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Cultic Studies Journal, 1985, Volume 2, Number 1, pages 169-174

Comments and Selected References

To The Editor:

The study of “Counseling and Involvements in New Religious Groups” by Dr. Lawrence Bennett Sullivan impressed me as a valuable study of the attitudes of anti-cult counselors until, at the end, it seemed to dissolve in vituperation, conspiracy theory, and grim warnings against “subversion.” Let me make a few quick points:

1) Dr. Sullivan’s claim that “vastly too little attention” has been given to the unethical recruitment tactics of cults is bizarre. T.V. movies, regular movies, and drugstore paperbacks have depicted idealistic youth trapped in gurus’ webs and rescued by deprogramming, while Teen, Reader’s Digest, Good Housekeepinq and other popular magazines have published I-saved-my-child-from-a-fanatic-cult articles, with copious quotations from John Clark, Margaret Singer, et al?

2) Any discussion of coercion, deception, and “psychological terrorism” relating to cults which fails to mention the tactics of some anticultists (e.g., coercive deprogrammings) is unbalanced to say the least! Granted, these tactics represent a response to manipulative cultist tactics; but some of the “subversive” tactics of the latter are in turn a response to the tactics of some of the anti-cultists. Dr. Sullivan’s vehemence and one-sidedness in this respect does not contribute to the depolarization which I would like to see occur.

Dr. Sullivan notes that the counseling that he describes was often of little value and that counseling objectives with targeted devotees were often not achieved. What does he suggest as an alternative? (Not coercion, I would hope!) Perhaps more effective counseling relationships could have developed if the counselors didn’t operate so clearly as parental agents, and if they didn’t view the exiting of the counselee from the group as an a priori overriding imperative. I know some members of notorious “destructive cults” who simply do not live a regimented, communally encapsulated lifestyle. I know others who have done skilled and creative work in journalistic and other diverse enterprises operating under the auspices of “cults.” Some converts have been helped and others hurt. I believe that the goal of counseling should emerge from the counseling relationship and the particularities of each devotee’s situation.

I think some cultists have used deceptive methods to “sabotage” anti-cult operations. But I think other counselors, even those who might be in sympathy with one group or another, have been sincere in advocating “mediation.” Naturally, every person with a special viewpoint or bias is going to view “mediation” and “counseling” in a particular way, and may view others with different orientations as conspirators. Thus, opponents of coercive deprograimming have noted that some persons who are “counselors” today were “deprogrammers” yesterday, and have wondered if the shift has sometimes been nominal. There is also the factor of different counseling programs competing for the limited attention and resources of concerned parents, citizens, and funding sources.

Dr. Sullivan’s vehemence concerning cult sympathizers purporting to be counselors leads me to wonder if he would hold that anyone who has a different orientation from his and/or is sympathetic to a spiritual minority can make any valid contribution in the area of cult counseling or research. For example, I am sympathetic to Meher Baba, a fairly nondestructive group. I have a colleague who is more connected to Meher Baba than I am and who favors Rogerian nondirective counseling, as opposed to doctrinaire exit counseling, for devotees. Are we potentially or objectively “subversive” or beyond the pale?

Finally, I want to emphasize that Dr. Sullivan’s study is a study of the attitudes of anti-cult exit counselors, no more and no less. He makes mild cautionary statements about applying their perceptions of converts to the “reality” of cults. I prefer to stress the point. I will also note that the author’s parting fulminations indicate that there are other “counselors” with other viewpoints and analyses, but whom he has excluded from the sample because their attitudes were deemed pernicious. This is no problem unless we are to generalize from the attitudes of exit counselors to cult-, and their, converts, in which case, we should also consider the perceptions of the “alternate counselors.”


Thomas Robbins, Ph.D.

To The Editor:

The University of Nebraska’s conference, “Other Realities: New Religions and Revitalization Movements” (March 27-30, 1985), provided a unique opportunity to hear conflicting arguments on the cult issue. Papers were presented by scholars thought of as apologists for cults, as well as by critics of the cults. The scholars were mainly sociologists and historians of religion. A few philosophers were present. As a member of a distinct minority, i.e., those who oppose the theory and practice of many “new religions,” I found the divergent approaches intriguing. The sociological and historical papers reflected contradictory views on what is valid scholarship, what it means to be human, and what is a proper mode for the ascertainment of truth. The Issues addressed were profound ones. Any summary of the proceedings will do injustice to the conference’s tone, level of erudition, and the common respect displayed among the participants. The following comments reflect one participant’s observations.

Sharing a meal with Tom Robbins, one of the more prolific authors in this field, affords a better view of his humor and perspective than can be gleaned from the intelligence which marks his published prose. Dr. Robbins seems to be a concerned and honest social observer. His formal statements, however, display a flawed judgment which one would hope not to find accompanying such finely honed instincts for intrusions on freedom. An example can be found in his plenary address on the legal problems posed by new religions. Robbins claimed that the Constitution presupposes personal autonomy as a universal and constant reality. This is historically inaccurate. The framers adhered to the view that free will was a fragile human potential. The Bill of Rights was written to protect this fragility. This subtle, crucial distinction appears to set sociologists like Dr. Robbins apart from those of us who tend to be critical of cults. These sociologists appear to begin an examination with sweeping assumptions that necessarily support the ensuing intellectual framework (“model”) through which their conclusions are shaped, and predetermined. Robbins was the least ardent practitioner of this analytic approach.

