Cults on Campus: How Can You Help?

William Goldberg, MSW, ACSW

The college campuses of the 1990's are different from the campuses of the 1960's, when radical politics, mass demonstrations, teach-ins, and marches presented special problems for campus administrators and staff. Today, for the most part, campuses appear to be quieter. This calm is deceptive, however, because today's campuses face some challenges that were neither as potent nor as widespread thirty years ago. One of these challenges involves the destructive organizations capitalizing on the frustrations, fears, anxieties, and needs of today's college students, leading them to work against their own interests as well as the interests of society. Today's campus has been characterized as a “spiritual supermarket.” Students are promised universal cures, unqualified happiness, guaranteed salvation, and magically-attained wealth by thousands of destructive cults. These cults pressure the students to abandon their families, friends, and futures in order to follow an individual who claims to have discovered the path to perfection. College campuses are the chief recruiting centers of most destructive cults, and virtually every college campus in the country has been and continues to be visited by these organizations. This article will identify the cult members, describe their actions, discuss the reasons why they find college campuses particularly rich for recruiting purposes, and suggest ways that campus administrators and staff can properly intervene to protect the students and the college. The most damaging myth is that people who join destructive cults are seekers by nature and that ii they did not fall into a destructive cult, they would probably look for some other way to escape the pressures of the real world. In fact, most cult members are normal, healthy individuals with the typical kinds of problems that young people today encounter. As Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer, Emeritus Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of California – Berkeley, puts it, “The myth is that the potential cult members are like tourists searching everywhere for the Washington Monument. If they don't find it here, they'll look elsewhere until they find what they're seeking.” Actually, Dr. Singer points out, there are hundreds of these "Washington Monuments" on the campus today, constantly looking for vulnerable young people. For the most part, members do not hear a philosophy and then decide to join the group which has that philosophy. Instead, they see a group that seems to have something they want (such as love, purpose, determination and direction) and, in order to become part of that group, they adopt its philosophy. The reason I emphasize this fact is that if campus staff whose responsibility it is to watch out for the welfare of the students see potential cult members as individuals who are searching for a way to escape responsibility no matter what, they might not recognize the importance of their timely intervention. The intervention may be just what the student needs to keep from getting involved in the first place. The first questions to ask, of course, are, “What are destructive cults?” and “Just what is being destroyed?” A destructive cult is a group that deceives potential recruits into believing that it is something it is not; it then pressures, manipulates and isolates the recruit from the familiar guideposts; and, finally, it introduces a doctrine that the group claims will fit every circumstance and clarify all doubts and confusion. The reason the doctrine may seem to answer a recruit's concerns is that the individual has been worn down through a system of marathon sessions, manipulation of vulnerabilities (e.g., the need to be liked and the desire to be seen as open-minded), and love-bombing to the point where simplistic black-and-white superficialities appear to be profound utterances of truth. What is being destroyed is the individual's critical senses. Due to a desire to be seen as good group members, cult members learn to muffle the part of themselves that is uneasy with the cult's philosophy and actions and, instead, learn to believe and act without question. Indeed, one of the major features of the destructive cult is that this type of group will advise their adherents to give up their egos, to surrender to the general sense of right and wrong, to accept that which they would have rejected had they not been placed into a state of Heightened suggestibility and narrowed consciousness. As they come to embrace the notion that doubt is satanically inspired and that the only acceptable stance is one of childlike acceptance, the cult members learn to distrust their instincts. There are many different types of groups that use the techniques mentioned above, but most often fit into one of four categories.

  1. Religious cults: These are the best known of the groups. The leader is seen by those in the cult as a god or one who has a direct and unique relationship with God. Only he/she can interpret the word of God. Group members are usually taught to define the world in terms of an imminent Armageddon. Only the members of their particular group will be saved, while all non-believers will perish.
  2. Therapy cults: These groups are similar to religious cults, except that they worship a leader not because of his/her relationship with God, but because the leader has reached some ill-defined point of psychological perfection. The goal of the therapy cult member is not to be saved and, therefore, free of sin, but to be cured and, therefore, free of hang-ups. The words are different, but the recruitment, the message, and the elusive goals are the same.
  3. Political cults: In these groups, the leader is an individual who has the perfect political doctrine. Again, he/she is flawless and has discovered some great truth. Again, the world is coming to see that the leader's way is the only path to follow and the Upheaval will occur sometime soon. Those who are enlightened early will be in the vanguard of the movement as it sweeps the world. Extremist groups and domestic terrorist organizations have often been described as cult-like in their methods and in the effect they have on their members.
