Psychotherapy and the New Religions

Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 2, Number 1, 1985, pages 2-16

Psychotherapy And The “New Religions”: Are They The Same?

Daniel Kriegman, Ph.D.

Leonard Solomon, Ph.D.


Kilbourne and Richardson (1984) propose that cult groups (which they refer to as “new religions”) and psychotherapy are “functionally equivalent” and essentially the same. In this paper, we critically examine their logic and conclusions. The cult group seeks to lock the member into a highly dependent relationship to the leader, thereby foreclosing the member’s further growth and development. Psychotherapy seeks to utilize and resolve a patient’s natural yearning for a dependent nurturant relationship with the therapist in order to lead to greater internal freedom and personal autonomy. By critically examining the deeper level differences, this paper serves to illuminate the importance of distinguishing between such phenomena. There are, for example, profound differences between the manipulative techniques of social influence and control exercised by cults and the societally sanctioned and ethically applied techniques inherent in the curative process of psychotherapy.

Recently there has been considerable polarization of opinion in regard to cult phenomena as noted by several authors in this journal (Ash, 1984;

Galanti, 1984; Langone, 1984). Anticult and pro-cult positions have developed, and it can be shown how the terminology they use clearly demonstrates the biases present.

Ash attempts to show that the diversity of opinion even makes the word “cult” hard to define. Authors who are critical of cults emphasize the process of “brainwashing,” and the degree of authoritarian control over all aspects of life. Those authors who are “laissez-faire” or pro-cult tend to emphasize the “structural support” of cult groups and how they function as a “way-station” for emotionally troubled young adults (e.g., Levine, 1984). They (pro-cultists) tend to blur the differences between “cult groups” and other types of religious groups.

Apparently taking a relatively pro-cult stance, Kilbourne and Richardson, in an article in the American Psychologist (1984), propose that the “new religions” (Note 1). are, in essence, the same as psychotherapy. Following their logic, cults could be best understood as an alternative form of psychotherapy, or psychotherapy could be understood to be one of the “new religions”. The purpose of this article is to critically evaluate Kilbourne and Richardson’s proposal, and to examine its oversimplified theoretical base in the light of our own clinical research studies with the followers of Guru Maharaj ]i’s Divine Light Mission (Kriegman, 1980; Kriegrnan and Solomon, 1985) and our extensive clinical practice with young adult patients.

Based upon six commonalities they describe between psychotherapy and the “new religions”, Kilbourne and Richardson posit a “functional equivalence of these two approaches to reality, individual adjustment, and growth” (p. 237). They claim that: 1) psychotherapy and the new religions arise in the same sociohistorical context and thus are both a response to the same cultural pressures and needs; 2) the new religions and psychotherapy tend to appeal to the same people, and that “members” and “patients” refer to individuals drawn from the same groups; 3) the underlying “deep structure” (supportive, empathic, confiding relationship; special setting with symbols of hope and healing; special rationale that explains health and illness; and a special set of rituals and practices) is the same; 4) both serve the same common functions—improving the functioning and/or self-esteem of the member or patient; 5) they have similar cognitive and interactive styles, i.e., the way in which members/patients think about themselves or interact with others is essentially the same; and 6) both psychotherapy and the new religions tend to be referred to by outsiders in a derogatory manner and are scapegoated.

Based on these presumed commonalities Kilbourne and Richardson reach the provocative but oversimplified and fallacious conclusion that psychotherapy and the “new religions” are essentially the same. We believe there are profound differences in form, structure, process, and outcome for psychotherapy as compared to the “new religions”.

Interestingly, we (Kriegman and Solomon, 1985; Kriegman, 1980) have also documented some striking similarities between psychotherapy and religious cult groups, namely1, the relationship of the patient/member to the therapist/leader/group; and 2) the sense of relief and positive change that accompanies the formation of the relationship with the therapist/leader/group. However, we also clearly delineate major differences. We have suggested that Kohut’s “self-psychology” and clinical perspectives (Kohut, 1971, 1977) can serve to illuminate the “psychosocial fit” between what cult groups promise and the yearning for “self-cohesion” on the part of the “true believer” or potential recruit.

