In his seminal book, Dangerous Cults, Genuine Religions and Other Stereotypes (www.religioustolerance.org), James R Lewis argues: “The proper question to ask is whether the socio-psychological dynamics within a particular religion are potentially dangerous to its members and/or to the larger society.”
So how do we determine whether a group may indeed be engaging in manipulative, abusive and exploitative practices? American cult expert, interventionist expert and author of Cults Inside Out: How People Get In and Can Get Out (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform), Rick Alan Ross lists the following warning signs of a potentially unsafe group:
• The group/leader is the sole authority on “the truth” and there is a culture of absolute authoritarianism, with no tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.
• There is an increasing loss of individual identity among followers, leading to seemingly programmed conversation and
mannerisms, cloning of the group/leader in personal behaviour and increasing isolation from family and old friends.
• There is a culture of fear about the outside world and of catastrophe, evil conspiracies
• Former followers are always wrong in leaving.
• Members who deviate from the rules are subjected to emotional, physical or financial punishment.
• The group operates in strict secrecy and members may not discuss their activities outside it. Ross notes that “anyone, given the right set of circumstances, can be vulnerable to cult recruitment. Typically, people going through a difficult time in life are vulnerable, especially if someone they trust, a close friend, co-worker, family member or romantic interest, introduces them to a group.”
What you can do:
If you suspect a close friend or family member has joined a potentially harmful group, it’s vital to have an attitude of caution and restraint. Ross suggests the following coping mechanisms:
• First and foremost, educate yourself about cults in general and the specific beliefs, practices, dynamics, demands and control techniques of the group. Notable books on the subject include: Cults in Our Midst by Margaret Singer (Jossey-Bass), Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism by Robert Jay Lifton (University of North Carolina Press), Influence by Robert Cialdini (Harper Business) and Snapping by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman (Stillpoint Press).
• Seek support from trusted family members, mental health professionals, clergy and cult experts.
• Maintain communication with the cult member to counter the group’s control over them, provide them with a link to the outside world and remind them of happy memories involving friends and family.
• Ensure all communication and contact with them is loving, positive, sensitive, tolerant and understanding. Avoid confrontation, criticisms and punishments.