Spiritual Health Warning
In Wales we live in a society that enjoys freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Everyone has the right to express their beliefs, and this naturally means the right to try to convert other people to share in them. After all, if you believe something strongly, and it makes a big difference in your life, you naturally want to share it with others.
While many religious groups behave with great integrity, there are some groups – and individuals within reputable groups – that don’t play fair. They may target the vulnerable: people who are lonely, disorientated by life in a new community, homesick or going through some sort of personal crisis. They shower them with kindness and friendship and can draw them away from family, friends and other support structures until they alone are free to dominate people’s lives. They stop at nothing to bring others under their influence. These groups are dangerous – they could lead you into an emotional prison from which you would find it hard to escape.
So, listen to all kinds of people and be prepared to learn and change your mind. But always remember that your mind is your own. It’s your life and no-one has the right to dominate you. Some religious movements have been criticised for their strong recruitment styles or other practices which followers are expected to conform to. For this reason we advise any student who is considering joining such a group to contact us.
Other groups are less aggressive in recruiting, but may offer practical help on condition of involvement in their religious activities. These are not easy to distinguish from religious communities which freely give practical help to people of any faith (or none) as a pure act of service to the local community. Religious believers have every right to offer special help to those involved in their own communities, but be cautious about exposing yourself to any kind of pressure you cannot handle.
If you are unsure how to identify a group that may not be all it seems it is usually marked by some or all of the following signs:
• A leader who claims to have a unique understanding of God, or even to be God
• Total absence of doubt: doubt and questioning are a natural part of healthy faith
• A simple answer to every question: genuinely spiritual people realise that life is not simple; a healthy religious community is one in which people have the same basic values but are willing to disagree on day-to-day issues
• An apparently perfect community, where everybody agrees and cheerfully does what their leader tells them to do: however much faith you have, real life isn’t like that!
• Instant “love”: all the great religions advocate love, but real relationships take time to grow, and people who bombard you with flattery and affection as soon as they meet you may have ulterior motives
• An indoctrination system: beware of people who invite you to come away to a “conference”, “workshop” or “retreat”, but will not explain exactly what it’s about
• Secrecy: healthy religion talks about mysteries (things none of us can understand), not secrets (things revealed to some and not to others)
• Separating people from their normal life and relationships: beware of any group that tries to turn you against your family and see them as your family instead
• Total control over members lives: we all have the freedom, and the responsibility, to make our own decisions; beware of any group that tells you what work you should do, where you should live, etc.
• Unreasonable demands: if they want you to put their activities before everything else at all times, hand them control of your money, do unreasonably hard work for no pay, or give up your degree course for “the cause”, say NO. They will probably make you feel guilty, especially if they have been very kind to you. But still say NO.
Are you vulnerable?
Almost everybody goes through times when they feel lonely, confused, or long for a new life that is easier than the current one. This is probably more likely to happen while you are a student than at other times during your lifetime. When you feel like that you could easily be a target for one of these destructive groups. Reach out instead to someone you can trust, such as:
• A trusted friend
• Your academic tutor or hall tutor
• A parent
• Someone from the University’s counselling service
• A properly recognised Chaplain or a clergy person you know
If a faith-based organisation is offering advice on legal, financial, emotional, or similar matters, it is worth asking:
• Are the advisors properly trained and accredited by the relevant professional bodies?
• Is the group offering the advice as an act of service to the community, or as a means of recruiting members?
• Are you expected to keep up a relationship with the faith-group in return for the advice?
If you are not in a crisis yourself, but know someone who is, watch out for them and try and link them with someone who can be trusted to help.