Cultic Studies Journal, 1986, Volume 3, Number 1, pages 85-96
Cultism: A Conference for Scholars and Policy Makers
Louis Jolyon West, MD; Michael D. Langone, PhD
From September 9th to 11th, 1985, The American Family Foundation, the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, and the Johnson Foundation convened "Cultism: A Conference for Scholars and Policy Makers" at the Johnson Foundation's Wingspread conference facility in Racine, Wisconsin.
The goals of the conference were to:
Participants included representatives from law, medicine, education, religion, government business, law enforcement mental health, the behavioral and social sciences, and the media. Participants met in plenary sessions both before and after dividing into three discussion groups on education, research, and law. As a result of their discussions, the participants developed a consensus on broad policy recommendations about the U= designated areas.
Louis Jolyon West M.D., Director of the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, moderated the conference. Dr. West and Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., Director of Research for the American Family Foundation, prepared the Background section of this report which was then reviewed in its entirety by the participants.
Background. The Problem of Cultism
During the past fifteen years, thousands of media reports, articles, expert testimonies in legal cases, and legislative hearings have described harmful activities associated with political, psychological, and religious cults.
Although estimates vary, there are probably more than a thousand cults in the United States and Europe. Most of these groups are relatively small, but others have tens of thousands of members and incomes of many millions of dollars a year. It seems probable that more than one million Americans have been members of cults during the last twenty years.
Some of the larger, more powerful cults have branches in many countries, extensive property holdings, subsidiary organizations with special names for special purposes, and a growing degree of influence. International concerns about the detrimental effects of certain cults on the well-being of their members, members' families, and society in general have led to a recent national conference on the problem in West Germany, a nationally televised debate in Spain, a resolution by the European Parliament and the Conference.
The elderly and the very young are not excluded from cults, as demonstrated by the membership of the People's Temple and demography of the dead at Jonestown. However, persons between the ages of 18 and 30 are especially subject to cult recruitment A recent study of students in the San Francisco area found that half were open to accepting an invitation to attend a cult meeting; approximately 3% reported that they already belonged to cultic groups.
Mental health professionals who have studied the matter believe that no single personality profile characterizes those who join cults. Many well-adjusted, high achieving individuals from intact families have been successfully recruited by cults. So have people with varying degrees of psychological impairment. To the extent that predisposing factors exist, they may include one or more of the following: naive idealism, situational stress (frequently related to normal crises of adolescence and young adulthood, such as romantic disappointment or school problems), dependency, disillusionment, an excessively trusting nature, or ignorance of the ways in which groups can manipulate individuals.
Webster's Third New International Dictionary (Unabridged, 1966) provides several definitions of cult, among which are:
b: the object of such devotion ...
c: a body of persons characterized by such devotion (America’s growing cult of home fixer-uppers).
These definitions are very broad, and some of the other dictionary definitions are even broader or more benign. Out concerns are not about cults of “home fixer-uppers” but rather about fanatical groups capable of exploiting or harming their own members, disrupting or destroying members’ families, and threatening or even attacking critics, former members defined as renegades, government agencies, or any person or group seen as opposed to their activities.
Some observers have chosen to avoid the pejorative connotation of “cult” by using such terms as “new religion” or “new religious movement” to describe groups of the type described above. A problem with this approach is that it may lend unwarranted respectability to some very dubious enterprises. Would it really be appropriate to refer to the People’s Temple as a “new religious movement?” Surely the term, “new religious movement” is inappropriate in the case of cult-like groups that are not religious, or cults that form around charismatic healers who then exploit their patients/followers in various ways, or non-professional psychotherapies that convert themselves to “religions,” thereby obtaining various tax benefits and legal protections, or satanist cults that, even if qualifying as “religions,” could hardly qualify as “new.”
This conference is concerned with those cults that can properly be described as totalist. The term “totalist” is used in the sense of Robert J. Lifton in Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., New York, 1963). Lifton derived his concept of totalism from Erik Erikson’s contribution to Totalitarianism (C.J. Friedrich, Ed., Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1954, pp. 156-71). Lifton (p.429) describes a tendency to “all-or-nothing emotional alignment [which] exists within everyone” and which can be exploited by “those ideologies which are most sweeping in content and most ambitious -- or Messianic -- in their claims, whether religious, political, or scientific. And where totalitarianism exists, a religion, or political movement, or even a scientific organization becomes little more than an exclusive cult.” In a later work, the Broken Connection (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1979), Lifton (p. 293) explicates “a dangerous four-step sequence from dislocation to totalism to victimization to violence.”
