The Two Camps of Cultic Studies

The Two "Camps" of Cultic Studies: Time for a Dialogue

Michael D. Langone

American Family Foundation


During the 1980s scholars and professionals who studied cults and new religious movements divided into two "camps," commonly labeled "pro-cultists" and "anti-cultists." The academic polarization that developed during the 1980s has diminished somewhat in recent years, and dialogue between some members of the two camps has begun. Bromley (in press) views the conflicts as a political imbroglio and not amenable to empirical resolution. Although not discounting a political dimension, this paper argues that the conflict at heart reflects different judgment calls regarding an empirical reality that has not as yet been adequately researched with quantitative scientific methods. The paper concludes by suggesting that escape from the political imbroglio is possible if members in both camps acknowledge that: (1) scientific uncertainty and political differences exist, (2) all information sources should be considered, (3) groups may sometimes harm individuals, (4) groups vary enormously, and (5) proposed remedies should recognize the scientific uncertainties of the field.

When I first became involved in studying cultic groups in the late 1970s, I quickly became aware of this field's capacity to polarize reasonable and well-intentioned scholars and professionals, as well as laypersons. I believe that this polarization has had a puzzling and unnecessary persistence (see Allen, 1999; Bromley, 1998; Kent & Krebs, 1998; Zablocki, 1997). This paper will try to illuminate the academic disputes fueling the polarization and offer suggestions on how to bring disputing participants into a rational middle ground.

Sympathizers, who tend to be academics in sociology and religious studies, have published widely (see Bromley, 1998 for a recent review; also see, while critics, who tend with some notable exceptions to be mental health professionals, have not published as much and have not usually responded to sympathizers' critiques of the so-called "anti-cult movement" (ACM), which typically is presented as including professional and academic critics. In order to rectify, to some extent, this publication imbalance, other papers published in this issue of CSJ and AFF's first Internet journal issue ( present critics' views on certain controversies that have divided the two camps (e.g., the notion of brainwashing and the American Psychological Association, the alleged anti-religious stance of cult critics, the dismissal of reports from former group members).


In the 1970s one party in the dispute consisted of cult spokespersons and certain academicians. These people criticized deprogramming (often portraying it in the most lurid and sometimes fanciful light possible), legislative proposals that would essentially have made it legal for parents to forcibly remove their adult children from controversial groups ("conservatorship bills"), and sensationalized or undiscerning portrayals of "cults" and "brainwashing" as depicted in popular sources, such as the movie, The Manchurian Candidate. Scholars in this group came to prefer the term "new religious movement" to the term "cult," scoffed at the notion of "brainwashing," and promoted the cause of religious freedom, which they believed was threatened by deprogramming and conservatorship bills. An influential book (Bromley & Shupe, 1981) referred to "the cult hoax" (p. 3) and said that "the basic issue is still that of religious freedom" (p. xii).

The other party in the dispute included lay activists and professionals concerned about people caught up in cultic groups, their worried and sometimes frantic families, and those who might join destructive groups in the future. From the beginning, there was considerable disagreement among these activists and professionals concerning deprogramming, conservatorship bills, and proffered explanations on why people joined and left cultic groups. There was, however, a consensus that cultic groups were harming many people and something should be done to limit this harm. Moreover, there was a consensus that whatever "cult" referred to, the term embraced nonreligious as well as religious groups, although a large majority were religious.

A few sociologists reported on their unsystematic observations of cult critics and began to label these persons the "anti-cult movement," or "ACM" (Bromley & Shupe, 1981). Cult critics, most of whom derided the notion that they were "anti" cult (they were concerned about "the deed not the creed"¾Rudin & Rudin, 1980), returned the insult and branded these scholars "pro-cultists" or "cult apologists." (I have preferred to use the terms "critics" and "sympathizers" to refer to these two vaguely defined "camps.")

At the time (the late 1970s), I found this situation puzzling and disturbing. Having been exposed to various new religious movements while growing up in the 1960s and having read much of the pertinent sociological and religious studies literature of the 1970s, I realized that critical portrayals of cults were indeed sometimes sensationalized and often undiscerning. Being in the so-called ACM camp, on the other hand, made me realize that the sympathizers' portrayal of the ACM was at least as inaccurate and sensationalized as some critics' depictions of cults. (In my view, even recent academic publications on the "ACM" reflect the authors' preconceptions about the "ACM" more than they reflect empirical reality¾Shupe & Bromley, 1994). Moreover, my being a mental health professional who worked with former group members and families affected by a cult involvement made me acutely aware of the reality of harm. Although groups differed considerably and individuals differed markedly in their idiosyncratic responses to similar group situations, some groups clearly harmed some individuals. To me, the incontrovertible reality of harm justified some criticism of cultic groups. The challenge was to make that criticism fair and balanced. This same challenge confronts us today.

