Are You in a Cult? Discernment 101 for Witches
Two months ago, I conducted a social experiment. I posted two public opinion polls on social media. One of them, I posted on my Facebook profile (feel free to “friend” me by the way); the other one was posted elsewhere, in a more religiously diverse environment. The question was along the lines of “what do you consider a cult? Please elaborate”.
The post on the more personal profile, which includes family and friends, pagan and otherwise (I will not share the link for everyone, sorry) got 10 passionate but brief comments.
At first glance, the replies in there look like opinions given without much thought. Some commenters issued judgements and generalisations such as “all small religions are cults”. Others replied with a bit more thought, but still offered not enough rigor to produce a definition. For instance, saying that a cult is any organisation with strict rules and punishment for disobedience isn’t accurate enough because if it were, the Armed Forces in every country would fit into the category – and this isn’t necessarily the case.
In their definitions, commentors offered attributes like power-hungry leaders, emotional manipulation, secrecy and “us vs them” mentality as popular defining traits for a cult.
Facebook is where I focus primarily on conversations about spirituality, and consequently only add people whose main focus is compatible with what I discuss. This is why I was expecting the answers in there to be more objective and elaborate than the answers on the other place. I was correct. When you’re surrounded by people who consider spirituality an important part of their lives, they will hesitate before throwing “all religions” or “all beliefs” into the “cult” box because they don’t want to imply they are (or could possibly someday be) in a cult.
These small, informal polls illustrate the idea that our personal biases can play a major role in how we define certain concepts. Today’s “lecture” here in the Hut explores the notion of discernment in the context of defining cults. It’s a critical thinking skill we can used to question certain personal biases.
Objectively speaking: what IS a cult?
The short animation below by TED Ed excels at defining a cult from a very objective perspective, including some history on how the word went from describing “deity worship” in a distant past to the more modern meaning steeped in taboo. The video does have the option of closed captions, but you can also find a handy summary of the key points discussed on this page here.
“If someone tells you to sacrifice your relationships or morality for the greater good, they’re most likely exploiting you for their own."
This is a powerful quote from the video I mentioned, and it is one of the a rare rule that has no exceptions. Yes, I can say that objectively. Morality and boundaries are personal: every individual on Earth has a right to their own.
Nobody has the right to coerce another into changing their mind about these two something this personal. What we can do is teach, demonstrate or otherwise inform other people about the moral codes to which we adhere- but ultimately the choice is theirs, and each person has their own reasons for taking their own decisions in life. Once we overstep boundaries and use toxic strategies to try and intimidate others away from their own principles – no matter how good the intention – we are exploiting them.
Healthy Leadership vs Manipulation
I often hear I am a “rebel” and “dislike rules”. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Saturn is the ruling planet on my birth chart, and let me remind you my spirit guide was a monarch in his lifetime. I am a sucker for rules and hierarchies – bring them on! What I mean by respecting boundaries is we shouldn’t ever go out of our way to ensure someone does not make an error – because ultimately, people have the freedom to disobey and be punished. “Right” and “wrong” aren’t set in stone, and sometimes it is worthwhile to break a rule of a specific group you joined if the action will be beneficial for you outside this group. Not every decision we take in life is in black-and-white. Some are hard to take and bring unpleasant consequences, but turn out to be less worse than the alternative. The decision-making process is still yours. No leader should ever take this right from you.
What you, your circle or even your culture considers an error, could be acceptable or desirable elsewhere. Nobody knows the truth about the universe. No, not even cult leaders, I don’t care how wise they claim to be. Rules exist in order to define what is acceptable or not in a specific environment, and hierarchies exist in order to enforce the rules. I fully support it! As long as everyone knows the rules, understands and agrees with the punishment for disobeying and has a right to leave the group without defamation, the decision to break the rules is their fundamental right. Intimidating a person because of rules is utterly unnecessary and manipulative.
The same goes for relationships. A very common thing in cults is to gossip about ex-members as if they were evil, and discouraging contact with them. This is not to be mistaken with telling stories of people who actually did bad things. Sometimes a person with bad intentions causes harm to a group and leaves. It happens. But once every single ex-member, or at least the majority, are considered “toxic”, then maybe they aren’t the problem. Maybe the author of the gossip is being toxic.
Traits of Every Cult
This information was taken straight from the video I mentioned. I have expanded on it however, because I have direct experience dealing with all the problems outlined below. I won’t automatically consider a group of people a “cult” unless it ticks all the boxes at once – but the presence of *some* of these traits can indicate that the group is acquiring cultish qualities and it’s probably best to confront them or leave. Keep in mind that not all cults have always been cults. Literally any group of people can turn into a cult, suddenly or gradually, if we aren’t careful to address the problem early on: a leader with an over-inflated ego.
