In 2002 I was asked to give the Annual Lecture for a cult watch organisation in London called FAIR. It was soon after my book on fundamentalist churches had come out so I was expected to speak on these. I am reminded of that lecture after posting a response to haikusinenomine mentioning my frustration at the fact that my researches at the time did not reveal a single article about the religious development of young adults. This was in contrast to the copious literature to cover the religious development of young children.
My concern in that lecture was to speak about the particular vulnerability of young adults, particularly those going to University, to the blandishments of Christian Unions and indeed other cultic groups. Linking Christian Unions to cultic organisations may seem unfair but my observations suggested that the same dynamics to draw young people into these groups were at work in both cases. It could of course be argued that the legacy of full-blown cult involvement was far more potentially serious but the same initial vulnerabilities could be observed in both cases.
As I am trying to shorten my blog posts to under a 1000 words, I shall not recite all my detailed points. Suffice to say I borrowed the psychological thinking of Erik Erickson to describe the point of transition between late childhood and early adulthood. He speaks about the desire of adolescents to find identity and a proper sense of self. One of the false trails towards this sense of identity is the attraction of ‘totalism’. For Erickson in his historical context, totalism meant attachment to Hitler Youth or the equivalent in Stalinist Russia. Political totalitarianism, allowing oneself to be identified with an overarching worldview, was, in short, a substitute for the wholeness or integration that Erickson felt to be the target for the balanced mature adult.
In my lecture I suggested that attractiveness of cults and Christian Unions for young university students was because it offered them a painless method of resolving the maturity issue through embracing the ‘totalism’ offered in the all or nothing groups. Totalism, the resolution of inner conflict by attaching oneself to a cause or ideology, offers the young person a sense that he or she has achieved that longed for identity and a sense of wholeness by attaching themselves to a cause. The noble self-sacrificial behaviour of the young people of Kiev comes out of the same longing. Such idealism is not wrong, it is merely incomplete and there needs to be a gradual weaning off this totalism so that a more mature identity can be taken on. The problem for the cults is that the dynamic and maintenance of the group depends on keeping young people at this point of immaturity for a long time. This will involve them in maintaining their slavish devotion to leaders and the cause far longer than is healthy or desirable.
When I reflected on this Ericksonian interpretation of Christian Unions and cults at university at the end of the lecture, I concluded that for most people who passed through it, the damage was limited. One great loss for Christian Union university students is in many cases a failure to engage with the wider social opportunities of the university, the exposure to a myriad of ideas and people. By the age of 30 the vast majority of ex-students have moved on to embrace their adult identity, the process having been delayed. For a few, the damage is permanent. They have internalised a fear of people and institutions so that they can only live in ghetto-like environments and these permanently restrict their horizons.
Research on these issues is almost non-existent and so one has to rely on anecdote and impression. One piece of ad-hoc research has come to my attention which does not merit inclusion in any learned article, but remains interesting in spite of that. An individual noted the names of Christian Union officials over a number of years at Cambridge University. He then checked up a few years later and found that not one of these people was still in any way involved in a Christian body. They had apparently grown above and beyond the enthusiasms of their late teens and no branch of the Christian faith now attracted them. It would have been good if these same individuals could have been interviewed but once again there seems little appetite for this kind of research.
Writing this blog has brought home to me how little interest there is in the ‘corruption’ of young impressionable people in their university years. In July I shall be attending a conference in the States on cultic studies. In among the lecturers, there will be a tiny presence of Church based people who are concerned that cultic issues are a problem in the church as well. I shall of course be reporting about this conference in due time, but meanwhile I continue to express the thought that the Church has a big problem in not owning up to cultic behaviour in and around its life and work.