Is it ‘free thinking’ or is it cult indoctrination? How to NOT join a cult in your twenties

When does ‘free thinking’ become… a bit culty?

When you think of a cult, a thousand dated images and scenes may come to mind. These days, cults can look much different- and in a world so involved with social media and digital personas, the line has become slightly blurred between communities sharing ideas, and cults.  

Sam Milan, 28 from Suffolk, is an ex-conspiracy theorist who stopped believing as soon as he realized his friends were displaying ‘cult-like behaviour’. He decided to do some research into the logic that holds these theories up.

“I’m an open minded person, but I saw my colleagues go down a really dark path that was almost cult-like. They were like, checking over their thoughts to make sure they conformed to their beliefs. To me, it seemed dangerous.” 

During the pandemic, Sam worked a retail job. He used to discuss conspiracies with his friends as a light hearted activity, reflecting on how much of this world goes unseen. 

As the months rolled on, Sam noticed his friends becoming consumed by these theories- isolating themselves, thinking more rigidly, until one day they were almost unrecognizable.

In 2020, documentaries such as ‘the social dilemma’ started suggesting that conspiracy theories may be a pathway to getting involved with cults. 

“Conspiracies have stepped up from what they were. It used to be about alternative thinking, and now it’s about subgroups believing everyone is against them”.

“They’re all half truths. For example, people were against 5g because it’s full of radiation- that’s true. But it’s not necessarily harmful.

“Then they go oh well it’s owned by a billionaire- yeah but that’s not necessarily inherently bad. It’s based in logic but then spirals out of control.”

Sam found that contesting his friends’ ideas didn’t really go down well. 

“These theories were never supposed to be about finding out the ‘truth’ and going against everyone else, it was just about seeing different perspectives. When did it become something different?”

Sam asks an important question. One that many others are asking over social media.

Where do we draw the line between personal beliefs, and cult indoctrination? 

And how does one *not* accidentally join a cult in their twenties?  

Cults are defined by four key traits. There’s usually a leader, the group is preoccupied with bringing in new members, and there’s something for the leader to gain. Any questions or doubt is discouraged, sometimes even punished. 

For Darrin Drda, 55 from California, it started off with reading books on the occult and feeding the hunger of an open mind after graduating college. A few years later, he realized that somewhere along the way, he ended up being a member of a sex cult. 

“I went to a school that encouraged big thinking, and studied different forms of spirituality outside of western society. Then I met this guy who invited me into this group to ‘awaken my Kundalini’. I was attracted because this guy seemed so knowledgeable… after a few years I realized that he was just a pot bellied fifty year old guy who found a way to have sex with whoever he wanted”. 

Darrin realized something was off when a few years passed and he wasn’t becoming any more ‘enlightened’. Instead, he felt worse about himself than when he started. 

“I wondered why I wasn’t achieving this goal and somehow it was always my fault. A common tactic by the cult is to accuse the member of having a ‘block’ which they must ‘heal’. It maintains the illusion that the cult is helping you develop”. 

“In your twenties you’re looking for guidance or to feel special. Cults are really good at making you feel like you’re somehow more spiritually evolved or important than other people”. 

Again, Darrin reminds us people rarely intentionally join a cult. This is why it’s so hard to crunch the numbers on how many are out there. 

In the 1980s, it was estimated by the New York Times that there were between 300,000 and three million cult members nationwide. Despite this research being published a generation ago, there’s no accessible data on how many exist today.

Whether they are online or host physical meetups, cults aim to rewire your thought systems and condition you to think a certain way, conforming to their agenda. 

These days, due to the amount of time spent scrolling on social media in what Darrin calls a “very receptive state”, it could be harder than ever to recognise that someone is in a cult- or recognise that you’ve accidentally joined one. The indoctrination via social media content can be subtle and attractive. 

Darrin says that a big sign of a group being a cult is an immediate lack of boundaries. They use this as a subtle way of rewiring the way you think.

According to Mickey Ballinger, 34, this should be a warning sign to those who are interested in finding out about new ways of thinking and living. 

Mickey married into a denomination of a Christian cult at the age of 19, fascinated by this group who seemed to accept her and show her so much love in the beginning. 

She realized that she needed to escape after the cult became abusive, and wouldn’t willingly let her walk out. 

She says, “We need to normalize that people do join cults in their twenties… and they’re so different now. 

“They get to you mentally. They’re harder to spot because they have podcasts. Youtube streamers don’t need anything but a phone and to their audience- they can have all the answers. You have no way of sourcing their credibility. 

“It often starts innocently on TikTok. It’s not about communes and some old guy with weird hair policing when you can leave a patch of land anymore.”

Mickey left at the age of 24 after suffering mental and physical abuse, and multiple attempts to escape their situation.

“There’s nothing anyone could have said to get me to not go down this path. The thing about cults, once you’re in them, they separate you from your friends and family. The worst thing you can do as a friend or family member is vocalize that it’s a cult and tell someone not to join. It fuels the illusion that they’re taking a step closer to the truth”. 

Robin Boyle of St John’s University claims that the average age of a ‘cult member’ ranges from 21-24 years old, and the average length of one’s stay has more than doubled since the ‘70s.

While many are fortunate enough to escape their circumstances, cults can be incredibly dangerous to a person’s mental and physical well-being. 

Sam says, “I’m concerned for my old colleagues. They’re stuck like that, becoming more isolated. I know someone who lost their job because of their conspiracy beliefs”. 

Leaving a cult involves a lot of deconditioning and sometimes, therapy to begin feeling okay again.

Mickey says, “I was curious. That’s all it was. Curious and love bombed. When I left, I had to leave all my friends behind and I had to understand that these people were trapped believing these things too.

“It’s really embarrassing and I think that’s one part of leaving a cult that people don’t talk about enough.”

So… how does one NOT join a cult in their twenties?

All three of our subjects say that research is the way forward. 

Darrin says, “I would say if it’s a set of beliefs that isn’t grounded… that’s a red flag. During the pandemic I lost some friends to conspirituality, which is a type of cult”

He now dedicates his TikTok page to questioning various spiritual beliefs which share cult-like qualities.  

“There’s some degree of social breakdown. There’s a grasp for authoritarianism. A lot of these cults have leaders who spin tales about there being another earth that we’re shifting into or aiming to level up to. No, we’ve got one earth, and it’s our job to take care of it. You don’t have to do all these meditations and spiritual practices to heal the earth, just take care of the planet.” 

Mickey now volunteers at a support group which helps people who escape the cult they were a part of integrate back into society. 

“I think when you start to find an interest in something, allow yourself to be curious. Read a lot around the topic and question things. For me, I got into a cult because I was lacking the feeling of love and I didn’t have much space to explore theories during that time of my life. 

“If you see someone expressing an interest in what looks like a cult, ask a lot of questions and allow people to come to conclusions on their own. Show them love anyway because to do otherwise might send them deeper into this belief system”. 

“I’m really interested in cults now that I can recognise what they are. Any kind of person on the internet claiming to be a spiritual guru who wants to teach you to manifest money or whatever… red flag. I’d encourage you to look at that through a critical lens if possible. I’m watching multiple online cults play out in front of my eyes right now.”

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