One possible way of looking groups or ideologies that doesn't depend on either the content of the beliefs or one's personal feelings about any given person in it: this "evaluation frame".
The word "cult" is used, but I think that because that word is so loaded, (even though it's also useful to try to take the word back from its common usage as "religious group i think is too way out there," which the author, a pagan, would have some vested interest in), a better way of looking at it might be "assessment of how authoritarian/totalistic a given group is." Note that the following is based on the dynamics of how the group works; they could be -saying- they believe in the exact opposite of authoritarianism. Freedom, equality, democracy, "yes, we are all individuals." It might not matter, is the point.
So, you're supposed to look at each one of these criteria and rate the group in question from a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the "high" end. the higher the total, the more you might want to be on your guard.
As the author points out, too low might also be a problem for some people. for me that wouldn't make a group "dangerous" so much as "completely ineffectual," but i suppose if the group has any sort of real-world decision making process, or is in a position of leadership/responsibility, then yes, that could be "dangerous," also.
Note that this could apply to religious groups of any denomination, political groups across the ideological spectrum, or any other sort of secular group.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
1 Internal Control: Amount of internal political and social power exercised by leader(s) over members; lack of clearly defined organizational rights for members.
2 External Control: Amount of external political and social influence desired or obtained; emphasis on directing members’ external political and social behavior.
3 Wisdom/Knowledge Claimed by leader(s); amount of infallibility declared or implied about decisions or doctrinal/scriptural interpretations; number and degree of unverified and/or unverifiable credentials claimed.
4 Wisdom/Knowledge Credited to leader(s) by members; amount of trust in decisions or doctrinal/scriptural interpretations made by leader(s); amount of hostility by members towards internal or external critics and/or towards verification efforts.
5 Dogma: Rigidity of reality concepts taught; amount of doctrinal inflexibility or “fundamentalism;” hostility towards relativism and situationalism.
6 Recruiting: Emphasis put on attracting new members; amount of proselytizing; requirement for all members to bring in new ones.
7 Front Groups: Number of subsidiary groups using different names from that of main group, especially when connections are hidden.
8 Wealth: Amount of money and/or property desired or obtained by group; emphasis on members’ donations; economic lifestyle of leader(s) compared to ordinary members.
9 Sexual Manipulation of members by leader(s) of non-tantric groups; amount of control exercised over sexuality of members in terms of sexual orientation, behavior, and/or choice of partners.
10 Sexual Favoritism: Advancement or preferential treatment dependent upon sexual activity with the leader(s) of non-tantric groups.
11 Censorship: Amount of control over members’ access to outside opinions on group, its doctrines or leader(s).
12 Isolation: Amount of effort to keep members from communicating with non-members, including family, friends and lovers.
13 Dropout Control: Intensity of efforts directed at preventing or returning dropouts.
14 Violence: Amount of approval when used by or for the group, its doctrines or leader(s).
15 Paranoia: Amount of fear concerning real or imagined enemies; exaggeration of perceived power of opponents; prevalence of conspiracy theories.
16 Grimness: Amount of disapproval concerning jokes about the group, its doctrines or its leader(s).
17 Surrender of Will: Amount of emphasis on members not having to be responsible for personal decisions; degree of individual disempowerment created by the group, its doctrines or its leader(s).
18 Hypocrisy: amount of approval for actions which the group officially considers immoral or unethical, when done by or for the group, its doctrines or leader(s); willingness to violate the group’s declared principles for political, psychological, social, economic, military, or other gain.
Obviously some of these have more real-world consequences than others. The ones about wealth, violence, recruiting, and (overt) sexual manipulation are more applicable to more formally organized groups with some degree of real-world power; which I think is what least most people would mean by "danger."
What I'm currently interested in is how one might apply such criteria to more amorphous sorts of dynamics. Where it's not even an organized group at all, per se, and doesn't have much real-world power (i.e. no one's putting a hit on anyone, demanding money, blackmailing, etc. etc.) Where there isn't even really a "leader" per se; or at least, not one that's universally agreed upon. Somewhere between "ineffectual" and "authoritarian," but still not "healthy."
Here is another, similar checklist from Rick Ross.
