As kids, we often believe everything our elders tell us. Many people who are exposed to some sort of organized faith since childhood grow up believing in certain teachings and traditions simply because they are told they are correct, or the only way. It isn't until they become adults that they realize just how brainwashed they had been all those years. Former cult members took to the internet to share the moment when they realized they were being brainwashed. Their stories will make you see that recognizing the signs isn't always easy.
Don't forget to check the comment section below the article for more interesting stories!
#1 I Left for Love
I didn't realize I was in a cult until I was out of it. I left to date this guy that I worked with. A month later, the elders were calling me and my mom was trying to get me to either break up with my boyfriend or go talk to the elders and get disfellowshipped. I didn't want to do that. After a few more months after doing some research, I realized I was in a cult.
Disfellowshipping and shunning former members is something cults do, (Scientology, Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses). That and along with a lot of teachings, like isolating yourself from people outside the church, resurrection, believing the religious teachings are the only truth, the whole shebang. I was a little torn up about it for a while because my mom was and still does beg me to come back, but I can't.
She won't talk to me outside of business we might have with one another, and it really hurts. But I'm happier and healthier now, and I'm still with the guy I left the religion for. We're on a year and happily engaged.
#2 Thee Kung Fu Scam
I used to practice kung fu at what was basically the most McDojo place ever. On top of all the usual money-grabbing nonsense, the grandmaster changed his title to something like "His Celestial Holiness" and started getting his students to travel to the woods to build his temple.
#3 The BITE Model
When I was told I couldn’t ask questions. I was 14. All that did was make me ask more questions. I ended up at the public library reading up about cults. This was in the 90s. Fun fact. If you're wondering if you might be in a cult you should run your religion's beliefs through the BITE model.
#4 A Worried Sister
I went through this list and my younger sister is most definitely in a cult. We assumed she was in the beginning, but my dad's reason for not saying anything is "she is happy and successful." So I still watch with a close eye, because she acts like them when she is around them but acts like my normal sister when she is around our family. I would like to think she knows what she is doing by playing their game because she gets a ton of help from these people for free a majority of the time and if she bails out she loses out on all that I guess. I do worry about her, luckily it has not ever progressed to anything warranting me driving to her place and yanking her out of that town.
#5 Selling "Insurance"
My dad sold "insurance" for Primeca for a while in my teens. It isn't until now that I'm realizing he was in an MLM. One spring break, he asked me to come to his "office" to help him out. It was this suite with a lot of empty rooms and I was put in a room with an empty desk. He gave me a huge stack of monster job resumes to go through and cold call people to bring them in for an "interview." I was so confused why their qualifications didn't matter but then proceeded cause I was like 14. He didn't stay very long and is a real estate agent now.
#6 A Prescribed Exorcism
I was young at the time so I didn't realize until after my family had left. Looking back on it, the way the community practically worshipped the leader, hanging on his every word whether it was what they should name their new baby or what movies were evil should have tipped me off. The biggest red flag I can't believe I didn't realize at the time was when he decided one of the kids in the community was possessed and needed an exorcism. That kid was me. I won't bore you with the details but remembering that years later is what made me finally realize I was in a cult.
#7 Escape Plan
I had an accident when I was twelve that injured my back. Sitting hurt. I convinced my mother to allow me to walk around during the multi-hour long services in the library downstairs that had a speaker blaring whatever was going on at the pulpit. In that library were all the original cult publications from eighty-plus years prior. No one ever paid any attention to them but I was a voracious reader.
They were into some wackadoo stuff at the beginning that totally contradicted the current teachings. I never said anything because it was a closed society and questioning meant total shunning, but from that point on I was aware that it was all garbage and I spent most of my time planning my escape. When I finally publicly called nonsense six years later, I lost everyone and everything. Life sucked for a while but I 10/10 would do it again.
#8 Lots Of Praying
It was the summer during middle school when a friend of a friend invited us out to a "camp" that lasted a week. It has so much awesome stuff like paintball, four-wheeling, swimming on the lake it was right on. Sounded fun! So I went. It was an ultra-religious camp. We had to give our phones up when we got there. The first hour of the day was praying.
Then a 30-minute breakfast followed by another hour of praying. Then two hours of alone time where you couldn't go back to your rooms or do anything other than sit and "talk to Jesus and God." Then another hour of praying. Then a 30-minute lunch. Then a 30-minute prayer. Then a good four to five hours of free time to do all those activities. Then another hour of prayer. Then a 30-minute dinner. Then prayer.
