What To Keep In Mind When Talking About Cults

What To Keep In Mind When Talking About Cults October 7, 2020

darkside-550: Worship Cult Religion /pixabay

Fleur Brown, whose parents were adherents of Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God, came to believe that she had been raised to believe in and follow a cult. Reflecting upon her experiences, she discusses how cults, and cult-like organizations, often use a pleasant approach to non-members as a way to recruit people to their organization (as well as to appear as if they are not a cult):

“Everyone is so …(can’t quite put my finger on it … ah there it is) … so nice!” was the comment I frequently heard growing up from neighbors, school friends partners — anyone who had a brush with someone from our Church group. It felt like heaven on earth for new recruits; who were often battered and bruised by life’s tribulations.[1]

That niceness, of course, is a key factor.  Especially because most people do not want to be associated with a cult, cults would not be successful if they treated outsiders with contempt. They would not be able to gain new members if it was so easy to determine that they are a cult. People who have suffered abuse, people who have become vulnerable by the way they have been mistreated by others, are often those who are the easiest recruits for cults, but this would not happen if they were mistreated from the onset. Those who have long dealt with abuse, those who long felt bad about themselves, often put up barriers to protect themselves from further abuse; cults work on that by playing nice, and in that niceness, they slowly bring such barriers down:

Niceness let the barriers down. It also stopped the appropriate boundaries from being in place whenever members felt uncomfortable. But that seemed a small price to pay to fit in. In a dog-eat-dog world, who doesn’t want to be part of an intoxicatingly nice community — even, any community? [2]

Such niceness helps cults pretend to be anything other than cults. People think it will be easy to detect a cult. They believe cults should immediately stand out as being cults. They won’t be nice, but instead, domineering and forceful. Their beliefs and practices will be odd, so that, unless one is brainwashed by them, one would want nothing to do with them. But, if that is the case, why would any sane person join a cult? How would anyone be recruited to join a cult if cults were so easily detected so that no one would allow themselves to be in a position to be brainwashed by them? And yet, if we look at the history of cults, we see otherwise sane people are recruited by them.  The reason is always the same: cults rarely appear as cults, and it is only after one has had prolonged contact with a cult will they begin to take on the more bizarre teachings and practices of the cult itself. Many members of a cult will not have immediate connection to the cult’s inner circle and the bizarre teachings which are found in that circle, so that many people who are members of a particular cult will not even realize they are involved with a cult: they will think they are involved with a benign organization which is helping them achieve some positive goal in their life. Such people will not believe criticisms of their cult because they will not have seen and heard  the most extreme teachings connected with it. And this, perhaps, is one of the main characteristics of a cult: it espouses several layers of teachings, some which are given out to the public and low ranking members of the cult, and other, esoteric teachings which often run contrary to those extrinsic teachings, given only to those who are confirmed adherents of the group. Those esoteric teachings, moreover, are used to make those adherents feel special, to make feel that they have attained something beyond what ordinary people can understand (cults have long “red pilled” their members in this way). By being made to feel special, they are far more easily led and controlled by the leaders of the group. It is such control which makes cults dangerous, as they not only undermine the freedom of their adherents, but the adherents are often (but not always) abused in some fashion by cult leaders as a way to keep that control over them.

We see these patterns, for example, with NXIVM, led by Keith Raniere, the so-called “American multi-level marketing company” which has been tried and treated as a “sex cult.” Indeed, as Lauren Kranc explained in Esquire, it represented itself to outsiders as nice, indeed, as an organization which was often focused upon “self-help.” It was only when one of its members was able to get out of its clutches and tell people what was happening behind the scenes that it could no longer be seen as benign:

The organization had been operating for nearly two decades under the guise of offering self-help deprogramming to heiresses, Hollywood actors and powerful CEOs. But, after one survivor came forward to the New York Times, NXIVM had finally been exposed for what it was—a barbaric organization that abused its members emotionally and physically.[3]

The stories which emerged were many. Women were being recruited and turned into branded sex-slaves. They started out going to various self-help seminars, to meetings which appeared to make the organization seem safe and helpful to them and their self-esteem, but in the seminars, they were slowly being manipulated, until those who seen as most desirable by the leaders of NXIVM were brought into the inner core of the organization. Thanks to what they had learned, to the trust they had given to the organization itself, they were willing to do what they were told (sometimes, it has been said, because of the information they gave about themselves to leaders of the cult, they were blackmailed and so were too afraid to do otherwise). For all those who were recruited into the inner group, there were many more going to the self-help seminars, to its businesslike meetings, making the cult seem to be anything other than a cult. Those who went to such seminars would be surprised to learn what was going on in the inner circle of the group. Amanda Ottoway, in Glamour discussed how cults are often like this, picking up and using what they can to make themselves appear to be anything other than a cult so that they could be mainstreamed:

But before Raniere’s trial, Lalich said in an interview she hoped it would show the public what she knows—that in the last few decades, cults have been “mainstreamed.” “Business cults, leadership, new age training—they’re rampant,” she said. After the trial, she reiterated: “Cults have so infiltrated into the business world. And NXIVM fits right into that.”

“People don’t want to think it can happen to them,” Lalich says. “So they want to denigrate the people it happens to—‘these crazy people.’ And in fact, that’s not at all who cults want.”[4]

Cults know how to manipulate people, and a major part of that manipulation is to find a way to appear to outsiders to be anything other than a cult. And only those who have been able to be manipulated and controlled, who have lost their freedom of thought and unable to think outside of what they have been told, are able to see the true interior of the cult. Such members have lost the ability to question what they are being asked to do.

Cults are difficult to detect because they are not made of “weirdos,” but rather, they are often made of otherwise seemingly normal people. They like to hide in plain sight. They like to appear to be doing good, so that if anyone questions them, that goodness, that niceness, will be used as a way to deny that they are a cult.

Most cults will not be as bad as NXIVM in how they control and use their members. But, if one is observant, one will find ways cults work to encourage their members to separate, in some fashion or another, from society, to disregard society as a whole as a lost cause, and to form their own special group, their own gnostic “red pilled” group which knows better. Once this has happened, such members will experience and interpret the world based upon the hermeneutic given by that “pill.” This is why, far from appearing irrational, they will be able to present arguments to defend themselves and their beliefs. They will be using various premises which make it appear they continue to be rational members of society. Nonetheless, if one is careful, if one pays attention, those arguments and those insights will be subversive, denigrating not only the common good, but also replacing basic rational principles with irrational ideologies. When trying to determine who is involved with a cult, and whether or not some particular group or organization is a cult, this is exactly what must look for and keep in mind. Cults hide in plain sight. They will do everything they can to appear not to be a cult. They will have defenders, even people not from the cult, claiming they can’t be a cult because they don’t appear to be such to the public. But that is always to be expected. We must look deeper at the group, at its beliefs and practices, to truly see if a potential cult is a cult. If all we do is look to the externals, few cults will ever be detected.

[1]Fleur Brown, “I Grew Up In a Cult And I Can Tell You Why ‘Normal’ People Join Them” in Insider (4-8-2019).

[2]Fleur Brown, “I Grew Up In a Cult And I Can Tell You Why ‘Normal’ People Join Them.”

[3] Lauren Kranc, “How NXIVM Seduced Hollywood Stars and America’s Most Powerful Elite Into a Barbaric ‘Sex Cult’” in Esquire (8-23-2020).

[4] Amanda Ottaway, “The Cult That Sold #Empowerment” in Glamour (9-23-2019).


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