High level of commitment (and here’s the important bit) to a charismatic leader. Not a deity, ideas or anything abstract – a living human person;
Strict hierarchy, separating ordinary members from the inner workings;
It claims to have the answers to life’s biggest questions;
These answers are only ever actually obtained, hinted at or even mentioned in a private environment away from “inferior” members, when you climb up the hierarchic ladder. (Not to be mistaken with oath-bound secrets, which are fine. What I mean is literally the idea of “salvation”);
The charismatic leader is usually seen as friendly, approachable and available to all members of the cult, but will not reveal the same information about the aims and objectives of the group to those on the outside
In a similar fashion, the charismatic leader will often act as a third party to internal conflicts between members, vaguely suggesting to someone that “certain people” are unhappy with their attitudes, but never putting both parties in direct contact to actually resolve the issue. (Informal control strategies);
Ex-members, with rare or no exceptions, are shunned, bad-mouthed and mentioned as bad examples. Communication with them is discouraged and sometimes seen as treason, whether their reason for leaving the cult was mild or serious, whether they were expelled or left voluntarily.
Of course most cult leaders will deny that these qualities even exist in the group they lead. The vast majority of cults is actually very healthy in theory – but in real life, practical experience will contradict their theoretical values. For instance, a leader could say that their group is dedicated to the “higher good” – and in theory it all seems harmless and noble – whereas in practice they demand the utmost loyalty from everyone in the group and will keep a closed mind to constructive criticism.
Am I following a Cult?
I asked myself this question at a certain point in my life. I will not say when or where; gossip is not the objective of this blog post. After doing some basic research at the time (which I now summarised above), my answer was “yes”. It came as a bit of a shock to me because I had been in that group for a while already and seen ex-members being portrayed as dangerous people even when their transgression wasn’t so serious. I left regardless, but it was a very difficult decision.
What you need to know about cult followers is they aren’t necessarily stupid, ignorant, desperate or any of the embarrassing stereotypes we often see. Of course vulnerable people can be more susceptible to manipulation, but it is a mistake to believe that healthy people cannot end up in cults. Nobody is particularly immune to this kind of manipulation. I was in a happy phase of my life, for instance – having just figured important things about myself, and looking for a place to casually discuss these things. I needed a place where people could relate to this new “me” more easily than my current friends. I ended up joining a cult.
Avoid joining a cult:
When it comes to witchcraft, watch out for covens where leaders seek to not only regulate the internal dynamic of the group (a healthy thing), but also the members’ lives outside the group (cultish trait). For example, a specific coven may be dedicated to “the greater good” and members have to promise they will not practice manipulative magic during any group activities, on fellow group members or together against any external person. That is an ok rule. However, if any leader tries to stop or intimidate members from practicing manipulative magic in their private lives, independently from the coven, this is a reason for concern. I don’t care what you think of this or that kind of magic – a group leader cannot simply take someone’s sovereignty away under the pretense that “I am responsible for this person”. Yes they are… In the coven. But they aren’t any member’s mother, or father. Let’s keep things separate.
Quick note: what I said above is NOT an attack on the wiccan doctrine. Wicca isn’t my cup of tea but I recognise it is a valid, healthy path. Their law of return simply states a belief of cause and consequence. Beliefs are fine. They don’t take away anyone’s decision-making power.
Watch out as well for leaders who have big plans and need financial help in exchange for vague promises that you are helping build “something big”. If it has to do with charity, then why aren’t they doing charity already? Fundraising on the short term to give to those in need is very doable and only takes a bit of teamwork regardless of income. It also proves that the person is really focused on what they promise, instead of postponing it to a future when they could already start big (which is almost always a red flag).
Am I leading a Cult?
What I usually see in discussions of cults is the victim’s perspective only. What about the leader? Don’t worry, I will not play devil’s advocate – I simply want to address the elephant in the room. I’m a Pict, after all. I wouldn’t be me if I weren’t bold. (Puts on face paint.)
Most cult leaders tend to have their own struggles, which usually aren’t anything simple to heal. They aren’t all literal sociopaths or beyond help, though. Maybe the question “am I a leader” is even harder to answer with honesty than “am I a follower”, since it’s always a very hard task to admit we are causing harm to others and need to stop. It requires humility, and humility isn’t a very good coping strategy – it does not bring you comfort. In fact, when you’re humble enough to evaluate your own actions, you’re actually getting out of the comfort zone. This is beyond shadow work! Very difficult indeed.
Perhaps a better approach would be to evaluate what others are doing around you. Do you constantly find yourself in conflict with people who join the group? Do you feel a recurring need or internal pressure to affirm and validate your value within the group? Deep down, are you in search of solace from external problems – and feel as though people only take and never give? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes”, then it is likely (not definite. Likely!) that you’d really benefit from a long period of introspection and healing instead of taking this kind of responsibility towards others too soon.
Listen to flight attendants! Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. Do what you can to get away from your abuser (if this is the case), asap. Then you can start working on what needs healing, and nurturing, internally. We all make mistakes in life and we all often replicate the behaviors of people who abused us because we don’t know any better. If this is the case, don’t think even for a second that you are beyond help. You have taken the first step. This in itself is very, very brave. Seek professional help, if at all possible – it can definitely help ease the pressure. And hey! Deeply wounded or not, you have a talent for leadership. Give it time.