Policy Implications of Cultic Studies Research

Policy Implications of Cultic Studies Research

Michael D. Langone, PhD

“Cultic studies” is a term that grew out of the widespread use of the ambiguous term “cult” in the media and popular discourse[1]. The term refers to the study of a variety of phenomena that are generally associated with coercion, abuse, psychological manipulation, and exploitation.[2]

Hundreds of professional and research articles pertinent to cultic studies have been published. [3] Some articles relate clinical findings; others present systematically collected empirical data. Numerous topics are addressed in this literature, some of which have policy implications.

“Policy” is defined as “a course of action adopted and pursued by a government, ruler, political party, etc.”[4] This paper will explore the policy implications of cultic studies research for governments and philanthropic organizations.

The fundamental findings of this report are:

  1. There is abundant clinical and scientific evidence that many thousands of individuals and families have been harmed because of involvement in cultic relationships.

  2. Professionals, researchers, and lay activists have addressed the problems posed by cultic relationships. Nevertheless, needs far outweigh available resources.

  3. Though some countries have taken legislative action regarding problems posed by cultic groups, possible legislative remedies in the United States require further study.

  4. Governments and foundations can contribute in many ways to help experts in the cultic studies area conduct research and improve and expand assistance and educational services.

ICSA’s Program

Founded in 1979[5], 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 is unique in how it brings together former group members, families, helping professionals, and researchers.

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 fulfills its mission by encouraging, conducting, and applying research and professional perspectives to the organization’s programs, which include:

  • Conferences, workshops, and webinars aimed at former group members, families, researchers, helping professionals and others.

  • Periodicals: International Journal of Coercion, Abuse, and Manipulation (IJCAM), ICSA Today, and the ICSA E-Newsletter.

  • Websites

  • Developing and disseminating videos. ICSA’s YouTube channel currently has over 300 videos.

  • Publishing books, including

      • If I Could Turn Back Time: Reflections of Former Cult Members (in process)

      • Wounded Faith: Understanding and Healing from Spiritual Abuse

      • Cult Recovery: A Clinician’s Guide to Working with Former Members and Families

      • Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse

      • Coping with Cults: A Handbook for Families and Friends

      • Cults on Campus: Continuing Challenge

      • Family Interventions for Cult-Affected Loved ones

      • Recovery from Abusive Groups

      • Satanism and Occult-Related Violence: What You Should Know

      • he Boston Movement: Critical Perspectives on the International Churches of Christ

      • Women Under the Influence (special issue of Cultic Studies Journal)

      • ults: What Parents Should Know (out of print)

  • Responding to thousands of information and assistance requests

  • Encouraging and conducting research, such as the development of a scale to measure psychological abuse and surveys of former members, mental health professionals, and families.

Research Issues

Definition and Measurement

Researchers have proposed many definitions of “cult.”[6] Three factors seem common to most definitions:

  1. The group has a controlling and demanding leader.

  2. Former members and outside observers claim that cults are characterized by high levels of exploitative psychological manipulation.

  3. Large numbers, and probably a majority, of former members of groups accused of being cultic report psychological, spiritual, sexual, and sometimes physical abuse.

Much of the confusion surrounding the term “cult” results from the fact that each of these factors manifests on a continuum of intensity and does not necessarily characterize every group accused of being cultic. Moreover, these factors may operate in a family of noxious influence areas related to cults, including intimate partner violence[7], radicalization and extremism[8], human trafficking (including sex and labor trafficking)[9], sexual grooming,[10] gangs and gang violence,[11] dysfunctional families,[12] sexual harassment,[13] workplace abuse,[14] multilevel marketing,[15] mindfulness,[16] large group awareness trainings,[17] coerced confessions,[18] ostracism[19], polygamy,[20] and spiritual/religious abuse.[21] Because of “family resemblances,” cultic studies research is often relevant to these areas and vice versa.