The following definition is provided to specify our focus of concern on totalist cults.
Cult (totalist type): a group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc.), designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.
The term "cult" as employed henceforth in this document is intended to mean "totalist cult" as defined above.
Totalist cults are likely to exhibit three elements to varying degrees: (1) excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment to the identity and leadership of the group by the members, (2) exploitative manipulation of members, and (3) harm or the danger of harm. Totalist cults may be distinguished from "new religious movements," "new political movements," and "innovative psychotherapies" (terms that can be used to refer to unorthodox but relatively benign groups), if not by their professed beliefs then certainly by their actual practices.
It should be noted that many groups do not fit neatly into these categories. Furthermore, groups may change their characters over time, becoming more or less like cults, totalist or otherwise.
Cults arouse concern because of their unethically manipulative practices and their lack of consideration for social mores or for the individual's needs, goals, and social attachments. These practices often result in harm to persons, families, and society at large. Documented harms include:
The public concern aroused by cultic activity in respect to matters of religion, education, business, law, health, and government is growing. Perhaps the greatest public sympathy has been for the suffering of individuals and families who have clearly been harmed by cults. This was not always so, however. During the late 1960's and early 1970's, when a major expansion in cult recruitment of middle-class youth began, few people understood cults or the problems associated with them, and virtually no resources were available for affected families and individuals.
In those days, the parents of many cult recruits were frightened by sudden and profound personality changes observed in their children. Few friends, neighbors, or professional persons appreciated the plight of these parents. However, as such parents began to communicate with one another, some of them came to realize that children from other families demonstrated similarly frightening changes in language, demeanor, and behavior. Many of the young people who were caught up in cults seemed cast from the same mold, "programmed" like robots. Not knowing where to turn or what to do, some parents took matters into their own hands. They seized their children, forced them to stay at home or in a motel room and tried to "talk sense into them." The term "deprogramming' was adopted to describe this process.
It soon became apparent that cult members were often liberated from the cult's mind-controlling hold when they were able to reconnect with family members, and to hear facts and ideas from which the cults had isolated them. As deprogrammed former cultists began to assist in the deprogrammings of others, an underground network of deprogrammers developed. A growing number of parents turned to them for help.
Many of these people believed that deprogramming was the only way to rescue a person from a cult's hold. Even today there are some who subscribe to ft view. Others, particularly mental health professionals, maintain that even without deprogramming, cultists can be helped (especially by their parents) to voluntarily reevaluate their cult affiliations and return to a normal life. Many former cult members are now available to help these refugees from cults, through a process often called "re-entry counseling." The term "re-entry" refers to the process of returning to the freedom of an open society.
Attorneys have suggested that conservatorships can be employed to benefit individuals apparently bound to a cult through totalist techniques. Other observers have proposed that cult-related abuses can most effectively be minimized or prevented through stricter enforcement of existing laws, and through preventive education designed to warn youth about the dangers of cults.
While critics of cults have frequently disagreed among themselves, and have proposed a variety of remedial actions, the cults and their apologists often try to make it appear that all of their opponents advocate only involuntary deprogramming and conservatorship legislation. They portray such adversaries as and-religionists seeking to stifle religious innovation, even though many critics are themselves members of the clergy. Some of the more prominent critics have been viciously harassed, attacked, and, in some cases, sued (always, to date, unsuccessfully).
To the critics, it appears that cults use the First Amendment as a screen behind which to hide -- and be free to continue -- a variety of abuses. The contention that any criticism of cults is an assault on religious freedom has been broadcast incessantly by the public relations machinery of the larger cults. This contention flies in the face of reason. It is analogous to saying that criticism of a corrupt local election is an assault on democracy, or that criticism of a defamatory article in a gossip magazine is an assault on freedom of the press, or the criticism of McCarthyism is an assault on patriotism or that criticism of phony research is an assault on science. Nevertheless, it has been a powerful and effective defense for cults to invoke the First Amendment whenever criticism of any kind is leveled at them. Then, in their counterattacks, some cults have charged their critics with being atheists, fascists, or worse, and even with plotting genocidal extermination of all religious believers.
Many of those who decry criticism of cults as posing a threat to religious freedom are themselves opposing freedom of speech, of inquiry, and of debate on the topic. Some of the participants in this Conference have experienced savage personal attacks obviously intended to discredit them or discourage them from pursuing their studies or articulating their opinions. Such tactics not only assault freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech, they offend religious liberty and integrity as well.
