There are dozens of cults still active today, despite the very public demise of many well-known ones. Current cults range from New Age mystic groups to fundamentalist Christians preparing for the end of days. Many have been around for decades, with some as old as a century. But a few others have sprung up only in the last few years.
What these groups have in common is a cult of personality built around a charismatic leader, a devotion to poverty which usually doesn't extend to said leader, and a belief that they are somehow chosen above all others to usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. Many keep their flocks in thrall, refusing to let them leave, while others disconnect people from their families so they don't want to.
Here are some of the most well-known modern and famous cults (if we can call them that) and how they began.
If you're looking for a mash-up of world religions, New Age hokum, far-right nationalism, and infrastructure spending, then Japanese cult Happy Science is for you. It was founded in 1986 by Ryuho Okawa, a former salaryman who was enraptured by a group called the God Light Association. He soon formed his own cult of personality, called Science of Happiness, and changed its name to Happy Science a few years later.
Okawa believes he is the human incarnation of a supreme being called El Cantare, who combines Christ, Buddha, Muhammad, and every other prophetic deity to create a nine-dimensional heaven with him at the head. He's also created a massively complex mythology of New Age nonsense - while simultaneously founding a political wing called the Happiness Realization Party.
Here's where the strangeness goes into overdrive, as his party advocates a vicious Japanese nationalism devoted to denying historical cruelties, advocating conflict with China and North Korea, and rebuilding Japan's infrastructure. The group claims to have 12 million members around the world, has a multimedia arm, and enjoys tax-exempt status in the US.
One of the most notorious cults of the modern era, Raëlism began in 1974 with a Frenchman named Claude Vorilhon. Calling himself Räel, Vorilhon claimed he had a vision of an alien spacecraft in southern France that was full of beings who told him humans were the future and handed him a Bible. Over six days, the head alien (named Yahweh, naturally) explained to Vorilhon how the Old Testament is an actual record of humanity's early days, and that he must build an embassy to welcome the aliens when they fully return.
For most of the next three decades, Räelians were basically a kooky hippie cult that worshiped space aliens. They opposed aggression, championed science, and liked to be disrobed and have intercourse with lots of people. They amassed a following of 20,000 and became extremely popular in Asia. Then, in 2002, things got weird. Or weirder, at least. A Räelian-owned company called Clonaid claimed to have done the impossible and cloned a human, a baby girl they named Eve.
Everyone went nuts, with the White House weighing in, lawsuits filed, and claims of a dozen other human clones popping up. To date, no evidence of any actual clones has appeared, but the company continues selling an "embryonic cell fusion device" for over $9,000 - despite nobody knowing what it does.
Also known as "Body of Christ" and "Garbage Eaters," the Brethren are an apocalyptic offshoot of the '70s Jesus movement, eschewing worldly possessions and earthly pleasures to purify themselves for the coming end of the world. Brethren members essentially live as vagrants, doing odd jobs to survive, eating trash, avoiding bathing and medical treatment, and giving whatever money they do make to the group.
They also forbid dancing and laughing (until the return of Jesus), bar members from communicating with family, and forbid contact between binary genders. Group founder Jim Roberts passed in December 2015, leaving the future of the secretive cult unclear.
An offshoot of Mormonism that's constantly in the news for unsavory reasons, FLDS openly embraces polygamy, which the mainstream LDS outlawed a century ago. The group has anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 members in rural Utah and Arizona, with the group having almost total control of two small, linked border towns in the two states.
While Mormon splinter groups had been around long before, the FLDS was incorporated in 1991 by a group of men who had been excommunicated by the church. They went through a range of leaders who all declared themselves prophets, until being taken over by Rulon Jeffs in 2002. He passed shortly thereafter and his son, Warren, took over. It was under Warren Jeffs that the FLDS' practices of child marriage, bigamy, incest, racism, abandonment of teenage boys, and child abuse became public knowledge.
Jeffs was sent to prison in 2007 but continues to be the de facto head of the church while his successors squabble for power.