What Are Some Differences Between a Cult and a Healthy Religious Practice?

What Are Some Differences Between a Cult and a Healthy Religious Practice? January 27, 2022


I want to talk a little about the difference between a cult and a healthy religious practice.

Sometimes it can be hard to tell which is which, especially since cults never call themselves cults. They always call themselves something else. And both a cult and a healthy religious practice can involve foreswearing behaviors that people outside your group think are acceptable. They can involve spending a lot of time with the same group of people. They certainly have a lot to do with your outlook on the world and your sense of who you are. But you need to know the difference, because cults are abusive and dangerous.

The professional cult deprogrammer Rick Alan Ross has a list of three characteristics which make a cult a cult: charismatic leaders with no meaningful accountability; a process of indoctrination, “thought reform” or brainwashing; and economic, sexual or other exploitation of the members by the rulers of the group. He also has a list of ten warning signs that the group your looking at might be a cult, and I’m going to quote these directly from the article I linked:

 1. Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.

2. No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.

 3. No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget or expenses, such as an independently audited financial statement.

 4. Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.

 5. There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.

 6. Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.

7.  There are records, books, news articles, or broadcast reports that document the abuses of the group/leader.

 8. Followers feel they can never be “good enough”.

9.  The group/leader is always right.

10. The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.

Now, I want to look at how these things can apply in real life. I have here a “policy notebook” from the Sword of the Spirit association of Christian communities in 1989; these were the policies used by the Servants of Christ the King Charismatic community, which was a member community right here in LaBelle in the 80s. Sword of the Spirit still exists, but Servants of Christ the King was shut down by the bishop in 1991, who said “I never again want to be part of a system that does injury to the most sacred right of a human being.”  And survivors are still speaking out and posting all the information they can gather about the group to this day.

Let’s take a look at these “policies” and the red flags that these communities in the 80s might be a cult instead of a healthy community. I encourage you to read the whole thing yourself; I’m going to go through it page by page and point out what jumps out to me.

The first page is all doomsday fearmongering and setting up the community as the only safe refuge from danger. This is classic cult talk and the “unreasonable fear of the outside world” mentioned by Ross. The policy notebook warns that most churches are “weak, divided and confused,” that God is going to take away His protections, that there are going to be days of persecution and darkness. The next two pages explain what they plan to do about this; they’re going to “provide leadership for God’s people” and “build a bulwark” which will protect “at least some of his people.”  These people will be prepared for “persecution” and made “loyal to one another.” They’re going to establish insular communities which teach others to “order ourselves in a disciplined way,” “teach people to be free from material goods and things of this world,” “train people in our communities in loyalty‘ and “help people learn to bear their suffering.

This kind of talk is designed to rile people up, to make them distrust the outside world and flee into the arms of someone who promises to shield them. A healthy religious practice would normally have an emphasis on helping others and going out into your community to tell the good news, whereas a cult generally makes you afraid of the world and want to burrow inside somewhere. And once you’re inside, they want to further frighten you with talk of persecution if you put a toe outside. They want to turn your attention inward and make you want to be loyal to other people there in the bunker instead of seeing yourself as part of the world outside. They get you so scared of the outside world that they can proceed to brainwashing, making you feel that you have to give up all the good things in your life, making you feel that you have to be loyal to the cult, making you feel that the suffering this entails is something you need to bear because the suffering out there can be worse.

And yes, nuance is important here, because a lot of healthy religious practices do help us to practice detachment from worldly things so we can be happier with spiritual goods. But a cultish detachment is not a joyful, voluntary detachment in order to find a greater joy. It’s a desperate, fearful detachment to keep you safe from a perceived danger outside, and it hurts. And then you’re taught that the hurt itself is good.

Pages six through fifteen of the document have some unbelievably alarming rules for the relationship between husband, wife and children that families in Sword of the Spirit and the Servants of Christ the King were supposed to observe. This is another serious red flag. In a healthy religious practice, families are supported and cared for by the community and they care for each other. In a cult, family is subordinated to the absolute authority of the heads of the cult. In the Sword of the Spirit, the family is not a group of people untied by love for one another, affirmed and helped in their vocation by the community. The family is subordinate to the community and used instrumentally by the community to further the community’s purposes.

In the the Sword of the Spirit and the Servants of Christ the King, the father is to be the absolute “governor” of the household and the mother his servant, but the father answers ultimately to the leaders of the community.  He is encouraged not to care for the opinions of those “under him.” The wife is ordered to “fear” and obey her husband. Married couples are encouraged to not have sex in a passionate way but only a reverent one and not to spend a lot of time together for social reasons and companionship, but instead to attend to their duties for the community. The father is not supposed to have much at all to do with the children until they are three, at which point the mother should withdraw from caring for the male children and leave them in the care of the father, taking only the training of the female children for herself. The father is warned never to be a playmate or companion for his children but only an authority, and to be the chief physical disciplinarian from the time the children are a year old. And the whole time, the parents are to guard against “exaggerated emotional attachment” to their sons and daughters.

