When Spirituality Goes Awry: Students in Cults

Adolescents are objects of recruitment for religious cults. Identifying new religious movements, cults, and dissenting religious groups, understanding their practices, and discovering reasons for their attractiveness to some students are helpful to the school counselor. Suggestions are offered as to how to identify which cults are destructive, and how professional school counselors can assist students involved with such group.

The attraction of cults to America’s youth has been a source of study for the past 30 years (Singer & Lalich, 1995). The literature describes the activities of various therapists who have worked with people unwittingly seduced into becoming cult members or people recently extricated from a cult (Singer & Lalich; Soloman, 1991; Stoner & Parke, 1977). This article is designed to clarify kinds of cults, the reason some students are attracted to them, and what school counselors can do to help students who have become a cult member or who intend to become a member of one.

According to Merriam Webster (1996), the broadest definition a cult is a religion regarded by the majority culture as spurious or unorthodox. It is also defined as a system that gives great devotion to a work, an object, or a person (Merriam-Webster). There are two kinds of cults (Singer & Lalich, 1995). One type recruits members and exposes them to psychological and social processes that cause major shifts in perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs. The intention of this kind of cult, commonly called destructive, is long-term control of the cult member (Gesy, 1993). The second type of cult is less lethal. It is designed to sell a product, a course, or a self- improvement program. Some mind altering techniques may be used, but long-term membership and long-term effect is not intended (Singer & Lalich). It is estimated that as many as 20 million Americans are cult members (Gesy; Singer & Lalich).

Cult FAQ

Published by Apologetics Index, CultFAQ.org provides definitions, articles and other research resources on religious cults, sects, and alternative religious movements

The scope of this article is limited to religious cults and the students who are involved with them. A religious cult involves worship, adoration, and a set of beliefs outside of the doctrines and dogma of mainstream religions (Merriam-Webster, 1996). Many religious cults may be destructive, but all are not necessarily so. Religious cults are considered destructive if their intent is to control and exploit. Such cults generally have a living leader whose doctrines and revelations form the basic beliefs of the people who adhere to his or her teachings (Stoner & Parke, 1977). According to Stoner and Parke, the doctrines generated by cult leaders usually supplant or supplement traditional religious belief.

Some religious cults are specifically designed to attract young people, and many of these cults are destructive. Destructive cults are manipulative as well as exploitative. Gesy (1993) described them as dictatorial groups that determine how members should think and act by utilizing various mind control techniques. At the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Soloman (1991) discussed the psychiatric techniques used to counteract the mind control techniques that were utilized by harmful cults to indoctrinate former members. According to Soloman, the mind control techniques used rendered their former members so helpless that, on their own, former cult members could not understand nor could they correct the beliefs and behaviors that were induced by cult practices.


Although it is commonly thought that normal people do not join cults, research indicates the contrary (Gesy, 1993; Singer & Lalich, 1995). According to Soloman (1991) and Singer and Lalich, very few people who have belonged to religious cults report having had psychological difficulties prior to becoming cult members. Though Singer and Lalich indicated that people of “certain family backgrounds” might be more predisposed to joining cults, Gesy claimed that people of any age and background are good candidates for membership if they are trying to answer questions such as, “Who am I? Does a God who cares about me exist?” and “What is the meaning of my life?” They are especially good candidates for recruitment by cult members if they also find the world a “messy place” (Gesy, p. 23).

More than few teens find the world a messy place. The appeal of religious cults to a segment of America’s youth is understood within the context of their cultural identity development. Referring to the maturation of his own identity, Freud (as cited in Erikson, 1994) spoke of “many obscure emotional forces” that influenced it. According to Erikson, the obscure emotional forces to which Freud referred were cultural, a combination of larger social events impinging on Freud’s individual psyche. Parenthetically, Freud was a non-religious and “enlightened” Jewish youth at a time when Jews were discriminated against, especially in Vienna where he was raised in a Jewish “ghetto” within view of the opulent palace of the ruling dynasty. Freud grew into personhood on the eve of World War I in a complex European culture where social conditions were smooth on the surface and chaotic underneath.