The parallels between the particular type of transference which develops during the clinical treatment of narcissistic personality disorders and the idealization of the cult leader are so striking that when one reads Kohut’s descriptions of the “idealizing transference” it seems as though he might be describing the typical relationship between a cult member and his leader (Kriegman and Solomon, 1985). The cult group’s use of this type of transference or bonding phenomenon, however, is markedly different from the manner in which the therapist seeks to “work through” and resolve this type of transference. In Kriegman & Solomon (1985), we describe how a resolution leading to greater internal freedom and personal autonomy is brought about in the therapeutic process. We believe that Kilbourne and Richardson’s conclusion that psychotherapy and religious cults are essentially the same is unwarranted. Let us examine some of their arguments.

The Correlation In Time Fallacy

Kilbourne and Richardson (1984) state:

Both psychotherapy and new religions exist within the same sociohistorical context, even though psychotherapeutic approaches gained impetus a few decades earlier ... (p. 238)

They go on to list some of the characteristics of the current “sociohistorical context,” with the implication being that certain features of modern-day western society have led to the appeal of both psychotherapy and the “new religions,” which, it is concluded, serve similar societal needs. While it may be true that certain features of modern society have led to certain types of anxieties, to argue that these two “solutions” are therefore functionally equivalent is simply not logical. Raising a family and developing a productive fulfilling career, on the one hand, and a life of crime and heroin addiction, on the other, are both, at least in part, solutions to existential anxiety. Though they both may offer partial solutions to the same problem, there is no reason to conclude that they are therefore essentially the same. The correlation of two phenomena with a third cannot be used to argue that the original two are related in any particular way. To do so would be a form of the correlation/causation fallacy, for anything that comes into being within the same time period can be said to have arisen in the same sociohistorical context. Thus, all current phenomena are correlated. Are they, therefore, indistinguishable at their core?

Furthermore, one may question the assumption that the “new” religions are unique to today. The arguments presented in Kilbourne and Richardson (1984) are based upon this presumption: if the new religions are unique to conditions present in modern-day society, then they ought to be fundamentally related to psychotherapy which, they suggest, is also a product of current conditions. They present no evidence to support this assumption. Certainly new religions h,ave been arising throughout human history. We know of no culture which exists without religion (Beals Hoijer, 1971; Bohannan, 1963). Therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude that religion constantly “arises” in whatever cultural context exists. Are the “new” religions of today in any fundamental way different from the “new” religions of the early 19OOs? From those of the 1800s? Or for that matter of the 1200s or of any other time period? If one makes a claim that the “new” religions are a manifestation of present-day western society and therefore are in a fundamental sense related to another modern-day phenomenon, psychotherapy, then one must also show that they are unique to the present culture. In fact, we would suggest that the “new” religions are essentially identical, in their fundamental elements, to many early religions. Some will survive. Most will fail. No case is presented to show that they are profoundly different from other religious movements and, thus, that their unique modernness ought to make for some profound connection to other 20th century phenomena.

The Misuse of Universal Group Phenomena to Conclude That Two Specific Groups Are Equivalent Kilbourne and Richardson’s fourth and fifth points, that psychotherapy and the “new religions” have the same cognitive and interactive styles and that both are denigrated by outsiders, again are points which cannot be used to argue for any essential similarity between the two. Are they not simply describing universal group phenomena? All groups tend to develop their own language, have some intragroup common interests, stereotype outsiders in a common way, and explain things using their own unique philosophies (Toch, 1965; Austin & Worchel, 1979). Members of many groups tend to set themselves off from outsiders using these intragroup commonalities (usually claiming some form of superiority). Outsiders, who are excluded from membership, are likely to defensively denigrate such a group, and to criticize its language, philosophy, and claims of superiority. Similarities and commonalities of group life are important to describe and understand. However, it is a mistake to use the similarities in group dynamics as indicators of functional equivalence. While it is valuable to note the group processes and principles which govern, for example, both a political rally and a violent mob action, to list only the similarities and suggest essential sameness obscures the more important task of identifying the essential differences. What leads to mob behavior? What distinguishes the euphoric political group readying itself to do sublimated “battle” with the “enemy” (the other party), from a mob readying itself to move beyond its individual members’ sense of morality into “acting out” mob violence?

