It is not surprising that during times of threats to our safety, health and future that people are more likely to seek answers and comfort from a wide range of sources. The arrival of Covid-19 is a pandemic threat to humanity that is clearly causing stress and fear to many people across the world. It is likely, at this time, that people will be motivated to turn to, or back to, a religious belief that offers answers as well as spiritual and emotional comfort.
This is hardly surprising as there is some evidence that supports the idea that there is a connection between religious faith and emotional happiness and stability. (Ref 1.).
We are well aware that there are online scam artists offering miraculous cures for Covid-19 that can actually cause harm. In the same was there are many cult-like organisations, religious and otherwise, that are also seeking to attract and entrap the unsuspecting online and recruit them for their own purposes.
Just as you wouldn’t take any medication
offered to cure Covid-19 without doing some research
it is equally wise to research fully any organisation
that is offering spiritual and emotional comfort.
How to recognise a Cult like organisation:
In reality it is not the set of beliefs and practises of the group that are of primary importance. Cults may project political, conspiracy, psychological, religious or materialistic beliefs about the world. The key to identifying cultish practises is to pay attention to, their organisational structure, their founder or current leaders and their demands (financial, emotional and psychological) on their individual members. It’s important to realise that a person can be mentally well but placed under such emotional pressure that they speak and act in ways that they would not normally contemplate. It does not mean they are going “crazy”.
Very often the organisation will have a hierarchical or pyramid like structure and a set of obligations or behaviours expected of lower rank members. These are not always apparent (in fact may be deliberately concealed) to an individual being courted for membership.
Steven Hassan, author of Combatting Cult Mind Control (Ref 2.). and a foremost expert on cults and mind control has been helping people exit destructive cults since 1976. He developed the BITE model to help people determine whether or not a group is practicing destructive mind control.
We have used the BITE model as a basis for this discussion to help to gain an understanding of the real purposes of the organisation so diligently inviting us to join their group.
Before we can apply any model to understanding the organisation concerned it is vital to understand and fully research every aspect of the group. Obviously, this research should focus on information available apart from what the group might actually say about themselves. Taking a look at their website and conducting a search with the organisation name and the word cult beside it will soon bring up alternative views. While these views are not necessarily true it will help in providing a more balanced critique of the organisation.
Try and learn about the founder or current leader/s of the group from as many sources as possible. Note that much information and practises will be introduced over time and may in fact be concealed from the initial enquirer. Try and get a feeling about how open and upfront they are. What beliefs and practises are core to the group? In particular pay close attention to the member’s behaviour and their approach and attitude towards you.
Research the Leaders or founders
- Pay particular attention to his/her early history and the formation of their beliefs. What are their education and qualifications?
- Who influenced them and how have they changed or adapted their beliefs over time?
- How were they funded and what type of lifestyle did they lead? Does it contradict their stated beliefs?
- How do the leaders react when you question or critique a belief or statement?
- Are there specific beliefs about the end of the world or a new world order? Have previous predictions or prophesies been made in the past?
- Are there audits, financial reports? Are the leaders accountable to the membership in any way? Who makes decisions on spending, structure and development? These are standards for bona fide organisations.
Explore the beliefs and practises
- Are the beliefs exclusive to this group? Is this the only way”? What evidence do they present for their particular beliefs?
- What is their attitude to outsiders, friends, and family members? Are they tolerant or dismissive of alternative views? What is the attitude towards ex-members?
- Are they suggesting or demanding significant changes to your beliefs and lifestyle?
- Is it obvious that there are financial obligations? These may not be apparent at first?
- Is there a progression (and pressure) towards enlightenment or knowledge?
- Is there a devotional or unquestioning attitude that is full of praise or gratitude to the leader or leaders? Do members display undue deference and devotion to the leadership?
- Are there differences between the leadership and members, in aspects of behaviour like sexual behaviours, lifestyle and privilege?
