by Ashley Baxstrom

NYU Local reported last week that city students have a lot more to worry about than midterms and the rising price of lattes: dangerous CULTS want to steal your soul, body and money!

According to the post–less an article than a humorous piece, the author admitted to me–the Campus Safety website “warns that cult members may ‘[share] with you the answers they have found to life’s questions, they may seek to enlist your time, energy, and resources in endeavors they believe to be worthwhile.’” This comes from a section entitled “Tips for Identifying a Cult” (right under a section on “How to Avoid Common Swindles and Con Games”). Other tips include: to beware approaching strangers in Greenwich Village (um, how else am I supposed to get a date?) and to call the Center for Spiritual Life for assistance.

The biggest problem with the Campus Safety blurb – and there are many, but I’m going to say they develop from this – is how incredibly reductive it is. “They may ask you to join their group and make substantial contributions of time and money to their causes,” the site says.  You know who else does that? The Humane Society. Also, the National Right to Life organization. You can’t deem something a “cult” just because its members are being persuasive or using “recruiting tactics that are intrusive, deceitful, manipulative, and coercive.” (Sounds like a GOP primary to me.) Are those bad things? Yes. Do they a cult make? No.

Jim Jones

The use of the word “cult” is inherently problematic in itself, as a substantive definition is generally hard to nail down even among academic professionals. There’s cult in the traditional religious sense, comprising the externality of religious practice and observance, including a pattern of ritual behavior. There’s also cult in the socio-scientific sense, geared towards an understanding of new religions: modern ethical or spiritual groups which may or may not have derived from a pre-existing denomination of a more “standard” (read: accepted) religion like Christianity.

In popular culture, of course, we “know” what cult means.  It’s a group of people who are weird, perhaps lead by a charismatic individual, with non-normative religious or spiritual beliefs and practices, generally somewhat cut off from society, and probably also they might murder themselves or other people. We immediately think of the Manson Family and People’s Temple, of Aum Shinrikyo and even Hare Krishna. We check the cult Wikipedia page–and even that’s probably a little too nuanced for some–but it too puts cult in a general cultural context and refers to Jim Jones. Today’s most popular “Is-it-a-cult?” would probably be Scientology (check the third link in your Google search), but Mormonism might run a close second in the social imaginary.

In his 1999 book on Aum Shinrikyo, Robert Jay Lifton draws a line between new religions and cults by confining the latter to groups displaying three characteristics: “totalistic or thought-reform-like practices, a shift from worship of spiritual principles to worship of the person of the guru or leader, and a combination of spiritual quest from below and exploitation, usually economic or sexual, from above.”

The comments which the NYU Local article received aren’t so clear or refined. Not only was the author criticized for being misinformed and naive (um, she used a picture of Hare Krishna Halloween costumes, I don’t think it was supposed to be very hard-hitting), but the comments were steeped in passionate vitriol that reveal when it comes to cults, people have a lot of fear and a lot of hate.

Hare Krishna Halloween Costumes. Image: NYU Local

One person said that cults are more subtle than we see in the movies and that everybody is vulnerable to their manipulation, saying he had known several people in his NYU years who “were briefly sucked into” cults. He talked about tactics including intense friendliness and so-called “love bombing,” and offered (among other links and outside sources) The Rick Ross Institute as a powerful “cult-prevention” resource.

Another warned that cults often change their names, regroup, and present themselves as something else–her example is the International Christian Church–to avoid blacklisting and financial troubles so that they may continue to “lure college students into the fold.”

A third commenter warned, “The definition of a destructive religious cult is like alcoholism–if booze controls you instead of the other way around you are an alcoholic. Religion can be benign then there are hard core fundy groups that want to rule and control you,” citing The Watchtower society Jehovah’s Witnesses. He also said that “A cult does not require any set number of leaders, only the inerrant belief that they are the ONLY TRUE RELIGION [emphasis theirs],” a qualification I think he might find in a number of major world religions.

Each of these commenters had a very specific opinion, and example, of what a cult is, which to me says not that they are necessarily well-studied experts, but rather have a degree of personal, clearly negative, experience with these groups and a particular agenda relating to them.

This is not to say danger does not exist. Obviously, we have seen the extreme and horrible things that can happen, from individuals cutting themselves off from family members to mass suicide and terrorist attacks. And university students might often be vulnerable to and targeted by such ideologies and organizations. The 2002 book “Cults, Religion & Violence” cites rapid growth and concentration of young adult populations (especially around colleges) and emerging youth countercultures–two things New York City has plenty of–as key contributions to the “1970s cult controversy.”

Charles Manson (Image: knowphase.com)

But a panicked and hysterical recoil against “cults” is not the answer, and neither is the vague “warning” on the Campus Safety site. Even the NYU Center for Spiritual Life, which the site recommends you contact, doesn’t offer very much help. I reached out to them for a more substantive definition of cult, asking what they would say if someone came to them with concerns, and never heard back. Clearly, neither they nor campus security are properly equipped to deal with a possible problem.

Nor are we as a society. If, indeed, this is a real concern we have for students and young adults–and I’ll concede we can be an emotionally and psychologically vulnerable bunch–surely it is all of our responsibility to be smarter about this. A rush to snap judgments about what is or is not a cult–what is good or bad faith–isn’t going to do anybody any good; neither are hyperbolic statements about shady secret societies and malevolent intentions. Cults, like any other social group, work because they work. We don’t need single-paragraph generalizations and fear tactics; what we need to do is come to a nuanced understanding of what a potentially-dangerous cult consists of, what psychological and social needs they meet, and how we can provide those things to at-risk youths in a healthier environment.

Ashley Baxstrom is a master’s student in Religious Studies at New York University and an assistant editor at The Revealer. Follow her on Twitter at @AshBaxNYC.