Selfobject Support and Self-Affirmation

Let us now turn to the more important second, third, and fourth “commonalities” which Kilbourne and Richardson describe: cult groups and psychotherapy appeal to the same people; the underlying “deep structures” are the same; and both serve to enhance the follower’s/patient’s self-esteem. Our understanding is that cults and psychotherapy appear to offer something ‘similarthey offer “selfobject” support and self-affirmation (Kohut, 1971, 1977, 1982). A brief period of cult membership sometimes can lead to greater internal stability and improved psychosocial functioning for some members. As Kilbourne and Richardson suggest, they can act as a “way-station” for some adolescents who are passing through a period of instability and turmoil. Levine (1984), who also presents this perspective, in addition emphasizes that all of these “radical” religious groups have a common underlying structure, namely “fantasied omniscience of leaders and rigid belief systems opposed to the outside world...” (P. 23). Our own research and that of Singer (1978, 1979) and Clark (1979) indicate that some religious cult groups are not benign and in fact can be potentially harmful to many of their members.

Cults strive to maintain their membership by offering the follower selfobject relationships that serve to ameliorate

... the painful experience of self-fragmentation in the narcissistic seeker. It is as if the (cult) and the narcissistic seeker are in collusion; the cult group provides a merger experience and selfobject which will fulfill the longings for self-cohesion in the seeker. (Kriegman & Solomon, 1985)

We have proposed that there is a psychosocial “fit” between what the cult group promises and the yearning for selfcohesion on the part of the potential recruit. The cult group offers to heal defects in the self by providing the recruit a “merger” experience with an idealized leader and group Though cult membership can lead to the kind of “relief effect” described by Edwards (1979) and Galanter (1982) it! long-term effects are more questionable. For those emotion ally troubled young adults whose psychological functioning is significantly impaired, seeking relief through a cult can lead to seriously damaging outcomes, including psychotic episodes (Glass, et. al., 1977; Kirsch & Glass, 1977).

The Essential Differences: Ethics and the Scientific Method

We know that psychotherapy as well as medicine has its share of “therapeutic failures” and/or treatment “casualties” (Yalom & Lieberman, 1971). However, the perspective presented by Kilbourne and Richardson ignores the sharp differentiation between the dogmatic, authoritarian, self-serving “truths” of the cult and the ethically necessary scientific research of a healing discipline such as psychotherapy, There is an active systematic research effort to subject the process and outcomes of psychotherapy to experimental test. The outcomes of such evaluation research are systematically compared and debated in an open scientific forum (Luborsky, 1984).

The “new religions” have no professional organization which has established a set of ethical principles to guide them as they go about their business of seeking recruits. What strategies can be considered “unethical” when they are carried out for the greater good of “the Lord of the Universe”? When one of the “Most Holy Mahatmas,” a disciple of one of the “benign” new religions used by Kilbourne and Richardson for their analysis, attacked a reporter (shattering his skull), the cult allowed him to retain his status (Kelley, 1973). In describing this incident and the cult’s response Kelley states

... one of the leading Divine Light Mission officials in India elaborated further: “There are no hard and fast rules to being holy ... there have been gurus who have led their followers into full-scale wars. The Perfect Master does whatever the best thing is for that time and space. When you realize what devotion Is, you become a fanatic—you really want to please Guru Maharaj Ji.” (p. 40)

There are fundamental differences between religious movements and psychotherapy. A religious movement is founded on some philosophical basis and/or more often on the belief that some personage is endowed with special divinity. This is certainly not the case for “mainstream” psychotherapy (Note 2). In the process of psychotherapy the patient’s uniqueness is emphasized. To the extent that a course of treatment has the glorification of the therapist as its primary goal, it is not psychotherapy: it is malpractice. It risks being iatrogenic as the aggrandizement of the therapist is placed above the patient’s welfare. Religious movements do not, in fact cannot, have the follower’s best interest at heart. We have studied some of the religious movements referred to in the Kilbourne and Richardson (1984) article. In one, a psychotic individual attempted to join and participate. The other members ignored him, literally turning their backs on him. They knew that he had little ability to relate to them, that he would “drain” their energies, and that he had nothing to offer the cult. While psychotherapists may find certain patients more attractive than others (Luborsky, 1984), an ethical psychotherapist would not reject or ignore a difficult patient.

