Cultism and American Culture

Cultic Studies Journal, 1986, Volume 3, Number 2, pages 157-172

Cultism and American Culture

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.


This essay contends that American culture rests upon six fundamental values: 1) life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; 2) freedom; 3) connectedness; 4) common sense; 5) tolerance; and 6) fair play. Cults, because of their subjective/magical philosophical foundations, come into conflict with the wider culture and tend to reject or dishonor these values, thereby generating considerable outrage. This situation poses a challenge to an open culture: How does it protect itself against the transformative influence of cults without becoming unduly repressive? The author concludes that successfully meeting this challenge will necessitate a cultural revitalization which recognizes the need to conserve as well as to change.

In recent years, allegiance to cultic groups has increased markedly in the United States and other Western countries. Two surveys, for example, found that approximately one-quarter of adults had had at least a transient involvement with a new religion or para-religious group, many of which could be classified as cults (Bird & Reimer, 1982). Other surveys have found that even among high school students, whose experience in the “guru marketplace” is limited, one to three percent report having belonged to cults (Bloomgarden and Langone, unpublished study; Zimbardo and Hartley, 1985).

Some say that the increase in cultism presages the imminent collapse of Western culture. Others maintain that it demonstrates the robustness of an open culture strong enough to tolerate a multitude of bizarre groups. And still others, particularly those who have worked with individuals and families harmed by cultic involvements, warn that the surge in cultism poses a serious -- though not necessarily lethal -- threat to our culture.

Depending on how one views the impending changes, the first position implies that either the end is near and that we are helpless to avert it, or that the new beginning is thankfully upon us. The second point of view suggests that the concern about cults is much ado about nothing. The third perspective, noting merit in the first two positions, calls for remedial action to protect a basically sound culture against a very real threat.

In this essay, I will advocate the third position. Although not a scholar of history or culture, I believe that clinical work with cultists, and psychotherapy in general reveal psychological aspects of culture that ought to be considered by others. With some diffidence, then, I will first offer a personal psychological perspective on American culture. Next, I will examine the nature of cultism and discuss its relationship to the core components of American culture. And lastly, I will offer suggestions as to what can lead to a constructive resolution of the problems cults pose. I do not intend to detail the abuses associated with cultic groups, preferring instead to refer the reader to other sources (Bussell, 1983; Clark, Langone, Schecter, & Daly, 1981; Enroth, 1977; Rudin, 1979-80; Rudin & Rudin, 1980; West and Singer, 1980).

American Culture: A Psychological Perspective

In his article, "Cultism and Civilization," Raymond Williams (1967) describes various perspectives on the concept of culture. Originally, culture was viewed as a process, comparable to the cultivation of the sod, from which activity the term "culture” is derived. Over time, however, culture came to refer to a condition about which there were various descriptions, including moral, esthetic, and holistic. Within the social sciences, the latter view of culture as a complex whole has predominated, although not without debate about its precise nature. In the final analysis, Williams seems to be saying that everyone agrees that .culture' means something, but nobody has been able to come up with a meaning agreeable to all.

As a psychologist I am reminded of similarly inconclusive debates on the nature of personality, particularly if one accents the “person” part of “personality.” That the association should come to mind is not surprising. After all, persons create cultures and cultures shape persons. The two are inextricably linked and, perhaps, cannot be properly understood in isolation.

Many of us who have worked clinically with cultists vividly see the link between culture and personality. Some extremist cults are essentially alien cultures in our midst, cultures that have the power to reshape personalities. My psychiatrist colleague, Dr. John Clark, one of the first clinicians to speak out about cult abuses, calls the phenomenon an "impermissible experiment,” an experiment in the remaking of personality which no ethical researcher would conduct.

As clinical observers, we are both intrigued and repelled by the results of this impermissible experiment. Our scholarly curiosity is piqued, for in everyday clinical practice one does not often encounter seemingly normal, lively, Phi Beta Kappa students who change - sometimes within a matter of weeks - into passive, cliche-speaking dropouts, wandering through a strange city collecting money for Father, or Reverend Holy, or Guru Om. Yet, being ourselves a product of a culture that considers some “experiments” impermissible, we cannot help but have visceral reactions to the fascinating phenomena we observe and are called upon to remedy.