In addition to explaining the connection between identity and culture, Erikson (1994) also called attention to the connection between identity and spirituality. In his major work about identity, Erikson called attention to a letter written in 1920 by William James to James’ wife. In that letter James spoke of an inner moral attitude that defines character and says: “This [sic] is the real me!” (p. 19). From the time of James to the present, little has been written about the connection of spirituality to the development of identity (Erikson). Recently, however, things have changed. A convergence of social events, not all positive, has influenced the spiritual identity development of America’s youth and has caused a general resurgence of interest in spirituality. Therefore, understanding the appeal of cults to some young people involves knowing that their spiritual identity development is influenced by the current culture.

In this article, spirituality is defined as a search for significance through relating to something that is considered to be sacred. The experience of spirituality is the enhanced connection of self with something that is defining, resulting in the feeling of wholeness or joy. James (as cited in Erikson, 1994) exclaimed his joy in discovering the “real me.” In that moment of discovery, he experienced self as connected. This sense of being connected is the integrating spiritual experience that is so ardently sought by idealistic adolescents as they struggle to find their place in the world (Berk, 2001; Erikson).

Poll and Smith (2003) described the dialogue of clients who have begun the cognitive and the emotional process of generalizing spiritual awareness across their lifetime experiences. Though the experiences discussed were not always linear, the spiritual movement described was linear. The path of spiritual awareness generally led from pre-awareness, where there is only limited recognition of spirituality, to awakening, where people were in want of spiritual knowledge. It is commonly believed that the quest for this knowledge is a spiritual search that begins in the adolescent years and is at the heart of what Erikson (1994) has called the identity crisis.

A recent study investigated the relationship between adolescent faith maturity and parental, congregational, and peer influences (Martin, White, & Perlman, 2003). A correlation was found between the variables at all age levels throughout the teen years. While congregational influence was found to be slight, peer influence was found to be strong; however, parental influence was found to be strongest with the most lasting influence on the faith development and faith maturity of their offspring.

Pearce, Little, and Perez (2003) conducted a different, no less meaningful study of adolescent faith. They examined the importance of religious belief and social support in mediating for depression among teens ages 13 to 17 and found both variables important. This work is noteworthy because depression was seen as the mediating factor in teen susceptibility to cult recruiters (Singer & Lalich, 1995; Stoner & Parke, 1977).


Historically cults thrive in eras of social and political turmoil and unrest (Singer & Lalich, 1995). More than a quarter of a century ago, Konrad Lorenz (1970) described his generation as tumultuous. Prophetically, he called attention to the notion that war, drug addiction, and superstitious adherence to doctrines are the pathological and destructive behaviors of highly integrated systems. Lorenz stated that these hostile behaviors were on the increase and were believed by many to be adaptive mechanisms necessary for the preservation of the cultural beliefs of nations. Lorenz further claimed that in adolescents, hostility takes forms that are, in many respects, like those of rivaling ethnic groups or nations. According to him, adolescents who exhibit hostile behaviors do not see themselves as connected to the culture, nor do they see themselves dependent upon it. Believing that they are independent, they cut themselves off from traditional culture in an attempt to create something that they think is new or better. By so doing, they give the culture that they have abandoned a negative twist (Lorenz). Religious cults also criticize the current culture and claim to be able to create a better one. To idealistic but rebelling youth, this is precisely what makes religious cults attractive (Stoner & Parke, 1977).

Furthermore, Lorenz (1970) asserted that adolescents disconnect from the values held by their parents with increasing frequency when the rapidity of environmental change makes the culture of their parents difficult to comprehend. He noted that in a shifting environment, adolescents have difficulty learning what parents think is valuable and what is not. Calling the culture “paradoxical to the point of lunacy,” Lorenz claimed that rebelling youth know that not all is right with the world. Adolescents, however, are powerless to change the things that they believe are wrong. If they seek change, they must be part of a group that is trying to effect it (Lorenz).

To transmit values across generations, the young must be able to have contact with their elders as well as respect and identify with them. The receiver of values must see the transmitter as wise, as his or her superior, and as one who loves him or her. Thus, when the young are not able to identify with their elders, they will resort to substitute objects, substitute leaders, and even substitute religions in their need for group support (Berk, 2001).

