Michael D. Langone,
Editor, Cultic Studies
An introductory paper presented to
AFF's 2001 Annual Conference, “Cults,
Conversion, Science & Harm,” Holiday Inn,
Airport, May 4-5,
Personal vs. social (intrinsic vs. extrinsic), sudden vs. gradual, and
inner-generated vs. outer-generated aspects of conversion experience are
discussed in order to illuminate the complexity and variability of conversions
associated with cultic groups. Negative aspects of conversion are discussed in
relationship to psychological, ethical, social, and theological concerns. The
importance of differentiating these concerns and studying the varied ways in
which harm manifests in cultic groups is stressed.
classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James
defines religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in
their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to
whatever they may consider the divine” (James, 1961, p. 42). James's definition
of religion is useful when one focuses on the experiences of men and women
earnestly seeking a deeper personal relationship with God or the ground of
being. His definition is compatible with what Gordon Allport, a pioneer in the
psychology of religion, called “intrinsic religion” — that is, "faith as a
supreme value in its own right" (Hood, Spilka, Hunsberger, & Gorsuch, 1996,
p. 11). But James and many others with an interest in religion often overlook
the less compelling kinds of religious experience that Allport categorized as
“extrinsic religion”: “religion that is strictly utilitarian; useful for the
self in granting safety, social standing, solace, and endorsement of one’s
chosen way of life” (Hood, et al., 1996, p. 11).
especially interesting variety of experience that is often, though not
necessarily, religious is conversion. The Compact Edition of the
Dictionary (1971) defines conversion as “the action of converting or fact of
being converted to some opinion, belief, party, etc.” (p. 546). This definition
implies a useful distinction between “converting” and “being converted” — what I
have sometimes referred to respectively as “inner-generated” and
“outer-generated” conversions. The people about whom James wrote typically had
sudden, inner-generated conversions that were highly personal. Some
contemporaries of James, however, studied gradual conversions that had much more
prominent social, or outer-generated, aspects. J. B. Pratt, for example, claimed
that the born-again experiences in American fundamentalism were largely a result
of social expectations: Adolescents were “born again” because their social world
expected them to be “born again” (Pratt, 1920).
have, then, several dimensions of conversion experience to consider:
Personal vs. social (intrinsic
Sudden vs. gradual
dimensions should be viewed as continua, or even as intersecting dimensions, not
as dichotomies. Extrinsic, social conversions might have profound personal
aspects, just as profoundly personal conversions might have extrinsic,
I reveal only my own bias, but I believe that a general tendency exists to view
personal, inner-generated conversions as more authentic than outer-generated,
social conversions. Suddenness in a conversion can make it especially
interesting, as it did for James, but suddenness might also make the conversion
suspect, if there appear to be psychopathological or utilitarian motivations for
the conversion. Outer-generated conversions might also stimulate skepticism,
although the skepticism is likely to be blunted when the person is converted to
a belief system shared by those judging the conversion.
and other groups, including some large-group-awareness trainings, have generated
controversy in large part because they are often viewed as “engineering”
conversions. The highly sophisticated programs of the Moonies in the 1970s were
for a long time viewed as the archetypal cult conversion. These conversions were
relatively sudden, outer-generated or “engineered,” and, at least to skeptical
outside observers, crassly utilitarian. Similarities to research about
“brainwashing” from the Korean War were easy to see.
converts, however, were not the empty-headed zombies that sensationalized media
reports made them out to be. Despite the powerful social forces shaping their
conversion, converts often did have profound personal experiences of their
relationship to a divine, transcendent reality. The biases I mentioned earlier
tended to make most of us recoil from the possibility that people could be
manipulated into having such highly personal and psychologically deep
experiences of conversion. But some observers, such as Dr. John Clark, one of
the pioneering mental health professionals in this field, saw the depth of the
personal change in these “engineered” conversions as the most striking and
fascinating aspect of the phenomenon. In various talks Dr. Clark called cult conversion an “impermissible
experiment” on the reshaping of personality, impermissible because no ethical
researcher would ever do what cults routinely did. He did not see the
conversions as superficial or simplistically extrinsic — and neither did most of
the terrified parents who consulted him about their children involved in cultic
groups, whether religious, political, psychological, or even commercial in
nature. Dr. Clark emphasized that the engineering of personality change is not
limited to religion (Clark, 1979). Moreover, he
maintained that even when such “engineering” has beneficial effects, it should
be subject and subordinated to ethical evaluations.