Then we got to go back to our rooms to talk to our assigned counselor who led us in evening prayer. I'm not saying that this place was a cult, but I had my thoughts when they led us on a march to a big fire and made us lay down in a massive field staring at the stars while they chanted prayers over a microphone one night that week.
#9 My Father, The Elder
Mine wasn't a typical definition of a cult, but I realized Jehovah's Witnesses were pretty delusional by the time I was 13 years old. It took me a few more years to get out due to my father being an Elder and someone who had no problem physically forcing his son to go to meetings and out in service (door knocking). It sounds like a corny fake scenario, but it took me being "tough" enough to fight him off. I was asked to leave the house at 17 years old, so I did. I had a job and had an older friend to live with.
That's when I realized it was (in my opinion) a cult. That you would turn on your son because he didn't believe what you believe. That you would beat your son because he was being tormented at school and couldn't stand door knocking anymore in his own neighborhood where he encountered classmates either at their homes or as they were riding their bikes down the street on a sunny Saturday morning.
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#10 Stuttering At A Verse
I spent the entirety of my childhood in a JW family. All I remember from my childhood is being in that dang kingdom hall. My most vivid childhood memory is my father screeching at me because I was stuttering while reading a verse. I mean, come on dude, I was seven years old and born with my tongue fused to the bottom of my mouth, cut me some freaking slack.
#11 Korean Vacation
When they said I'm going to marry someone from Korea. When I said no, they said they already bought the plane tickets.
"You're going to marry a nice Korean person."
"Come on, we already bought the plane tickets!"
"In that case...
...HAVE FUN ON YOUR KOREAN VACATION!"
#12 The Importance Of Tithes
I was actually in a church that transformed slowly into a cult. They just slowly started doing more and more miracle work. Tithes became incredibly important and the priest's family became more and more important. I left but I heard some insane things happened after I left. I was lucky as I came from a really complicated low socioeconomic background. When I moved for uni there wasn't much fight for me.
#13 All For Show
I went to a non-denominational church for a while years ago, where they had a rock band. People would raise their hands and some would dance. I liked it because I always felt that worship should be a joyful thing, rather than somber. (I remember thinking as a kid that the church scene from the Blues Brothers looked like the best church I had ever seen).
But after a while at that church, I got the distinct impression that the dancers and the hand-raisers were doing those things less for worship and more for appearances... like they wanted to show how "in the spirit" they were for the benefit of those around them. It started to leave a bad taste in my mouth, and I stopped going. My faith became much more individualistic after that.
#14 Three Strikes, I'm Out
Three things happened: 1) A person lost his life from suspicious circumstances (loosely tied to the group) and none of the adults would listen to me that he did go on his own accord. 2) I started to meet those back parking lot kids at school who were into free thinking and questioning religion (most are artists and successful loving parents now). 3) Couple those things with the fact that the youth group weekly bible study leader thought she could actually see demons and the head youth leader was backing her up on her claims, I was pretty ready to leave when I turned 18. I did not go back.
#15 On The Prayer List
I go to church because my parents are religious and they pay my tuition, but there’s one lady that says she was chased by a demon after watching a horror film. I put her and her “demon” on the church's prayer list.
#16 Snapping Point
When the high lama snapped a crying toddler on the side of the head to get him to shut up, then demanded that children be kept out of earshot, a thousand yards away. Great compassion, huh. Not to mention he got tipsy every night while he taught and said Westerners lacked the discernment to judge and choose their own teachers.
#17 Take Your Vitamins
When I learned our founding prophet would send men on missions so he could be alone with their wives and daughters. Or maybe when I learned our cult had over 40 billion in the stock market and over 100 billion in assets, but only used one half of a percent of the donations it receives to help the poor. Or maybe when our 94-year-old prophet's latest revelation was to take vitamins.
#18 Rabbit Hole
My moment of realization was probably when I found out that South Park was more honest about the founding of my religion than my actual religious leaders were. Down the rabbit hole, I went. I uncovered EVERYTHING.
#19 No TV Allowed
One of the leaders said that we shouldn’t watch any TV or read any material that wasn’t published by the church. I said, “Well, I just like road and track magazine, I don’t think that’s anti-religious.” He replied, “That material will cause you to lust after material things and you shouldn’t read that.” It was at that point I knew I had to get the heck out of there.
#20 A Blank Check
When I was told that proceeding in a ceremony and receiving a gift that was a religious rite of passage to adulthood would require me to take upon myself certain sacred obligations and that I could not know them beforehand. I could either leave then in front of my family or essentially sign a blank check to swear any oath required of me later on.