During reflective moments, this double role of observer-helper has motivated me to try to understand better the culture in which I am immersed and which I am “credentialed” to affirm. This does not mean that I see myself as a protector of the status quo. On the contrary, my social gripe list is as long as anyone's. Nevertheless, I do see Man as a social creature who either adapts to his culture of birth or - with very few, if any, exceptions - suffers. My job is to help people adapt - each in his or her own unique way.

Because this job cannot be performed from a value-free perspective, understanding how one's own values manifest in clinical situations is a critical component of a mental health professional's training. Understanding what these often unarticulated values are becomes especially important in working with cultists and their families. In most cases, cultists' values are fundamentally different from those of their families and of clinicians, who, if they are to maintain their ethical bearings, must not automatically assume that values espoused by cultists are necessarily maladaptive. It is possible to adapt to a culture that some label deviant. On the other hand, clinicians should be careful not to fall into a naive “what’s-true-for-you-is-true-for-you-and-what’s-true-for-me-is-true-for-me” mentality, which assumes that all approaches to life are equally valid, true, effective, adaptive, or what have you.

This extreme form of relativism, despite the din of its proponents, is not the philosophical basis of American culture. As an intact individual cannot exist without a core system of beliefs and values (a “private logic" in Alfred Adler's terms), a viable culture cannot exist without core values and assumptions. A relativistic perspective may have utility as a device for holding on to one's scholarly objectivity. But it cannot sustain a culture. And because it tends to become an ideological prejudice (Williams, 1967, p. 275), it probably is not even a very effective device for maintaining objectivity, much as “value-free” counseling has been found to be an illusion.

Hence, I make no apologies for evaluating cults in terms of fundamental American cultural values, which I have imbibed, examined, and accepted. I believe that this culture has considerable worth, in large part because it is so tolerant of unusual and intolerant groups, including cults. Consequently, I don't have to assume a “see-no-evil” posture in order to tolerate and respect individuals belonging to groups I criticize.

What are the values and assumptions which I use to evaluate cults and which I believe are essential to the maintenance of American social order?

The first is essentially a metaphysical assumption: "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” American metaphysics is simple and straightforward, a distillation of the traditions on which it is based. It had to be so because science and Enlightenment rationality had called into question the metaphysical beliefs of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Some of the Founding Fathers probably believed in angels and the virgin birth of Christ. But they realized that a country of Quakers, Presbyterians, Catholics, and dozens of other religious groups could not support a social order based upon such debatable metaphysical details, especially given the core value upon which the new republic was based: individual freedom.

Freedom has many meanings. For some, freedom is a moral concept “Liberty can consist only in the power of doing what we ought to will" (Montesquieu, cited in Oppenheim, 1968, p. 558). “I call him free who is led solely by reason” (Spinoza, cited in Oppenheim 1968, p. 558). For others, e.g., advocates of the welfare state, freedom consists of the satisfaction of basic needs. In one philosophical sense, freedom refers to autonomous actions, “that is, determined exclusively by the actors' own decisions and not by the influence of others” (Oppenheim, 1968, p. 557). Traditionally, however, freedom in American culture refers to an absence of obvious external control over the individual. License plates in the state of New Hampshire, for example, carry a phrase that seems more suited to the nineteenth century than today: "Live Free or Die.” This motto clearly doesn't imply: “live by reason,” or “do that which is moral,” or "make sure you have enough to eat,” or “watch out for hidden influencers.” Rather, it implies: “I'm going to live my life my way and nobody is going to stop me.” It is no wonder, then, that Americans could not achieve a cultural consensus on fine points of metaphysics. They had trouble enough abiding by the agreement to respect one another's life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

Despite this frontier notion of freedom and the lean metaphysical system it demanded, Americans were and continue to be basically civilized. They are civilized because when push comes to shove they are tied to their moral heritage, best symbolized perhaps by the small-town church steeple. A robust Judaeo- Christian tradition, transmitted through a variety of sects, like variations on a musical theme, has tempered the rough-and-tumble freedom that a virtually unpopulated continent once offered. This tradition civilized freedom by affirming the importance of morality, community and family loyalty, and respect for the cultural heritage. Today, such words unfortunately seem quaint Nevertheless, the sense of connectedness they imply lives in weakened form in concepts such as “wholeness,” “psychological integration,” or "getting it together.” Man should be free. But he should know and respect his connectedness to the world into which he was born.