observers, mainly academicians in sociology or religious studies, saw the
personal depth of these conversions as self-validating. They disdained the
sensationalized media accounts and objected to the simplistic brainwashing
models that some activists used to justify deprogramming, which the academicians
passionately opposed. An ideological antipathy toward the so-called “medical
model” seemed to make some of these academicians oppose in a knee-jerk manner
any theories, however sophisticated, that suggested that the conversions they
observed were engineered or exploitative. The academic cult wars, which continue
to this day, had begun.
have time in this paper to elaborate upon the academic cult wars (see Amitrani
& Di Marzio, 2000a and 2000b and Langone, 2000). Suffice it to say that both
sides of the debate, cult critics and sympathizers (or what has less
flatteringly been termed “anti-cultists” and “pro-cultists”), were partly
Conversions can be engineered, but converts are not the passive pawns
they appear to be in some critics’ portrayals. Interactive models are necessary
to properly understand even the most manipulative of conversions. (See “Sex,
Lies, and Grand Schemes of Thought in Closed Groups” by A Collective of Women in
the special Cultic Studies Journal issue, “Women Under the Influence,”
for an insightful analysis of how intelligent, thoughtful, and independent
adults become "loyal and dedicated to our own undoing." [A
Collective of Women, 1997]).
Conversions can be engineered, but non-manipulative entries into
high-control environments can also be difficult to leave. The Moonie model so
influenced people in this field that, for years, many professionals and
researchers ignored the growing evidence that the Moonie model of conversion was
not typical. Dr. Benjamin Zablocki (1998), in
an important paper, "Exit Cost Analysis: A New Approach to the Scientific Study
of Brainwashing," quotes Dr. Stephen Kent, who
says that brainwashing is a useful “technique for retaining members not
for obtaining members” (p. 218). These sociologists, who have organized
two research programs for this conference, do activists and mental health
professionals in this field a service by drawing our attention to this important
distinction. (The distinction is certainly relevant to the case of people born
into high-control groups, a subject of one of this conference’s programs.) Even
when conversions are not engineered, the maintenance of the convert’s loyalty
might involve high levels of manipulation and psychological coercion.
Conversely, that an engineered conversion brings somebody into a relatively
benign and non-manipulative environment might also sometimes be the case. Given
the concern some mainstream campus ministries have shown for evangelists who, so
to speak, put a notch on their Bible every time they “win” a soul for Christ, I
suspect that some conversions to mainstream Christian denominations might be
more manipulative than many realize (see special issue of Cultic Studies Journal “Cults,
Evangelicals, and the Ethics of Social Influence,” 1985).
powerful social forces in many controversial groups place these groups at risk
for harming their members, psychologically, physically, and economically. (In
this conference historian Dr. Jean-Francois
Mayer and psychiatrist Dr. Robert Jay
Lifton will inform us about two of the most conspicuous
examples of groups that harmed their members, The Movement for the Restoration
of the Ten Commandments and Aum Shinrikyo.) Cult sympathizers, to a large extent,
appear to have been reluctant to write about these negative effects of
conversion, although there are some notable exceptions (e.g., Rochford, 1998)..
Barker sheds light on this reluctance in a candid comment she made during her
presidential address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in
If we are to be honest and self-critical, we have to admit that several
of us have reacted against the selective negativity of the ACM by, sometimes
quite unconsciously, making our own unbalanced selections. Having been affronted
by what have appeared to be gross violations of human rights perpetrated through
practices such as deprogramming and the medicalization of belief, there have
been occasions when social scientists have withheld information about the
movements because they know that this will be taken, possibly out of context, to
be used as a justification for such actions. The somewhat paradoxical situation
is that the more we feel the NRMs are
having untrue bad things said about them, the less inclined we are to
publish true “bad” things about the movements. (Barker, 1995, p. 305
– emphasis added)
cult critics have shown a similar reluctance to acknowledge positive aspects of
the groups they criticize, although mental health professionals have long
encouraged families to acknowledge their loved ones’ positive experiences,
something that families, quite understandably, often find painful to do. But this perspective doesn’t always find
its way into mental health publications on this subject.
literature classes in college or high school, we all heard about two-dimensional
and three-dimensional characters. The latter were preferable because they were
more complex, more nuanced, more interesting — in short, they were more real.