- Does their online presence place emphasis on the critical even catastrophic state of humanity, or individual stress and despair today and hold out the certainty of answers to this problem?
Observe the group members
- Are they always happy and carefree even in times of crisis and difficulties?
- Do they appear very or overly friendly?
- Do they promise simplistic answers to life’s problems, specifically your problem? This is a typical cultish ploy and disregards the freedom all individuals hold to be their own expert in their own lives.
- Are there invitations to “free” meals, entertainments, assessments, workshops or seminars?
- Is it very difficult to turn them down? Are they quite insistent? Do you feel under obligation?
- Are there pressures to ignore your own mind, are they opposed to logic and critical thoughts and questions? Is there a theme of going with emotions or feelings?
- Do all members tend to have identical views? Are there congenial debates and tolerance of others perspectives or do they all tend to row in to correct or answer your questions?
Who controls your mind?
As mentioned earlier, Steven Hassan developed the BITE (Behaviour, Information, Thought and Emotional Control) model as an aide in determining if an organisation is utilising some form of mind control on its members.
A full description of the BITE model can be found at,
Using the information gained in doing as much research as possible into the group bring these observations under the BITE headings to see if there are any that describe forms of control that may be being used. These may be very subtle and couched in such a way that obedience as a way of serving the community and not to obey is a form of selfishness.
Behavioural Control: Does the organisation encourage or even demand obedience in personal behaviours and freedoms such as, diet, where you should live, whom you should associate with? Are there specifics demands around association with others even governing intimate relationships? Is there strict adherence to rules such as prayer times and duration, fasting and financial commitment? Is there a requirement to seek approval for major personal life decisions? Is there an expectation that individuals are to publically confess “wrong doing” to leaders or groups? Is there a sense that approved behaviours are rewarded while unapproved behaviours are punished? Is it expected that errant behaviours of others are reported to leaders or made public in groups?
Information Control: Is information withheld, or distorted? Does the organisation actively discourage access to news, documentaries or books for its members? Are there approved thoughts and behaviours and an undermining of any critical or inquisitive thoughts? Is there a sense that there is an “in-group” good or approved way of thinking and an “out-group” bad or negative way of thinking? Are you encouraged to only read approved lists of books, pamphlets and papers? Is there a consistent reference to print and broadcast media as fake or involved in a conspiracy to deceive?
Thought Control: are members required to accept the group’s version of reality? Is there an emphasis on how one feels rather than using personal and individual thought processes? Are there simplistic often repeated versions of truth such as black and white thinking, good versus bad and catastrophic consequences for the world if this version of “truth” is doubted? Is there a clear rejection of all other groups, beliefs and behaviours as bad or dangerous? Are there practises such as long periods of chanting, praying and meditation? Are any questions about the leader or leaders actively discouraged, ignored or punished?
Emotional Control: Is there a sense that a member’s individual sense of self, their own decisions, thoughts and behaviours are seen as selfish and counter to the good practise of the group? Are ordinary human needs and requirements such as love, time out, contact with family and friends discouraged and members made to feel guilty over such desires? Are members encouraged to feel unworthy, incompetent and falling short of the idea more often than not? Are there often times when members are wary, fearful and encouraged to walk on eggshells around the leaders or leader? Does the leader or leaders display moods that vary wildly even in the same few minutes of engagement? Is there an encouragement to shun and disparage ex-members of the group, are they vilified and blamed for their problems?
Ref 1: Pargament, K.L. (2007). Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy. Understanding and addressing the sacred. London: The Guildford Press.
Shafranske, E.P and Sperry, L. (2013). Addressing the Spiritual Dimension in Psychotherapy: Introduction and Overview in Shafranske, E.P and Sperry, L. (Eds). Spiritually Orientated Psychotherapy. Washington: American Psychological Association.
Ref. 2: Hassan, S. (2018). Combatting Cult mind Control. Newton MA: Freedom of Mind Press