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Some New Religions Are Dangerous

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1985, Volume 2, Number  1, pages 17-30. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Some New Religions Are Dangerous

Arthur A. Dole, Ph.D.

Steve K. Dubrow Eichel


Some researchers allege that new religions and psychotherapy are functionally equivalent. Yet many new religions differ from psychotherapy in respect to dangerousness. A survey of expert cult watchers suggests that documented abuses, not a rival religion or competing psychotherapy, determine whether a new religion is described as dangerous. In addition, the trend in psychotherapy is toward increased concern for ethical and accountable behavior. Finally, the resistance of new religions to impartial and well designed studies differs sharply from the free inquiry that characterizes psychotherapy outcome and process research.   Without adequate research, we are forced to rely on the personal testimonies of former new religionists, many of whom report adverse effects.

In their recent American Psycholoqist article, Kilbourne and Richardson (1994) present a spurious case for appreciation of the new religions in a pluralistic society. Their argument  rests on the alleged functional equivalence of psychotherapy  with “...Moonies, Hare Krishna, Divine Light Mission,.The Way, Children of God, etc.” (P.239). They Identify six commonalities but omit or underplay differences. Documented instances of drug smuggling and weapons stockpiling among the Krishnas (Knutson, 1980;

Raid uncovers, 1980), Sun Myung Moon’s involvement in the manufacturing of munitions and the United States Congressional Sub-Committee on International Organizations’ investigation of the Unification Church’s role in the “Koreagate” scandal (cf. Boettcher & Freedman, 1980), and the mass suicides/homicides in Jonestown are either not mentioned or given cursory treatment. The mounting evidence of child abuse and neglect in new religious groups (Gaines, Wilson, Redican, & Baffi, 1984; Markowitz & Halperin, 1984;

Rudin, 1984) is handled in a similar manner. In fact, Kilbourne and Richardson seem to be castigating critics for being “soft” or ethnocentric in their concern that “infants and children may be raised ... without the benefits of middle-class health care and education” (P. 247, emphasis added). It is unclear whether or not they include the practice of “flirty fishing” (a term first used by Children of God leader David Berg to describe the use of sex to gain members or influence political figures) when they report the allegation that “the new religions sometimes practice strange sexual behaviors.” The arrest and conviction of Church of Scientology leadership on federal conspiracy, as well as numerous other abuses associated with that group (Schecter, 1980a, 1980b), are also left unmentioned. Many other serious claims of destructive behaviors and actions do not appear in Kilbourne and Richardson’s list of “allegations (and) threats to the family,” while those that do are summarized in half of one paragraph, and then dismissed in one sentence: “Even though these allegations can be refuted by data from studies of new religious groups, the allegations still persist” (p.247).

We maintain that the issue of destructiveness or dangerousness is central to the cult/new religion debate, and that it is on this dimension that some new religions differ radically from psychotherapy as practiced by credentialed psychologists. psychiatrists, social workers, pastoral counselors, and mental health counselors. In support of this opinion, we wish to share some preliminary results from a series of attitude studies about cults.

Survey of Cult Critics

To rank order dangerous practices associated with cults, we employed a variation of the Delphi technique (Borg & Gall, 1983) with a panel of cult watchers. Our panel, on the second round, comprised 19 persons, including advisory board members of the American Family Foundation and selected members of the Citizens Freedom Foundation. The respondents, who included professional writers, psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, social workers, theologians, and students, have published about cults and have been active in educating the public.


We first circulated for rating and criticism a preliminary II! of practices culled from the published literature about new religions. Our inventory, “Signs of a Destructive Cult,” lists 60 practices. Respondents were asked, “What distinguishes dangerous cult (religious, political, or therapeutic) from a benign group? ... How destructive do you think each activity is in terms of groups in general and as the practice may harm society or group members?” In addition, respondents were asked if “a given practice is destructive under all the circumstances you can imagine, no circumstances, or In between?” Each practice was rated on a five point scale for  extent of destructiveness: 1, constructive; 2, neither constructive nor destructive; 3, mildly destructive; 4, destructive; 5, very destructive. The circumstances under which each practice was destructive or constructive was also rate on a five point scale: 1, no circumstances; 2, few circum stances; 3, some circumstances; 4, most circumstances; 5, a] circumstances.


The mean dangerousness rating for all respondents and a] activities was 4.19, with a standard deviation of .619. The mean circumstances rating for all respondents and all active ties was 4.25, with a standard deviation of .486. The degree of dangerousness of activities and the range of circumstances under which they were dangerous was, perhaps not surprisingly, highly correlated (r = .96). Table I summarize! these findings.

