Cults: Questions and Answers
Q. What is a Cult?
The term cult is applied to a wide
range of groups. There are historical cults, such as the cult of Isis,
non-western cults studied by anthropologists, such as the Melanesian cargo
cults, and a host of contemporary cults that have caught the publics’
attention during the past fifteen years. Webster’s Third New
International Dictionary (unabridged, 1966) provides several definitions
of cult, among which are;
A religion regarded as unorthodox or
spurious... a minority religious group holding beliefs regarded as
unorthodox or spurious...
A system for the cure of disease
based on the dogma, tenets, or principles set forth by its promulgator
to the exclusion of scientific experience or demonstration...
A great or excessive devotion or
dedication to some person, idea, or thing...
a. the object of such devotion...
b. a body of persons characterized
by such devotion, for example, “America’s growing cult of home
These broad definitions do not
accurately reflect the concerns generated by contemporary groups often
regarded as cults. The following definition focuses these concerns.
Cult: a group or movement exhibiting
a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or
thing, and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion
and control designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the
actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the
community. Unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and
control include but are not limited to: isolation from former friends
and family, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and
subservience, powerful group pressures, information management,
suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total
dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc.
Contemporary cults, then, are likely
to exhibit three elements to varying degrees:
members’ excessively zealous,
unquestioning commitment to the identity and leadership of the group,
exploitative manipulation of members; and
harm or the danger of harm to members, their families
Because cults tend to be
leader-centered, exploitative, and harmful, they come into conflict with
and are threatened by the more rational, open, and benevolent systems of
members’ families and society at large. Some gradually accommodate to
society by decreasing their levels of manipulation, exploitation, harm,
and opposition. Others, however, harden their shells by becoming
totalistic, elitist, and isolated. These groups tend to:
dictate sometimes in great detail how members should
think, act, and feel;
claim a special, exalted status (for example, occult
powers, a mission to save humanity) for themselves and/or their leaders;
intensify their opposition to and alienation from society
Because the capacity to exploit human
beings is universal, a cult could arise in any kind of group. Most
established groups, however, have accountability mechanisms that restrain
the development of cultic subgroups. Some religious cult leaders, for
example, began their careers in mainstream denominations from which they
were ejected because of their cultic activities. Cults, then, are
generally associated with newer, unorthodox groups, although not all new
or unorthodox groups are cults.
According to this perspective a “new
religious,” “new psychotherapeutic,” “new political,” or other “new”
movement differs from a cult in that the use of manipulative techniques of
persuasion and control to exploit members is much more characteristic of
the latter than the former “new movements.” This distinction, though
unfortunately ignored by many students of the subject, is important in
order to avoid unfairly labeling benign new groups as cults and
conversely, giving bona fide cults the undeserved respectability of terms
such as “new religious movement.”
The perspective put forth here focuses
on the psychological processes, in contrast to some religiously based
perspectives which focus on the doctrinal deviations of cults. According
to this statement, a group may be deviant and heretical without
necessarily being a cult.
Q. What Types of Cults
Many systems for classifying cults
have been advanced. A straightforward breakdown has been suggested by Dr.
Margaret Singer, who observes the following types of cults:
Zen and Sino/Japanese
flying saucer and outer space
mass therapy or transformational training
Q. How Many Cults Exist and How Many Members Have
Cult educational organizations have
compiled lists of more than 2,000 groups about which they have received
inquiries. The frequency with which previously unheard-of groups may be
new religious, political, psychotherapeutic, or other kinds of movements.
Experience suggests, however, that a significant number, perhaps more than
1,000, are cults. Although the majority are small, some cults have tens
of thousands of members.
Several research studies lend support
to informal estimates that five to ten million Americans have been at
least transiently involved with cultic groups. A study which randomly
surveyed 1,000 San Francisco Bay Area high school students found that 3%
of students reported that they were members of a cult group, while 54%
reported at least one contact with a cult recruiter.1 Another
study, which analyzed survey data from Montreal and San Francisco, found
that approximately 20% of the adult population had participated in “new
religious and para-religious movements,” although more than 70% of the
involvements were transient.2 Other data in this study suggest
that approximately two to five percent of the subjects had participated in
“new religious and para-religious” groups that are commonly considered
Q. Are Cults Limited to the United States?
Absolutely not. Grassroots cult
educational organ-izations exist in more than 15 countries.
