Cults, Conversion, Science, & Harm
A Paper Presented to AFF's 2001 Annual
May 4-5, 2001
Cults and Conversion
In his classic work, The Varieties
of Religious Experience, William James defines religion as "the
feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so
far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they
may consider the divine" (p. 42).
James's definition of religion is useful when one focuses on the
experiences of men and women earnestly seeking a deeper personal
relationship with God or the ground of being.
His definition is compatible with what Gordon Allport, a pioneer
in the psychology of religion, called "intrinsic religion,"
that is "faith as a supreme value in its own right" (Hood,
Spilka, Hunsberger, & Gorsuch, 1996, p. 11).
But James and many others with an interest in religion often
overlook the less compelling kinds of religious experience that Allport
categorized as "extrinsic religion":
"religion that is strictly utilitarian; useful for the self
in granting safety, social standing, solace, and endorsement of one's
chosen way of life" (Hood et. Al., 1996, p. 11).
interesting variety of experience, often though not necessarily
religious, is conversion. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary
defines this kind of conversion as "the action of converting or
fact of being converted to some opinion, belief, party, etc." (p.
546). This definition makes
a useful distinction between "converting" and "being
converted," what I
have sometimes referred to as "inner-generated" and
The people about whom James wrote typically had sudden,
inner-generated conversions that were highly personal.
Contemporaries of James, however, studied gradual conversions
that had much more prominent social, or outer-generated, aspects.
J. B. Pratt (1920), for example, claimed that the born again
experiences in American fundamentalism were largely a result of social
were "born again" because their social world expected them to
be "born again."
We have, then,
several dimensions of religious conversion experience to consider:
should be viewed as continua or even as intersecting dimensions, not as
social conversions may have profound personal aspects, just as
profoundly personal conversions may have extrinsic, utilitarian aspects.
Perhaps I reveal only
my own bias, but I believe that there is a general tendency to view
personal, inner-generated conversions as more authentic than
outer-generated, social conversions. Suddenness in a conversion can make it especially
interesting, as it did for James, but it may also make the conversion
suspect, if there appear to be psychopathological or utilitarian
motivations for the conversion. Outer-generated
conversions may also stimulate skepticism, although the skepticism is
likely to be blunted when the person is converted to a belief system
shared by those judging the conversion.
Cults and other
groups, including large group awareness trainings, have generated
controversy in large part because they are often viewed as
The highly sophisticated programs of the Moonies in the 1970s
were for a long time viewed as the archetypal cult conversion. They were relatively sudden, outer-generated or
"engineered," and, at least to skeptical outside observers,
crassly utilitarian. Similarities
to "brainwashing" research from the Korean War were easy to
however, were not the empty-headed zombies that sensationalized media
reports made them out to be. Despite
the powerful social forces shaping their conversion, converts often did
have profound personal experiences of their relationship to a divine,
transcendent reality. The biases I mentioned earlier tended to make most of us
recoil from the possibility that people could be manipulated into having
such highly personal and psychologically deep experiences of conversion.
But some observers, such as Dr. John Clark, one of the pioneering
mental health professionals in this field, saw the depth of the personal
change in these "engineered" conversions as the most striking
and fascinating aspect of the phenomenon. Dr. Clark called cult conversion an "impermissible
experiment" on the reshaping of personality, impermissible because
no ethical researcher would ever do what cults routinely did. He did not
see the conversions as superficial or simplistically extrinsic -- and
neither did most of the terrified parents who consulted him about their
children involved in cultic groups, whether religious, political,
psychological, or even commercial in nature.
Dr. Clark emphasized that the engineering of personality change
is not limited to religion. Moreover,
he maintained that even when such "engineering" has beneficial
effects, it should be subject and subordinated to ethical evaluations.
mainly academicians in sociology or religious studies, saw the personal
depth of these conversions as self-validating.
They disdained the sensationalized media accounts and objected to
the simplistic brainwashing models that some activists used to justify
deprogramming, which the academicians passionately opposed.