#21 A Creepy Founder
When I found out I'd been lied to about foundational aspects of the church. And that the founder married 14-year-old and secretly married tons of women without telling his first wife.
#22 Sacred Handshakes
I was raised Mormon in the Bible Belt. I had a southern Baptist friend that liked to argue with me about religion. When I was 18, he told me about crazy secret handshakes in Mormonism. My response: “Nate, I’ve been a Mormon my entire life and I’ve never heard anything about secret handshakes. I don’t know where you heard that, but it’s false.”
A week later, I went through the Mormon temple for the first time and learned all the secret handshakes. After I went through the ceremony, I sat next to my Dad in the celestial room and he asked me what I thought. “I swore to Nate on my life a week ago that there was no such thing as secret handshakes in Mormonism.” My dad’s response was the typical Mormon, programmed response. “They aren’t secret, they’re sacred." It took me ten more years to leave Mormonism, but that was the first crack in my foundation.
I just left the Jehovah’s Witness “religion” this year. Honestly, what really did it for me was the fact that my entire life, all the speeches and sermons started sounding identical... insisting that the end was coming. I was raised as one, so I just thought that it would have happened by now. I talked to an older friend of mine who also used to be in the cult and asked him, “Hey dude, when you were young, did they say the end was coming?”
He answered that they’d been preaching the same thing since the ’60s. I was denied a regular childhood and they took away my teen years. I vowed when I left that I wouldn’t give that cult another day of my life ever again. My mom and her family have been super understanding and still talk to me as if nothing happened even though they still attend regularly.
#24 "Research Science"
When multiple people told me that they worked eight hours extra per day on Saturday and Sunday, at home unpaid, in addition to working quite long hours during the week, because life is supposed to be all about achievement and publishing. This cult was called a Ph.D. program in research science.
#25 Piecing It Together
I can’t remember an exact moment, but things started to click when I wasn’t allowed to go home by myself anymore. My parents refused to have any more involvement so they tried to make me go live in Georgia with total strangers. I got out not long after.
#26 No Sense
Watching my grandma, who is the matriarch of my extended family and our family's glue, struggle to pay tithes AND offerings every week, regardless of how much of a difference it would have made to her versus our rather large church. My grandma paid for her meds in change on a Monday while I watched our preacher get into a brand new, black and chrome Yukon Denali the Sunday prior. It didn't make sense.
When an assistant youth minister at my family's fundamentalist church (Church of Christ, separatist) who had been struggling to have a child with his wife for several years was finally able to conceive, he was so happy he wrote a song thanking God for his blessing of a daughter to be. He played it for us on his guitar in the back of his pickup in the parking lot before service began.
When the elders of the church heard that he had played an instrument on church grounds, they excommunicated him and ordered him to never return to the property on pain of trespassing. This was a denomination which taught specifically that attendance to the church within the denomination was mandatory to enter heaven—essentially, they'd sentenced a good man for the offence of thanking God for his child.
#28 Sketchy Tech
When I realized I was buying a new phone only because the new one was supposed to be "better." When my friend bought a laptop as good as mine for half the cost. When I ran out of cloud storage and I realized the next tier up was three times the cost and amounted to nearly $200 a year. I could go on.
#29 Peer Pressure
When I was 12 and stopped going to church because I didn’t want to and they sent other 12-year-olds to my house every Wednesday (for activity night) to try and get me to come back to the church. It continued through high school until I finally called an elder and told her to stop harassing me because I didn’t want to go to church and didn’t believe in a god. That stopped them real quick. Also, this was a Mormon church.
#30 No Clear Cut Answer
I guess most people consider JW a cult. I'm not sure that I do, but I think the most pivotal moment for me was actually when one of the traveling speakers at our congregation urged us not to just take their word for it. To investigate and find the truth and if we found something that was more truthful, to pursue that. I did. I'm an agnostic existentialist, with many other strongly held beliefs.
None of them are compatible with JW. I wish I remembered who that guy was because I feel like I owe him a lot. My whole belief system is based on the idea of doing as much research as possible, considering all points of view, and being open-minded. Ultimately, I decide what I believe based on logic, evidence, practicality and personal preference in cases where there is no clear cut answer.
#31 Brainwashing Antics
I personally believe JW is a cult. They tell their followers to read the Watchtower and nothing else. And to obtain their information from only their literature. They discourage you to doubt their “truth” and if you do, you are disfellowshipped and shunned by the entire group, including family.
