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'Victims gradually lose their ability to make independent decisions and exercise informed consent.'
- Dr Margaret Singer


Online Book - 'From Fear to Freedom' by Peter Black
The only life he knew was in a controlling cult. After 30 years, a broken marriage and ravaged self esteem, Peter steps out into suburban Brisbane, a world of unknown technology, few friends and years of rebuilding.  

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Chapter 2: What constitutes a cult?

It’s all very well to talk about one cult or another but what is one? If you have never had any experience with cults, could you recognize a harmful one if you came across it?

Around the World there are many churches and most seek only to do good. Some bring help to people of all types regardless of their religious affiliations if any. These genuine organizations also provide a peaceful environment for their members to gather together and worship God according to their particular belief. Leaders of such churches try to point the way to God and do not seek to be elevated to a status which interferes with the congregation’s view of God.

The gentle and patient guide, and the supporting behavior towards individual spiritual searches and journeys, rather than the overbearing doctrinaire controlling behavior, are the marks of difference between a genuine church and a controlling cult.

How unfortunate it would be then if a genuine Church with no motives to bring harm and only good were to be mistakenly labeled as a religious cult. Equally, how sad it is that many controlling cults falsely present themselves as harmless churches and get away with it.

So how then do you tell if a particular group may be a damaging cult? If you have questions about a so-called Church you are in or want to determine whether a group you are thinking of joining is out to help or harm you, then this question must be truthfully answered.

You will find a list here of characteristics which will help you in making this determination. This doesn’t mean that all cults will be guilty of each and every factor however it is a safe bet that a cult which could be destructive will exhibit the bulk of these problems. This list is general and not definitive, for a more technical explanation of how to spot a cult, please visit:

Characteristics of a harmful cult:

  • Usually headed by a strong and charismatic leader who may claim to have direct contact with God beyond that of anyone else, or may even claim to be God on Earth, Jesus, or speaking as some other famous religious leader re-incarnated.
  • The leader and those around him or her live a luxurious life-style while the regular member struggles in poverty due to financial demands placed on them by the cult.
  • Cults frequently have a persecution complex, that is, they fear and teach their members to fear “the outside World”.
  • Cult messages often have a pre-occupation with fear of “the wrath to come”. This is used to deliberately scare members and prospective members in order to gain their attention and make them susceptible to mind control.
  • Ex-members are usually shunned and if a family member leaves the cult, it’s not unusual for the cult to forbid contact between family remaining within it and “the one gone astray”.
  • Cults are often very secretive and try to stop religious services and other group activities from being viewed by “outsiders”.
  • A Cult may condone or even encourage a member to break the law in the country where it operates believing that the group is subject to only the law of God.
  • Members are often discouraged or forbidden from seeking medical aid even if they are very ill. This may be seen as a lack of faith.
  • People within a cult are usually not permitted to read books or other literature not written by a leader, minister or which has not been approved by someone senior within the group. Or if other sources of information are not banned altogether, they may be strongly discouraged or scorned.
  • Cults are frequently given to elitism, that is, they teach that being within the organization will make members special. Set apart and blessed by God.
  • Children within a cult are sometimes discouraged or banned from seeking a regular education as the group may view such schooling as “of the devil”.

The word cult simply means a group devoted to a person or thing. You could have a superman or star-trek cult for example. These aren’t likely to be destructive unless people really become obsessed. Hopefully the description above will make it easier to sort out destructive cults from those which are not.

It will be obvious then that spending a significant amount of time in a manipulative and controlling cult leads to major damage to anyone and rebuilding a life afterwards is a huge challenge. In the next chapter we will look at how cults do so much harm to people all over the world.

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Disclaimer: This page is about groups, organisations or movements, which may have been called "cults" and/or "cult-like" in some way, shape or form.  But not all groups called either "cults" or "cult-like" are harmful.  Instead, they may be benign and generally defined as simply people intensely devoted to a person, place or thing.  An account from one person must be read as that; ideas could have been taken out of context or have been misunderstood.  Also, practices may change over time, or between one centre and another.  CIFS encourages readers to research widely before forming an opinion.  Information from one single source would need to be judged against other sources and one's own personal experience.  Therefore, the discussion or mention of a group, organisation or person on this page is not necessarily meant pejoratively. 
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