This article was originally presented as a paper at the AFF
(American Family Foundation) Annual Conference held at St. Paul
Campus, University of Minnesota, on 14 May 1999 by Dr Michael D.
Langone, Executive Director of the AFF and editor of the Cultic
This conference's title, 'Cults, Psychological Manipulation, and
Society: International Perspectives', is significant because cults
and related groups have aroused significant concern around the world.
I am aware of organisations concerned about cults in the following
countries: USA, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, United Kingdom,
Norway, Sweden, Denmark, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland,
Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Greece, Russia, Malta,
Israel, Japan and Australia. There are probably some of which I
am not aware. The concern tends to focus on, though not be limited
to, issues related to psychological manipulation and its impact
on society. Concerns generate much confusion and disputation, in
large part because people define the term 'cult' in different ways.
Analysis of definitional issues
According to the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary
(1971) the term 'cult' originally referred to 'worship; reverential
homage rendered to a divine being or beings ... a particular form
or system of religious worship, especially in reference to its external
rites and ceremonies ... devotion or homage to a particular person
More recently, the term has taken on additional connotations: '3:
A religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious ... 4: A system for
the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator
... 5: a. great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or
work ... b. a usually small group of people characterized by such
devotion" (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth
Edition, 1994). Rutgers University professor, Benjamin Zablocki
(1997), says that sociologists often distinguish 'cult' from 'church',
'sect', and 'denomination'. Cults are innovative, fervent groups.
If they become accepted into the mainstream, cults, in his view,
lose their fervour and become more organised and integrated into
the community; they become churches. When people within churches
become dissatisfied and break off into fervent splinter groups,
the new groups are called sects. As sects become more stolid and
integrated into the community, they become denominations. Zablocki
defines a cult as 'an ideological organisation held together by
charismatic relationships and demanding total commitment'. According
to Zablocki, cults are at high risk of becoming abusive to members,
in part because members' adulation of charismatic leaders contributes
to their becoming corrupted by the power they seek and are accorded.
The power these corrupt or corrupted leaders come
to wield can also result in social harm, such as lawbreaking and
the undermining of democratic values. Definitions proposed at various
times by associates of AFF tend to presume the manifestation of
what is potential in Zablocki's definition (by definition, low-control
groups are not cultic). These definitions tend to emphasise elements
of authoritarian structure, deception and manipulation and the fact
that groups may be psychotherapeutic, political or commercial as
well as religious.
Because such definitions imply high levels of psychological manipulation,
some students of the field have associated cults with the concept
of thought reform (Lifton, 1961; Ofshe & Singer, 1986; Singer
& Ofshe, 1990). Although there are similarities between these
concepts, a cult does not necessarily have to be characterised by
thought reform, nor does a thought reform programme necessarily
have to be a cult. Nevertheless, the two seem to go together often
enough that many people mistakenly see them as necessarily linked.
Definitions advanced by AFF associates imply that the term 'cult'
refers to a continuum, in which a large grey area separates 'cult'
from 'non-cult'. This continuum is often expressed by the use of
qualifiers such as 'destructive' or harmless. These definitions
suggest that there may be some debate about the appropriateness
of the term as applied to a specific group, especially when available
evidence indicates that the group is in or near the grey area of
the continuum. This debate can become more acute when the group
in question is one that varies among its geographic locations, has
different levels of membership with correspondingly different levels
of commitment, has changed over time in the direction of greater
or less 'cultishness', or is skilled at public relations. Because
they tend to focus on certain practices and behaviours, the definitions
advanced by AFF associates are implicitly interactionist. Like all
psychologically based models, they presume that different people
will respond differently to the same group environment, as much
as twins can respond differently to the same family environment.
Cults are not all alike. Nor are all cult members affected in the
same way, even within the same group.
Because of the definitional confusion surrounding the term 'cult',
students of the field should carefully examine the cult phenomenon
in detail and avoid making hasty categorisation decisions about
Since this paper has a broad focus, in what follows I will presume
the Zablocki definition of 'cult': 'an ideological organisation
held together by charismatic relationships and demanding total commitment'.