Table I

Summary of Experts’ Ratings

                                Min. Value        Max. Value        Mean        Stand.        Correl

                                                                        Devtn        A x B

A. Dangerousness                 2.31                5.00                4.19        .619        .956

B. Circumstances                 2.83                4.89                4.25        .486

We found that the vast majority of our respondents’ ratings (44 of the 60 “dangerous activities” and,,45 of the 60 “circumstances”) fell between 4.00 and 5.00. Only I activity was rated “neither clearly destructive nor constructive”; 3 fell somewhere between this category and “mildly destructive,” while none were rated “constructive.” Similarly, none of the activities were rated dangerous “under no circumstances”; I activity was rated mildly dangerous “for a few circumstances,” while 4 activities were seen as mildly dangerous or dangerous “for some circumstances.” Figure I depicts our respondents’ range of ratings.

Range of Rating (2=lowest, 5=highest)

2.01-2.50        1

2.51-2.99        1        3

3.00-3.50        4        6

3.51-3.99        6        10

4.00-4.50        19        21

4.51-5.00        23        26

                   0                   5                     10

15              20                     25

BE = Destructiveness Scale

ED =Circumstances Scale

Figure 1. Respondents range of ratings for dangerousness and circumstances

[Chart for Figure 1 unavailable in this medium]

Table 2 lists all 60 activities along with their mean “dangerousness” ratings and standard (z) scores. Seven of these 60 received z-scores above 1.00 (indicating a rating in excess of I standard deviation above the mean), while 10 activities received scores below -1.00 (indicating a rating at least I standard deviation below the mean).

Table 2

Experts’ Mean Ratings of Destructive Group Practices

                                                Dangerousness        Circumstances

Practice                                        Mean        Z Score                Mean Rating


Mind-control is used without conscious

consent of members                                5.00        1.31                4.89

The group approves of violence against

enemies (e.g.”satanic communists”)                5.00        1.31                4.74

The group uses sexual abuse,

physical/mental punishment for members

who stray                                        5.00        1.31                4.89

Members regress to childlike dependency,

becoming totally obedient to the group                4.95        1.22                4.79

Young women are directed to use their bodies

for [PARA]the purpose of recruiting or of

manipulating political figures                        4.95        1.22                4.89

Uses coercive persuasion (mind control)                4.89        1.13                4.78

Loyalty to group is maintained by threatening

soul, life or limb                                        4.84        1.05                  .79

The group is supported financially by a

secret agency of our own or a foreign

government                                        4.76        0.92                4.65

Has totalitarian world view (“us” against “them”)        4.74        0.89                4.68

Members believe that to leave the group would

be death or eternal damnation

for themselves or their family members                4.74        0.89                4.68

Medical attention is discouraged, even though

there may be a medical problem                        4.74        0.89                4.63

The group tolerates no dissent among its

members from group beliefs                         4.74        0.89                4.74

The founder requires allegiance to him, even to

death                                                  4.68        0.79                4.68

The leader teaches that deceit

(heavenly deception) is ethical when it is

used for religious objectives                             4/68        0.79                4.63

Uses deceit in proselytizing                                 4/63        0.71                4.53

Because of the many activities, group

members do not have sufficient rest or sleep       4.63        0.71                4.37

Private contemplation is discouraged                   4.63        0.71                4.58

Only group leaders are said to provide the truth    4.58        0.63                4.47

Teaches that persons who are critical of the

group are in the power of evil, satanic forces        4.53        0.55                4.68

Prevents members from seeing family and

former friends                                        4.53        0.55                4.53

Applies posthypnotic suggestions to its

members                                        4.53        0.55                4.29

Group members are coerced to believe

complex doctrine                                4.53        0.55                4.55

Members are fed a nutritionally deficient diet               4.53        0.55                4.53

Uses deceit in fundraising                               4.47        0.45                4.74

Mail to members Is screened and may be

withheld or [PARA]delayed                         4.47        0.45                4.63

No visible contribution is given to specific

groups for  whom money was collectedly

collected (eg.”drug rehabilitation program,”

“help for the aged”)                                4.47        0.45                4.68

If a member is ill, group fails to provide

medical care                                        4.42        0.37                4.53

Members may be rewarded or punished for

similar actions                                        4.41        0.35                4.53

Members work as many as 18 hours a day

collecting money for the group                        4.37        0.29                4.21

An individual who is no longer able to contribute

physically or mentally is dropped from the group        4.37        0.29                4.44

