Lines Can Blur Between Religious Sect and Cult

College students are often targeted by organizations looking for new members

The Vanderbilt Hustler Online (Vanderbilt University's student newspaper)/November 13, 1998
By Houston Ruck

Every year in late August new students perform a sacred ritual that brings the Vanderbilt campus to life.

Coming from every corner of the world, students move into dorm rooms, meet new people, and for the first time leave the protective nest of home in search of knowledge, free will and parties.

One of the first rituals to take place is the recruitment of new members by campus organizations. Some of that recruitment is shared by off-campus religious groups that seek to bring in new students to strengthen their congregations and to help support causes of the church.

A major problem that presents itself in this situation is the confusion students make between religious groups and cults.

"There is a fine line between cults and religious groups," said Darren Sherkat, a professor of sociology who teaches a class on cults and religion in America. "Cults usually demand more time and dedication from an individual in order for him to earn 'salvation' in the afterlife."

University Chaplain Gay Welch said, "There are many religious groups who ask a lot of time and dedication from their members but are not considered malicious in any respect."

Still, students face tough decisions when confronted by religious groups, and they are sometimes pressured to join on the basis of oral information. "The distinction is a fuzzy one," Chaplain Welch said refering to the differances between a respectable religious group and a cult. "I don't really see a division between the two."

So how does one tell the difference when both groups expect dedication to coincide with membership? Sherkat believes cults tend to offer something different to worshippers.

"Many cults will have new revelations on how to acquire supernatural good or how to avoid the symbolic consequences," Sherkat said in regard to the doctrine of these sects. "They can provide compensation for sin or an easy route to salvation."

Even though some cult movements today may sound liberal in their causes or activities, many contemporary religious groups also had their roots in liberal ideas.

"Christianity was founded from the basis of Judaism by a man many believed to be the Messiah," Sherkat said. "And this was in a world where pagan influences and Judaism were the predominant religious thinking. The only converts to Christianity had to believe in new liberal ideas before they could follow Jesus and the Christian faith."

"Many movements are repressed at first by the conservative majority. Others, like the Baha'i faith and Mormonism, did not suffer repression and today enjoy acceptance in society by majority."

Sherkat said that when cults do formulate, the turnover rate for many is high. "Because of the high commitment that is involved many people reconsider their decision and default from the group," Sherkat said. Nevertheless, cults manage to assemble followers with relative ease. Sherkat says there are several characteristics that will reduce the chances of being drawn in by a cult. "Obviously, if you are a strong Christian or strong believer in a well-established religion, you won't have any reason to join another group. Or, even if you're not a strong believer but there are deep-seated believers in your family, most likely, because of their influence, you won't switch."

Sherkat also said that when a group is not accepted by the social majority, then public pressure may prevent someone from joining.

"When there are no stigmas against the group, people are not ostracized to join."

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