The Early Days of AFF

My AFF colleagues and I tried at the time to express this goal through the name we chose for our work, "the Center on Destructive Cultism," which was founded in 1980. We used the term "cultism" instead of "cult" for we knew that our concern was certain processes of control and exploitation associated with groups called "cults," not the groups per se. Moreover, our putting the adjective "destructive" in front of "cult" demonstrated that we realized that not all "cults" were harmful. Our concern was with unethical and harmful practices of some groups, not belief systems or the social deviance of the group. Dr. John Clark at the time called the cult phenomenon an "impermissible experiment" on the changing of human personality.

Unfortunately, we soon discovered that our dual objectives of research and education (of the public, professionals, families, and former group members) sometimes came into conflict. Our education mission demanded simple, succinct, and emotionally moving explanations in order to relate to activists and get our message into the media, through which people came to know of our existence. But our research, clinical work, and scholarly study demonstrated that reality is not so simple as TV and newspapers would like it to be. An early monograph (Clark, Langone, Schecter, & Daly, 1981) contended that conversion to cultic groups could most fruitfully be understood as an interaction of variables in the group and in the person, a view that was nothing like the sensationalized "brainwashing" stories that circulated in the popular press at that time (although many media stories were responsible and balanced.).

We hasten to add, however, that our argument should not be construed as condemning all cults and cult-like organizations as unhealthy. Different groups present different settings¾some harmful, some benign, others perhaps constructive,¾to potential converts, each of whom in turn presents a unique personalitysometimes healthy, sometimes troubled, always more or less vulnerable¾to the proselytizers with whom he comes into contact. (Clark et al., 1981, p. 6)

Some of us "floated" alternatives to the terms that most dominated the media, that is, "cult" and "brainwashing." John Clark, and I were fond of the term, "unethical social influence." Margaret Singer for a while spoke about SMPSI, the systematic manipulation of psychological and social influence. Some people suggested the use of "high intensity groups" or "high control groups" as an alternative to "cult" and "mind control" as an alternative to "brainwashing." Although "mind control" achieved a measure of acceptance in public discourse and became the preferred term of some activists in this field, the press liked "cult" and, to a lesser extent, "brainwashing." Alternative terms languished. By the mid-1980s most of us gave in to popular usage and learned to make the best of "cult" and "brainwashing," trying, when we could, to communicate more subtlety ¾than these terms typically conveyed. (See Rosedale & Langone, 1998, for a discussion of definitional issues.)

Sympathizers and the "ACM"

Despite the variety of views within the critical community, academic sympathizers (mainly sociologists) did not conduct empirical surveys of professionals or activists in the so-called ACM. To understand the "ACM" they relied on theories that emphasized the social construction of phenomena such as deviance or evil (e.g., Bromley & Shupe, 1981), rather than the evaluation of the objective nature of the phenomenon under study. This theoretical orientation led to their writing about such notions as "atrocity tales" (Bromley, Shupe, & Ventimiglia, 1979) to characterize the negative reports of former group members, who were dubbed "apostates" and distinguished from "defectors," who did not produce negative reports. Although, strictly speaking, these terms may not have been intended to be value judgments or statistical generalizations about the truth claims of critics (Bromley, 1998), they clearly came to be perceived as such¾in both camps. Sympathizers tended to discount the negative reports of ex-members and critics, attributing them to social indoctrination processes of the so-called ACM (Lewis & Bromley, 1987). Critics viewed the propagation of the notion of "atrocity tales" as academic obfuscation, designed to whitewash realities that, as with other social issues, were indeed "bad," not mere "constructions" imposed on social groups by other social groups. (The Nuremberg trials, for example, explored real evil, not mere social constructions of evil.) Critics sometimes concluded that sympathizers used such notions to hide their true agenda of protecting cultic groups. Sympathizers, for example seemed to accept uncritically the positive reports of current members, whose accounts they did not tag with derogatory labels, such as "benevolence tales," or "personal growth tales." Only the critical reports of ex-members were called "tales," a term that clearly implies falsehood or fiction. Not until 1996 did a researcher actually conduct an empirical study to assess the extent to which so-called "atrocity tales" might be based on fact (Zablocki, 1996).