In achieving this connectedness, the individual strikes a balance between personal freedom and the world. This is the essence of the adaptation which I noted earlier. And, I believe, it is the essence of the Judaeo-Christian view of man's relationship to the world. Unlike the Gnostics (and many contemporary cults), who see the world as a lower plane from which to escape (“Gnosticism,” 1910, p. 153), the Judaeo-Christian tradition sees the world as God’s gift, which men should freely love, respect, and care for. Appreciation, gratitude, humility, and service are fundamental Judaeo-Christian values.

In order to achieve a freely instigated harmony with the world a person must be able to reason effectively. In an unfree, authoritarian culture, reason isn't important to the individual, for obedience will usually bring whatever rewards are available. In a free culture however, the individual has a wider range of options and, therefore must think or sink. "Reason,” however, does not refer to the logic taught in a beginning philosophy course. It refers, instead, to common sense, or what some cognitive psychologists call “natural reasoning,” rather than to neat and clean deductive reasoning. It is a derivative of personal experience

and proceeds by steps that are credible but not rigorous, and arrives at conclusions that are likely but not certain . . . To put it in William James's terms, we are pragmatists by nature; what feels right we take to be right. And most of the time it is right; were this not so we would have long ago disappeared from the earth. Our pragmatism, our natural mode of reasoning, is not anti-intellectual but is the kind of effective intellectuality that was forged in the evolutionary furnace (Hunt, 1982, p. 138).

This pragmatic approach to adapting to the world has been the source of much of America’s ingenuity and material progress. But as will be noted later, it has a soft underbelly, which many cults have exploited.

American pragmatism is a natural offshoot of a creative cultural tension that has spurred so many individuals to notable achievements. On the one hand, there is the force of social order the Judaeo-Christian tradition with its attendant metaphysical details, moral imperatives, and idealistic aspirations. On the other hand, there is the force of individual expression: the Live-free-or-die mentality that only grudgingly assents to a metaphysical consensus of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These two cultural forces have been in a state of relative balance for two centuries because, for the most part. Americans have recognized that their own freedom depends upon a respect for tolerance. Sometimes tolerance issues from an awareness that one might be wrong, or that others do in fact have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But even for the unaware, there is a sense that tolerance is better than power struggles. To live freely, we must “live and let live."

The tolerance sustaining this balance of freedom and social order doesn't just happen to work. It works because it is based on unwritten rules, rules of fair play. Just what those rules are will vary from locale to locale, from social group to social group, from one historical period to another. But despite their variation and ambiguity, rules for determining acceptable ways to influence another person do exist. Using physical force to persuade another person, for example, is against the rules, as are gross deception or threats. Minor deception, however, is sometimes within the rules: for example, we tend to expect and tolerate a used car salesman's twisting of the truth. In other cases, however, even minor deceptions can be against the rules: when occurring in intimate relationships, or when committed by someone in a position of special trust, e.g., a clergyman. The most visible indications of the rules of fair play (what can also be called the ethics of social influence) are ethical codes of change agents, e.g., psychologists, and laws governing interpersonal interactions, e.g., libel laws.

To summarize, American culture has traditionally rested upon six fundamental values: (1) life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; (2) individual freedom; (3) connectedness (i.e., psychological integration); (4) common sense (natural reasoning); (5) tolerance; and (6) fair play.

The cultural balance that these values have sustained is threatened. Certainly, as many social critics have pointed out, much of the disequilibrium has resulted from a historical unfolding of flaws in the balance on which the nation was founded, e.g., disillusionment with Enlightenment myths of “progress,” science's attack on the metaphysical foundations of the Judaeo-Christian tradition (epitomized by the resurgence of the creation-evolution controversy). But a considerable portion of the disturbance comes from the repercussions of cultic groups, alien cultural systems which have discovered that our tolerant, open culture - especially in its current state of “self-doubt” - is an attractive market for peddling “new” roads to happiness and salvation.


The recent upsurge of cult activity began during the 1960's, a time when intellectuals and young people challenged many traditional values and social institutions. Initially, much of the cultic activity was related to radical political movements (e.g., the Symbionese Liberation Army, which captured and brainwashed Patty Hearst) or the drug subculture. By the early 1970's, however, many cultic religious groups had come into being or significantly enlarged their membership.

Although most of these groups received little public attention, a few became the focus of considerable controversy. Most notable among these were the Unification Church (the Moonies), the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishna), Scientology, The Way International, and the Children of God. These groups tended to proselytize among white, middle-class, educated young people, many of whose parents began to criticize cults publicly.

