Cult is a word that’s thrown around quite a bit in our society, now often used in exaggeration to describe an exclusive group of people. But what exactly is a real cult, and do they still exist? A cult is defined as a “system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object.” And you can bet that they absolutely still exist. Some cults operate under the nose of modern society, holding their meetings in the middle of busy cities and dressing the same as everybody else. Other cults are based in remote areas, dressing and behaving in totally different ways to the rest of society. Some cults are secretive, while others are open, some harmless and others harmful. Some don’t even admit to being cults. Though they have their differences, most cults have a few common characteristics: unfaltering commitment to a leader, mind-altering practices, a leadership that controls members’ lives down to the last detail, preoccupation with recruiting new members and making money, and prohibiting contact with non-members. Here are 12 real cults that can only be described as unbelievable.
12. Congregation for the Light
When you picture a cult, an image of a remote commune comes to mind. The Congregation for the Light is a little different as it actually operates smack-bang in the middle of Manhattan. In typical cult-fashion, this group has some outlandish beliefs to do with the Aryan race, the lost city of Atlantis, the crucial role of owls, karma causing cancer, and the coming end of the world. While some cults don’t directly cause any harm to their members, this one is known for marrying off its members to each other, and specifically arranging matches between older men and young girls. This is one of the smaller cults out there, and only has around 200 members. To make money, they are known to pillage dead members’ estates. Though they are based in Manhattan, they are very exclusive about whom they interact with and members are essentially secluded from the rest of society. Most members are born into the cult and are not given a choice in the matter. Like most cults, the Congregation for the Light shames anybody who tries to leave.
11. Kashi Ashram
Many are under the impression that cults are largely patriarchal and under the control of a male leader, and women are held in a very inferior light within the group. This is true of a few cults, but the Kashi Ashram differ in that they were founded by Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, whose real name was Joyce Green. Ma Jaya believed herself to be a channel for a number of Hindu gods as well as Jesus Christ, so formed an ashram in 1976 that highlighted understanding, compassion, community, and minimalism. She even lost a bunch of weight of what she called the “Christ diet”. Though this all sounds like the makings of a beautiful community, there are reportedly dark secrets buried beneath the surface. The movement has been accused of child abuse, forced marriages, brainwashing, and extortion by former members, who were groomed to believe that Ma Jaya was a god. They claim that when they were members, punishments within the cult were severe, those seen as “impure” were beaten and assaulted, and Ma Jaya had legal control over her members’ newborn babies. She died in 2003, however the group is still operating today.
A common theme to cult beliefs is extra-terrestrial life, and the Raëlism cult, founded in 1974, is one of the most notorious cults to believe in aliens. A Frenchman named Claude Vorilhon started the movement when he claimed he had a vision of an alien spacecraft. Inside the vessel, the beings gave him a Bible and told him that humans were the future. The leader of the aliens was called Yahweh and confirmed for Vorilhon that the Bible’s Old Testament accurately records the early days of humanity, and that it was his duty to build an embassy for the aliens so they felt welcomed when they returned to earth. Raëlians are people who worship these aliens told of by Vorilhon, and between 1974 and the early 2000s, the group grew to about 20,000 people, with many of the members located in Asia. They seemed pretty harmless for a long time, outwardly opposing violence. However, in 2002, one of the companies owned by the cult claimed to have cloned a human being. We’re yet to see any evidence that this actually happened, but the cult certainly caught the world’s attention with those claims!
9. Church of Bible Understanding
The Church of Bible Understanding is another cult to run in New York City. Founded by a man named Stewart Traill, who was expelled from his Pentecostal church in Pennsylvania, the Church of Bible Understanding had 10,000 members at one point. Like other cults, these guys began a number of businesses to generate money, and one of them was a carpet cleaning business. This actually inspired the Sunshine Carpet Cleaners, the creepy carpet cleaning people who were secretly brainwashing their customers in Seinfeld. Traill lured in his members with claims that only he could interpret the true word of God, however, many left after the 1970s due to the harsh rules of the church. They were required to give almost all of their money to the group while they lived in poverty, and were encouraged to break off contact with their families and friends. The Church of Bible Understanding was accused of brainwashing young orphans into joining, and in 2013, was condemned for running two orphanages in Haiti that were dirty and unliveable, even though the church raised millions to run them properly.
8. Aum Shinrikyo
Aum Shinrikyo translates to “supreme truth” and was based on the traditional beliefs of Buddhism. Also incorporating elements of Hinduism, yoga, the French physician and prophet Nostradamus, and the Book of Revelation from Christianity, Aum Shinrikyo was founded in 1984 with the intention to restore “original Buddhism.” One of the central beliefs of this group was that the United States would ignite World War Three which would result in a nuclear end of the world, and naturally, only those in the cult would be spared. Often thought of as the ultimate doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo didn’t become a real problem until 1995, when they killed 12 commuters on the Tokyo Subway with sarin gas. The leader and founder, Shoko Asahara, was arrested and taken to jail for the crime, and the police found him harboring live prisoners, numerous chemical devices, and poisonous gas—enough of it to kill millions. Now split into two groups, the cult is officially viewed by many countries, including Russia, the United States, and Canada, as a terrorist organization.
7. The Church of God with Signs Following
Also referred to as “snake handlers”, the Church of God with Signs Following believes that all snakes are manifested demons. Few people really love snakes, but these guys take that reptile hate to the next level! It is a common practice in this group for members to pick deadly snakes up and toss them into the air. As you would expect, many handlers have been seriously hurt and even died doing this, since their beliefs don’t protect them from the bites of an antagonized poisonous snake. They allow the snakes to slither over their bodies, and don’t accept any medical treatment because they think God will heal them and cast the poison out of their bodies. There are a few sects of this cult in Canada, however the majority of them are based in the south. The snake handlers don’t believe in dressing flamboyantly at all or drinking alcohol, and commonly speak in tongues and wash the feet of others. There is thought to be up to 5,000 practicing members of this group scattered around the country’s southern and southeastern states.
