When we reflect on human history, it’s easy to understand how belief and faith have taken hold and evolved over time. Belief began with wise men, storytellers, and shamans helping their communities make sense of the environment around them. These stories, or beliefs, were passed down and adapted to explain the ever-changing world. Some of these stories eventually became widely accepted enough amongst the masses to become mainstream belief systems and even major world religions.
As with many things, not everyone agreed on these beliefs; some people would branch off and follow a different path. The branches that stray the farthest from “mainstream” belief systems are often referred to as cults. Belief doesn’t exist in a vacuum however, and most beliefs go hand in hand with practices. When practices are considered to be on the fringe of what is accepted as “mainstream”, we refer to these as “occult” practices or “the occult.”
When we think of cults and the occult, what comes to mind? Long-haired flower children taking psychedelics and following a charismatic leader? Hooded figures standing in the shadows and chanting with ceremonial daggers? Or a group of friends in their basement, rolling a set of dice and debating how to defeat a fire-breathing dragon? What we may think of as cult-like and the occult can actually be pretty far off from the truth.
Let us explore the mystical, magical, and spiritual secrets of cults and the Occult. We will challenge ourselves to look beyond surface-level connotations and pop-culture misinterpretations of both. As we seek the metaphysical crossroads of belief and ritual, we will confront our own beliefs as we ask the questions:
- Do cults and the occult share any common ground?
- Is the occult dangerous?
- What does a cult look like?
What is a Cult?
A cult is a spiritual or religious belief system, sometimes a variant of a socially accepted belief. Practitioners are labeled as cultists by those outside of the cult. While it is simple to define a cult, the connotations of the word itself are more complicated.
The word “cult,” for most individuals, brings up images of satanic worship and doomsday. But when you hear the words “cult following” you may associate that with pop-culture phenomena like a rowdy sing-along midnight musical or a book and movie series about a magical boy wizard. These are generally considered harmless, although there can be those who take things to the extreme. This is true with anything as well; Not everything in life is inherently dangerous, it is only how we practice it.
Examples of Three Dangerous Cults
- Heaven’s Gate Cult (Associated with the Hale-Bopp comet)
- People’s Temple Cult (Also known as The Jonestown Massacre)
- The Manson Family Cult (or “The Family” Led by Charles Manson)
A cult is normally headed by a single charismatic leader who is elevated on a pedestal by devoted followers. This leader is often an authoritarian figure who is considered enlightened, almost messiah-like. They often espouse an altered version of the truth that manipulates their followers into believing that their words have profound meaning and are a universal truth. To those outside of a cult, this strict adherence to the guru/prophet/leader’s doctrines are often seen as brainwashing.
Hollywood often perpetuates the concept of brainwashing and mind-control as a process that requires magical spells, special serums, or sci-fi brain rays; however, it’s more accurate to say that brainwashing happens when an individual makes a series of small concessions about their beliefs over a period of time. As mentioned above, cults manipulate the truth and reality of their followers. This causes cultists to reject prior knowledge and their personal worldview in favor of the cult’s. In reinforcing potential followers that the truths they’ve known are wrong, the recruited then slowly release control of their minds. This is how “mind control” in a cult takes place.
While cults can be hidden or exist in plain sight, the people that are lured by these cults walk amongst us as friends, family, neighbors, or co-workers. With this in mind, we can watch for patterns of behavior that serve as warning signs for someone who could become involved with a cult.
Warning Signs You May Be in a Cult:
- Isolation from friends/family; communication limited
- Sudden change in long-held views
- Loss of interest in previous activities or hobbies
- Obsession over a newfound single interest or group
What Are the Different Types of Cults?
While some cults may share similarities, there are distinctions between a few different types of cults:
An illuminated cult is focused generally on mysticism or the supernatural. 1997’s Heaven’s Gate is an example of an Illuminated Cult as Marshall Applewhite and his 38 followers believed that by freeing their souls through mass suicide, they would then be able to ascend towards the Kingdom of Heaven during the passing of the comet Hale-Bopp on its 2,000-year passing of Earth.
Instrumental cults seek out the desired effect. This often involves meditation or exercise as a way to become a more “powerful” person, one who is more intelligent, more enlightened, and stronger in body and mind. A recent example of this was Bikram Choudhury, a yoga guru who has been accused of developing a cult-like following and has been investigated for using his power and influence to commit sexual battery, false imprisonment, harassment, and discrimination. While yoga itself is a perfectly healthy practice, this example shows how any group can be manipulated and controlled by a strong personality.