These parents reported that their children had undergone radical and sometimes very rapid personality changes that resulted from brainwashing (mind-control, thought reform, and coercive persuasion are other terms used to characterize the process), as described in the work of Korean POW researchers. As more parents spoke out (joined by increasing numbers of disaffected ex-members of cultic groups), an informal network began to develop, and numerous citizen groups came into being, most of which later became affiliates of a national umbrella organization, the Citizens Freedom Foundation (now renamed the Cult Awareness Network).

Initially, very few mental health professionals or clergy participated in this growing network. Most professionals tended to subscribe to the then popular stereotype that only disturbed youths would join cults and that disturbed youths generally came from disturbed families. For this reason, parents were rarely able to obtain professional help. Many, consequently, resorted to desperate measures, such as abducting their children and forcing them to listen (usually with the help of ex-members of cults) to “the other side of the story.” The term “deprogramming" became associated with this procedure, for brainwashed converts were perceived as being programmed to believe whatever their leaders wanted.

As time passed, a handful of professionals began to recognize that mother wasn't always to blame, that cult conversion often did result from very powerful persuasive techniques, and that cults often did exploit and harm converts (Clark 1979; Singer, 1979; Clark, et al., 1981). Citizens' groups, meanwhile, succeeded in convincing legislators to conduct a number of hearings on cults.

As more and more parents, ex-members, and professionals began to testify publicly, the media began to pick up their stories, especially after the Jonestown tragedy. A new stereotype began to emerge. Instead of viewing converts as crazies from crazy families, the public began to see cults as malignant groups which turned young people into non-thinking zombies, alienated from their families, and obeying every whim of the cult leader.

The widespread dissemination of this one-sided analysis stimulated a forceful counterattack by cult propagandists, but also by thoughtful individuals worried that public overreaction could result in policy decisions that would threaten the freedom of non-cultic religious groups. The fears of these individuals, however, were not realized. State conservatorship bills designed to help remove cultists from their groups in order to test their psychiatric competency were defeated time and one again. And deprogrammings involving abduction markedly decreased in frequency.

In recent years, the debate has become more sophisticated and the legal thrust against cults has focused on lawsuits against cults rather than on legislative lobbying. It is now widely recognized that many persons are able to resist cultic enticements and that most individuals seduced into cults are relatively normal persons experiencing considerable stress at the time of their conversion. For the most part they are not seriously disturbed psychologically. Nevertheless, their conversion is directly linked to the cult’s use of an array of manipulative techniques of social influence, as the following definition suggests:

Cult -- a group or movement exhibiting great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community. Manipulative techniques include, but are not limited to, isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management suspension of individuality or critical judgment promotion of total dependency on the group, and the systematic cultivation of fear. (Adapted from Cultism: A Conference for Scholars and policymakers, p. 3.)

Cults, then, cause controversy because they violate basic values undergirding American culture. In interpersonal relationships, they cheat. They disregard the rules of fair play, using manipulative processes too intensely, too often, and in inappropriate contexts. The American sense of fair play may tolerate a fast- talking used-car salesman. But, because more is expected of religious professionals, it bristles at Madison-Avenue-Jesus peddlers, and rails against institutionalized manipulation designed to pull people off their life courses in the name of religion or other ideals.

Cults also undermine personal freedom. Sometimes this is blatant, especially in authoritarian, collectivist groups. In other cases, the undermining of personal freedom is a subtle process. Although responsible proponents of Eastern monist philosophies exist, many Eastern and related New Age groups advocate a dangerously solipsistic world view, in which adherents are indoctrinated to believe that they are God and that their progress up the spiritual ladder will bring great psychic powers, such as mind-reading, levitation, or the capacity to make “voyages” on astral planes. In these cases, even if the individual isn't exploited (e.g., by paying thousands of dollars for “courses”), he can become so self-absorbed and detached from others that the notion of freedom becomes superfluous. Moreover, he can become more susceptible to the manipulations of the persons “guiding” him into this state of “inner awareness.” Although I am not denying one's right to follow such a path, I do maintain that it grates on American sensibilities and can, therefore, make adaptation more difficult. Of course, one doesn't have to adapt; nor does one have to take the easy road to adaptation. But one can make more informed decisions, if one is aware of the consequences of certain actions. And in many groups "selling” solipsistic world- views, the consequences are not spelled out with exactitude and may, in fact, be deliberately concealed.

Some students of contemporary cults have noted that New Age and other Eastern-based groups have much in common with Gnostic cults of the early Christian period (Albrecht, 1981; Halperin, 1983; Weber, 1983). These similarities include not only a striving for special powers (“You are God in your universe,” says Wemer Erhard), but also an undermining of the notion of connectedness and an attack on reason. In the New-Age and monist groups which arouse concern, connectedness becomes meaningless (If you are God and all that exists, what is there to connect to?) and reason useless, for the everyday world (God's creation in Judaeo-Christian terms), and the mind itself, are illusion, a cipher. No need to sing “The Heavens are telling the glory of God”, for “the heavens” are nothing. In this world-view, personality is an illusory mush, so struggling to create harmony within oneself and with one’s world is unnecessary. Man is already “whole” (the “wholeness” of extinction, however, not of connectedness), only he hasn't discovered the esoteric pathway that will make him aware of his absolute “wholeness.” And as for reason: instead of, “if it feels right it probably is right,” we have “if it feels good, it is good,” and, by extension, true as well.

This bastardization of traditional American pragmatism is an attractive epistemological framework for modern-day sophists. Such people first demolish (if personal disillusionment and/or stress haven't already demolished) the logically fragile props of values based on “natural reasoning.” (Only philosophers and other intellectuals, being aware of inconsistencies in their value heritages, try to create rational systems for justifying their behavior; the average person, not being aware of his reasoning processes, mistakenly overestimates his rationality.) Then they manipulate their confused, disillusioned recruits into “feeling good,” and convince them that whatever they are told while “feeling good” is true. The resulting cessation of authentic thinking can be a relief to those whose information-processing capacities have been overloaded by manipulators.

The ultimate implication of this process is obvious: If I make you believe that feeling good is truth, and if, through guile, I make you feel good, then I can induce you to believe that I am God incarnate (or, should I pretend to be humble, “God’s messenger). If I am God incarnate (or his messenger), you must do my bidding.

Cultism thus becomes a medium for objectifying, so to speak, the personal “revelations” of cult leaders. At best, their “revelations” are highly subjective; at worst, they are blatantly magical. Rationality is denigrated. The “highs,” the “good feelings,” induced by manipulative techniques are valued more than rational discourse or empirical testing. Critical thinking or the “devil's advocate" position are not permitted. Only what the individual “feels” is of any worth, but the individual is unaware of the extent to which he has been manipulated to “feel.” The result is a widespread and uncritical acceptance of dubious notions, such as astral projection, mind-reading, psychokinesis, levitation, enlightenment, faith healing, and promises of special status in the coming Utopia or rewards on a “higher plane.” The sense of power emanating from this “magic,” combined with the contagious enthusiasm of a group dedicated to .changing the world" or “achieving enlightenment,” can be intoxicating, especially to the young and those whose confidence has been shaken by inadequately managed personal stress.

Because a magical orientation is so vulnerable to rational criticism a group adhering to such a worldview must become exclusive and must utilize deceptive and manipulative practices to maintain the unquestioned loyalty of its members. In such groups, then, there is a strong totalistic impulse, a tendency to determine -- sometimes in great detail -- how members should think, feel, and act. Furthermore, the vulnerability of the magical world-view and its resulting totalistic impulse make it very difficult -- if not impossible -- for the members of such groups to maintain outside relationships or to tolerate dissent Thus, the traditional values of tolerance, common sense, freedom, fair play, and connectedness must be discarded in order for the cult to survive.

Although the processes cited above are most easily recognized in Eastern monist and New Age groups, they are also operative in extremist “Christian” groups. Although maintaining a dualist philosophical perspective, the “Christian" cults also employ a wide array of manipulative techniques to enforce a mind-numbing conformity on members. Doubt and questioning, without which critical thinking cannot occur, are excoriated as "of the devil,” and total obedience to the leader's idiosyncratic interpretation of the Bible is mandatory. Although the flavor is different, the result is similar to that of certain Eastern and New Age groups: suppression of critical thinking, diminished freedom, vulnerability to the criticisms of and consequent opposition toward the wider society, intolerance, and totalistic conformity

It is no wonder, then, that cultism angers so many Americans. But there is a bright side to this conflict. In its attack on all that is basic to American culture, cultism presents a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge for the culture is to maintain its openness while defending itself against the totalistic impulses of cultic groups. The opportunity is that the culture, in order to meet this challenge, must define itself more clearly and adjust to changed conditions. These are the topics of the next section.