  4. Economic cults: The appeal in these groups is material success. By abandoning one's plans and goals and following the leader, the cult member is promised future fortune. As with the other categories, the recruit is put through a series of pressures and manipulations, and is isolated from friends and family. As with the other groups, the end point of this process is a demand for an immediate and total commitment or the loss of the opportunity for financial success forever. As one can see, the goals, rewards, or philosophy of these groups may be somewhat different, but the overall themes are the same: If you give up your plans, ideas, and individuality and blindly follow our leader, he/she will make you holy, healthy, enlightened, or rich. There is only one path, and our leader has found it. Anyone who disagrees with our doctrine is doomed to a life of sin, ignorance, neurosis, or failure. The end result of cultic manipulation has been called brainwashing, mind control, thought reform, information disease, and coercive persuasion. These terms describe an experience that leads the individual to make sudden major changes in lifestyle, opinions, ethics, sense of loyalty, and view of the world. The cult member assumes a new identity and is often given a new name and a new “re-birth day” to further emphasize the break with the past. The process that leads to these changes is usually accomplished after the new recruit is away from the campus, in a new environment. The “hook” which leads the individual to enter that environment is often conventional and mild – the desire to meet new people, to be exposed to new ideas, or to hear a new point of view. Once the potential recruit is in the new environment, though, he/she is lectured, cajoled, infantilized and undermined. Resistance to suggestions is gradually worn down and, as it erodes, knowledge of the group's purpose, real philosophy, and real leadership is permitted to increase. Outsiders are given derogatory labels (e.g. Systemites, Karmis, Products of the Fallen World). The potential recruit is told that this is the only chance to join in the New Age. The most important movement in history is occurring right now in this group, and the potential recruit can be part of it! All he/she has to do is surrender, turn off the mind, banish satanic thoughts, etc. The world is seen in blacks and whites. There is no gray, and there is no other acceptable path. In their book “Snapping”, Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman state that there is usually a single moment of conversion, which is an intense experience that has been engineered, but which is interpreted as proof of the truth of the cult's teaching. This experience is seen as the entry of the Holy Spirit, or becoming enlightened, or finding “it.” It is, however, a predictable response to the series of manipulations that the individual has experienced. Of course, there are several reasons why the cults do most of their recruiting on college campuses. Although college students are not the only ones vulnerable to the appeal of the cults, they are in a circumstance that is particularly conducive to the cults' appeals. Many of the students are away from home for the first time – or at least on their own and totally responsible for themselves for the first time – in their lives. Parents are no longer watching over the student, and their colleges do not take as much of a personal interest in the students as their high schools did. There is a sense of release and power which comes with that freedom, but as with all such freedom, there is also a sense of fear and discomfort. The removal of parental boundaries is both desired and secretly feared by most college students. They are simultaneously rebelling against parental authority and uncertain of what will happen to them when it is removed. Along comes the cult leader, who gives the potential recruit a way to simultaneously rebel against authority and not have to accept responsibility for his/her own life. The new recruit can merely transfer dependency, thus rebelling against the parents while still not having to accept total adult responsibility. The pressures on college students come from many sources. They can be academic, social, sexual, and/or financial. This is a time in life when people feel particularly insecure and alone. Parents are not there to provide structure, limits, and a sounding board for many different new ideas. This is a time of crossroad decisions in the students' lives. They are deciding upon careers, lifestyles, sexual preferences, and identity. Adolescence is the primary transition stage of adulthood and, therefore, the primary stage of vulnerability to someone speaking with authority who says, “If you follow me, you won't have to make those crossroad decisions. I'll make them for you and free you from the burden.” As outsiders watching the drama, we recognize that the price the recruit will have to pay for that “freedom” is tremendous but, to a temporarily insecure individual, immediate relief from pressure can be seen as a desirable result. Many cults solidify this process by controlling access to information that may be critical of the cult and its techniques. Often, cult members are told to cut off ties with their families and other people whom they knew prior to entering the cult so that they will not be “contaminated” by the unenlightened views of these individuals. Of course, late adolescence is also a time of relatively few attachments and roots. The students used to be able to answer the question, “Who are you?” with the statement, “I am my parent's child.” They no longer wish to adopt their primary identity from their relationship to their parents, but they have not yet fully developed an answer to this question. They may seek to answer, if temporarily, by becoming a member of a movement: “Who am I? I am an anti-nuke demonstrator (or vegetarian, or environmentalist, etc.). Another