Government-sponsored inquiries into cult activities have occurred in at
least five countries. International Congresses on cultism have been held
in Germany, Spain, and France. And in 1984 the European Parliament passed
the “Cottrell Resolution,” which called member states to pool their
information about the “new organizations” as a prelude to developing “ways
of ensuring the effective protection of Community citizens.”3
Q. What is Mind Control?
Mind control (also referred to as
“brainwashing,” “coercive persuasion,” “thought reform,” and the
“systematic manipulation of psychological and social influence”) refers to
a process in which a group or individual systematically uses unethically
manipulative methods to persuade others to conform to the wishes of the
manipulator(s), often to the detriment of the person being manipulated.
Such methods include:
extensive control of information in order
to limit alternatives from which members may make “choices”;
intense indoctrination into a belief system
that denigrates independent critical thinking and considers the world
outside the group to be threatening, evil, or gravely in error;
an insistence that members’ distress—much
of which may consist of anxiety and guilt subtly induced by the
group—can be relieved only by conforming to the group;
physical and/or psychological debilitation
through inadequate diet or fatigue;
the induction of dissociative (trance-like)
states (via the misuse of meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, and
other exercises) in which attention is narrowed, suggestibility
heightened, and independent critical thinking weakened;
alternation of harshness/threats and
leniency/ love in order to effect compliance with the leadership’s
isolation from social supports;
and pressured public confessions.
Although the process by which cults
come to exercise mind control over members is complex and varies a great
deal, there appear to be three overlapping stages:
Recruits are duped into believing that the group is benevolent and will
enrich their lives by, for example, advancing their spirituality or
increasing their self-esteem and security. As a result of this deception
and the systematic use of highly manipulative techniques of influence,
recruits come to commit themselves to the group’s prescribed ways of
thinking, feeling, and acting; in other words, they become members or
By gradually isolating members from outside
influences, establishing unrealistically high and guilt-inducing
expectations, punishing any expressions of “negativity,” and denigrating
independent, critical thinking, the group causes members to become
extremely dependent on the group’s compliance-oriented expressions of love
Once a state of dependency is firmly established, the group’s control over
members’ thoughts, feelings, and behavior is strengthened by the members’
growing dread of losing the group’s psychological support (physical threat
also occurs in some groups), however much it may aim at ensuring their
compliance with leadership’s often debilitating demands.
Q. Is Mind Control Different from the Ordinary Social
Conditioning Employed by Parents and Social Institutions?
Yes. Ordinary social conditioning
differs from mind control in two important ways. First, parents, schools,
churches, and other organizations do not as a rule utilize unethically
manipulative techniques in socializing children, adolescents, and young
adults. Second, social conditioning is a slow process which promotes and
encourages an initially “unformed” child to become an autonomous adult
with a unique identity. Mind control, on the other hand, uses unethically
manipulative techniques of persuasion and control to induce dependency in
a person with an established identity, which the manipulator seeks to
alter radically without the informed consent of his targets.
The techniques with which a group or
person seeks to influence another can be broken down into two categories:
1) choice-respecting, which includes techniques that honor the autonomy of
the person being influenced; and 2) compliance-gaining, which includes
techniques (examples given in the previous answer) focused on obtaining a
desired response, regardless of the needs, wishes, goals, etc., of the
person being influenced.
Choice-respecting techniques can be
further broken down into educative and advisory techniques, while
compliance-gaining techniques can be broken down into techniques of
persuasion and control. A cult environment differs from a non-cult
environment in that the former exhibits a much greater proportion of
compliance-gaining techniques of persuasion and control.
In rearing children, it is often
necessary—and proper—to use control and persuasion to protect them from
danger and to help them grow up. As children grow into adults, however,
they develop an identity and a sense of personal autonomy that demand
respect. Parents learn to surrender control as their children learn to
assume responsibility. When this process of normal development breaks
down, as when an adult becomes suicidally depressed, relatives and/or
helping authorities will tend to become compliance-oriented and step into
a “caretaker” role (possibly, in this case, commitment to a psychiatric
hospital). When the crisis has passed, however, unwritten ethical rules
require that the influencer return to a choice-respecting mode of relating
to the adult.
