I’m in several Facebook groups that discuss the 3 Principles understanding and this question came up the other day: Are the 3 Principles a cult? This question has also come up at live events I’ve been to.
I’m really glad the question is being asked because it’s an important topic. Those (like me) who are interested in personal development can sometimes be vulnerable to influence by those who are offering solutions to life’s common problems. When we are openly seeking answers to important personal questions, it can be easy to fall prey to those who are willing to exploit our curiosity about how life works by providing easy answers.
If you’ve wondered about how coercion works and whether it applies to a situation you’re in, I encourage you to explore until you find an answer that satisfies you. And to that end, I’m providing some information here to that will hopefully clear up some of your questions.
Unfortunately, I have intimate experience with cults
I was in a cult for ten years in the 1990s.
Been there. Done that. Bought the t-shirt. (Literally. Our cult leader had t-shirts made up with the logo of the group on them that we were encouraged to wear.)
The group started as a meditation class in Vancouver, BC, run by a charismatic yet controlling woman who fancied herself a psychic medium. Gradually the group evolved over a period of years into a classic mind-control cult where things like children being removed from their parents’ care, relationships being orchestrated by the cult leader in a game of musical beds, and the leader’s words being touted as ‘the word of God’, were commonplace.
When I left, in 2000, I spent the next eight years healing from that experience. And then I wrote a book about what it’s like to be in a cult, and also what it’s like to recover from being in one.
As a result, I’m wary of any group or situation that hints at the mind-control (also called thought reform) that cults exhibit.
No one joins a cult
An important point to keep in mind is that no one joins a cult on purpose. We join groups of people with whom we have common beliefs or goals. Initially, we find community and shared personal values with the others in the group. At the beginning, it’s all very innocuous and it feels really good to have found a situation that answers questions we have and/or fulfills a longing inside us.
It is only later that things begin to feel uncomfortable and by then it’s usually too late because the cult member has been indoctrinated into the bounded choices that come with membership in the group. However, this change happens so slowly, the cult members don’t notice. Hence the image of a frog on the cover of my book: joining a cult is exactly like the ‘frog in boiling water’ analogy. i.e., put a frog in a boiling pot of water on the stove and it will jump out, recognizing the danger in the water’s temperature. But put the same frog in a pot of room-temperature water and slowly raise the heat, the frog will boil to death because it doesn’t recognize the gradual – and dangerous – change in the water’s temperature.
Additionally, when you’re in a cult, no one in the group refers to it as such. In fact, if anyone outside the group accuses a cult of being one, the denial will be vociferous.
It’s also important to note that those who join a cult are not stupid or naive. Cults set out deliberately and methodically to entrap those who stray near them. They often have what appear to be mild, innocuous entry points like personality quizzes or friendly, casual meetings. The bizarre and dangerous behaviour the cult exhibits later is not on display initially. That’s how well-meaning people are fooled.
Cults are not just spiritual or religious groups
There is a false sense of security that can exist when we think we could spot a cult a mile away.
When you picture a cult, what springs to your mind’s eye? I bet I can anticipate a few elements of your mental image:
- a group of people gathered together
- maybe they’re dressed alike or similarly
- their heads might be shaved or the women might all have the same hair-do
- the leader is easy to spot, perhaps because of attention-seeking behaviour or clothing that stands out.
While it’s true that some cults do look like this, many do not. In fact, cult-like behaviour can exist in tiny groups of 2 or 3 people. Or it can be present with an enormous group the size of a country. What matters more than what a group looks like is how it acts. So let’s talk about that.
How do we recognize cult behaviour?
Cults are not just creepy and vaguely weird. Sociologists who study them have discovered that while each cult is unique in the beliefs it professes, they all have commonalities of behaviour which we can spot if we know what we’re looking for.
Here are examples of those commonalities:
1. Leaving is not an option
This is the easiest way to judge if a group is applying the techniques of a cult. If someone wants to leave, what is the response of the group?
If the group is a cult it will be difficult, or downright impossible, to leave. At the very least, peer pressure will be applied and members will be discouraged from leaving. They will be told things like, ‘You’re life won’t be as good if you’re not in the group,’ or that that they will encounter great difficulty if they leave. Or they are told that leaving damns them to hell and that they are ‘turning their backs on God’. At the extreme end of this behavior members are told they may not speak to or have any contact with family members who remain in the group if they leave.
2. The group is more important than the individual
This is a red flag, and one that’s sometimes difficult to see initially.
In a cult, a member’s personal feelings often don’t matter. What matters is that the cult member obeys the doctrine of the group.
An example of this would be if someone has questions about the teachings of the group, they are told that their discomfort about a certain teaching should be set aside in favour of toeing the party line. There’s a major religion that, when someone has awkward or challenging questions about the group’s teachings, advises people to ‘Put it on the shelf’. In other words, don’t rock the boat, don’t let your curiosity and moral compass get in the way of the group’s doctrine.
3. The thinking is black and white
Cults are very simplistic in their approach to life and their beliefs. Life is boiled down to seem as though it’s very simple. There is very little emotional complexity in a cult. “You are either with us or against us.” “You want to serve God or you don’t.”
For example, the world is divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’, with us being those in the group and them being everyone outside the group. (Literally everyone else on the planet that doesn’t belong to the group.) Behaviours are categorized as good and evil without any allowance for the infinite shades of grey (and other colours) that exist within each of us, and within situations we encounter in life.
These three indicators are a good initial gauge to use if you are feeling cautious about a situation you are in. But keep in mind that cults are a complex subject. Sociologists and psychologists can spend a lifetime studying them, and this blog post is not able to address all the complexity they contain. But hopefully it’s been an informative entry point into this important discussion. The information above can be used for you to do your own exploring and I strongly encourage you to do so with any group, movement, or relationship that you are part of.
I’m not going to try to convince you that the Three Principles are not a cult. That’s for you to decide, not me. If you’re curious, you can read more about the sociological conditions that make up a cult here and here.
I will share my personal experience, which is that I haven’t seen any of the behaviour I witnessed in the cult I belonged to in any of the 3P events that I’ve been to or groups that I belong to.
And if you have any questions related to cults and cult-like behaviour, please reach out to me. I am passionate about educating people about how cults work so that others might avoid an experience like mine and am always willing to talk to anyone who has concerns or doubts about how a group (or an individual) is operating.