Overview of Issues That Concern ICSA

ICSA and the Problems It Addresses 

Founded in 1979, the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) is a global network of people concerned about psychological manipulation and abuse in cultic and other high-control environments. ICSA is tax-exempt, supports civil liberties, and is not affiliated with any religious or commercial organizations.  ICSA's mission is to provide information, education, and help to those adversely affected by or interested in cultic and other high-control groups and relationships. 

ICSA consists of and responds to the needs of people interested in cultic groups, new religious movements, sects, psychological and spiritual abuse, and related topics:

·         Former members of cults or related groups

·         Families of people who are or have been involved in cults or related groups

·         Researchers

·         Helping professionals

·         Educators

·         Legal professionals

·         Clergy

·         Journalists

·         Students

·         Others interested in the subject

People contact ICSA for a variety of reasons, most notable of which are:

·         Assistance for oneself and/or one’s family/friends/clients

·         A desire to help others or advance understanding of the issues by participating in or contributing to

o    Conferences,

o    Workshops

o    ICSA’s referral network

o    ICSA publications

o    Videos

o    Web sites

o    Youth and public educational activities.

o    Information

o    Referral

o    Peer consultation (research, assistance, education, legal)

o    Training (clinical, educational, research)

ICSA’s philosophy can be summarized by the following propositions:

·         Each person is unique

·         Each group is different

·         Groups change over time and can vary from place to place

·         People respond to the same group differently

·         To be useful, information must be accurate and relevant

·         Information without understanding can negatively affect a relationship

·         Understanding takes time and effort

ICSA seeks funds to maintain and expand its programs designed to help victims and forewarn potential victims.  These programs include:

·         An annual conference and workshops for families, former group members, and mental health professionals

·         Local monthly ICSA meetings and special events

·         An information service that annually responds to more than 2,000 telephone and e-mail inquirers

·         Websites visited annually by more than 250,000 persons, many of whom seek information on cultic and other movements and how to deal with problems associated with such movements. Our main Website is www.icsahome.com

·         An E-Library that includes full text on six books and more than 25,000 news and scholarly articles published since 1979

·         An electronic newsletter, ICSA Member Update, which reports on members’ educational, helping, and research activities

·         A scholarly, peer-reviewed journal, International Journal of Cultic Studies

·         A magazine, ICSA Today, which reports on news from around the world and publishes articles on a variety of topics, poetry, fictional and personal accounts, profiles on experts in the field, and art work

·         Support for the maintenance and development of ICSA's volunteer committees

·         Support for the development of educational resources

·         Support for scientific studies conducted by graduate students, established investigators, and other researchers

ICSA’s broad organizational development goals are:

·         Quality -  Strive for balance, accuracy, and thoroughness

·         Permanence  -  Establish a durable membership and funding base that will enable the organization to offer services for many years into the future

·         Youth -  Inspire, educate, and train younger scholars, helping professionals, and lay activists so as to ensure that ICSA will always have a pool of capable and dedicated people to fulfill its mission

·         Efficiency -  Because raising money in this field is so difficult, ICSA tries always to get the most “bang for the buck” by constantly looking for more efficient ways to do things


Although there is no agreed-upon definition of “cult,” one proposed by Rutgers sociologist Benjamin Zablocki seems to highlight key elements of high-influence group situations:

An ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and demanding total commitment.

Charisma refers to a spiritual power or personal quality that gives an individual considerable influence or authority over large numbers of people.  Hence, a cult is characterized by an ideology, strong demands issuing from that ideology, and powerful processes of social-psychological influence to induce group members to meet those demands. This high-demand, leader-centered social climate places such groups at risk of exploiting and injuring members, although they may remain benign if leadership doesn't abuse its power.

The social-psychological manipulation and control associated with some cultic groups may sometimes be found in other organizations and movements, including those in the mainstream. However, unlike new groups focused on a living leader who answers to nobody, mainstream movements may be restrained or corrected by higher authorities to whom they are accountable. [1]


Research studies suggest that about one percent of the U.S. population (three million persons) have been involved in cultic groups at some time in their lives.  We estimate that about 50,000 - 100,000 people enter and leave cultic groups each year. Similar percentages appear to hold true for Western Europe.

ICSA has information in its files or has received inquiries on over 4000 groups, many of which have been the object of critical news reports.  However, the percentage of these groups that could be categorized as "cults" is unknown.  ICSA does not maintain a list of "cults."  Each case associated with concern about a particular group should be evaluated individually.[2]


In 1978 nearly 1000 people committed suicide or were murdered at the People's Temple compound in Guyana. In the mid 1980s followers of Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh were convicted of wiretapping, conspiracy to murder a U.S. Attorney, the deliberate spreading of salmonella among the local population of Antelope, Oregon, and other crimes. In 1993 dozens of men, women, and children were burned with their Branch Davidian leader, David Koresh, at the end of a long siege by U.S. federal agents. In 1995 members of Aum Shinrikyo released Sarin gas in the Tokyo subway, killing 12 commuters and injuring over 5000. In 1994-1995 members of the Solar Temple in Switzerland, Canada, and France were murdered or committed suicide. In 1997 thirty-nine members of Heaven's Gate committed suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, California. In 2000 more than 1000 members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments were murdered in Uganda.[3] And on September 11, 2001 in New York, March 11, 2004 in Madrid, and July 7, 2005 in London a new kind of fanaticism shook the world and made us aware of the terrible possibility that small bands of zealots are capable of mass destruction[4].Scores of deadly terrorist attacks, including those in Bali and Mumbai, have added to the carnage.