In certain special situations, such as
joining the army or joining religious orders, individuals choose to
relinquish some of their autonomy. Unlike cult situations, these
situations entail informed consent, do not seek to “transform” the
person’s identity, and are contractual, rather than dependency-oriented.
Furthermore, most of these situations involve groups that are accountable
Cults, on the other hand, answer to no
one as they flout the unwritten ethical laws by deceptively establishing a
compliance-gaining relationship with individuals whose autonomy and
identity they disregard. Hence, any similarities between a cult
environment and boot camp, for example, are psychologically superficial.
Some cult apologists maintain that
mind control doesn’t exist because most cult recruits don’t become
members. These apologists often cite a study which reported that 10% of
those completing a two-day workshop offered by a controversial group
became members, while 5% remained members after two years.4
Those who did join, however, made major and rapid changes in their lives,
for the group in question demands the total commitment of members’ time.
In contrast, in the typical Billy Graham crusade, only 1%-3% of attending
unbelievers (who have been personally evangelized to for months) come
forward during the altar call, let alone modify their lives radically.5
And Billy Graham is considered to be one of the most effective
evangelists in history! Persuading 10% of a group of people, who are
largely recruited from the street, to become full-time missionaries within
a matter of weeks reflects an astounding level of psychological
Q. Who Joins Cults and Why?
Contrary to a popular misconception
that cult members are “crazy,” research and clinical evidence strongly
suggest that most cult members are relatively normal individuals, although
about one-third appear to have had mild psychiatric disorders before
joining.6 (It should be noted, however, that a recent study by
the National Institute of Mental Health found that approximately 20% of
the general population has at least one psychiatric disorder.7)
Cult members include the young, the
old, the wealthy, the poor, the educated, and the uneducated. There is no
easily identifiable “type” of person who joins cults. Nevertheless,
clinical experience and informal surveys indicate that a very large
majority of cult joiners were experiencing significant stress (frequently
related to normal crises of adolescence and young adulthood, such as
romantic breakup, school failure, vocational confusion) prior to their
cult conversion. Because their normal ways of coping were not working
well for them, these stressed individuals were more open than usual to
recruiters selling “roads to happiness.”
Other factors that may render some
persons susceptible to cultic influence include:
dependency (the desire to belong; lack of
unassertiveness (inability to say no or
express criticism or doubt);
gullibility (impaired capacity to question
critically what one is told, observes, thinks, etc.);
low tolerance for ambiguity (need for
absolute answers, impatience to obtain answers);
cultural disillusionment (alienation,
dissatisfaction with status quo);
desire for spiritual meaning;
susceptibility to trance-like states (in
some cases, perhaps, because of prior hallucinogenic drug experiences);
ignorance of the ways in which groups can
When persons made vulnerable by one or
more of these factors encounter a group which practices mind control,
conversion may very well occur, depending upon how well the group’s
doctrine, social environment, and mind control practices match the
specific vulnerabilities of the recruits. Unassertive individuals, for
instance, may be especially susceptible to the enticements of and
authoritarian, hierarchical group because they are afraid to challenge the
group’s dogmatic orientation.
Conversion to cults is not truly a
matter of choice. Vulnerabilities do not merely “lead” individuals to a
particular group. The group manipulates these vulnerabilities and
deceives prospects in order to persuade them to join and, ultimately,
renounce their old lives.
Q. How Do People Who Join Cults Change?
After converts commit themselves to a
cult, the cult’s way of thinking, feeling, and acting becomes second
nature, while important aspects of their pre-cult personalities are
suppressed or, in a sense, decay through disuse. New Converts at first
frequently appear to be shell-shocked by the bombardment of the cult’s
mind controlling techniques. They may appear “spaced out,” rigid and
stereotyped in their responses, limited in their use of language, impaired
in their ability to think critically, and oddly distant in their
relationships with others. Parents have been known to say, “That’s not my
kid!” Such observations account for the common contention that cult
members are “zombies” or glassy-eyed “robots.” Although this description
is an overstatement, it does reflect the fact that intense cultic
manipulations can trigger altered states of consciousness in some
In time, converts seem to lose the
tension and “spaced-out,” distant quality. They learn techniques, such as
chanting, to stifle doubts and to make it easier to lie to others and
themselves. They often lose contact with people from their pre-cult lives
as a result of the cult’s isolating opposition to parents and society.
