This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1995, Volume 12, Number 2, pages 166-186. 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.
Secular and Religious Critiques of Cults: Complementary Visions, Not Irresolvable Conflicts
In the October 1993 issue of Update and Dialog, Massimo Introvigne presented an interesting article entitled, “Strange Bedfellows or Future Enemies?” Although Introvigne’s fundamental theme is correct--namely, that there are important areas of conflict between and within secular and religious critiques of cults--his analysis, though helpful in some respects, is seriously flawed. He makes many of the same errors that certain writers have recently made in other Christian journals (Alnor & Enroth, 1992; Passantino & Passantino, 1994). In this article, I will first critically review Introvigne. Then, I will propose a framework that I believe will contribute to respectful dialogue and disagreement among secular and religious observers of cults.
First, let me discuss the terminology that confuses people attempting to understand different views in this field. Religious critics and many secular students of the field (most notably, Introvigne’s fellow sociologists) use the term Anew religious movements” (NRMs) to describe their object of study. Sociologists, however, tend to take a value‑neutral, if not out‑and‑out defensive, stand toward NRMs, which they often portray as innocent deviants persecuted by an intolerant majority. Many U.S. critics, including myself, use the term “cult” to label groups--whether religious, psychotherapeutic, political, or commercial--believed to be extremely manipulative and exploitative. Because we are concerned with groups that are not necessarily religious, we find NRM to be too restrictive a term. Furthermore, most of my colleagues distinguish between the terms new religious movement and cult by attributing the use of exploitative manipulation only to the latter, with the former being seen as unorthodox but relatively benign psychologically.
European organizations that also focus on unethical manipulation (e.g., “sesoramiento para Informacion sobre las Sectas [AIS]; Association pour la Défense de la Famille et l’Individu [ADFI]; Centre Contre la Manipulation Mentale [CCMM]; Associazione della Ricerca e Informazione sulle Sette [ARIS]) tend to use words generally associated with the word sect (setta, secte, secta), which in English usually refers to a group that has broken off from a mainstream religion. (In my opinion, setta, secta, and secte should be translated as cult, rather than sect, which in English does not have as negative a connotation as cult has come to have.) These European organizations, so far as I know, do not routinely distinguish between benign and destructive sette, sectes, or sectas, although their writings often imply the distinction. Thus, despite some attempts in the United States to emphasize the distinction between cult and new religious movement, the preferred terms--whether new religious movement, sect, or cult--are often used in a way that implicitly lumps together a wide variety of groups, thereby lending some credence to the sociologists’ claims that NRMs (I would say “some NRMs”) are unfairly persecuted by a majority suspicious of deviants.
This problem is not easily resolvable because, practically speaking, there is no way that all of the thousands of new religious movements and religious cults (not to mention the numerous psychotherapy, political, and other groups that are cultic to varying degrees) can be studied in sufficient depth to classify them reliably, if the classification system requires an analysis of anything but superficial features (e.g., Eastern vs. Bible‑based). Those organizations, such as the Dialog Center, that evaluate NRMs according to established theological criteria have an advantage over secular organizations, such as AFF (American Family Foundation). The religious critic can simply analyze the NRMs’ theological writings one at a time, relating each to the critic’s theological criteria. The secular critic, though having definitional criteria, focuses on behavior and, therefore, confronts the question of quality and quantity of behavioral evidence used to make the classification decision. Lower- quality evidence can include certain stated policies (e.g., the group’s leader demands absolute obedience from his followers) and informal testimonies from former members or family members. Sometimes a high quantity of lower-quality evidence can be compelling (e.g., 90% of the former members of a small group independently report that the group’s leader sexually abuses selected female members).