Scientific research seeks to measure systematically the variables under investigation. In pursuit of this goal, a research team in Spain has developed measures of psychological abuse that can be used with different populations, including cults, victims of partner violence, and workplace abuse.[22] Also, Dubrow-Marshall, Martin, and Burks developed the Extent of Group Identity Scale (EGIS).[23] Two measures of spiritual abuse have also been developed recently by Keller[24] and Roudkovski.[25] The vital psychometric research of these researchers has laid the groundwork for many future studies.

Prevalence

Research suggests that approximately one percent of the population has been involved in a cultic group.[26] If one were to include the family of noxious influence areas, the number of affected persons would be much higher.[27]

Not all affected persons are harmed, but research indicates that a substantial number of persons are adversely affected.[28] Those who join cultic groups as adults tend to remain in their group for at least several years.[29] :Clinical reports indicate that a variety of therapeutic approaches can help cult victims and that recovery will often take one year or more of counseling.[30]

During the past two decades, children born into cultic groups (S/MGAs – second or multi-generational cult members) left in large numbers when they became adults, and many appear to have serious psychological problems.[31] In recent years, ICSA annual conferences have witnessed a steady rise in the number of S/MGAs– 25% of total attendance in recent conferences.[32]

The number of cultic groups is estimated to be in the thousands. In an ICSA survey of 1393 persons, 955 respondents (69% of the total) named a group. 540 different groups were named. Only 9 named groups had 10 or more respondents listing the group; 302 respondents (32% of the total) were in one of these 9 groups. 653 respondents (68% of the total) were in a group with fewer than 10 respondents listing the group.[33]

Types of Harm Associated with Cults

Harm to Individuals. Individuals adversely affected by a cult experience may demonstrate the following types of harm.[34]

  • Physical and sexual abuse and/or neglect of children[35]

  • Physical and sexual abuse of adults[36]

  • Financial exploitation and deprivation[37]

  • Dissociation[38]

  • Psychiatric symptomatology, especially depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)[39]

  • Damaged interpersonal relationships, e.g., with spouse, parents, close friends, and others[40]

  • Diminished critical thinking capacity (e.g., “brain fog,” magical thinking, overreliance on authority)[41]

  • Difficulty making decisions, coping with normal life challenges[42]

  • Alteration of identity or personality[43]

  • Fear of group and/or leader[44]

  • Resentment about feeling manipulated, disillusionment[45]

  • A tendency to deny distress or blame themselves rather than the group or leader[46]

  • Wounded faith, damage to relationship to God or to central elements of self[47]

Of course, not all former cult members experience all these problem areas, and some exit their group relatively unscathed. The prevalence of harm can only be estimated, for few research studies have representative samples of one group, let alone a wide variety of groups. An early study by Marc Galanter, which had access to Unification Church members and former members, found that “36% of the respondents indicated the emergence of ‘serious emotional problems’ at some time after leaving the church; 24% had ‘sought out professional help for emotional problems’ after leaving; and 3% (i.e., two respondents) had been hospitalized for such problems.”[48] Langone says:

Assuming a lifetime incidence of 2,500,000 people having belonged to cultic groups, a "lifetime" period of 30 years, and an average length of stay of six years, I roughly estimate that approximately 500,000 people belong to cultic groups at any one time and approximately 85,000 go in and out of cultic groups each year.[49]

If only 25% of these persons needed help when leaving their group, an estimated 20,000 former cult members would need help every year.

According to the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are more than 577,000 mental health professionals practicing in the U.S. today.[50] In a survey of 695 Pennsylvania psychologists, Lottick said: “Professional experience treating active or former cult members was reported by 33% of psychologists, and professional experience treating family or friends of the cult-involved was reported by 20.4%.”[51] Considering the BLS and Lottick data, we may conclude that 20,000 former members needing help each year is a reasonable, if not a low, estimate. The degree to which the former member problems are directly due to the cult experience is unknown from a scientific standpoint, though clinicians who have worked with former cultists almost universally view the cult experience as a significant causal factor in their clients’ distress.[52]

Harm to Families. In the early 1980s nearly all family members concerned about a loved one in a cultic group were parents who themselves had never affiliated with a cult. Today, the picture is much more varied. Almendros’s study[53] of people concerned about a loved one in a cultic group found that only 47% of 245 participants had never been involved in a cult. 35 % were born or raised in a group, and 18% joined as an adult (“first generation” cult member).

