How to tell if you're in a cult

Jo Thornely
·Contributor
·6-min read

One of the claims you’ll hear over and over again in any discussion about cults is that nobody joins one. Nobody thinks “this group looks like a cult, I MUST be a part of it”. 

People don’t join cults, they join groups, and if they’re unlucky, those groups either become cults, or are very good at pretending they’re not one.

Crowd assembling in front of bright light
How do you know if you're in a cult? Photo: Getty

Most people don’t know they’re in a cult until their compound gets raided, or they’re arrested for attempted murder or human trafficking, or they’ve sold all their possessions to pay for information that doesn’t turn out to be true.

There are always clues, though. How strict are the rules of your book club? Does the administrator of your alternative community keep dropping hints about who would be great for you to have children with? Does someone in your vegan facebook group think your family is just holding you back? If you’re in a group and you have any suspicions at all that you might really be in a cult, see how many times you answer ‘yes’ to the following questions.

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When you joined the group, were they really over-the-top pumped to have you there?

If you felt like the people already in the group loved the absolute stuffing out of you almost as soon as you met them, making your existing friendships and relationships seem lukewarm by comparison, you might be in a cult. Take a long hard look at yourself. You’re alright, but these people are unbelievably excited to see you. Unless you’re a kitten, that’s a bit over the top. Are you a kitten? (You are not a kitten).

not a cat zoom lawyer fail
'I'm not a cat!' Photo: Facebook

Does the head of your group have an essential role in the group’s story?

If the main narrative of the group just couldn’t either exist or be effectively delivered without the divine gifts or superior expertise of its leader, you might be in a cult. There are lots and lots of people who have claimed to be God’s messenger, or at least the holder of life-changing secrets in the past, and the number of those who have turned out to be legitimate is extremely close to zero. What are the odds that you’ve stumbled across the first one to get it right? Come on. You’re not that lucky.

Do you give money to the group, not for goods or services or training, but for access to secrets or ‘spreading the message’?

If the secret or the message is going to save the world or help humanity progress, then what kind of self-interested, mean-spirited asshole asks for money for that? Sure, people pay for self-improvement books and classes, but you have to remember that if you’re not seeing your money’s worth of improvement, then it’s not worth paying for, and if you have to keep paying for more and more of it, you might be in a cult. If I had an actual solution to the world’s problems, it wouldn’t be difficult to spread that message, and even if I charged for it, it wouldn’t stay behind a paywall for very long. Good news and truth aren’t expensive.

Did the group do something good for you a while ago, but nothing for you lately?

If, when you joined the group, a personal problem of yours got solved, or you saw things more clearly, that’s great. But there’s a difference between a group that is good for you and a group that did one good thing for you and then reminds you of that thing over and over again to make you feel bad for questioning it. You know that person you live with that says “but I put the recycling out TWO WEEKS AGO, how DARE you ask me to do something again” whenever you ask them to help around the house? That person is a cult. You live with a cult. (You don’t really live with a cult. Maybe).

Are you being told what not to read?

Look, recommending books is great – I wrote one about cults that has advice just like this in it, you should definitely read that one. If all the books recommended to you have been written by the same person, that’s less great. But if you’re being told not to read things because they contain dangerous information, you might be in a cult. Cult leaders – and sometimes leaders of dictatorships, let’s be fair – don’t want their message diluted by irritating facts or differing opinions. If a group’s message is threatened by outside voices or questions, the message can’t be much chop to begin with.

If you don’t do specific things, will something terrible happen?

Okay, if you don’t look both ways before crossing the street you might get hit by a car, and if you read the comments on social media posts you might lose faith in humanity, granted. But if you’re being told that something very bad will happen if you either do things you’ve always done before, or don’t do things that you’ve always been fine not doing before, you might be in a cult. Especially and of most importance: don’t let people tell you who you should have sex with. Those people are bad people.

Are your friends and family suddenly bad news?

If you always thought they were fine, but now you think they might be bad for you even though they haven’t really changed, you might be in a cult. Youre almost certainly in a cult if your friends and family keep saying “you’re in a cult, come home”. See, because friends and family are always saying things like that to people who are in cults, while cult leaders – who don’t care about you, by the way – are always trying to convince followers that friends and family are liars and a bad influence on you.

If you’ve just realised you’re in a cult, then you should definitely tell somebody. Today. Tell somebody who isn’t in a cult that you’re in a cult TODAY. Your gym probably doesn’t count as a cult, sorry.

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