Notice about the following article: This article comes from my own experience in dealing with cult like groups on the internet at a young age. I've noticed a lot of younger people joining here lately and thought I'd post this so that people can be aware of what traits to look out for in any groups be it offline or on the internet. Part two of this article will be about what types of people are knowingly or unkowingly attracted to these cult like groups.
In life we may come across groups of a religious, political or philosophical nature that appear to operate as cults or in a 'cult-like' manner. These groups may be offline or online. Some are dangerous, some less so, but all should be treated with suspicion and preferably avoided. What characteristics should we look out for in identifying groups that appear cult-like?
Being Aware Of Cult-Like Behaviour
Clique behaviour - having to conform to certain behaviours, beliefs, values etc, in order to not be condsidered an outsider or, in the case of more paranoid and immature groups, an 'infiltrator', 'subversive' etc. These groups, particularly the latter variety, tend to incorporate the principle of 'guilt by association' when determining the status of group members, i.e. being freinds with someone determined to be an 'outsider' by the group puts your own credibility in doubt.
Claims of being 'enlightened' individuals with a sense of superioity above anyone and everyone else who is not part of their group. They are the only ones who possess this knowledge and claim to be able to give you guidance on a path to self improvement. While most religious, political, philosophical etc groups believe they are the ones with the right answers, groups of a cult-like nature tend to exhibit extreme self-aggrandisement in this regard.
Citation of quotations. Some groups employ the use of quotations but may not give proper references. Quotations should be referenced with sufficient information so that the reader can find the original without much difficulty. Author, publication, date of publication and the publisher are all pieces of information that comprise a proper reference. In some cases, however, this full information is not obtainable (often the case with very old quotations from history). In such cases the author and the publication the quote can be found in should be provided. References that consist of the author's name only should be viewed with suspicion. All quotes should be researched regardless - an internet search should be sufficient to find out if a quotation is legitimate or not.
Some groups may also have a tendency to 'cherry pick' quotes that support their viewpoints but ignore quotes - even from the same author/publication - that do not support their viewpoint. Context is key when using a quote. Be sure to research the context in which a quote appears to gain a full and true picture as to the meaning behind it.
Historical accuracy. Almost all cult-like groups have a tendancy to either re-write or distort history to make their own beliefs seem more appealing. This may involve portraying their beliefs and predecessor groups as oppressed by mainstream ideology, thereby gaining sympathy from the would-be follower of the group. These groups may also make the claim that historically the 'establishment' has oppressed and marginalised their beliefs because they did not want them being revealed to mainstream society, thereby validating the groups beliefs and giving the group members a sense of superiority, as mentioned above.
It is worth mentioning that history is indeed often different to how it has been told in the mainstream. But those attempting to provide a differing account must substantiate their claims with solid evidence. Loosely drawing together theories and providing random (often untraceable and poorly referenced) quotations is not sufficient evidence to counter the established, mainstream version.
The quality of writing is another important factor in determing whether a group is operating as a cult or not. Any serious group or individual seeking to counter mainstream ideology will strive to be profssional in it's writings and publications. Articles written by members of a group should be of a reasonable standard - particularly articles by older 'veterans' of the group. Bad spelling, grammar, immature wording etc reflects poorly on the group. Terminology is another issue. Cult-like groups tend to use disparaging terminology for their perceived 'enemies' - whether those enemies are individuals, alternative groups, mainstream ideology they oppose etc.
Neutrality. Check for how neutrual the group is concerning opposing beliefs and controversial topics that may or may not concern the group directly. Individual members should be free to express their own beliefs on controversial issues within the group, providing those views don't negate the fundamental principles of the ideology of the group itself. If the group routinely suppresses individual views on specific subjects - whether by deleting threads, issuing warnings, banning members etc - this should be viewed with deep suspicion. If a member expresses views which undermine the very foundations of the group itself - for example a Christian making disparaging remarks about Paganism in a Pagan group - then this is, of course, legitimate grounds for disciplinary action. However if a member expresses a viewpoint about some controversial political issue in a Pagan group that doesn't have anything to do with Paganism itself, then this should be treated as suspicious.
Stand-alone belief? Does the group stand on its own two feet? It's important to realise that some groups are simply a reaction to a different ideology. Would the group still stand up on its merits if what it is reacting to was to disappear? Many times groups with these tendencies like to claim that they are not a reaction to something else but the literature the group produces largely consists of disparaging, denigrating, countering and generally refering to the ideology they are, in reality, a reaction to. Be wary of groups that operate in a manner of 'warfare' against the opposing ideology ('spiritural warfare' is a phrase often heard in cult circles). Does the group encourage resentment of other religious beliefs? Is the group constantly having to attack other beliefs to prove a 'point' to its followers? Can it stand alone without having to constantly attack the beliefs of others?
Paranoia. Groups that operate in a cult-like manner often live in fear of people trying to 'stab them in their back' to gain a higher status within the group than them. If the group is internet-based then, naturally, the anonymity of the internet tends to bring out the immature side of people and this can result in name-calling, 'trolling', tell-tales etc. This further increases the atmosphere of suspicion. This paranoia can continue away from the group and distort their interactions with people who aren't members of the group and alter their perception of situations and dealing with people they're not familiar with. The group mindset can often involve getting into 'wars' with other groups even if they are of the same belief as them in an attempt to 'prove' that they are the more superior group and the only group of that belief system.
Author: Valkryie_8 and edited with the help of my partner Fenris89