Moderate-quality evidence includes observations of professionals (e.g., psychologists working with former cultists; sociologists doing participant observation studies). The major problems with such scientific observations are (1) different theoretical frameworks will lead observers to different conclusions, and (2) the observers may see only a select sample of the broader population of group members (e.g., research subjects selected by group leaders; former members seeking professional help). A large quantity of converging evidence (e.g., the combined clinical observations of the contributors to Recovery from Cults [Langone, 1993]) increases the credibility of the observers’ conclusions, but if the sample is biased, the conclusions may not apply to other, or even possibly the majority, of the cult/NRM population.
High-quality evidence includes formal scientific studies meeting the methodological demands of the behavioral and social sciences. Unfortunately, such high-quality evidence is usually scarce (low quantity), in part because few studies meet rigorous methodological standards and because these studies demand considerable resources.
Thus, those of us who focus on behavior rather than theology--that is, on deed rather than creed--sometimes have to base our case‑by‑case conclusions and actions on less‑than‑optimal evidence. Mental health professionals are, perhaps, more comfortable with this state of affairs than are academicians, because the former regularly function in a world where decisions must be made on the basis of sometimes very limited evidence (e.g., psychiatric crisis intervention). Some academicians may interpret the mental health professionals’ conclusions and decision making as arrogant or stupid (certainly, the snide tone of many of Introvigne’s remarks indicates that his level of respect for my and my colleagues’ position on the issues is as low as--and interferes with--his understanding of our position). That the general public and the media tend to side with the mental health professionals may add to the animosity of academicians, especially sociologists, who, ironically, seem enamored of conflict‑model explanations of other people’s behavior, but not of their own. Unfortunately, the arrogance and animosity that often taint this field are the opposite of what its ambiguity and uncertainty demand, namely, humility and respect. I hope this essay can help move at least a few of us in the right direction.
Introvigne proposes that religious and secular critiques of cults fall into a four‑category classification system. Secular critics (or what he calls “anti‑cult” approaches) are either “rationalist” and concerned with the fraudulent claims of cultic groups, or “post-rationalist,” which Introvigne defines as relying “almost exclusively on brainwashing as a preferred explanation for the success of ‘cults’“ (p. 15). Religious critics (what Introvigne calls “counter‑cult” approaches) may also be divided into rationalist and post‑rationalist subgroups. Representative of rationalist religious critiques are groups such as the Dialog Center and the Christian Research Institute, both of which focus on theological critiques of cultic groups. Post‑rationalist counter-cultists “invest ‘cult’ leaders with almost superhuman powers and abilities ... [and they are said to be] in contact with Satan or the occult.” Building upon Introvigne’s use of Sai Baba as an example, one could say that rationalist anti-cultists would try to expose the fraudulent nature of his miracles, post‑rationalist anti‑cultists would focus on how Sai Baba’s manipulations may be used to control and exploit followers, rationalist counter-cultists would offer an orthodox Christian critique of Sai Baba’s theology, while post‑rationalist counter-cultists would accept Sai Baba’s “miracles,” but attribute them to his demonic powers.
This typology, in Introvigne’s view, helps to explain what he believes are the following sources of conflict between religious and secular views of cultism:
Introvigne offers “a possible way out of antagonism” at the end of his article, although I must admit that I find his prescription unclear. He seems to be saying that respectful dialogue is possible if theological and secular scholars distinguish between theological truth and factual truth concerning deeds and creeds. Although they may at best agree to disagree about the former type of truth, they can, if they remain committed to rationality and fairness, arrive at a consensus about factual truth. I agree, however, with Leslie Newbegin’s comment, in her postscript to Introvigne, that “this concept of a ‘science of religion’ which is theologically neutral is an illusion.”