Clinicians attest to the distress families experience, though few have written about the topic.[54] Other than Almendros’s study, which has not yet been published, there is a striking lack of empirical research on the distress families of cult-involved persons experience, distress that often warrants psychological support. Almendros’s study found that the distress levels of cultists’ family members were as high or higher than families coping with a loved one affected by addictions, schizophrenia, or other problem areas. Cult families, however, were unique in the degree to which their loved ones have cut off contact (about 40% of family members report virtually no contact with their loved one), an action that many cultic groups encourage or even require.

Consistent with clinical reports, Almendros’s study found high levels of emotional arousal and confusion among family members. She also found that family members’ perceptions about their loved one’s cult involvement resembled those of mental health professionals. The following were the five highest rated items:

· Devoting enormous amounts of time to the group or relationship

· Being subservient to the leader(s)

· Being psychologically abused

· Their personality changing in fundamental ways

· Speaking in cliches or talking points

Harm to Society. Cultic groups impact society most visibly when there is a great tragedy or when crimes are committed. Among the front-page tragedies that have shaken the world are the Jonestown suicide/murders of 1978,[55] Aum Shinrikyo’s Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway,[56] the Solar Temple murders in Switzerland, France, and Canada,[57] the Salmonella poisoning of residents of Antelope, Oregon by members of the Rajneesh group,[58] and the murder in Uganda of nearly 1000 people by the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments.[59] Moreover, persuasive arguments suggest that many terrorist organizations, such as al Qaeda, are functionally identical to cults.[60]

Though it cannot be conclusively asserted that cultic groups are more involved in crime than other kinds of organizations, the data are compelling. Langone[61] found that of 3680 news summaries in ICSA’s Cult Observer between 1984 and 2001, 827 (22%) dealt with crime. 190 of the 417 groups mentioned were associated with crime stories. The most common crimes reported on were sex abuse (95 stories; 39 groups), child abuse (190 stories; 57 groups), murder (125 stories; 35 groups), and fraud (105 stories; 31 groups).

Some cultic groups have directly involved themselves in politics, such as the Unification Church, the Exclusive Brethren, and Lyndon LaRouche, among others .[62] The influential New Apostolic Reformation Movement (NAR) is a network of authoritarian and cultic churches that believe their mission is to build a powerful church on earth and establish dominion prior to the second coming of Jesus. Contrary to mainstream Christianity, these churches overemphasize personal power and authority.[63]

The extremism, political involvement, death, crimes, and individual and family harm associated with cults have motivated victims – families, former members, and professionals – to speak up. The media have reported on these critical reports for many years and, fairly or not, have negatively influenced public opinion.[64] Not surprisingly, governments around the world have held hearings and established organizations to address the cult problem.[65] Though much benefit has resulted from this attention, simplistic portrayals of the cult phenomenon may disrupt the healthy balance between accountability for wrong-doing and religious freedom, causing some religious freedom advocates[66] and even some cultic studies researchers[67] to object to unfair criticisms of and restraints imposed upon innocent new groups and sometimes groups that have indeed behaved badly.

Policy Implications

ICSA has always aspired to research-based and fair analyses of the cult phenomenon. Though the organization’s emphasis has been on harm, especially its psychological dimensions, ICSA has respected and dialogued with those who have emphasized religious freedom.[68]

Governments and philanthropic organizations can help reduce harm associated with cultic groups while respecting the freedom of individuals and groups by providing support in the following areas.

Research

Though useful research has been conducted in the cultic studies field, the following areas call for further investigation:

  • The continued development of psychometrically sound measures. Existing measures, such as Psychological Abuse Experienced in Groups Scale,[69] are self-report instruments. Observational measures are also needed, especially if the perspectives of psychologists could be integrated with those of sociologists who conduct participant observation.

