Getting out of a cult in the age of cults | Elfers

I was a member of a religious cult from the ages of 16 to 23.

How can you tell if an organization is a cult?

The answer lies in the level of dogmatism. The higher the level of certainty about a multitude of topics, the more likely it’s a cult. The more the cult member is unwilling to listen to opposing opinions or be open to facts that contradict their views, the more likely it’s a cult. The greater the fear, the more likely it’s a cult.

How do I know?

I was a member of a religious cult from the ages of 16 to 23. It was called the Worldwide Church of God. I joined it in 1966 because there was a lot of chaos in the country and in my family at the time. I didn’t have much confidence in my own ability to think and make my own decisions. I was scared of making mistakes. I looked to the cult leader to do my thinking for me. Surely, since he was a spokesman for God, he wouldn’t make bad decisions. There was comfort in feeling certain about the right path in a time of political and moral chaos.

During this time, President Lyndon Johnson increased the number of U.S. soldiers being sent to fight in Vietnam against the Communists who, according to the Domino Theory, threatened to overrun Southeast Asia.

From there, the dominoes would continue to fall, just like they did in 1936 with the fascists taking over parts of Europe, East Africa, and Asia. The solution to fascism became the doctrine of appeasement. Giving in to fascists (bullies) would satisfy them, or so it was thought, and they wouldn’t demand more. Of course, World War II showed the fallacy of appeasement with its millions of deaths and atrocities.

In the 1960s and 1970s, there were race riots in the South and outright racism and violence being demonstrated by the police against peaceful demonstrations protesting the injustice of Jim Crow Laws and segregation.

There was a sexual revolution breaking down moral barriers and mores. Free love was in fashion because the birth control pill had allowed for the pleasure of sex without consequences, or so it was believed.

We are again living in the age of cults. We have a former president who has been indicted four times and is accused of 91 counts of law breaking. And yet, his supporters rally around him every time a prosecuting attorney issues an arrest warrant. Cries of “witch hunt” fill the airwaves.

How did I break away from the cult I belonged to?

The answer came to me through seeing the corruption of the cult leader and his lieutenants firsthand. As I studied history for my master’s degree, I came to see the contrast between cult world and the real world. The contrast was painful. I realized that

there is more than one way to see events. My studies made me aware that life is complex. Motives must be investigated. Most decisions and actions get down to following the money and the power that comes with it.

My fear was banished by the realization that no human leader has all the answers. No one was going to save me from making mistakes but me. I couldn’t trust any human to do my thinking for me. I came to the realization that I was responsible for my own decisions. I had to think and to see the world clearly, to research and gather facts, and then based upon those facts, make choices, realizing that I might be wrong—that I might have to admit I had again gone down a wrong path. Life was going to be trial-and-error.

Reflecting on my decisions became a daily habit. Did I say the right thing? Should I have kept quiet? Should I have spoken up? Was I being thoughtless? Was I humble and teachable?

I grew in self-awareness, coming to understand that the more dogmatic I became, the less certain I really was. I had become able to recognize what a cult was and how to avoid it.

How about you? Have you been sucked in by a cult leader who told you bold lies, promoted hatred, and promised that only he can fix America’s problems? Isn’t it time to admit your mistakes and take another path?

Richard Elfers is a columnist, a former Enumclaw City Council member and a Green River College professor.