These rules are transparently designed to prevent healthy attachment and bonding of children with their parents. They are also designed to create cold, unhappy marriages so that husbands and wives don’t support each other but go elsewhere for support. Fathers, mothers and children in this type of family don’t trust one another or lean on each other for help; they instead cling to the leaders of the community. The family is subordinated to the absolute leadership of the Sword of the Spirit and its member communities rather than relying on each other. This is what cults do.

On page fifteen and beyond we get some horrific details on the disciplining of children, some of which I’ve already mentioned– they are to be physically disciplined from the age of one year old. Boys are to get the most physical discipline for their fathers but fathers can hurt both boys and girls all the way up to the teenage years, especially for “serious matters.” Imagine the harm it does to a child if her father isn’t allowed to bond with her or be her friend but is encouraged to hurt her right up until she’s an adult. This is a manifestation of the indoctrination mentioned by Ross, and it feeds back into the absolute authority of the leaders: breaking down a person’s normal relationships with family so that only the cult leaders are sought out for comfort and help.

Speaking of indoctrination, take a look at this entire paragraph on page 16 of the document: “children, for their part, should learn to do what they are told to do when they are told to do it, to obey without arguing or resistance. They should not need coaxing or explanations to comply with their parents’ direction. They should be taught to obey other adults, (i. e. members of the community or the wider family, not necessarily strangers) even as they do their own parents.”  Children aren’t allowed to have a normal range of emotions when faced with a task they don’t want to perform. They aren’t to be given reasons for what they’re to do, they’re to be made to do it because they’re asked. And they are to have this reaction to every single adult in the community as much as to their own parents. Training a person, whether an adult or a child, to obey every command from a leader without emotion at the drop of a hat, with the threat of physical punishment if they don’t, is absolutely a form of brainwashing and indoctrination, not a part of a healthy religious practice. A healthy religious practice recognizes that emotions are not shameful and tells people the reasons why a certain action might be good or bad.

The document goes on to say that children should not have extracurricular activities outside of what is required at school– more isolation and breaking down of their normal human relationships so they rely only on the community for companionship. This is further indoctrination, hammering home the belief that only the cult is safe.

And  then we get the admonition that “Parents should form their children in Christian belief and character. They should refuse to leave anything in this area open to choice.” This is the “no tolerance for critical inquiry” that Ross mentioned. In a healthy religious practice, you’re free to question what you’re being taught. Families are free to insist their children attend church on Sunday until they’re grown up or something like that, but they realize that in the end, the choice of what to believe lies with the believer. You can’t force a belief. But cults do try to force beliefs.

The document then says that “Parents should see that their children are formed and trained in Christian and human character, especially in the traits of courage, honor, loyalty, generosity, humility, modesty, self-discipline, verbal restraint and indifference to self.”

“Indifference to self” is a loaded phrase that can be interpreted in different ways. There is a good and healthy way in which we all ought to “die to self” in order to love one another more effectively. But children are supposed to learn a health self-love and self-esteem before that type of selflessness can be cultivated. In a healthy religious practice, we love our neighbor as our own self, which involves learning to value ourselves as well. Cult indoctrination breaks down that love of self so people don’t have any thought for self-preservation but only for serving the leaders.

Next we have the page on “boy-girl relationships” which displays a deep, totalitarian control of teenagers’ sexuality. There are extreme limits on male and female interactions in the first place, and when they do interact the boys and girls are not allowed to flirt, express any attraction or even talk about who they “like.” There is to be no “dating” but only courtship between two supervised by the community, and they are to follow strict rules on that as well. This whole system of repression necessarily leads to arranged marriages even if they’re not called arranged marriages, since the leaders have absolute control, the pool of appropriate mates is so small, and young people are forced to not even think about what they might like sexually. Arranged marriages are one type of the sexual exploitation that Ross identifies as a characteristic of cults. And at the end of the page on boy-girl relationships, there is another admonition that the family exists to serve the community, rather than the other way around. In everything, the members of Sword of the Spirit were subordinate to their leaders.

The last two pages of the document detail restrictions on the media, the television and reading material and music, that members of the Sword of the Spirit and Servants of Christ the King may consume. It ends with the warning that “You need to be aware that the news is often unreliable and ideologically slanted.” There, one last time, is the indoctrination that things outside the cult are dangerous and lying to you; only in the cult can you find reliable truth.

I hope this deep dive into the policy notebook gives you a little insight into the difference between cultlike control and a healthy religious practice. If we think critically about the characteristics of a cult, I hope we’ll be able to notice when we’re being manipulated and indoctrinated into obedience to a dangerous leader, rather than helped and affirmed in our vocation and in communion with God and one another. Cults are seductive and easy to stumble into, so it’s important to be wary. Our religion should bring us into communion with God and each other, not force us into slavery and abuse.




Image via Pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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