Concerns about cults and related groups operate on four levels
Although cultic groups vary a great deal, a huge body of clinical
evidence and a growing body of empirical research indicate that
some groups harm some people sometimes, and that some groups may
be more likely to harm people than other groups. This proposition
is at the heart of the debate about 'cults'. A number of the programmes
at this conference explore ways in which cultic groups may adversely
affect individuals, families and society at large. This proposition
is amenable to systematic, empirical research that ought eventually
to be able to resolve current disputes about specific groups or
the general population of 'cultic groups'. Among the subjects that
have been or could be studied empirically are:
. What psychological dynamics characterise groups at high risk
of harming members and families?
. How can cultic environments be assessed empirically, in particular
with regard to the dimensions of control and harm?
. What is the nature and magnitude of harm that current and former
members may experience?
. How prevalent is high manipulation within cults?
. How prevalent is harm within particular groups and across groups?
. How prevalent are groups at high risk of harm?
. How many individuals have been involved in such groups?
. How many involved persons have been harmed?
. How effective are psychological and other attempts at remedy?
Some individuals on both sides of the controversy tend to ignore
the empirical foundation of the cult issue and affirm non-falsifiable
Some, for example, seem to presume that all groups labelled cults
must be all bad and incapable of change. Messages on the Internet,
for example, have asserted that this conference's programme, 'Can
Cultic Groups Change: The Case of ISKCON', is a sign of naivety
on AFF's part, or even a sign that 'AFF has been taken over by cults'.
The underlying assumption of these criticisms seems to be that a
group such as ISKCON is incapable of positive change; therefore,
AFF must be wrong-headed or complicitous.
Some observers on the other side of the controversy seem to presume
that all groups labelled cults are persecuted and benign. They sometimes
call negative reports of ex-members 'atrocity tales' (Bromley, Shupe,
& Ventimiglia, 1979), a term that appears a priori to
dismiss all criticism of cultic groups as fabrications or face-saving
In between these extremes of 'see no evil' and 'see nothing but
evil' is a broad range of opinions. If these opinions are ever to
rise to the level of knowledge, disputing parties must engage in
sincere and substantive dialogue that recognises the need to phrase
the issues as questions that are amenable to scientific research.
Such research must be conducted as a co-ordinated programme of studies,
not a hodgepodge of unrelated studies pursued by isolated researchers.
The workshop on Sunday, 'Towards a Common Research Agenda', will
attempt to contribute to the process of dialogue. Fortunately, some
useful research has been, or is being, conducted. Some of this research
will be discussed Saturday morning.
Those in the helping professions, however, realise that one cannot
wait for research when people need help. One must do the best one
can with the knowledge and understanding at one's disposal. A number
of sessions in this conference offer advice based on the presenters'
current understanding of the issues, for example, the sessions on
support groups and psychological needs, and the workshops for families,
ex-members and those interested in education about the cult issue.
When faced with certain controversial practices, the first reaction
of many cult critics is, 'That's wrong.' Often, the specific behaviour
or practice being criticised results in psychological or other forms
of harm to people. Sometimes, however, the effects are not necessarily
harmful; yet, the criticism, 'That's wrong', remains. Lying about
one's group affiliation while trying to recruit people on a college
campus, for example, may not 'harm' the persons approached, but
those persons may feel offended that somebody would lie to them
in the name of religion, social betterment, or self-improvement;
they feel, 'It's wrong.'
Although thought reform is usually associated with the psychological
dimension of the cult phenomenon, the cult critics who discuss thought
reform often implicitly place it in an ethical context. I have heard
from a colleague, for example, that some scholars in the organisational
psychology literature advocate the use of 'coercive persuasion'
techniques in order to improve organisational performance (I am
not personally familiar with this literature). He and I, and probably
most of our colleagues in this field, blanch at this notion. We
tend to believe that thought reform, or coercive persuasion, should
not be used on people, regardless of the presumed nobility or usefulness
of the goals. Ethically, people should not be treated in this way.
