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Are Cults Recruiting on Your Campus?

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The list of problems plaguing college campuses is extensive: illegal drugs, alcohol abuse, and sexual assault. According to experts, there’s a lesser-known, but equally-present danger: cults.

When cults are mentioned, we usually associate the word with the cults of the 1970s selling flowers at the airport. It is surprising to learn that cults still exist. The definition of cult we will use is the following: a group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.

Contemporary cults are likely to exhibit the following elements to varying degrees:

  • members’ excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment to the identity and leadership of the group
  • exploitative manipulation of members
  • harm or the danger of harm to members, their families and/or society

Because cults tend to be leader-centered, exploitative, and harmful, they are usually in conflict with and are threatened by society at large. Some gradually accommodate to society and become somewhat covert by decreasing their levels of manipulation, exploitation, harm, and opposition. Others, however, harden their shells by becoming totalistic, elitist, and isolated. These groups tend to dictate -how members should think, act, and feel; claim a special, exalted status for themselves and/or their leaders; and intensify their opposition to and alienation from society at large.

The capacity to exploit human beings is universal. This means a cult could arise in any kind of group. Most established groups, however, have mechanisms in place that restrain the development of cultic subgroups. Often religious cult leaders begin their careers in mainstream denominations from which they were ejected because of their cultish activities. Cults are generally associated with newer, unorthodox groups. It is important to note that not all new or unorthodox groups are cults.

Cults are known to recruit on college campuses. Students are often invited to a dinner, a retreat, or a special lecture and not know who’s sponsoring it. Oftentimes these cults will operate under the guise of human rights groups.

Are colleges doing enough to protect students from cults? When colleges warn students about groups considered to be cults, are the colleges engaged in a form of religious discrimination? Are cults even a legitimate concern? They are a concern enough for USC to warn about them during parent’s weekend.

Statistically, college students are at a much greater risk for falling victim to cults. The majority of those who get involved with cults are between 18 and 24 years of age, are single, and have an unsettled lifestyle. College students are highly represented in this demographic. You may be skeptical about this since college students should be intelligent individuals. Falling victim to a cult is not related to intelligence. Often people who get involved with cults are not viewed by others as any less intelligent, less well-adjusted, or more religiously involved than anybody else.

There is a lot we don’t know about why some people fall victim to cults. They are often people who are particularly vulnerable and may be uncertain about the future. They may feel lonely and isolated. They may be naïve or idealistic.

Cults operate on a fascinating psychological principle. Your view of reality is defined by certain “anchors”. We use these anchors as points of reference to our individual realities. Cult leaders are experts at removing these anchors. This leaves a person in a state of confusion and distress. The cult leaders then insert new anchors to which the person clings to in order to reestablish their reality. They now have a need for the cult to feel safe.

Some of the techniques they use (and things to look out for) include:

  • removing people from their normal surroundings and friends
  • sleep and sensory deprivation
  • development of a deep emotional debt
  • public confessionals
  • low-risk relationships (unconditional acceptance)
  • fear of punishment or damnation for even thinking about leaving the new “family”
  • viewing the entire outside world as evil so that any desire to return to it is also evil.

Other things to be on the lookout for are:

  • leaders who claim divinity or special relationships with God and insist on being the sole judge of a member’s actions or faith
  • demands for total control over members’ daily lives
  • isolation and exclusion from the surrounding community demands for control of members’ finances
  • absolutist views toward difficult life problems and spiritual questions
  • special (exclusive) promises of salvation or keys to spiritual understanding

According to the American Family Foundation (AFF), a non-profit group that studies psychological manipulation and cultic groups, there are approximately 1,000 cults worldwide. In a recent poll, 40% of respondents say there are cults that are active on their college campuses. 17% of respondents claim to, at one time or another, to have been a member of a cult on campus. Of that 17%, nearly a quarter of them say they felt pressured into joining, while 35% say they thought the group used mind games to control them.

There are certain things to look for before making a determination of whether a group is a cult or not. Watch out for the ones that are most aggressive and are making the greatest promises. Pay attention when they say things like, you’ll have total enlightenment. A legitimate group will stand up to questioning and scrutiny.


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