Tells members to donate all their property and

inheritances                                        4.37        0.29                4.26

Members are discouraged from visiting

biological parents                                4.33        0.22                4.00

The group organizes many activities under

names which do not clearly indicate the group’s

sponsorship                                        4.33        0.22                4.22

Repetitive songs, chants, or other meditation

techniques are taught for use by its members

in the presence of non-group ideas                4.33        0.22                4.56

Converts are urged to drop out of school or quit

their jobs in order to serve the group full-time        4.26          .11                4.26

Teachings of external salvation are reinforced

by making the members feel guilty for the

“sins” of the former lifestyle                        4.21        0.03                4.26

The group directly or indirectly induces

trance-like states in its members                 4.16        -0.05                4.22

Group members are assisted in attaining a state

of high suggestibility                                4.16        -0.05                4.21

The group believes that personal problems,

illnesses, accidents, and misfortunes are

caused by evil spirits                                4.11        -0.13                4.16

Telephone calls to members are discouraged        4.11        -0.13                4.11

Members listen to long lectures which repeat

the same material over and over, with

emphasis on certain words or phrases                4.05        -0.23                4.05

Members are encouraged to work toward

personal perfection, power, or salvation by

conforming to the demands of the leadership        4.05        -0.23                4.00

Leader selects marriage partners for members        4.06        -0.21                4.11

The group believes that its living leader is God,

a prophet or messiah                                 4.00        -0.31                4.16

Members live in relative poverty and their leader

lives in luxury                                        3.89        -0.49                4.21

Members are told to turn to central figures for

direction when making decisions                        3.89        -0.49                3.89

The group obtains the endorsement of

political, legal, or scientific leaders by         

subsidizing banquets and conferences for them        3.68        -0.83                3.74

Group members who are employed in

commercial enterprises turn over most of

their salaries to the group                        3.61        0.94                3.72

Group members “love bomb” prospective

converts                                        3.58        -0.99                3.79

According to group doctrine, other ethnic,

political or religious groups are inferior                3.58        -0.99                3.95

Although individual members have little or no

personal income, the group owns valuable

property and generates millions annually                3.50        -1.12                3.83

Members are taught to chant to themselves        3.47        -1.17                3.79

Members’ names are changed                        3.47        -1.17                3.39

Members go everywhere and do everything

in pairs or groups                                3.37        -1.33                3.71

Directs members to spend 40 or more hours

per week in the group’s activities                3.31        -1.43                3.67

Members are often moved from one

geographic location to another                        3.26        -1.51                3.42

New members exhibit a marked change in

personality                                        2.84        -2.19                3.72

The group uses its own version of the Bible        2.74        -2.35                3.00

The group proselytizes members of my church        2.70        -2.41                2.83

The group advocates a new religion                2.32        -3.03                3.00

All panelists agreed that the use of mind control without conscious consent of members, approval of violence against enemies, and abuse of members who stray from the group were very destructive. These practices were rated dangerous in almost all circumstances. In contrast, the panelists on average rated the following practices below 3, “mildly destructive”; “The group advocates a new religion!’ (2-32); “the group proselytizes members of my church” (2.70); “the group uses its own version of the Bible” (2.74); and “new members exhibit a marked change in personality” (2.84). These practices were seen as potentially dangerous in only a few or some circumstances.


Our panelists were able to distinguish between different levels of destructive actions. They rated the practices of certain new religions very dangerous not because they represented a rival religion or competing psychotherapy, but because these groups manipulated, abused, coerced, threatened, enslaved and neglected their members and because they proposed a totalitarian world view. Not all new religions employ these practices. Yet when one considers the documented record of many of these groups slander, blackmail, deception, theft of government property, emotional and psychological abuse it is difficult to dismiss these activities as mere allegations or the products of propaganda in the “guildlike skirmishes between the new religions and the psychotherapies” ( Kilbourne & Richardson, p. 248).

In contrast to new religions, the general trend in psychotherapy is toward greater accountability to the public (Theaman, 1984) and increased concern with ethical practice (Smith, 1981). Kilbourne and Richardson acknowledge that psychotherapy practices have come under considerable scrutiny. We also wish to add that credentialed psychotherapists subscribe to written codes of ethics, accept responsibility for the welfare of their clients, are accountable in financial matters, are open about the goals of treatment and its costs, and avoid influencing political, religious, and financial decisions of clients.