And they receive rewards for conforming to the demands of the group on
which they have become so dependent.
If allowed to break into
consciousness, suppressed memories or nagging doubts may generate anxiety
which, in turn, may trigger a defensive trance-induction, such as speaking
in tongues, to protect the cult-imposed system of thoughts, feelings, and
behavior. Such persons may function adequately—at least on a superficial
level. Nevertheless, their continued adjustment depends on their keeping
their old thinking styles, goals, values, and personal attachments “in
storage.” A normal level of psychological development and personality
integration is very difficult to achieve.
Q. How Can Cults Harm People?
Because they often recognize the
harmful changes that are not apparent to seduced converts, families are
usually the first to be hurt. In their attempts to help cult-involved
relatives, families experience intense frustration, helplessness, guilt,
and, because so few people understand their plight, loneliness.
Members may be harmed in that they
lose their psychological autonomy and frequently their assets.
Furthermore, the group’s partial-to-total disconnection from society
deprives members of the opportunity to learn from the varied experiences
that a normal life provides. Members may lose irretrievable years in a
state of “maturational arrest.” In some cases, they undergo psychiatric
breakdowns and/or suffer from physical disease and injury. Children in
cults appear to be at high risk for abuse and neglect.
Those who leave cults frequently
experience anxiety, depression, rage, guilt, distrust, fear, thought
disturbances, and “floating,” the shifting from cult to non-cult ways of
viewing the world or the sense of being stalled in a foggy, “in-between”
state of consciousness. This emotional turmoil impairs decision-making
and interferes with the management of life tasks.
Indeed, many ex-members require one to
two years to return to their former level of adaptation, while some may
have psychological breakdowns or remain psychologically scarred for years.
Not all who join are psychologically
damaged. Some may find the cult to be a safe haven from unmanageable
difficulties in the non-cult world. Others who have histories of
maintaining emotional distance may follow the cult without ever truly
becoming part of it or being deeply affected by it. And some may have
personal strengths, such as an unusual capacity to resist group pressure,
that enable them to maintain a measure of autonomy, even in a powerful,
Q. How Do Cults Harm Society?
The report, “Cultism: A Conference for
Scholars and Policy,”3 outlines some direct ways in which cults
have harmed society:Government/Law
Infiltration of government agencies,
political parties, community groups, and military organizations for the
purpose of obtaining classified or private information, gaining economic
advantage, or influencing the infiltrated organization to serve the ends
of the cult.
Fraudulent acquisition and illegal
disposition of public assistance and social security funds.
Violation of immigration laws
Abuse of the legal system through
spurious lawsuits, groundless complaints to licensing and regulatory
bodies, or extravagant demands for services (such as those provided by the
“Freedom of Information Act”) as part of “fishing expeditions” against
Pursuit of political goals while
operating under the rubric of a nonpolitical, charitable, or religious
BusinessDeceptive fund-raising and selling practices. Organizational and individual stress resulting from pressuring
employees to participate in cultic management training and growth
Misuse of charitable status in order to secure money for business and other noncharitable purposes.
Unfair competition through the use of underpaid labor or “recycled salaries.”
EducationDenial of, or interference with,
legally required education of children in cults.
Misuse of school or college facilities
or misrepresentation of the cult’s purposes, in order to gain
Recruitment of college students
through violation of their privacy and/or deception.
ReligionAttempts to gain the support of
established religions by presenting a deceptive picture of the cult’s
goals, beliefs, and practices, and seeking to make “common cause” on
Infiltration of established religious
groups in order to recruit members into the cult.
Cults also harm society in important
indirect ways. Cults violate five interrelated values that sustain free,
pluralistic cultures: human dignity, freedom, ethics, critical thinking,
and accountability. Because they “cheat,” cults are able to gain power
far beyond their numbers. Furthermore, the majority seek the protection
guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, even thought their ultimate goal is to
eliminate the very freedom they claim for themselves. They thus pose a
How does a free,
constitutionally-based society protect itself against the totalistic
impulses and practices of cults and other groups of zealots without
becoming closed and repressive? Simply put, how does the constitutional
center hold together?
This question is especially important
today because the American cultural identity has fragmented.
The once-dominant Judeo-Christian
tradition has been challenged, some say supplanted, by a secularism which,
although consistent with the American Constitutional heritage, rejects
many major tenets of traditional Judeo-Christian morality.
