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Don’t Get Tricked, Bro: How to Recognize a Cult

Illustration by Dan Evans

What could possibly compel nine families to quit their jobs, withdraw their kids from school, and otherwise leave their whole lives behind just to await the end of the world with a single crazy man who has told them it’s imminent?

Don’t they recognize the nature of what they’ve been roped into? It’s so obvious. How could anybody fall for an end of the world cult, when that’s the most common type and trivially easy for an outsider to identify?


Moreover, what happens when the supposed end of the world comes and goes? Do they see the charlatan who deceived them for what he is? Or do they invent rationalizations so they can go on holding the belief which they have committed to so irreversibly, by selling everything they own, leaving their homes and so on?

To understand why this ruse keeps on working, we’ll need to examine the inner workings of it and how cults leverage well-known methods of exploiting human psychological biases. An excellent resource for anybody who wants to get into this topic is When Prophecy Fails, psychologist Leon Festinger’s seminal case study of an end of the world cult led by one Dorothy Martin, aka Marian Keech, and what happened when her prediction didn’t come true.


Dorothy accumulated followers for her group, called The Seekers, by claiming she had been contacted by aliens through a method called automatic writing. This looks very much to an outsider like someone simply sitting down and writing something, but Dorothy claimed she was doing so under the control of an alien signal. It spoke of an imminent cataclysm that would destroy the Earth.


Those desiring to be spared needed only to sell their belongings and come follow Dorothy. Doting on her, adoring her for her otherworldly wisdom, hanging on her every word. Initially, the group was exclusive. Believing they held a hidden truth, they wouldn’t accept just anybody into their ranks. But then, the date of the supposed end came and went.

Nothing happened of course. Many present wept openly in anxiety and confusion. How could it not happen? They concocted various reasons on the spot. For example, perhaps it was because the time given was referring to some other time zone. Comforted, they went on waiting until the day was well and truly over, with no remaining possibility that the world would end on schedule.


No UFO showed up to whisk them away. No cataclysm destroyed the Earth. The entire basis for their worldview was crumbling before them. What did Dorothy do? She received an “emergency automatic writing” transmission informing her that “this little group has created so much light in the world, it has been spared destruction.”

A rationale that gave meaning to the group’s activities. Cosmic importance. So they weren’t just a bunch of gullible rubes who’d devoted years of their lives to the lies of a crazy, lonely person. This made for a much more desirable conclusion, one Dorothy’s followers eagerly believed.


But it wasn’t enough. Facing disconfirmation of beliefs which they were fully committed to, which were necessary for their happiness, they craved external validation. For as many other people as possible to believe the same thing, so they could feel assured that it’s true after all. That they weren’t duped.

So in a sudden reversal of their formerly secretive, exclusive nature, they instead publicized their group and its teachings. Reaching out to anybody who would listen, proselytizing, proclaiming the truth of their group and its founder, desperately seeking converts.

The same curious sequence of events can be seen in the documentary “End of the World Cult” (above), which followed the Lord Our Righteousness Church founded by Wayne Bent, aka Michael Travesser (cults are big on changing names as part of redefining identity) in the days leading up to when he said the world would end.

Of course, nothing happened. But again, rather than conclude that they were all duped, they invented a new rationalization for it, identical to Dorothy’s. That their little group was so good, so intensely pure and perfect, it shone as a beacon to God which stayed his hand. They weren’t a bunch of deceived fools, no! In fact, they saved the world.


“Transformation!” they cry, emerging from their trailer after the hour of the supposed end has passed. “Renewal!” Swinging lights around, delirious as their brains fight back the cognitive dissonance which would otherwise destroy them. Interpreting what’s happened as anything other than what it really is: Disconfirmation of beliefs to which they have committed their lives to.

For this reason, there are still devoted followers of Harold Camping if you can believe it. Despite the world not coming to an end in 2011 as he predicted, some still hang on and invent rationalizations for it.

You can see by now this is not a fluke or a novel human behavior, but in fact the most common reaction to the discovery you’ve been completely, humiliatingly deceived about something you were sure of. Something you devoted your life to.


The same thing happened during an event now called The Great Disappointment. The Millerites, followers of William Miller, believed the world would end some time between 1843 and 1844. He accumulated many followers, to the point that they ran the local newspaper to facilitate spreading their message.

Again though, when the date came and went without the end of the world, they did not simply conclude they were wrong. Instead, it gave birth to new sects with differing opinions about Miller and the event he predicted. The Seventh-Day Adventists got their start as a result of the Great Disappointment, for example.


More commonly, that’s the end of it. When the “end” comes and goes, it’s all over for the cult. There will be some die-hard believers who hang on until the founder dies. But in almost every case, because no plans have been made for how to carry on after that, the cult dies with its founder.