A Revision of Introvigne’s Typology
Fortunately, Introvigne’s typology is not totally off the mark. It does indeed shed some light on the different approaches of secular and religious critics, although his classification scheme requires revision to square it with reality. He is partly correct in dividing cult critics into four general categories, two of which are religious and two of which use secular frameworks vis-à-vis cults. The latter phrase is used deliberately because many critics who use secular frameworks vis-à-vis cults are not secularists (e.g., evangelical Christians and conservative Jews associated with AFF). Thus, the division of critics into secular and religious (I believe Introvigne’s use of anti‑cultist and counter‑cultist is an oversimplification and subtly derogatory) refers, in my revision, not to the personal beliefs of the critics but to the conceptual frameworks from which they choose to operate in the matter of cults. Religious critics use theological frameworks to evaluate cults, while secular critics--even if personally devout and orthodox Christians--operate within the framework of the dominant secular culture. To be sure, there are differences between these two approaches, which I will discuss later. But first let me conclude my revision of Introvigne’s typology.
The two categories that Introvigne calls rationalist and post‑rationalist would more appropriately be called “content focused” and “process focused.” Content-focused critiques of cults examine the validity (the truth value) of cults’ claims--doctrinal (e.g., Jesus studied Yoga in the Himalayas) and outcome (e.g., help members develop their psychic powers). Religious-content critiques will focus on how cults’ theological claims measure up against objective evidence and the belief systems of the critics. Secular-content critiques will tend to focus on claims that are amenable to empirical testing (e.g., demonstrating that the “miracles” of Sai Baba are tricks of a magician; scientifically testing the “Maharishi Effect,” which claims that a sufficiently large number of Siddha meditators will produce peace and harmony in their geographical region).
Process-focused critiques attempt to explain how cults bring about changes in their members. Secular process critiques will tend to focus on explanations that emphasize techniques of psychological influence, with the most extreme instances being categorized as thought reform, coercive persuasion, mind control, or related terms, including brainwashing--a term that most professionals and scholars prefer to leave to journalists and filmmakers. Religious process critiques will tend to attribute changes in cult members to the influence of spiritual entities (e.g., Satan or other demons).
This typology has utility only if one views the categories as reflecting emphasis or focus, rather than an inflexible, exclusive framework, which seems to be one of Introvigne’s mistake. For example, people associated with AFF, which emphasizes a secular, process‑oriented critique of cults, do not necessarily exclude the criticisms of cults made by people emphasizing other cells in the four‑part Introvigne classification (overlap occurs in the other directions as well). Many of my colleagues, for example, subscribe to the Skeptical Inquirer (published by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, or CSICOP) and attend CSICOP’s annual convention. A recent CSICOP convention focused on the psychology of belief--that is, the process by which beliefs come to be held. Exit counselors regularly rely on theological critiques of cults provided by religious content critics, such as the Christian Research Institute (CRI). Religious critics, such as Aagaard, will often indicate a belief in mind control (Eckstein, 1993). Even the religious process view (spiritual warfare), which is probably the most exclusive of the Introvigne classifications, leaks into other classifications, and vice versa. For example, a Christian psychologist who subscribes to the mind control model (Ash, 1985) also believes that some cases cannot be understood or properly treated without positing the existence of demonic entities (personal communication). The picture is not as clear as Introvigne implies.
My goal here is not to argue for the superiority of one perspective over another, or to argue for a mush of nonthinking agreeableness that sees all as somehow equally valid. I am merely trying to show that a simple‑minded application of the Introvigne classification leads to the construction or exaggeration of differences, as well as an underestimation of similarities. Let us take Opus Dei as a case in point because Introvigne criticizes “most anti‑cult movements” for including Opus Dei in their lists of cults (by the way, what “list” is Introvigne referring to?), even though “this group has been endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church.” A purely content‑focused approach (especially a Roman Catholic approach) to Opus Dei may very well conclude that its theology and stated practices are orthodox and noncultic. But when such a content‑focused approach ignores process‑focused perspectives, blind spots can arise. This is Ronald Enroth’s point in Churches That Abuse (1992): a group’s advocating an orthodox theology does not immunize it against hypocrisy and inconsistency. One must look at behavior as well as theology in order to appreciate the essence of a cult (a word Enroth understandably avoids because his evangelical audience associates it with theology). The critiques of Opus Dei are, to my knowledge, mainly critiques of behavior that is inconsistent with official policy and orthodox Christianity. Human beings--even those in religious orders--sin, and sometimes their sin may consist of abusing other human beings by manipulating their intellect and emotions and exploiting their needs. And it may possibly be the case that secular psychologists might have something useful to say--even for orthodox Christians--about how people can be manipulated and exploited.