  • The development of efficient and user-friendly evaluation measures that mental health professionals can use in outpatient counseling with former cultists. Though professionals counsel thousands of former cult members every year, few studies have examined the effectiveness of interventions.[70]

  • Surveys of current and former cult members that are at least reasonably representative of cult populations. Research has relied on inherently biased convenience samples of either former or current cult members, but rarely both.

  • The impact of cult involvement on children needs further study, especially quantitative research.[71]

  • The QAnon phenomenon demonstrates the possibility for what one could call “cultic echo chambers” to develop on social media platforms. Though QAnon has received much press, there may be many similar groups, gathered around a different ideology, that we have not yet heard of and that deserve to be studied.[72]

  • Bring interdisciplinary groups of researchers together to discuss research needs and plan organized programs of research. These discussions should include the relationship of cultic studies to related areas, especially radicalization, multilevel marketing, and sex trafficking.

  • Digitize information libraries, especially that of Info-Cult/Info-Secte[73] and Professor Stephen Kent of the University of Alberta.[74]

Assistance to Victims

    • Though ICSA has markedly increased the number of mental health professionals working in the cultic studies field, there is a need for training and supervision to improve the effectiveness of this growing network, as well as continued outreach to mental health professionals to expand the network.

    • ICSA’s 500-page book, Cult Recovery: A Clinician’s Guide to Working with Former Members and Families[75], was a landmark development. Nevertheless, there are specific clinical areas that demand attention. Almendros’s finding, for example, that 40% of families have virtually no contact with their loved ones reveals a need to develop teachable strategies to help these distressed families regain contact with cult-involved loved ones.

    • Because counseling with former members and families necessarily has a substantial educational component, there is a need to develop carefully thought-out educational resources. To accomplish this goal clinical experts must come together to develop detailed educational curricula for former members and families that will reflect a consensus opinion among experts.

    • The small number of residential facilities for former cultists have all closed because of financial considerations. Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, for example, treated approximately 1000 persons while it was in operation.[76] MeadowHaven had to close because the nonprofit could not afford major repairs on its aging building.[77] Because former cult members tend to be least able to afford help when they most need it, residential centers, which are desperately needed, must be subsidized.

    • Families seeking to help a loved one reevaluate a cultic involvement have few resources to turn to. The handful of exit counselors[78] are aging. There is a crucial need to pass the knowledge gained by exit counselors to mental health professionals, increasing numbers of whom are called upon by families. Alternatives to exit counseling, e.g., mediation,[79] need to be further developed.

    • Given the predilection of youth for video learning, the cultic studies field must develop sophisticated educational videos.

    • There is a grave need to staff a professional hotline that can provide more than the referral service that is currently offered to most people who contact ICSA and other organizations.

    • Though some support groups exist[80], there is a need to expand the number of professionally run in-person and online support groups.

Public and Preventive Education

  • Art has been a therapeutic activity for former cult members and an inspiration to the ICSA network since the first Phoenix Project exhibit of art and poetry, which Diana Pletts organized for ICSA’s 2006 annual international conference in Denver.[81] ICSA is building a special website for former member art, literary, and musical works.

  • Thanks to social media and modern technology, it is now possible to reach large numbers of youth at low cost. ICSA’s vignette project[82] is one such activity. It is also vital to develop a series of short preventive educational videos that social media experts can distribute to as large a population of young people as possible.

  • Documentary film makers have created useful resources for educating the public.[83] ICSA needs to reach out to documentary producers to share ICSA’s expertise and nuanced approach to the subject.

  • ICSA’s research indicates that nearly half of former cult members approach churches and other worship centers for help but nearly half of these persons report that they received “no help at all.”[84] In response to this disturbing finding and other research,[85] ICSA is developing spiritual abuse resources [86] for victims and religious organizations and personnel. This project has a critical need for funding to achieve its goals.