Deviant Psychotherapy: Authoritarian “Cult-Like” Modes of Treatment

There are certainly some narcissistic psychotherapists who form therapy groups that take on cult-like characteristics (Kohut, 1976; Kriegman and Solomon, 1985; Temerlin and Temerlin, 1982). These grandiose therapists may exploit the “idealizing transference” in order to develop authoritarian control over their group membership (Temerlin and Temerlin, 1982). They “treat” their lovers, friends, students, etc., forming them into cult-like groups of which they are the leader.

These therapists did not consider their patient’s idealization of them to be a transference, to be understood as part of the treatment. Instead, they used it to encourage submission, obedience, and adoration as in religious cults. Patients became “true believers” with totalistic patterns of thought, increased dependence, and paranoia. (Temerlin & Temerlin, 1982, p. 131)

Differences with one’s therapist/leader were akin to disloyalty; steps toward individuation were interpreted as rebellion.

Only after leaving the cult did many patients realize they unconsciously had lived out a fantasy of having found a “magical healer,” a Personal Savior, or of pleasing an omnipotent parent ... Therapists perpetually acted out such fantasies by accepting idealization as a deserved status; gratifying infantile needs of patients ... (and confiding that) they befriended only those patients with the potential for greatness. (Temerlin & Temerlin, p. 135) (Note 3).

We note (Kriegman and Solomon, 1985) Kohut’s caution against “the active encouragement of an idealization of the analyst” because it “leads to the establishment of a tenacious transference bondage” (1971, p. 164). Kohut also quoted Freud’s warning (Freud, 1923, p. 50) about the existence of:

“a temptation for the analyst to play the part of prophet, savior, and redeemer to the patient,”...a procedure to which “the rules of analysis are diametrically opposed” (Kohut, 1971).

When these rules are ignored and the authoritarian therapist takes on the role of “magical savior” he creates a pathogenic relationship with the patient. The patient’s experience is then apt to be very similar to the cult member’s experience with his leader. Kilbourne and Richardson are in effect pointing out this potential similarity between the charismatic guru of “mainstream” cult groups and the grandiose leader of highly deviant and unethical, unprofessional treatment groups.

For a patient with this type of grandiose therapist there is clearly a strong tendency to dichotomize the world into the “healed and unhealed”. Kilbourne and Richardson suggest that the dichotomizing sets up an “elite” made up of those who are “healed,” and that this is so for both psychotherapy and the “new religions”. Again, they oversimplify. Mainstream clinicians focus their work on their patients’ experience and do not seek to convert them or have them join their world view. Patients who seek psychotherapy because of a chronic depression, a series of failures in relationships, debilitating anxiety attacks, etc., are not primarily focused on dividing the world into the “healed and unhealed.” They are not asking to be included in an elite group. Many, if not most psychotherapy patients simply want their suffering and their specific symptoms alleviated. They complete their course of psychotherapy without changing their world view, without giving up their religious beliefs and replacing them with those of their therapist, without feeling they have joined a special all-encompassing club. They are content simply to have their suffering diminished.

Cult groups, on the other hand, actually strive to have their members replace their own world views and independence of judgment with a totalistic ideology that demands complete adherence and uniformity among the members. To suggest that mainstream psychotherapies in general take this stance is inaccurate. The behavior of cult groups is not oriented toward helping the individual, but rather toward maintaining the convictions and glory of the “guru”. The central fact is that the behavior of leaders of cult groups serves to glorify their own power and personal status. Their goal is not to help the member to become independent or to gain control over or insight into distressing symptoms or feelings. The greater glory of the leader is achieved through the maintenance of the member’s dependency on the guru or organization. A psychotherapist who has such objectives would be viewed by his professional peers as unfit and potentially destructive to the patient.


Kilbourne and Richardson propose that psychotherapy and the “new religions” (cults) are “functionally equivalent” Psychotherapy and the “new religions” offer to ameliorate emotional suffering. But so do the purveyors of drugs astrology, exercise and diet programs, and vacation get-aways. They may all be “competitors for a limited market,” to use Kilbourne and Richardson’s expression, but the critical question is what differentiates them and their followers. Psychotherapy has some special attributes clinicians in their professional groups have developed a set of ethical principles and practices to be used by the practitioner in order to safeguard the patient’s interest; 2) careful clinical descriptions, observations, theorizing, and systematic research efforts are continually being used to evaluate the relative effectiveness of specific psychotherapeutic approaches with different patient groups, thereby providing both the clinician and the public with an evaluative yardstick; and, 3) safeguards are taken to ensure that psychotherapists, formally licensed by society (e.g., through the state in the United States), have carefully studied and continue to study the results of these investigations and clinical observations. Clinical theory and practice are rooted in the scientific method, and are open to public and professional scrutiny and debate (Luborsky, 1984). Such research seeks to document patient improvement as well as treatment “casualties.” Psychotherapists are required to demonstrate competence in the understanding of the body of knowledge that we have developed about human psychological functioning and to apply that knowledge while following ethical guidelines.

