A Word About Cults

If you have further questions or would like to talk with someone about cults, please contact one of the Multifaith Chaplains.

What is a Cult?

A cult is a group or movement which is organized around a set of beliefs and rituals. Many cults allow people to retain their freedom; others do not, and they can seriously damage their members. Destructive cults exhibit an excessive dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employ unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control designed to advance the goals of the group leaders and ideology, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community. Unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control include, but are not limited to, deception regarding the group’s identity and true goals, isolation from family and former friends, “love-bombing” by new “friends,” use of special methods to heighten compliance, peer pressure, encouraging the suspension of critical judgment and autonomy, promotion of total dependency on the group.

Destructive cults, then are likely to exhibit 3 elements to varying degrees:

  1. members’ excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment to the identity, ideology, and leadership of the group;
  2. exploitative manipulation of members; and
  3. harm or the danger of harm (psychological, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and/or physical) to members, their families, and/or society

Who Becomes Involved in Destructive Cults?

Anyone can be a target of a cult recruitment campaign. No one is too sophisticated or too well-educated for involvement. There is no one personality profile of a potential cult member; however, there are some times in all of our lives when we may be particularly susceptible to destructive cults. These include times of :

  1. marked loss of status and certainty about identity (e.g., incoming first year students or graduating seniors)
  2. loss of important friendships and romances (e.g., mid-year failures of high school romances for first year students)
  3. loss of ideals/dreams (e.g., change in a major and subsequent change in career plans — pre-med “drop- outs” due to academic failure)
  4. encounter with new social challenges/distance from familiar social surroundings (e.g., any major difficulty adjusting to new roommates, any student living away from home for the first time)

While all types of people become involved in all types of cults, people who display any or all of the following characteristics may be particularly vulnerable to destructive cults:

  • great dependence on others
  • lack of assertiveness
  • uncritical trust of other people and groups
  • low tolerance for ambiguity (wants simple “right” or “wrong” answers to complex questions)
  • unfulfilled desire for spiritual meaning,
  • cultural and religious disillusionment.

Where Might College Students Encounter Cult Recruiters?

Anywhere. Members of destructive cults make it their business to “run into” potential recruits on a campus in students’ natural surroundings. Solicitation in residence halls and in campus buildings without appropriate administrative permission is not allowed, but conversations between two people obviously can happen in many locations. Favorite campus recruitment sites include places like campus quadrangles or greens, residence halls, libraries, cafeterias, and athletic facilities where ostensibly casual conversation can be struck up easily. The Internet is another site of many casual conversations on college campuses.

What Are Some of the Warning Signs of Involvement in a Destructive Cult?

Any combination of the following signs may indicate cult involvement:

  • profound personality change (especially toward “rigidity” and decrease of affect and spontaneity)
  • alienation from family and former friends combined with judgmentalism toward them
  • deterioration in academic performance
  • rejection of formerly deeply-held beliefs
  • arrogance toward those who hold beliefs formerly held by the cult member (patronizing and judgmental) and evidence of excessive dualistic (“right/wrong”) thought
  • preoccupation with proselytization
  • unusual scrupulosity regarding one’s own and others’ behaviors and beliefs
  • group control of personal decisions (e.g., where and with whom to live, who may have “spiritual authority” over the person, whom to date/marry, whether to date/marry at all, what discipline to major in); evidence of especially tight control by one or two persons over an individual’s life
  • deterioration of critical independent thought/loss of autonomy and ability to make decisions for oneself
  • physical and/or serious psychological deterioration

What Can I/Should I Do?

  1. If you are approached, be polite but firm. You have the right to say “no” and to refuse all invitations and overtures.
  2. If a person or group persists in inviting you to join them after you have clearly and firmly declined previous invitations, report your concerns to appropriate college officials like Student Affairs, the Campus Security Office, and the Chaplain’s Office.
  3. Do not try to debate with cult members or recruits. It’s never productive, since they have decided in advance that anyone outside their group is wrong, sinful, or an enemy.
  4. Exercise good judgment and be careful with groups which are suspiciously vague about their affiliation and purposes. Remember that it is characteristic of destructive cults to use “front” names for their organizations, publications, and group residences, so their identities are not always immediately apparent.
  5. If you are concerned about a friend, roommate, or family member who is involved in a cult, adopt an attitude of detached concern and curiosity. Avoid oppositional or confrontational conversations, but do ask questions about the group. Do not settle for vague replies. Frame your concern for the person in friendly questions and statements of how much you miss their former involvement in your life. Beware of attending group meetings with the person about whom you are concerned. That’s a good way to gain a first-hand experience of the cult, but many people who intend to “research” a group by attending its meetings have found themselves inadvertently sucked into the cult.
  6. If you are on a spiritual search and are looking for a variety of organizations and persons to assist you, the Chaplain’s Office will be happy to direct you to resources which will respect your freedom and honor the sacred nature of your search.