6 Misconceptions About Cults

Cults are a popular topic for true-crime TV.
Cults are a popular topic for true-crime TV. / fstop123/E+/Getty Images

Cults are the subject of countless news articles, documentaries, and debatably exploitative podcasts. Considering Americans’ obsession with true crime, it makes sense that these fringe groups, often led by charismatic prophets and that prey on susceptible people, have become sensational headlines. 

But the truth is often more nuanced and frightening. Let’s dive into a few myths about cults, adapted from an episode of Misconceptions on YouTube.

1. Misconception: Cults are always run by men.

High-profile cult leaders like Charles Manson and Jim Jones certainly play a role in this misconception, but other factors contribute to the idea that only men lead cults. Cults are often linked to illegal activity in the public eye, and some crimes—particularly violent ones—are disproportionately committed by men.

But women have founded a number of cults. Valentina de Andrade, for example, was head of the terrifying Superior Universal Alignment UFO cult. The Rajneeshees—with whom you might be familiar from the Netflix doc Wild Wild Country—committed a mass (but luckily non-lethal) poisoning in Oregon. They were purportedly led by their guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, but for years had had most of their operations run by a woman named Ma Anand Sheela.

But let’s debunk this misconception by focusing on one woman-led cult in particular: Anne Hamilton Byrne and the Family.

Hamilton-Byrne started her cult career as a yoga instructor in Australia, catering mostly to middle-aged women in Melbourne. In the 1960s, she helped start a group called the Family based at Santiniketan, a property that also hosted religious and philosophical discussions. One of the members at Santiniketan managed a nearby psychiatric hospital, where many Family members worked. Several patients there were eventually recruited into the cult. The hospital is also where Hamilton-Byrne acquired a fair amount of LSD, which was administered to members. The theological teachings of Hamilton-Byrne’s group involved a combo of Eastern and Western religions, including Hinduism and Christianity. The kicker, though, was the claim that Hamilton-Byrne was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. 

These events are already disconcerting—but just wait for the next part. Starting in the 1960s, Hamilton-Byrne accumulated around 28 infants and young children. Some were children of members of the Family—most likely under the influence of hallucinogens—who had been coerced into giving them up. Some of the children were “adopted” using less-than-legal methods under the supervision of lawyers within the group. The children were kept secret for years. They also had their hair dyed blond to match their “mother’s.” The children were administered sedatives, and later LSD, and reportedly abused, all while under the watch of disciples known as the Aunties. Hamilton-Byrne was eventually arrested but convicted only of falsely registering the birth of three of the children, which resulted in a fine.

All in all, this yoga-teacher-turned-second-coming-of-Christ-turned-child-kidnapper definitely shows that women can be cult leaders. But on a final note, there’s some truth to the notion that a cult member is more likely to be female. According to research, around 70 percent of cult followers are women.

2. Misconception: Cults are always religious.

Cults, by many definitions, involve some type of religion or spirituality. For many years, that’s just what the word cult meant: a group dedicated to a religious belief. Writer Egor Kotkin broke down some of the Roman philosopher Cicero’s writing on the subject by defining religion and cult like this:

Cult = mythology + rites; Church = lore + priests; Religion = cult + church.

So religion is just a cult with some priests and some lore, according to that word-math. But where does the word cult come from? According to Merriam Webster, “Cult, which shares an origin with culture and cultivate, comes from the Latin cultus, a noun with meanings ranging from ‘tilling, cultivation’ to ‘training or education’ to ‘adoration.’ … The earliest known uses of the word, recorded in the 17th century, broadly denoted ‘worship.’ … By the early 18th century, cult could refer to a non-religious admiration or devotion, such as to a person, idea, or fad (‘the cult of success’). Finally, by the 19th century, the word came to be used of ‘a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious.’”

But in recent times, the word cult has expanded to have a broader meaning. Pretty much any group (usually still unorthodox or spurious) that has a very specific focus or lifestyle could be classified as a cult. We can even refer to a “cult of personality” without implying that adherents have a spiritual devotion to the person at the center. The themes of these cultish groups span far and wide, but let’s focus on some specific types of non-religious cults.

Doomsday cults are, not surprisingly, any group whose central ideology focuses on the coming end of the world. This belief is sometimes called apocalypticism, and it can take many forms. Obviously these cults can be religious in nature, but sometimes the doom that’s supposedly coming is a catastrophic natural disaster. Other times, a plague. Sometimes, it’s aliens. Sometimes it’s based on conspiracy theories—like the belief that society or the government is attempting to destroy the world, and only a select few can stop it (or protect themselves, at the very least).

