He’s as cute as can be and you’ve met him on campus. He’s smart, energetic and going places. You’ve been seeing him for two weeks. He’s talked to you about The Doctrine of the Synthesis and has said things like, "All religions are precious pearls strung to a golden thread of divinity." It’s a bit kooky but he’s a good person and you’re sure he would never knowingly steer you wrong. He has asked you to join him at one of his groups where they do research, hear lectures and have study assemblies. “It’s strictly educational.” You ask him what it’s about. He assures you it deals with true knowledge to the genuine path of self-realization. What’s the harm? You tell yourself, “Everyone needs improving.” You go with him. The people there seem nice and super polite. You start your assimilation. In a few weeks, your friends begin to notice a change in you. They say you’ve grown serious and that you’re talking too much about The Gnostic Way, (or something), that you’ve lost your sense of humor. By now, you are also in hock; these courses to enlighten you, to provide audits and clear psychological barriers from your path, (or whatever), cost thousands of dollars.

She’s gorgeous and you’re quite taken with her. You met in one of your classes in engineering. She’s majoring in economics and investing. After you’ve gotten close, she’s asked you to come to a business retreat. She tells you that it’s $1500 for three days, but that she’ll pay half of it–and it will change your life. You ask what it’s about. She answers that it is strictly a teaching seminar and a solid investment into your future. She's a renegade capitalist. You really like her and it seems significant to her. You decide that you’ll go and sign over a check to Landmark Education. When you arrive, you are shocked by the startling intensity of their approach. Children as young as eight years old are there and you get fixated on them; you can barely stand the onslaught yourself and you wonder at the damage being done to their young minds, let alone yours. After three days, you’re bewildered. You google the organization on your return home and Ted Pactrick's site pops up, he's the famous de-programmer and go-to expert on cults. You realize your girlfriend has introduced you to a cult similar to est and Scientology. Your heart aches for the kids who had been there and you realize the future with your new squeeze is at an end.

Those two stories are repeated on campuses all over North America. Cults are autocratic in their body politic. The leader is regarded as the prestigious authority (a healer, saint, teacher-guru or avatar). He may assign certain powers to subordinates for the aim of seeing that members adhere to his wishes. He tends to be appealing, determined and domineering. He often persuades believers to divorce themselves from their past lives. Many of them take over control of their followers’ possessions, money, lives, (or like in weekend seminars, eventually drain them of their capital and destroy their former personality). He is always self-appointed and messianic. He claims to have a special mission. He centers the veneration of members upon himself or economically exploits them to become wealthy. It is all about him.

Genuine leaders bend to community purposes, follow generally recognized principles and allow criticism. Not so with cult figures. The cult generally tends to be despotic in its control of the conduct of its members. They claim to set you free and also profess to have special knowledge or insight into the human condition; they charge you plenty for it. They’re likely to dictate in detail what you do, when and where you work and what to believe. Often you’ll be urged to be open and honest within the group, however you’ll be encouraged to manipulate or even lie to nonmembers to get they to join.

Ethical organizations teach a person to be honest; to stand by one broad set of ethics. Cults appear to break with the past. They’re revolutionary and they claim exclusivity. They’ve a monopoly on truth. They have the only viable system for real change that will solve your personal troubles and the issues of the world. Psychological coercion and economic exploitation are their touchstone criterion. Recruiting members and fund-raising are the primary goals.

Why is it easy to be fooled? The recruiters are genuine and you’ve always been looking for a final solution, maybe they have it. The number one reason though? People aren’t skeptical enough. Those not in the habit of applying a rational standard at every fork in the road are targets. If reason was sovereign, we wouldn’t be so susceptible to the guru and prophet; we’d have a mind of our own and could resist. Fear of cults has subsided lately, but their recruiting practices have not. Cults seldom enlist articulate atheists. Most cult members are white, middle class, have a religious background especially Catholic and are between 12 and 30 years old.

Guru Prabhupada’s Hare Krishna or Sun Myung Moon and The Unification Church are the worst offenders in brainwashing, but many other organizations use their techniques: L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics and Scientology, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation, Hans Ram Singh Rawat’s Divine Light Mission, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s sannyasins and Werner Erhard’s est, to name just a few. In April of 1993, over 90 Branch Davideans, an outbreak of the cultist and doomsday teachings of Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, died. Vernon Wayne Howell, a.k.a. David Koresh, from Waco, one time wrote: “I have seven eyes and seven horns. My Name is the Word of God and I ride on a white horse. I am here on earth to give you the Seventh Angel’s Message.” In 1996 over 35 cultists of the New Age UFO religious group, Heaven’s Gate in Los Angeles, committed suicide to meet their believed destiny with a spacecraft which coincided with the coming of comet Hale-Bopp. Claude Vorilhon, the media-thirsty head of the worldwide Raelian cult, an alleged “atheist-religion” believes Elohim, an alien race of beings who started the human race through cloning, communicates directly through him to mankind. The Raelian Movement is claiming to be cloning human beings. Claude Vorilhon asserts that the French Secret Service and the CIA are out to assassinate him, that his followers may have to be prepared to die for him. Keith Raniere of the Nxivm Cult enslaved many young victims with his seductive and secretive methods until in 2020/21, he was charged, found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment for his crimes.

University students are adults of legal age. Many of their friends and relatives are reluctant to interfere with their god-given right to be daft and to chose a disingenuous belief system, so oftentimes no one speaks up against cults, religions and dangerous political fads.  Here we are in 2023 and the myth out there is that cults had their way in the eighties and nineties, but they have not gone away; no, they're just better camouflaged. Beware.