How do I know I'm in a cult? 14 telltale signs to look out for

How do I know I'm in a cult? 14 telltale signs to look out for

Body bags are seen arranged as forensic experts and homicide detectives exhume bodies of suspected members of a Christian cult named as Good News International Church, who believed they would go to heaven if they starved themselves to death, in Shakahola forest of Kilifi county, Kenya April 22, 2023. REUTERS/Stringe

Religious cult followers tend to adhere strongly to the teachings of a specific person or persons’ misinterpretation of the Bible as contrasted to occults which are groups whose belief is in hidden or secret knowledge that goes beyond the range of ordinary human knowledge that is not necessarily backed by scripture. 

Cultic groups use certain practices to acquire such knowledge, which include divination, fortune telling, spiritism, and magic. 

Characteristics associated with cults

1. The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the truth, as law.

2. Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

3. Mind-altering are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

4. The leadership dictates, sometimes to a great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).

5. The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).

6. The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

7. The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).

8. The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus purposes).

9. The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.

10. Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.

11. The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

12. Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

13. Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

14. The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group. 

Under the Bill of Rights, the Constitution of Kenya says that “every person has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion”, and that every Kenyan has the right “to manifest any religion or belief through worship, practice, teaching or observance, including observanceof a day of worship” without restrictions. 

The law is, however, silent on the subject of cultism.


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