What Attracts Young to Sects?
By Richard Flaste
(c) New York Times
NEW YORK - It must have been heartwrenching to be there. Five young followers of Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church were freed from the custody of their parents by an appeals court in San Francisco.
The lower court ruling that had given the parents custody of the children, all of whom were to their twenties, was no longer an obstacle, and the young people could do as they wished - two returned to the Moon group on the spot, as their parents wept.
Regardless of which side was right and which was wrong in all this, clearly the issue of young men and women repudiating the values of their childhood to join what their parents see as alien religious sects is one of intense emotion.
The emotion is so intense that when one asks the most obvious questions, the answers come back in Rashomon fashion - antagonistic, but plausible, and fitting together in some macroscopic framework that does hold the truth, somewhere.
The questions are: Who are the young people who join the sects (estimates of their number vary wildly from a few thousand to many thousand)? What do they get out of the sects? What is the rational parental response?
Dr. George Swope, a Baptist minister who heads a parents organization called Citizens Engaged in Reuniting Families, is vehemently opposed to the sects, He describes the young people who join them as no different from any others. but recruited at "a vulnerable time in their lives."
And then, he says, they are "brainwashed" and forced to remain in the sects through physical deprivation and dread of what will befall them if they defect. Some he says, remain because they wish to be part of the power-base they believe Moon, a Korean industrialist is setting up in the United States.
Susan Reinbolt, a spokesman for the Moon sect, which she said had 7,000 full-time workers, asserted that the "majority of the young people join because the teachings have meaning to them." One of the most important of these teachings, she said, was that "God is alive and has worked to restore man since the fall and is working right today."
"THE CHURCH," she continued, "is a way of plugging into God; not only do we need God but God wants to love and know us." Moon, she said, had "brought life to the movement," and his critics were telling "incredible stories."
Dean M. Kelly, who is an executive for religious and civil liberties of the National Council of Churches, sees nothing new or "atrocious" in such movements as the Unification Church or the Hare Krishna group.
"They have the same characteristics that high-demand religious movements have had since the world began," he said. He sympathized with parents who are shocked and feel repudiated.: But he said traditional religions in this country did not require enough sacrifice on the part of their adherents to give them a sense of meaning. "they're apologetic," he said.
Some psychiatrists and psychologists have begun looking into the sect phenomenon. One of the psychiatrists, Dr. Richard Rabkin, agrees with Kelly that the cults supplied young people with the "high-demand" experience of sacrifice and unquestioning belief about the nature of life.
Rabkin, 45, said that when he was a student at Harvard the university provided that feeling. "I didn't know all the questions, but I was sure Harvard had the answers," he said.
But, recently, he met a young former Harvard student who had joined one of the sects. "He'd been in biochemistry and it didn't seem to answer any questions for him," Rabkin said. "He came away from it feeling that it was all just technology to make money."
There are some professionals who describe the joiners of sects as disturbed people who view themselves as having been failed by unloving parents and who are looking for that "perfect guru."
Rabkin said that so far the reports on the emotions of these young people and on what the sects did with those emotions had been largely "anecdotal - just opinion." What's needed, he said, is research.
Dr. Marc Galanter, a psychiatrist who teaches at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and who has associated himself with Rabkin in the attempt to begin a joint investigation of the sects has in fact already done some research.
He and a colleague, Dr. Peter Buckley, randomly selected 119 followers of the Maharaj Ji's Divine Light Mission. With the cooperation of the sect, which emphasizes Eastern spiritualism, the researchers presented the young people with questionnaires that were intended to investigate their mental well-being before and after they joined the group. Galanter conceded that, as with all such questionnaires, it was difficult to determine how truthful the answer swere or how much the young people's experience in the group had biased their perceptions of their lives.
Nevertheless, the researchers came up with some provocative findings. Thirty-eight per cent of the members said they had sought some kind of psychological help before joining the group. Nine per cent said they had been hospitalized for emotional problems, 75 per cent said they had used drugs prior to joining.
The majority said they felt "moderately to extremely tense" in the time before they joined the sect, and they said they were much less tense afterwards, a sense of relief that appeared to be expressed in a decline in drug use (although a few admitted that they continued to use drugs).
Galanter said that the most important factor in relieving emotional distress appeared to be the members' sense of belonging to the group and at the same time feeling antagonistic toward outsiders, He said that in his view, therefore, the comfort the members found in the group was the main reason they stayed.