*Ten warning signs of a potentially unsafe group/leader.*
Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.
No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.
No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget, expenses such as an independently audited financial statement.
Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.
There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.
Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.
There are records, books, news articles, or television programs that document the abuses of the group/leader.
Followers feel they can never be "good enough".
The group/leader is always right.
The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing "truth" or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.
*Ten warning signs regarding people involved in/with a potentially unsafe group/leader.*
Extreme obsessiveness regarding the group/leader resulting in the exclusion of almost every practical consideration.
Individual identity, the group, the leader and/or God as distinct and separate categories of existence become increasingly blurred. Instead, in the follower's mind these identities become substantially and increasingly fused--as that person's involvement with the group/leader continues and deepens.
Whenever the group/leader is criticized or questioned it is characterized as "persecution".
Uncharacteristically stilted and seemingly programmed conversation and mannerisms, cloning of the group/leader in personal behavior.
Dependency upon the group/leader for problem solving, solutions, and definitions without meaningful reflective thought. A seeming inability to think independently or analyze situations without group/leader involvement.
Hyperactivity centered on the group/leader agenda, which seems to supercede any personal goals or individual interests.
A dramatic loss of spontaneity and sense of humor.
Increasing isolation from family and old friends unless they demonstrate an interest in the group/leader.
Anything the group/leader does can be justified no matter how harsh or harmful.
Former followers are at best-considered negative or worse evil and under bad influences. They can not be trusted and personal contact is avoided.
*Ten signs of a safe group/leader.*
A safe group/leader will answer your questions without becoming judgmental and punitive.
A safe group/leader will disclose information such as finances and often offer an independently audited financial statement regarding budget and expenses. Safe groups and leaders will tell you more than you want to know.
A safe group/leader is often democratic, sharing decision making and encouraging accountability and oversight.
A safe group/leader may have disgruntled former followers, but will not vilify, excommunicate and forbid others from associating with them.
A safe group/leader will not have a paper trail of overwhelmingly negative records, books, articles and statements about them.
A safe group/leader will encourage family communication, community interaction and existing friendships and not feel threatened.
A safe group/leader will recognize reasonable boundaries and limitations when dealing with others.
A safe group/leader will encourage critical thinking, individual autonomy and feelings of self-esteem.
A safe group/leader will admit failings and mistakes and accept constructive criticism and advice.
A safe group/leader will not be the only source of knowledge and learning excluding everyone else, but value dialogue and the free exchange of ideas.
Ross, I think, is onto something in that he also includes abusive and controlling -relationships- (i.e. domestic partnerships, friendships,) as using the same techniques, having the same dynamics as large organizational groups. Here is another site that breaks down the similarities between a cult and a dysfunctional family,, in fact: they both have, or can have:
Distorted view of God, others, self, and authority
Rigid, unspoken rules with serious penalties which guarantee control.
Restriction/control of all choices by members.
Undue influence, thought control, manipulation.
Cult/Family [respectively]important; individual unimportant.
Control by physical abuse.
Control by verbal abuse.
Control by sexual abuse.
Control by ritualistic practices, fear.
Dependency on group; independent functioning discouraged/sabotaged. Rigidity; security by stable sameness.Rigidity; security by stable sameness.
Exploitation of individual industry/resources
Relentless shaming, guilting.
Rules about emotions.
There are any number of "red flag" lists for potentially abusive -individuals-, or abusive dynamics in domestic relationships, floating around. Here is just one of them.
Here is another.
Unfortunately, one thing that tends to happen is that people will wrestle their way free from one -sort- of abusive/authoritarian relationship only to end up in another, not because the person is stupid or a glutton for punishment or anything of that sort, but because the person associates the abuse/authoritarianism with the -kind- of relationship/group/ideology/person they just left, rather than seeing the subtler common threads that make these seemingly different sorts of relationships/groups actually quite similar in many ways. So, a person might flee her abusive family of origin only to find that her spouse, who seemed so different in so many ways, is actually ringing a few familiar, unpleasant bells; a person might give up on the Church only to find that the nice peaceful New Age group or right-on political groups he's joined is beginning to feel a little too close for comfort; a person writes off all members of a group of people sie's had nothing but draining and/or horrific experiences with-- gender, cultural background, religion, general political affiliation, socioeconomic status, nationality--only to find that the safe haven of (group X)-free people sie's joined is actually no safer than the last group.
