To the Reader and Comments

To the Reader and Comments

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

Many of you receiving this journal have previously received its predecessor, the Cultic Studies Newsletter. The CSN attempted to provide individuals interested in the study of cults and cultic processes with a mechanism for sharing ideas and information about publications, research, and events of note. Readers’ responses to the CSN, however, indicated a need for a more formal and enlarged publishing organ. Hence, the Cultic Studies Journal was created.

The CSJ will continue to fulfill the main functions of the CSN – by including news of events of note, information on research in progress, lists of references, and the opportunity for readers to share ideas. The CSJ, however, will publish more and longer articles than was possible with the SCN. Theoretical essays and comments about cults and cultic processes are acceptable, as are empirical reports. Contributions from all disciplines are encouraged. And, of course, readers’ comments, criticisms, and suggestions are welcome.


On the Discontinuous Model of Sirkin et al.

I would like to comment on the concept of “destructive cultism,” and particularly on the “discontinuous model” of Sirkin et al. (Cultic Studies Newsletter, December 1983).

  1. Values can never be excluded from facts and analyses; nevertheless, the concept of “destructive cultism” seems egregiously tendentious and crudely moralistic – almost like a hypothetical concept of “evil cultism” or “godless communism.”

  2. The tendentious concept settles by definition issues which should be viewed as problematic and subject to empirical investigation, e.g., it does not automatically follow that totalitarian – charismatic leadership produces destructive consequences for individuals or societies. This should be an empirical question, not a definitional fiat.

  3. A continuous model seems more realistic to me than a discontinuous model. Many groups focus on a single prophet, messiah, or spiritual master as a symbolic identity figure, but the latter’s direct and comprehensive control over members’ lives varies from group to group. In its heyday, the Divine Light Mission was less regimented than some groups, despite the emphasis on the spiritual authority of Guru Maharaj Ji. As sociologist Jim Richardson has pointed out, Jim Jones enjoyed more direct personal control over his followers in Jonestown than does Rev. Moon, because the latter’s organization is bureaucratic, multilevel-hierarchal and partly decentralized. With the death of Swami Prabhupada, ISKCON has become somewhat decentralized. Do Sirkin et al no longer consider Hare Krishna to be a destructive cult? The defining properties of a group type should be distinct from the types’ consequences, e.g., its “destructive” effect. Continuous models appear to me to be more realistic than discontinuous models.

Thomas Robbins, Ph.D.

Mt. Pleasant, Michigan

Points of Interest from Articles in Two Christian Magazines

Enclosed are several interesting articles from HIS Magazine and Christianity Today (see “Selected References” section – Editor). Therein are several points of interest:

  1. The prevailing opinion of evangelicals is (now) opposed to the use of deprogramming by well-meaning parents and church groups.

  2. The techniques of persuasion used by cults include manipulation, deception, and mind-control. “Brainwashing,” however, is (now) considered to be an ex-cult member’s way of saving face and excusing himself for having been duped, and apparently is not the usual way most cults get their members.

  3. Theological doctrine remains a primary distinguishing trait of cults, new religions, and aberrant Christian groups.

  4. Cultic processes do sometimes characterize (aberrant) Christian groups, and where this can be pointed out, the public (and the Christian community in particular) is well served.

  5. There are a number of challenges for cult research groups issued by Enroth and Melton in the Christianity Today interview, which scholars should pay attention to, e.g., the need for information on those new cults which are growing faster than the ones we traditionally research.

  6. The theological and sociological classification of the countless new cults into meaningful, larger groupings in order to better understand them and more effectively counsel those members who want to get out.

  7. The appeal of the cults to nominal, cultural Christians and Jews should encourage us to get our act together and provide more of the authority, fellowship, idealism, and commitment which college students and unwary cult prospects are consciously and unconsciously looking for.

  8. The unethical and sloppy journalism of those who inadequately research and unfairly report the more sensational aspects of cult practices, as if they were true across the board.

Dietrich Gruen

Associate Director

Inter-Varsity Department of Evangelism

Are Religious Cults Religious?

Religious cults have been a subject of ongoing, occasionally stormy controversy for the past fifteen years, during which time they grew rapidly. Some estimate that there are now as many as 2,500 cults with an international membership ranging from three to five million, most of whom are single, white, middle class young adults. And the clashing views that have formed appear to be as much in conflict as ever.

Cult defenders consist chiefly of sociologists and faculty of divinity schools, organizations concerned with civil liberties’ issues, and clergy and laymen representing religious organizations and institutions. Cult critics, on the other hand, are mainly ex-cultists, parents of children who are or have been cult converts, psychotherapists who have treated former cult members, lawyers who have been involved in cult litigation, some clergy, and a few academicians. Arrayed against each other in unyielding positions, they pose the question: Are religious cults really religious?

Those defending cults accept the cults’ claim to be religious as bona fide. Furthermore, they regard them as being staunchly devoted to upholding a sound, moral alternative to our anomic culture, whose fundamental moral values have become weak, ambiguous, and subject to shifts in majoritarian or modish preferences or trends. From this perspective, cults appear to help resolve the confusion and uncertainty that trouble young adults by providing them with a clear sense of meaning, purpose and direction.

