Cult awareness educator Ronald Loomis warned students and faculty last night that harmful, life-threatening cult activity is present on the Penn State campus.
"There are recent instances when students at Penn State were recruited into a cult and, as a result, suffered some sort of personal trauma," Loomis said to an audience of about 15 in the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center. "I want people to realize that cults are not something that happen to someone else, somewhere else. Cults do happen to students at Penn State University."
Loomis -- a former Cornell University director of unions and activities who has studied cults for 35 years and speaks at colleges across the country -- said the International Churches of Christ (ICOC) is the most active cult at Penn State.
"ICOC is one of the most active cults not only at Penn State, but on campuses across the country," he said. "It was present when I was here four years ago, and I confirmed today that it still is."
Loomis warned that cults such as ICOC use deceptive front-names in their recruiting processes, such as the Holy Spirit Association or Women for World Peace.
He explained that cults fall into seven primary categories: religious, mass therapy and meditation, political, new age, commercial and business, hate, and satanic and ritual abuse.
Experts estimate that as many as 5,000 cults exist throughout the country, involving 2 million to 5 million people, Loomis said.
"Cult leaders are very charismatic people -- they have that magic ability to persuade and influence people," he said. "Charisma itself is not a bad characteristic. It is when that charisma is taken advantage of by an evil person with an agenda that it becomes a very negative thing."
Loomis said characteristics of a cult include deception, alienation, mind control, psychological manipulation, exclusivity, exploitation and a totalitarian world view.
"All cults exploit their members spiritually, psychologically, financially and, in many cases, sexually," he said. "They also promote the view that everyone in the group is going to heaven, and everyone outside is doomed to go to hell."
Cults brainwash members by isolating them from their families and friends and by applying "enormous" peer pressure, Loomis said.
"The cult also uses love bombing, which is when it makes its members feel very unique and very special," he said. "[Members] are so desperately in need of affirmation by people that eventually they just go with the flow, because it feels so good."
Loomis stressed that those most at risk of cult recruitment are students experiencing a time of transition or a traumatic event.
"Cult recruitment on this campus will peak at freshman orientation, when students are away from home for the first time," Loomis said. "Seniors are also very vulnerable ... they suddenly realize they're going to be leaving this protective environment, and they have no idea what they're going to do."
Loomis said signs of cult involvement include a profound personality change, alienation from family and friends, excessive monetary contributions to an organization and an extreme change in values.
"There will be an almost overnight change in personality, so dramatic that you can't help but notice it," he said. "All of a sudden someone will no longer make decisions about their own lives, and they'll be criticizing the values you once had in common."
Christina Zartman (freshman-archaeology) said Loomis' presentation was educational.
"I can see how cults would be a concern on a college campus, and I think it's important for people to learn about them," Zartman said.
Loomis will speak again at 10 this morning in the Frizzell Room of Eisenhower Chapel. The event is free to the public.