Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Building Bridges: A World Religions Program for 8th-9th Grades


Activity time: 25 minutes

Materials for Activity

  • Chalice, candle, and lighter or LED/battery-operated candle
  • Newsprint, markers, and tape
  • Handout 1, What Makes a Cult?
  • Leader Resource 2, Cults Background
  • Optional: Cults/Religions poster the group created in the Welcoming and Entering activity

Preparation for Activity

  • Read Leader Resource 2, Cults Background, so you will be comfortable presenting it.
  • Copy Handout 1, What Makes a Cult? for all participants.
  • Post blank newsprint.

Description of Activity

Youth learn about and discuss some basic information about cults.

Answer any questions you could not answer from the last workshop.

Invite the youth to sit in a circle. Light the chalice with these words:

We light this chalice in celebration of Unitarian Universalism and the sustaining faiths of all people of the world. May the flame represent the fire of our commitment to understand all faithful people and build bridges that connect us as one human family.

Invite participants to check in by saying their names and sharing briefly a memory of a time when they were happy to be taken care of-when they were sick, perhaps, or exhausted, or sad, and someone took care of them.

Share with the youth that today they will explore the idea of cults. Cults are a tricky subject because people have many different ideas of what a cult is. Ask participants what they understand a cult to be and/or what they have heard about cults. Note aloud the interesting and varied ideas. Ask what questions they have about cults, and write their questions on newsprint. Answer the ones you can. Tell the group that during this workshop, many of their other questions will be answered. After the workshop, you will seek the answers to any remaining questions, which you will share at their next meeting.

Go over with the group the information in Leader Resource 2, Cults Background. Start by asking what the youth think of as notable differences between religions and cults. If they have made a poster, and they need prompting, refer to the poster.

Ask participants, "Have you ever wished for things to be simpler-to just be able to float along without having to make constant decisions?" Refer to the memories they shared of times when they felt happy to be taken care of.

If their answer is no, they do not ever want things simpler, ask:

  • Have you ever felt completely worn out?
  • Have you ever wished you could share your load-that someone else would take responsibility, even for a short time, for everything that usually falls on you?

Suggest that if the youth know the safe feeling of being cared for, or if they can understand the wish for some relief from their responsibilities, they can understand the appeal of cults. The promise of a cult is simplicity-everything is decided, all is provided.

Post a blank sheet of newsprint and say, in these words or your own:

The term "cult" is used in so many ways and to mean so many different things, the Religious Tolerance website offers the conclusion that "the term is essentially meaningless." We need to clarify how we are using the word in today's workshop.

Read a comment from Leo Pfeffer:

If you believe in it, it is a religion, or perhaps "the" religion; and if you do not care one way or another about it, it is a sect; but if you fear and hate it, it is a cult.

Ask the youth for their reactions to this statement.

Say, in these words or your own:

While amusing, there's truth in Pfeffer's comment. [Write "Cult" at the top of the newsprint.] Here are some common uses of the word "cult."

[Write "Not Christian" on the newsprint.] Among conservative Christians, any religious group that does not teach strict Christian doctrine is considered a cult.

[Write "Pop fad" on the newsprint.] "Cult" is used casually to describe a phenomenon supported with outspoken exuberance, for example, "the Facebook cult."

[Write "Personhood stealers" on the newsprint.] The most common use of the word, though, is to describe a group that seems to take over people, to make them slavishly devoted to the group and its leader and to lose the power to think for themselves.

So, how should we define "cults" for this discussion?

Distribute Handout 1, What Makes a Cult? and give participants time to look it over. Ask for their initial thoughts. Engage the youth in discussion with questions such as these:

  • What role do you think trust plays in cults? Could cults be successful without creating trust among their members? Can any religion be successful without creating trust among its members?
  • Cults usually present themselves as religions. The human religious impulse springs from our need for meaning and stability in an ever-changing, mysterious world and our need to connect with others. How do cults fulfill those needs?
  • Cults stem from an unscrupulous willingness to take advantage of human needs, weaknesses, and insecurities. Can we protect ourselves from people who want to take advantage of us by increasing our awareness of our own needs, weaknesses, and insecurities?
  • Do you think cults generally work more through people's hopes or their fears? Why? Which do you think is the stronger force in people, hope or fear? Which is more primal?
  • Psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that human beings' fundamental needs-physiological, safety, love and belonging, and self-esteem-must be met before we can focus on our higher-level needs-self-actualization and self-transcendence. What would be the effect of keeping people off-kilter, uncertain about basic details of their lives-where they will sleep, what they will eat, what they will be told to do? Would this support or undermine their higher reasoning and spiritual advancement?
  • Many religious groups-including Mormons, Christian Scientists, and Wiccans-were considered cults early in their existence but gradually gained greater public acceptance. Do you think this is due to changes in the organizations over time, or is it more likely that over time people got used to them? Could growing numbers of people in these groups gradually force public acceptance of them? Is that inherently a good thing-is the sheer number of participants a good reason to confer validity on a religious system? Is a relatively small number of members a reason to deny validity? Are growing numbers a reliable indicator of religious worth?
  • The human drive to be together, to enjoy the communal experience, to like caring for other people and being cared for, has contributed to our surviving and thriving as a species. This deep impulse is what cult leaders exploit. How might you start a discussion with someone you think might be involved in such a group in a way that honors this primary, positive human urge yet suggests less self-sacrificing ways of feeding it?
  • How might you safeguard yourself from exploitation while pursuing the primal drive to care for and be cared for by others?