Therefore the appropriate question should not be Introvigne’s rhetorical subtitle, Is the split between the secular anti‑cult and the religious counter‑cult movement bound to grow into open antagonism?” It should be How can religious and secular perspectives on cults complement and enrich one another?” Before attempting to answer this question, let me first examine the points of conflict that Introvigne believes (the tone of his article tempts me to say hopes,” rather than “believes”) will undermine the increasing number of positive interactions between secular and religious cult critics. These points of conflict are real (although I believe Introvigne’s analysis is faulty), but they do not--and indeed should not--prevent cooperation and respectful disagreement.
Potential Points of Conflict Between Secular and Religious Critiques of Cults
Introvigne is correct in saying that secular and religious critiques of cults have points of conflict. However, he overestimates the magnitude and irresolvability of these conflicts. Introvigne implies that conflict has developed with regard to secular criticisms of Christianity, secular attitudes toward certain non-Christian groups, such as Mormons, the supposed indifference of secularists toward post-cult religious views, and supposed implications of the “brainwashing” explanation.
Secular Criticism of Christianity
As noted earlier, Introvigne says that the deed emphasis of secular approaches will lead to criticism of Christianity, particularly when “the religious pressure exerted by a group on its members is too high.” The latter part of this statement is true. But it is also true, as it should be, for Christians (including Introvigne, I hope) concerned about abusive churches. The Vatican is explicit in its condemnation of emotional pressure in conversion:
Therefore, nothing in secular critiques of high‑pressure, abusive Christian groups necessarily threatens Christianity. On the contrary, such critiques can help honest Christians keep their own houses in order. Recognition of this fact motivated a team of evangelicals to cooperate in the development of an ethical code for Christian evangelists, published in this journal (“Cults, Evangelicals, and the Ethics of Social Influence”--special issue of the Cultic Studies Journal, 2, 1985).
Nevertheless, there are sources of conflict between secularists and Christians. Secularists such as members of the Council on Democratic and Secular Humanism, CODESH (a sister organization to CSICOP), for example, flatly reject orthodox Christianity and all belief systems that posit a supernatural realm. Some individuals within the AFF/CAN orbit are also hostile to Christianity, or religion in general. But the majority are a cross‑section of the American population and quite possibly are just as likely to attend church in any given week, perhaps more so. (Gallup surveys—“Do that many people really attend worship services?” May 1994--indicate that about 40% of Americans attend church weekly.) Indeed, in order to test Introvigne’s claim that “most anti‑cultists are precisely secular humanists” (p. 17), I tallied the religious affiliations, when I knew them, of AFF advisory board members. I categorized people according to their behavior or avowed religious preference. If I believed a person was a secularized Jew, Catholic, or Protestant, I classified the person a secularist. I found the following informal and unofficial breakdown, which for the reasons stated probably understates the religious affiliation likely to be found if these people were surveyed by Gallup: Catholic, 12; Protestant Evangelical, 11; other Protestant, 19; Jewish, 24; secular humanists, 14; unknown, 58. Moreover, in a survey on the New Age (Dole, Langone, & Dubrow‑Eichel, 1993), AFF respondents to a religious affiliation question reported the following religious breakdowns: mainline (N’34; 59%); no preference (N’17; 29%); not indicated (N’4; 7%); and off-beat (N’3; 5%). Thus, as a group, the people Introvigne labels anti‑cultists are relatively representative of the religious breakdown of the American population (given AFF’s northeastern/New York and mental health emphasis, which areas contain higher proportions of Jews).