Lorenz (1970) also called attention to what seemed to him the “schizophrenic” and “satanic” nature of a culture that speaks of social justice, equity, and human rights, while it spirals in vicious circles of unbridled commercial competition, war, and destruction of the biosphere. In the 34 years that have passed since Lorenz published his landmark article, things have only worsened. According to Sullivan and Geaslin (2001), social scientists have been increasingly studying the causes and correlates of aggressive behavior. Adults may tell their children that they value family, traditional morals, ecological soundness, equal distribution of wealth, and world peace, but current media point to adults lacking in business ethics, breaking families apart, depleting natural resources, and engaging in warfare. There is great disparity between what the adult community says and what it actually does. In such an environment, new religious movements and cults make devotees of many initially innocent and lonely teens (Stoner & Parke, 1977). Adolescents whose parents are frequently absent, who dislike the commercial “rat race,” abhor the destruction of natural resources, and fear the threat of terrorism and war, sometimes escape by joining renegade groups. Others join nature religions or join religious cults that claim that they can insure the creation of a better world.

Factors in Cult Involvement

Thus far, this article has hinted at five basic reasons why many young people involve themselves in new religious movements or cults. Specifically, they are a need (1) to conform, (2) not to conform, (3) to be led, (4) to be devoted to a cause, and (5) for parental replacement.

That adolescents have a need to conform is not news. It is well- documented in professional publications (e.g., Berk 2001; Erikson, 1994; Fischer & Lazerson, 1984). Young people need groups in which to find and express who they are. They travel in packs. At the mall, the movies, or the automated teller machine, one rarely sees a lone adolescent. They need to be part of a culture in which they feel loved by persons whom they value and believe are wise (Berk; Fischer, & Lazerson). According to Erikson, “The adolescent looks fervently for men and ideas to have faith in, which means men and ideas in whose service it would seem worthwhile to prove oneself trustworthy” ( p. 128).

The adolescents’ need to be a non-conformist relates to their perceptions that cultural contradictions exist which they cannot reconcile (Berk, 2001). By nature teens are purists. According to Berk, the idealism of adolescents leads them to envision a world of perfection, in which there is no room for hypocrisy. Children may respond to the command, “Do what I say, not what I do,” but adolescents may reject it with indignation.

As alluded to previously, war, unethical business dealings, violence, and chemical pollution of the atmosphere are what adolescents see in films and on television, but they are told that what is “good” is peacefulness, appropriate business ethics, non- violence, and clean air. These contradictions sometimes prove too great for the egos of sensitive young teens to cognitively and emotionally integrate (Berk, 2001). However, it is the contradictions that occur within the home that are most often at the root of adolescent non-conformity or outright rebelliousness (Lorenz, 1970).

Confused about cultural inconsistencies and personal matters such as occupational choice, commitment to physical intimacy, and psychosocial maturity, adolescents have a strong desire to be led. Leaders serve a dual purpose. They save teens from uncertainty by exhibiting a strong sense of direction and purpose, and they provide a model with which youngsters can identify (Lorenz, 1970).

Perhaps teens have no stronger need than the need to be devoted to a cause. Young people want to make the world right, and many honestly believe that they can save both themselves and the world from destruction. To achieve this, some young people are prey to groups (gangs) with strong leaders, and they are also prey to cults. Both gangs and cults frequently disguise their true purposes and hide destructive elements under a cloak of falsely promised justice (Gesy, 1993).

It has been previously stated that for tradition to be handed down successfully, young people must be in contact physically and emotionally with their elders. For values to be transmitted, the transmitter must be trusted, loving, and seen as wise. In the today’s fast-paced world, with dual career parents and multi- blended families, it is difficult for some adolescents be intimate with their parents. When adolescents are out of touch with their elders or feel unloved by them, they will find substitute objects to take their place. These objects receive the teen’s fidelity. In joining with groups that have strong leaders who serve as parental substitutes, young people become faithful to the codes and the insignias of the group (Lorenz, 1970). It is important to note that dissenting religious groups are not all malignant (Stein, 2003). What is harmful sometimes depends on perspective. It is interesting to consider that in the Roman Empire prior to Constantine, the emergence of a Jewish sect called Christianity was considered harmful, a dissenting religious group, and a cult.