factor that enters into the vulnerability of the college student is that college education is traditionally an experience of trying on new ideologies and ideas. Beliefs held since childhood are challenged and modified. This is a necessary part of learning to think with a critical mind, but there is a period of uncertainty and vulnerability when these old ideas are challenged. The potential recruit is most vulnerable to cults during this period. At this point, I would like to focus on the ways that campus staff can offer help. As stated in the introduction to this article, potential cult members are generally not single-mindedly looking for a cult experience. Instead, they are usually tricked into coming away for a period of time and are then manipulated into joining the group. The campus staff can be helpful right from the initial stage – the encounter with a cult recruiter on campus. Often, an otherwise intelligent individual can be seduced into abandoning his/her critical faculties during such an encounter. I had the experience of waiting for a plane in Newark International Airport last year. As I was waiting, I noticed a pretty young woman walking up to men, smiling broadly at them, pinning an American flag pin onto their lapel, and asking for a donation. After I saw a few men give her money, I started to walk around the airport with her. When she went into her act, and as each of the men reached for his wallet, I called out, "Do you know what organization she represents?” Each time I asked this elementary question, the men would ask her, find out that she was a member of a cult, put their wallets back, and walk away. The point of this anecdote is not that these men were any more gullible than you or me. The point is that, in that moment, when they were face-to-face with a pretty young girl who had given them something, they did not have the strength to seem like a skinflint and say no to her request for money or to seem mistrustful and to ask her for some identification. When I "gave permission" to ask appropriate questions, they were able to do so. All it took was a logical question from someone who was not captured by this young women's seeming innocence. Anyone who has had the experience of buying something from a fast-talking salesperson, only to realize later that the item really wasn't needed, will understand how people can be led into an atmosphere of suggestibility. When I speak to college students, I often recommend that before they agree to leave for a retreat with any organization they haven't heard of, they should check with the campus police. If the group is what it purports to be, it will have a reputation. Campus law-enforcement administrators, on the receiving end of these requests for information, can be a great deal of help to potential cult victims by finding out about new groups on campus and telling inquiring students what they know. I am not suggesting, of course, that every new group on campus is a cult. But asking where the group has other chapters and placing a telephone call to a colleague at another college may turn up some information that could save a student from a tragic mistake. When a student asks you for advice regarding a group, you can recommend questions that should be answered before they agree to go away with a recruiter. Ironically, individuals who would never buy a new car or a stereo system without reading about it, speaking to others who own one, and asking critical questions, can agree to give up their time, money and, potentially, their lives without asking enough questions. Whereas people may be wary of a salesperson who is trying to talk them into buying a material object, there is an assumption that a salesperson who is trying to talk them into buying a philosophy does not use the same techniques and devices. Thousands of ex-cult members can attest to the fact that this assumption is wrong. You can suggest that the following questions be asked, or, if you come across a cult recruiter on your campus, you can ask these questions yourself:
  1. Is your organization known by any other name?
  2. Who is the leader of your organization?
  3. Can you give me the names of other students who have been to one of your retreats?
  4. Does your organization operate on other college campuses? Which ones?
  5. If someone decides he/she wants to leave before the seminar is over, how can he/she get back here?
  6. Why have you chosen to recruit members by speaking to them on street corners rather than more traditional ways of recruiting?
  7. Exactly where is the retreat and how else (other than your bus) can people get there and leave?
  8. How does your group get its money?

Of course, cult members define their standards of right and wrong in terms of what benefits their mission. Therefore, whether the recruiter will answer truthfully is problematic. There is no instant litmus test to distinguish cults from other groups. I am recommending that you suggest these questions to the students less as a means of finding whether they will be given the “right” answers than so that you can model a critical attitude for them in order to help them see that asking questions and being skeptical is an acceptable (and perhaps wise) stance to take. I would advise students to be particularly wary of groups that claim that they cannot explain their philosophy unless the student comes away with them or that the philosophy cannot be put into words. (“How do you explain ice cream to someone who has never tasted it?”) If the message is that the potential recruit has to leave the familiar environment and experience the situation rather than have it explained, emotional manipulation may be an important element of that experience. In the long run, the best defense against dishonest, manipulative recruiting by cults is the truth. And the truth can best be served when all the facts about the group, its purposes, and its leadership are brought into the open.