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Come one, Come All to the Religious Cults' Ball!

 David Koresh and the Branch Davidians used to worship out here in Mt. Carmel, Texas, near Waco
At some point in your lifetime, a pleasant-looking stranger will probably approach you with one of the following invitations:

  1. Would you like to take a personality test?
  2. Would you like to come to dinner?
  3. Would you like to go to church with me?

I can't predict exactly where this will happen, but it will probably be in a public place, and the pleasant-looking stranger will probably be well-dressed, educated, and friendly. They might even be someone you know.


Home / ...is where the sleeping bag is.

I also can't say when this will take place, but most likely, it will happen at a trying time in your life, a time when you need a friend. Going to dinner or church with a pleasant-looking stranger might seem like the perfect thing to do.

And that's what these cults are counting on.

I know you've heard of "cults" before. They tend to make a lot of headlines. The most infamous "cult incident" took place in the jungles of Guyana in 1978. Nearly 1,000 Americans followed a man named Jim Jones there to build an agricultural community based on peace and love. In the beginning, it was a Utopia: They grew their own vegetables, baked their own bread, and made their own clothes. But Jim Jones gradually grew more and more authoritarian, blasting his social commentary over loudspeakers throughout the night and punishing dissenters by locking them into a little wooden box buried beneath the earth. Eventually, some members of the so-called "People's Temple" wrote letters home asking for help. A Congressman named Leo Ryan responded by leading a delegation of reporters and relatives to the site to investigate. They were ambushed by Jones' cronies, and Rep. Ryan was killed. Jim Jones then stood before his community and informed them "The time has come for us to meet in another place." They proceeded to drink punch laced with cyanide and die -- 900 in all.

Then there were the Branch Davidians in Texas. A man named David Koresh took power in their church and persuaded a group of them to move into a tightly secured compound just outside of Waco. He convinced his followers that he was Jesus Christ. As such, he needed to protect them against the apocalypse (and have sex with their teenage daughters). He stockpiled so many guns, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms took notice and paid the Davidians a visit in February of 1993. Gunfire was exchanged, leaving four ATF agents and five Davidians dead. This started a 51-day standoff between the Davidians, the police, and the media. It ended April 19, when the compound burst into flames. More than 80 Davidians died, including Koresh.

And who can forget Heaven's Gate? This group of highly-skilled Web designers decided they wanted to join a spacecraft supposedly traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet four years ago. This spacecraft, they believed, would take them to a higher plane of existence. One night 39 of them "shed their earthly bodies" by downing lethal cocktails of poison and vodka. Police found their bodies lying in neat little rows with their suitcases in tow.

The Branch Davidians constructed a compound right where Stephanie is standing

Okay, okay. I know what you're thinking. Those people were a bunch of weirdos. It could never happen to me. Well, think again! No one ever wakes up one morning and says "Gee, I'd like to join a destructive cult today." But there are times in life when our defenses are down, making us susceptible to bad influences. Our topic for discussion today is how to avoid them!

First things first: What is a cult? Loosely defined, it is a group or movement organized around a set of beliefs. "Destructive cults" (the kind I'm talking about) use unethical persuasion and mind-control to get members to subscribe to these beliefs. Their tactics include "love-bombing" (luring recruits by inviting them to dinner, baking them cookies, and taking them to the movies), deception (hiding the group's true identity, goals, and practices), isolation (removing recruits from their support network of family and friends), and the suspension of critical judgment (punishing recruits for asking questions or challenging authority). Destructive cults also inflict psychological and/or physical harm on recruits who attempt to leave.

There are an estimated 5,000 cults in this nation alone. Many have the appearance of being a mainstream religion like Christianity or Hinduism, only their "prophet" is alive and well (and wants your money!). New-age cults led by phony Indian gurus were especially popular in the '60s and '70s. One that attracted millions of followers back then (and is still active today) is the Unification Church, led by a Korean "messiah" named Rev. Sun Myung Moon. They recruited members by inviting them to lavish communal dinners complete with lively conversation. Then they whisked them away to "training camps" in the wilderness. There, recruits were subjected to intense religious indoctrination for weeks at a time. After that, they were official "Moonies" who traveled across the nation in rainbow-colored buses, recruiting more members. Every so often, the church holds mass weddings, in which thousands of people simultaneously marry their fellow parishioners! A Colombian friend of mine ran into the Moonies in California in the mid-'80s. He remembers drinking lots of wine at their communal dinner and suddenly waking up in the back of their bus! He waited until they stopped for gas, then sneaked out and ran away!