An ideological antipathy toward the so-called "medical
model" seemed to make some of these academicians oppose in a
knee-jerk manner any theories, however sophisticated, that suggested
that the conversions they observed were engineered or exploitative.
The academic cult wars, which continue to this day, had begun.
I don't have time in
this paper to elaborate upon the academic cult wars (see the inaugural
issue of AFF's Internet journal, www.cultsandsociety.com for
detailed analyses). Suffice
it to say that both sides of the debate, cult critics and sympathizers
(or what has less flatteringly been termed "anti-cultists" and
"pro-cultists"), were partly correct.
Conversions can be
engineered, but converts are not the passive pawns they appear to be in
some critics' portrayals. Interactive
models are necessary to properly understand even the most manipulative
of conversions. (See "Sex, Lies, and Grand Schemes of Thought in Closed
Groups" by A Collective of Women in the special Cultic Studies
Journal issue, "Women Under the Influence," for an
insightful analysis of how intelligent, thoughtful, and independent
adults become "loyal and dedicated to our own
Conversions can be
engineered, but there are also nonmanipulative entries into high-control
environments that are difficult to leave.
The Moonie model so influenced people in this field that for
years many professionals and researchers ignored the growing evidence
that the Moonie model of conversion was not typical.
Dr. Benjamin Zablocki (1998), in an important paper, "Exit
Cost Analysis: A New Approach to the Scientific Study of
Brainwashing," quotes Dr. Stephen Kent, who says that brainwashing
is a useful "technique for retaining members not for obtaining
members" (p. 218). These
sociologists, who have organized two research programs for this
conference, do activists and mental health professionals in this field a
service by drawing our attention to this important distinction.
(The distinction is certainly relevant to the case of people born
into high-control groups, a subject of one of this conference's
programs.) Even when
conversions are not engineered, the maintenance of the convert's loyalty
may involve high levels of manipulation and psychological coercion.
Conversely, it may also sometimes be the case that an engineered
conversion brings somebody into a relatively benign and nonmanipulative
environment. Given the
concern some mainstream campus ministries have shown for evangelists
who, so to speak, put a notch on their Bible every time they
"win" a soul for Christ, I suspect that some conversions to
mainstream Christian denominations may be more manipulative than many
The powerful social
forces in many controversial groups place them at risk for harming their
members, psychologically, physically, and economically.
(Drs. Mayer and Lifton will inform us about two of the most
conspicuous examples of groups that harmed their members.)
Cult sympathizers, to a large extent, appear to have been
reluctant to write about these negative effects of conversion, although
there are some notable exceptions (e.g., Rochford's research on ISKCON
-- see www.cultsandsociety.com).
Barker sheds light on this reluctance in a candid comment she
made during her presidential address to the Society for the Scientific
Study of Religion in 1995:
we are to be honest and self-critical, we have to admit that several of
us have reacted against the selective negativity of the ACM by,
sometimes quite unconsciously, making our own unbalanced selections.
Having been affronted by what have appeared to be gross
violations of human rights perpetrated through practices such as
deprogramming and the medicalization of belief, there have been
occasions when social scientists have withheld information about the
movements because they know that this will be taken, possibly out of
context, to be used as a justification for such actions.
The somewhat paradoxical situation is that the more we feel the
NRMs are having untrue bad things said about them, the less
inclined we are to publish true "bad" things about the
movements. (Barker, 1995,
Some cult critics
have shown a similar reluctance to acknowledge positive aspects of the
groups they criticize, although mental health professionals have long
encouraged families to acknowledge their loved ones' positive
experience, something that families, quite understandably, often find
painful to do.
In literature classes
in college or high school we all heard about two-dimensional and
three-dimensional characters. The
latter were preferable because they were more complex, more nuanced,
more interesting -- in short, they were more real.
We need three-dimensional theories of cult conversion, cult
experience, and cult departure and recovery.