#32 The Truth Is Disgusting
When I realized ever since I was a kid I had been railroaded towards getting married and having more kids in the organization. Everything I was ever taught involved how to be a good wife with sewing, quiet journaling and crafts with no encouragement for my dreams of being a scientist.
Once when I was 14, I said to a leader that I didn't want kids and wanted to be a scientist, and I remember the exact words: "Well, when you decide you do want to have kids remember that that's the greatest calling you can have." When I got older, I did some research and compared it to the "approved resources." I found a lot of lies and cover-ups they taught.
#33 Eating Up Time
When they kept taking more and more of my time. It got to the point where I realized my church viewed everything outside of the church as evil or a complete waste of time. I knew this was untrue and a miserable way to live. Once I realized how miserable I was, the rose-colored glasses came off and it all fell apart almost immediately.
#34 Everyone's Awesome
I was a kid in the '80s, so we grew up with the whole "cults are everywhere" thing. Then, when I was 14, I went to a teen retreat weekend at my mother's church (because several friends were going and so was the really cute boy from the Catholic school). They served all carbs, no protein, took away our watches and alarm clocks, and did a bunch of ice-breakers with lots of high energy, hugging, cheering, and an "everyone's awesome" vibe. I left because it felt like a cult. But I was bummed, because that boy was seriously cute.
#35 Targeting The Popular
When I wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t enough that I showed up, paid money and contributed to the group—there was always this hint of disappointment that I couldn’t bring in more people, through subtle hints like, “You can bring other people if you’d like! We’d love to be able to save your loved ones,” to, “Why don’t you ever bring people in? Your loved ones deserve to be saved!”
And people who were social and outgoing were described as the most desirable people to invite into the church. My pastor straight out said, “We aren’t going for the loners you see sitting alone at lunch. We need to go for social kids with groups of friends all around them. It’s our goal to save as many people as possible so we need to go for them!”
#36 Following Your Gut
When I realized I was afraid of doing outside research on the religion (cult) I was raised in. I was afraid I'd be allowing evil to control my mind. Once I did research it, I realized that for so many years I thought I was thinking for myself, but I was really just being controlled and being told what to think. It further intensified the realization I was in a cult when my whole family turned their back on me and started shunning me because I stopped believing in their nonsense.
#37 All Work, No Benefit
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, attendance for the meeting was mandatory. Every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. we had to go to the event, in uniform, rain or shine. Twice while I was there we were bussed across ND to Montana to go before crowds of thousands, most of whom screamed at us. It all centered around this one guy who called the shots, but he had lieutenants who did his bidding and would occasionally lead us. It was pretty demanding, but it seemed pretty fun, lots of camaraderies, but all my friends who hadn't joined up thought it was pretty weird and a lot of work for no clear benefit.
#38 Greedy Cult
My parents were in this religious cult that always asks for a crazy donation. It even send families out to pioneer for the religion. We were one of the family. Then, coming to Canada, we had financial/immigration issues. The organization immediately distanced us. Only then did we realize this was not what we thought it was. The way they motivated people was like any cult I have heard of.
#39 Got Out Early
My grandfather was getting involved in Scientology when he was in college. He says he left after they told everyone to miss-treat someone who had left the group. Apparently, they taught him some good meditation and self-confidence exercises; he's happy with what he got out of them but glad he didn't get too deep.
#40 Crazy Stuff
I was born into it and grew up in it. It hit me when I finally, and accidentally, took a step back while my mom was talking about it and thought, dang lady, that's some crazy stuff.l I was about 16 at the time.
#41 A Clear-Cut Sign
When they followed me to the bathroom. I literally went into the stall, prayed to God for some sort of sign that my suspicion that I was in a cult was correct and I wasn’t just crazy, opened the stall door, and saw that they were right outside of it, waiting for me. That was my sign.
#42 Respect All, Not One
The Hare Krishna group. When they said I should only pray to Lord Krishna and not anyone else, that's when I realized this was a cult. As a Hindu, I respect all the Hindu gods. Even Lord Krishna himself respected all the Hindu gods.
#43 Oh No
I was flipping through books about cults, because it's always been a topic that interested me, and I kept finding my religion in them. I laughed it off because those authors are so stupid, they have no idea what they're... oh no.
When my then-husband hit me, and the people who were always so supportive said I can't divorce him. He hit me one time, so I went to 'my people' for advice. Their answers made me look up the business. It was a deep rabbit hole.
#45 Recruitment Focused
When the church spent more time talking about how we should bring people out to church than they actually talked about the gospel, I decided it was time to go.