To the extent currently possible, there is an attempt to base mainstream psychotherapies on the scientific principles of intersubjective verifiability and the development of theoretical formulations capable of prediction and modification based upon their “fit” with independent observation. Thus, mainstream psychotherapy seeks to harness the essential technological power of the scientific approach. Clinical theory and practice are rooted in the scientific study of human development and functioning (Note 4). There are constant challenges and modifications to existing theory and leadership in the field.

As psychotherapists we become deeply involved in the lives of our patients. That being the case, we recognize the need for a set of guiding ethics. We have a strong belief in the power and utility of the scientific method the application of empirical research to clinical practice. These values are in sharp contrast to the religious cult group notion of an absolute authority who has the undisputed truth. Most religious cult leaders are self-appointed, messianic persons who claim a special mission in life. Cult leaders center the members’ veneration upon themselves and are authoritarian in their power structure. The leader is regarded as the supreme and final authority. There is ideological totalism (Note 5). Hence, Kilbourne and Richardson’s attempt te characterize (mainstream) psychotherapies as merely an alternative form of “new religion” is puzzling to us. In their zealous pursuit of similarities, they have failed to capture the profound differences that exist between psychotherapy and the “new religions.”


(Note 1). These “new religions” are consistently referred to as “cults” in this journal and by many, if not most, other authors. Calling them “new religions” appears to be an attempt to legitimize them and to put them on an equal footing with an accepted cultural institution, psychotherapy. In this paper we are referring to the same phenomena when we use the terms “new religion” or “cult.”

(Note 2). “Mainstream” refers to clinical psychotherapy practiced by licensed practitioners following the guidelines and ethical principles set down by such major organizations as the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the National Association of Social Workers.

(Note 3). We have deliberately chosen Temerlin and Temerlin’s descriptions of extreme examples of authoritarian treatment groups. This represents a “worst case” analysis to show how and under what conditions cult groups and authoritarian treatment groups could be similar. Moreover, the practices of such authoritarian leaders would be grounds for dismissal from any major professional organization as well as loss of license. Coincidentally, the day after we wrote thf last sentence our local daily paper, The Boston Globe (January 13, 1985), reported that a psychologist was expellee from the American Psychological Association after a former patient claimed that he “...maintains a ‘dual relationship with individuals who are both his patients and practicing therapist-members...’ of the psychotherapy institute that ht heads, “...a practice considered unethical by the (American Psychological) association.” The article also stated that the state licensing board was expected to issue an order asking the psychologist “to ‘show cause’ why his state license t( practice psychology should not be revoked” (p. 36).

(Note 4). For example, there is an active interplay between experimental findings in such diverse areas as research on infancy and psychopharmacology, all of which have impact on the nature of clinical theory and practice.

(Note 5). In this regard there appears to be two types of religious cults. One type, for example, the Divine Light Mission (Guru Maharaj Ji), has an ideology which promotes a view of the world as divided into camps, the “ordinary” masses and the “enlightened few with knowledge”. Such images may appeal to those recruits who suffer from a sense of shame and inferiority as an integral part of a narcissistic defect. By contrast, the ideology of such cult groups as the “Moonies” or Scientologists promotes a view of the world as divided between “good” and “evil” -those who favor God/Life versus Satan/Death. As Hoffer (1951) points out, for such groups the strength of their movement “is proportionate to the vividness and tangibility of its devil” (p. 86). Such images may appeal to recruits who rely upon more primitive paranoid defenses to cope with their anxiety (Olson, 1980).


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Daniel Krieqman, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is also the Director of Supervision and Training at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.

Leonard Solomon, Ph.D. is the Director of the Group Therapy Program at Boston University’s Student Health Service. He is also a Professor of Psychology at Boston University.