Jan 21, 2013

Ask Yourself

The following is a helpful list of questions to aid you in assessing a possible intervention/mediation:
  • Is the person in a controversial group?
  • What evidence do you have that the person is in the group?
  • What evidence do you have to show the person is more than a casual member?
  • Do you consider the group to be benign, high demand or destructive?
  • Do you have information/documentation to support your views?
  • How is the person’s group involvement adversely affecting their life?
  • Who sees the adverse effects of group membership on the person, other than yourself?
  • What is the quality of your interpersonal relationship with the group member?
  • Does the person have a weak or strong bond with the family?
  • Is there a stable family environment?
  • Are you emotionally prepared for the possible ramifications of an intervention?
  • Are you prepared for all possible outcomes of an intervention?
  • Were there signs of mental illness, or adjustment problems before joining the group? Has this changed?
  • Are there resources available if the member decides to sever their ties to the group?

When You're Asked About Cults

From Easily Fooled by Robert Fellows

The two questions that I am asked most often about cults are “How can you tell if a group is a cult?” and “What can I do if I know someone who is in a cult?”


In asking the first question, people usually mean “How can I tell if a group is destructive?”  A group can be deviant or heretical in its beliefs without being destructive.  A group can also be destructive without holding particularly unusual beliefs.

Psychologist Michael Langone has defined a destructive group as one that employs any or all of the following tactics:

1. Manipulation and deception

This technique is seen especially in recruiting new members.  For example, someone has a “business proposition” for you, but they won’t tell you exactly what it is until you come to a meeting.  Then it turns out to be a familiar direct sales scheme.  Or a group says it’s not a religion when recruiting new members, but claims to be a religion at tax time.

2. Exclusivity

The group claims or implies that it has the only right answer to a specific question or problem.  An example might be an anti-war group that will not appear on a panel with other anti-war groups, but only do a presentation by themselves because the other groups “do not have the right solution to the problem.”

3. Psychological or financial exploitation

Some indications of this manipulation are that the member is spending a lot of money on the group, borrowing money, or donating a lot of volunteer time to the exclusion of other pursuits.

4. Totalitarianism

The members are expected to think, feel, and act in a manner prescribed by the group—all the time.

5. Psychological damage to the member or to his or her family

This is seen especially with groups that try to separate members from their families, either physically or emotionally.

A group can be destructive without claiming to be a religion or to offer a new self-improvement method.  Rather than attempting to determine if a group is a “cult,” I try to get people to see how any group or even a relationship between two people can be destructive to personal freedom if it is manipulative.


Before attempting to follow any of these suggestions, it is most important to do an assessment of the presenting situation. Get the help of someone who is qualified, and determine what the underlying problem really is, and how it may or may not be a case of cultic manipulation. If it is appropriate to your situation, then the techniques for communicating with those who are involved in manipulative groups or who have undergone a sudden personality change consist primarily of:
  1. active listening and,
  2. creating an environment in which change can occur.

It is most important to keep lines of communication open.  If you are the member’s friend or family member, leave the door open for him or her to come back at all times.  Use active listening and remain calm.  Make sure the member knows that you are really listening.

Make “I statements” about your position and feelings.  You can say “I am uncomfortable about this group,” but avoid arguing the group’s philosophy.

The member will have plenty of ammunition to combat such arguments.  Generally it is advisable to avoid ultimatums, orders, force, punishment, or rewards for leaving the group.  Don’t try to buy the member’s mind.

Communication with family and former friends is important for reintegration into life away from the group.  Talk about the member’s past, former relationships, and life before the radical change.  Maintain communication with others in the member’s life as you counsel him or her.

Keep arguments about the beliefs of the group to an absolute minimum.
This is especially difficult to do.  Avoid polarization, name-calling, and even the use of the word “cult.”  Remember: deviant or heretical views by your standards are not necessarily destructive.  Try not to deny others’ desires for spiritual meaning.  Remain open-minded and avoid rigid positions.
Instead, focus on the restriction of free choice due to manipulation and deception.

Learn about the group in question so that when absolutely necessary you can discuss it intelligently with the member.  To learn about the groups beliefs, you can read the group’s own literature. As you do so, stay in conversation with an expert on cultism. You do not want to be influenced by the group yourself! 

If you seek a therapist, choose one who is experienced in cult counseling.
Be aware that victimization by cultic manipulation is different from mental illness. Avoid therapists who use coercive deprogramming techniques or who employ psychologically dangerous models of therapy.  If you consult with lawyers, make sure they are familiar with cult-related litigation.

Limit your personal involvement with the destructive group.  Don’t underestimate its ability to convert you.  It is usually best not to lend or give the member any money.  This will be difficult for close friends and family members, just as it will be difficult to make clear "I" statements about your discomfort.

It seems to be most effective to take a moderate position, focusing primarily on manipulation and deception in destructive groups, rather than on the perceived irrationality of their belief systems.

Easily Fooled

Jan 20, 2013

Former Cult-Member Support Group - Encino, CA

In December, 2012, I will be starting my next Former Cult-Member Support Group. This group is for those who have been in a cult, or cult-like group. Family and friends of those in cults are welcome, as well.

