What Should be Done about Cults

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 18, 2001, pages 69-81

What Should be Done about Cults?

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

American Family Foundation


A panel discussion at AFF’s 1999 annual conference brought together representatives 13 cult educational organizations from around the world. The panel used brainstorming followed by structured discussion to come up with a consensus list of 10 action recommendations regarding problems posed by cultic groups. This article discusses the panel discussion and action recommendations, and concludes that “if the dialogue and open exchange of information advocated by the panelists continues to occur, then proposals about what should be done about cults will be more likely to be fair, informed, and effective.”

One of the sessions at AFF's 1999 annual conference was a panel discussion involving representatives from 13 cult educational organizations in Europe, North America, and the Far East. Mr. Peter Heinrich, a management consultant and member of AFF's advisory board, moderated the discussion.

The discussion's goal was to identify a set of action recommendations on which all participants could agree. The method consisted of a period devoted to brainstorming followed by discussion aimed at categorizing, consolidating, and evaluating suggestions in order to assemble a list of action recommendations on which a consensus could be established.

Though sharing a common interest in the cult issue, panelists had diverse backgrounds. There were researchers, mental health professionals, lawyers, a journalist, former group members, religious professionals, a judge, a medical doctor, and administrators of organizations. The organizations they represented are also diverse. Some try to build upon clinical and/or scholarly research; some are sustained by the dedication of families and/or former group members who volunteer time to this issue; some approach the issue from a Christian perspective; and some are governmental entities. A list of panelists and their organizational affiliations can be found at the end of this document. Biographical sketches are provided when available.

After listing the brainstorming and consensus items, I offer a commentary on the panel's topic. I wish to thank those panelists and other colleagues who made suggestions or comments on an earlier draft, which was submitted to the panelists. However, I take sole responsibility for the ideas expressed in the commentary, which should not be interpreted as a consensus statement.

Brainstorming Session

During the brainstorming session, participants identified the actions listed below. When you examine this list, keep in mind that brainstorming calls for uncritical listing of ideas. Evaluation of the ideas occurs after the brainstorming session.

  • More rehabilitation centers

  • More researchers; more research

  • Extend, organize, integrate Internet efforts

  • Integrate cultic studies into trauma, public health, human rights

  • Increase funds from government

  • Increase legal recourse for families and compensation for ex-members

  • Apply criminal law

  • Get information about groups

  • Understand dynamics between groups and society

  • Investigate charity law; create a national registry of all religious groups

  • Create a special forum for families and ex-members to talk

  • Learn from other organizations dealing with trauma

  • Put more effort into differentiating among groups

  • Educate youth in general critical thinking and discernment skills - not just about cults

  • Invest time and money to develop curricula for faith communities, schools, and other groups.

  • Continue to meet together; share ideas

  • Be present on WWW and address untruths on other sites

  • Study the problem

  • Provide education on comparative religion in schools

  • Adequate training for professionals; e.g., law enforcement, mental health, clergy, seminarians.

  • More exchange; more information between our groups

  • Study cultural differences in why people join cults in different countries

  • Have a discussion on the price of democracy and what it takes to maintain it

  • Dialogue between groups and society

  • Take immediate action against unlawful activity

  • Introduce a systematic method of collecting data

  • Reach an international consensus on manipulation as a continuous scale with cults on an extreme

  • Reward openness and honesty with privileges

  • Punish criminality

  • Treat as a matter of public health; human rights

  • Create a government body of religious affairs run by academics

  • Diagnosis of individuals who have been harmed

  • Educate medical professionals

  • More behavioral research

  • Respect differences between country approaches to the problem and between society and the groups

  • Encourage and facilitate more debate

  • Review libel laws to see if they inhibit debate

  • Persuade more clergy to come to conferences

  • Create a catalogue of helping organizations and resources

  • Educate media representatives so they get it right

  • List cases and judgments on cults in all countries

  • Persuade media to become more interested in the issue

Consensus Actions

After the brainstorming session, panelists grouped individual items in broader categories and put aside items on which there was disagreement. The discussion that followed the brainstorming session included much more information than can be shared here. I will incorporate some of the discussion points in my commentary below. (Contact AFF if you would like to obtain a video of the discussion.)

