The Costs of Cults

Scenes from a cult/megachurch – Photo by Debby Ledet on Unsplash

If you’ve ever been an unwitting part of a cultish group, you may have experienced The Moment. It is a single moment (that stands out in a series of moments) in which you realise the extent of the horror to which you’ve been a party.

For me, it was the morning after a chaotic concert and march in which many children from low income and under-resourced schools came together in support of a call for standardised infrastructural norms for schools. In a staff reflection meeting, the white male head of the organisation for which I was working at the time told us that the average poor black person often sits in their home and struggles to imagine change. The clarity with which he could speak about the inner thoughts of people whose material lives differed so dramatically from his own shocked me. I’m black, and I cannot claim to know what other black people think. That was the moment, for me. It didn’t seem to make sense that any effort driven towards social justice could be based in such a reductive, racist view of the people powering its momentum.

I’m black, and I cannot claim to know what other black people think.

In the years since I left that organisation, I have engaged with many stories told by fellow cult survivors who have had their own versions of The Moment. No matter the structural shell within which a cult is contained, be it a religious group, a non-profit, a self-help group, a tech start-up run by bros, or a following of a larger-than-life personality, the stories are eerily predictable. As much as those within the space are drawn to believe and trust, our human drive to make sense will ultimately reveal the underlying senselessness, and, if we are lucky, we are faced with long roads of deprogramming and recovery.

These stories, from employees of start-ups like WeWork and Uber; from members of groups like NXIVM; from followers of personalities like Elon Musk or Peter Madsen; from faithful flock of megachurches, and traditional denominations alike, all follow these narrative arcs.

For my sins, I return again and again to such stories. Is it comforting to see this play out again and again, across all these contexts? Does it make me feel I am part of a twisted community of survivors of some kind? Surely, it is more likely to be terrifying to realise how common cult-like entities and the harm they spread are?

More than anything, the stories emerging from cults serve as a warning, for myself, for society. In every survivor’s story, in every hollow rebuttal from cult leaders, I am reminded of how easily and quickly these structures that we build from deep wells of good intentions can be hollowed out and perverted, and end up doing more harm than good before eventually imploding.

The roads to cults are paved with collective good intentions. We all have good intentions. Our world is broken in so many ways, and we are all searching to mend it. That is the human condition. Unfortunately, it is also part of the condition to lean so heavily into what we experiences as ‘fixes’ that we forget to ask questions, and to tread with great care.

None of us are above this condition. None of us are above the inevitable devastation that may be wrought when we forget.


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