The real threat to Christianity is not in the so‑called anti‑cult movement. It is in the mainstream, secular culture. A recent Cultic Studies Journal (vol. 10, no. 2, 1993) contains a fascinating, edited transcript of a discussion between Dr. Johannes Aagaard of the Dialog Center and AFF associates. Aagaard, who eloquently advocates the necessity to deal with the “truth question” in this field, helped me see more clearly how American, and probably all of Western, secular culture is based on inconsistent premises. One of the central and most destructive premises is that we must not carefully examine our fundamental premises, that theological and philosophical questions are unimportant. What results is a “lobotomized” culture that defaults to relativism. Christianity, especially orthodox Christianity, threatens this culture because it forcefully rejects relativism. The secular culture responds by trying to persuade Christians to keep their religion private, to keep it out of the “public square.” This runs directly contrary to the evangelical imperative of Christianity.
The striking irony here is that the secular critiques of cults implicitly lead not to a rejection of mainstream religion, but to an affirmation of the value of mainstream religions and a recognition that not all theologies are equal, as the relativist would have it. The secular framework in which my colleagues and I operate is more of an expedient, a common denominator in which a cross‑section of Americans can work together, than it is an ideology opposed to Christianity. The great weakness of our perspective is that it rests on an unsound “theology,” the implicit and inconsistent relativism of contemporary secular culture. Most of us realize this to some extent, but we also realize our limitations as human beings. Our job, as most of us see it, is not to fight the battle of competing cultural paradigms, which Aagaard has described. Our job is to try to better understand how cults manipulate, exploit, and hurt people; to help victims; and to forewarn potential victims. We focus on the deed because that is the common currency of the mainstream secular culture, in which we elect to function. But at least some of us realize that somebody must focus on the creedal issues and that eventually the culture as a whole will have to wrestle with the creedal issue.
Sooner or later Western secular culture will resolve its identity crisis. How much integrity that identity will have will depend in part on how effectively we communicate with people who disagree with us, how effectively we debate creedal issues. (I would like to see a psychological grid methodology [Chambers, 1985; 1987B88] designed to measure cognitive consistency and integrative complexity [how effectively a person integrates seemingly dissonant ideas] applied to the question of cultural identity.) Religious critics, such as the Dialog Center and CRI, are leading the charge (among cult critics) in that battle. Most of the secular critics are fighting on a different, more limited, but nonetheless vital front. And although the majority of these critics may not be aware of or appreciate the importance of the creedal debate over cultural identity, many of us do. That is one important reason why we can work cooperatively with the religious critics.
The religious critics I have worked with have no problem working with secular organizations. Introvigne demeans most of the Catholics and Evangelical Protestants I have encountered by implying that they are so insular that they fear being contaminated by secular humanists. Does he also believe that religious pro‑lifers should shun pro‑lifers who are also secular humanists (such people do exist)? Jesus Christ certainly was not averse to reaching out to “strange bedfellows,” perhaps because He was confident in who He was and wasn’t afraid of being sullied. I have heard the Pope say time and again, “Follow Christ!” Christians, then, ought not to be averse to talking to and working with secularists, especially when they share a just cause, however different their perspectives on that cause. Is not that the essence of evangelization?
I suspect that the Christians who are most perturbed about getting in bed with secularists and with those--secularists and religionists alike--who advocate the thought‑reform model are perhaps those whose behavior is most out of alignment with their Christian theology. It was Dr. Samuel Johnson who said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”--that is, a scoundrel will invoke patriotism, will hide behind the flag, in order to hide his deeds. Perhaps some Christians hide behind the cross in order to hide deeds that are inconsistent with the Christianity they profess. Perhaps these people emphasize the cross (theology) and demean secular critiques focused on behavior because behavioral analyses threaten to expose their own inconsistencies and hypocrisies. Talking theology is safer.