Similarly, we need three-dimensional theories of cult conversion, cult
experience, and cult departure and recovery. The landscape is much more varied
than we realize. That is why in this conference we have organized programs on
positive and negative aspects of conversion, including positive descriptions of
conversion to groups typically viewed as controversial. We need to look at the
entire panorama of conversion — to nonreligious as well as religious groups, to
benign as well as destructive group experiences — to understand the field well
enough to make balanced judgments concerning what to do about the “true
‘bad’ things” to which Dr. Barker refers in the quote above.
is an appropriate vagueness about the term “bad,” which Dr. Barker uses.
Different observers will object to different groups or to different aspects of
the same group. What the observers have in common is a sense that the group
inflicts harm on or inflicts offense to people, within or outside the group. In
a paper I gave at our annual conference in
Minnesota two years ago, I
described four kinds of concern that cultic and related groups
Psychological concerns (e.g.,
high stress resulting from members’ being placed in demanding double binds) [A
number of research presentations in this conference address psychological harm.
Several programs address issues of recovery and healing.]
Ethical concerns (e.g., the use
of deceit and manipulation to persuade people to attend an introductory
Social concerns (e.g., breaking
laws, medical neglect of children)
Theological concerns (e.g.,
whether or not a translation of a sacred text is accurate, whether or not a
group's claim to belong to a particular religious tradition is valid)
is to maintain one’s intellectual integrity as a critic, it is important not to
confuse or blend together these concerns, and it is especially important not to
presume that the presence of one concern makes the group “bad” and, by
imputation, infected by the other concerns. I suspect, for example, that some
large-group-awareness training programs might be vulnerable to ethical
critiques, even though no strong scientific evidence of widespread psychological
Although research is far from definitive, it does suggest that a sizeable
minority, if not a majority, of former members of cultic groups (those
characterized by high levels of manipulation and exploitation) suffer measurable
psychological distress. Research (e.g., Lottick, 1993) also suggests that
approximately 1% to 2% of the population has had at least a transient
involvement with a cultic group, and that several hundred thousand people in the
Western democracies probably enter and leave cultic groups each year.
numbers represent a significant level of harm that, however much we might
dispute its causes, is likely to motivate some people to take action and to try
to persuade governments to take action. Several programs in this conference
address international dimensions of the cult phenomenon. Others address
counseling and related helping efforts.
Activists and professionals concerned about cults see their primary
obligations as providing assistance and education, as helping hurting people and
forewarning those who might become entangled with dubious groups in the future.
As with helpers in other fields, these individuals cannot wait for the kinds of
definitive scientific research that warm the hearts of academicians. They must
act with incomplete knowledge because persons needing help now can't wait for
science to advance.
conflict results in a competition between action and research, both of which
demand more resources than society is willing to commit to the cult issue.
Sometimes action dominates and research is neglected or ignored. Sometimes
research dominates and the needs of hurting people are ignored or neglected.
Sometimes — and I hope this is true for AFF —
action and research have a dynamic relationship in which the latter informs and
modifies the former, which in turn provides information that stimulates the
latter. Research undergirds action, which reveals new areas of
research and action needs are coordinated and balanced, governmental and
institutional authorities can more easily make informed and balanced decisions
about assistance and educational needs of people affected by, or at risk of
being affected by, harmful cultic entanglements. Good information is vital to
these authorities because their special challenge is to balance competing rights
and responsibilities, not to pronounce in favor of one over others. (Law
professor Randy Kandel, Ph.D. and AFF
President, Herbert Rosedale, Esq. will address these issues in their
educational organizations must respect the need for authorities and their own
organizations to continually inform, evaluate, and modify remedial actions to
take account of new research findings. All organizations do not have to conduct
research, but all organizations should try to cooperate with and keep abreast of
research studies, especially those studies that have some practical implications
for helping people. If we neglect study and research, we run the risk of
becoming ideologically rigid like the groups we criticize, and we will never
change our thinking because we think we know all that is worth
Instead, let us all acknowledge that we don't know as much as we think
and that we should work together in order to learn together.
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