Cults are probably the last thing on your mind when considering a place of higher learning for your son or daughter, but these groups regularly use college campuses to enlist kids aching for a sense of community far from the glare of discipline.
“The myth most people have is that people that join cults are looking to join a cult,” says William Goldberg, a licensed clinical social worker with a private practice in Englewood, New Jersey, who co-leads a support group for ex-cult members. “It’s usually not the case. Cult recruiters are predators and learn how to be good conmen. Healthy kids are more likely to get involved because they feel ‘if I don’t like it,’ I can leave.”
That’s not always so easy, as cults smother new recruits with affection to convince them to stay, a tactic known as “love-bombing.” This behavior often escalates to manipulation, threats, intimidation and mind control. Eventually they cut the person off from friends and family so the cult remains the driving influence.
They even have it down to a science – Goldberg says the cult blankets an area by fundraising or proselytizing there, and then sets its sights on bright students who are in a period of transition. Colleges are ripe with them.
Individuals believes they are being invited to join a religious, political or social group, but the cult often hides their true intention and the degree they’re going to attempt to take over a person’s life.
According to Rick Ross, of the Rick A. Ross Institute of New Jersey, groups called “cults” that have a history of recruiting on college campuses include the Unification Church, International Church of Christ, University Bible Fellowship, Transcendental Meditation, Scientology, Soka Gakkai International, Dahn Yoga, International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Kabbalah Center, Falun Gong, National Labor Federation, the Lyndon LaRouche Executive Intelligence Report (EIR), Prem Rawat/Elan Vital formerly known as Divine Light Mission, Twelve Tribes Messianic Communities, the Brethren led by Jim Roberts, Sri Chinmoy organization, Humana People-to-People associated with Tvind and Xenos Christian Fellowship.
And time has not slowed the proliferation of groups that lure young souls.
“Eighteen to 26-year-old college students have historically been the most targeted single demographic group,” Ross says.
He adds that there are cults operating on virtually every college campus, with Jersey as no exception, but the colleges aren’t likely to acknowledge such activity.
Both experts agree – to protect yourself, realize your own vulnerability and though it’s easy to be swept up in the intensity, make sure you thoroughly research an organization before moving forward.
During his tenure at Rutgers University in New Brunswick from 1989 to 2001, Father Ron Stanley, O.P., a former campus chaplain at the Catholic Center, says he became aware of a religious group, Campus Advance (part of the ICC) using high pressure and deception to take control of students’ lives. As a result, their recruits utilized the same unethical methods to scout for additional members and bring money into the cult.
An interfaith group of clergy stepped in and sponsored a panel, “Cults on Campus” that garnered sufficient publicity.
“We were able to get Rutgers to prepare and distribute a leaflet entitled, ‘Responding to High Pressure Groups on Campus’ and to include a skit on high pressure recruitment as part of its orientation for incoming students,” Stanley says.
Steve Hassan spent two years as a Unification Church (Moon cult) leader while a student at Queens College in the ‘70s and that early involvement left an indelible mark. Fresh off a breakup, three women claiming to be students approached him during a lunch break. He asked if they were part of a religious group and Hassan says, “They flat out lied.”
A leading cult expert and licensed mental health counselor, Hassan has studied the phenomenon of free will for more than 30 thirty years and believes that through unethical deceptive recruiting and mind control techniques, including hypnosis and sleep deprivation, dietary manipulation and environmental control – a person can be reprogrammed to have a different belief structure and even a different identity.
“When I was in the ‘Moonies,’ my cult identity would suppress any negative thoughts against the group and re-label my feelings towards my family as satanic,” Hassan says.
Can such brainwashing be reversed? Hassan says if a person has a monumental dissolutive experience, one may wake up to how one is being bullied - but more commonly, an erosion of the cult identity leads someone to incrementally question what’s going on.
He typically does three to five interventions a week and holds steadfast to the belief that making a difference in the lives of those affected by cults is possible.
With counseling, they’ll understand the issue of social influence and it will minimize any sense of guilt or embarrassment that they got involved with the group. Hassan also tries to connect them with ex-members, so they can talk to people who relate and won’t look at them and say, “They did what” or other less than helpful responses.
He offers some words of advice:
- Remember that cult recruiters are attractive, intelligent, nice people and they don’t have a sign on them that reads, ‘cult member.’
- Be wary of instant friendships; real friendships take time – and don’t disclose too many personal details with a stranger because they could use that information to manipulate you.
- Many abusive relationship situations look like cults, except they’re just cultic personalities, religious cults.
- Legitimate groups and people stand up to scrutiny.
Above all, Hassan says, “trust your gut (and) trust your inner voice.”
For more information: