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Cults, Conversion, Science, & Harm

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.
Executive Director, AFF
Editor, Cultic Studies Journal


A Paper Presented to AFF's 2001 Annual Conference
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).

An especially 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 "outer-generated" conversions.  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 expectations:  adolescents were "born again" because their social world expected them to be "born again."

We have, then, several dimensions of religious conversion experience to consider:

  • Personal vs. social (intrinsic vs. extrinsic)

  • Sudden vs. gradual

  • Inner-generated vs. outer-generated.

These dimensions should be viewed as continua or even as intersecting dimensions, not as dichotomies.  Extrinsic, 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 "engineering" conversions.  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 see.

Cult converts, 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.

Other observers, 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, 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 undoing.").

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 realize.

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  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:

If 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, p. 305)

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:

  1. Psychological 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.]

  2. Ethical concerns (e.g., the use of deceit and manipulation to persuade people to attend an introductory seminar)

  3. Social concerns (e.g., breaking laws, medical neglect of children)

  4. Theological 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.

Activists and 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.

Cult educational 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.




< Langone, Michael D., Ph.D. - profile
< Langone, Michael D., Ph.D. - profile
^ Langone, Michael: "Mental Health Update on Cults" - Cult Observer 13(1), 1996
Chambers, Robert, Ph.D. et al.: "The Group Psychological Abuse Scale"
Chambers, Robert, Ph.D. et al.: "The Group Psychological Abuse Scale" - abs
Dole, Arthur A., Ph.D. "Strongly Held Views...New Age...Critics Versus Experts"
Dole, Arthur A., Ph.D.: "Is The New Age Movement Harmless? Critics Versus Experts" - abs
Dole, Arthur A., Ph.D.: "Is The New Age Movement Harmless? Critics Versus Experts" - abs
Langone, Micahel, Ph.D.: "Deception, Dependency & Dread The Conversion Process"
Langone, Michael D., Ph.D. & Nieburg, Herbert, Ph.D.: "Treatment of Satanism"
Langone, Michael D., Ph.D.: " Secular and Religious Critiques of Cults"
Langone, Michael D., Ph.D.: "Academic Disputes and Dialogue Collection: Preface"
Langone, Michael D., Ph.D.: "Letter to a Former Member of a Meditation Group"
Langone, Michael D., Ph.D.: "On Dialogue Between the Two Tribes of Cultic Studies Resarchers"
Langone, Michael D., Ph.D.: "Outline: Child Literature"
Langone, Michael D., Ph.D.: "Psychological Abuse: Theoretical and Measurement Issues"
Langone, Michael D., Ph.D.: "The Comet and Its Tail"
Langone, Michael D., Ph.D.: "The Two Camps of Cultic Studies"
Langone, Michael Ph.D.: "Cults and Violence"
Langone, Michael, D. Ph.D.: "Group Psychological Abuse Scale"
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "An Investigation of a Reputedly Psychologically Abusive Group that Targets College Students"
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "Are �Sound� Theology and Cultism Mutually Exclusive?
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "Boston Church of Christ Movement Study"
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "Business and the New Age Movement: A Critical Perspective"
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "Child Custody and Cults"
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "Children and Cults -- excerpt from Recovery from Cults
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "Cultic Studies Bibliography 2003"
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "Cults and Mind Control"
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "Cults, Conversion, Science, & Harm
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "Cults, Psychological Manipulation, and Society
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "Cults: Questions and Answers"
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "Definitional Ambiguity"
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "Helping Families"
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "Large Group Awareness Trainings"
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "Mind-Manipulating Groups: Are You or a Family Member a Victim?
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "New Religions and Public Policy"
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "On Using the Term "Cult"
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "Questionnaire Study: Preliminary Report"
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "Reflections on Post-Cult Recovery
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "Research on Destructive Cults
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "Satanism and Occult-Related Violence: What You Should Know"
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "The Art of Hoping: A Mother�s Story"
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "The Cult Problem in Japan"
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "We weren't Crazy; We were Fooled"
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "What Is New Age?
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "What Should be Done about Cults?
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "What You Might Want To Know About ICC
Langone, Michael: "Deprogramming, Exit Counseling, and Ethics: Clarifying the Confusion" - Cult Observer 10(4), 1993
Langone, Michael: "Mind-Manipulating Groups Checklist"
Singer, Margaret, Ph.D.: "Psychotherapy Cults"
Ω Conference 1997: PA Presenter
Ω Conference 2000 WA: Speakers
Ω Conference 2002 FL: Presenters
Ω Conference 2003 CA: Presenter
√ Langone, "Michael: Satanism & Occult-Related Violence"
√ Langone, Michael: "Recovery From Cults"
√ Video: "Symposium - Theory and Cults: In search of the Perfect Explanation, Sociological Theories, Psychological Manipulation: The Abuse of Women Conference"

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