Sympathizers also presented the "brainwashing model" in such simplified terms that their descriptions could be called a caricature of "brainwashing." A review of Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare includes a telling critique of this caricature:

[Bromley and Shupe's] notion of coercion doesn't go much further than the use of torture and threats of violence, so it is rare that anyone ever is guilty of unjustified manipulation of human behavior. They construct a straw man argument which they attribute to the critics of the cults that is easily refuted. For unwarranted coercion to exist, one would seem to need to develop a metallic sheen, walk with a gimp, smile on cue, and not exhibit fear of death. Under their subtle touch, brainwashing appears literally as a washed-out cranium with wind whistling through the brain cavity. Short of physical violence, they presume that "free will" is operating intact…Throughout the book, they systematically doubt the assertions made by parents and ex-cult members about their experiences (unless the statements are sufficiently outrageous and then they are allowed to stand), since these parties have a vested interest in rewriting history. This scrupulous caution doesn't extend to the current cult members' statements about the camaraderie, idealism, moral vision, and purpose of their lives. (Schuller, 1983, pp. 9-11)

The widespread and long-standing caricature of brainwashing promulgated in sociological and religious studies circles resulted in what some believe was a "blacklisting" of brainwashing theory in some academic journals (Zablocki, 1997). Although personal communications indicate that some sympathizers have backed away from the relentless dissemination of brainwashing caricatures and have acknowledged the difference between what they call "robot theory" and "social influence approaches," I still await persuasive evidence that even a sizeable minority of professionals or scholars subscribe to the "robot theory" of "brainwashing" (although I don't doubt that a few professionals may hold undiscerning positions on the subject).

Lowering the Heat

During the 1980s the definitional and conceptual confusion that marred the field, especially with regard to "brainwashing," was exacerbated when scholars and professionals appeared as expert witnesses¾on both sides of the legal conflicts¾in at least several dozen court cases (See ABA Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law, 1995; Van Hoey, 1991). Suspicions between the two camps grew and communication across the "divide" virtually stopped, in part because of fears about how lawyers and journalists might exploit and/or distort what was said to those who might not support one's position. Barker (1995), in a presidential address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, makes a candid comment about the sympathizer camp, a comment that with minor changes could be applied to the critics' camp:

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)

The tendency to which Dr. Barker refers magnifies as participants in each camp seek collegial support when attacked by members of the other camp. Again, Barker is eloquently candid on the subject, and her remarks could easily apply to the critics' camp with minor changes:

The situation becomes compounded when a group of social scientists who have been similarly vilified get together and exchange their experiences at SSSR meetings or elsewhere. In some ways we are doing precisely what members of a professional body are expected to do¾exchanging information and providing a critique of each other's work. But one can also recognize the process whereby we are creating a cozy little support group within which we collaborate to construct a monolithic image of the ACM, taking insufficient account of the differences and changes within the movement as we collectively confirm our prejudices about "them" (but see Bromley and Shupe 1995). Insofar as we respond to the ACM's response to us in this way, we are in danger of ignoring what it has to say that might be of relevance to our understanding of the NRMs, but also, and more significantly so far as the topic of this paper is concerned, of actually obstructing ourselves from acquiring a fuller understanding of how the ACM operates within the cult scene. (Barker, 1995, p. 307)

The lack of communication between camps and the tendency toward confirmatory bias that infects us all have fed the untested stereotypes and false assumptions that distort each camp's view of the other camp. Occasionally, the resulting distortions of reality become silly. At a recent conference (Lalich, personal communication), for example, one prominent researcher called AFF, the organization that I serve as executive director, a "hate group." One may disagree with AFF and those associated with the organization, but to call us a "hate group" is ludicrous. An example from the other side of the divide: In 1988, I gave a paper at an international conference in Barcelona, Spain. During my summary of empirical research in this field, I offered a few critical comments about Dr. Eileen Barker's work. Several nonscholars in the audience leapt to their feet and screamed at me because, by deigning even to mention her work, I was giving Dr. Barker credibility that they believed she didn't deserve!

Fortunately, this kind of antipathy seems to have diminished over time, at least for some people. Perhaps the somewhat cooler emotional climate results from the fact that legal approaches to the issue proved to be less effective than either side expected. Conservatorship legislative proposals died in the early 1980s, while deprogramming was largely supplanted by noncoercive interventions by the end of the 1980s (although occasional deprogrammings apparently still occur). Hence, sympathizers no longer have to be concerned about any threat to religious liberty that these two remedial proposals once posed (in the U.S.A. anyway). Although cult critics won a string of legal victories in the 1980s (mostly damage awards), cult sympathizers, who served as expert witnesses in defense of cultic groups, crafted strategies (advocacy-oriented strategies, not the objective academic analyses that these strategies purported to be) that resulted in their winning a few battles in the 1990s. Although some sympathizers present these victories as "definitive" (see the articles in this issue by Amitrani & Di Marzio), their "triumph" is not what they sometimes pass it off to be, for cult critics continue to win in some court cases (Martin, Paul¾personal communication).

I think it has become clear that the courts (at least in the U.S.A.) are not going to influence greatly the fate of cults. Attorneys, for example, discovered that the money actually obtained from a lawsuit (not the huge judgments that some juries might give) often is not worth the time, effort, and risks of protracted litigation. Thus, whereas I knew of quite a number of attorneys who accepted contingency fees for lawsuits against cultic groups in the 1980s, today I know of none. Even cult sympathizers, I suspect, may have begun to realize that the courts won't participate in an assault on religious freedom in the name of curbing abuses perpetrated by cults. Judges and juries seem to be doing what I believe they ought to do, that is, evaluating each case individually, rather than setting legal precedents concerning the fuzzy category of "cult."

Reaching Out

As the prominence of the legal battles diminished, it became easier in the United States for people in the two camps to reach out across the divide. Consequently, during the past few years dialogue between the two camps has been slowly increasing. In May of 2000, for example, AFF hosted a meeting of nine critics and sympathizers, who spent a day in candid discussions of this field. There has been a growing recognition that some of the differences stem from different foci and value emphases. Unfortunately, because most professionals and scholars live over-committed lives and lack travel funds, it is difficult to continue and expand the dialogue between the two "camps." (This paper constitutes one small attempt at follow up.)

In a stimulating essay that in part addresses the need for dialogue, sociologist David Bromley calls the two "camps" the "mental health coalition" and the "religion coalition" (Bromley, in press). Although this terminology is certainly imperfect, I would like to discuss briefly aspects of Dr. Bromley's paper, for I believe it is illuminating, even though I disagree with its fundamental thesis that the "debate is not empirical at all, but rather is a political imbroglio" (Bromley, in press, p. 1 – page numbers for Bromley, in press, are from a prepublication draft) in which "brainwashing and conversion have been used as symbolic umbrellas through which to morally advantage and disadvantage certain forms of individual-group relationships" (Bromley, in press, p. 33).

Dr. Bromley proposes that brainwashing and conversion are competing political narratives used to describe the radical personal change associated with cults, new religious movements, and other groups:

The scholarly debate is being conducted in terms of "weak conversion" and "weak brainwashing" positions. That is, scholars on both sides tend to explain individual-group relationships in terms of some combination of personal and organizational characteristics. In the conversion model, individuals are depicted as in protest against the dominant social order and the groups constitute vehicles of social protest. Models of individual-group relationships that are constructed in terms of role theory, experimentation, alternation, and conversion careers all reflect this orientation. In the brainwashing model, individuals are depicted as vulnerable, and the groups constitute inappropriate exploitive responses to this vulnerability. Models such as relational disorders, high exit costs, and spiritual abuse exemplify this perspective. Currently there appears to be consensus on the issue of physical coercion. Neither coalition will positively sanction behaviors or accounts that are directly attributable to such coercion.