While these two camps have been
battling, a third value system or world view, rooted in eastern mysticism
and issuing from the humanistic psychology movement, has worked itself
into the American consciousness. Commonly called the New Age movement,
this world view’s fundamental tenet is that men are blind to the fact that
they are all one, that they are all God, and that they are all capable of
developing superhuman capacities.
Most proponents of these three world
views tolerate disagreement and respect their opponents, even as they
compete - knowingly or not- for dominance within the changing American
identity. But on the fringes of each world view, zealots, many of whom
belong to well-organized cults, seek to remake the culture in their own
If cultic zealotry is not ethically
restrained, American culture will lose its ethical moorings and the values
that have for so long undergirded constitutional guarantees. The hundreds
of thousands of families whom cults have torn apart and the millions of
individuals whose rights and integrity they have violated testify to the
gravity of this threat.
Q. Why Do People Leave Cults?
People leave cults for a variety of
reasons. After becoming aware of hypocrisy and/or corruption within the
cult, converts who have maintained an element of independence and some
connection with their old values may simply walk out disillusioned. Other
members may leave because they have become weary of a routine of
proselytizing and fund-raising. Sometimes even the most dedicated members
may feel so inadequate in the face of the cult’s demands that they walk
away, not because they have stopped believing, but because they feel like
abject failures. Still others may renounce the cult after reconnecting to
old values, goals, interests, or relationships, resulting from visits with
parents, talks with ex-members, or counseling.
Q. Is Leaving a Cult Easy?
Persons who consider leaving a cult
are usually pressured to stay. Some ex-members say that they spent
months, even years, trying to garner the strength to walk out. Some felt
so intimidated that they departed secretly.
Although most cult members eventually
walk out on their own, parental alarm should not be discounted. First,
many, if not most, who leave cults on their own are psychologically
harmed, often in ways which they do not understand. Second, some cultists
never leave, and some of these are severely harmed. And third, there is
no way to predict who will leave, who won’t leave, or who will be harmed.
Consequently, to dismiss parental concern out of hand is analogous to
dismissing concerns about youthful marijuana smoking because most youths
who try marijuana do not become substance abusers.
Q. What is Exit Counseling and How Does It Differ from Deprogramming?
Exit counseling and deprogramming both
involve talking to cult members (sometimes in long sessions spread over
many days) in order to help them recognize manipulative, deceitful, and
exploitative cult practices, reconnect to pre-cult personal attachments,
beliefs, values, and goals, and reestablish the ability to think
independently and critically. But they differ in a least one very
Deprogramming, unlike exit counseling,
is traditionally associated with a “rescue” process, in which family
members (usually parents) hire a deprogramming team to force the cultist
to “listen to the other side of the story.” During the early and
mid-1970’s, dozens of newspaper stories and at least a half-dozen books
described dramatic tales of deprogrammers “snatching” adult children of
parents desperately concerned about their children’s cult involvement.
Although cult-supported propaganda
depicted deprogramming as a lurid, violent process, the overwhelming
majority of deprogrammings were, other than the initial “snatching,” quite
peaceful. Many deprogrammed ex-members have remarked that they were
surprised by the respect and genuine concern shown them.
Deprogramming was, of course,
controversial. Many observers, including large numbers of cult critics,
opposed it because:
they believed it violated cultists’ civil rights (although
some legal scholars put forth arguments supporting deprogramming as a
necessary remedy to cults’ destruction of individual autonomy);
it sometimes resulted in lawsuits against parents and
deprogrammers, some of whom were successfully prosecuted;
it was sometimes attempted on individuals who did not belong
to cults and, therefore, were not “programmed” in the first place;
it was psychologically risky in that irreparable harm to the
parent-child bond could sometimes result from a failed deprogramming,
which occurred about one-third of the time;
its high cost ($10,000 being a conservative estimate for
deprogrammers, travel, lodging, security, etc.) was sometimes financially
devastating for parents who turned to it because they did not realize
other options existed.
I have used the past tense in
describing deprogramming because it rarely occurs today, partly because of
legal risks, but mostly because workers in this field have become more
skilled at helping family members persuade cult-involved relatives to
participate voluntarily in exit counseling. Exit counselors, who have
begun to organize in order to become more effective and professional, have
begun work on a code to guide their behavior. Their growing
professionalism is a significant development for cult-affected families.