In a rare few instances, however, that didn’t happen. The cult was ‘built up’ enough, with enough members and organization that it just kept on going after the passing of the founder. Scientology is one famous example.

We think of cults as being inherently small. But nothing prevents an unusually successful cult, which has survived the death of its founder, from continuing to grow. Scientology did not perish with L. Ron but instead kept growing and growing, as each generation of Scientologists indoctrinated their children into it.


It’s large enough now that there are sizable communities where Scientologists are in the majority, like Clearwater. There are special Scientology schools for K-12 education. Scientology owned businesses to work for. It is possible for someone born into Scientology to go much or all of their life without encountering anything that challenges their beliefs.

Their school was, after all, dedicated to Scientology. All the other major, authoritative institutions and figures in their lives were Scientologists. They are surrounded by it, and deliberately insulated from anything that challenges Scientology by web filters and instructions to cut ‘suppressive persons” out of their lives (people who do not believe in Scientology and try to extricate others from it).

So, it becomes understandable how an individual Scientologist could remain fooled. Cults look very different from the inside than they do from the outside. To those on the inside, it just looks and feels like reality. Fish who do not see the water they are in.

Scientology is the backdrop of their lives. It’s woven into everything around them, so they take for granted that it must be true. After all, how could every Scientologist be wrong? How could so many people be deceived?If they ever do have doubts, when they research those doubts, they do so on websites owned by the Church of Scientology. They see nothing wrong with this. To them, only Scientology-owned sources are credible anyway. Why is this source not just as good as any other?

Of course, such sites will paint a very different picture of what sort of person L.Ron was than secular records. Because Scientology is a relatively young religion, having started in the 1950s, there are plenty of surviving accounts from L. Ron’s contemporaries of what he was really like, as opposed to the glowing praise he receives in Scientological materials.


Likewise for Joseph Smith. Mormonism is older than Scientology, but still young enough that there are surviving accounts written by non-Mormons from that period which paint a very different picture of what Joseph was like than what Mormons are led to believe.

Because Scientology is still so young, it is still very obviously a cult. The burdensome requirements of converts are still necessary to retain them because Scientology’s membership numbers aren’t yet where they need to be to guarantee Scientology’s long-term survival.

Mormonism, being older, has dropped some but not all of those practices. Accordingly, many mainstream Christian denominations identify it as a cult, albeit not to the same extent as Scientology. Not realizing, you see. Not turning that same microscope back on their own religion.


Supposing there was a group of people travelling around, led by a charismatic speaker who claims the world will end soon. He says he can save you, but you’ll have to sell your belongings, devote the rest of your life to him, and cut off family members who try to stop you. You’re also to leave your home and job if necessary to follow him.

Does that sound familiar? It should. Jesus did and said all of those things. When anybody else does it, Christians identify that group as a cult. But the possibility never occurs to them that they’re already in a cult. Just difficult for them to identify as one because of how old, large in membership, and ‘culturally embedded’ it is.

Often when I say this, the response is “Jesus never said to sell your belongings! He never said the world was ending, or that you should leave your home and job!” Of course, he did, but it is uncommon for Christians to have read the Bible cover to cover, so they never learn these verses exist.

  1. Claims world is ending imminently (1 John 2:18, Matthew 10:23, Matthew 16:28, Matthew 24:34)
  2. Wants you to sell or give away your belongings ( Luke 14:33, Matthew 19:21, Luke 18:22)
  3. Wants you to cut off family who interfere, and leave your home/job to follow him (Matt. 10:35–37, Luke 14:26, Matthew 19:29)
  4. Unverifiable reward if you believe (Heaven, i.e. the carrot)
  5. Unverifiable punishment if you disbelieve (Hell, i.e. the stick)
  6. Sabotages the critical thinking faculties you might otherwise use to remove it (Proverbs 3:5, 2 Corinthians 5:7, Proverbs 14:12, Proverbs 28:26)
  7. Invisible trickster character who fabricates apparent evidence to the contrary in order to lead you astray from the true path
  8. Targets children and the emotionally/financially vulnerable for recruitment (Sunday schools, youth group, teacher-led prayer, prison ministries, third-world missions)

You can see the verses I’ve cited in full below:

Imminent end of the world:

1 John 2:18
Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.

Matthew 16:27–28
For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds. Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.

Matthew 24:34
Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.

Matthew 10:23
When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

Sell your belongings:

Luke 14:33
“In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”

Matthew 19:21
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

Luke 12:33
Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.

Luke 18:22
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

Please note that only Luke 18:22 and Matthew 19:21 concern the story of Jesus advising the wealthy young man about the difficulty of entering heaven.