These horrific events all depended on the extraordinary level of influence and control certain leaders wielded over their followers. They are extreme examples of tragedies and abuses that occur every day, involving families and individuals harmed and sometimes shattered by the domineering influence of an exploitative leader in a cultic, authoritarian, or other abusive group or movement.[5]

ICSA's research indicates that cultic and other high control groups vary enormously in their potential for harm.  Harm may be physical, psychological, economic, social, and/or spiritual.  Different people will respond in varied ways to the same intense group environment, some remaining unscathed, while others are devastated.  Although scholars may dispute the level, causes, and effects of harmful practices in particular groups, a common-sense assumption underlies ICSA's work:  Under some circumstances, some groups can harm some people. ICSA is interested in the causes, nature, prevalence, and remediation of such group-related harm.

ICSA tries to direct inquirers’ attention to potentially harmful practices, rather than to a label.  In essence, we say: “These are practices that have been associated with harmful effects in some people.  To what if any extent are these practices found in the group in question?  And how might these practices affect you or your loved one or your client?”  After the troubling behaviors are identified, then the concerned persons can try to determine how, if at all, these behaviors are related to the group environment interacting with the involved person’s psychological makeup.

In general, involvement in the more extreme cultic groups probably harms many, and possibly most, individuals.  Some, especially children, have been physically injured (and occasionally killed) from beatings or medical neglect.  Members have been exploited psychologically, sexually, or financially, some having been lured into donating millions of dollars and even entire trust funds.[6]

Because this suffering typically occurs in a context of manipulation and deception, neither families, friends, nor group members fully understand what is happening to them until they learn about cultic techniques of persuasion and control.  They—the victims—tend to blame themselves and each other, rather than the group.  This is the central dilemma with which all who seek to help these victims must struggle.


Of course, the most desirable way to combat cultic and related manipulations is to forewarn potential victims, especially young people.  Millions of well-meaning youth, as well as adults and even elderly people going through vulnerable transition periods in their lives, enter the “cult marketplace” each year.  One ICSA research study found that 43% of ex-member subjects were students when they first joined their groups, and 38% of these persons dropped out of school after joining their groups.[7]  A crucial need, consequently, is preventive education.[8]

Education of the general public and professionals can also result in a decrease in cultic abuses.  Vigorous public discussions about cult-related problems, for example, can sometimes result in fruitful dialogues that cause controversial groups to change.  In his book, Recovery from Abusive Churches, Dr. Ronald Enroth describes several cases in which criticism of cultic evangelical groups resulted in public apologies by group leaders and changes in their practices.  ICSA staff and advisors have had fruitful exchanges with leaders of the Hare Krishna movement, which appears to be struggling with genuine attempts to reform the organization from within.[9]

Vigorous public discussion is also necessary before institutional authorities (including religious, educational, health, and government) can justify taking actions to curtail certain behaviors of cultic groups, which often call upon the principles of religious freedom for protection—with some justification.  Institutional authorities in most countries have thus far done very little, in part because the information base in this area has not yet reached a sufficiently sophisticated level to motivate institutional leaders to act, especially given the civil liberties dimension of the problem.  ICSA hopes that in time the research base in this area will reach a level that will enable institutional authorities to make more informed, balanced, and effective decisions regarding what to do about the problems cultic groups pose. [10]

[1] For a more detailed discussion of definitional issues, see FAQs.  Also see our collection on ethical issues

[2] Brief summary of prevalence research.  Also, Dr. Josep Jansa reported at our October 2004 Atlanta and 2005 Madrid conferences on a major epidemiological study in Catalyuna – full report published in ICSA E-Newsletter: .   Their results were similar to those obtained in U.S. studies.

[3] For a sociological analysis of cultic violence, see: Kent, Stephen A. (2004). Scientific evaluation of the dangers posed by religious groups: A partial model.  Cultic Studies Review, 3(2).

[4] See: Centner, Christopher. (2003). Cults and terrorism: Similarities and differencesCultic Studies Review, 2(2):.  Also see ICSA's topic collection on terrorism's cultic dimensions.

[5] See our collection of personal accounts.

[6] For a summary of clinical and research studies pertinent to harm see: (1) Dr. Michael Langone's paper, "Research on Destructive Cults" and (2) McKibben, J. A., Lynn, S.J.,  & Malinoski, P. (2002). Are cultic environments psychologically harmful? Cultic Studies Review, 1(3).  Also see our collection of personal accounts.

[7] Other results from the survey from which these figures come.

[8] State of Maryland Task Force Report, to which ICSA (formerly AFF) advisors contributed,. Summary of that report.  Also see: Kropveld, Michael. (2004). Preventive education: A North American perspective. ICSA E-Newsletter, 3(2)

[9] See our special collection on the Hare Krishna movement

[10] See the report of a panel discussion at ICSA's (formerly AFF's) 1999 annual conference in which representatives of 13 cult-educational organizations from around the world came to a consensus on needed actions: Langone, Michael. (2001). What should be done about cults? Cultic Studies Journal, 18, 69-81.  Also see the legal and government documents collection of Info-Cult/Info-Secte.