A special issue of AFF's Cultic Studies Journal (Volume
2, Number 2) reported on the development of an ethical code for
the Christian evangelist, a code developed by a team of evangelicals
led by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. A modified version of
this code was adopted by Boston University (and possibly other schools)
to guide its religious personnel. I wish that more religion professionals
would look at this code and related work in order to begin to delineate
ethical boundaries for religious influence situations. What is needed
is an ethics casebook, similar to the casebooks developed by professional
associations in the mental health field.
Dr Benjamin Zablocki has proposed a bill of inalienable rights
for intentional communities. He proposes voluntary guidelines on
matters such as the right to leave, to maintain contact with the
outside world, the right to an education, to adequate health access
and the right to impartial investigation of complaints. It is important
not to confuse ethical objections related to cultic groups with
other kinds of objections. One does not have to demonstrate
harm to justify an ethical criticism of a behaviour or practice.
Nor does one have to demonstrate thought reform. Many practices
and behaviours that are not part of a thought reform programme can
be criticised on ethical grounds. Similarly, one does not have
to whitewash ethical transgressions simply because some cult
critics unfairly characterise a group as using thought reform.
Again, the two extremes of 'see no evil' and 'see nothing but evil'
miss the long continuum separating these two poles.The session on
ISKCON will address ethical issues, for the reform group within
ISKCON appears to recognise that some of the organisation's behaviours
and practices need to be subjected to ethical accountability. The
people I have talked with have shown much interest in the ethical
code developed by InterVarsity and in Dr Zablocki's bill of rights.
Recently, the abuse of children in ISKCON, which certainly has profound
ethical as well as psychological and medical implications, has been
an issue of great concern. Consider the following quotes:
As a stigmatised and politically marginal group, householders were
left powerless to assert their parental authority over the lives
of their children. Children were abused in part because they were
not valued by leaders, and even, very often, by their own parents
who accepted theological and other justifications offered by the
leadership for remaining uninvolved in the lives of their children.
(Rochford & Heinlein, pp. 43-44)
Over the years, any number of estimates have been offered, ranging
from 20% of all students who attended an asrama-gurukula
suffering some form of abuse, to as many as 75% of the boys enrolled
at the gurukula at Vrndavana, India, having been sexually
molested during the late 1970s and early 1980s. (Rochford &
Heinlein, p. 47)
'I remember dark closets filled with flying dates (large, three-inch
flying cockroaches) and such, while beatings and "no prasadam"
for dinner became everyday affairs.' (Rochford & Heinlein, p.
'Seattle was hell because I was only six years old, my mom lived
in Hawaii and I had always been a very shy mommy's girl. The movement
was in its earlier stages, and the devotees were fanatical
beyond fanatical. I mean, they would give us a bowl of hot milk
at night, so I would, of course, pee in my bed. Then as punishment
they would spank me very hard and make me wear the contaminated
panties on my head. In general, at that time, because I was so young,
I was so spaced out and confused. I would cry ... for my mom, but
that wasn't allowed, so I would say I was crying in devotional ecstasy.'
(Rochford & Heinlein, p. 47)
Is this quote from Cultic Studies Journal? No. Is it from
the Cult Observer? No. Is it even from the Journal for
the Scientific Study of Religion? No. It is from ISKCON Communications
Journal, and the article from which the quotes come was written
by E. Burke Rochford, Jr., with Jennifer Heinlein. Rochford is often
identified with the 'pro-cult' camp of sociologists.
When the lawyers get their teeth into this issue, ISKCON may pay
a great price for the forthrightness demonstrated in its own journal.
However, if genuine reform is to occur, then the price must be paid
for past abuses and the ground laid for future accountability. The
organisation may pay a financial price. Many of the adult members
whose children were abused are undoubtedly already paying a heavy
price emotionally as they confront the terrible consequences of
their loyalty and obedience to the movement.