The two coalitions continue to divide, however, on the key issue of authorization. As Sarbin (1973:185) notes, relinquishment of one identity and formation of another is integral to all "systems of conduct reorganization." The dispute is over authorization of that process. The mental health coalition constitutes a threat to the religion coalition in (1) defining ultimate selfhood in secular terms, which poses a challenge to transcendent authorization, and (2) asserting the individual right to challenge institutional claims, including religious claims, in the name of defending selfhood. The religion coalition presents a threat to the mental health coalition by (1) asserting a transcendent authorization, which effectively trumps therapeutic authority, and (2) asserting the individual right to submit to institutional claims, particularly religious claims, in the name of expressing selfhood. (Bromley, in press, pp. 31-32)

The preceding excerpt from Dr. Bromley's paper reflects, in my view, the perspective of many of his colleagues. There are, however, several problems with this perspective. These problems arise from mischaracterizing the dispute as one involving those with favorable views of religion (the "religion coalition") and those with implicitly unfavorable views of religion (the "mental health coalition"). In large part, this perspective presumes an obsolete, Freudian view of mental health, which saw religion as an "illusion." Much of the criticism of cultic groups, however, comes from people with strong religious convictions. Moreover, the conversion-brainwashing dichotomy does not account for concerns about children raised in, rather than converted to, groups deemed to be abusive. In the final analysis, the criticisms rest on ethical objections to what some groups do to people, not on psychological assessments or the presence or absence of "brainwashing," however that term is defined. Psychological harm may be an important consequence of the ethical transgressions, but it usually is not, and in my view ought not be, the ultimate or sole authority for criticism. The issue, then, is not "conversion vs. brainwashing," as Dr. Bromley puts it, for "brainwashing" refers to a particular type of conversion (One wouldn't speak about a conflict as "red" vs. "color.") in which a person's identity change is initiated and/or sustained through unethical manipulations of a group, manipulations, moreover, that do not necessarily have to reach the level of "brainwashing" to justify criticism or remedial action.

I agree with Dr. Bromley that the religion coalition (what I have thus far called "sympathizers") defends the "transcendent authorization" claimed by religious organizations. I believe, however, that what he calls the "mental health coalition" can more profitably be construed as the "individual rights coalition," which values individual autonomy and dignity above the collectivist authority of groups, whether religious, political, psychotherapeutic, or other. The religion coalition threatens the individual rights coalition not because it asserts "a transcendent authorization, which effectively trumps therapeutic authority," but because the latter sometimes perceives the former as asserting a transcendent authorization that claims to trump our culture's fundamental belief in the value of individual human rights. To the individual rights coalition, valuing transcendent authorization over selfhood and individual human rights could ultimately lead to an acceptance of the more oppressive methods of the Inquisition.

I would expect members of the religion coalition to object--and they would be correct to do so. In fact, I do not believe that the religion coalition values groups' claims of transcendent authorization over individual human rights. They may, as Dr. Bromley asserts, value claims of transcendent authorization over therapeutic authority. This, however, is "shadow-boxing" for, as I have said, therapeutic authority isn't the core issue; ethical propriety is. The question isn't whether or not individuals may submit to a group's transcendent claims, but whether a group uses ethically unacceptable methods to bring about and sustain submission.

Dr. Bromley contrasts the religion coalition's assertion of the individual's right to submit to institutional claims, particularly religious claims, in the name of defending selfhood, with the individual rights coalition's assertion of the individual's right to challenge these claims. But is this really a disagreement or a difference in emphasis? None of my colleagues would object to an individual's right to submit to religious claims, e.g., to take a vow of obedience in a religious order. Indeed, some of my colleagues have taken such vows. Nor would I expect any of Dr. Bromley's colleagues to object to an individual's right to challenge religious claims. I doubt, for example, that they would defend murder, polygamy, genital mutilation, child abuse, incest, or slavery simply because a religious groups justifies these practices through some "transcendent authorization." Why, then, do they quarrel?

They quarrel, I believe, because they make different judgments about the magnitude and severity of ethical transgressions and resulting harms related to individuals' decisions to submit to or challenge institutional claims, particularly religious claims. The individual rights coalition believes that the magnitude and severity of ethical transgressions (and the psychological, medical, and economic harm that sometimes results from these transgressions) by groups claiming a transcendent authorization is great enough to warrant criticism and sometimes private or public remedial responses. The religion coalition believes that the level of ethical transgressions and harm is sufficiently low as to make the search for "solutions" to an at worst minor problem more dangerous than the reputed problem, especially when solutions call for state intervention.

The Empirical Heart of the Dispute

Contrary to Dr. Bromley's fundamental thesis, then, the issue is at heart empirical. The fundamental questions driving the dispute are:

  1. How much unethical (including illegal) behavior is associated with certain new groups' influence over members, prospective members, and the public?

