Some Advice on Cults: Before Joining a Cult, Be Sure to Ask the Right Questions.
"Hi, would you like to come to a business meeting?"
"Would you like to check out a Bible study?"
"Check out this movie!"
"Here's a coupon for a free personality test."
These aren't typical questions or statements that we may imagine being asked by a person affiliated with a high-pressure group, or cult. Even the idea of a cult member stirs up images of men dressed in saffron robes clanging cymbals or members dressed in black chanting mind-emptying phrases.
But yet, there exist a number of highly controversial high-pressure groups which have a variety of affiliations and interests; they may be religious in nature, or business-oriented, or psychotherapy groups, or even sociopolitical groups. And many of these groups prey on college students, who are away from home for the first time, who may be forming their own identity, who may be trying to develop a new social circle. Many of these college students may not be as discerning (or perhaps even cynical), and thus more naive than older people; many college students are also more idealistic than older people, and thus, for all of the reasons stated, may fall prey to such cults.
Many of these groups appear to be legitimate and on a cursory inspection, they may resemble other legitimate groups of similar interests; for example, high-pressure religious groups may resemble any other religious group on a very superficial level. Many of these groups can also share great ideals, such as "striving for world peace" or "having one church under God" and can be very exciting to be around. Many of these cult members can also be extremely personable people, who are extremely sincere and zealous. They may be extremely friendly (even overly so) to the point of taking a strong interest in non-members. This tactic is also called "love-bombing," and is extremely enticing for non-members.
These cults may appeal on a variety of levels, not just to those of limited intelligence or those who lack friends; some join cults because of the appeal of idealism (e.g., "striving to follow the truth," "striving to follow God," "searching for answers to promote world peace," "striving for a new order") or perhaps for the strong sense of community and friendships. Others may be drawn to groups at a vulnerable time in their life, such as the death of a loved one or the change or loss of a job, or even a divorce or break-up with a significant other. It can even be starting at college.
However, the results of these groups upon survivors is but one indication that these are not groups with which to be trifled. Many survivors have reported numerous problems, including that these groups usually have exerted enormous amount of subtle control over a member's life. Another common complaint is the inordinate amount of time which is required for group related activities, which could include recruiting or prosletyzation, as well as required meetings for all members. A third common complaint is the extravagant amount of money required by the group, perhaps in the form of paying money to take advanced classes, or required contributions or tithes. In all, many survivors may liken the whole experience to an emotional or spiritual beating; some who have been in religious cults have even said that they felt "spiritually raped."
Clearly, legitimate groups do exist, and legitimate groups do not require tithing or inordinate amounts of control on members' lives or excessive time requirements. There are many good and legitimate groups that are highly beneficial and are highly supportive of their members (such as United Christian Fellowship, etc.) And indeed, the best proof against cults is to find a legitimate and benign group which supports one's interests.
Another factor for determining such cults is their tactics; many may rationalize that that the ends justify the means, or that it is okay to lie or deceive. Many cult members may lie because of the bad reputation that their group may have, to be able to be more effective in recruiting new members. Asking a question like, "What church do you belong to?" may draw an evasive response, such as, "We're just a non-denominational Bible-believing church," whereas any other legitimate group would state the name of their church.
Unfortunately, most people are not as discerning as to their affiliations as they would be in purchasing a used vehicle. Certainly, anyone who is considering a used car would want to make sure that it won't fall apart in the next 20 miles - you'd want to make sure that the car works, you'd want to check out the brakes, the transmission, the alignment, the overall condition of the car. You'd even probably want to take it out for a spin before purchasing the vehicle.
Likewise, there are ways to check out any group. While being approached by any suspicious group, and definitely before joining any group (even a church), it is important to ask questions such as:
Are you trying to get me to join some group? What affiliation does this group have with any other group? What is the history of this group? What are the expectations if I join? Are there any ex-members of your group? (Can I talk to them?) Do they have any complaints about your group? What do you like best about your group? What do you think needs to change or improve?
Certainly, be a good consumer and do your research. There are a number of good search engines (Lycos, AltaVista, Excite, etc.) on the Internet which can be of great help in finding resources and information on such groups. If nothing else, get as much information as possible about a group and get as many perspectives as possible before making a decision to join.
Chris Lee is a former writer and production worker at The Tech. He is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and is a member at and serves in leadership at Park Street Church. He is an associate researcher at the Center of Freedom of Mind, and specializes in Cults and Christianity.