We who are cult critics should not gloat and say, 'I told you years
ago that children were being abused in ISKCON.' It would have been
much better had we been wrong and innocent children not been abused.
We should take no satisfaction from their suffering. If we, as cult
critics, can offer constructive advice and commentary to the reform
element within ISKCON, we can do much more to help the children
(and adults) within ISKCON than we could by standing on the sidelines
shouting 'I see nothing but evil!' Even if the reform movement is
not fully confronting the organisation's problems, its capacity
to bring about constructive change is much greater than that of
its critics. How many cults have changed their practices in a substantial
way because of the criticisms of outsiders? Reform that grows from
within an organisation has a much greater chance of success than
reform that outsiders try to impose. This is not to say that criticism
from outside isn't important. It may stimulate persons within the
organisation to re-evaluate their group and press for change. However,
except in rare cases where legal authorities exercise power, change
will usually occur only when enough persons within the organisation
I think it is important to distinguish social concerns that reflect
offences against fundamental societal values from those that reflect
concerns against the idiosyncratic values of individuals. Society's
valuing of social order demands accountability when a group commits
the first offence. But society's valuing of individual freedom demands
that critics strive for tolerance when confronted by a group that
elicits idiosyncratic disapproval in them. Examples of the latter
category of concern include antagonism resulting from an observer's
. unconventional dress or lifestyle choices
. religious beliefs different from his/her own
. groups with a foreign origin
. groups with a particular racial or ethnic makeup
Examples of the former category include concerns resulting from
a group's violation of commonly held ethical and/or legal standards,
such as: criminal laws, including those related to immigration,
commerce and finances.
. explicit or implicit standards of ethical influence (e.g.,
lying to people in order to persuade them to come to a group-sponsored
. infiltration of government organisations
. abuse of the legal system through spurious lawsuits
. pursuit of political goals while operating under the rubric of
a non-political, charitable or religious organisation
. deceptive fund-raising and sales practices
. unlawful pressuring of employees to participate in cultic 'educational'
. misuse of charitable status in order to secure money for business
and other non-charitable purposes
. unfair competition through the use of underpaid labour or 'recycled
. medical, psychological and educational neglect and/or abuse of
. Misuse of school or college facilities
In societies that cherish religious freedom, the balancing of religious
freedom and law enforcement may sometimes be difficult to achieve
or to gain consensus on. Two sessions in this conference will examine
how the legal and governmental systems in the US and Europe have
responded to cult issues. The Saturday evening discussion programme
is also likely to address this question of balance.
If one accepts the notion that beliefs have consequences, then
one is likely to conclude that theological analyses may shed light
on the psychological, ethical and social implications of the cult
During the Waco stand-off, for example, some observers criticised
the FBI for not addressing the thought reform dimension of Waco.
Others criticised the FBI for not considering the theological beliefs
of David Koresh. Herb Rosedale and I wrote an essay at the time
in which we argued that both perspectives should have been considered.
(Rosedale & Langone, 1993)
I believe that theological analyses can contribute to the understanding
of cult-related phenomena. Professor Roger Olsen of Bethel Seminary
was to have spoken on this issue at this conference, but his circumstances
changed and thus he could not make the conference.
Theological issues may arise in our discussion of changes in ISKCON.
How, for example, can reformers justify changes that, at least on
the surface, appear to conflict with the belief system set down
by the movement's founder? If they can make compelling justifications
for these changes within ISKCON's theological belief system, the
reformers are likely to run into less resistance on practices that
have elicited considerable social concern.