Education of Legal Professionals

The attitudes and opinions of the public, including some legal professionals, have been affected by sensationalized popular accounts of the cult phenomenon.[87] Some individuals lean toward unwarranted skepticism (‘brainwashing” is nonsense), while others lean toward credulity (“brainwashing” is a grave threat). So-called “brainwashing” refers to processes of psycho-social influence that have been studied scientifically for decades.[88] Some groups deliberately lie in court.[89] Others attempt to suppress the free speech of critics.[90] Info-Cult/Info-Secte’s collection of over 100 government reports from 21 countries, the Council of Europe, and the United Nations demonstrates the level of governmental interest in cults.[91]Hence, there is an urgent need to educate members of the legal profession, especially judges, who are often called upon to referee scientific disputes because of the Daubert standard.[92]

Explore Possible Changes of Law

Because countries are different, their responses to the cult phenomenon have varied widely depending upon social, cultural, and historical factors.[93] Hence, a law passed by one country may not be appropriate in another country.

In the early days of the cultic studies field, several state legislatures considered or passed conservatorship bills to help parents gain legal control over adult children who had joined cults, though no bill became law.[94] In informal conversations, even some professionals who focused on cult harm were skeptical about such legal proposals. They put too much power in the hands of mental health experts, who would be called upon to testify. Moreover, the proposals didn’t consider the salutary potential that improved ethical codes might have.[95] Furthermore, creative prosecution of cases against cultic groups can sometimes be highly effective.[96]

Alan Scheflin’s seminal paper, “Supporting Human Rights by Testifying Against Human Wrongs,”[97] provides a model to update the established legal concept of undue influence so that judges, attorneys, and expert witnesses can make balanced, scientifically sound decisions about specific cases that might involve so-called “brainwashing.” Boyle-Laisure offers suggestions on how human trafficking laws may be applied to cult situations.[98] Bardavio Anton proposes a criminal classification of coercive persuasion as a crime.[99] Mutch proposes a complaints commission for religious and ideological abuse.[100] Caparesi describes a law passed in Italy’s Friuli Venezia Giulia region “to combat and prevent forms of undue influence.”[101]

In the United Kingdom, “Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 created a new offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship.”[102] Although aimed primarily at domestic violence, this act has received attention in the cultic studies field because some believe it could be extended beyond intimate partner situations.[103] Australia is considering a coercive control law.[104] The State of Connecticut expanded its domestic violence law to include nonviolent coercive control.[105] The governor signed Hawaii’s coercive control law, HB 2425, on September 15, 2020, and California’s coercive control law, Senate bill 1141, became law on September 29, 2020..[106]

The UK’s 2015 Modern Slavery Act appears to be worth investigating for its possible application to cult issues.[107] A posting of the Harvard Law School on Corporate Governance discusses implications of this act for business.[108] Given decades of reports of financial and labor exploitation in cults (e.g., cult members working for nothing or returning their salary checks to the group), the UK Modern Slavery Act may generate ideas about crafting or modifying legislation to address cult harms.

Since 2012 NJ Safe & Sound[109] volunteers have been advocating for legislation concerning predatory alienation and undue influence, which often underlie domestic violence, human trafficking, gang recruitment, elder abuse, and other coercive and exploitative one-on-one and group relationships. [110] As a result of NJ Safe & Sound’s advocacy, in 2017 both houses of the New Jersey Legislature unanimously passed PL 2017, Ch. 64, which called for the New Jersey departments of Children and Families (DCF) and Human Services to study predatory alienation and its effects on young adults and senior citizens.[111] The law also defined predatory alienation.[112] See NJ Safe & Sound’s legislative update page for recent developments.[113]

This report does not make a recommendation regarding legislation. Instead, it calls for financial support to bring together law professors, practicing attorneys familiar with cult issues, religious freedom advocates, clergy, and mental health professionals as a task force to examine the legal implications of cultic relationships for the United States. ICSA could help identify people to include in such a task force

Conclusion

ICSA and other organizations concerned about cult-related harms are now able to build their assistance and educational programs upon a substantial body of scientific and clinical data. This information base clearly demonstrates that the magnitude of the problems posed by cultic groups is significant. Many governments and some philanthropic organizations have contributed to ameliorative efforts in education, mental health, and the law. But much more work remains before the resources devoted to this field match the social and personal needs that cry for attention. ICSA will share its expertise with any governmental or philanthropic entity that is interested in the issues this report raises.

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