All participants endorsed the following actions. Although this list of actions reflects a consensus of the participants, it should be kept in mind that participants might disagree on precisely what these items mean, how to prioritize them, and how to implement them. These issues are left to future discussions.

  • Conduct more research

  • Provide education on critical thinking

  • List and examine laws, policies, and legal cases in various countries

  • Continue to have international meetings

  • Enforce existing laws

  • Work more effectively with the media

  • Help families and ex-members

  • Encourage reform and reformers

  • Encourage public debate

  • Educate professionals


The cult problem has three significant dimensions: harm, religious freedom, and remedies.


Harm in this context may be psychological (e.g., depression; induced states of dependency), economic (e.g., being tricked into giving one's inheritance to a group), physical (e.g., medical neglect of children; rape or other sexual abuse), educational (e.g., a child raised in a group that doesn't allow him to learn basic educational skills), spiritual (e.g., losing one's pre-group religious faith in reaction to disillusionment concerning a leader one formerly deemed to be "God's anointed"), or legal (e.g., having one's basic human rights abrogated by the dictates or manipulations of an autocratic leader).

Although some cult spokespersons and sympathizers may argue that cultic environments do not harm people, many, whether sympathizers or critics, would probably agree with the following proposition: Some groups under some conditions harm some people sometimes. To argue that groups never harm people contradicts incontrovertible evidence (e.g., Aum Shinrikyo, Solar Temple, Jonestown) and implies that, unless one holds the absurd belief that no group ever harmed any individual, some special factor immunizes cults (or "new religious movements") against those group dynamics that may cause harm. Why "new religious movements" should be so uniquely immune to the potential for harm that exists in all groups is a question that seems never to be addressed, probably because no plausible defense could be made of such a privileged position for "new religious movements."

Some might ask why single out cults if they are subject to the same kinds of dynamics as other groups. There are three vital differences that justify paying special attention to cults. First, abundant evidence indicates that harm is more prevalent and/or more serious in some groups (e.g., Aum Shinrikyo) than in contemporary mainstream religions or other established organizations in democratic societies. Second, the harms most commonly associated with mainstream religions and other established organizations (e.g., the problem of sexual abuse of children) tend to reflect individual pathology, not an abusive social structure. Third, mainstream religions and other established organizations have had the time to develop accountability mechanisms that tend to come into play, however belatedly, when abuse occurs. Although, these accountability mechanisms are by no means perfect, they do afford a measure of protection to society. Cults, on the other hand, have usually not had enough time and/or motivation to develop accountability mechanisms. Those that have done so or are in the process of doing so (ISKCON being a notable example) should be studied closely, for an increased understanding of this process may make it easier to persuade other controversial groups to follow along this path.

Any debate on the question of harm, then, should focus not on whether it occurs, but on:

  1. the nature of the harm;

  2. the prevalence of harm, within and across groups;

  3. the causes of harm;

  4. the degree to which harm-producing factors operate in specific groups; and

  5. how to limit harm.

These are all empirical questions that, in theory, may be answered by a well-designed program of scientific research that would undoubtedly take many years to complete. Existing research sheds light on these questions, but it doesn't provide definitive answers. Hence, individuals of integrity may make different judgments about aspects of the harm question. Some, for example, may read the evidence as suggesting a high level of harm, while others see a low level. Unfortunately, the polarization that has occurred in this field tends to inhibit communication that would enable interested persons to understand fully why others draw different conclusions from the same evidence.