Today, counselors can judge whether or not a group is harmful by what the group both intends and does. Gesy (1993) stated that a cult is harmful if it disregards common notions of morality such as those stated in the Ten Commandments and if it disregards the Constitution of the United States. The American Family Foundation has identified characteristics of destructive cults (Gesy). Questions to answer in determining whether or not a religious cult or movement is destructive are as follows: (1) Does it bring physical or mortal harm to anyone? For instance, does it conduct rituals that use human beings or human or animal parts in sacrifice? (2) Does it use mind control techniques (e.g., hypnosis, sleep deprivation, isolation, repetition of monosyllabic talk) to control how individuals should think feel and act? (3) Does it exploit members financially? (4) Does it claim to have an exalted status (e.g., superior race, occult powers, a mission to save humanity?), and (5) Does it attempt to separate itself in opposition to mainline society of family? If the answer to any or all of these questions is “yes,” the religious cult or dissenting group may be considered a destructive influence (Gesy; Stoner & Parke, 1977).

There are, indeed, malignant groups that engage in intentional harm, substitute evil for good, and perpetrate destruction. Groups of this kind are frequently called satanic cults, and they are easily recognizable. These are discussed later.


It is important for school counselors to know that new religious movements (NRMs) are not all negative. Commonly called sects, and sometimes called cults, many NRMs are simply communities of dissent comprised of marginal groups who know that they are outsiders and choose to be. By definition dissent involves conscious disagreement, and America has long been a harbor to both religious and political dissenters. Many dissenting political groups have been led by powerful religious leaders, Martin Luther King being case in point. But dissenting religious groups have had equally powerful leaders. Often these groups appear as threatening, frightening, or at least suspicious to non-members. Consider Reverend Sun Myung Moon, a North Korean Presbyterian who preached a Pentecostal form of Christianity to which he added his own doctrine (Stein, 2003). People who followed Reverend Moon, “moonies” as they were called, believed him to be the Messiah, in constant struggle with Satan, conic to save the world and complete the work of Jesus Christ (Stein). Today one hardly hears of “moonies.” Instead one often hears them referred to as a sect called the Unification Church. The group is international, and has vast assets here and abroad. The Washington Times founded in 1982, with a current circulation of over 120,000 readers, is a conservative newspaper owned and published by the Unification Church (Stein).

Sects and cults move through stages from radical dissent toward assimilation into the dominant society. According to Stein (2003), some examples are Transcendental Meditation or TM and the Nation of Islam of Elijah Mohammed. Of course, there have been dangerous groups such as that of Jim Jones and the Peoples’ Temple in Guyana and David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. In brief, there are many kinds of New Religious Movements and dissenting groups, and in time one gets to know them in honor or infamy by their fruits.

One such group, commonly misunderstood, constitutes a growing American religion commonly known as Paganism. Actually, Pagans are not a single group or sect. There are many pagan groups (Coleman, 2002). However the groups do have some common factors. These factors are: (1) a return to nature or to natural religion, (2) open- mindedness, (3) use of ritual, (4) adoration of the goddess or mother earth, and (5) diversity of belief (Coleman).

One of the fastest growing of the pagan cults is Wicca (Coleman, 2002). Wicca is the medieval word for witch and as such has carried a “bad wrap” for centuries. Considered fearful and frightening, and believed to worship the Christian devil and gain evil powers from him, witches have been burned at the stake in Europe, confined to the pillory in America and generally thought to be evil. While there are in fact some witches who do questionable or harmful things, many witches practice elaborate nature rituals focused on divination dedicated to peace and healing (Coleman). Wicca is considered a female-friendly religion practiced largely by women. Wiccans believe in a trinity of goddess, god, and spirit and are organized in covens, that is, groups of 3 to 13 people who gather at the full moon and on eight important holidays called Sabbats (Coleman; de Angeles, 2002). At these gatherings, the elders teach the young the ways of the craft. They also perform rituals and initiations (deAngeles). Some covens call themselves circles, and most keep their spirituality secret, though it is estimated that there are 750,000 Wiccans in the U.S. today (Coleman). The two reasons given for the rapid growth of Wicca are its equality between men and woman and its romantic spirituality.

Another pagan religion described by Coleman (2002) is Shamanism. Long known across the globe from Africa to the Americas, Shamanism consists of ritualistic trances during which communication with spirits and the spirit world takes place. Drumming is common, as is visioning, the sacred pipe, the sweat lodge, and healing though plants and animals. Television and films have romanticized Shamanism, its vision quest, and its Shamanistic journeying. Real Shamanism, however, is not for the fainthearted and is practiced for the purpose of making the world a better place.

