestown, that are self-reportedly “Christian”; yet pledge their allegiance to Jim Jones above all else, even their own lives. It is a worthy word of caution to you in making this an us vs. them scenario, for we are in this together, and I believe Jesus would have been proud at how much love Anastasia put into this article.

        Please, feel free to share your concerns that I may have overlooked, as I want to understand what you are thinking, for the love of God; I love God.

      • It’s apparent you didn’t read the article because your response is chronicled in it before you even wrote it. The fact you disregarded the entirety of the text to find it as an attack on your specific group, that’s a sign of information control. You’ve been trained to view even valid criticism as invalid and sourced by enemies of the group.

    • Are you willing to talk with me over the phone, and/or send me your best articles for helping someone out of a cult/what you can do for someone who is, for example, limiting their communication with outsiders or the other gender (aka, me)? I have had much direct personal experience with one cult in particular and several others (never bought in) but learned enough to know that I am very impressed with you and this article. I would love to talk with you if you are so willing, as this effort is a part of my life’s mission.

      Regardless, I can’t thank you enough!

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  5. Hi Anastasia!

    I am currently researching for a new book project on academia as a cult / high control group. It’s interesting that you mention universities and experts as foils to external cult / hc groups, because when we examine your characterisics, so many of them are evidenced and applicable. I am also interested in the psychology angle of why certain behaviours emerge in leaders and members. Please feel free to contact me if interested.

    Nicholas Rowe

    • Hi Nicholas,

      It is indeed the case that these characteristics can be found to some extent even in respected mainstream institutions. I am certainly aware, having been affected by exploitation in academia to some extent (the endemic generational exploitation of junior academics by older, senior academics) that there are serious issues and social injustices to be addressed in the system. Also, now that universities in the UK are underfunded and increasingly having to go to external sources, there is far greater potential for corruption, which explains the recent spate of corruption scandals over Russian, Chinese and Saudi influence etc. I would certainly like to hear more about your research and any evidence or explanations of high-control characteristics in the HE sector.

      Many people understand that we need strong, democratic and transparent institutions, but not so many understand that this must include our universities. It’s really worrying to see the universities being neglected by government and unduly influenced by both an internal elite and corrupt external forces.

      Best wishes,

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  19. One of the most thorough articles on the subject I’ve seen.

    Still can’t make up my mind if the religion I was raised in was a cult. It had so many positives too. Group cohesiveness is really hard to find.

    • I understand this conundrum very well. There are many people who are also uncertain and can’t quite decide whether the benefits of their group outweighed the negatives or vice versa. Group cohesiveness is definitely hard to find, as you say, and no group is without its problems.

      This difficulty arises because it’s a very broad spectrum from the most open and liberal groups to the most extreme. Many groups will sit somewhere in the middle where things are more difficult to weigh up. Also, while all humans share certain needs, some of us need more in certain areas than others, and moreover, our tolerance levels in different areas will also vary.

      So, for example, while I would not be able to overlook sexism in a group, and would opt to leave the group rather than endure it (assuming I couldn’t change it), another person might feel their social relationships in that group were so important to them that they were willing to endure some level of sexist discrimination because leaving the group and losing those social connections would be a more terrible prospect for them.

      I hope you can find belonging somewhere that has those positive features you enjoyed but fewer of the high-control/negative ones.

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