These verses are included for completeness, and to acknowledge the existence of this story because the most common objection I receive to the claim that Jesus required followers to sell their belongings is that I must be talking about this particular story and misunderstanding the message it conveys.

However in Luke 12:33 and Luke 14:33 Jesus is not speaking to that man but to a crowd following him, and in 14:33 he specifically says that those who do not give up everything they have cannot be his disciples. It is therefore not a recommendation but a requirement.

Cut off family members who try to stop you:

Luke 14:26
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, even their own life — such a person cannot be my disciple.”

Matt. 10:35–37
For I have come to turn a man against his father a daughter against her mother a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law — -a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

Matthew 19:29
And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.

Do not apply critical thought to scriptural claims:

Proverbs 3:5
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding”

2 Corinthians 5:7
“For we live by faith, not by sight.”

Proverbs 14:12
“There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.”

Proverbs 28:26
“Those who trust in themselves are fools, but those who walk in wisdom are kept safe.”

There’s a pattern to it, if you look closely. If you ask some very basic common sense questions about Christianity, a mechanism begins to appear. “Why should I join?” for example. It’s the only way to Heaven. That’s the incentive. “What happens if I don’t join, or ever leave?” You’ll go to Hell. There’s the deterrent. The ol’ “good cop, bad cop” routine. The carrot and stick method of motivation. A threat to scare you, and a bribe to entice you.

“Why should I try to recruit others?” Because they’ll go to Hell if you don’t, and your riches in Heaven will increase if you do. “What’s the hurry to recruit?” Because time is short. The end of the world is imminent, so we must save as many as we can before then. “What about friends who tell me I’m in a cult? Who give me materials to read that contradict the claims of this religion?”

They are being manipulated by an invisible trickster, who is behind anything contrary to church teachings. He will stop at nothing to lead you astray, so always “doubt your doubts” before you doubt scripture. Trust the church over your own reason, which can only steer you wrong.

See how that works? If you sincerely believe all of it, then you will be compelled to join, to never leave, to actively go out trying to recruit others, and to dismiss any evidence to the contrary that you’re shown as a dastardly attempt to lead you astray. Everything about it makes it highly efficient at spreading, and resisting removal.

Much like the pyramid schemes I discussed the other day, followers so completely take for granted that it’s legitimate, they’re already living their lives under the assumption that they will be reunited with deceased loved ones in an unfathomably beautiful, utopian paradise after they die.


Then along comes some asshole telling them it’s all a cult. Understandably, they don’t react well to this. Just another one of Satan’s tricks, naturally. Even as they sit in a building with a bunch of other people who believe the same thing, singing the praises of a dead guy they have pictures of in their home wearing a white robe, his head glowing, often with followers huddled at his feet…it still isn’t obvious to them what they are in.

They will fall back on Biblical records of miracles, but then the Qur’an contains records of miracles performed by Muhammad. The Book of Mormon contains records of Joseph Smith receiving divine revelation straight from an angel. What they all have in common is that in each case, there exist no independent records of those events written by somebody outside that religion.


Followers of each religion choose to believe their own book’s miracles but not those claimed by the books of competing religions, except selectively in the case of the religion their own is based on. Because they are only intimately familiar with their own holy book, the claims of other holy books unfamiliar to them sound just as strange, amusing and obviously untrue as their own appears to an outsider.

It’s like a bubble made of a one-way mirror that can be seen into, but not out of. Christians, from outside of Islam and Mormonism, can see both are untrue. That they began as cults that just grew out of control until they were large, powerful and established enough to be called religions.


Likewise Jews, from outside of Christianity, can see the same is true of it. But none can see that about their own religion however, as much about it is carefully designed to prevent members from reaching that realization. It wouldn’t last very long otherwise.

Each has had many generations in which to devise apologetics to answer every conceivable question a skeptic could ask. Christians will protest that Christ came in fulfillment of the messianic prophecy in the Torah. Jews will object that Christ doesn’t actually fulfill any of those criteria, Christians have just concocted elaborate apologetics to square that circle.

Just have Muslims have, claiming that the coming “comforter’ in the gospel of John refers to Muhammad. Christians can see this is a load of nonsense and that Muslim apologetics defending it are based on huge interpretive stretches. But the same is true of Christian apologetics which assert that Christ was the messiah predicted by the Torah.


The same formula, which underlies all apocalyptic cults, just keeps working again and again. It worked for Jesus, who may well have invented it, though Nietzche attributes that to Paul (formerly Saul, as like the other apostles, he took on a new name upon converting). It worked again for Muhammad, then again for Joseph Smith.