Psychology as a body of knowledge and psychotherapy as a profession are fundamentally open systems; many of the new religions are not. Kilbourne and Richardson note that, contrary to the actions Implied by the label “nondirective therapy,” two studies found that Carl Rogers systematically influenced his clients’ verbal behaviors. Thus, they note, psychotherapists are as “guilty” as new religionists of manipulating their target populations. Moreover, they further imply that psychotherapists do not acknowledge their own manipulations. However, we note that the level of manipulation is nothing like that to be found in many cults. Moreover, Rogers modified his theories based on the findings of the above studies, and he replaced the term “nondirective therapy” with the more accurate term “client-centered therapy.” This is but one example demonstrating the essential openness of psychotherapy. To our knowledge, none of the major leaders in psychotherapy theory, research, or practice has appointed him or herself a messiah. Nor do reputable counselors ask their clients to devote their entire lives and fortunes to the needs of the counselor.

Kilbourne and Richardson are correctly critical of the methodology of some research on new religions. We submit that the resistance of some of these groups to free inquiry and the seduction of investigators through subsidy or conference and lecture fees (Dole & Dubrow Eichel, 1981; Horowitz, 1978) hardly contribute to scholarly impartiality. Whereas there are over 500 published studies on psychotherapy outcomes that establish treatment as effective and beneficial (Garfield, 1981;; Landman & Dawes, 1982; Smith & Glass, 1977), Kilbourne and Richardson draw their conclusions (prematurely, we believe) from only a handful of studies concerned with the effects of new religions. Moreover, when contending that some new religions are as therapeutically beneficial as psychotherapy, Kilbourne and Richardson almost always refer to these studies as “empirical evidence.” As one example of the questionable use of the “empirical” label with regard to these studies, they do not state if instruments other than nonstandardized self-report measures were utilized in the assessment of these so-called therapeutic outcomes.  Nonstandardized self-report -instruments are no longer considered reliable or valid as the sole measures of outcome in therapy outcome research, yet at least some of the studies they cite (e.g., Galanter, 1980, Galanter & Buckley, 1983) base their conclusions solely on responses to these kinds of measures.

Without control groups, pre-post measures, or dispassionate researchers (all of which are readily found in those psychotherapy outcome studies recognized as most comprehensive and valid), these scant findings are questionable.  That leaves us with personal testimony. The critics of new religions most often cited by Kilbourne and Richardson, have by their own estimates, worked with over 2,000 new religionists and their families (Clark, Singer, Langone & West, 1985). To this sample one can add the hundreds more seen by other clinicians in this field (cf. Goldberg & Goldberg, 1982; Dubrow Eichel, Dubrow Eichel, & Eisenberg, 1984, as examples). This sample is admittedly clinical and therefore biased. Do Kilboume and Richardson wish to imply, however, that many of the samples they cite (e.g., 119 “premies” at a Divine Light Mission festival) are unbiased?

While it may be useful to compare the structures and functions of both new religions and psychotherapies, Kilbourne and Richardson are guilty of the logical “fallacy of the undistributed middle” (Sherwood, 1960; Flew 1975).  Because some of the new religions may perform social functions similar to those performed by some psychotherapies, the two are not therefore equivalent. Most of Kilbourne and Richardson’s criteria for comparing new religions and psychotherapy, for example, are applicable to both prisons and public schools, and to both organized crime syndicates and the Catholic Church. Asking oneself where one would rather send his or her children and by which group one would rather be employed might provide two “gut” examples of the differences between these groups.

We believe that dangerousness, or destructiveness, is a dimension that clearly distinguishes psychotherapy from some new religions. Although there are many other problems with Kilbourne and Richardson’s comparison between psychotherapy and new religions, these seem to pale when we consider that they have not adequately considered the dimension of dangerousness. There is a vast literature that documents those systematically planned and executed activities that are destructive to a new religion’s membership and/or to the society at large. This literature needs to be incorporated into, rather than casually dismissed by, any theoretical model that claims to compare psychology to some of the new religions.


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Arthur A. Dole, Ph.D. is a Professor in, and Chair of, the Division of Psychology in Education, Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania. He is also a Diplomate in Counseling Psychology of the American Board of Professional Psychology. Dr. Dole has published several research and theoretical papers on the topics of cultic studies and research methodology, and he is on the Editorial Board of the Cultic Studies Journal.  

Steve K. Dubrow Eichel, M.S. is a licensed psychologist and one of the founders of “RETIRN” (Re-Entry Therapy, Information & Referral Network), a private counseling agency that specializes in working with members and former members of new religions. He is completing his doctoral dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania.