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WHY WE USE SYMBOLS/ICONS IN OUR LISTS.

Please note:

ICSA does NOT maintain a list of "bad" groups or "cults."  We nonjudgmentally list groups on which we have information.

Groups listed, described, or referred to on ICSA's Web sites may be mainstream or nonmainstream, controversial or noncontroversial, religious or nonreligious, cult or not cult, harmful or benign.

We encourage inquirers to consider a variety of opinions, negative and positive, so that inquirers can make independent and informed judgments pertinent to their particular concerns.

Views expressed on our Web sites are those of the document's author(s) and are not necessarily shared, endorsed, or recommended by ICSA or any of its directors, staff, or advisors.

See:  Definitional Issues Collection; Understanding Groups Collection

Views expressed on our Web sites are those of the document's author(s) and are not necessarily shared, endorsed, or recommended by ICSA or any of its directors, staff, or advisors

The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) is an interdisciplinary network of academicians, professionals, former group members, and families who study and educate the public about social-psychological influence and control, authoritarianism, and zealotry in cultic groups, alternative movements, and other environments. Founded in 1979 as AFF (American Family Foundation), ICSA took on its current name in late 2004 to better reflect the organization's focus and increasingly international and scholarly dimensions.  ICSA is guided by a distinguished Board of Directors and Executive Advisory Board.

What ICSA Offers

  • Websites with thousands of pages visited by more than 1,000,000 persons a year:

www.culticstudies.org

www.cultinfobooks.com

www.culticstudiesreview.org

  • An information service that annually responds to more than 2,500 inquirers.

  • An E-Library with more than 4,500 news and scholarly articles and E-books, with thousands of items to be added in the future.

  • Free E-Newsletter, which enables you to keep abreast of events of note, new publications, news, popular articles, and research and educational activities of ICSA's volunteers and other experts and activists.

  • A Web-based scholarly journal (with an abridged print edition), Cultic Studies Review, which will keep you abreast of the latest advances in the field, including newspaper accounts and academic and professional reports

  • An annual conference where you can learn about new research and other developments, meet experts and others interested in the field, and attend practical sessions for families, former group members, and professionals.

  • Workshops and mini-conferences for former group members, families, and mental health professionals.

  • Volunteer professional committees

  • Educational resources

  • Scientific research (research plan)

 

Background

In 1978 nearly 1000 people committed suicide or were murdered at the People's Temple compound in Guyana. In the mid 1980s followers of Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh were convicted of wiretapping, conspiracy to murder a U.S. Attorney, the deliberate spreading of salmonella among the local population of Antelope, Oregon, and other crimes. In 1993 dozens of men, women, and children were burned with their Branch Davidian leader, David Koresh, at the end of a long siege by U.S. federal agents. In 1995 members of Aum Shinrikyo released Sarin gas in the Tokyo subway, killing 12 commuters and injuring over 5000. In 1994-1995 members of the Solar Temple in Switzerland, Canada, and France were murdered or committed suicide. In 1997 thirty-nine members of Heaven's Gate committed suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, California. In 2000 more than 1000 members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments were murdered in Uganda. (1) And on September 11, 2001 in New York and March 11, 2004 in Madrid a new kind of fanaticism shook the world and made us aware of the terrible possibility that small bands of zealots are capable of mass destruction. (2)

These horrific events all depended on the extraordinary level of influence and control certain leaders wielded over their followers. They are extreme examples of tragedies and abuses that occur every day, involving families and individuals shattered by the domineering influence of an exploitative leader in a cultic, authoritarian, or other harmful group or movement.

ICSA seeks to apply academic and professional research and analyses to the practical problems of such families and individuals and to the professionals who seek to help them and/or forewarn those who might become involved in harmful group situations.

Definition

Although there is no agreed-upon definition of cult, one proposed by Rutgers sociologist Benjamin Zablocki seems to highlight key elements of high-influence group situations: "An ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and demanding total commitment." Charisma refers to a spiritual power or personal quality that gives leaders influence or authority over large numbers of people.  Hence, a cult is characterized by an ideology, strong demands issuing from that ideology, and powerful processes of social-psychological influence to induce group members to meet those demands. This high-demand, leader-centered social climate places such groups at risk of exploiting and injuring members, although they may remain benign, if leadership doesn't abuse its power.

The social-psychological manipulation and control associated with some cultic groups may sometimes be found in other organizations and movements, including those in the mainstream. However, unlike new groups focused on a living leader who answers to nobody, mainstream movements may be restrained or corrected by higher authorities to whom they are accountable.

Prevalence

Research studies suggest that one to two percent of the U.S. population (two to five million persons) have been involved in cultic groups and that several hundred thousand people enter and leave cultic groups each year. Similar percentages appear to hold true for Western Europe.

ICSA has information in its files on over 4,000 groups, many of which have been the object of critical news reports.  However, the percentage of these groups that could be categorized as "cults" is unknown.  ICSA does not maintain a list of "cults."  Each case associated with concern about a particular group should be evaluated individually.

Harm

ICSA's research indicates that cultic and other high control groups vary enormously in their potential for harm.  Harm may be physical, psychological, economic, social, and/or spiritual.  Different people will respond in varied ways to the same intense group environment, some remaining unscathed, while others are devastated.  Although scholars may dispute the level, causes, and effects of harmful practices in particular groups, a common-sense assumption underlies ICSA's work:  Under some circumstances, some groups can harm some people. ICSA is interested in the causes, nature, prevalence, and remediation of such group-related harm. (3)  Resource collections for mental health professionals seeking to help those adversely affected by group involvements can be found here and here.  Legal resources can be found here and here (although some in the latter collection are available in the former, free collection); clergy resources, here and here. Other collections of note:  Press.   Student.   Children.  

