11 Cults That Are Hidden in Plain Sight


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The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a “cult” as “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious.” The Roman Emperor Nero was famously said to regard the emerging religion known as Christianity that way. While accounts of his cruelty to Christians vary, it goes to show that many “cults” are just new religions that are viewed as a threat by the powers that be.

Other “cults,” meanwhile, are exactly what you think they are – the group worship of a single charismatic figure by the heavily indoctrinated. Either way, it’s a broad term and many of the cults operating today could be considered “emerging religions.” In contrast, others have been little more than efforts to exploit the gullible for profit. Here’s our list of cults that are still operating today and which span the spectrum from outright personality cults to organizations that just want to sell you coursework.

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1. Scientology

Founded by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology counts such celebrities as Tom Cruise and John Travolta as members. It has been secretive about its practices, particularly 1965’s allegedly discontinued “fair game,” which states that critics of Scientology, known as “suppressive persons,” should not be “protected by the codes and disciplines of Scientology or the rights of a Scientologist.” In other words, if you’re a member of the Church of Scientology and you want to leave the organization, they’re going to make your life very, very difficult, as filmmaker Paul Haggis learned when he resigned from the group. In 1993, the Church of Scientology gained the same tax-exempt status enjoyed by many of the world’s major religions.

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2. The Family International

Also known as Children of God, the Family International was founded in 1968 by David Berg. Former member Verity Carter told BBC Scotland that she had been abused by numerous cult members, including her father, since childhood. Actors Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan were both born into the cult, and former member Danielle Fortin told CBC News that she and the other young women in the group were ordered to “flirty-fish,” which meant engaging in daily physical relations with different men. The group was reorganized in 2010, and its website describes it as “an online Christian network of 1,450 members committed to sharing the message of God’s love with people around the globe.”

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3. The Family Federation for World Peace and Unification

More popularly known as the Unification Church, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification was founded in 1954 in Seoul, South Korea, by Sun Myung Moon, leading people to refer to the group as “Moonies.” The organization was best known for its mass weddings, known as “blessing ceremonies,” in which vast numbers of church members would be joined in arranged marriages, with the brides and grooms matched by Moon himself. One of the largest such ceremonies took place in 1982 at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, at which 2,075 couples were wed simultaneously. Moon died in 2012, but the group, now known as the Family Federation, is still operating.

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4. The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) is a sect that broke off from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, informally known as the Mormon Church. In 1890, the Mormon Church officially condemned the practice of polygamy, causing this sect to break away to continue practicing plural marriage. In the last 20 years, the FLDS began to suffer chronic legal issues – polygamy is illegal in all 50 states, after all – but as recently as 2023, the group was said to have started moving into North Dakota. While their website consists solely of a link to buy the book “Jesus Christ Message to All Nations: Second Edition” by the currently incarcerated leader of the FLDS, Warren Jeffs, we can still say that, technically, this cult is still in operation. 

Image Credit: Temple of FLDS by Randy Mankin (None).

5. Raëlism

Raëlism was founded in 1974 in France by Claude Vorilhon, a former automotive journalist now known simply as Raël. While Raëlism teaches that there is no god, it does teach that space aliens known as the Elohim created all life on Earth, and they often get mistaken for gods. According to the organization’s website, Raëlism requires its adherents to practice self-respect, self-acceptance, and nonviolence.

Image Credit: Raëlism by waltarrrrr (CC BY-NC-ND).

6. The Brethren

The Brethren is a religious movement created by Jimmie T. Roberts in the early 1970s. A veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and the son of a Pentecostal pastor, he believed that the church was corrupt and the end was nigh. He preached the rejection of family and material possessions in favor of a nomadic lifestyle financed entirely by doing odd jobs. In 2011, the documentary ‘God Willing’ premiered on public television courtesy of filmmaker Evangeline Griego, whose nephew had joined the Brethren in 1996. Jimmie T. Roberts died in 2015, but the untold numbers of people who joined the cult and then disappeared into the larger world signify that the group is still out there, if in scattered form.

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7. The Brahma Kumaris

The Brahma Kumaris encourages its adherents to concentrate on their souls, not their physical bodies, with the ultimate goal of achieving “Soul Consciousness,” in which members remain mindful at all times of the idea that the body is just a vessel for the soul and that our “natural, original qualities are of peace and love.” Women hold the primary leadership positions in the Brahma Kumaris, and not only does this emerging religion still exist, but they also offer Zoom seminars that you can sign up for right at this very minute.

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8. The United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors

The United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors was founded by Dwight York, and according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, its belief system “mixes black supremacist ideas with worship of the Egyptians and their pyramids, a belief in UFOs and various conspiracies related to the Illuminati and the Bilderbergers.” In 2002, he was indicted on 120 counts, including 74 counts of child molestation, and in 2004 he was sentenced to 135 years in federal prison. It’s difficult to say if this cult is still in business, although a site called Nuwaubian Facts is up and running and claiming that in 2002, York was not arrested but kidnapped by the U.S. government.

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9. The Creativity Movement

The Creativity Movement is a white supremacist cult founded in 1973 by former Florida state legislator Ben Klassen, who also invented the electric can opener.  He wrote in his autobiography that the white race “has become a highly endangered species, whose demise and extinction is at most only a few generations away,” and that’s all the space we’re going to give to their crackpot views here. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the group is still operating, and its members have committed several murders over the past few decades.

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10. Eckankar

Eckankar was founded by journalist Paul Twitchell in 1965, and it teaches its followers to participate in such spiritual exercises as singing the mantra “HU.” The group’s website describes Eckankar as a “companion and road map for your journey home – to the heights of Self-Discovery and God-Discovery, and beyond.” The group also offers monthly “Spiritual Living Courses,” with “updates from a God-Realized teacher.”

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11. Happy Science

Happy Science was founded in Japan in 1986 by former Wall Street trader Ryuho Okawa, whose followers believe him to be the reincarnation of a supreme extraterrestrial being from the planet Venus and the creator of all life on Earth. Japanese cult expert Sarah Hightower told VICE News that Okawa “claims to be the incarnation of multiple Gods while pretending to channel the psychic spirits of anyone from Quetzalcoatl to Bashar al-Assad to Natalie Portman.” In 2021, VICE News reported that Hiroaki “Jay” Aeba, a well-known Japanese conservative and prominent member of Happy Science, had attended the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) ten times, as the group has ties with such American right-wingers as Steve Bannon.

Image Credit: Happy Science by Matt Brown (CC BY).

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