Steve Hassan [Warning: Steve Hassan is not recommended by this Web site. Read the detailed disclaimer to understand why.] is an intelligent and successful author. He was also a cult member for more than two years after being recruited on his college campus. In his 40s now, he uses his writing to warn others about the lure of cults.
"I had just broken up with a girl and I was feeling kind of down. I was going to Queens College when I was approached by three attractive young women at the cafeteria," relates Hassan. "They started talking to me and were very nice but it turns out they were a front group for the Moonies."
Regarded by many as a cult, the Moonies follow their charismatic leader reverend Sun Myung Moon, who leads his Unification Church. Moon claims that when he was 16 and living in Korea, he saw Christ who sacredly charged him to complete God's unfinished mission on earth. The Moonies are probably best known for their mass marriages where many followers wed assigned partners whom they are meeting for the very first time.
"They lied a lot, which is a major thing readers should know. No one joins a cult -- they get recruited. The major difference between legitimate organizations and cults are the legitimate ones are upfront, they don't have to lie and deceive to get new members," insists Hassan.
Right now, according to the American Family Foundation (AFF), a non-profit group that studies psychological manipulation and cultic groups, there are approximately 1,000 cults worldwide. And some of them are said to be setting up shop on college campuses -- a prime recruiting ground, say cult experts.
In an effort to find out if a cult problem exists on college campuses today, we asked our readers. In this latest CPNet Poll, 40 percent of respondents say there are cults that are active on their college campuses. Seventeen percent of respondents claim to, at one time or another, have been a member of a cult on campus. And of that 17 percent, nearly a quarter of them say they felt pressured into joining, while 35 percent say they thought the group used mind games to control them.
Jeanette Simpson, a sophomore at Texas A&M University says she's never really noticed any cults at her school and she thinks she knows why. "We are a conservative campus and it's a real tight knit community. We're all Aggies first before anything else. I think a lot of people don't feel the need to belong to another group."
Kristin Kyriakos, a sophomore at the University of Maryland, says some groups have approached her on the College Park campus. "I've had people come up to me and ask me if I wanted to join Christian worship groups but I didn't think they were cults or anything," she says. "Usually [people] will come up with bibles in their hands and ask if you have worshipped Christ lately or something like that." Kyriakos does admit that these invitations made her a bit uncomfortable, but after a quick 'no thank you' she says she was usually left alone.
In 1999, Maryland became embroiled in a cult controversy as the state appointed a task force to study the effects of cult activities on public senior higher education institutions. The task force was started after the parents of a University of Maryland student complained.
Les and Nora Baker say their daughter was the victim of a cult recruiter on campus. What made things worse, according to the Bakers, was the recruiter was the girl's resident advisor whom she had approached for advice. The dispensed wisdom came complete with an invitation to join his religion, the International Churches of Christ (ICOC), a Christian sect that believes baptism in their church is a way of becoming one of Christ's disciples. The group has thousands of followers, an international presence - and has also been referred to as a cult.
"I think that absolutely we don't define ourselves as a cult. Basically people label something a cult, religious or otherwise, when it's something they don't understand or agree with," says Al Baird, an ICOC elder and spokesman.
The Bakers disagree. They claim that after their daughter's recruitment into the ICOC, her GPA went from a 3.3 to a 2.0, she gave all of her $2,322 in savings to the group and she was ready to leave for Iran to serve as a missionary for her newfound religion.
The task force heard testimony from the Bakers, minority religious members, scholars, cult experts and lawyers. At the end of the investigation, it listed among its findings of fact: "The extent of group activities causing harm is statistically very small. _However, when interaction with a group causes harm to a student, that harm can be very severe." They also said the cult problem is enormous and extremely complex on college campuses.
William Stuart, an anthropology professor at the University of Maryland says he sees the Maryland task force probe as more of a witch-hunt. "Cults are as American as apple pie," says Stuart, who insists the word "cult" is rife with negative connotations. What some refer to as "cults," he calls new religious groups or minority religions, which he says are more accurately examples of religious freedom than extremist religious groups.