  2. How much and what kinds of harm result from such behaviors?

  3. How effective are proposed remedies for limiting transgressions and harm?

  4. What kinds and amounts of negative consequences (especially unjustified constraints on religious freedom), whether intended or not, might result from attempts to limit transgressions and harm?

Some aspects of these questions could, in theory, be investigated through careful and extensive scientific study carried out over a long period of time. However, as Dr. Bromley asserts elsewhere in his paper, "the investigation of religious movement affiliations is an empirical thorny thicket that does not easily lend itself to empirical resolution" (Bromley, in press, p. 1; for a critical review of empirical studies in this field see Aronoff, Malinoski, & Lynn, 2000). This is so because:

  1. The dependent variables (unethical behaviors, harm, negative consequences) involve value judgments about which consensus would be difficult to achieve. (Disagreement about value-laden concepts, however, doesn't make research impossible, e.g., research on child abuse, emotional abuse of women, social attractiveness.)

  2. Even though psychological case studies and judicial, legislative, and media investigations have documented many instances of harm and some useful scientific work has been completed (e.g., Malinoski, Langone, & Lynn, 1998), scientifically assessing the nature, level, and pervasiveness of harm within the general population of new movements, or even subcategories of that broad category (e.g., controversial new movements), would take many years and far more resources than society is currently willing to commit to this issue.

In the absence of definitive empirical data, members of the two coalitions arrive at different judgments concerning what, if anything, should be done about the (alleged) problem, their judgments, in large part, reflecting how much credibility they attribute to the many case reports, legal or governmental investigations, and scientific studies. The dispute becomes politicized because too many people in both coalitions act (with regard to the fundamental questions listed above) as though they know, when in actuality they opine. Because neither coalition can legitimately claim the unqualified support of science (although both have tried¾see in this issue Amitrani & Di Marzio's, 2000, article on the APA and "brainwashing"), neither camp can easily persuade even the rational and balanced members of the other camp to change their opinions about these fundamental questions. (This does not mean, however, that solid research has not been conducted on specific, nonfundamental questions. Nor does it mean that the investigative methodologies of law and journalism are not appropriate for some specific questions, e.g., whether or not the leader of a particular group committed tax-evasion or defrauded members.) Moreover, once individuals have attributed low credibility to members of the opposite camp, they tend not to read what the other camp publishes. This, of course, means that false preconceptions and prejudices may persist for many years, even when there is solid evidence or argument to disprove them.

Unfortunately, those who are most confident that they know, even though they don't, may be most likely to act forcefully and decisively. Extreme elements in both camps, then, may come to dominate the debate. Moreover, because science and reason can't as yet definitively resolve the debate, people holding different opinions may compete for institutional power (e.g., government sanction), that is, the debate becomes, as Dr. Bromley maintains, a "political imbroglio." The political dispute intensifies when governmental or legal bodies issue opinions or conclusions, even if on specific cases, that run counter to one or the other camp's view of the general issue, framed by the fundamental questions listed above. In these situations ideological, i.e., "political," motivations become most transparent.

Nevertheless, it is vitally important to keep in mind that the political dimension of the academic dispute does not negate its empirical base. I quote Barker again:

Undifferentiated relativism, as espoused by some of the exponents of deconstructionism and postmodernism, seems to me to be just plain silly. The rules of science (even loosely characterized as in this paper) are not merely a language game; they are an assurance of a minimal, albeit limited, epistemological status. We would be crazy to argue that anything goes¾some things are patently false, and empirical observation can demonstrate this to anyone with their faculties in good working order. (Barker, 1995, pp. 301-302)

A Way Out of the Political Imbroglio?

I believe that to escape the political imbroglio a large number of key players in each camp must acknowledge:

  1. The existence and ramifications of the political dispute that arises from the issue's resistance to simple and quick scientific resolution.

  2. The necessity, especially given the uncertain state of scientific knowledge concerning foundational issues, to consider a variety of information sources, including testimony from current and former members of groups, family testimony, mental health findings, media investigations, data collected through legal actions and government inquiries, as well as formal scientific data.

  3. That under some circumstances some groups can harm some people.

  4. That the variety among and within groups on dimensions of harm and manipulation is enormous.

  5. That proposals to ameliorate problems associated with cults must recognize the fundamental scientific uncertainty of the field.