Dr. Rodney Sawatsky, who teaches Religion and History at Conrad Greble College in Waterloo, Ontario, underscored the cause of the sociologists’ tendency to ignore fact when he noted the influence of Immanuel Kant on the development of sociology. Kant’s focus on the internal processes which allow the discernment of truth led sociology to the point of making the individual more central to truth than the object of truth itself. This neo-positivist approach was glaringly prevalent in the papers presented by the sociologists.

Charles Harper of Creighton University gave the most explicit expression of the sociologists disdain for fact. His paper ostensibly addressed the conditions under which cultic developments are seen as problems. Without citing a single fact about the demonstrated harms which have been visited upon cult participants, Dr. Harper blithely declared, “Our social reality has been re-ordered by the Anti-Cult Movement (ACM) ... Without the ACM we’d have cults, but no cult problem.” Harper’s astonishing challenge to deductive reasoning was carried further by the following statement: “Social problems are not based on objective conditions, but on interpretations.”

Anson Shupe echoed the theme by stating that the “ACM” is devoid of valid concerns. The American Family Foundation, he charged, “was only a steppingstone to a growth industry.”

Deprogrammers are, “moral entrepreneurs,” who “perform attitudinal lobotomies.” Shupe also punctuated his talk with nasty asides aimed at Dr. John Clark, Dr. Margaret Singer, and the “ACM” professionals who, he says, yearn to prolong an unnecessary conflict.

David Bromley’s paper on the financing of the Unification Church was quite interesting. It was obvious that Bromley has no love for the UC and believes that their methods have hurt them. He fell into the same tired mold, however, when he argued that the American concern over the Moonies is a result of the Church’s practice of openly building the financial base before establishing the missionary force. Bromley stressed that the spiritual leaders dictate policy to the business faction and that this leads to poor decisions. Bromley also stated that he believes that Transcendental Meditation and Scientology, which sell quasi-religious practices, grate on us because Americans expect clear distinctions between business and religion. The truth is that Americans expect honesty, and those who know of these “church” practices find them to be dishonest. Bromley closed by saying that current opposition to the Unification Church was similar to that once directed at the Roman Catholic Church. No basis for such an analogy was given.

The Unification Church was also the focus of James Beverly’s paper. Beverly, a graduate student in religion at Toronto, gave a powerful argument in defense of proper scholarship. He noted that the majority of those scholars who have praised Moon have failed to examine the Church’s primary source material. He has examined over 5000 documents and has concluded that the uninformed praise on the part of Herbert Richardson, Frederick Sontag, and others demeans the academic community, scholarship itself, and the uninformed members of the UC. Beverly’s presentation was a forcefully graceful antidote to the lax arguments of cult apologists.

Prejudices at the expense of the “ACM” were a feature of James Lewis’s paper on the causes of post-cult Traumatic Stress Syndrome (TSS). This student of religion says that those who suffer such symptoms are responding to the stress of their exit process, not the practices of the cult. Although he allows for differences of intensity stemming from distinctions in the exit process, Lewis holds to several biases. He doubts the validity of the testimony offered by those deprogrammed former cultists who now oppose their cult. He believes their viewpoint is merely the product of conditioning on the part of “ACM” people. But he has no trouble accepting the views of those who have had unsuccessful attempts at exiting, be they failed deprogrammings or voluntary efforts to leave followed by a return to and praise of their cult.

I had the honor of being included on the conference’s closing panel. Accompanying me were Anson Shupe, Tom Robbins, U.S. Judge Warren Urbam, and the self-described “local Moonie,” Reinhard. The panel left a lively impact on the entire conference.

The most important issues which arose during the conference were Tom Robbins’s call for more discussions between the “ACM” and the cult “apologists,” Gordon Melton’s remarking upon the serious nature of the central issues, and the obvious discrepancies between each camp’s view of what constitutes a proper approach to the questions.

As the sole defender of the so-called “ACM,” I agreed with Robbins’s call for discussion. Nothing so demystifies an opponent than meeting him in the flesh. The criteria which I feel have to be met by the pro-cult camp include: a) that they stop their snide and false attacks on the so-called “ACM,” b) that their scholars stop denying cult-related atrocities and problems, c) that real scholarship replace their “model building,” d) that deductive reasoning from objective fact guide their progress to conclusions, and e) that they accept that if such changes are not forthcoming the respective camps will continue to talk past each other.

Shupe and Robbins notwithstanding, there is no spontaneous dialectic of “deviance de-amplification.” The lowered tone of argument at the conference was a result of the organizers, Hugh Whitt and John Turner. They are scholar/gentlemen, and this had a beneficial influence. But respect does not mean that one consents to another’s views. The objective situation has not changed. Any person who does not believe this central fact fails to appreciate the seriousness of the issues.

In closing, it should be noted that these and other volatile issues were debated with candor and decorum. The credit for this partly rests with the participants. But, as noted above, the organizers are to be thanked for their dominant role in the establishment of an atmosphere of civil and rigorous academic debate. Similar settings are required if the claimed “de-amplification” is to take place.


Kevin Garvey