This is not to say that all criticisms of cults are valid, or that all currently proposed remedies for cult abuses are ideal. Exercising one's freedom of inquiry does not make one immune from error.
The recommendations agreed upon by the participants at this conference are not presented as infallible. They are, nevertheless, the carefully deliberated conclusions of a knowledgeable group drawn from many disciplines.
It was in a spirit of free and rational inquiry that the Conference gathered and that ft report was produced. The larger body of knowledge and the detailed reasoning underlying the Conference's recommendations will be explicated in scholarly reports to follow.
a. Detailed psychological studies that illustrate and illuminate the nature and effects of cult experiences. These studies should pay particular attention to the conversion process, its effects, and the interaction between cultic environments and individuals.
b. Organizational histories that describe and define the evolution, structure, dynamics, and effects of cultic enterprises or groups. .
c. Accounts of events (e.g., legal action against a cult's leader) that illustrate the interaction between social institutions and cultic organizations.
d. Analysis of scientific methodologies employed in cult related research.
Whereas, various cults often recruit members by deceptive means; and
Whereas, cults often keep their members by using mind control and by alienating the members from their families; and
Whereas, many families have deep emotional scars caused by their children's dependence on cults; and
Whereas, an awareness of the recruitment and retention techniques of cults could help prevent a young person's entry into cults; therefore be it
That the national PTA urge state PTAs/PTSAs and their units to hold education programs to inform families and youth about methods of recruitment and techniques used to exercise control over members' thoughts and actions by cults; and be it further
That the national PTA provide a list of available resources to assist state PTAs/PTSAs and their local units in planning such programs.
a. Descriptions of cult-related harms and activities.
b. An index of cult-related legal cases and associated documentation, including information on lawsuits and complaints to licensing boards.
c. A referral list of attorneys knowledgeable about cult- related legal issues.
[* Accepted invitation but did not attend]
Marsha Addis, Director of Public Affairs, Neuropsychiatric Institute, University of California, Los Angeles, CA.
Duane R. Anderson, Director of Student Activities, Suffolk University, Boston, MA; Chair-Elect Board of Directors, National Association for Campus Activities.
James H. Banning, Vice President of Student Affairs, Colorado State University, FL Collins, CO; representing the National Association of School Personnel Administrators.
Rustam A. Barbee, Assistant Attorney General, State of Wisconsin, Madison, WI.
John D. Burchard, Ph. D., Professor of Psychology, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT.
John G. Clark, Jr., M. D., Assistant Clinical Professor, Harvard Medical School; Vice President American Family Foundation, Weston, MA.
Mrs. John G. Clark, Jr., Weston, MA (Invited Observer).
Henrietta Cramplon, Advisory Board, Cult Awareness Network, Los Angeles CA.
J.C. Crampton, Advisory Board, Cult Awareness Network, Los Angeles, CA.
Richard Delgado, Professor of Law, University of California, Los Angeles, CA.
Guy Ford, Vice President for Operations, American Family Foundation, Weston, MA.
Sandi Gallant, Intelligence Division, San Francisco Police Department, San Francisco, CA.
Peter M. Georgiades, Esq. Rothman, Gordon, Forman and Groudine, Pittsburgh, PA.
Georgie Anne Geyer, Syndicated Columnist, Universal Press Syndicate, Washington, DC (Invited Observer).
Harold Goldstein, Ph. D., Program Director, The Staff College, National Institute of Mental Health, Rockville, MD (Invited Observer).
Ford Greene, Esq., San Anselino, CA.
* Daphne D. Greene, Chairman of the Board and President, American Family Foundation, Ross, CA.
Reverend Fredeiich W. Haack, Commissioner of Apologetics, Lutheran Church of Bavaria, West Germany.
David A. Halperin, M. D., Consulting Psychiatris4 Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services of New York, New York, NY.
Ann P. Kahn, President, National PTA, Chicago, IL.
Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., Director of Research, American Family Foundation, Weston, MA.
Reverend Gary Leazer, Assistant Director, Sects and New Religious Movements, Interfaith Witness Departnien4 Home Mission Board, Southern Baptist Convention, Atlanta, GA.
Reverend James J. LeBar, Coordinator, Office of Communications, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York; Catholic Chaplain, Hudson River Psychiatric Center, Poughkeepsie, NY.
