Today’s Cults: You Might Not Recognize Them

Today’s Cults: You Might Not Recognize Them
The Livingwell Blog with Diane Evans

Dear Kristi, Maria and All,
Recently, a reader asked if I would write a column about cult activity that continues across our country today. The reader, Ron Taggart, is president of an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization called Cult Information Services of Northeast Ohio. He had been in a cult in the 1970s, and spent several years afterward trying to figure out why, and what happened that allowed him to be deceived. I have a column coming out on this next week. One thing I learned in talking to experts is that cults today aren’t as conspicuous as they were in the ’60s and ’70s, when it was common to see people passing out flowers, or wearing linen clothing. Today, they blend in. Yet they’re in communities and on college campuses all over the place. The caution is that not every demanding group is a cult. The column will be posted in on Tuesday, or if anyone wants more information, a good place to go is the Web site of [New URL: ICSA.

Cult activity not all apparent. It’s out there; hard to identify
College kids and elderly can fall under influence. Know the warning signs

Akron Beacon Journal, Feb. 8, 2005

DEAR DIANE: In the early 1970s, I was recruited into a fundamentalist Bible cult and spent six years in the group. As a result, I have struggled to understand how this happened to me.

There is little understanding of this phenomenon, despite the fact that this type of psychological manipulation affects more families than any single form of cancer. Battered Woman Syndrome and recruitment into groups that separate individuals from their loved ones affect families.

Terrorists and totalitarian states are organized along cultic lines and threaten our country and the world. Cultic organizations recruit on nearly every college campus, and there are many area churches that use psychological manipulation to exploit their members financially, emotionally, and even sexually.


Ron Taggart, president Cult Information Services of Northeast Ohio.

Dear Ron: Your letter is especially timely for those of us with college-age children. Young adults need to be warned, although they’re not the only ones who are at greater risk. So are the elderly, as well as those going through transitions in life, such as a divorce or the death of a spouse.

When we think of cults, we think of extreme examples, such as the Jonestown massacre or the tragedy in Waco, Texas. However, the majority of cult activity isn’t conspicuous.

I have to say, this issue hadn’t been on my radar screen. But Ron, your mailing, which included your organization’s brochure, prompted me to learn more.

One thing I discovered is that cults today aren’t as easy to identify as they were in the ’60s and ’70s. Back then, you’d see people on college campuses passing out flowers, wearing white linen outfits or whatever. You could tell they were part of an alternative group.

Here is how Paul R. Martin, who operates a mind-control rehabilitation center near Athens, Ohio, described today’s cults:

“They just blend in,” he said. “They look and smell and dress like anyone else on campus. I would say that on just about any large campus in the United States, there is some type of cultic group operating. But it takes more sophistication to ferret them out.”

Martin had been part of a cult for seven years in the 1970s. His father, a Methodist minister, influenced him to leave.

“I knew it was wrong,” he said. “But I had no idea it was a cult until two years after I got my Ph.D. in counseling and I read about brainwashing. I said to myself, that explains it.”

Steven A. Hassan, an ex-member of the Unification Church led by Sun Myung Moon, relayed a similar story of not being aware of the controlling influences on him at the time. Hassan, the author of two books on this subject, heads a counseling center in Boston.

“We know a lot about the mind and how to manipulate consciousness,” he said. “The issue becomes undue influence, and how people can be deceived and indoctrinated. Manipulation can take place in a one-on-one relationship, in a large religious or political system, or in a business enterprise. There can be any number of different contexts. But there are themes for what characterizes an unhealthy or unethical situation.”

There tend to be pyramid structures in cults, for example, and group members often become dependent and obedient.

Those new to a group typically can’t foresee the coercive tactics that might lie ahead. I’m told it is common for new members to be treated with kindness and generosity, so that they’re flattered and perhaps feel they’ve never been treated better in their lives.

As pointed out on Hassan’s Web site at, there are thousands of different mind-control techniques, many of which are used for positive benefits. Among these: prayer, meditation, breathing techniques and hypnosis.

It’s also true that not everyone converted to a demanding group is being brainwashed or coerced.

In its brochure, Cult Information Services of Northeast Ohio, which is an all-volunteer, nonprofit group, includes the reminder that “everyone has the right to his or her own beliefs, no matter how distasteful.” The issue isn’t about beliefs. Rather, cults are about money and power, and the question turns on whether group members are coerced and deceived, and whether they fear consequences if they try to leave.

From what I could tell, there aren’t clear estimates on the number of people affected by cult activity. But clearly, the number is in the millions.

Here are some common signs of involvement in a cult: radical change in personality, often marked by less spontaneity and less of a sense of humor; a change in friends and interests, and behavior that is secretive at one extreme or zealous at the other.

A place to go for more information is the Web site of the International Cultic Studies Association at

Diane Evans is a Beacon Journal columnist. To participate in her online forum or blog, go to

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Akron Beacon Journal, USA
Feb. 8, 2005
Diane Evans

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday February 8, 2005.
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