Q. What Can Parents of Cultists Do?
There is much they can do, but all
intelligent alternatives involve considerable uncertainty, anxiety, and
effort. Parents should realize that:
Troubling behavior in a young adult or
adult child can sometimes have little or nothing to do with involvement in
a cult or “new” movement;
“rescuing” cultists or persuading them to leave a cult is
not always possible or even advisable, because, for example, the group may
provide a refuge for a psychologically disturbed person;
a “recipe” for persuading a person to leave a cult does not
exist - each case must be treated individually;
hence, collecting valid information bearing on the group’s
destructiveness to their child is vital.
After parents understand these points,
they can then try to conduct - with professional assistance when
appropriate - an informed, reasoned investigation of their possible
courses of action, which include the following:
accept a child’s involvement;
persuade the child to make an informed reevaluation of his
commitment to the group;
set up a deprogramming “rescue”;
disown the child.
Although space permits only a
superficial analysis, consider briefly each of these alternatives:
Alternative One: Acceptance
Parents may accept, even approve of a
cult involvement because they respect their child’s autonomy and deem his
group to be psychologically benign. If parents believe the group is
destructive to their child, they may reluctantly accept his involvement
because they are not able to pursue a course of action that would lead him
to reevaluate. Such reluctant passivity can sometimes be very trying to
parents, who may benefit from professional assistance designed to help
them cope with the grief, anger, fear, and guilt that cultists’ parents
Alternative Two: Promote Voluntary, Informed Reevaluation
Parents who choose this alternative
devise an ethical strategy for maximizing their influence
over the cultist and
develop the self-control and awareness needed for
implementing, evaluating, and revising the strategy as needed. Although
the former task is difficult, the latter is usually even more trying, as
well as easier to neglect. Parents following this course are advised to
seek help from a variety of resources, including other parents of
cultists, ex-members, reading material, exit counselors, and professionals
with expertise in this field.
Alternative Three: “Rescue”Although many former members of cults
have publicly supported deprogramming as a necessary means of freeing
people from cult bondage, the procedure, as noted earlier, is legally and
psychologically risky. One-third of deprogrammings fail, and often lead
to parent-child estrangement, or even law suits. Furthermore, many
individuals who leave cults after a deprogramming might have been
persuaded to leave voluntarily, without the risks inherent in a “rescue.”
Therefore, the American Family Foundation does not recommend
Alternative Four: Disown Child
Some parents who cannot persuade their
child to leave a destructive group are psychologically unable to make the
best of a bad situation. They may feel a strong impulse to “disown” their
child, to shut him out of their lives completely. Disowning a child is a
form of “blocking out” an unpleasant reality. Although many persons are
able to function adequately while denying “bits” of reality, the depth of
the parent-child bond makes this alternative impossible to follow without
paying a severe and emotional penalty, even when disconnection seems less
distressing than intense, continuous, and unresolvable family conflict.
Hence, parents who seriously consider this alternative are advised to seek
Q. How Can Parents and Others Help Cultists
Voluntarily Reevaluate Their Cult Involvement?
Because cults discourage open and
honest analysis of their beliefs and practices, parents and other
concerned relatives or friends must exercise imagination and tact to help
cultists voluntarily reevaluate a cult involvement.
The ultimate goal is to help cultists
make an informed reevaluation of their cult involvement, that is, to help
them carefully examine critical information which their group does not
make available to members, and to talk calmly and at length about the
reasons for and consequences of their commitment to the group. Helpers
should try to avoid emotional harangues about theology, “brainwashing,”
the corruption of cult leaders, and the like. Such tactics squander
opportunities to gather important information about the group and the
cultist’s relationship to it. Furthermore, emotional attacks may be
offensive and unwarranted if the person belongs to a benign group. And,
in the case of bona fide cults, emotional attacks confirm cult stereotypes
of the “satanic” outside world and raise fears of deprogramming, which may
cause cultists to withdraw deeper into the group.
Helpers should try to be active
listeners and should ask questions designed to open up the cultist’s
mind. In being active listeners, helpers not only gather information, but
also model the openness, rationality, and patience that cultists need to
reevaluate their commitment to the group.
Stay calm and keep the lines of communication open. One
cannot have any constructive influence without communication.
