6 Warning Signs of Religious Cults

These signs are red flags that a group has cult-like potential

Shoko Asahara, the leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, addresses adherents in India
Shoko Asahara, the leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, addresses adherents in India. Sygma via Getty Images / Getty Images

From the deadly Branch Davidians cult to the ongoing debate over Scientology, the concept of cults is well-known and frequently discussed. Nevertheless, each year, thousands of people are drawn into cults and cult-like organizations, often because they are unaware of the cult-like nature of the group until they have already joined.

The following six warning signs indicate that a religious or spiritual group might in fact be a cult.

01
of 06

The Leader is Infallible

In many religious cults, followers are told that the leader or founder is always right. Those who ask questions, stir up any potential dissent, or behave in any way that puts their loyalty into question are often punished. Often, even those outside the cult who cause problems for leaders can be victimized, and in some cases, the retribution is deadly.

The cult leader often believes him or herself to be special or even godlike in some way. According to Joe Navarro of Psychology Today, many cult leaders throughout history possess "an over-abundant belief that they and they alone had the answers to problems, and that they had to be revered."

02
of 06

Deceptive Recruitment Tactics

Cult recruitment typically revolves around convincing potential members that they will be offered something they do not have in their current lives. Because leaders often prey upon those who are weak and vulnerable, it's not hard to persuade them that joining the group will somehow make their lives better.

Those who are marginalized by society, have a minimal support network of friends and family, and who feel like they don't belong are prime targets for cult recruiters. By offering potential members a chance to be part of something special — whether spiritual, financial, or social — they are typically able to lure people in.

Typically, recruiters lead with a low-pressure sales pitch. It's kept fairly low key, and recruits aren't told about the true nature of the group immediately.

03
of 06

Exclusivity in Faith

Most religious cults demand that their members give them exclusivity. Participants are not permitted to attend other religious services, and are told that they can only find true salvation through the teachings of the cult. 

The Heaven's Gate cult, which was active in the 1990s, operated under the idea that an extraterrestrial spaceship would come to take members away from earth, centering around the arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet. Further, they believed that evil aliens had corrupted much of humanity, and that all other religious systems were in fact tools of these malevolent beings. As such, members of Heaven's Gate were instructed to leave whatever churches they had belonged to prior to joining the group. In 1997, 39 members of Heaven's Gate committed a mass suicide.

04
of 06

Intimidation, Fear, and Isolation

Cults typically isolate members from their family, friends, and co-workers outside the group. Members are taught early on that their only true friends — their real family, so to speak — are other cult followers. This allows leaders to isolate participants from those who might try to get them out from under control of the group.

Alexandra Stein, author of Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems, was part of a Minneapolis-based group called The Organization for several years. After breaking free of the cult, she explained her experience of cult-enforced isolation in this way:


"...[f]ar from finding true comradeship or companionship, followers face a triple isolation: from the outside world, from each other within the closed system, and from their own internal dialogue, where clear thinking about the group might arise."

Since a cult can only continue to operate with power and control, leaders do everything they can to keep their members loyal and obedient. When someone begins to make attempts to leave the group, that member often finds themselves on the receiving end of financial, spiritual, or even physical threats. Sometimes, their non-member families will be threatened with harm as well, in order to keep the individual within the group.

05
of 06

Illegal Activities

Historically, religious cult leaders have been involved in illegal activities. These range from financial misdeeds and fraudulent acquisition of wealth to physical and sexual abuse. Several have even been convicted of murder.

The Children of God cult was accused of numerous counts of molestation in their communes. Actress Rose McGowan lived with her parents in a COG group in Italy until she was nine years old. In her memoir, Brave, McGowan wrote about her early memories of being beaten by cult members and recalled how the group advocated for sexual relationships between adults and children.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his Rajneesh Movement accumulated millions of dollars every year through various investments and holdings. Rajneesh also had a fondness for Rolls Royces, and owned over four hundred of them.

Japan's Aum Shinrikyo cult may have been one of the deadliest groups in history. In addition to carrying out a deadly sarin gas attack on Tokyo's subway system that left a dozen dead and thousands injured, Aum Shinrikyo was also responsible for several assassinations. Their victims included lawyer named Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his wife and child, as well as Kiyoshi Kariya, the brother of a cult member who had escaped. 

06
of 06

Religious Dogma

Religious cult leaders typically have a strict set of religious principles that members are expected to follow. While there may be a focus on the direct experience of the divine, it is typically done through the leadership of the group. Leaders or founders may claim to be prophets, as David Koresh of the Branch Davidians told his followers.

Some religious cults include Doomsday prophecies and a belief that the End Times are coming.

In some cults, male leaders have claimed that God has instructed them to take multiple wives, which leads to the sexual exploitation of women and underage girls. Warren Jeffs of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a fringe offshoot group that broke away from the Mormon church, was convicted of sexually assaulting two girls aged 12 and 15. Jeffs and other members of his polygamist sect routinely "married" underage girls, claiming that it was their divine right.

In addition, most cult leaders make it clear to their followers that they are the only ones who are special enough to receive messages from the divine, and that anyone else who claims to hear the word of God will find themselves punished or ostracized from the group.

Cult Warning Signs Key Takeaways

  • Cults operate under a system of control and intimidation, and new members are often recruited using deceptive, manipulative tactics.
  • A religious cult often twists spirituality to suit the purpose of the leader or leaders, and those who question or criticize typically find themselves punished.
  • Illegal activities are rampant in religious cults, which thrive on isolation and fear. Often, these illegal practices involve physical and sexual abuse.