Beware of False Prophets: The Rise of the Cult

They're looking for the vulnerable, the alone, the deprived — and they'll say anything

Our culture is becoming increasingly disconnected. Even before the advent of smartphones, human communication was eroding — and so was communication with the spiritual. There is one potential upside to this trend, however — it may create additional yearning for a spiritual or religious connection.

Yet with this yearning comes potential dangers.

Religion has been routinely demonized in American culture. Consequently, those who seek spiritual wisdom risk falling into the clutches of organizations designed to steal away one’s free will, to control them, and to steer them down a black hole of mind control.

It is tempting for those seeking spiritual guidance to “give this new group a try.”

Cults are today’s false prophets, and they are everywhere. Some reports say the actual number of cults could be as high as 30,000, with up to 4 million people having fallen into their vicious traps.

It is tempting for those seeking spiritual guidance yet who are resistant to organized religion for those own reasons to “just give this new group a try.” Moreover, cults are not so easy to spot. Few cults have their members running around in weird clothes, carrying torches, or howling at the moon.

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Nor are cults necessarily filled with weak individuals, or those who are mentally disturbed.

Particularly dangerous is that some cults may actually offer some of the things that individuals are seeking. It’s just that it comes at a very high price.

Here are some warning signs for cults. Always be mindful whenever any organization reaches out to you personally or individually — especially if you’ve recently suffered some kind of trauma.

1.) Deception
Back in the old days, the snake oil salesmen would make the most outrageous claims about their “cure-all” product. Those claims would never stand up to scrutiny; yet at the same time, nobody actually scrutinized them. The same is true of cults.

Vague promises of enlightenment are always the first warning sign. True spiritual nourishment should be spoken of in specifics, but shouldn’t be dogmatic. Comment such as, “You just won’t understand unless you experience it,” is a pretty clear sign that something is wrong.

Related: This Advent, Remember the Persecuted Christians

The cult may also offer vague claims about supporting or helping some cause designed to elicit an emotional response. “We help starving children in Africa,” or “We visit terminally ill people in hospice,” may sound wonderful, and that’s the point. It’s to make you think that this group couldn’t be bad if they support such things.

So ask for specifics. What hospice? What country in Africa? How exactly does the money help? Who’s behind the organization? Ask these questions and more.

2.) Inclusion
Cults seek to make people feel included, special, and “seen.” One common set of tactics is to break down new recruits by embarrassing or humiliating them before others. Then, they’ll aim to get these people to admit to something awful they’ve done or something they’re ashamed of – and instantly show acceptance. Now the new recruits feel a special bond with those who have accepted them for something nobody else ever did.

3.) Isolation
A cult wants to cut individuals off from emotional support systems. Because the cult wants to control members, at some phase during recruitment individuals will be told they can no longer speak to friends and family. After feeling accepted by the cult, the person will suddenly feel reluctant to lose this approval.

4.) Attacks or Defensiveness
Any true spiritual path should engage reason and logic at some point. Think about Christianity or Judaism. Ask any learned individual in the faith about any given element, and he or she will not only be able to provide specifics about that element, but when challenged, be able to respond with reason. Any logic used should not only be internally consistent with the faith’s dogma, but externally consistent with the real world.

Related: Finding Faith in Your Fifties

If your questioning is greeted by defensiveness, or an attack on you personally — beware.

5.) Secrecy
The beauty of Judaism is that the sacred texts (the Talmud) are on display for all to see, published all over the world. Even better, commentaries on those texts reach deep into history. The same goes for the New Testament. However, a cult will restrict access and knowledge. One must move through a hierarchy in order to gain “enlightenment,” with each new phase demanding more and more commitment from the individual … and often, more and more money.

6.) Apocalyptic Vision
Cults reached mainstream awareness because of the Jonestown mass suicide in 1978. It took the deaths of over 900 members of this cult to awaken the rest of the world to the true existence, and the dangers, of cults. Any dogma that routinely uses apocalyptic language and imagery is perhaps the worst warning sign of all.

There are plenty of ways to experience self-transcendence, to better oneself, or to find emotional and spiritual harmony.

Use your gut instincts in every circumstance. Truth will be your guide — be open to its voice.

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