Spiritual abuse in cults is rife. In fact, it is one of the most common ways cults use to recruit new members.

But how do cults recruit normal people? How can someone change from having typical, healthy beliefs to extreme ideologies? Not only that but ones they are willing to die for? Well, it’s certainly a gradual and lengthy process which often involves spiritual abuse and uses many forms of manipulation.

After all, consider this scenario. A stranger approaches you in the street. He asks you to give all your salary to his group, leave your friends and family and join him to worship some weird alien god. You’d probably tell him to take a hike.

For this reason, cult leaders have to use tricks and manipulation to recruit new members. It’s not surprising that spiritual abuse in cults occurs on many levels.

Here are 6 ways you’ll find spiritual abuse in cults:

1. There’s always a charismatic leader

Every cult needs someone in charge. But not just anyone, it has to be a very special person. Consider the infamous cults of the past.

Jim Jones founded the People’s Temple where he presided over the largest mass suicide in history. In 1978, thanks to him, a total of 909 died of cyanide poisoning. David Koresh joined the Branch Davidians in the 1980’s but led 82 of his followers to their death after a stand-off with the ATF.

Marshall Applewhite instigated the Heaven’s Gate movement which led to 38 others committing suicide. Charles Manson founded the Manson Family Cult which was responsible for a series of murders in the late 60’s.

A good cult leader inspires absolute devotion. But they also fulfil a psychological need. This can be emotional, spiritual, financial peace of mind, or even something like eternal life.

2. You have to pick the perfect member

You might think that cult recruiters go around searching for the weak and vulnerable in our society. Although this may be true in a few cases, the majority of cults prefer strong-minded individuals. This is because the techniques used by the cult will quickly break that person down.

One person who knows all about being in a cult is Ian Haworth. Ian met a lady in Toronto who asked him to help her with a survey. The lady was a cult recruiter. Less than a week later he had given in his notice at work, given the cult all his money and joined them.

Ian isn’t a vulnerable adult. In fact, he believes that the safest people are the mentally ill. Cults don’t want people who are unpredictable with no working income. Cults want alert, questioning people who like to debate. It is easier to break these types.

“The smarter, the healthier the mind, the quicker and easier you are to control. It’s just one of these tragic realities.” Ian Haworth

3. Ask them favour

So you have your charismatic leader, you’ve picked your potential member, now what do you do? Ask a small favour. This is the Benjamin Franklin Effect.

The American founding father used this principle on a particularly rude political rival of his. Franklin sent his rival a note, asking to borrow a rare book the rival had in his library. When he had finished with it, Franklin returned the book with a note of thanks. From that moment onwards, the two were great friends.

In our minds, we only do favours for the people that we like. In Ian’s case, his favour was filling out the survey. From then on, he felt the survey lady was a friend of his.

4. Isolate them

Once you have your potential new member, the last thing you want is for family and friends to get in the way of all your brainwashing. Therefore, you need to isolate them from all other ties.

You do not want your raw, new member to start questioning the leader or other members. By isolating them, not only do you keep away any positive influences, but you also make the cult the only message and lifestyle known to the new member.

5. Set the rules and control

You cannot have a cult without a set of strict rules. Not only are there rules but severe consequences if these rules are broken. This is where spiritual abuse in cults really comes to the fore.

Karen Wanjico joined a religious cult at the age of 17. She was told she had to leave her family and stay with the congregation. If she did not, she would be exterminated by God at the time of the Armageddon.

Wanjico explains that spiritual abuse in cults is when power and control are used to induce fear and guilt. This fear and guilt is a way to manipulate the person to do things for the cult they wouldn’t normally do.

6. Love-bombing

Another form of spiritual abuse is cults is love-bombing. Cult members flood the new member with attention, love, affection, caring, flattery and praise. This is a very good way of recruiting members. We all need validation and if we’re not getting from family, our partners or friends, it is easy to turn to others who offer it for free.

Recruiters will do everything they can to make their new member feel special and singled out. The victim of love-bombing will often feel overwhelmed by these feelings. This confusion is music to a cult recruiter’s ears.

In fact, love-bombing is a favourite manipulation tactic of narcissists. If you cannot understand how people get fooled by love-bombing, here’s an easy way of picturing it. Your dog has run off in the park and you are in a rush to get home. You use your sweetest and loving voice to entice it back to you. Once it is close, you snap the leash back on and the pretence is over.

Spiritual abuse in cults is insidious and damaging. Undoing the trauma caused by being trapped in a cult can take years of therapy. And that’s once you manage to break out of it. The best way is not to let yourself become embroiled in the first place. So, if you see any of the above signs, make sure you steer clear.


  1. https://bigthink.com
  2. https://curiosity.com

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