The list of consensus actions suggests that panelists recognized that the level of knowledge and understanding in this field is not as high as it could be. They agreed that more research is necessary, that the public debate on the subject should be pursued, and that more international meetings should occur to facilitate information exchange and dialogue. The panelists also agreed that reform movements and reformers within controversial groups should be encouraged. This last action recommendation probably reflects participants' positive perceptions of another panel discussion at this conference: "Can Cultic Groups Change: The Case of ISKCON." This panel discussed the positive changes that have occurred within ISKCON (the Hare Krishna movement) during the past 10-15 years. The fact that organizational representatives believe that such reform should be encouraged in other groups demonstrates that, contrary to the accusations made in some quarters, the prime motivation of these organizations is a desire to help people who have been hurt and to prevent harm to others, not blind prejudice against any groups outside the mainstream.

Religious Freedom

Not all cultic groups are religious, so the issue of religious freedom comes into play only for those that are. But since the majority of controversial groups are religious, the religious freedom issue must be considered.

Some cult spokespersons and academic sympathizers have implied that accusations of harm related to cultic groups (new religious movements) are incompatible with respect for religious freedom. The message seems to be that if one says anything "bad" about new religious movements, then one is necessarily against religious freedom. This proposition is patently absurd. Must one be against religious freedom if one criticizes the religiously based genital mutilation practiced in some countries? Must one be against religious freedom if one criticizes so-called "Christian" groups that advocate racial purification?

The invocation of "religious freedom" in response to accusations of harm is a ploy designed to draw attention away from the evidence on which the accusations are based. The issue is not a simplistic "harm" or "religious freedom." The issue is reconciling and balancing competing social values, only one of which is religious freedom. One cannot resolve these conflicts by denying that they exist, which, for all intents and purposes, occurs when one becomes so preoccupied with one competing social value that one excludes consideration of all others. That exclusive social value may be religious freedom, but it may also be harm. Simplistic and one-dimensional perspectives can arise on both sides of the debate.

Some cult sympathizers are perceived as having made this mistake. Although they may offer thoughtful criticisms of proposed remedies, they rarely propose alternate solutions to the problems under discussion. Consequently they are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as saying, "what cult problem?" Their views, then, tend to be discounted by those who do see a problem calling for attention. As a result, these sympathizers are effectively removed from the playing field, that is, from the collective effort to reconcile conflicting values by finding remedies that appropriately address harm while simultaneously respecting and protecting religious freedom and other human rights.

In a similar way, some cult critics are perceived as being so preoccupied with harm that they will run roughshod over human rights. Some cult sympathizers will tend to see, perhaps with justification, these cult critics' proposed solutions as Trojan horses covering a hidden repressive agenda or as "solutions" that discount human rights. If the cult sympathizers are undiscriminating, they will then oppose all proposed solutions and reinforce the perception that these particular sympathizers say, "What cult problem?"

This situation is unfortunate, for even these individuals on opposite extremes of the critic-sympathizer debate may make some valid and useful points.

It is important to note that different countries have taken different approaches to the religious freedom issue concerning cults. I am not a legal expert and am not familiar with the specific situations in different countries, so I speak with some hesitation. I do tend to agree, however, with a comment made during the panel discussion. This comment stressed that the issue is not whether or not different democracies affirm human rights (for they do), but how these diverse countries use their laws to protect those rights and make judgments designed to reconcile conflicting rights. It was noted that the same U.S. State Department that has criticized certain European governments on human rights issues related to cults requires visa applicants to declare, among other things, whether or not they are members of a communist party. I do not put forth this point in order to advocate any particular governmental position, but to suggest that we closely examine cultural differences and political dimensions of the issue before weighing in on one side or another.


Potential remedies for the problems posed by cults may be divided into the following categories:

  1. preventing harm before it occurs;

  2. helping those who have been harmed;

  3. punishing those who have inflicted harm that is illegal or that results from illegal acts;

  4. rebuking those who have inflicted harm that is legal but unethical.

The panelists agreed on actions that cover all four of these categories: prevention, assistance, law-enforcement, and criticism.

Research is relevant to all categories, for the specifics of what we decide to do rest upon our knowledge and understanding. The more we know and understand, the more informed our actions will be.