What Needs to be Done

As noted earlier, the stability of American culture has depended more on a balancing of cultural forces than on an aware idealism. People act according to social conditioning, not according to the principles or ideals upon which the social conditioning is based. This explains the capacity for inconsistencies, e.g., waving the flag while chanting “Nigger go home.” America has had its share of bigotry and witch-hunts. This intolerant impulse, however, has been caged, for the most part by a legal system which codifies tolerance, as well as other basic values of the culture, e.g., fair play. In a sense, the legal structure is part of the articulated level of the culture, while the constructive and destructive (e.g., bigotry) shared values, inclinations, beliefs, and expectations of the people constitute an unarticulated (“unconscious,” if you will) level of the culture, the iceberg beneath the sea. The former is called upon to preserve that which is most valuable in the latter, while the latter is called upon to live up to the principles enunciated by the former. The process is analogous to the relationship of ideal self and perceived self in the individual personality.

Cults threaten the balance and creative tension arising from the interplay of the culture's articulated and unarticulated levels, of law and tradition. The law is bound to protect the freedom of cults, even though the dominance of cultic groups would result in an abolition of the constitutionally based freedom that tolerates their very existence. Yet because cults violate so many traditional values, the average person's immediate gut reaction is to find a way to stifle the cults. The law, which doesn't want to succumb to the intolerant impulses in the culture, may then find itself allied with forces seeking to transform the very culture which the law is charged with defending.

This is a dilemma that has no easy solution. If we suppress cults, we may destroy the fabric of our free society in doing so. On the other hand, we must be careful, as one wag put it, not to be so open-minded that our brains fall out.

Open cultures such as our own are not static. They do not need revolutions to change; an accumulation of “pecks” at the established order will suffice. For several decades, the established order of American culture has been pecked by millions of zealots in thousands of cultic groups. The resulting cultural change has been broader and deeper than most people realize; e.g., more than 50% of American teenagers now believe in astrology (Emerging Trends, May 1984, p. 5). Our brains may very well be falling out.

If the American cultural identity is not to undergo a radical transformation, the dilemma described above must be resolved. 'The law, the articulated level of the culture, must anchor tolerance in common sense. And tradition, the unarticulated level of the culture, must be revitalized. I use the word “revitalize,” rather than “restore,” because changes are called for, but changes showing continuity with and respect for the past on which the present is built. I call not for revolution but for a common-sense reevaluation of where American culture is coming from, where it is, and where it ought to be going. I see four main areas in which this reevaluation has already begun and must continue to occur.

First, social and behavioral scientists, artists, and students of the humanities must do a better job of articulating the essence of American culture. Psychological questions, in particular, need to be examined. What are the links between individual development and cultism? What are the deceptive and indirect psychological techniques through which influencers persuade and control others? How are they different from techniques used in the past? How do these techniques work and how can one develop resistance against them? How does the existence of subtle influence techniques affect the American concept of freedom? Should, for instance, the nineteenth century theme of “live free or die” be supplemented by something more sensitive to twentieth-century "psycho-technologies,” e.g., “be aware or be duped,” which is an elaboration of “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty?” What are the differences between open and closed cultures, not only on the social level but on the level of the individual psyche as well? If an open culture (one based on a metaphysical assumption of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) has an inescapable ambiguity and uncertainty infusing its philosophical foundations, what implications would this fact have for individual adjustment and social relations? How do people reason? If, as appears to be the case, common sense is not so “rational” as most believe, what are the implications of this misconception and what can be done to diminish its negative effects (e.g., reduce vulnerability to sophistic attacks on cultural values)?