Stephanie learns about the various conspiracy theories surrounding the burning of Mt. Carmel

As I mentioned before, no one is completely immune to the persuasive nature of cults -- not even Hollywood stars. In fact, some people say that John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley, and Lisa Marie Presley belong to one of the most controversial cults of all -- the Scientologists. Ever heard of them? They often set up shop right across the street from universities and invite unsuspecting students inside for a "personality quiz." There, they try to convince you that your mind is an archive of physical and emotional traumas, and that the only way to find enlightenment is to relive these memories. They do this by hooking you up to a device called an "e-meter," which sends electric currents through your body and registers changes in your skin. Once you've "re-experienced" these painful memories, you will be filled with "utter bliss."

What's the catch? For starters, these sessions range in cost from $50 to $600 an hour! Perhaps this is why Scientologists have attracted so many Hollywood stars -- they are the only ones who can afford it!

I first became acquainted with destructive cults when a friend of mine told me that she'd recently gone to a lecture given by a former member of a religious cult. Intrigued, I got his name and called him up one night. We talked about his involvement in the International Church of Christ* for three hours. Before long, I was hooked and ready to investigate this phenomenon deeper. I ended up interviewing dozens of current and former members for an article and got a glimpse of life inside a modern-day cult.

ICC is one of the fastest-growing churches in the world, which is amazing considering the fact that for every three who enter, two leave. They recruit particularly heavily on college campuses. Freshmen and international students (those without a steady friendship network) are primary targets. Many members say they were introduced to the church by the resident assistant or hall director of their dormitory. I also heard stories of ICC members positioning themselves outside the office of guidance counselors to target "needy" students.

Several burned buses remain on the lot of the former compound

ICC members rarely mention their affiliation right away. Often, it is only after they have established a friendship with you that they whip out their Bibles.

In essence, ICC has broken the Bible down into a series of nine lessons. The object is to teach you how to interpret the Bible in their particular way. During one lesson, recruits are required to write down every sin they have ever committed and hand it over to their "discipler" (who then photocopies it for every member of the church and uses it for blackmailing purposes, should the recruit ever decide to leave). Once a recruit has completed this course, they are baptized into the church. That's when things get really busy. I met students who spent as much as 35 to 40 hours a week in ICC activities! They were also required to "reach out" to 10 people a day (i.e. try to recruit them).

ICC not only took over their lives, it conquered their pocketbooks. Every week, students had to shell out money for tithing (giving money to the church). Some students told me they gave the church their credit cards and scholarship checks!

The scariest thing I learned about ICC is the way they rebuke members who ask too many questions. One former member referred to his Bible lessons as "breaking sessions" in which several disciplers would gang up on him at once and grill him for hours.

On the anniversary of the Branch Davidian fire, Timothy McVeigh bombed Oklahoma City

So why didn't they just leave? Well, it's complicated. As I mentioned, the ICC quickly becomes your entire life, your support network. They also convince people that ICC is their sole ticket to heaven, and that they will go to hell if they leave.

Fortunately, universities have wisened up to ICC's destructive nature in recent years. The church has been banned from campuses across the nation. But banning the ICC isn't as easy as it may sound. For starters, they rarely go by their official name. On some campuses, they are called HOPE (Helping Other People Everywhere). On others, they go by names like the Upside Down Club, G-Force and Campus Advance, or Greek names like Alpha Omega.

So what should you do if a destructive organization like ICC or the Church of Scientology approaches you? The best approach is a solid "No." They will interpret even the slightest bit of hesitation on your part as an invitation to pry even harder. Whatever you do, don't try to debate them! You'll never win (I know, I've tried!). Be polite, but firm, and go about your merry way. If they try to recruit you on a college campus, report them to the Dean of Students immediately.

Remember, no one ever purposefully joins a cult! Education just might be your only defense.

* The International Church of Christ is not to be confused with the mainstream Church of Christ (a perfectly legitimate religion). ICC can be distinguished from mainstream Churches of Christ because the location city usually precedes "Churches" in the name, such as the "Los Angeles Church of Christ." It is also known as the "Boston Movement."


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


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