Panelists agreed that education is central to efforts to prevent harm. Public discussion through the media and education of professionals (who minister to the public in various ways) should be encouraged for two reasons: (1) so that those who haven't been adversely affected will be better informed and able to defend themselves, should they belong to or consider joining a group; and (2) so that those who have been affected will learn where to get help. Young people, who are especially vulnerable, should be taught how to think critically so that they will be less likely to be seduced by sophistry and/or psychological manipulation. And reformers within controversial groups should be encouraged and supported in order to decrease the probability of future harm.

Helping ex-members and families, i.e., those who have been harmed or who have loved ones who are at risk, is central to most of the organizations' missions. AFF, for example, maintains an Information Service, runs workshops for families and ex-members, and publishes a number of books, videos, and reports designed to help affected persons.

Panelists strongly agreed that existing laws should be enforced and were generally open to the possibility that new laws be considered, though caution should be observed.

Although the panelists did not explicitly advocate category 4 (rebuking those who inflict harm that is legal but unethical), their discussion implied an endorsement of this remedy. One of the primary functions of public discussion of this issue is to criticize questionable practices of controversial groups. Although such criticism may not penetrate the defensive boundaries of some groups, it may have a positive effect on other groups (e.g., where there is even a nascent reform movement or some mechanisms for accountability). Criticism, however, should be presented respectfully, discerningly, and forcefully when appropriate. Blanket condemnations of groups tend not to contain much useful information. Specific, detailed, and nuanced criticisms, on the other hand, can be useful to all parties, including those who are sincerely interested in reforming their groups.

In my view it is vital to distinguish between criticism of unethical but legal practices and punishment of illegal practices. For example, most people in democratic societies would probably agree that it is unethical for a religious group to lie about its identity in order to persuade nonmembers to come to a function aimed at recruiting them. Most people would probably also agree that criticism of such deception is warranted, if not obligatory. But such deception, however reprehensible, is not necessarily illegal (although it may be depending upon its nature and effects and the legal traditions of the country in which it occurs). The law may sometimes tolerate a certain level of deception because outlawing "micro-harms" may have unintended effects that are more harmful than the "micro-harm" that is outlawed. Consequently, arguing against an overreaching legal proposal does not necessarily mean that one is against all legal controls, for one may believe ethical criticism is more appropriate than legal restraint in that particular instance. Nor does advocacy of legal controls in some cases mean that one believes that legal control to right all perceived wrongs is always called for. Again, the issue is not either-or. It is a complex process of balancing competing rights and social values.

Unfortunately, the polarization of views that has occurred in this field magnifies suspicions among the participants. It sometimes seems that views are so polarized that people in the two "camps" do not communicate, even when they talk to each other. Moreover, they rarely appear to read materials put out by the other "camp." This informational isolation diminishes the understanding of both "camps." Cult sympathizers do not appreciate the evidence attesting to the nature and magnitude of harm, which means that their understanding of their chosen field of study, i.e., new religious movements, contains a large blind spot. Cult critics do not benefit from the scholarship and research produced in the so-called sympathizer camp, which means that their proposed remedies may be based on incomplete information.

If the dialogue and open exchange of information advocated by the panelists continues to occur, then proposals about what should be done about cults will be more likely to be fair, informed, and effective.

Organizations and Panelists

AFF (American Family Foundation, Naples, Florida)

Herbert L. Rosedale, Esq., President of AFF, is a senior counselor in the law firm of Jenkins & Gilchrist Parker Chapin in New York City. He has written several articles on cults and the law, contributed a chapter to Recovery from Cults, and is co-editor of The Boston Movement: Critical Perspectives on the International Churches of Christ.

David Bardin, Esq., is the chair of AFF's legal committee and its Washington counsel.

Peter Heinrich is a management consultant in New York City and a member of AFF's advisory board.

A.I.S. (Asesoramiento e Informacion sobre Sectas; Assessment and Information about Cults, Barcelona, Spain)

Joseph Maria Jansa, M.D. is a medical researcher and the medical coordinator for AIS.

