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 organizations concerned about cults in the
following countries: U.S.A., Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, United
Kingdom, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, France, Spain, Italy, Germany,
Switzerland, Belgium, 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 or
thing." 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
Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, 1994)
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 fervor and become
more organized 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
defines a cult as "an ideological organization 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 law-breaking and the undermining of democratic values.
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 emphasize elements of
authoritarian structure, deception, and manipulation and the fact that
groups may be psychotherapeutic, political, or commercial, as well as
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 characterized by thought reform, nor
does a thought reform program necessarily have to be a cult.
Nevertheless, the two seem to go together often enough that many
people mistakenly see them as necessarily linked.
by AFF associates imply that the term "cult" refers to a
continuum, in which a large gray area separates "cult" from
"noncult," or add qualifiers to the term "cult,"
such as "destructive." 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 gray 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 behaviors, 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,
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
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 categorization decisions about specific groups.
Since this paper has
a broad focus, I will presume the Zablocki definition of
"cult" in what follows: "an ideological organization held
together by charismatic relationships and demanding total
Concerns About Cults and Related
Groups Operate on Four Levels
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 programs 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
psychological dynamics characterize groups at high risk of harming
members and families?
can cultic environments be assessed empirically, in particular with
regard to the dimensions of control and harm?
is the nature and magnitude of harm that current and former members
prevalent is high manipulation within cults?
prevalent is harm within particular groups and across groups?
prevalent are groups at high risk of harm?
many individuals have been involved in such groups?
many involved persons have been harmed?
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 nonfalsifiable assumptions.
Some, for example,
seem to presume that all groups labeled cults must be all bad and
incapable of change. Messages
on the Internet, for example have asserted that this conference's
program, "Can Cultic Groups Change: The Case of ISKCON," is a
sign of naivete 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 labeled
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 sour grapes.
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 recognizes
the need to phrase the issues as questions that are amenable to
scientific research. Then such research must be conducted, as a
coordinated program of studies, not a hodgepodge of unrelated studies
pursued by isolated researchers.
The workshop on
Sunday, "Toward 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, realize 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, e.g., the sessions on
support groups and psychological needs, and the workshops for families,
ex-members, and those interested in education about the cult issue.
The first reaction of
many cult critics is, "that's wrong."
Often, the specific behavior or practice being criticized 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."
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 organizational psychology literature advocate the use of
"coercive persuasion" techniques in order to improve
organizational performance (I'm 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 doesn't
HAVE to demonstrate harm to justify an ethical criticism of a behavior
or practice. Nor does one
HAVE to demonstrate thought reform.
Many practices and behaviors that are not part of a thought
reform program can be criticized on ethical grounds.
Similarly, one doesn't HAVE to whitewash ethical transgressions
simply because some cult critics unfairly characterize 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 recognize that some of the organization's behaviors 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
a stigmatized 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)
the years any number of estimates have been offered ranging from 20% of
all students who attended an ashram-gurukula
suffering some form of abuse, to as many as 75% of the boys enrolled at
the Vrindavan, India, gurukula
having been sexually molested during the late 1970s and early 1980s. (Rochford
& Heinlein, p.47)
remember dark closets filled with flying dates (large 3 inch flying
cockroaches) and such, while beatings and `no prasadam' for dinner
became everyday affairs" (Rochford & Heinlein, p. 47).
was hell because I was only 6 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
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
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 organization 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
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 do standing on the sidelines
shouting "I see nothing but evil!"
Even if the reform movement is not fully confronting the
organization'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 organization 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 organization to reevaluate
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 organization support
I think it is
important to distinguish social concerns that reflect offenses 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 offense. 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 disapproval of:
dress or lifestyle choices
beliefs different from his/her own
with a foreign origin
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:
laws, including those related to immigration, commerce, and finances
or implicit standards of ethical influence (e.g., lying to people in
order to persuade them to come to a group-sponsored event)
of government organizations
of the legal system through spurious lawsuits
of political goals while operating under the rubric of a
nonpolitical, charitable, or religious organization
fund-raising and sales practices
pressuring of employees to participate in cultic
of charitable status in order to secure money for business and other
competition through the use of underpaid labor or "recycled
psychological, and educational neglect and/or abuse of children
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
U.S. and Europe have responded to cult issues. The Saturday evening
discussion program 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
standoff, for example, some observers criticized the FBI for not
addressing the thought reform dimension of Waco.
Others criticized 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 (citation):
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 he could not make the
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
Those who offer
theological analyses should be careful to recognize 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 Adolph 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.
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 organizations who 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
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.
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 rationalize contradictory beliefs and behaviors,
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 polarization, 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.
pro-cult-anti-cult debate really revolves around different judgment
calls people make with regard to how many groups are at risk for harm,
how much harm they contribute to, what causes the harm, and what should
be done about it. We must
make judgment 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:
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.
we are to increase our scientific understanding of this phenomenon,
we must put substantial resources into studying it scientifically in
a coordinated way, not the usual academic route of each researcher
working independently, chasing whatever question happens to grab his
or her fancy.
must be willing to change our opinions as scientific knowledge
As we struggle to
increase our scientific knowledge, we must try to help hurting people
and forewarn those as yet unaffected, especially youth, as best we can.
But we should do this with a humility that permits us to continue
to learn, even as we teach and counsel.