Robert E. Matteson, Chairman, The Glenview Foundation, Cable, WI.
Mrs. Robert E. Matteson, Cable, WI (Invited Observer).
Edwin L. Morse, Ph. D., Affiliated Psychological Resources, Madison, WI.
Mrs. Edward L. Morse, Madison, WI (Invited Observer).
Richard Ofshe, Ph. D., Professor of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley, CA.
John J. ONeil, Esq., Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, and Garrison, New York, NY.
Herbert L. Rosedale, Esq., Parker, Chapin, Flattau, and Klimpl, New York, NY.
Gabriel Rosenfeld, LL. D., Chappaqua, NY.
Mrs. Gabriel Rosenfeld, Chappaqua, NY (invited Observer).
Rabbi A. James Rudin, National Director, Interreligious Affairs, American Jewish Committee, New York, NY.
Gary Scharff, Richmond, CA.
Robert E. Schecter, Ph. D., Director of Publications, American Family Foundation, Weston, MA.
David J. Schwartz, M. D., San Mateo County Mental Health Service, San Mateo, CA.
Margaret T. Singer, Ph. D., Professor of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley, CA.
Keith Thompson, Mill Valley, CA (Invited Observer).
Daphne Vane, Family Counselor, Kent, England.
Vanessa Weber, Development Director, American Family Foundation, Weston, MA.
Louis Jolyon West, M. D., Director, The Neuropsychiatric Institute, University of California, Los Angeles, CA.
Councilor David Wilshire, M. A., Head, Private Office of Richard Cottrell, M.E.P., Bath, England (representing Mr. Cottrell).
* Kenneth Wooden, Formerly producer with ABC-TV's "20/20,” New York, NY.
* Philip Zimbardo, Ph. D., Professor of Psychology, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA.
Resolution of the European Parliament
On May 22, 1984, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on "New Organizations Operating Under the Protection Afforded to Religious Bodies."
The resolution expresses the Parliament's concern about the recruitment and treatment of members of the organizations in question and calls for an exchange of information among member states on problems arising from the activities of these groups with particular reference to: charity status and tax exemption; labor and social security laws; missing persons; infringement of personal freedoms; existence of legal loopholes which enable proscribed activities to be pursued from one country to another; and creation of centers to provide those who leave the organizations in question with legal aid, assistance with social reintegration, and help in finding employment.
The resolution states that "the validity of religious beliefs is not in question, but rather the lawfulness of the practices used to recruit new members and the treatment they receive."
The resolution calls on member states to pool their information about the "new organizations" as a prelude to developing "ways of ensuring the effective protection of Community citizens." To achieve this, the resolution "recommends that the following criteria be applied in investigating, reviewing, and assessing the activities of the above-mentioned organizations:
- the right to leave an organization unhindered;
The resolution concludes by stating that it is desirable to develop "a common approach within the context of the Council of Europe," and "calls, therefore, on the governments of the Member States to press for appropriate agreements to be drawn up by the Council of Europe which will guarantee the individual effective protection from possible machinations by those organizations and their physical or mental coercion.”
1. The American Family Foundation is a non-profit, tax-exempt organization that seeks to understand and ameliorate the problems that cultic groups cause to individuals, families, and society at large. Since its inception in 1979, the American Family Foundation has conducted and encouraged social and psychological research on cults and manipulative techniques of persuasion and control. It also provides a variety of educational services for professionals, institutions, and the general public. The Foundation's major periodicals are The Cult Observer, which reviews press reports, and The Cultic Studies Journal, a multi-disciplinary, scholarly journal.
The Neuropsychiatric Institute is the psychiatry and neurology teaching facility for the UCLA Center for the Health Sciences. Its mission is threefold: Education - Developing scholars and practitioners who contribute to the solution of problems related to mental health, mental retardation, developmental disabilities, and diseases of the nervous system; Research - Acquiring new knowledge about the factors that affect an individual's social, psychological, intellectual, and neurological health; Patient Care - Developing and utilizing the most effective techniques of diagnosing and treating neuropsychiathc disorders.
The Johnson Foundation, Inc. is a private operating foundation devoted primarily to conferences at Wingspread and to public affairs broadcasting. The role of the Johnson Foundation as co-sponsor should not be construed as indicating endorsement, acceptance, or support of the observations and recommendations contained in this report. The Foundation did not participate in the preparation of this document or provide funds for its related publications.