Attitudes Toward Non-Christians
Introvigne correctly notes that secular critics tend to view groups such as the Mormons as mainstream, while at least some religious critics see them as cults. This is true, but it really is not a big deal, so long as secular and religious critics understand that they base their judgments on different assumptions. An interesting example of this conflict occurred recently when an article in the May/June 1994 Wellspring Messenger (the newsletter of the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center) referred to the cult of Unitarianism. This comment caused a small stir within AFF/CAN circles because from a deed standpoint, the Unitarian Church is about as noncultic as a group can get. As Lawrence Pile (1994) explained in a clarification, from an orthodox, Christian standpoint (a creed perspective), it is a cult, but from a deed perspective it is not.
Now, I don’t doubt that within the AFF/CAN orbit a few people, who don’t like to trouble themselves with cognitive subtleties, may have had their anti‑Evangelical prejudices stimulated by the comments in the Wellspring Messenger. But I suspect that a much larger percentage than Introvigne might expect understand, at least in a general sense, that the comment came from a creed perspective, rather than the deed perspective of AFF and CAN. I am sure that a large majority of the leadership in both organizations recognize and can live comfortably with the distinction. The Christians with whom I have worked are also quite capable of making the necessary translations when the term cult is used by people using a deed framework. I think Introvigne sells Christians and secularists short. Both are capable of seeing other points of view on a given phenomenon.
Thus, I conclude that the fact that Christian critics are likely to categorize as cults some groups that secularists are not likely to so categorize will not significantly interfere with the capacity of open‑minded individuals from the two perspectives to work with and learn from one another.
“Anti‑Cultists” Don’t Care About Post‑Cult Religious Views
Relying heavily on a deeply flawed article by Alnor and Enroth (1992) (see Langone & Martin, 1993 for a response to Alnor & Enroth), Introvigne maintains that the tendency for secular exit counselors to avoid trying to convert their clients to orthodox Christianity makes their work unacceptable to orthodox Christians (exit counselors work with cult members on a voluntary basis, unlike deprogrammers, who typically initially confine the cultists they work with). This is patently false. The question of whether or not exit counselees should be converted to new belief systems is not a secular‑Christian dispute. Some secularists, for example, might be perfectly willing to try to convert their clients to secular humanism (although I don’t know of any such exit counselor). Most of the exit counselors I know in the AFF/CAN network are committed Christians. My coauthors in a chapter on exit counseling (Clark, Giambalvo, Giambalvo, Garvey, & Langone, 1993) are all practicing Christians. David Clark is an Evangelical Presbyterian, while the Giambalvos and Garvey are Roman Catholics. Garvey, in fact, considers himself a Thomist. They would argue with their fellow Christians that it is not ethical to push an exit counselee into Christianity during or immediately after an exit counseling.
The exit counseling, which usually takes only a few days, is a limited, contractual relationship that is merely the first step in a person’s post‑cult life. Reorienting oneself spiritually is a long task that in most exit counselors’ view ought to occur after the exit counseling sessions and with the help of somebody with pastoral training. Because exit counselors don’t sell” Christianity to their clients doesn’t mean that they don’t care about the person’s spiritual life or address spiritual issues in the exit counseling. The admittedly limited objective of exit counseling is to help clients make an informed reevaluation of a cult involvement, not reorient themselves spiritually. This dispute revives some of the issues discussed in the special CSJ issue referred to earlier--that is, what are the proper ethical boundaries of evangelism?