Centers for Apologetics Research (San Juan Capistrano, California)

Paul Carden, Executive Director of the Centers for Apologetics Research, has more than 20 years' experience in the field of cult-related research and outreach

Cult Information Centre (London, England)

Ian Haworth is General Secretary and founder of Cult Information Centre, a non-sectarian, educational charity, based in London, England. He has worked full-time as a specialist in cults since 1979 and is an ex-cult member. He was a co-founder of FOCUS Network (1982) in Dallas, Texas and also the Council on Mind Abuse (1979) in Toronto, Canada, which he ran for eight years before returning to the U.K. in 1987. He focuses on exposing the dangers of the deceptive and psychologically coercive methods of cults as a public speaker, acts as an expert witness in civil and criminal cases, and has published articles and comments in the national and international media. He is a consultant to the police, educators, the religious community, mental health professionals, and corporations.

F.A.I.R. (Family, Action, Information, and Resource, London, England)

Audrey Chaytor, Chairman.

Free Minds (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

Heather Svoboda, President.

Info-Cult/Info-Secte (Montreal, Canada)

Michael Kropveld is Executive Director and Founder of Info-Cult - the largest resource centre of its kind in Canada on cultic thinking. Since 1980 Mike has worked with more than 2,000 former members and families. He has spoken in Canada and internationally to hundreds of professional and community groups on the cult issue. He is also involved in counselling and consulting, and as an expert witness on cult issues. He has been featured on hundreds of radio and television programs locally, nationally, and internationally. In 1992 he was awarded the 125 Commemorative Medal "in recognition of significant contribution to compatriots, community and to Canada" by the Government of Canada.

INFORM (London, England)

Eileen Barker, Ph.D. Dr. Barker, a Fellow of the British Academy, is Professor of Sociology with Special Reference to the Study of Religion at the London School of Economics and Political Science, University of London. A former president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Dr. Barker has written or edited nine books and written over 150 articles and book chapters. Her books include New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction, The Making of a Moonie: Brainwashing or Choice? and Of Gods and Men: New Religious Movements in the West. Dr. Barker is also the head of INFORM, a cult educational organization in London, England.

Mind Control Research Center (Sapporo, Japan)

Pascal Zivi, Director.

Premier Ministre, Mission Interministérielle de Lutte Contre les Sectes (Prime Minister, Interministerial Commission for Combating Cults, Paris, France)

Denis Barthélemy, Sécrétaire Général.

Research Center of the Mexican Christian Institute

Cesar Mascarenas, M.D., Director.

Swedish Governmental Commission on “New Religious Movements” (Stockholm, Sweden)

Lars Grip is a freelance journalist and author. Mr. Grip has written several articles and five books in the field of drug-abuse, psychiatry, family politics, motivation, and creativity in the field of work. He was editor of the Pocketbook R, a periodical publication in the field of social politics from 1981 to 1985. Mr. Grip also was Guest Editor of the periodical book OTTAR from 1989-1997 and a Producer and Editor-In-Chief at the Swedish Broadcasting Cooperation in a current-affairs program, working with news (worldwide), analyses and long edited stories from 1987 to 1997. He was one of two staff members heading the Swedish Governmental Commission on the topic “New Religious Movements.” 1997-1998.

Watchman Fellowship (Birmingham, Alabama)

Craig Branch is currently president of Apologetics Resource Center in Birmingham, Alabama. At the time of the conference he was vice president of Watchman Fellowship, one of the largest Christian counter-cult ministries. Mr. Branch is a board member of Evangelical Ministries to New Religions (a consortium of a large number of Christian ministries to cults and NRMs) and Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center. He is chair of the Clergy Relations Committee for AFF. Currently, Mr. Branch is completing a Masters of Divinity degree.

Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center (Albany, Ohio)

Paul Martin, Ph.D., a former member and a leader of The Great Commission, is a psychologist and Director of the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center in Albany, Ohio, a residential rehabilitation center for ex-cult members. Dr. Martin is author of Cult-Proofing Your Kid. He has written many articles on cults and has been interviewed by many newspapers, radio and TV stations concerning cults.

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 received the Leo J. Ryan Award from the "original" Cult Awareness network and was honored as the Albert V. Danielsen visiting Scholar at Boston University.