Updated: Jul 31
What do we really know about these groups?
Unfortunately, not much.
Before we dive into the numbers we do (kind of) know, let's get you up to speed on the current state of the cult recovery field's data collection and research.
The Difficulty of Quantifying Cults
Cult experts often lament the lack of good data on coercive groups.
Collecting data on new religious movements and destructive cults is notoriously difficult. The main barriers facing accurate data on cults are:
Differences over the definition of a cult
Tendency of media/research to focus on sensational cults
Lack of participation or self-identification from current members of cults in data gathering efforts
Hyper-focus of studies on a single group (or homogenous groups)
Decline of researchers interested in cult dynamics, cult involvement, and cult-related census efforts
Needless to say, it's hard to see the full picture with things as they are.
Note: if you're interested in what a cult is, you can learn more at that link!
That said, we think it's important that people understand the widespread nature of these groups - and the tactics they use. To help accomplish this, we've scoured our resources and pulled statistics that help bring cults into focus.
Some of these may be helpful, others simply trivia.
Regardless, we'll try to keep this page up-to-date with any information that can help someone research, understand, and contextualize cult involvement.
There Are Up To 10,000 cults in the United States
This figure comes courtesy of cult expert Steve Eichel, although we are uncertain of his sources on the subject.
One article from 1993 cites three research studies and estimated that there were 3,000 to 5,000 cults. The wording of this article makes it unclear if this is in the United States alone or worldwide.
How Many Cult Members Are There?
Estimate #1: 331,000 to 4,300,000
In 1982, cult expert Margaret Singer put forth that there were between 300,000 to 3,000,000 Cult Members in the United States. The population of the United States at the time was ~231 million, whereas today it's ~331 million.
If we assume that the ratio of cult members to non-cult members has stayed the same, this amounts to 0.1-1.3% of U.S.A. citizens. The range of 331,000 to 4.3 million assumes
Estimate #2: 1.65 million to 6.6 million
According to a collection of studies compiled by the International Cultic Studies Association, it's estimated that between 0.5-3% of individuals are involved in a cult at some point in their lifetime.
Estimate #3: 500,000
This estimate comes courtesy of Cult Mediation, which quotes an influential 1994 study by Chambers, Langone, Dole, & Grice. It should be noted that this is a conservative estimate.
Cults and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Recent studies have shown that cult survivors experience post-traumatic stress at a higher rate than the average person.
According to one study, cult survivors in the United States experience PTSD at rates of 61.4% in men and 71.3% in women. This is in stark contrast to the average rate of PTSD in Americans in general, which is only 6.8%.
Unfortunately, there's no current reporting of PTSD rates among non-binary or genderqueer individuals.
This finding heavily implies that the cult experience exposes members to a greater risk of trauma.
While there's more research to be done, statistics like this are part of why People Leave Cults offers a support group for victims of trauma in coercive settings.
Cults Defy Typology... For Now
In 2017, Pew Research published a fascinating study on emergent Religious Typology in America. The study attempted to classify America's religious spectrum into 7 categories:
While this study made no attempts to control for or classify cults, various parts of the study aimed to quantify how likely each type is to hold certain beliefs, morals, or principles.
In many ways (although currently anecdotally), former cult members may find it helpful to learn these typological patterns to contextualize their experience.
One interesting data point is illustrated in the graph below - namely that "known cult" groups like Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses tend to fall in the Sunday Stalwart category. A notable exception is the presence of Spiritually Awake Mormons.
Other common habits seen in coercive groups also fall to the Sunday Stalwarts category:
Daily reading of holy scripture
Regularly required attendance at worship
Predisposition to New Age beliefs
Susceptibility to "psychics"
This isn't an attempt to throw Sunday Stalwarts into the "cult" category however. Other typological groups tend toward commonly coercive habits as well.
Diversely devout, Spiritually Awake, and Religion Resisters all tend to:
Strongly hold to "New Age" ideologies
Believe in reincarnation
Give credence to Astrology
See physical objects as having spiritual energy
None of this is to say that these typological groups are "cults". Making that assertion based on typology alone would be nonsense.
If anything, this typology helps point (in my mind) to a divide within coercive groups that helps highlight how in-group and out-group thinking can happen regardless of a person's religious ideology. One may self-identify anywhere on the religious spectrum, but that does not make them immune to coercion or cult-like beliefs.
If you take anything from this section, I hope that it prompts further self-discovery. Think of this like finding your Myers-Briggs type in the context of religion - then see how it helps you grow.
Only 69 Cult Leaders Have a Listing on Wikipedia
Given we're not sure how many cults there are, we can't say definitely how many cult leaders there are. It's safe to say that it's probably more than 69 though!
For whatever reason, it seems easy to be a cult leader and stay off of Wikipedia for now.
Fun fact: As of this writing, 25 of the cult leaders on the list linked above are still living.
Young People Join Cults
According to a report published by the International Cultic Studies Association, the average age that a person joins a cult is 25.
There Are ~3.5 Million Monthly "Cult" Related Google Searches
There are 3.5 million monthly search engine inquiries for cult-related terms.
Source: SEMrush data, March 2023
The groups that receive the most monthly inquiries are:
Mormonism - 2,900 searches
Scientology - 2,400 searches
Shen Yun - 2,400 searches
Jehovah's Witness - 1,600 searches
Alcoholics Anonymous - 1,300 searches
Freemasonry - 1,000 searches
Landmark Forum - 880 searches
Seventh Day Adventism - 720 searches
Catholicism - 720 searches
Amish - 480 searches
Hare Krishna - 480 searches
Hillsong - 480 searches
The Way International - 480 searches
Amway - 390 searches
Falun Gong - 390 searches
Landmark - 390 searches
Church of Christ - 390 searches
The Ku Klux Klan - 390 searches
Christian Science - 320 searches
Please note that this is not an endorsement or accusation that these groups are cults. It is only a collection of groups that individuals search for on a regular basis to learn if they are cults.
Cult involvement, cult life, cult leaders, and cult recovery are all in need of further research.
Former members can often feel adrift after leaving their group, but information can help you feel less alone.
Other people join cults too - or are born into them.
Other people experience the abuses of mind control, physical violence, radicalization, and more.