The rising number of religious sects across the nation has generated huge debates between its members and the general public on whether or not they can be classified as a cult.

What we don’t recognize is how popular they actually are. The levels of how extreme a cult is can differ, but one thing is certain: cults have detrimental psychological effects.

 Mass media has depicted cults with a negative stigma in various ways. Many people believe they would be able to recognize the signs of a cult, and, therefore, would never be a part of such a group. However, that mentality is often how people are drawn in.

Fourty-three percent of cult group members in the US were students who did not realize they were in a cult when first joining these groups. Thirty-eight percent of these persons dropped out of school after joining.

The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) studied 1,400 people; 21 percent (290) reported having personal and/or professional experiences with cults. A UTSA student who was involved in a religious cult (she will remain anonymous for confidentiality reasons) says that she was attracted to this religious organization because of how welcoming they were at the beginning- that was before she noticed something was wrong.

“If all you do are positive things, and you don’t watch the news, and don’t inform yourself about what’s really going on in the world, well of course you think you’re going to be happy in a place like that. But that’s not reality” says Anonymous.

But what exactly makes a religious sect a cult? Although the word cult is a very subjective term, ICSA defines cults as “An ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and demanding total commitment.” They discuss that cults can be very harmful to a person; harm may be physical, psychological, economic, social and/or spiritual.

The church that the UTSA student attended in San Antonio was comprised of a congregation of 100 plus members. “Their goal is taking the world for Christ and that their blessing is right around the corner if you will stick it out and not grow weak to this world,” she says.

Some cults have been classified as dangerous due to their practices, such as Aryan Nations and the Klu Klux Klan.

Some of the religious practices at the service that Anonymous would adhere to include: having to date/marry within the church, refraining from drinking because drinking is considered a sin and listening only to music approved by the church. She also explains the idea of accountability. Members couldn’t go on vacation without informing a member in the church. If a member didn’t show up, another member would check in on him or her.

Cult members are often in denial about whether or not they are part of a cult.   Anonymous explains that when her loved ones would tell her that she was in a cult, she wouldn’t believe them. “I used to hate that they called us a cult. I was in such denial.”

“Throughout, there has always been little scandals here and there. They’d show us at church the images and videos saying, ‘This is what they think of us, but it’s only going to make us stronger.’ The media made people come to see what we were doing, and they’d wind up staying because it was happy on the surface, and they saw it was nice, and that there is nothing wrong with it,” says Anonymous.

A woman from San Antonio, Debbie Cook, was sued this January for violating the terms of her confidentiality agreement with the Church of Scientology. The reason for the lawsuit was that, after she left the church, she outspokenly criticized the congregation. She is one of the few who was able to escape the church.

According to ICSA, most people never leave cults, out of fear. It took Anonymous more than 20 years to be able to leave her church.

Anonymous says, “I couldn’t handle the idea that women were so oppressed. I mean you go and you see all the women clapping, but you had to do your husband’s will.”

Anonymous went 13 years without any sort of media outlet and says she wasted a lot of her life, she is doing fine now, but she sometimes feels that the people from the congregation she attended still keep tabs on her.

“Just because you leave institutions like this one does not mean you are damned to hell, like some have been taught to believe. How you lead your life and who you become outside of all this is your decision and that’s what makes it so powerful,” says Anyonymous.

 “It’s your choice to make those decisions. The thing is though, a lot of people may not see this activity as dangerous or bad. The idea of it all is something taking over your identity and you not realizing it. When you do want your identity back… it’s not easy to find it.  Years have gone by. Opportunities will be lost,” says Anonymous.

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