When Spirituality Goes Awry: Students in Cults

By Richmond, Lee J. | Professional School Counseling, June 2004 | Go to article overview

When Spirituality Goes Awry: Students in Cults


Richmond, Lee J., Professional School Counseling


Adolescents are objects of recruitment for religious cults. Identifying new religious movements, cults, and dissenting religious groups, understanding their practices, and discovering reasons for their attractiveness to some students are helpful to the school counselor. Suggestions are offered as to how to identify which cults are destructive, and how professional school counselors can assist students involved with such groups.

The attraction of cults to America's youth has been a source of study for the past 30 years (Singer & Lalich, 1995). The literature describes the activities of various therapists who have worked with people unwittingly seduced into becoming cult members or people recently extricated from a cult (Singer & Lalich; Soloman, 1991; Stoner & Parke, 1977). This article is designed to clarify kinds of cults, the reason some students are attracted to them, and what school counselors can do to help students who have become a cult member or who intend to become a member of one.

According to Merriam Webster (1996), the broadest definition a cult is a religion regarded by the majority culture as spurious or unorthodox. It is also defined as a system that gives great devotion to a work, an object, or a person (Merriam-Webster). There are two kinds of cults (Singer & Lalich, 1995). One type recruits members and exposes them to psychological and social processes that cause major shifts in perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs. The intention of this kind of cult, commonly called destructive, is long-term control of the cult member (Gesy, 1993). The second type of cult is less lethal. It is designed to sell a product, a course, or a self-improvement program. Some mind altering techniques may be used, but long-term membership and long-term effect is not intended (Singer & Lalich). It is estimated that as many as 20 million Americans are cult members (Gesy; Singer & Lalich).

The scope of this article is limited to religious cults and the students who are involved with them. A religious cult involves worship, adoration, and a set of beliefs outside of the doctrines and dogma of mainstream religions (Merriam-Webster, 1996). Many religious cults may be destructive, but all are not necessarily so. Religious cults are considered destructive if their intent is to control and exploit. Such cults generally have a living leader whose doctrines and revelations form the basic beliefs of the people who adhere to his or her teachings (Stoner & Parke, 1977). According to Stoner and Parke, the doctrines generated by cult leaders usually supplant or supplement traditional religious belief.

Some religious cults are specifically designed to attract young people, and many of these cults are destructive. Destructive cults are manipulative as well as exploitative. Gesy (1993) described them as dictatorial groups that determine how members should think and act by utilizing various mind control techniques. At the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Soloman (1991) discussed the psychiatric techniques used to counteract the mind control techniques that were utilized by harmful cults to indoctrinate former members. According to Soloman, the mind control techniques used rendered their former members so helpless that, on their own, former cult members could not understand nor could they correct the beliefs and behaviors that were induced by cult practices.

FAITH DEVELOPMENT AND CULT MEMBERSHIP

Although it is commonly thought that normal people do not join cults, research indicates the contrary (Gesy, 1993; Singer & Lalich, 1995). According to Soloman (1991) and Singer and Lalich, very few people who have belonged to religious cults report having had psychological difficulties prior to becoming cult members. Though Singer and Lalich indicated that people of "certain family backgrounds" might be more predisposed to joining cults, Gesy claimed that people of any age and background are good candidates for membership if they are trying to answer questions such as, "Who am I? …

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