Signs You're in a Cult

I know that deep down, you feel like your life lacks meaning. The daily grind 
wears you down, leaving you feeling broken and lonely. You’ve got work stacked on top of school compounded by chores and errands, there is no time for you to experience true joy in your life. 
You feel powerless and unable to find inner peace on your own. The pressure morphs into anxiety, and sometimes you wish you had guidance or a trusted friend to tell you what to do. 
Wouldn’t it be nice to feel taken care of for a change? To feel emotionally nurtured alongside like-minded people? Wouldn’t you love the support of a loving community that will accept you for who you are and guide you into becoming the person you’re meant to be? A place where you’d be treated like royalty, distinguished from the rest of the world. 
If I told you all of this is available to you right now, completely free of charge, hypothetically, would you sign up?
For the more skeptical, the answer might be a hard ‘no.’ Red flags are flapping in the breeze. I’ll admit, you caught me. I borrowed some rhetorical tactics cult leaders use to lure in new members. Overpromising, preying on your fears, using demeaning language to manipulate you into following me.
Cult leaders like Jim Jones were masters at code-switching. He could easily change his tone and pick up on local slang to appeal to various people. He used this tactic to attract young leaders in the Civil Rights movement, promising them a community founded on racial equality.
You’re more willing to trust someone who speaks like you. That’s why once you’re entrenched in a cult, you learn a common vocabulary that becomes second nature. Scientology has a notoriously cryptic language that only they can understand. New members devote hours to studying their textbooks and dictionaries, perfecting this language.
But what exactly is so bad about cults? I mean, think about it, cults provide people with community and spiritual meaning, pillars of a happy, fulfilled life. Throughout history, most people would turn to organized religion to find these things, but that’s not the case anymore. A Pew Research study in 2019 showed that 4 out of 10 millennials don’t identify with any religion. 
With religion cast aside, you’d think secular culture would be thriving. And from a business perspective, it is. TikTok and Twitter use algorithms to curate a feed just for you, keeping you on their platforms longer. Streaming services produce endless shows and movies, making it impossible to see everything regardless of how many hours of TV you watch each night.
People date on their phones and run their social lives through online video games and chat rooms. You are influenced by every video you watch and every targeted ad you click. Culture is an economic driver because it’s tailored to the individual on a one-to-one ratio of screen to face. By creating an experience that targets specific individuals, social media companies keep you online. They can sell your attention to advertisers which in turn, makes them more money.
As a result, our tastes have become increasingly niche. To recognize this, all you need to do is scroll through a friend’s phone for a few minutes. Their social media landscape would feel foreign to you. We each have our group chats and sketchy subreddits with weird inside jokes that are completely alien to even our closest friends. 
This is why it’s quite difficult to find any real community online. Most spaces are made up of dedicated fans who congregate around one charismatic podcast host, band, or TV show. These groups mislead us into thinking we are genuinely loved and cared for, but are we really? Because the day you say something bad about the group topic, you’re kicked out or canceled, never to return. 
Doesn’t this sound suspiciously cult-like? 
To figure that out, we need to determine what a cult is. 
The word “cult” is derived from the Latin word “cultus,” which means ‘to tend or take care of.’ You’ll see it in words like “culture” and “cultivate,” which bring up mental images of flourishing, interconnected webs of life.
A farmer cultivates his field for the next growing season. A scientist studies a bacterial culture under her microscope. Popular culture, from TV, movies, and books, gives people common reference points to relate to one another. Cults work similarly. They thrive off of the close relations between members. 

Okay, maybe that’s how cults worked originally, but it’s certainly not what most of us think of when we hear the word. 

In 1978, Jim Jones convinced over 900 of his followers to take their own lives. Around a decade earlier, Charles Manson instructed his members to execute eight people, including a pregnant Sharon Tate. 
These historic touchpoints transformed the world as we know it today. Religious Studies scholar, Rebecca Moore, says that now, ‘cult’ is only used to describe undesirable groups. Groups that terrify us and pervert social norms. Scientology, Heaven’s Gate, the Moonies. 

This is what cults have become. Organizations that prey on the vulnerable, cut them off from their families, and engage in all kinds of abuse. This type of cult behavior is sensationalized. Covered in the news cycle, molded into films and docuseries. People are obsessed with cults. The more horrific, the better. 