Let us briefly discuss each of these recommended acknowledgments.

Acknowledge the Implications of Scientific Uncertainty and Political Differences

I agree with Dr. Bromley that "at the end of the day, both sides are endorsing individual autonomy, voluntarism, and self-directedness" (p. 33) and that "even to debate the political differences openly rather than through the veil of scientific objectivity would constitute a measure of progress" (p. 33). I do not, however, see the political dispute as the coalitions' defending "alternative sources of authorization and tacitly accept[ing] the different costs associated with expanded religious or state authorization" (p. 33). Dr. Bromley sees the conflict involving different value preferences; I see the conflict involving different judgments about the empirical reality of ethical transgressions and harms and the consequences of remedial actions concerning cultic and related groups. Dr. Bromley sees the political dispute as a natural consequence of the two camps' value preferences; I see the political dispute as an understandable, though not inevitable, consequence of the two camps' competing for power and influence in the media, education, medicine, the courts, academia, and government.

I suspect that some members of each coalition seek in each of these realms the absolute triumph of their own unproven and uncertain view of empirical reality. Unfortunately, these people can come to have a disproportionate influence over the decisions of policy makers.

How does this happen? It happens when, as Amitrani and Di Marzio express it in this issue, these people act more like prosecutors and defense attorneys than scholars or professionals:

  • when they omit important pieces of information (including, but not limited to, financial and other relationships that might affect their testimony or writing) and/or slant their presentations in order to engineer a particular response;

  • when they directly or indirectly use ad hominem attacks as a substitute for rational or empirical arguments, e.g., the campaign to "blacklist" notions of brainwashing¾Zablocki, 1997);

  • when they form or even appear to form alliances with organizations that are widely perceived to be untrustworthy or dangerous;

  • when they studiously avoid granting their opponents even a modicum of credibility for points well taken;

  • when they studiously avoid mentioning any facts that might be perceived as weakening their case;

  • when they distort or, worse, caricature their opponents' points of view;

  • when they substitute slogans for facts;

  • when they abuse science by ignoring methodological deficiencies of studies that agree with their opinions and highlighting such deficiencies in studies that arrive at contrary conclusions;

  • when they deliberately appeal to emotion instead of reason.

We expect this kind of truth-twisting from attorneys, salesmen, and some others. But we do not expect it from scholars and professionals ostensibly reporting on their academic research or professional experience. Obviously, in some settings (e.g., testifying as an expert witness in a court case) less academic objectivity is expected than in other settings (e.g., testimony to an official investigative body, publications submitted to academic journals, interviews granted to journalists). When, however, scholars or professionals become truth-twisting advocates outside as well as inside the courtroom, their credibility wanes.

Ironically, eschewing prosecutorial or defense-attorney roles and openly acknowledging the scientific uncertainty attached to their views would probably magnify the potentially constructive impact of scholars and professionals testifying to decision-makers. Competent decision-makers are quite capable of formulating strategies appropriate to a climate of uncertainty, when necessary. They may, for example, focus only on the most extreme violations of a particular standard or set up mechanisms for further studying the subject under investigation, or deal with cases on an individual basis. When, however, academicians, professionals, or activists mislead decision-makers into thinking that there is more scientific certainty than actually exists, or so annoy them that the decision-makers discount valid scientific evidence, incorrect and controversial decisions are more likely to result.

Consider All Information Sources

This recommendation is a corollary of the first. If the state of scientific knowledge is uncertain, then decision-makers, scholars, and professionals should be open to all sources of information, not just to scientifically collected data. Testimony of and reports from all concerned parties should be considered¾former members, current members, families, as well as journalists, helping professionals, academicians, and others. We should, of course, remain vigilant about the limitations of the various sources of information, but, given the lack of conclusive scientific evidence, we should not a priori discount information sources.

It is also unfortunate that many members of each camp are ignorant about what members of the other camp have written. Dialogue would be enhanced, in my view, if a committee composed of members from both camps developed a study guide with recommended readings designed to reduce ignorance of the other side's literature.

