Former Cult Members Share The Exact Moment They Realized They Were In A Cult
A cult is a group that shares religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs and uses psychological coercion to brainwash its members. Cults usually have a self-appointed leader who dictates over the miniature totalitarian society. In extreme cases, the wealth a cult accrues is often not shared amongst its members but is directly pocketed by the leader. Once a member, it is sometimes very hard, to escape, both mentally and physically.
Many people believe religions like Jehovah's Witness and Mormonism are cults. Some even think all religions are cult-like, including Christianity and Islam. It's often difficult to realize you're in a cult while you're in it, but if and when you eventually do, it tends to be a shock, much like what happened to the majority of these former cult members who have shared their stories below.
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#1 No Outside Reading 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 way out of there.
#2 The Compassionless Leader
I knew I was in a cult 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 my butt.
#3 Some Cults Are More Subtle Than Others
I was accidentally in a religious cult. I would see how the pastor would treat people who didn't comply with what he wanted and I would think, “I hope he doesn’t start acting this way towards me.” He would berate people, gossip, expect us to stay at his house until late hours, forbid us to hang out with non-members, and he even asked me to move in with him when I already had my own place.
I noticed it was a cult when I told them I was hanging out with an old friend and they preceded to ask why was I doing that.
I came to a service that following Sunday and the pastor says to me, “I had a message I was going to preach, but I’m going to preach a different message today.”
The whole service was pretty much him talking badly about me and making rude jokes. I knew this sermon was about me when he kept referencing a “person” who was hanging out with other people. He kept saying it was sinful. I never felt so embarrassed in my life with everyone laughing at me. I sat that entire service just embarrassed.
Once I left, several of the members attempted to contact me with a few of them trying to “go to the movies” with me at midnight when they knew very well the closest movie theatre was an hour away and didn't show movies at midnight.
After I stopped going to that church, a few of the members completely stopped talking to me despite us being “friends,” and I still can’t believe that happened to me.
#4 What Was Once A Normal Church
I was actually in a church that transformed slowly into a cult. They just slowly started doing more and more "miraculous" things. Tithes became incredibly important, and the priest's family was starting to become prioritized above all.
I left but heard some insane things afterward. I was lucky as I came from a really complicated low socioeconomic background and when I moved to a university, there wasn't much fight for me.
#5 Not The Kung Fu He Was Looking For
I used to practice kung fu at what was basically the most McDojo place ever. On top of all the usual money-grabbing stuff, 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.
#6 More Of A Cult Than A Religion
Just left the Jehovah’s Witness “religion” this year. Honestly, what really did it for me was the fact that after a lifetime of being a devout member, all the sermons started sounding identical. Every speech was simply an insistence 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’ve 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.
#7 Exorcism Is Never Sign Something Good Is Going On
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 onto his every word, really should have tipped me off. They would literally agree with everything he said—what they should name their new baby, what movies were evil, what would bring the devil into their lives, etc.
The biggest red flag I can't believe I didn't notice 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, "Wow, that was a cult."
#8 No Questions Allowed Whatsoever
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.
#9 Acquiring Knowledge Is Not A Sin
I became afraid of doing outside research on the "religion" I was raised in. I was afraid I'd be allowing evil forces 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. I knew for sure I was in a cult the moment when my whole family turned their back on me and started shunning me because I stopped believing in their nonsense.
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#10 Recruit People Or Else
I knew I was in a cult when they made it clear I wasn’t good enough for them. 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!” 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!”
#11 Donations, Donations, Donations
My parents were in this religious cult that always asked for crazy amounts for donations. It even sent families out to pioneer for the religion. We were one of the families.
Then, coming to Canada, we had financial and 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.
#12 A Jesus Camp From The Inside
It was the summer during middle school when a friend of a friend invited us out to a week-long "camp." It had so much awesome stuff like paintball, four-wheeling, and swimming in the lake. It sounded great, so I went.
It ended up being 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 another 30-minute meal time.
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 time, once again.
They led us on a march to a big fire and made us lie down in a massive field staring at the stars while they chanted prayers over a microphone one night that week.
#13 The Heinous Crime Of Watching Chris Rock Be Funny
For me, it was when, after almost a decade of being raised in and working for them, I got fired by them. I had watched a Chris Rock video, and I was reported on by one of the cult leader's many spies. He decided it was proof that I was not pure in Christ and had to be removed from the "flock of Christ."
The idea that something so innocent as comedy on YouTube could be "a grievous sin against God" struck me as beyond ludicrous and awakened a very cynical part of me. And so the journey of searching for truth began.
#14 The Cult Of Higher Education
When multiple people told me that they worked eight hours extra per day on Saturday and Sunday, then at home unpaid, in addition to working quite long hours during the week. According to them, life is supposed to be all about achievement and publishing.
This cult was called a Ph.D. program in research science.