Problems with the “Brainwashing” Explanation
Introvigne completely misrepresents what he labels the brainwashing model. He conveniently uses the sensationalized media term in order to set up a straw man that he can derisively knock down. He says that “for their secular counterpart of the anti‑cult movement, ‘cultists’ have the more‑than‑human power of ‘brainwashing’ their victims; but, as it has been noted, ‘brainwashing’ in some anti‑cult theories appears as something magical, the modern version of the evil eye “ (p. 7). His citation for this statement is a speculative sociological essay that itself misrepresents what is more properly labeled the thought‑reform or mind‑control model. He does not quote nor even cite any professional sources who advocate the thought‑reform model. Instead, Introvigne later selectively quotes from an Italian educational flyer, saying:
Unfortunately, I do not have the ARIS flyer, so I do not know for sure if Introvigne has taken his carefully arranged quotes out of context, but I suspect that he has because (1) the snide tone of “glad to suggest a deprogrammer and cooperate with him” reflects the same bias that fuels the ad hominem attacks that cult apologists rely on time and again, and (2) similar quotes from documents put out by other cult critics do not mean what Introvigne seems to suggest they mean--that is, the straw-man view that brainwashing is a sinister, irresistible, “magical” force which instantly turns formerly rational, strong‑willed adults into smiling robots who would serenely walk off a cliff if told to do so by their leader.
“They [techniques of thought reform] are capable of working on anyone, even on those who may think they are immune” is a true statement. But it is true in the same way that the following statement is true: “The techniques used by advertisers, salesmen, and public relations professionals are capable of working on anyone, even those who may think they are immune.” The latter statement does not imply that public relations professionals believe in magic or have inordinate power over the human mind; neither does the former, which is generally used in an educational context to counter a common misconception: AI (my kid/our students/born-again Christians/etc.) would never join a weird cult; only crazy people join cults!” The statement also means that no class of person (e.g., people from good families) is immune to the seductiveness of cults. But it does not mean that anyone can be seduced at any time.
Whether or not people join cults “voluntarily” is a more subtle issue because it may be interpreted philosophically (what does free will mean?). In the educational context of flyers and other educational documents, however, “voluntary” has the common‑sense meaning of informed, nonmanipulated choice. If a smooth‑talking salesman persuades a lonely, 90‑year‑old widow to buy a vacuum cleaner that she neither needs nor can move around, common sense would question the “voluntariness” of the widow’s “choice,” even though philosophers might debate the issue for a millennium. (A centuries‑old body of law on undue influence agrees with the commonsense view.) Often cult educational organizations stress this commonsense notion of voluntariness in order to counter (1) the common misconception that attributes cult joining to mental or moral deficiency and (2) the tendency of ex‑cult members to blame themselves so completely that they lose sight of the fact that they were indeed wronged by exploitative manipulators.
The problem with the thought reform explanation of how cults change people isn’t that it is “magical” or “post‑rational” (whatever that term is supposed to mean), as Introvigne incorrectly asserts. The problem is that it is not always a sufficient explanation. Because so often they have seen beliefs used to manipulate individuals, proponents of the thought reform explanation tend to discount the fact that people sometimes change themselves by changing their beliefs through a process of genuine, unmanipulated thinking, that is, through genuine deliberation. Undoubtedly such deliberation plays a major role in conversions to nonmanipulative groups, mainstream or nonmainstream. In manipulative groups, however, deliberation, though it certainly occurs, often occurs in a context that renders its voluntariness specious. This is because typically the deliberation will consist of corollaries deduced from core assumptions that the person has imbibed because of manipulation, not rational deliberation. For example, if through manipulation one comes to accept the fundamental principle that “one must destroy the mind to find God,” then that person may “voluntarily” engage in an escalating program of meditation (paying escalating sums of money for the program) and wind up meditating, say, eight hours a day and suffer all kinds of ill effects (in all probability mini-manipulations may occur as the person proceeds through the meditation program). To the superficial observer, the person “voluntarily” chose this destructive pattern of behavior. The discerning observer, however, may recognize that this behavior reflects a psychological fraud, a set of “voluntary” behaviors based on premises that are accepted through manipulation and that serve the manipulator’s interest, rather than the person being manipulated.
