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When theology erodes and organization crumbles, when the institutional framework of religion begins to break up, the search for a direct experience which people can feel to be religious facilitates the rise of cults. — Daniel Bell, sociologist


This workshop introduces the topic of cults, creating a working understanding of what a cult is—not in its classical definition as "any system of religious worship," but in the term's common usage: a group that engages in religious practices but also controls, isolates, and makes escalating, often destructive demands on members. The intention is to create an atmosphere of intelligent inquiry with the youth in which they maintain their ability to judge for themselves the merits and defects of a group's offerings and to recognize with compassion the human impulses that draw people into cults' spheres.

Youth in Western culture often are protective of their right to decide things for themselves. In the case of cults, members radically trust the leader—to care for them and their children, to tell them what truth is, even to save their souls. Youth might not understand why someone would want someone else to make all the decisions, but they certainly understand a betrayal of trust. They can have empathy for people who are victims of abuse or who are being taken advantage of.

Discovering that Unitarian Universalism is considered a cult by some very conservative religious groups can cause different reactions in UU youth. Remind them that words are used to mean different things to different people. Someone believing that we are a cult by their definition does not make us a cult.

Cult leaders often engage in behavior that is harmful to other people in order to benefit themselves and their organization. It may be appealing to set these leaders, or their followers, apart from oneself, to cast them as the "other"—nothing like us. It is important to stress that self-serving human beings are still human beings, however dangerous they may be. While it seems reassuring to characterize someone who has done something very troubling as hardly human, essentially saying, "We real people could never do that," it is a false comfort. The world actually becomes safer when we recognize that all of us have the capacity for causing harm. To quote Pogo, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Recognizing every human's powerful capacity for good and ill does not contradict our Unitarian Universalist commitment to honor the worth and dignity of every person. We all have the spark of divinity, but that does not mean we will always act divine.


This workshop will:

  • Establish a working definition of a "cult" and introduce some fundamental characteristics of cults
  • Provide resources for analyzing the behavior of groups
  • Introduce the story of the growth and tragic end of the Peoples Temple
  • Acquaint participants with ways in which Unitarian Universalism is sometimes considered a cult.

Learning Objectives

Participants will:

  • Deepen their understanding of the fundamental human longing for trust and simplicity and how that longing can be exploited
  • Better understand abusive behavior, both in an individual and a systems context
  • Discuss ways they can avoid becoming involved with a cult and ways to help others who are involved
  • Practice countering allegations of cultism concerning Unitarian Universalism.




Welcoming and Entering




Activity 1: Story — Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple


Activity 2: Unitarian Universalism — CUUlt?


Activity 3: Help! A Friend Is in Trouble!


Faith in Action: Film and Discussion




Alternate Activity 1: Cliques



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