Avoiding Unhealthy Religious Orgs

Avoiding Unhealthy Religious Organizations

Unhealthy religious organizations can be hard to recognize at first, and there is a spectrum in the aggressiveness of these groups’ tactics. Some groups seem to share some of the beliefs or features of mainstream religious groups—the issue is not their beliefs per se, but their emotionally abusive and destructive practices. These groups seek to create an all-or-nothing reality and a situation in which people are totally dependent on the group— spiritually, socially, romantically, financially, and in every way. 

Most of the time religious organizations promote healthy habits that encourage spiritual growth and personal well-being. However, sometimes, religious organizations can encourage practitioners to engage in unhealthy religious behaviors. Everyone is capable of being persuaded to do something that we did not want to do, and that susceptibility is what these groups use to incrementally take over people’s lives. 

Unhealthy religious activities do not start with something dramatic but with incremental efforts to control people’s thoughts and lives little by little. New students and others experiencing major life transitions are often especially susceptible to unhealthy religious groups, which often seem extremely friendly, provide many opportunities for community, and seem to create stability in a time of change. However, unlike healthy spiritual and ethical communities, these groups do not ultimately support students’ intellectual freedom and academic success, physical and mental health, and positive relationships with family and friends as part of a healthy, balanced life. 

For your protection and that of all members of the Wellesley College Community, if you believe you have encountered an unhealthy religious organization on campus, please contact the Dean of ORSL or College Chaplains.

(*This resource was created using resources developed by Rev. Greg McGonigle, University Chaplain at Tufts University)

Some Characteristics of Unhealthy Religious Groups

LACK OF FORMAL RECOGNITION: The guidelines that govern recognized religious and philosophical communities at Wellesley College are put in place to protect your wellbeing. Groups that are not connected with university structures or that refuse to comply with university policies should raise questions. Wellesley College’s religious and philosophical communities are expected to operate in a mutually respectful and collaborative ecumenical and interfaith way. 

DECEPTIVENESS OR MISINFORMATION: Unhealthy religious groups generally do not provide clear, complete, or honest information about themselves. Their affiliations, practices, and expectations may not be fully transparent. They may not provide complete details about their activities, activities may turn out differently from what was publicized, and information about leadership, resources, etc. may not be clear. 

OUTREACH EXCEEDS YOUR COMFORT LEVEL: Unhealthy religious groups generally appear very friendly and you may feel like you are instantly friends with everyone. Their outreach may be uncomfortable in frequency, pressure, not taking “no” for an answer, or occurring in methods, times, and places that are inappropriate (e.g., residence halls). You may be asked or expected to recruit others to the group as your primary goal before you are really involved. 

INAPPROPRIATE ADVISING/MENTORING: Unhealthy religious groups usually involve “advising,” mentoring, or supervision that is intense and seeks to pressure and control rather than empower students. Advisors may have little formal training, credentials, or experience. They may make you feel like you are being watched and judged. They may pry into your personal life for private information (sexual, financial, etc.) that can later be used to control you. They may seek inappropriate influence over your life, regarding dating, romance, or sexual behavior. They may request excessive financial contributions and jeopardize your future independence. 

ABSOLUTISM: Unhealthy religious groups generally discourage doubts, differences of opinion, criticism, research, and exposure. They may present only one right way to think and claim to have all the answers. They may regard disagreement as a sign of weakness or lack of commitment. They may demand rigid loyalty, present issues in terms of black-and-white thinking (e.g., saved or unsaved, pure or impure, with us or against us), and suggest catastrophic consequences for difference or disobedience (such as withdrawal of relationship, or graphic descriptions of eternal suffering). 

SEPARATION: Unhealthy religious groups may seek to separate you from your family and friends and encourage you to only be friends with and date other members of the group. They make seek a disproportionate amount of your time and attention so that you are not able to be involved in relationships or activities beyond the group. They may disparage, discredit, or promote prejudice against people who are not members of the group or minorities. 

MAJOR CHANGES: Unhealthy religious groups may pressure you to make major life changes, such as cutting off natural human relationships (family, friends, romantic, etc.), changing courses or your major, disregarding grades and exams, and dropping out of or taking time off from school. These practices are meant to destabilize your connections to your support network and make you less self-sufficient and more dependent. They may make it hard for you to leave easily. 

EMOTIONAL DISTRESS: Unhealthy religious group activities may leave you feeling lower self esteem, anxiety, depression, unworthiness, shame, fatigued, disempowered, or like you have fewer choices. 

DENIAL: Unhealthy religious groups often deny being cults even though they are widely regarded as such. They often disparage people who suggest they might be cults as demonic or the enemy.

How to Avoid Unhealthy Religious Organizations
  • Explore spiritual and other groups to become involved in through the Office and Religious and Spiritual Life and the other resources listed below. 
  • Report any group on campus you think might be a mind-control group to the Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life. 
  • Talk to people with different worldviews and maintain relationships with people of different perspectives. 
  • Explore and stay involved in multiple groups and activities. 
  • Educate yourself - International Cult Studies Association (www.icsahome.com)

Contact: Office of Religious and Spiritual Life | Billings 2nd floor | ORSL@wellesley.edu | 781.283.2685