#15 The Lies They Made Him Tell Went Too Far
When I was 14, I was put in on speech fast (I could not talk, and if I did, for every sentence I spoke I would have to do five pushups). I could not eat with my team, I had to skip meals, I was put in a prayer room when my team was going out for fun events. I was on speech fast for five and a half weeks. During that time, they forced me to talk about my adult video addiction, despite the fact that I did not have one. They forced me to tell my parents via phone call that was monitored.
I was forced to do demolition on an old VA hospital that they owned in Little Rock, Arkansas.
I'm 31 and I still have dreams of that place.
#16 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 my 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 is 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.
#17 Corruption Is Strong In This One
When I learned our founding prophet would send men on missions so he could get intimate 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 uses 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 Where Did His Privacy Go?
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 paranoid, opened the stall door, and saw that they were right outside of it, waiting for me. That was my sign.
#19 Marry Young Or You'll Never Get Married At All
I was 16 and started receiving incredible pressure to start finding a husband. Daily pressure from multiple authorities in the church. At one point, a religious leader tried to forcibly push me into a room where an eternal marriage class was being taught. I literally had to cling to the doorframe and say repeatedly, "I am not going in." He played it off like he was joking but I was counseled by another religious leader and a family member to find someone before I was on the shelf.
I was 16.
All of my friends except two in that religion were married by 19. One of those girls was married by 21 and the other came out as gay.
#20 What Would Jesus Do?
When they stopped allowing children who had gay parents to be baptized. They claimed to believe in Jesus and I knew that Jesus wouldn’t do that to kids.
#21 "Do Whatever It Takes To Get Him Back"
I was briefly associated with Lifespring. I walked out of one of their training sessions. Two Lifespring members, one of whom was a friend, came to my house and tried to push me into coming back. At one point, the not-a-friend member laid hands on me and tried to force me into his car. My friend finally broke with him at that point, saying, "Stop, we weren't told to use force." Later, he said to me that they had been told to "do whatever it takes" to get me back.
#22 "The First Thing To Know Is We're Not A Cult"
I joined this "Oneness" group with a friend for a while. The first red flag was that they kept insisting they weren't a cult. However, the major wow moment, for me, happened when we were asked to pray to the founders of the organization, a couple in India who claim to be divine reincarnations. That felt kind of weird, so I quit going to meetings and started reading up on the organization. It is the ultimate pyramid scheme. People pay money for multiple levels of "training," hoping to eventually reach enlightenment. The founders are making absolute bank.
#23 Cults Really Like To Start On 'Em Young
In fourth grade, I was moved into a new private school. Around 600 students K-12 in a single building. I knew it was a weird Christian school beforehand but realized it was a cult pretty quickly. In the first few weeks, the principal (who was the spiritual leader of all families involved with the school) started calling impromptu all-school assemblies where he would have unstructured, screaming rants. He focused on rock-and-roll bands, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, etc.
This was in the late '90s. The culture was this insane throwback to the 50s, which they revered as the golden era of Christianity. It was... bizarre.
#24 Just Another Day In Montana
I realized I was in a cult earlier this year.
Everything seemed okay until the cult started to force people out of their homes. I wasn't one of them, but I noticed businesses were getting shut down.
The whole town was getting weird. Vehicles, shops, and farms were all converted into "outposts." I couldn't buy anything or drive anywhere without the higher members stopping me every time. They would intimidate you with guns.
Eventually, the National Guard came in and stopped them. Just another day in Montana.
#25 The Moment In A College Anatomy Class You Realize Evolution Is Real
It began to dawn on me when I took an anatomy class in college and saw a frog skeleton. I saw that frog had a scapula and other bones pretty darn similar to mine, so maybe the theory of evolution had some truth to it... Maybe the earth really wasn't only 6,000 years old because these things take time after all... Maybe the scientists who say the earth is very, very old weren't working for evil forces after all.
#26 Beware The Reptilians
When I was younger and my parents were going through a divorce, my mother was trying to "find herself" by going through a ton of different religions. She dragged me through each one. All of them seemed a bit cultish. But none of them sent me as BIG of red flags as Scientology. First, when they made my mother spend a bunch of money on books, and then they conducted "tests" on us. We were told that the government was run by reptile alien people sent here to control humans.
I was 16 and knew they were full of it.
#27 Cults Where You Least Expect Them
The weekly meetings, the worshipped leader, the chants, the rules, the shaming. I was only a Tupperware rep for two months before it felt more like a cult than a business.
#28 Who Doesn't Want To Feel Special?
When I started reading stories on a website from former members of the cult I had grown up in. The leader liked to pick out teenage girls with "bright countenances" and "mentor" them at the ministry headquarters... I bought the whole "you're so special" routine and put up with lots of creepiness out of naivete until I read stories of women who went through the same thing 20 years prior. It was a very rude awakening but I'm so grateful for that site.
#29 Demons Couldn't Scare Him Into Staying
I used to go to this thing called Psychic Development Group. It was pretty cool and harmless in the beginning, just people trying to find out if they could read auras and stuff like that.
Then eventually I was being told I had invisible swords stuck in my body and I could only remove them by being more spiritual (getting more involved in the group).
This was a red flag for me because I had just seen a documentary about Charles Manson's mind-control techniques and the "invisible swords" thing was one of his.