Acknowledge that Groups May Sometimes Harm Individuals

Common sense seems to dictate that the denial of this proposition flies in the face of even everyday experience, let alone observations of groups such as Aum Shinrikyo. However, the climate in this field has become so polarized and politicized that some people appear to be reluctant to acknowledge this obvious fact, presumably for fear that their opponents will spin this acknowledgement into something much more extreme than was intended. Sadly, their reluctance has some foundation in reality. I believe, however, that for the religion coalition the benefits to be gained by publicly acknowledging this proposition outweigh the downside. If members of both coalitions agree that groups can harm people, then they must directly confront what they disagree about, namely, the nature and level of this harm. Such an acknowledgment highlights the fundamental empirical nature of the dispute, the scientific uncertainty attached to proffered opinions, and the need for continued study.

Acknowledge that Groups Vary Enormously

As the religion coalition needs to publicly acknowledge that groups can harm individuals, the individual rights coalition needs to acknowledge that groups vary enormously. Again, common sense would seem to dictate that this acknowledgment should be easy to make. Yet some seem to act as though the label attached to groups is the reality rather than the groups themselves, or as though acknowledging a "good" unorthodox group would somehow undermine testimony about "bad" groups, or as though acknowledging some "good" in a "bad" group would negate valid criticisms of what is "bad." As with the proposition that groups may harm individuals, however, acknowledging the truth of group variation will in the end prove more productive than twisting the truth. If both coalitions can publicly agree that some groups harm people and that the population of new groups varies a great deal, then they must confront together the necessity to develop criteria (preferably scientific in nature) for assessing these diverse groups and their diverse effects on individuals. Rather than engaging in a spin contest, as though they were contestants on CNN's Crossfire, the parties might find themselves cooperating to expand scientific understanding.

Acknowledge that Proposed Remedies Should Recognize Scientific Uncertainty

If the preceding propositions were acknowledged, then it would be difficult for either coalition to argue for extreme action in either direction. I suspect that most members of both coalitions would support, or at least not object to, making counseling available to families and former group members, helping families communicate their concerns to current members in non-coercive settings, enforcing laws that new groups might break, and conducting scientific research. They would probably disagree about the need for and specific nature of governmental actions and public and youth education endeavors. This disagreement would reflect their different judgment calls about the level and nature of harm associated with new groups.

Yet even in these areas I believe it is possible to identify actions that neither coalition would strongly object to. The Swedish Government Commission report (1998), for example, was moderate in that it acknowledged the need to help people and to study the subject, but cautioned against forceful government action. This report displeased some in the human rights coalition because it didn't go far enough and probably displeased some members of the religion coalition simply because it said that there was a cult problem that warranted public action.

I also believe that it is possible and desirable to develop educational programs that teach young people how to recognize and respond to manipulative psychological and social influences in life (with cult situations being only one of many classes of influence). After all, the scientific research base of social psychology is much larger than that of cultic studies, so there would be correspondingly much less uncertainty about what can and should be taught.


I believe that harm perpetrated by new groups is a fact beyond dispute. However, I acknowledge that scholars and helping professionals can respectfully disagree about:

  1. The nature of this harm.

  2. The level of harm¾within and across groups.

  3. The precise causes of the harm.

  4. The most useful theoretical models for researching and explaining the harm.

  5. What should be done about the harm.

  6. The unintended negative consequences of actions designed to reduce harm.

These issues must be examined as objectively as possible. Politically inspired slanting of data and arguments must be exposed whenever it occurs. The rules of science and reason, not the rules of the public relations industry, should guide us.

Those people around the world who criticize unethical cultic practices are not going to give up and go to sleep. They will continue to condemn what they perceive to be social injustices and human rights violations committed by cults. Similarly, those people around the world who believe that religious freedom is threatened will not give up and go to sleep. They will continue to condemn what they perceive to be risky proposals for correcting a problem that in their view is greatly exaggerated. If the many moderates within these two groups do not get together as suggested here, then the "confident" extremes of each coalition will dominate the debate and guarantee that policy decisions will be uninformed and one-sided.


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I wish to thank Dr. David G. Bromley for receipt of and permission to quote from his in-press manuscript, "A Tale of Two Theories: Brainwashing and Conversion as Competing Political Narratives."

A version of this article first appeared in AFF's Internet journal,

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., a counseling psychologist, is AFF’s Executive Director. He is the editor of Cultic Studies Journal and Recovery From Cults. He is co-author of Cults: What Parents Should Know and Satanism and Occult-Related Violence: What You Should Know. Dr. Langone has spoken and written widely about cults. In 1995 he was honored as the Albert V. Danielsen visiting Scholar at Boston University. (