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Harm and NRMs Perspectives from Religious Studies, Sociology, and Psychology - Introduction

Perspectives from Religious Studies, Sociology, and Psychology - Introduction

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.


The division of researchers and helping professionals into “camps” or so-called pro-cultists and anti-cultists has been a destructive simplification. The question of harm is at the core of these disputes. This paper introduces a collection of papers that provide diverse perspectives on harm, including those from psychology, sociology, and religious studies.

Since I first became involved in this field more than 20 years ago, I have been unhappily and repeatedly surprised at the persistence of academic conflicts (pseudo-conflicts, in my view) that result in professionals and scholars being identified, whether willingly or not, with a "camp." Often these are simplistically referred to as camps of "pro-cultists" and "anti-cultists." When I have written about this phenomenon, I have preferred to refer to the so-called camps as sympathizers and critics—still simplistic, but not as blatantly so as "pro" and "anti" cult.

I maintain that the core issue feeding the camp mentality is that of harm in new groups. I say "new groups" because harm may occur in groups that are not religious and because I differentiate between religious cults and new religious movements, reserving the former term for groups that are more likely to harm members and to be associated with high levels of psychological manipulation. Most new groups, however, are religious in nature, and most sociologists and religious studies scholars in this field use the term "new religious movements"—in part because harm is not a central concern of their studies, so they may not see a need to distinguish groups on this dimension.

The question of harm contributes to the camp mentality because of what one could call the five "hard Cs":

Some scholars simply don't pay attention to ("care" about) the issue of harm because it is not the object of their sometimes extremely specialized research. Those of us focused on harm may incorrectly view these scholars as somehow supportive of destructive groups because they don't criticize them. The reality, however, may be that, being diligent scholars, they don't write about issues they haven't studied in depth, so their silence may reflect caution, rather than support for destructive groups and processes or indifference to harm.

Some scholars and professionals may recognize and acknowledge that some groups harm some people sometimes, but they hold different opinions about the nature of that harm ("kinds" of harm), the level of harm within and between groups ("quantity" of harm), the factors that determine whether or not harm occurs ("causes" of harm), and what to do about the harm ("cures" for harm).

The artificial separation of people with different opinions into "camps" has many unfortunate consequences, which stem from the tendency of people identified with a "camp" to ignore, stereotype, or disparage members of another "camp." Among the unfortunate consequences:
We don't communicate with even responsible, respected people who disagree with us, which calls into question our own integrity and courage.
Making the safe assumption that few of us, even after having earned a Ph.D., are idiots, we deprive ourselves of whatever wisdom our "opponents" may have gleaned from years of scholarly research or thousands of hours of clinical experience.
We insulate ourselves from other perspectives, other ways of looking at the world, and persist in the delusion that the landscape before us can be viewed only from our special window.

In short, in a field in which, at least in regard to the big questions, opinion far outweighs knowledge, we cling to our personal judgments with a passion that we ought to devote to the pursuit of knowledge.

In an attempt to promote the dialogue that dispels prejudice and ignorance, we have brought together a panel of experts who approach the field of new religious movements/cults from different perspectives and who hold different opinions on issues related to harm.

  • Although the presentations and discussion to follow will undoubtedly range widely through the field, we will try to address the following key questions:
  • How do the different interest areas of religious studies, sociology, and psychology affect the kinds of questions researchers in these disciplines ask?
  • How do the different methodologies these disciplines favor affect the manner in which research questions are approached and the types of answers obtained?
  • How do the research findings of the different disciplines impinge specifically on the question of harm, which is fundamental to AFF and other organizations?
  • Can each of these disciplines contribute positively to attempts to ameliorate and prevent harm associated with some NRMs and, if so, how?