Also, everything bad in these people's lives was caused by "demons."
The last straw was when they were sensing I was ready to back out, they told me a very powerful demon was in the group who liked to jump from person to person, and it would "try to separate me from the group".
So, hi demons, it's ya boy.
#30 Your Church Is The Only Church They're Calling Out
When people stood at the parking lot entrance of our church handing out pamphlets about it being nutty. I was young but old enough to realize they weren't going to the other churches in town to do this.
#31 Manipulation Is The Name Of The Game
I realized when I met people from the outside world. The cult took up nearly all of my time, forcing me to cut off everyone I’d known in the past. This particular cult was big on selfless behavior—any self-interest, including feeling ill, wanting more spare time, or wanting to visit your family, was severely looked down upon, and at times punishable.
After years and years, I just happened to meet and befriend someone on the outside. Being a part of someone’s normal life made me snap out of it, I guess. I realized that not being allowed to care about my own health and comfort wasn’t normal, and thankfully I got out. That didn’t mean things immediately went back to normal, though. My own family was pretty on board with their beliefs, so it was weird seeing them stay all brainwashed. Most people in my area know it exists but not much about it, and it’s hard for me to talk about it with them because calling it a cult makes it feel dramatic and unbelievable.
The whole experience just really messed me up in general. Cults are rarely as blatant and horror-movie-like as people imagine. It’s less about creepy rituals and more about physiological manipulation and abuse. Even now, I still instinctively doubt my own feelings and memories regarding the experience.
#32 Brainwashing Is Only The First Step
After years of ignoring untold warning signs, like abuse, brainwashing etc., I realized I was in a pretty dodgy situation when the leader started talking about everyone selling their possessions, laying the money at his feet, then all moving into a warehouse together. I left that night and never went back.
#33 The Clues Are So Hard To See From The Inside
I had my first inkling that I was in a cult when I was standing in a room dressed in robes, a green apron, and a weird hat practicing secret handshakes and signs while pantomiming ending myself. Oh, and when I had to stand naked under a sheet while an old guy touched different parts of my body to bless them. Oh, and when a group stood in a circle and chanted words in ancient Adamic while raising and lowering their arms.
Yeah... and I still ended up going on a mission for them and staying until I was almost 40.
#34 The T-Shirts Tipped Him Off
When the leaders of our church started wearing shirts to our rallies that said, "OBEY AND NEVER COMPLAIN."
#35 Typical Mormon Behavior
Not really a sudden realization but watching a Blacklist episode about a polygamous cult made me think about how many similarities there must be with early Mormonism and the current fundamentalist branches.
Then researching stuff and learning that the Mountain Meadows Massacre wasn't the first or last in Utah, but just the largest example of typical Mormon behavior of the time, I wanted nothing more to do with it.
#36 All Good Until Step 12
When I learned what Step 12 of every 12-step program was: recruit more people.
#37 Casual, Healthy Groups Aren't Hard To Leave
I grew up in a doomsday cult. Even from a young age, I knew something was off. When I was 16, my parents sent me to Colorado to stay with our group's leader. I stayed in a compound outside of Lyons, Colorado for two weeks. It was a very weird experience. I was kind of locked down the whole time. I eventually made the decision that I was definitely in a cult. It wasn't until I was 27, however, that I was able to get out.
#38 The Cult Of White Supremacy
When the sacred book told me that we didn't "hate" minorities, we were just superior to them because of "science". Also, the fact that it constantly portrayed itself as a "religion" and not a hate group.
#39 Not Her Choice To Make
When I was told that the hijab was a choice, but when I wanted to take it off it wasn't seen as my choice to make.
#40 The Church Should Never Have That Much Control
When moving across the state for college required approval from the leader of the church.
#41 First They Make You Cry, Then They Make You Pledge
They had us sit around tables and confess our secrets to strangers. By the end of the retreat, we were brought to tears. After we were broken down emotionally, they had us repledge ourselves to God. I should have been done after that but the tactics worked, and I convinced my then-girlfriend to go on the same retreat.
#42 Textbook Cult Behavior
When I realized that calling everybody Brother and Sister before their name wasn’t normal.
E.g., Brother Gary, Sister Jackie, etc.
When there were only strict rules for women but none for men...
When someone decides to leave the organization, and you could no longer talk to them, shunning them completely...
“Oh man! This is definitely cult behavior!”
#43 God Speaks Through This One Pentecostal Church Leader
When the leader of my small independent Pentecostal church made it compulsory to attend one-on-one counseling sessions where he would tell you what God told him he wanted for you to do.
#44 University-Style Cults
But honestly. I was told what I could and could not wear, how I should act, and who I should be friends with. We had weird rituals we performed every week and if you didn’t do something right (drank too much at a party, wore sweats to class during an important week, hung out with guys during recruitment) you were put in front of a board, and they decided whether you were worthy enough to stay in.
#45 Cult Songs
One can only sing so many choruses of "Listen, Obey, and Be Blessed" before realizing they are, in fact, in a cult.