Young True Believers: Cults vs Constructive Contributions?

Young people are often the energetic and idealistic avatars of the future. They are iconoclastic, criticize society’s deficiencies and inequities, and frequently at the forefront of social change.

But a few decades ago thousands of young people (older adolescents and young adults) seemed enthralled by unfamiliar, sometimes flamboyant, religious groups. They captivated the imagination and adherence of many youths, while provoking fears in their parents.

The groups were often referred to as “cults,” usually with derision. I was particularly involved at the time because I was studying members of such groups, and was the father of three teenage sons.

Our research looked at members of some groups in North America, including Hare Krishna, Divine Light Mission, Unification Church, Children of God, Foundation Church, Process, 3HO and Scientology. We interviewed members of fundamentalist sects of Churches, Temples and Seminaries here and abroad. I also authored a government report and a book (“Radical Departures”) on the subject.

The groups were either unusual versions of traditional religions or had newly minted beliefs about deities and behavior. Each was unique but they shared characteristics like charismatic leaders, intense group ethos, rituals and rites, diet and dress, and fervent beliefs and proselytizing, the very essence of “True Believers.”

They were highly visible, featured in newspapers and newscasts (no internet yet!), held huge rallies, and demonstrated or chanted in the streets, where they tried to recruit new members.

Thousands of members left their families, schools, jobs, friends and lovers, to join the groups. Controversies raged in the media and families about the pros (structure, relationships, personal growth, independence, idealism) and cons (‘brainwashing,” duping, impeding growth, dangerous activities and people).

Each group proclaimed its own pathway to “ultimate truth and inner peace,” and true believers were wholly committed to their new credos. The leaders were idolized (and idealized), often charismatic, sometimes sincere (if misguided), occasionally messianic, unstable or exploitative.

Young people have always searched for their identity, answers to existential quandaries like “Who am I?” “Where am I going?” “Where do I belong?” They often experience anxieties about themselves and their future, search for meaning in their lives and seek answers in a world they find confusing and challenging.

Those most prone to joining the groups felt alienated and demoralized. In this state of dissatisfaction and searching, if they met group members who seemed utterly happy in an idyllic life of communality, benevolence, spirituality and meaning, some were smitten.  While many found the recruiting messages off-putting and walked away, others joined and became avid members.

New members embarked on paths which unfolded in stages over months:

There was initial exuberance and total involvement in their chosen groups, when they exuded happiness, verging on “ecstatic bliss.” They found (at last!) their authentic selves, with meaning and purpose in their lives.

There was reduction in tension and sadness, increased optimism, love for co-members and devotion to their leader. They felt genuinely benevolent and engaged in a “higher calling.”

This early blissful state was particularly disturbing to families and friends, often leading to emotionally wrenching scenes, rife with anger and fears, sobbing and pain.

After a few months, blind ecstasy and idealism frequently gave way to doubts about the rigid beliefs and rituals and misgivings about abandoning their previous lives and giving themselves to the group.

These doubts progressed to discomfort and mistrust, especially when leaders shed their spiritual facades and showed their ‘true colors.’ Disillusionment set in, as did longing for family and friends.

Finally, most members would make a decision to leave. These departures were difficult, with pleas and even threats expressed. There was, however, no going back: There was a final schism, over as suddenly as it begun.

The months of intense membership often wreaked havoc on family relationships, with some dramatic lawsuits, “deprogramming” attempts and arrests. The vast majority, however, were out of their groups in well under two years.

After initial difficulties, ex-members resumed their lives and relationships, academic or other pursuits, sometimes with psychotherapeutic help. While relieved that the intense experience was over, some felt they’d learned a lot about themselves. (I do not wish to minimize the personal harm sometimes caused nor the exploitative behaviors of some leaders).

While those groups are now gone or in remnants, we can take no solace because new versions have arisen. Today there are intense sects which proclaim peace and love, others which urge hate in the name of deities, and still others with messianic or even doomsday scenarios.

Searchers for meaning and fulfillment can always find zealous groups to fulfil their needs (for a while), and likewise, messianic cults will always find followers.

Young people have always been at the cusps of social change, pushing social boundaries. They have experimented with new ideas for human progress and have been engaged in the revolutions of history.

They have campaigned for social equality and against racism and violence, and participated in volunteer activities and work with the poor, the aged and the dispossessed. They are active in the struggle against global warming and our carbon footprint.

By the same token, however, we have seen that same youthful energy and ideological searching for a cause directed into militant religious and political zealotry. Extreme nationalists, authoritarian populists, fascists and racists, and urban street gangs tend to attract particularly frustrated and angry young people searching for a cause.

In their search for identity, young people want to believe in captivating ideas and people. In order to feel fulfilled and meaningful, they need to achieve the “Four B’s,” senses of: Being (“I am a worthwhile being”); Belonging (“I am important to others”); Believing (“I live according to a moral code”); and Benevolence (“I am kind to others”).

A Humble Proposal: Why don’t we as a country try to captivate that idealism and energy of young people and their need for the Believing, to work for the common good for both the nation and themselves?

This could be in the form of constructive social actions, as in a significantly expanded AmeriCorps, which would encompass beneficial services to the country.  Youth could get college credits and remuneration for work in preschools and nurseries, schools, hospitals and daycare centers, retirement communities and recreation centers, infrastructure or street projects, in the military or even in rehab for minor offences and drug use.

We could channel their energy and idealism towards their personal intellectual, emotional and social growth, while contributing meaningfully to their country.

This could be an exciting “Win-Win,” for young people searching for meaning and fulfillment, and for a nation with its own existential quandaries and needs.


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