One of the creepiest things about religion is the tendency for those involved to drift into cult-like behaviors. How can you tell if a religious group is operating like a cult? It’s difficult because the people in a religious group can behave like a cult without them becoming a full blown, identifiable religious cult.

What groups am I thinking of? It could be a small local group or a large international group. It could be a parish or a school. It could be a study group or an ecclesial community. The difficulty is that cult like behavior is often very similar to authentic and Spirit filled Christian communities. A cult will often look like a good, authentic and dynamic Christian community. In fact, the cult will often out do the authentic Christian community in certain respects. Sometimes the cult will feel more authentic, more dynamic, more spiritual and more “filled with the Spirit.”

How can you tell if a parish, a school, a community or a religious group are becoming cult like? Again, it is very difficult because some groups that have cult-like behaviors remain at a low level of these behaviors.

So what are the danger signs? First of all, if a religious community or a religious leader seem too good to be true–guess what? They’re usually too good to be true. That’s because group cult behavior conspires to cover up and hide away anything that tarnishes the glossy image of that “wonderful community” that all the members want so much to believe in. This is the first sign of a cult: everything is too wonderful and everyone is ready to tell you how wonderful it all it. The cult will invariably have an amazingly good public relations operation. They will present a good and glossy front with 100% participation of all involved. This being the case, if your priest is a man who’s faults are obvious. Maybe you should be grateful. He’s real. He’s not trying to con you.

The second thing to watch out for is the leadership. The leadership of a cult will invariably be selective and exclusive. There will be a public face of the leadership, and that person will unfailingly present the nice, glossy and polished face of the organization. The public face will be squeaky clean and wonderful. If it is a personality based cult there may be no other leadership. However, if there is a board of directors or trustees, they will remain in the background. You may not know who they are. Their meetings will not be public. They may even have a vow of secrecy about their meetings. They will call this something nice like “a confidentiality agreement.” This means they cannot discuss what goes on behind those closed doors. There may not be a formal leadership group at all. Instead the leader may simply have an inside circle of friends and confidantes who nobody really knows because they never have any meetings as such. The decisions are all taken in private. The leadership will be tightly controlled and it will be by invitation only. If you encounter non-transparent leadership in this way. Don’t be surprised and be suspicious.

A third trait of a cult is that complete loyalty is demanded of the followers. Dissent and criticism is not permitted. Those who dissent will be marginalized, excluded from decision making and demonized. If the leaders cannot get rid of the dissenters they will be isolated and given a name. They will be “the troublemakers” or “the grumblers”. The dissenters from within will be considered the most dangerous ones and you will find that there are divisions–those who are loyal followers and those who are suspected of being “disloyal” or “rebellious”. The disloyal and rebellious ones will be deemed “unspiritual” or “difficult”. In extreme cases the dissenters will become scapegoats and all the negativities of the group will be projected on to them.

A fourth characteristic of a group that has become a cult or is behaving in a cult like manner is that there will be a persecution complex. A group of outside forces will be identified who are “the enemy”. A little fortress will be built in which all those on the inside are the “faithful ones” while all those on the outside will increasingly be demonized and feared. There will be no real effort to build bridges or get to know those on the outside. There will be no real effort to treat the outsiders as real people. Instead they are the enemy to be kept at arms’ length and against whom the faithful will usually project their fears and suspicions. At worst the enemy will have all the sins and fears and dark negativities projected on them.

The problem is that when a group is becoming cult like it does so innocently. Nobody sets out to establish a cult. Instead, unconsciously certain individuals start to behave in this manner and they support one another. The leadership starts to create an unrealistically wonderful religious atmosphere and those who want and need that sort of religious group will support it and feed the flames. The faithful will set the leader up on a pedestal and declare him to be wonderful and the leader (who needs and likes the adulation) will encourage their hero worship. Those who object or suspect what is happening will be automatically excluded or marginalized by those who wish to perpetuate the super wonderful world they are setting up for themselves.

It all stinks to high heaven, and I know how it works because in over fifty years of working in a range of religious groups I have seen these behaviors develop within parishes, within home prayer and praise groups, within schools, in colleges and in independent churches.

What’s the antidote? One of the antidotes is actually the Catholic parish system. If we all went to our local parish and put up with the priest we didn’t happen to like and the people who were just there because, like us, they lived there–we would be more realistic and we wouldn’t fall into personality cult problems.

Another antidote is common sense. If something or someone seems to be too good to be true. They are. Common sense pops pomposity’s balloon and brings things down to earth. A third antidote is open-ness to criticism and dissent. A real servant leader and a truly service based group will value all members and be strong enough to listen to dissenting voices. They will treat criticism as positive feedback and be open not only to dissent but to outsiders. A fourth antidote is confession. Cult members and cult leaders never admit their mistakes and will never be able to make a true, honest and open confession or apology. If your leader or community members cannot say “sorry” you’ve got problems.

Finally, real religion is just that. It’s real. It’s humble. Remember the word “humility” comes from the word “humus” which means “earth”. Real religion is down to earth. It’s humble and oh yes, “Humus” is also the root for “humor”. Real religion always knows how to have a laugh. If a group or a person can’t laugh at themselves–be suspicious. If they take themselves or their movement or their spirituality with utmost seriousness–beware.