The line between religions and cults is blurry – they're all pretty much equally ridiculous. When you get down to it, really, the main difference is that everyone openly acknowledges how ridiculous cults are, whereas religions tend to get some respect grandfathered in.
Recent decades have also seen cults get a reputation for pretty despicable stuff. Slavery, ritual suicide, and ruining Tom Cruise’s reputation are a few that come to mind, but the full list of terrible and weird things associated with the cult life is too long to rattle off.
Just about the only cult that gets much attention these days is Scientology and, really, that’s a shame. To help even things out, here are 10 oddball cults that are still active today.
10 Apostles of Infinite Love
You can still find the Apostles of Infinite Love way up in Quebec’s Laurentian mountain region, although the leader of the movement passed in 2011. It’s got the typically horrendous laundry list of controversy surrounding it: sexual and physical abuse of children, kidnapping, some illegal detaining.
The cult first popped into existence back in 1962, and was a Catholic splinter group formed by Michel Collin, an excommunicated priest who took for himself the name “Pope Clement XV.”
He was succeeded by Jean Gaston Tremblay, AKA Pope Gregory XVII, in 1969. Greg led the church until his death in 2011, all through the accusations of sexual assault and the police raids and the expropriation of the monastery.
9 FLDS Church
A product of con man Joseph Smith’s mind, Mormonism even in its most mainstream form can seem a bit kooky: It includes among its delightful fantasies the idea that Native Americans are a lost tribe of Israel and that God inscribed new commandments, written in some fake variant of Egyptian, onto golden tablets (which were then returned to an angel).
FLDS is the fundamentalist branch of Mormonism, and exists because regular Mormonism forbade polygamy.
FLDS is currently headed by Warren Jeffs, a man who was imprisoned for life for aiding in the sexual assault of two underage girls. The church includes among its beliefs the idea that black people are cursed, that women should do what their men say, and, of course, the idea that dudes need to get it on with as many ladies as possible.
8 Hikari no Wa and Aleph
These spun off from the Aum Supreme Truth doomsday cult, which sets the bar pretty high as far as insanity and destructiveness go. For those not up on their Japanese cult history, Aum was behind a few murders... and also a couple of sarin gas and botulism attacks.
Wait, there’s more! The group also had a few other bioweapons, including some Ebola, found at their compound. And a Russian attack helicopter, which fits in with the “indecisive Bond villain” theme the group had going for it.
After the police raids and jailings and all the rest, the group splintered into Hikari no Wa and Aleph, which spread their word to the young and unsuspecting through yoga classes and study groups. Their beliefs, aside from the need to be rampant murdering monsters, aren’t anything special. Just the usual “end is nigh” shtick all the cults are so fond of.
7 Twelve Tribes
A quality cult group formed in 1958 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Twelve Tribes can be found all over the world. There’s some debate over just what this cult is all about, with some claiming it is racist, and others claiming it’s the opposite. A common thread, though, suggests that this group is totally cool with beating the tar out of kids as the first course of discipline. And also putting kids to work.
One ex member started a website specifically outlining some of the group’s more questionable beliefs and actions. For example, sending troubled teens to live in overseas Twelve Tribes communities, where nobody they know and love can help them, and preventing children from getting proper medical care.
Nuwaubians are a strange combination of Christianity, ancient Egyptian iconography and beliefs, and a belief that aliens are coming at some point, probably soon, to take 144,000 chosen people away in flying saucers. That’s some fine religious fanfiction, right there.
The group wanted to create a new nation within the United States, but instead had its compound destroyed and its leader imprisoned. That last one might have had something to do with the group’s founder, Dwight York, getting busted for racketeering, child sex slave trafficking, and child molestation.
The group has lost many members since that debacle, but all hope is not lost. York will be back out of prison and ready to lead his people into the night sky when his 135-year sentence ends in April, 2122.
5 The Congregation for the Light
Cults have this reputation for being reclusive, probably tucked away in the deep woods of some lonely piece of the middle of nowhere. But The Congregation for the Light is a bit different. It’s got chapters in New York City, Atlanta, and Washington DC. That doesn’t make it any less weird, though. Nope, it’s still plenty weird.
The NY Post has a great write-up about this group, describing how the members believe they are descended from an Aryan race from Atlantis, that humanity comes from the moon, and that evildoers can be battled through lucid dreams. They also describe how the cult has banned homosexuality, keeps women subservient and marries young ladies to old men, and denies science of all kinds.
The group gets most of its money from the estates of dead members,. Members are shunned by the community when they break the rules, or do things like enter relationships with non-members. The group denies that it is a cult, for what it's worth...
4 Aetherius Society
This one is kind of nice. Where these other cults are destructive in some way, the Aetherius Society, by all accounts, is just super weird. Pleasant.
It combines some Eastern ideas like karma and reincarnation with a belief in psychic powers and alien civilizations that the official website says we cannot detect because they “exist[..] at higher frequencies of vibration."
This is all the brainchild of Dr. George King. It’s important to note that this man’s doctorhood was not obtained in the regular way (schooling), but just by kind of happening when aliens decided to make him “the voice of Interplanetary Parliament.” Allegedly.
The Aetherius Society was founded back in 1955, survived the death of King in 1997, and is now thought to include thousands. That’s right. There really are alien-worshipping nutters lurking among us.
3 Builders of the Adytum
If you know people who do card readings or other occult business, it’s quite possible they're a member of the Builders of the Adytum.
The belief system is pretty convoluted, but the essentials seem to be that the group tries to tap into an inherent potential in people to advance society’s mental and physical capabilities. Naturally, the best way to go about doing that is to look at pictures and guess at what they mean.
The Builders were founded by Paul Foster Case, a catholic and Master Mason who became enraptured with the idea of tarot. In 1922 he decided to take it upon himself to create a foundation for the study of it and other occult matters.
Humility didn’t seem to be in the cards. The B.O.T.A. website describes this founding as being the moment when he “accepted the enormous responsibility of founding an Order dedicated to the welfare of all mankind.” Today, there are a few thousand members of this order around the world.
2 Happy Science
Founded in 1986 in Japan, Happy Science lives up to precisely half of its name. The latter half is abandoned in a glorious pile of utter insanity.
The root of this system is in the belief that everybody has an immortal soul that survives death. Pretty basic stuff, except that the group believes in multiple planes of immortal existence that are populated by distinguished historical figures – who all team up together.
Yeah. It’s like the Avengers, only instead of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, it’s Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller teaming up to... “work[...] on the theme of modern society and management.” Okay, not quite the Avengers.
Even better, if people are good or at least try to do good things, they get reincarnated, and Happy Science totally knows who is who. Plato, for example, came back as philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. Darwin, on the other hand, “realized how his mistaken theories had led to the spread of atheism, [and] his conscience would give him no peace. Darwin’s soul is now serving a penance in Abysmal Hell.”
1 Supreme Master Ching Hai
Ladies, are you feeling left out? Try Supreme Master Ching Hai’s group on for size. Yes, it’s a fringe religious group that was started by a lady, and it’s actually pretty big – about 20,000 strong, by the group’s reckoning.
She teaches “Quan Yi,” a meditation technique meant to bring the clarity and tranquility of meditation into the rest of one’s life. All you have to do is practice Quan Yi and become a vegetarian.
Ching Hai and her followers swear she is not a cult leader, or even a religious leader, but they certainly go out of their way to build a cult- and religion-like legend around a person they call “Supreme Master,” so take their claims with a grain of salt.
Chin Hai also once built an illegal island inside of a national park, so clearly she’s a budding supervillain. Just give it time.