6. The Brethren
The Brethren are another group whose lives center around the belief that the end of the world is coming. They believe that in order to prepare for Armageddon, they need to rid themselves of all earth possessions and devices and stop all pleasures; doing this is supposed to purify them for the end. Unlike other cults, the Brethren are immediately recognizable because they adopt the lifestyle of vagabonds, survive on what food they find in trashcans, and don’t believe in bathing or seeking medical treatment. They do odd jobs to make a small income, and then they donate it to the movement. While this cult isn’t as directly harmful as some of the more vicious groups out there, they do prohibit all dancing and laughing. In other words, there is literally no fun to be had when you’re one of the Brethren. None. Members aren’t even allowed to talk to their families or talk to members of the opposite gender. Again, zero fun here. They will be allowed to smile when Jesus returns, but you know, that could still be a while!
5. The Movement for The Restoration of The Ten Commandments
This Ugandan group is an offshoot from the Roman Catholic Church, and was founded after leader Joseph Kibweteere claimed that he had a vision of the Virgin Mary. This cult was a lot stronger in the 1990s, and was all about preparing for the end of the world that would take place on January 1, 2000. Members were told that to survive this apocalypse, they had to strictly adhere to every single one of the Ten Commandments. They took it pretty seriously, with some members even giving up talking in fear of accidentally bearing false witness, giving up intimacy, and fasting. As you know, the world didn’t end in January 2000, which was pretty awkward. The leaders then adjusted their prophecy to March of that year, and gathered more than 500 members inside a church. Tragically, the church burst into flames and everyone inside perished with no way out. The most prominent theory was mass suicide, but others believe that this was actually mass murder on behalf of the leaders. It is also speculated that after luring the members inside the church, two of the leaders may have let themselves out.
4. The Branch Davidans
Arising in the 1950s, the Branch Davidans were founded on the belief that Jesus was going to return and the end of the world was on its way. The group had zero tolerance for anybody who wasn’t a member of the movement, claiming that they had to be enemies of God. In the early 1980s, a member named David Koresh claimed to be a messenger of God, and even said that he was the messiah. He eventually took over as leader of the group, and under his authority, many members were subjected to all kinds of abuse. Police investigated Koresh and his church, and that resulted in a standoff that lasted 51 days at the compound in Waco, Texas. On April 19, 1993, a fire broke out, and it’s not clear whether this was caused accidentally by police assault or whether it was lit with intentions of mass suicide by the group. In any case, the fire turned out to be deadly: 80 members died that day, including 22 children.
3. Ordre Du Temple Solaire
The Ordre Du Temple Solaire was founded by Joseph di Mambro and Luc Jouret in 1984. Believing in the second coming of Jesus, the joining of Christianity and Islam, and occult teachings, this cult differed from others in that it was based on the assumption that the Knights Templar were still operating. Existing in the Middle Ages at the time of the Crusades, the Knights Templar were a rich military group sanctioned by the Pope, though many experts agree that they no longer exist. Believing in the existence of a historical group of knights is a little weird, but isn’t too problematic. However, the cult took their fanatical beliefs too far in October 1994, when they murdered a three-month-old baby. They believed that the infant, birthed by one of their members, was actually the Antichrist. Following this, the group murdered many more of their members across Europe and convinced many more to kill themselves. In Switzerland, the deceased members, who had been shot, were found arranged in a circle wearing ceremonial robes. Over 45 people were killed in total.
2. Heaven’s Gate
The Heaven’s Gate cult is one of the more infamous groups to have emerged in America. They lived based on the belief that our planet was about to be recycled, and the only option was to leave. The leaders of the cult, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, claimed that they actually had new souls after their original souls had left their bodies, and would help their followers ascend to the “Next Level”. To do this, members had to get rid of everything considered to be earthly from their lives, including jobs, material possessions, family, and romance. In 1997, the leaders told their members that there was a spaceship following the comet Hale-Bopp, and this was their chance to save themselves from the recycling of the earth. Believing that they would go on to board the spaceship to safety, 38 followers were ordered to kill themselves. They ingested applesauce mixed with phenobarbital, washed it down with vodka, and then suffocated themselves in plastic bags. Strangely, all deceased members were found wearing identical black shirts, sweat pants and newly bought black-and-white Nike shoes.
1. The People’s Temple
The People’s Temple was one of the first examples in modern history of how deadly the effects of cult brainwashing can be. Founded in Indiana by a man named Jim Jones, this religious movement was based on the belief that the power of faith healing could instigate social change. Jones, who was a fanatical communist, established his first physical church in San Francisco before renting land in Guyana, South America. 50 members followed him there, where he created the People’s Temple Agricultural Project, now known as Jonestown. By 1978, Jonestown had nearly 900 members, who had followed Jones there believing that it was a paradise hidden from the American press, and a refuge from the fascism that was emerging in the United States. A congressman named Leo Ryan decided to visit Jonestown, and tried to help a few members escape. As he arrived at the airport with the fleeing members, he was shot by Jonestown security guards. Jones then ordered all his members to kill themselves by drinking Flavor Aid laced with cyanide. In what was an unprecedented tragedy at the time, 914 people, including 276 children, lost their lives.
Sources: www.ranker.com, the-line-up.com
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