But by focusing our attention on the most sensational cults that most people won’t willingly join, we ignore the more subtle cults. Ones that could also be dangerous, maybe even more, because we look at them through rose-colored lenses, so the red flags just look like flags. 
The word ‘cult’ isn’t completely taboo. We use it colloquially all the time. You might use it to describe your grandma’s knitting club or your sister’s pickleball league, often as a joke. In these situations, we’re communicating the bonds people form around their niche interests. Sometimes, these groups look insular to outsiders who don’t know the lingo or social codes.
It can be strange to observe from the outside. When she’s with her knitting friends, Grandma suddenly sounds like she’s speaking gibberish. The etiquette of the pickleball court still eludes you even after your sister has explained it a hundred times. The connections these groups make mimic those made by members of more nefarious cults. A shared goal, insider language, an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ dynamic. Though grandma is not wielding dictatorial power with those knitting needles, nor is your sister using unsavory methods to lure new players to the court. I hope, at least. 
These, for the most part, are harmless cults. What I’m saying, in essence, is that cult-like behavior falls on a spectrum, with your grandma and sister’s groups described as ethical cults on the one end, and Charles Manson’s and Jim Jones’ described as destructive cults on the other. 
Ethical cults are honest about their beliefs, and membership is low stakes. The die-hard fans of a sports team or boy band might form ethical cults, what we call fandoms, around what they love. It’s a group of people who share a sense of meaning and fulfillment around a shared special interest. 
Leaders might emerge, like the leader of the fan club or a YouTuber that knows insider secrets about the band, but they don’t tend to wield their power in overly manipulative ways. 
These “cults” nourish people and give their lives meaning, even if that meaning is Taylor Swift. It sounds silly. Any boomers watching right now are most likely shaking their heads. But it’s a good metric that qualifies our interactions with media today.
Falling down rabbit holes and watching live streams, these activities become ceremonious, participatory actions in what you love. It’s not pointless or mind-numbing. You are bringing yourself closer to something you consider godlike. 
Offline, ethical cults provide a break for those tired of too much screen time. Exercise outfits like CrossFit, SoulCycle, and hot yoga have amassed devout followers. Even scholars at the Harvard Divinity School have recognized these trendy workout crazes as a fundamental part of America’s modern religious landscape.
But anything - from Dungeons and Dragons, to cosplaying, to drag performance can similarly affect groups of people. If a group enjoys an activity enough, it has the potential to morph into an ethical cult, which is kind of beautiful.
Look at your own life. What do you do that gives you peace and happiness? Are you part of any clubs or take part in hobbies that make you feel complete and give your life meaning? You might be in a cult, an ethical cult, without even knowing. 

The problem starts when the pendulum swings the other way, and the ethical cult stops being so ethical. There is an African proverb that says, “Who the gods want to kill, they first make mad.” That’s what the unethical cults do. They lie to you and gaslight you so much that you lose self-awareness and cognitive ability. Then you’re locked in with nowhere to go and can’t even think your way out of the situation. 
That’s why most people trapped in this abusive dynamic choose to stay. Even though everyone on the outside can see just how dangerous it is, they can’t. They’ve lost their perception of reality. Approached on the street by a young, bubbly man with a bowtie and a clipboard promising the world, you might think you’d recognize the difference between an ethical and destructive cult. But you’d be surprised at how easy it is for the lines to get blurred. 

And you might be persuaded whether you think more intuitively or take your time to reflect on things. If you think intuitively, without understanding what a cult looks and acts like, you might sign up on the spot before you know what’s happening. 

If you reflect and think things through, you might initially laugh at discussing your salvation with a stranger on the street. But when you’re home alone, you might take a quick look the literature and think that maybe, just maybe, he was making some valid points. 

Before you know it, you’re attending meetings, ascending the spiritual ladder one payment at a time, and boom. You’re a cult member. You see, one of the biggest differences between ethical and destructive cults is the observance of ritual time. 
Ritual time separates the sacred things we do from the mundane tasks in our everyday lives. Catholic Mass or the Jewish Sabbath are examples of traditional religions carving out a specific time for worship. 
To enter ritual time, you perform a symbolic action. These days, religious scholars count unrolling a yoga mat or tying up shoelaces before a run as acts that separate the sacred from the mundane. Similarly, when the spiritual offering is complete, you must exit ritual time and return to everyday life. This might just be a simple ‘namaste’ at the end of a yoga workout.
But destructive cults don’t allow their members to exit ritual time, which is a form of abuse. Every aspect of life is given over to serve the supposed sacred. No time off would allow you to process your spiritual life from a different perspective.

That right there is the problem. Most people today would not willingly follow a cult-like leader like Charles Manson. Still, the never-ending digital culture we experience has made us more likely to engage in cult-like behavior without even realizing it. 

Yeah, your Discord groups and TikTok For You Page provide you with community, but do you observe ritual time within these spaces? You scroll during breakfast, while waiting in line or on the toilet. Social media’s 24/7, fast-paced nature makes it difficult to leave this ritual time because of the fear of missing out. It blurs the boundary between the sacred and the everyday.

You can spend the whole day defending Taylor Swift on Twitter or streaming the new BTS album. So you do, without thinking too much about it. The sad truth is that when the sacred starts to intermingle with the mundane, and there’s no distinction between what is ‘us’ and what is ‘you,’ you might be in a cult—and not an ethical one.