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Cults: Questions and Answers

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

 

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 fixer-uppers.”

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 and/or society.

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; and

  • intensify their opposition to and alienation from society at large.

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 Exist? 

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: 

  • eastern religious

  • Christian abberational

  • satanic

  • occult/witchcraft/voodoo

  • spiritualist

  • racist

  • Zen and Sino/Japanese philosophical-mystical

  • flying saucer and outer space

  • psychotherapy

  • mass therapy or transformational training

  • political

  • new age

  • commercial

  • communal/self-help

 

Q. How Many Cults Exist and How Many Members Have They? 

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 cults.

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”;

  • deception;

  • group pressure;

  • 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 wishes;

  • 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: 

Deception
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 converts. 

Dependency
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 and support. 

Dread
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 to society.

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 influence! 

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 self-confidence);

  • 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);

  • naive idealism;

  • desire for spiritual meaning;

  • susceptibility to trance-like states (in some cases, perhaps, because of prior hallucinogenic drug experiences); and

  • ignorance of the ways in which groups can manipulate individuals.

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 persons. 

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, compliance-gaining environment.

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. 


Tax evasion
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 their enemies. 

Pursuit of political goals while operating under the rubric of a nonpolitical, charitable, or religious organization. 

Business

Deceptive fund-raising and selling practices. Organizational and individual stress resulting from pressuring employees to participate in cultic management training and growth seminars.
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.” 

Education

Denial 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 respectability.

Recruitment of college students through violation of their privacy and/or deception. 

Religion

Attempts 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 various issues.

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 serious challenge:

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 image.

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 significant way.

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: 

  • there is hope for parents;

  • not all “new” or unorthodox groups are cults (see Question 1: “What is a cult?”);

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 often experience.

Alternative Two: Promote Voluntary, Informed Reevaluation

Parents who choose this alternative must:

  • 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 deprogramming.

 

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 professional assistance.

 

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.

Helpers should:

  • 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 patient.

  • Be more inclined to calmly ask questions, rather then proffer opinions.

  • 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 easily achieved.

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 decreased when: 

  • 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; and

  • independent critical thinking, without which autonomy cannot be maintained or integration achieved.

 

References

Zimbardo, P.G., & Hartley, C.F. (1985). Cults go to high school: A theoretical and empirical analysis of the initial stage in the recruitment process.  Cultic Studies Journal, 2, 91-148.

Bird, F., & Reimer, B. (1982).  Participation rates in new religious and para-religious movements.  Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 21, 1-14.

American Family Foundation. (1986).  Cultism: A conference for scholars and policy makers.  Cultic Studies Journal, 3, 117-134.

Barker, E. (1983).  The ones who got away: People who attend Unification Church workshops and do not become members.  In Barker, E. (Ed.), Of Gods and Men: New Religious Movements in the West.  Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.

Frank, J. (1974).  Persuasion and Healing.  New York: Shoken Books.

Clark, J.G., Langone, M.D., Schecter, R.E., & Daly, R.C.B. (1981).  Destructive Cult Conversion: Theory, Research, and Treatment.  Bonita Springs, FL:  American Family Foundation.

Freedman, D.X. (1986).  Psychiatric epidemiology counts.  Archives of General Psychiatry, 41, 931-933.

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