The answers to these questions will influence the second major area calling for examination: the relationship between our legal system and cultism. If the legal system represents a major component of the cultures “ideal self,” what can be done to prevent it from becoming a “harsh superego,” a kind of legal Gnosticism, seeking to control the iceberg by chanting legal scripture at its windy pinnacle? Can the law grapple with the changed definition of freedom and new types of “victimhood” implied by deceptive and indirect techniques of persuasion and control? Can the law balance its concern about what is bad in the culture with its duty to conserve what is good? Can the law, for example, respond to the valid cultural outrage underlying much of the antagonism toward cults without yielding to the intolerant aspects of that antagonism or turning its head from the sometimes gross abuses cloaked by legal definitions of religion? Can the law spell out more clearly its proper relationship to religion and religions? Has, for example, the historical emphasis on the abstract concept “religion” blinded and emasculated the law with respect to the concrete realities that are religions? Can the law give special consideration to the Judaeo-Christian tradition (not Jewish or Christian religions) supporting our culture without interfering with the rights of those lying outside that tradition? If not, is the law making a passive decision to protect intolerant, culturally alien religions and religion-like groups at the expense of religions integrated into the culture? Does such passivity tend to conserve or to endanger our open culture?

Religions, which in their preaching reflect another part of the articulated “ideal self” of the culture, must also wrestle with such questions in order for a cultural revitalization to take place. Can members of a religious faith uphold the spirit of ecumenism without succumbing to a naive, “see-no-evil" pose when confronted with religion-like groups that disdain the cultural heritage which has enabled ecumenism to survive? Can religions formulate and teach rational integrations of their belief systems with the American cultural tradition? Can, for example, the Roman Catholic Church explain and teach -- especially to its intelligent, questioning young people -- how a Catholic can honor the authority of the Church while pledging allegiance to an individualistic cultural tradition that recognizes only a metaphysics of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? The two are not irreconcilable, but many young people have been seduced by cultic groups because, at least partly, they were thrown off-balance by tendentious critiques of such philosophical issues. Can religions provide their young people with the intellectual tools to resist manipulative philosophical/spiritual sophistry? In this regard, the challenge of monism is especially important. Influenced more by drug experiences and the implicit philosophical materialism of the secular culture than by their religious faiths of birth, many sensitive young people find more satisfying explanations of their adolescent, mystic-like experiences in eastern monism (especially the counterfeits that are marketed so effectively) than in Judaeo-Christian dualism. Can Judaism and Christianity find a place for and offer satisfying explanations of spiritual “highs,” without yielding to the Gnostic impulse within their own traditions, without becoming “Hebrew” or "Christian” cults, of which there is a growing number?

If religions, the law, and academia rise to the challenging opportunity cults present, and if the cultural revitalization is to be sustained, the needed cultural adjustments, articulated and unarticulated, must find expression in the educational system. Much of the confusion that has made young people vulnerable to cult enticements reflects the cleavage, which began during the intoxication of the 1960's with “change,” between the educational system and the culture it supposedly represents. Many educators, caught up in the "change” momentum mistakenly thought that educational innovations could bring about the revolution for which folk-singers pined. Instead, nearly two decades of educational experimentation has brought disillusionment and resentment toward the educational system. The “back-to-basics” movement and the Reagan landslides signaled the end of free-wheeling experimentation in education, as well as in other areas of public life. If, however, this conservative “revival” is to avoid being merely a temporary backlash it will have to face up to the culture's need to make real changes, some of which may be distasteful to conservatives dreaming of a return to the “good old days.” The rise of cultism is hard evidence that something wasn't working quite right in the “good old days.”

We must face up to the necessity for cultural change, yet we must not forget that a culture is a big iceberg. Change that is heedless of the need to conserve doesn't revitalize cultures; it destroys them. Therefore, we must not become so preoccupied with devising a laundry list of what should be altered that we forget to make a list of what should be protected. This caveat is especially pertinent to the educational system, the duty of which is to transmit the cultural legacy.

This cultural legacy is not perfect, just as nobody's parents are perfect. And just as adolescents, in becoming adults, must forgive their parents for being imperfect, we, as a collective forming a living culture, must forgive the sins of our culture's past in order to carry it intact into the future. The rise of cultism is partly a response to the cultural imperfections that have so disturbed the naively idealistic among us. But it also reflects the ever-present human tendency to use one's fellow human beings, to deny their individual worth. American culture, in its highest sense, disdains such conduct. American culture affirms the value of the individual without forgetting that he is necessarily tied to family, community, and the cultural heritage itself. It is a culture that needs revitalization. But it is a culture that is certainly worth preserving.


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Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., is the Editor of the Cultic Studies Journal and Director of Research and Education for the American Family Foundation. A licensed psychologist, Dr. Langone has counseled more than 100 cultists and family members of cultists and has published a number of articles on the subject. He is a member of the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Techniques of persuasion and Control.