The peculiar thing about doomsday cults is that, while 100 percent of their predicted apocalypses have failed to materialize, the cults persist. One might think that if your leader was predicting the end of the world on July 12, 2018, and that day came and went without incident, your resolve as a follower might start to falter. But the opposite seems to be true: A study conducted by Leon Festinger of the group the Seekers showed that not only did followers of doomsday cults maintain their beliefs after they were disproven, in many cases, those beliefs strengthened. While there have been criticisms of the study, Festinger attributed these oddly persistent beliefs to the concept of cognitive dissonance, which is essentially the unpleasant feeling of tension when one’s actions and beliefs are inconsistent. The individuals are then motivated to change their behavior or beliefs to return to some kind of harmonious state. In this case, it appears that resulted in doubling-down on their convictions.

Political cults are focused on very specific political beliefs, and usually try to influence elections and local government. Sometimes political cults are results of cults of personality. Commercial cults, meanwhile, are based around the idea of making money—a multilevel marketing pyramid scheme of sorts. Racist and terrorist cults are a real thing; the Ku Klux Klan is often described as a cult. 

But some cults don’t fall neatly into a category. In 1954, Ernest and Ruth Norman founded a cult based on Ernest’s philosophy, which allegedly came from alien beings on Mars and Venus. The organization was called Unarius, an acronym for “Universal Articulate Interdimensional Understanding of Science,” and its followers were known as Unarians. The Normans shed their Earthly names and became Raphael and Uriel, respectively. Unarius sold its ideas through mail-order books, which eventually grew into an actual academy—the Unarius Academy of Science.

The Unarians believe there are aliens who have vast knowledge of both the sciences and spirituality, and they’re trying to educate us here on Earth. There’s even some talk that “space brothers” will come to Earth in 33 space ships that will stack atop each other, like some kind of giant alien game of Tetris.

The most fantastic part about this small, alien cult is Uriel. She quickly became the face of the group, speaking publicly about their beliefs, all the while dressed to the nines in fantastic dresses and wigs. It’s a bit of a tradition now for Unarians to be dressed flamboyantly and extravagantly in meetings.

3. Misconception: Cult members live in communes.

The ideal place for a cult is on a remote farm somewhere in the mountains, away from the influences of society. Everyone lives together, works together, sings songs together, and wears matching white clothes. Or so the media would have us believe. 

It’s true that cults thrive by using isolation. Integrating an “us vs. them” mentality is crucial for retaining membership. If members feel separated from their peers, family, or society at large, they are more likely to stay in the group—so it would make a lot of sense to literally cut people off from society by having them live in a commune of sorts. But most cults don’t live together in some big, utopian/dystopian commune. 

Most cult members live in regular neighborhoods and work normal jobs. They are, however, emotionally and mentally cut off from the world, even while living in it with everyone else. High-profile cult communes like Jonestown in Guyana are actually the exception, not the rule. 

4. Misconception: All cults have a single leader.

While cults are often portrayed as being led by one chosen, charismatic figure, it’s usually not so simple. In the cases of the Rajneeshees and Unarians, the public face of a cult isn’t always the person running things behind the scenes. Other cults like the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments have a group of leaders. The idea of one big puppet master pulling the strings is often blown out of proportion by tv and film. 

5. Misconception: Smart people don’t join cults.

The idea that “smart” people are immune to cults is definitely false.

A study published in the journal Psychiatry Research in 2017 looked at the demographics of former cult members, trying to identify common traits, tendencies, and lifestyles. It was found that more than 61 percent of former cult members had more than 12 years of education, which sits about even with the general population, if not slightly higher, according to 2015 U.S. Census data [PDF]. Other researchers have commented that a common denominator among people joining cults is idealism.

6. Misconception: People who join cults are depressed.

People join cults for any number of reasons. In the same study, many former members (67 percent) expressed feelings of dissatisfaction with their lives previous to joining. Some (32 percent) expressed depressive symptoms, or family conflicts (22 percent). Most former members described being welcomed into the group and experiencing feelings of acceptance and friendship. Who wouldn’t want that to be a part of that?

Cults often become much more sinister in their tactics to keep people in the cult, using various forms of peer pressure and intimidation. Most former members expressed fears of humiliation, exclusion, and even violence if they had decided to leave. Psychologist Steve Eichel describes it like this:

​​"A very important aspect of [a] cult is the idea that if you leave the cult, horrible things will happen to you. This is important, and it's important to realize. That people outside of a cult are potential members, so they're not looked upon as negatively as people inside the cult who then leave the cult."

Joining a cult doesn’t necessarily mean you’re depressed, and stigmatizing people who have fallen prey to cults is counterproductive to reintegrating them into society. So don’t write anyone off just yet.