Druids are also pagans. There are three kinds of Druids. They are the Bards (poets and musicians), the Druids (priests), and the Ovites (prophets). Originally a very old Celtic religion, many in the Renaissance revived some of what was believed to be their culture and mythology. Thus the Ancient Order of Druids was founded in London and an annual ritual at Stonehenge initiated. Reported by Coleman (2002), and most interesting, is the Druid revival that occurred in the U.S. in 1963. Evidently a group of students at Carlton College, Minnesota, did not want to attend chapel. As a joke they started their own religious group called the Reformed Druids of North America. The students began holding their own services in nature, and one of the members of this rebel group eventually founded the Modern Celtic Pagan Movement in the United States. Like Druids of old, modern Druids believe that a spirit world exists along side the material world (Coleman). Few modern Druids believe in fairies, though they were the original spirits of the old Celtic faith.


The above-mentioned groups have been included in this article so that the school counselor might adopt the perspective that not all cults and new and/or dissenting religious groups are malevolent in nature. On the other hand, many are very dangerous, and some are downright evil (Gesy, 1993; Soloman, 1991). Most destructive groups are secret societies. Many are involved with the occult. The occult is not new, and its use is widespread. Daural (1961/1989) demonstrated that secret societies have existed since the beginning of written history. Dyson (1968) wrote a thesis claiming that prior to World War II, and throughout it, Nazis engaged in occult activities. Howe (1967) related that British intelligence secretly used astrological signs when deciding specific actions to be taken against Germany during the same war. Spell books, that tell how to get rid of demons and conjure spirits, have been found throughout Europe. These texts are believed to have derived from ancient Babylonian sources.

At one time or another, all of the world’s great religions have harbored secret societies whose mysterious and sometimes magical ways were known only to members. The Rosicrucians, the Tongs of Terror, the Cult of the Black Mother, The Secret Rites of Mitra, and the Castrators of Russia are cases in point (Daural, 1961/1989). What all secret societies and cults have in common is an identity of desire, a mission or something that members work for, and the use of special signs and symbols that are signals to other members and a means of identification.

Many of the groups that attract American teens are thought to be secret societies masterminded by groups of adults that bear friendly names but harbor anti-American sentiments. Most of them are known to the FBI and to local police groups (Thompson, 1993a). What adult cult leaders want is wealth and power (Singer & Lalich, 1995). They use adolescent devotees to prey on other teens and bring them into the fold. They are most likely to succeed with the loner teen, the student without a peer group, the student disenchanted with the religion in which he or she was brought up, or the student whose parents are not emotionally available.

Destructive cults usually operate in the following manner. One teen meets another on the street somewhere, maybe outside of school, church, or in a mall. The “greeter” strikes up a friendly conversation and, after some talk, invites the newly found one to a group meeting. If the newly found recruit does not come to the meeting, the greeter calls him or her on the phone or meets the recruit in the place where the initial meeting took place. The persuasion to join the group continues. It is expected that the recruit will eventually become part of the group (Singer & Lalich, 1995). When the new recruit finally comes to the meeting, he or she is surprised that everyone is welcoming and already seems to know him or her. The new member does not realize that this has been pre- staged and that the “love bombardment” which continues through the first several group meetings is a clever indoctrination technique, the first of many that will follow (Singer & Lalich). The next tactic is to separate the recruit from his or her parents, prior community, and friends, if any. When group housing is available, the new member is invited to live with other group members. In time, the new member is encouraged to give money to a “communal pool” which is of course channeled to the cult leaders. Without money and without outside friends, the recruit, now a full-fledged member, is usually totally dependent on the cult. He or she becomes a greeter or worker of another sort. The teen that eventually breaks away is called an apostate, is shunned and discarded, dead to people that he or she once thought friends (Singer & Lalich; Soloman, 1991; Stoner & Parke, 1977).

Again, the adolescents that become involved in cults are looking for a place to fit in. Especially appealing are the groups that offer an idealistic impact on the world. Although they promise structure, solidarity, and sometimes salvation, they are rarely truly altruistic. They cajole, manipulate, and eventually wrest wealth and work from unsuspecting teens who may be simply seeking a sense of belonging (Gesy, 1993; Singer & Lalich, 1995; Soloman, 1991; Stoner & Parke, 1977).

The destructive cults of which counselors should be especially aware are: (1) Satanic groups, (2) groups that practice witchcraft and are attached to Satanism, and (3) neo-Nazi groups. All of these groups engage in practices that are very hurtful to others, and each of them engage in ritualistic practices (Gesy, 1993). Each utilizes ritualistic symbols that are easily recognized.