Service Based Cults
Service based cults are those in which followers seek to aid others for their own spiritual growth. A volunteer centered branch of the World Mission Society (WMS), called ASEZ, is considered to be one such “service-based” cult. Students on college campuses are recruited and sources claim they are then forced to work long hours without pay or rest and are often denied food and sleep as a method of control.
Personality / “Professional” Cults
However, not every cult is based around faith; an example of one is the multi-level marketing company known as NXIVM. This organization billed itself as a source of self-help and leadership training, but its teachings of “rational inquiry” bordered on brainwashing, according to followers. The organization was also accused of defrauding members, and its leader was investigated for sexual abuse.
All of the different cults above share one thing in common; they exploit their members and can be dangerous. Unfortunately, these types of cults can also be erroneously associated with occult practices, which are typically harmless.
What is The Occult?
The word “occult” is derived from the Latin word Occultus meaning, “knowledge of the hidden" and in a modern context it refers to knowledge and rituals that are on the fringe or hidden from the mainstream. Renowned science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clark had an interesting take on the occult (and magic) when he said, “Magic is just science we don’t understand yet.” The practice of the occult can be thought of as the practice of occult science, or the study of hidden knowledge of the supernatural, paranormal, mystical, and magical.
While the concept of the occult can seem mysterious, there are several tools and practices that you may already be familiar with. Some of the most recognizable being: tarot cards, Reiki, ouija boards, and astrology. For those unfamiliar with the occult, seeing these tools and practices out in the open can spark dread or fear due to the negative connotations and misrepresentations perpetuated by society at large.
In recent years, we have seen how social media and misinformation has played a part in riling up individuals that are susceptible to fear and conspiracy theories. This has led to the victimization of innocent people and/or businesses based on false claims of abuse, sex trafficking, etc. Negative views towards the occult, reinforced by misinformation and the media, has led to a deeper division between occult practitioners and society.
Hollywood’s misrepresentation and religious fanaticism are largely to blame for the depiction of occultism as something extremely dangerous: bartering your soul with the devil, demon worship, dark magic, curses, and ritual sacrifice are just a few examples of negative depictions of the occult. Because of this, the occult is often incorrectly lumped together with cults, which can negatively impact occult practitioners.
How are Cults and the Occult Alike?
Cults and the occult exist on a spectrum; some cults have occult practices but practicing the occult doesn’t mean you are a cultist. Cults are based on belief and control, whereas the occult is focused more on practice and knowledge. Cults can exist in plain sight while the occult is usually practiced in secret either alone or amongst a select few. The occult is not generally centered around any belief or faith-based system. The sharing of esoteric knowledge is kept secret from the outside world and only revealed to those in occult circles.
How are Cults and the Occult Different?
To understand the differences between a cult and the occult, let's take a look at a few examples of occult practices that often get confused as cults by the uninformed or misled. A person may practice witchcraft, but practitioners may not identify as wiccan. Wicca is an Earth-based pagan religion founded in the Mid-20th century, focusing primarily on the Universal Energies that exists within all things. As Wicca is derived from the Old English word, wicce which means “To Bend,” (much like bending wicker,) thus Wiccans believe in the practice of bending energy to achieve a desired outcome. Reiki is similar as it is a modality of using energy for healing purposes. Many psychics on Psychic Source are Reiki healers.
While many pagans and Neo-Pagans practice polytheism, the worship of multiple ancient gods and goddesses, many new age practitioners may choose Duotheism with two gods, or even Monotheism with a single patron deity.
Someone may be more aligned with the Spiritual practices but not fall under the Wicca umbrella but still feel comfortable with New Age in the hopes of seeking spiritual enlightenment but not be involved with a Cult.
The umbrella term “New Age” is used for many different spiritual beliefs that may or may not share qualities of what we’ve discussed here. Some people don’t feel that they fall under one or more categories and so pick and choose what they feel resonates with them the most in the hope of seeking spiritual enlightenment. It is generally centered around the concept of a person wishing to better themselves as a whole, finding virtue in personal responsibility and allowing credit and forgiveness for any failures and successes.
Practicing the occult is akin to researching with tools to help us make sense of the universe around us. Much like any tool, it is only as dangerous as we intend for it to be. Is a kitchen knife dangerous? How about a cordless drill? Even too much oxygen or water can be unhealthy. Safe practices and good intentions do matter.
While cults are largely considered dangerous, the occult should not be viewed as such. Tarot cards, crystals, practicing yoga or meditation and general spirituality are just tools and practices to help us discover and explore the hidden knowledge within ourselves and our connections to the universe. Wisdom is derived from many sources, and it is our fundamental right to seek it out!