Or, well, what also might happen is: in fact, the person has gone from the fire to the frying pan, so it's -somewhat- better than the last one. Certainly, in overt, concrete ways, the new relationship/group feels and looks much better.
The last partner was a physical batterer, screamed and raged; this one does not batter, scream, or rage. The last church insisted on members turning over all their funds and shaving their heads; this one doesn't make any such demands. The last political group was overtly, rabidly racist and believed in puppy-murdering for the greater good; this one doesn't, or anything like -that.-
So, for a number of reasons, now, even if disquieting feelings are starting to surface, one doesn't want to rock the boat.
And maybe one will never have to; maybe, for one's own purposes at least, this group/relationship is "good enough," if not perfect. So, fine.
In other instances, though, the boat gets overturned anyway, or sinks. It just wasn't sustainable, dammit.
So, now what?
Well, being human, the person who's now gone through a -series- of rocky, bruising and disappointing encounters with a fairly wide variety of groups and/or individuals, chances are that the person may simply burn out altogether, temporarily or permanently, and retreat, literally or metaphorically, into a fortress of some sort.
Sometimes that's necessary, sure. Hierarchy of needs and all that.
Trouble is--if it then becomes a permanent ideological standpoint in itself, this mm misanthropy, nihilism, despair; well, that is not so healthy either, for individuals, or for real, good relationships (which exist) or for healthily functioning groups (ditto), or for democracies, or other living things.
It becomes a question, then, perhaps, of boundaries. They are important, you know.
"'Sometimes I know what's best for [this other person] Isn't it my job to care for them? '
Absolutely not! Care about [other person]; do not care for them. Big difference! They have the right to make their own choices, including choices that you believe are wrong. You may state your opinion once, even twice. Then you need to drop it. Stop trying to control them, fix them, guide them. Spend your energy controlling yourself, including learning to tolerate [other person's] choices. You don't have to agree with your partner's position. You do have to respect it...."
or, from this site specifically dealing with a certain kind of person/dynamic, much i think is applicable even for people who don't find the psych terminology applicable:
The easiest and most gentle way of dealing with this is to remember, that you do not have to rationalize your boundary. You do not have to defend your boundary. It is YOURS. You simply have to state it and enforce it. You do not have to ‘prove’ your right to have it. You cannot prove anything to [certain people, some or all of the time], since irrational thinking and some delusionary thinking are often part of the [individual's core personality, group dynamic]. The [person] in your life may do his or her absolute best to convince you otherwise. Stand firm in your own reality. It belongs to you.
Basic assertiveness training is good, too.
Assertiveness training is all about helping people to know that there really are situations where they have a perfect right to defend themselves from bullying attempts made by others. Once people realize that it is okay, and even proper for them to stand up for themselves; to allow themselves to feel angry when they are taken advantage of, they tend to find that actually defending themselves is not so hard. Assertive behavior basically consists of the following steps:
realizing that you have been dominated, or taken advantage of
feeling the angry feelings (directed towards the dominating partner, and/or to yourself for allowing yourself to be dominated
deciding to act to put a stop to the domination
acting on your conviction (which involves finding a way to demand your rights be respected, while also being polite and civil about it so as not to become aggressive yourself)
waiting for your dominating relationship partner to escalate his or her bad behavior, so as to put you back in line and force you to submit again and then
resisting the urge to submit again in the face of escalation.
I have the right to be the ultimate judge of my own behavior, thoughts, and emotions, and to take the responsibility for their initiation and consequences upon myself.
I have the right to offer no reasons or excuses to justify my behavior.
I have the right to judge whether I am responsible for finding solutions to other people’s problems.
I have the right to change my mind.
I have the right to make mistakes - and to be responsible for them.
I have the right to say, "I don’t know."
I have the right to be independent of the goodwill of others before coping with them.
I have the right to make decisions without using logic.
I have the right to say, "I don’t understand."
I have the right to say, "I don’t care."
...Change is hard work. Healing is hard work. But you are worth the effort.