Much as victims of financial fraud will “voluntarily” engage in a set of behaviors that ultimately leads to financial harm, victims of psychological fraud may seem to “voluntarily” engage in a set of behaviors that leads to psychological harm. The law has long recognized that someone tricked into believing a fundamental and false financial assumption (e.g., investing in such-and-such a real-estate trust will produce very high returns, when in fact the trust is bogus) may seek redress from the manipulator for adverse consequences that on the surface appear to result from voluntary” decisions made by the victim. The law’s recognition of a parallel fraud based on induced, false psychological assumptions and the resulting adverse psychological effects, however, is not so well established, although there is some relevant case law (see American Bar Association Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law, 1995).
Secular critics may overlook the role of deliberation because they focus only on the manipulations that initially may have induced a person to accept a core assumption. But to fully understand cult members’ experiences, thought reform proponents should recognize that the cult member will experience deliberation that is not manipulated as well as “deliberation” that rests on manipulation of core assumptions. When trying to map out cult members’ string of deliberations and induced, destructive assumptions, the secular critic may benefit from the analyses of religiously-oriented cult critiques that emphasize deliberation, that is, what the person thinks about the group. But the full picture cannot be grasped without also examining what the group does to the person.
Thus, we have the following admittedly oversimplified and tongue‑in‑cheek scenario: a member of the Unification Church says AI joined because the Divine Principle makes sense to me and helped me see how to lead a happy life.” The sociologist says, “He affiliated himself with a demonized, minority religious group because it gave him a cognitive framework that he perceived to be useful in alleviating his felt distress and alienation from the majoritarian culture.” The content-focused secular critic says: “The doctrines of the Unification Church are illogical because of a, b, c and, moreover, Rev. Sun Myung Moon has made predictions x, y, z, which never came to pass. Don’t waste your time on this claptrap. Let me teach you about critical thinking.” The content-focused religious critic (who may agree with the secular critic’s logical analysis) says: “You joined the Unification Church because you are confused and don’t understand the errors on which its theology is based. Let me share the truth with you.” The process-focused religious critic says: “You joined the Unification Church because you succumbed to the temptations of the demons that control that heretical group. Let us pray so that you can be liberated from them.” The proponent of the thought reform model says: “Your joining the Unification Church has nothing to do with the Divine Principle. You joined because you were in a state of temporary psychological vulnerability when the Moonies subjected you to a systematic program of psychological and social influence. Please let me explain. Then you can make a truly informed choice.”
The thought reform model may indeed go a long way toward explaining why this particular person joined the Unification Church (UC) at this particular time. But, as usually formulated, this explanation does not always adequately account for why this particular person may have said “Get lost” to a skilled recruiter from a Bible‑based cult two days before saying “Yes” to a less skilled UC recruiter. The person’s cognitive analysis of the Unification Church’s teachings, however erroneous, may play a role in the person’s “conversion,” even if the quality of that analysis is sophomoric (e.g., AI wish there weren’t so much bickering among Christians. I think that the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity sounds like a good idea”).
The relative contribution of thought reform processes and cognitive deliberation can vary greatly from cult to cult. For example, I suspect that cognitive deliberations, however erroneous, may play a greater role in conversion” to some Eastern and New Age groups than proponents of the thought reform model tend to think. The fundamental problem is that we do not yet have a systematic procedure for quantitatively evaluating the role of thought reform and other factors in conversion, although some promising research is finally being conducted (Chambers, Langone, Dole, & Grice, 1994). Thus far we have been limited to clinical evaluations of particular cases. This comment is not meant as a disparagement of clinical approaches. The field of clinical psychology has utterly depended on them for most of its history. I am simply saying that although proponents of the thought reform model are not the cultural Neanderthals that Introvigne seems to imply they are, they don’t know all there is to know about cult conversion. I believe that we can learn from those who disagree with us, as they can learn from us.
Toward Enhanced Dialogue
I hope that my comments have made clear that productive dialogue between secular and religious perspectives on cults depends on understanding the different foci and assumptions of these perspectives. I propose the following propositions to summarize and clarify my view on conversion and cults. Keeping these points in mind will enhance dialogue.
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Last revised: December 10, 2011