Satanism is on the rise in the United States (Thompson 1993a,). It is a recognized religion and is therefore protected by the U.S. Constitution. By and large, Satanism is the worship of the devil as a deity (Thompson). Many people who practice the faith commit crimes in order to .achieve what they consider to be supernatural experience. Those crimes include torture and murder. Thompson stated that according to police reports, “…ritual killings, ritual abuse, grave robbing, animal sacrifice an destruction of property” have occurred in every state, “all in the name of religion, Satanism” (p. 212).

According to Thompson (1993a), some examples of destructive behavior taken from police reports are: (1) corpses stolen from graves in Indiana, (2) eyes taken from a teen stabbed to death in New York, (3) the mutilation of teens in Texas, and (4) a manual about telling teens how to dispose of parents and sacrifice the family dog in California. In the name of Satan, youth have been known to beat, stab, and otherwise mutilate the bodies of other teens.

Adolescents recruited to Satanism often do not know of these practices at the outset. However, in general, they do know the heavy metal music enjoyed by Satanists and the signature black clothing and dangling silver jewelry that Satanists wear. Adolescents who are initially attracted to these things probably do not know that silver is an impure metal, worn instead of gold because gold is a pure metal. Nor do many teens know that Satanists disregard or condemn much that mainstream society thinks is right and just. Often teens who are attracted to Satanist groups are simply innocent students who think that they are playing a more adult game of Dungeons and Dragons or imitating a favorite recording star. Student members, called “starters” or “doubters,” are taught to carry a black book in which they record what they are gradually taught and the symbols of their creed (Thompson, 1993a). In it one might find drawings of daggers, hex signs, swastikas, inverted crosses, and the number 666, a sign for Satan in the Bible (Gesy, 1993). In their book will also be the names of people that they hate, are taught to hate, or are told should be dead. Often members of Satanist cults are encouraged to self-mutilate and/or maim others. Many practice black magic or witchcraft as sorcery. Often formulas for their occult practices are kept in their black book.

Moreover, Satanist cults are usually kept secret. Little is written about them. However, local police know a great deal about these things because the teens recruited by them are frequently caught committing anti-social and often criminal acts. Interestingly, the young people are told that such acts are beneficial and, quite frequently, necessary for the good of some nefarious cause. Sacrifice of animals and human parts are practiced by some Satanist cults. According to Thompson (1993a), teens become very frightened when they first experience a sacrifice (p. 115). However, if they are not caught and remain with the group, many will become desensitized to such activity.

Groups that practice witchcraft can be destructive if they are attached to Satanism. Witchcraft is a belief system that can encompass a magical view of the world. In addition to nature worship, witchcraft may involve the telling of fortunes, reading of the future, divination and the casting of spells (deAngeles, 2002; Thompson, 1993b). The pentagram within a circle is a symbol frequently used in witchcraft. An upside down pentagram is Satanic in nature, and witches who are also Satanists are commonly said to practice black magic (Gesy, 1993; Thompson).

Also destructive are neo-Nazi groups. One such group is the Ku Klux Klan. The two words, Ku Klux, are derived from the Greek work kuklos which means band or circle (Petrie, 1993). The major goal of the Klan, repeated in the oath of membership, is the supremacy of the white race. Like Hitlerism in Germany, which reached its zenith at the same time that the Klan reached its height of popularity in America, the clan used occult symbols to mark and gain stature, and it plundered, burned, and destroyed everything that impeded its march to power (Petrie). The Klan as a national body was officially disbanded in 1944, but it still exists locally under names such as the Christian Knights, the White Knights, the Confederate Knights, and the Invisible Empire Knights. Homes and churches have been burned by groups of people such as these, who have also placed swastikas and bombs inside of synagogues (Petrie).


Schmidt (1999) discussed three types of school counseling relationships. The first type is prevention. This involves helping students avoid negative events and stopping detrimental things from happening to them. The second is developmental. School counselors can work with others in order to provide life-enhancing services that encourage optimal growth in students. The third type of counseling relationship is remedial, and it is appropriate when students on their own cannot rid themselves of their problems. All three kinds of relationships are appropriate when it comes to students and cults.

School counselors can do many positive things to help youngsters stay away from cults altogether as well as assist those students who are already involved in cults, dabbling in cults, and those who have walked away from cultic involvement. School counselors can also aid the students’ parents or caregivers. To do this one must first become knowledgeable about cults, and especially about those cults that exist in the community and in the surrounding areas. This article contains a brief summary of what is known, and the references at the end of the article should be helpful resources. In addition, there is a great deal of information on the Internet. Enter into search engines such words as teen cults, Satanism, witchcraft, and occult, and the number of emerging web sites will be exhaustive. The problem with using search engines is in knowing the relative value of the material that one is reading. For instance, the reader will find in some web sites positive propaganda put out by Anton LaVey and The Church of Satan as easily as one can locate articles on how to recognize and deal with satanic messages and the challenge of cult practices. In short, a literate and critical reader is needed to discern factual information. The school librarian could be helpful as a resource person as well.

Other sources of current information are local FBI and police officers. If there are cults conducting criminal activities in one’s geographic area, the police will know about them and can inform school counselors about what cults do and how and where they recruit students. Lastly, the police have been known to provide information sessions for state school counselor associations.

The school counselor should be a keen observer of who is wearing black clothing and heavy silver chains. The clothing may mean nothing, but it is wise not to assume either way. Counselors should befriend that youngster. Talk to the student about the music that he or she enjoys, the type of electronic games he or she might play, the motion pictures that he or she watches and so on. In time, the counselor might notice that the student is carrying a black notebook. If trusted by the student, the school counselor might ask what the book contains and if he or she can look in it. The question must not be asked in an accusatory way, but in a way that shows genuine interest and respect. Remember that most youngsters who are recruited by cults seek fellowship and spiritual enlivening. Should the counselor see a pentagram, 666 or a swastika, gently ask about its meaning. The youngster may or may not know the meaning, but the counselor will learn how indoctrinated the student is by the student’s response. Naturally, the idea is to help the student leave the cult, but do not expect that to happen overnight. Involving the youngster in school group activities may help. Individual and group counseling may help counteract the pressure that most probably will be exerted on the student by members of the cult that the student is leaving.

Proactive school counselors work within the school to provide students, teachers, and parents information about cults. It is useful to work with others in the school, teaching them how to identify destructive cults and their recruitment methods. Remember that destructive religious cults claim special exalted status or powers, manipulate and exploit their members, do harm to others, and use mind controlling techniques while they pose as benevolent, beneficial, groups interested in bettering the world.

Cult Experts / Counseling

Warning signs of cult involvement are withdrawal from family or friends, loss of interest in religious activities, and increased rebelliousness or aggressive behavior. Teachers and parents can be taught to recognize and report these signs to the school counselor, and students can report them as well. Peer counseling by trained students, and seeding group counseling sessions with a few trained peers may prove good early intervention methods.

Counteracting the influence of destructive cults should be a total school effort. It involves classroom instruction and classroom guidance for prevention, the provision of wholesome school climate to enhance healthy student growth, and by offering individual and group counseling to remove the problems of students who have been involved in cults and who are in need of help. Counseling is one area of counselor function that no one else in the school can do, and students who have been involved with cults are frequently in need of this type of assistance. The above suggestions and those listed below have been extrapolated from the previously referenced material of Singer and Lalich (1995), Stoner and Parke (1977), Soloman (1991), and Gesy (1993). In summary, school counselors working with students who have been involved with cults should:

1. Avoid feeling guilty. It is not your fault if you did not realize the situation earlier and provide services more quickly.

2. Help students and parents assuage their feelings of guilt.

3. Understand the signs of spiritual development and how they apply to your students. Spirituality is a function of personality, intertwined with identity development (Erikson, 1994). Do not shy away from discussing it.

4. Teach communication skills to parents and, insofar as you can, help to open communication channels between parents and their children.

5. Avoid being defensive and help your student avoid defensive feelings by explaining to him or to her that most students who join cults are not evil doers; rather they are young people who have been confused, sometimes lonely, often seeking love and support. Provide the student with as much support as you are comfortably able to supply.

6. Do not condemn or moralize.

7. Recognize that the journey into a cult has a spiritual base. Regardless of outcome, remember that the adolescent who joined the cult was searching and probably is still searching for something spiritual.

8. When the student is ready, help him or her to make new social connections.

9. Work diligently with parents and other adult community members who are significant to the student with whom you are working. Help parents to understand what has been happening and what may still occur.

10. Know general and specific cult objects and symbols and, when necessary, discuss them dispassionately withthe students in your individual and counseling groups.

11. Become familiar with modern day paganism and be able to separate what is dangerous from what is not. Remember that not every new religious movement is destructive or evil.

12. Learn which cults are adult-sponsored and anti-American, but which often parade under patriotic names and colors. Find out whether the groups in question are known to the FBI and/or the local authorities.

13. Assess the level of cult involvement of the student that you are counseling. This is achieved by means of asking the student about rituals in which he or she has participated. Remember that intensity of ritual, like understanding of symbol, increases as the initiate progresses. Most likely, a new recruit will not have participated in frightening ritual. New recruits, frequently referred to as “starters” (Thompson, 1993a), know about ritual from reading about it. They will be frightened when they first witness live ritual. More seasoned cult members become immune to destructive ritual practice. Astute counselors can assess level of involvement by means of what a student says about ritual participation and degree of fear that students express when talking about the topic.

Professional School Counseling

Professional School Counseling journal communicates the latest theory, research, practice, techniques, materials and ideas to assist school counseling professionals at all levels in their professional development. Additionally, it strengthens bonds among school counselors and helps maintain a shared awareness of the roles, problems and progress of school counseling at various settings and levels. This award-winning journal is published five times a year, in October, December, February, April and June and is included with membership.

This article has been posted with the kind permission of Professional School Counseling journal, in which the article first appeared (Volume 7, Number 5).

Professional School Counseling journal is published by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA). Founded in 1952, ASCA supports school counselors’ efforts to help students focus on academic, personal/social and career development so they not only achieve success in school but are prepared to lead fulfilling lives as responsible members of society. The association provides professional development, publications and other resources, research and advocacy to more than 16,000 professional school counselors around the globe.

14. Know who to refer. According to Singer and Lalich (1995), there are three kinds of clients that pose special problems and school counselors might consider referral in each instance. The first type of student that might be referred is the student who has been in counseling, who wishes to leave the cult in which he or she has been involved, but does not do so. The student remains in the cult and claims not to have the power to leave. The second type of student will definitely need special help. He or she is the student who has experienced mind-altering techniques so intense a professional exit counselor is needed to debrief or “deprogram” and counteract the effects of the brainwashing that the student received while in the cult. The third type of student may well need more time than a school counselor can give any one person. This is the student who experiences a fear so deep that psychotherapy is indicated. If the above conditions occur, school counselors should refer to an outside mental health professional trained in these issues. School counselors should develop a referral list before intervening in the event that the above mentioned difficulties are encountered.


School counselors know and understand young people, and they are often the first line of defense in the protection of those students who have been involved in the twisted spirituality that many cults offer to students. Leaving a cult often precipitates an emotional crisis. The student in the cult and the student who exits it may experience depression, anxiety, fear, anger, and confusion. Students who abandon the cults that they joined must be reintegrated into the same families that they left behind. Furthermore, spiritual stability needs to be established, and this sometimes means a return to the house of worship that one left behind or finding a new one. The good news is that the great majority adolescents and young adults who have had encounters with cults, recover (Singer & Lalach, 1995). Helping students do so can be a great source of satisfaction for school counselors.

Religious cults considered destructive generally have a living leader whose doctrines and revelations form the basic beliefs of the people who adhere to his or her teachings.

Religious cults considered destructive generally have a living leader whose doctrines and revelations form the basic beliefs of the people who adhere to his or her teachings.

Understanding the appeal of cults to some young people involves knowing that their spiritual identity development is influenced by the current culture.

Both gangs and cults frequently disguise their true purposes and hide destructive elements under a cloak of falsely promised justice.

Often teens attracted to Satanist groups are simply innocent students who think that they are playing a more adult game of Dungeons and Dragons or imitating a favorite recording star.


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Lee J. Richmond, Ph.D., NCC, NCCC, is a licensed psychologist and professor of Education, School Counseling, Loyola College in Maryland, Baltimore. E-mail: lrichmond@loyola.edu

© Copyright American Counseling Association Jun 2004. Posted to Religion News Blog with the kind permission of the American School Counselor Association (ASCA). Click here for more information about Professional School Counselor and other ASCA publications.

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June 1, 2004

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