It worked for David Koresh, for Charles Manson, for Jim Jones, for Marshall Applewhite, Dorothy Martin, Sun Myung Moon, Charles Taze Russell, etc. and will probably just keep on working into the future.

Why? It hooks into some very deep-seated human fears and desires. The fear of death. Of losing loved ones and never seeing them again. The desire to be loved, and to feel accepted as part of a group. Alienated loners are understandably very, very receptive to the message that the world which rejected them is dirty/evil and will be destroyed soon.


Cult members aren’t stupid. Emotion is independent of intelligence and all too able to overcome it. They may be brilliant, but they are lonely, searching for where they belong. Or they were raised in it, and it’s all they know. Anything else seems alien and absurd. “Sure, those other religions began as cults,” they think, “but not mine. I have the truth.”

For basically the same psychological reasons why it’s extremely difficult to talk somebody out of a pyramid scheme, it can be difficult or impossible to talk someone out of a cult or a religion. They have already taken for granted the fabulous reward it promised them for joining. They don’t want to believe they were fooled. It is easier to conclude that you’re just a dumb asshole who doesn’t understand.

Their go-to defenses are the same as well. Members of a pyramid scheme will say all businesses are structured in a hierarchical way, with one guy at the top and successively larger layers below him. Technically true, but it deliberately leaves out what makes it a pyramid scheme.

Likewise, cult members will perform the same defensive hyper-generalization, saying that all organizations are structured this way. That you may as well call a sports team a cult, or a business, or the fire department, or the police, etc. etc. attempting to hide by mixing themselves in with other types of organization which exist for legitimate purposes.


However, in the same way that you can recognize a 419 email scam or a pyramid scheme by its anatomy (or formula, if you prefer) no matter how the details vary, you can also recognize a cult or a religion descended from a cult. Is there a reward if you join? Is the reward possible to prove, or placed somewhere out of reach and untestable? (like the future, or after death)

Is there a punishment if you don’t join, or ever leave? Is there a built-in incentive to evangelize? Is there some built-in reason for urgency, to drive evangelism? Is there a central figure who started it, and is revered by all members? Are you advised to trust the group’s teachings over your own reason, and to automatically distrust any materials which dispute the group’s central claims?

Did the group initially require converts to give up their possessions? Were they encouraged to leave their home or jobs? Were they told to love the leader more than their own family, and if they don’t, they aren’t worthy of him?

If you answered yes to most or all of these, you are either in a cult (if it has few members and the founder is still alive) or a religion descended from one (if it has many members and the founder is dead). It can be difficult to find help if someone you love has joined a cult. Many anti-cult organizations are explicitly Christian, and define a cult as whatever deviates from Christian beliefs. Setting themselves up as the authorities which decide what is and isn’t a cult, while implicitly excluding their own religion from consideration, is a pretty good way to remain above suspicion while strangling potential competitors in the crib.

My advice is the same as it was for talking a loved one out of participation in a pyramid scheme or 419 scam. Patience and kindness. Any sign of frustration will just make them resent you, and dig their heels in. The deck will have been stacked against you already, realize.

They’ll have been told not to listen to you. Not to take you seriously, because non-believers aren’t trustworthy. “They are deceived by Satan and will try to lead you astray. Everybody outside the ingroup is in cahoots, trying to undermine, discredit and destroy it, so only materials written by believing members can be trusted.”


That sort of thinking, which is deliberately cultivated in members, is why they don’t see what they’re in. If cult members realized they were in a cult, they would leave it. So, the only cults that last are the ones designed in such a way as to prevent that realization, by a variety of different methods discussed in this article.

You could liken it to the way a biological or computer virus works, which I did in this article. In written form, it can’t do anything. It’s inert. Viruses are not alive and cannot spread by themselves. They need hosts. A virus is just a container for an RNA instruction set which the host cell accepts and obeys, churning out copies of the virus to infect other cells.

A lie gets around the world seven times before the truth can get its pants on. As you’ll see below, it’s far too late to prevent cults from dominating the world. That ship has sailed. And for the same reason that the internet will probably never be totally free of viruses, I don’t think humanity will ever be free of cults and cultic religions.

What can be done? Not a whole lot except to immunize people, a few or even one at a time. By laying bare how cults are simply information designed to compel patterns of human behavior that spread it and prevent removal, I hope to cultivate growing pockets of immunity, and to devise a cure. As it stands, it can take months or years to convince someone they are in a cult. Faster, more efficient methods of extrication are needed.

Until then, use the information here to protect yourself and the ones you love from being recruited into a cult. The contents of this article, and this one in particular, can be useful to you in that respect.

Stay tuned, tomorrow I’ll be covering the Publisher’s Clearing House scam which commonly targets the pensions of the elderly.

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