It’s no coincidence that so many cults align themselves with mainstream religions. Like a predatory animal that has evolved to resemble something commonplace and nonthreatening, these organizations understand that the more they appear to be a branch of a familiar institution, the more easily they’ll be able lure new followers into the fold.
This insidious (and often effective) tactic might be difficult to spot at first, but it can be done. Ahead, we spoke with cult researcher and author Janja Lalich, Ph.D., professor emerita of sociology at California State University, Chico, about the key distinctions, explicit and implicit, between legitimate religions and cults.
All summer long, Refinery29 will be examining cults from every angle: pop culture, fashion, food, beauty, and their controversial origins. Let’s dig into the fascination behind this fervor with “Cult Fridays.”
They will rush you
A church will likely give you time to decide whether you want to join the congregation — it won’t expect you to be at every service and Bible study meeting right off the bat. Cults, on the other hand, tend to “cajole” and “barrage” potential followers until they fully commit to joining. And part of this tactic is dismissing any questions that newcomers may have about the cult’s inner workings. “If you find that your questions aren’t being answered or your questions are being turned back on you, it’s probably not a legitimate group,” Dr. Lalich says, adding that cult representatives will likely direct you toward the cult’s introductory courses or workshops, which will supposedly answer all your questions. “By the time you get through those, you don’t remember what your questions were, and you’ve been indoctrinated not to ask questions,” she says.
Their leader is their higher power
“A legitimate religion is going to have you worshiping a higher source,” Dr. Lalich says. “You’re not expected to worship the living being in front of you or the writings of some living being.” One pop culture trope surrounding cults that’s actually true is the “charismatic cult leader” — people who are so magnetic that they manipulate their followers into believing that they aren’t just upholding a divine message but that they themselves are divine. Simply put, it’s a red flag if the leader of an organization claims to be the only person who can speak for a particular god or holy being — “nobody speaks for those people or things,” Dr. Lalich says.
They control, rather than guide
“A decent religion will say, ‘Be kind to your neighbors,'” Dr. Lalich says. “So, when someone moves into your neighborhood, you might take them a cake, but nobody comes and checks on you to see if you’ve really taken them a cake.” In other words, conventional religions don’t constantly watch their followers to make sure they’re following their tenets exactly — but cults absolutely do. Dr. Lalich says new followers will often be assigned a “monitor,” who is simply a more seasoned member of the cult, who will watch their every move and report them to cult authorities if they break any rules. And those rules, Dr. Lalich explains, can touch every part of someone’s life, from how they dress to how they raise their children (if, that is, the cult permits everyone to have children in the first place).
They make it impossible to trust fellow followers
Naturally, a system of strict conformity in which followers report on each other doesn’t exactly cultivate a warm sense of community. Where a religion can serve as a safe haven and outlet for its congregants, cults undermine any type of fellowship followers may have with each other. Dr. Lalich explains that public confession and, subsequently, public shaming often play major roles in how cults function, as it guarantees total accountability and enforcement of its doctrine. “In the end, you don’t know who to trust,” Dr. Lalich says. “The only person to trust is the leader.”
Originally shared on Refinery29.