Am I in a cult?
“The difference between a cult and a religion is social acceptance’: Aphorisms for heretics, #44. Blog entry from the Practical Heretic, heartfeltministries.net
There are a lot of alternative religious groups out there in the world. Most are peaceful, wanting only to help their members to live better in an increasingly complex and confusing world. Some may be variants of Christianity, others may follow Eastern religious teachings, some are Pagan and some may follow UFO sightings. Some want you to stockpile weapons, protest at military funerals, surrender all your property or buy many publications they have thoughtfully provided, including shipping and handling.
If you have found some new friends, congratulations! I hope they are good company for you. If they want you to knock on doors a certain number of hours each week and deliver badly-written pamphlets, you may want to go bowling instead.
How do you tell if the group is a cult or a religion?
There are a few good signs that will warn you, if you are looking for them. They may claim a special mission for the world, or that they are being harassed and persecuted. (As a note, any group that is having serious legal issues should be avoided. There is often a good reason the police are knocking.)
If the leader claims to be the physical incarnation of ANY deity or spiritual figure, put down the tract and back away slowly. This is a bad, bad sign of instability at the very top of the organization.
If they encourage research and debate, as well as learning everything you can, this is a good sign they are sincere and mean well. Any group that tries to restrict your access to information or a dissenting opinion should be avoided.
There are other signs as well. Religioustolerance.org is a Toronto-based group that has a very unbiased website listing many new groups. (http://www.religioustolerance.org/cultintro.htm) They have pages on most major religions as well as many of the more current New Age or Alternative groups, and as far as I am able to determine, they make a huge effort to be neutral, factual, and accurate. If you are looking for information, this is a great site to use.
Cultwatch.com is another very useful website. They have a list of characteristics and warning signs that delineate a harmful cult. (http://www.cultwatch.com) Well-written and strongly advocating that the reader does their own research outside of the organization they are thinking of joining. Also includes many useful news links for stories around the globe.
http://www.howcultswork.com is a website that gives a point-by-point overview of the techniques used by exclusive groups and the reasoning behind them. Their warnings may be a little overblown, but they do give some very good warning signs.
As a general rule, if your new friends isolate you from your old friends and family, advocate violence and theocracy, or want you to break ANY laws, my advice is that you should run the other way. You may or may not want to call the police as well.
I started this article with a quote from the Aphorisms for Heretics from a previous Practical Heretic entry. Let me finish it with another: “Never trust anyone who tells you to check your brains at the door.”
Find your peace, friends.