Respectfully listen to cultists’ points of view. Inquire
into their beliefs, feelings, and thoughts about life in the cult and
outside the cult. Find out if they have doubts or unanswered questions
about the group—but don’t pounce on them as soon as these are uncovered.
Be more inclined to calmly ask questions, rather then
Find out if they miss aspects of their old lives (friends,
recreational activities, school, relatives, music, etc.) Open their minds
to their own memories.
Find out what they believe and why.
Question their beliefs or try to get them to question them,
but do so in a calm, respectful manner so as not to push them into a
defensive corner. Timing is critical.
Calmly express your point of view, but don’t insist that
they agree. Respect their right to disagree. Sometimes it is more
effective simply to plant “thought seeds.”
Demonstrate one’s love and concern, but do not make this
contingent upon agreement or obedience, for doing this will rightly be
perceived as a bribe. Instead, show love and concern even when
disagreement is substantial.
When possible, neutralize anger by analyzing its source, for
anger begets anger. But do not artificially stifle anger, for the cultist
will most likely sense the insincerity inherent in stifling emotion.
Instead, show the sorrow, pain, and anxiety which are usually the root
causes of anger.
Let cultists know that their actions hurt or worry you, but
simultaneously respect their right to do as they see fit, however
manipulated they may seem to you.
Communicate love and help the cultist reconnect to his old
life by talking about old times and encouraging him to write, call, or
visit relatives and old friends. Also, when appropriate, encourage
relatives and friends to contact the cult member.
Patiently listening, expressing one’s
love, and modeling calmness and rationality help create a climate of
trust. If cultists trust a helper, they will be more willing to discuss
their cult involvement, even, perhaps, with ex-members, exit counselors,
or professionals knowledgeable about cults. Once this step is reached, an
informed reevaluation of a cultist’s commitment to a group is much more
Unfortunately, following this advice
doesn’t always produce the desired results. Sometimes the cult refuses to
let members talk at length with parents or others from the “old world.”
Indeed, it is not uncommon for cults to send members to distant states of
foreign countries without telling parents where they are. Sometimes
cultists’ minds are so taken over by the cult’s world view that a rational
dialogue is impossible. Sometimes the old world is so full of problems,
pain, and insecurity for cultists that—no matter how unhappy they may be
in the cult—they are too frightened even to consider returning to their
old lives. Sometimes cultists may honestly and intelligently reevaluate
their commitment to a group and decide to stay in it because they believe
it is better for them. And sometimes achieving the requisite
self-awareness and self-control is simply too demanding for parents and
other helpers. Nevertheless, those who can successfully follow this path
of sharing and reevaluation often discover that they have become closer to
the cult-involved person than they ever dreamed possible.
Q. What Can Educators, Clergy, and Others Do to
Protect Young People Against Cultic Recruitment?
Educators and clergy interested in
preventive education regarding cults can join the International Cult
Education Program (ICEP), a joint program of the American Family
Foundation and the Cult Awareness Network, a grassroots organization
composed largely of parents and ex-cult members. Joining ICEP will enable
educators and clergy to communicate with others who share their interest,
purchase tested educational materials, obtain videos, and speakers for
educational programs, and keep abreast of developments in this new and
exciting educational area. If you are interested in obtaining more
information about ICEP, contact AFF.
The cultic danger to young people is
outside criticism causes cults to decrease the level of
manipulation in their environments;
young people develop resistance to cultic sales pitches by
learning about how groups in general (not just cults) can influence one’s
thoughts, feelings, and behavior; and
young people learn to cope with stress and recognize and try
to overcome personal vulnerabilities, such as dependency, low tolerance of
ambiguity, and naive idealism—seeking professional help when appropriate.
Consequently, educators and clergy can help protect youth by
not being afraid to criticize cult abuses, but teaching youth about cultic
manipulations, and by helping youth cultivate three values that will make
them less vulnerable to cultic enticements:
personal autonomy—the individual’s capacity to determine his
life with minimal pressure or manipulation from without;
personal integration—the individual’s continuing attempt to
order his memories, values, beliefs, heritage, etc., into a unified whole;
independent critical thinking, without which autonomy cannot
be maintained or integration achieved.
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theoretical and empirical analysis of the initial stage in the recruitment
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Barker, E. (1983). The ones who got away: People who attend Unification
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