Prevention

Of course, the most desirable way to combat cultic and related manipulations is to forewarn potential victims, especially young people.  Millions of well-meaning youth, as well as adults and even elderly people going through vulnerable transition periods in their lives, enter the �cult marketplace� each year.  ICSA's research indicates that 43% of cultic group members were students when they first joined their groups, and 38% of these persons dropped out of school after joining their groups. (4)  A crucial need, consequently, is preventive education. (5)

Education of the general public and professionals can also result in a decrease in cultic abuses.  Vigorous public discussions about cult-related problems, for example, can sometimes result in fruitful dialogues that cause controversial groups to change.  In his book, Recovery from Abusive Churches, Dr. Ronald Enroth describes several cases in which criticism of cultic evangelical groups resulted in public apologies by the group leaders and clear changes in their practices.  ICSA staff and advisors have had fruitful exchanges with leaders of the Hare Krishna movement, which appears to be struggling with genuine attempts to reform the organization from within. (6)

Vigorous public discussion is also necessary before institutional authorities (including religious, educational, health, and government) can justify taking actions to curtail certain behaviors of cultic groups, which often call upon the First Amendment for protection�with some justification.  Institutional authorities in most countries have thus far done very little, in part because the information base in this area has not yet reached a sufficiently sophisticated level to motivate institutional leaders to act, especially given the civil liberties dimension of the problem.  ICSA hopes that in time the research base in this area will reach a level that will enable institutional authorities to make more informed, balanced, and effective decisions regarding what to do about the problems cultic groups pose. (7)

Research Support

On occasion ICSA has been able to afford, or has received special grants for, supporting research studies.  Among the more notable research developments are:

  • The development of the Group Psychological Abuse Scale (GPA), a measure of perceived psychological abuse in groups.  The GPA has been translated into Spanish and Japanese and has been used in more than a dozen studies around the world. (8)

  • Dr. Edward Lottick's survey of Pennsylvania physicians, which provides, among other findings, valuable data pertinent to prevalence.

  • Studies that use standardized psychological measures, including ICSA's GPA, to assess the level of psychological distress in former group members. (9)

  • The development of detailed curricula designed to help people born or raised in cultic groups (a population with specific needs).  

  • Beginning in 2004 ICSA instituted what we hope will become an annual project, the compilation of an annotated bibliography of the cultic studies literature in English, French (English summary; complete report in French), Spanish (and ultimately other languages).  The first bibliographies (numbering more than 50 pages) review the literature from 2003.

Future research directions that interest ICSA include:

  • Outcome studies of remedial and preventive interventions, including exit counseling, psychotherapy of former members, residential treatment, and educational curricula.

  • Process studies that examine the nature of interventions in detail.

  • Characteristics of the kinds of powerful influences associated with cultic groups, zealotry, and authoritarianism.

  • The further development and refinement of existing measures, such as the Group Psychological Abuse Scale.

  • The development of new measures to assess family contexts and reactions, group environments, and the psychological, cognitive, and social status of group members and former group members.

  • The ways in which group and person variables interact in cultic situations.

  • The development of practical classification systems with regard to groups, families, and individuals.

  • Further studies of prevalence of group membership and harms associated with group membership.

Endnotes

(1) For a sociological analysis of cultic violence, see: Kent, Stephen A. (2004). Scientific evaluation of the dangers posed by religious groups: A partial model.  Cultic Studies Review, 3(2).

(2) See: Centner, Christopher. (2003). Cults and terrorism: Similarities and differences.  Cultic Studies Review, 2(2).

(3) For a summary of clinical and research studies pertinent to harm see: (a) Dr. Michael Langone's paper, "Research on Destructive Cults," at  and (b) McKibben, J. A., Lynn, S. J.,  & Malinoski, P. (2002). Are cultic environments psychologically harmful? Cultic Studies Review, 1(3).

(4) Other survey results from this study.

(5) See the State of Maryland Task Force Report, to which ICSA (formerly AFF) advisors contributed. Also see: Kropveld, Michael. (2004). Preventive education: A North American perspective. ICSA E-Newsletter, 3(2). Pseudoscience Fact sheets are also a useful educational resource.

(6) See our special collection on the Hare Krishna movement.

(7) See the report of a panel discussion at ICSA's (formerly AFF's) 1999 annual conference in which representatives of 13 cult-educational organizations from around the world came to a consensus on needed actions: Langone, Michael. (2001). What should be done about cults? Cultic Studies Journal, 18, 69-81.

(8) For more information on the GPA see:  Chambers, W. V., Langone, M.D., Dole, A. A., & Grice, J. W. (1994). The Group Psychological Abuse Scale: A measure of the varieties of cultic abuse. Cultic Studies Journal, 11(1), 88-0117.  Almendros, C., Carrobles, J., Rodr�guez-Carballeira, A., & Jans�, J. (2003). Psychometric properties of the Spanish version of the Group Psychological Abuse Scale. Cultic Studies Review, 2(3).

(9) Among the empirical studies of harm in cultic groups published in our periodicals are the following: Martin, P., Langone, M., Dole, A., & Wiltrout, J. (1992). Post-cult symptoms as measured by the MCMI before and after residential treatment.  Cultic Studies Journal, 9(2), 219-250. Weishaupt, K., & Stensland, M. (1997). Wifely subjection: Mental health issues in Jehovah�s Witness womenCultic Studies Journal, 14(1), 106-144.  Asser, S., & Swan, R. (2000). Child fatalities from religion-motivated neglect.  Cultic Studies Journal, 17, 1-14. (Reprinted from Pediatrics, April 1998, 625-629). Aronoff McKibben, J., Lynn, S. J., & Malinoski, P. (2002). Are cultic environments psychologically harmful? Cultic Studies Review, 1(3).

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