Cult following

Cult following

The Guardian, 6 November 2001.
By Kate Coxon

Students may find themselves the target of religious sects seeking new members

Are you young, of above average intelligence, from an economically advantaged background, well educated and idealistic? If you answered yes to the above, you may well be a student. But you also fit the bill for recruitment into a cult.

“To define a cult we use five characteristics, the most important of which is the use of mind-control techniques to recruit people,” says Ian Howorth of the Cult Information Centre. “Although cults recruit people of all ages, students – who are intelligent and often intellectually or spiritually curious – are prime targets.”

Some disagree with this definition. The Information Network Focus on Religious Movements (Inform), an organisation that aims to offer objective information on religious groups, believes the term “cult” is value-laden and prefers the expression “new religious movements”.

Liz Carnelley, chaplain to the universities of Manchester, points out that “one person’s cult may be another person’s strong religion”.

Nevertheless, first-time students, keen to meet others and make friends, tend to be open to new ideas and experiences. This is actively exploited by some groups on the look-out for new members. One organisation, the International Church of Christ, describes campus evangelism as “the goose that laid the golden egg”. In its manual, Shining Like Stars, it states that halls of residence are the Christians’ evangelistic paradise: “They provide the best environment imaginable for seeking and saving the lost.”

The manual offers advice on how to maximise recruitment at mealtimes (“superb evangelistic opportunities”) and lectures (inviting the lecturer to church is suggested). Members are urged: “Never again will there be such easy access to so many people on a consistent basis.”

The International Church of Christ has been banned from some campuses. Kate Bassett, speaking on behalf of Birmingham University – where the organisation is banned from actively recruiting or promoting itself on campus – says: “This is a place of academic freedom, but we have a duty of care to our students and staff and we therefore ban groups where we feel that any organisation could harass students or members of staff.”

Adrian Hill, spokesperson for the London Church of Christ, denies that students are targeted or harassed. “We don’t target anybody – we evangelise everybody. We’re encouraging people to be gregarious, friendly and great human beings, and to take the opportunity to invite someone else to church.

“We’re very excited about what we’ve got. We want to recreate the church of the first century in the 21st century. We’re not aware that we’ve been banned from anywhere, and if we are, I’d love to hear about it.”

The Reverend Andrew Taylor, Anglican chaplain at Royal Holloway College, London University, believes that access to students is an issue of concern: “Religious groups may come on to a campus uninvited in the way that no other individuals would dare in these days of higher security. The church is meant to be inclusive and welcoming, and this aspect is easily abused.”

However, religion is not always the hook. The Cult Information Centre reports that “therapy” or “personal development” groups, which may have a slicker, more corporate approach, are increasingly giving cause for concern.

Audrey Chaytor of FAIR (Family Action Information and Resource), an organisation that supports families and individuals who have been hurt by cult involvement, estimates that up to half of the calls she receives are from families of students. She believes that the problem is getting worse. “New groups seem to be setting up all the time and it tends to be more of a problem in the bigger cities.

“Students are especially vulnerable to being recruited because of their stage in life. All people in transit – those moving to a new place to study or to work, as well as those on holiday or travelling – are vulnerable, because if someone talks to them they will stop and listen.”

Ian Haworth says that when the average person is recruited into a cult, they undergo a drastic personality change. “With new students, it may take longer for family and friends to notice and fully understand the change. Parents may put the change down to leaving home and meeting a new crowd, and by the time they have realised what has happened, it’s too late.”

For those recruited into some groups, targeting others and “fund-raising” for the cause can become a full-time activity. Reports of students being asked to apply for personal loans with banks or loan sharks are not uncommon.

One parent whose son was recruited into a cult found out only when his bank contacted her about the five-figure debt he had run up within his first two terms. Students may give up their studies in pursuit of a greater cause and lose touch with friends and family.

Cults use many ploys to recruit the unsuspecting. The National Union of Students, which works with the Cult Information Centre to disseminate information on cults to student unions, advises students to be wary of invitations to meetings or lectures where the objectives are not clearly stated.

Chaytor believes that students and parents should be better informed about cults. “Young people are warned about drugs and unprotected sex. But every school-leaver should be taught that a friendly stranger could be the biggest danger they will ever meet,” she says.

In the words of one former cult member: “It is so easy to get into a cult – but an absolute nightmare to get out again.”

The Scientologist: a parent’s story

Peter, 19 (not his real name), was recruited into the Church of Scientology aged 18 during his first year at Birmingham University. His mother gives her account.

“Peter was stopped in the street in his first term and asked to complete a so-called personality test which, as far as I can tell, seems to ask a lot about parental income and employment without actually mentioning Scientology. He had nothing better to do and I believe he felt lonely. He was vulnerable – he had barely turned 18, which is very young. He’d come from a public-school background, with a strong network of friends and, in retrospect, he was probably not streetwise.

“As soon as he joined we noticed an enormous personality change. His language changed – he repeats what must be key group words. He dropped out at the end of his first year and says he is working for them. We have no idea what he does, or where he lives, except that he claims to earn £70 for a full-time working week.

“As he’s over 18 there is nothing we can do, except try to keep in contact with him and hope that he manages to come out and finish his degree. Parents and students should be warned about this kind of thing – forewarned is forearmed.”

Graeme Wilson, director of public affairs for the UK Church of Scientology, says:

“The personality test is an analysis of how you view yourself and simply establishes the areas in life a person wants to improve, if any. Scientologists do tell others about the benefits to be had from Scientology, for the simple reason that these solutions work. This is, after all, still a free country and Christians have been spreading the word for over 2,000 years, as have people of most religions.

“Many people are walking around asleep: Scientology wakes them up and puts them in control of their lives. It is a very practical religion and I believe it is better for students to get into religion – any religion – than drugs and excessive alcohol. And people do drop out of university routinely and for all manner of reasons.

“There is a lot of inaccurate propaganda about Scientology, and some people make a living from stirring up fear and inciting religious hatred – fortunately this will soon become a criminal offence.

“But if anyone is upset that a loved one has joined our church we invite them to get in touch with us so we can answer their questions and respond to their concerns.”

  • Cults: a practical guide is published by The Cult Information Centre, £3.99, BCM Cults, London WC1N 3XX; tel: 01689 833800;
  • Family Action Information and Resource; tel: 01642 898412;

    Back to other media reports about the International Churches of Christ.