The landscape is much more varied than we realize.
That is why in this conference we have organized programs on
positive and negative aspects of conversion, including positive
descriptions of conversion to groups typically viewed as controversial.
We need to look at the entire panorama of conversion -- to
nonreligious as well as religious groups, to benign as well as
destructive group experiences -- in order to understand the field well
enough to make balanced judgments concerning what to do about the "true
'bad' things" to which Dr. Barker refers in the quote above.
Harm and Science
There is an
appropriate vagueness about the term "bad," which Dr. Barker
uses. Different observers
will object to different groups or to different aspects of the same
group. What they have in
common is a sense that the group inflicts harm or offense on people,
within or outside the group. In
a paper I gave at our annual conference in Minnesota two years ago, I
described four kinds of concern stimulated by cultic and related groups:
concerns (e.g., high stress resulting from members' being placed in
demanding double binds) [A number of research presentations in this
conference address psychological harm.
Several programs address issues of recovery and healing.]
concerns (e.g., the use of deceit and manipulation to persuade
people to attend an introductory seminar)
concerns (e.g., breaking laws, medical neglect of children)
concerns (e.g., whether or not a translation of a sacred text is
accurate, whether or not a group's claim to belong to a particular
religious tradition is valid).
If one is to maintain
one's intellectual integrity as a critic, it is important not to confuse
or blend together these concerns and it is especially important not to
presume that the presence of one concern makes the group "bad"
and, by imputation, infected by the other concerns.
I suspect, for example, that some large group awareness training
programs may be vulnerable to ethical critiques, even though there may
not be strong scientific evidence of widespread psychological harm.
Although research is
far from definitive, it does suggest that a sizeable minority, if not a
majority, of former members of cultic groups (those characterized by
high levels of manipulation and exploitation) suffer measurable
psychological distress. Research
(e.g., Lottick, 1993) also suggests that about 1% - 2% of the population
has had at least a transient involvement with a cultic group and that
several hundred thousand people in the Western democracies probably
enter and leave cultic groups each year.
This is a significant
level of harm that, however much we may dispute its causes, is likely to
motivate some people to take action and to try to persuade governments
to take action. Several
programs in this conference address international dimensions of the cult
phenomenon. Others address
counseling and related helping efforts.
professionals concerned about cults see their primary obligations as
assistance and education, as helping hurting people and forewarning
those who might get entangled with dubious groups in the future.
As with helpers in other fields, these individuals cannot wait
for the kinds of definitive scientific research that warm the hearts of
academicians. They must act
with incomplete knowledge because persons needing help now can't wait
for science to advance.
This conflict results
in a competition between action and research, both of which demand more
resources than society is willing to commit to the cult issue.
Sometimes action dominates and research is neglected or ignored. Sometimes research dominates and the needs of hurting people
are ignored or neglected. Sometimes
-- and I hope this is true for AFF -- action and research have a dynamic
relationship in which the latter informs and modifies the former, which
in turn provides information that stimulates the latter.
Research under girds action, which reveals new areas of research.
If research and
action needs are coordinated and balanced, it will be easier for
governmental and institutional authorities to make informed and balanced
decisions about assistance and educational needs of people affected by
or at risk of being affected by harmful cultic entanglements.
Good information is vital to these authorities because, as I
expect Dr. Kandel and Mr. Rosedale will argue, their special challenge
is to balance competing rights and responsibilities, not to pronounce in
favor of one over others.
organizations must respect the need for authorities and their own
organizations to continually inform, evaluate, and modify remedial
actions so as to take account of new research findings.
All organizations do not have to conduct research, but all
organizations should try to cooperate with and keep abreast of research
studies, especially those that have some practical implications for
helping people. If we
neglect study and research, we run the risk of becoming what many of us
accuse cults of being, that is, ideologically rigid -- we will never
change our thinking because we think we know all that is worth knowing.
Instead, let us all
acknowledge that we don't know as much as we think and that we should
work together in order to learn together.