Dean Robert Thornberg, a religious advisor at Boston University, says, "I refer to it as a destructive religious practice." And that's just how the school refers to the ICOC. "They've been banned [on campus] since 1989 and a whole bunch of other colleges use our model," says Thornberg. In fact, according to the AFF, some 40 other colleges have followed suit, kicking the ICOC off school grounds.
"Those estimates are ridiculous," proclaims ICOC elder, Baird. "By and large the universities that we've had problems at are private. You don't have first amendment rights at private schools."
Boston U says it kicked the group to the curb because it was using high pressure recruiting tactics with its students. Some involved going door to door in the dorms telling students to attend "mandatory" ICOC meetings. This dorm proselytizing, according to Thornberg, violated school rules since students are protected from solicitation of any kind in the dorms.
Asked whether the church uses aggressive recruiting tactics, Baird says, "That's true. We believe in sharing the faith. It's not impolite or in your face, but our people believe in Jesus enough that it has changed their life and they want to share that." He adds, "We don't sell flowers in the airport or anything."
The breaking of the dorm proselytizing rule was a key element in getting the church banned at BU, but there were other troubling facts concerning students' involvement with the group.
Thornberg says, "We figure in 1989, at the high point here, 40 students dropped out entirely to follow them. Two guys were second year medical school students. They dropped out after four years of college and two years of med school to go off to be evangelists in the Far East." He continues, "An awful lot of kids were swept up by them and the results were almost always a disaster. I know a person who's been out for six or seven years now and they're just feeling a sense of freedom."
Margaret Singer, a clinical psychologist and an expert on cults and coercion, says one characteristic of cults is the groups often rob a member of their freedom in many different ways. "A cult is started by a self proclaimed person. He or she has special secret knowledge that they will share with followers if they drop everything and come with them."
To that Baird says that any group that is different will always be the target of accusations. "It started with Jesus. He was called a lot worse than a cult leader. The church in the first century was called a cult. And I don't think that Jesus was a cult leader and I don't think that the first century church was a cult."
Singer points out the difference in today's so-called cults. "There is a modern day double set of ethics. It's okay to lie and deceive outsiders, but total honesty is demanded amongst members. There are totalistic rules for everything and the rule is totalitarian." Singer says this means today's cults expect your undivided attention and time.
"When one joins, you join up with the notion of working closely with two or three others," says Stuart, who believes Singer's point of view is distorted. "It's not just a 'come on Sunday and forget the rest of the week' proposition. They expect you to be very involved and they're very expectful of time and resources," he says.
Money is another demand Singer says a cult may make of a student. She says most cult leaders are driven by greed and use their group as a means to a follower's cash, assets and belongings. To do this, she says, most cults will use mind control.
But, again, Stuart disagrees saying, "Brainwashing and thought reform are without substantial scholarly documentation. [They] are not professionally sound notions." In other words, he says one can't be brainwashed.
Despite the numerous disagreements surrounding cults, the fact is that they are the subject of heated debate, especially on college campuses. Whether these groups are seen as harmful, conniving influences in a student's life or as a new interpretation of old beliefs, Singer does say there are certain things to look for before making a determination of whether a group is a cult or not.
"Watch out for the ones that are most aggressive in the sense of being the most seductive and luring and making the greatest promises," she says. "Pay attention when they say things like, you won't ever get sick again, you'll never worry again and you'll have total enlightenment."
As a former cult member during his college years, Hassan has this advice, "This is crucial to understand. A legitimate group will stand up to questioning and scrutiny. If a group can't stand up to scrutiny and a person feels they have been lied to, then run out of there."
And finally, if a student isn't sure if a group is a cult, or they suspect an on-campus group of using unethical tactics to lure them or another student in, they should report it to the office of student affairs.