Those who offer theological analyses should be careful to recognise
that modern democratic societies place a protective wall around
belief and for good reason. One can believe bad things without
acting badly. The tragedy in Littleton, Colorado, demonstrates this
point. As commentators try to 'explain' why the young men went on
a killing spree, they point to a host of possible causes: they revered
Adolf Hitler; they hated 'jocks'; they were racist; etc. But thousands
of people who do not murder others share these beliefs. If we locked
people up for their beliefs, our prisons would burst. Nevertheless,
critical analysis of potentially destructive belief systems may
lessen the probability that some people will act upon those beliefs,
in part by decreasing the probability that some may be persuaded
to adopt them in the first place. That is why AFF has worked with
certain individuals and organisations that focus on theological
analyses of cultic groups. To the extent they can help people think
more discerningly, they can lessen the probability that people will
get caught up in destructive systems. Of course, some think that
all religions are hogwash, that the Heaven's Gate philosophy is
no more irrational than that of Christianity or Judaism. I believe
these people are wrong.
Although all religions rest on assumptions about a transcendental
reality that can't be accessed scientifically, conceptual structures
built on these assumptions can vary greatly with regard to internal
logical coherence and the degree to which they respond constructively
to human needs that are common across cultures. Some theological
critics might argue that cultic conceptual structures will undermine
attempts at reform because they lack logical coherence and don't
adequately meet human needs. Sometimes, the theology of a particular
group may be so inconsistent and contrary to human needs that adaptation
to society will be impossible. As a psychologist, however, I have
come to have great faith in the human capacity to creatively rationalise
contradictory beliefs and behaviours, so I am more optimistic about
reform for many groups, at least in the short run. In the long run,
however, reality always wins. So I advise against dismissing out
of hand theological critiques of groups' conceptual structures.
Important not to mix up concerns
People sometimes act as though a valid criticism in one of the
four major areas of concern psychological, ethical, legal
and theological necessarily implies that potential concerns
in the other three areas must also be valid. If, for example, a
group has an unorthodox belief system (e.g., it follows an Indian
guru), the group may be 'presumed' to be psychologically harmful,
unethical and legally suspect. Drawing such conclusions, however,
is an unwarranted conceptual leap, the kind of false inference that
encourages unthinking polarisation, rather than thoughtful dialogue.
Although it may be the case that the socially deviant group violates
the law, behaves unethically and harms people, it is not necessarily,
nor even probably the case. Evidence, not presumption, should rule.
In closing, let me reiterate the proposition that I believe is
central to the cult issue: Some groups may harm some people sometimes,
and some groups may be more likely to harm people than other groups.
The so-called pro-cult-anti-cult debate really revolves around
different judgement calls people make with regard to how many groups
are at risk for harm, how much harm they contribute, what causes
the harm, and what should be done about it. We must make judgement
calls about such questions because we lack sufficient empirical
data to resolve the disputes.
If we are to avoid replacing the closed-mindedness of high control
groups with another form of closed-mindedness, in which we treat
our opinions as facts, people on both sides of the cult dispute
must acknowledge the following:
. Despite the commendable scientific research that has been conducted,
much, maybe most, of what we think we know is opinion (however informed
and reasonable it may be), not scientific fact.
. If we are to increase our scientific understanding of this phenomenon,
we must put substantial resources into studying it scientifically
in a co-ordinated way, not the usual academic route of each researcher
working independently, chasing whatever question happens to grab
his or her fancy.
. We must be willing to change our opinions as scientific knowledge
As we struggle to increase our scientific knowledge, we must try
to help hurt people and forewarn those as yet unaffected, especially
youth, as best as we can. But we should do this with a humility
that permits us to continue to learn, even as we teach and counsel.
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Lifton, R.J. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.
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Ofshe, R., & Singer, M.T.'Attacks on peripheral versus central
elements of self and the impact of thought reforming techniques',
in Cultic Studies Journal, 3(1), pp. 3-24, 1986.
Rosedale, H. R., & Langone, M. D. 'How many Jonestowns will
it take?', in Cult Observer, 10 (4), p. 3, p. 11 (October
Singer, M. T., & Ofshe, R. Thought reform programs and the
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West, L. J., & Langone, M. D.. 'Cultism: A conference for scholars
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