Commentary: Differentiating cults from other on-campus groups

I am concerned about cults recruiting on the Northeastern campus. You may see them on the street, on campus and outside the Marino Center. They may recruit you personally, in the residence halls, in classrooms, somewhere off-campus, online and they may even promote their organization in this very newspaper. Their organizations can have the facade of a religion, a form of therapy, a political organization or a group of sci-fi/UFO believers; some even present themselves as legitimate businesses.

College campuses are a main recruiting ground for cults, because of the availability of bright, energetic and passionate young adults who want to change the world.

Of course, there are lots of religion-, politics-, culture-, Greek-, sport- and hobby-related organizations that recruit on campus as well. Participating in these kinds of groups is an integral part of the college experience, and I strongly encourage getting involved on campus. So, how does one know if the organization they are joining is a cult or not?

A good first step would be Googling the name of the organization along with the word “cult.” You may get lots of hits, probably with competing opinions. You can check out cult-awareness Web sites like or Finally, you will need to judge for yourself.

The cult is authoritarian in its power structure. The leader is regarded as the supreme authority. There is no appeal outside of his or her system to greater systems of justice. The cult’s leaders tend to be charismatic, determined and domineering. They persuade followers to drop their families, jobs, careers and friends to follow them. The cult’s leaders are self-appointed, messianic persons who claim to have a special mission in life. For example, the flying saucer cult leaders claim that people from outer space have commissioned them to lead people to special places to await a spaceship.

A cult’s leaders center the veneration of members upon themselves. Priests, rabbis, ministers, democratic leaders and leaders of genuinely altruistic movements keep the veneration of adherents focused on God, abstract principles and group purposes. Cult leaders, in contrast, keep the focus of love, devotion and allegiance on themselves.

A cult tends to be totalitarian in its control of the behavior of its members. Cults are likely to dictate in great detail what members wear, eat, when and where they work, sleep and bathe – as well as what to believe, think and say.

A cult tends to have a double set of ethics. Members are urged to be open and honest within the group, and confess all to the leaders. On the other hand, they are encouraged to deceive and manipulate outsiders or non-members.

A cult basically has only two purposes: recruiting new members and fund-raising. Cults may claim to make social contributions, but in actuality these remain mere claims. Established religions and altruistic movements may also recruit and raise funds, but such groups have the goals to better the lives of their members and mankind in general.

Please understand that an organization does not need to have all of the above qualities to be dangerous and destructive. If you, a friend or a loved one are in an organization you are concerned about, please seek help. Trained counselors, respected clergy, friends and family members can help. You are not alone.

– Seth Avakian is a full-time residence director.

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