In addition, there are religious scholars who consider cults to be much the same as the cults of schismatic religious movements of much earlier eras. Such groups also began with small numbers and were regarded as bizarre, even dangerous, developments by the dominant religions of their times. These scholars are quick to note that some extremely unconventional groups, such as early Christianity and Protestantism, have since attained world-wide acceptance and prominence. Consequently, they further suggest that some of the contemporary religious cults may become important, established religions in the future. For this reason, they consider it imperative that cult converts be guaranteed their freedom of religious choice and worship in accordance with the principles of a democratic society that protect and support religious pluralism.

A similar line of reasoning is shared by representatives of major religious bodies, civil liberties organizations, and others who hold that there is a compelling need to uphold the First Amendment so as to protect everyone’s religious liberties. In their judgment, religious cults are merely nonconformist groups holding unorthodox beliefs that, while not widely understood or approved, must nonetheless be assured protection.

Those who disagree with such views content that this is not the case. They maintain that there is as yet no hard evidence from any source indicating that the members of any religious cult (Eastern, Christian, Satanic, or those marginal to them, such as EST) were provided before conversion with all relevant, factual information about the central aspects of cult life and beliefs or given the opportunity to examine and assess such information at their leisure and free from pressure by members. Indeed, as virtually any ex-cult convert will attest, quite the opposite is true. Cult prospects become cult converts with remarkably little knowledge of the realities of cult doctrinal view and the daily life of cult members. Thus, the contentions of those who so object to deprogramming cult converts on the grounds that their Constitutional rights are being violated are, in fact, invalid.

There are still other grounds for casting doubt on the cults’ and their defenders’ claims to religious legitimacy. For example, some cults’ recruiting techniques involve the deliberate masquerading of their identity until cult prospects have been induced to convert, as is the case with the Unification Church. Most cults, however, identify themselves or are identifiable when they first approach prospective converts. But all cults intentionally and effectively resort to deception, misrepresentation, distortion, and false statements concerning the actualities of cult life and how their beliefs and ways of life will improve their members’ well being. Indeed, they calculatedly mislead those whom they proselytize into believing a problem-free life that offers them a state of perfection awaits them subsequent to conversion. Moreover, while cult proselytizers will attempt to recruit virtually anyone who affords them the time to speak to them, they carefully seek out the gullible, weak, naïve, and vulnerable – those who are most susceptible to cults’ fraudulent promises.

These are extraordinarily alluring to many young adults. Furthermore, those troubles by drug use, emotional problems, and loneliness – as numbers of them have been during their pre-cult life – find that the cult’s regimented life provides them with the structure, order, and certainty they need. This stability and the effects of indoctrination deprive them of the opportunity to make their decisions independently, while thrusting them into a permanently passive-submissive role in relationship to the cult leaders and those to whom they delegate power. Moreover, cult converts are generally induced to believe that they can attain a state of perfection, personified by their leaders, by being completely and unswervingly obedient to them and the doctrines they espouse.

Regardless of the recruiting techniques employed by cults, they are but a prelude to their ultimate goal of dominating their converts by gaining control of their minds and then manipulating and abusing them psychologically and, for some, physically. Unknown numbers of cultists suffer from malnutrition, fatigue and illness and some undergo emotional breakdowns which go untreated. In addition, they characteristically undergo drastic personality changes as a result of the cults’ mind-controlling and indoctrination processes. In actuality, their individuality is stifled and their personal development halted, however long the euphoria that follows conversion may last. Cultists become utterly consumed by their blind adherence to their leaders’ doctrinaire beliefs, which are intolerant of all other religions and cults.

Generally unknown to the public and apparently ignored or dismissed by their defenders, cults render their members subservient by imposing Spartan regulations on all important aspects of their lives. For example, they rigidly prescribe their place and hours of work, the time devoted to religious rituals and discussions, and their diets, as well as control their social and inter-sexual relationships. Moreover, they deliberately turn them against their parents, siblings, and friends who, as non-believers, are held to be evil and, therefore, dangerous to them and their cults. Consequently, parents suffer great anguish and sorrow, for they literally lose their children who become cult converts.

Casting further doubt on the claim of cults that they are authentically religious is the fact that some cult officials have been convicted of smuggling and selling drugs and firearms and of breaking into federal offices in order to steal documents. Other cults have forced their converts to sue their parents for huge sums of money after the latter had abducted and deprogrammed them (unsuccessfully). Perhaps worst of all is that cults control their members through guilt and intimidation in order to prevent them from questioning, reasoning, and acting independently, thus casting them into a servile state that is emotionally very damaging.

Many cults have substantial incomes and benefit from the unpaid labors of their members, who work excessively long hours. Moreover, cults enjoy a tax-free status, since the Internal Revenue Service has ruled that they are religious groups. Meanwhile, they continue to seduce many of our best and brightest young adults into joining them, with the result that their self-fulfillment and contributions to society are lost. Cult predations such as these are perpetrated without compunction in the name of religion. Yet if the Ten Commandments are used as the standard for evaluating how religious cults deal with their members and society, there is truly nothing about cults that is religious.

Edward M. Levine, Ph.D.

Professor of Social Psychology

Loyola University of Chicago