I am a therapist who has worked for over 20 years with people affected by cults. I have helped those who have left a wide variety of cultic situations. This support group is intended to:
  • Help you develop a greater understanding of manipulation, control, influence, and fear-inducement,
  • Help you address, in a safe environment, the confusion, hurt, loss, sadness, anger, or worry you may be feeling because of your experiences,
  • Help you connect with others who understand.
The Details:

  • The group will be 90 minutes long, and the cost for each group is just $40.
  • It will meet every other Saturday. The first group will be held at noon. We will determine as a group if that is a good time for a majority of the group attendees.
Feel free to pass my phone/email along to others who you feel would benefit from this resource, and I'll be happy to speak with them about it. Take care ~ 
  • The first group is scheduled for Saturday, December 1st, at 12 noon.
  • It will meet in my office (6255 Ventura Blvd, Suite 806, Encino, CA 91436)
  • Please let me know if you will be attending.
Rachel Bernstein, LMFT, MSEd
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
16255 Ventura Blvd, Suite 806
Encino, CA 91436

Ex Jehovah's Witnesses Support

Ex Jehovah's Witnesses Support
This page was created for ex-JWs to meet, discuss experiences, and encourage one another while "deprogramming."

Jan 14, 2013

Re-Entry Therapy, Information & Referral Network (RETIRN)

Since 1983, the Re-Entry Therapy, Information & Referral Network (RETIRN) has been providing counseling, forensic (legal), consultation, information and referral services to individuals and families adversely affected by high demand groups, manipulative and totalistic social, political, transformational and/or religious movements, such as:
  • destructive cults  (e.g., religious, political, therapy, marketing cults).
  • mass therapies (e.g., large group awareness trainings).
  • Satanism/Occultism ("black" magic).
  • certain "New Age" groups that engage in harmful and/or deceptive practices.

We are proud of our association with the International Cultic Studies Association (formerly American Family Foundation), the premier cult research and education organization.

RETIRN services include:
  • Family counseling: help in deciding what action to take when a loved one is involved with a cult.
  • Re-entry therapy: individual, family, and group psychotherapy for former cultists and their families.
  • Forensic examinations on issues related to destructive cultism (including child custody, competency, and infliction of psychological distress).
  • Consultation and training to mental health professionals and agencies, educational and religious organizations.
  • Public speaking: highly experienced and stimulating speakers for civic groups, clubs, and other organizations.
  • Cult-sensitive psychological testing & diagnostic evaluations: for assistance in treatment planning.
  • Information and referral to additional sources of support and help, including legal referrals.
  • Exit counseling: noncoercive, voluntary information and counseling sessions for current members of totalistic groups. We are proud of our relationships with recognized, competent, and ethical cult consultants and exit-counselors.
RETIRN Affiliated Consultants include:
  • Steven Eisenberg,
  • Patrick Ryan, 
  • Joe Kelly,
  • Carol Giambalvo, and 
  • David Clark.


RETIRN Associates are consultants, psychotherapists, and counselors, many of whom themselves are former cultists or have been exposed to destructive cults or other coercive influence techniques. They have specialized training and/or experience working with people who have been harmed by individuals and groups that utilize powerful manipulative techniques to coerce sudden and rapid changes in personality, behavior and/or beliefs (usually without informed consent). RETIRN assists cultists and their families make the sometimes difficult transition from coercion to renewed individual choice.

113 E. Greenwood Avenue
Lansdowne, PA 19050
(610) 622-3109

409 Nottingham Road
Newark, DE 19711
(302) 368-9136 & (866) 538-9048 fax

70 Merthyr Road
Pontypridd, Wales CF37 4DD
United Kingdom
+44 (0)1443-400456

Jan 12, 2013

Christian group makes legal appeal for charity status

James Gray
January 3, 2013

A legal appeal will decide if the Charity Commission was right to deny charitable status to the Brethren movement – the case hinges on whether its doctrine and practices are compatible with public benefit

Last month saw the formal start of a charity tribunal appeal that could redefine the place of religion in the charity sector. The case – which has been the subject of increasingly acrimonious debate in parliament and the media – concerns the Charity Commission's decision not to grant charitable status to the Preston Down Trust, which runs a meeting hall for south Devon's Plymouth Brethren community.

Founded in the 19th century, the Brethren are a Christian movement whose lifestyle is characterised by daily bible study, an emphasis on traditional family roles and a rejection of radio, TV and cinema. Their doctrine of "separation" limits time spent with outsiders, but adherents say the popular perception that the community lives in isolation, severing all ties with those who choose to leave – hence the "Exclusive Brethren" epithet – is an outdated stereotype.

The case hinges on whether the doctrine and practices of the Brethren are compatible with the public benefit requirement of charity law. Until the Charities Act 2006 there was a presumption that "advancement of religion" was in itself a public benefit, but the act removed that presumption and required religious charities – just like those with other legally defined charitable purposes – to demonstrate explicitly how their activities made a positive contribution to the community.

In a recent letter to the Commons public administration select committee, which is conducting an inquiry into the regulation of the charity sector and the 2006 act, the commission was forced to explain why the Druid Network had charitable status while the Brethren did not. The commission said this was because the former did not support events or organisations that were "exclusive".

The commission has previously drawn on case law developed before 2006 to resolve such questions. But in its letter to the trust, the regulator said the act's introduction – and the tribunal's recent assessment of public benefit in relation to private schools – meant this aspect of charity law was now unclear. "The evidence is relation to any beneficial impact on the wider public is perhaps marginal and insufficient to satisfy us as to the benefit to the community," it said.

The letter outlined two specific concerns: first, that the trust may not provide "meaningful access to participate in public worship" and secondly, that the supposedly rigid disciplinary practices of the Brethren, and the "effects of the doctrine and practice of separation on family, social and working life", may negate potential public benefit. The letter stresses, however, that the latter is based on "public criticism" rather than solid evidence.
The commission considered referring the matter to the charity tribunal for clarification but decided not to. And as it deemed an internal decision review to be "inappropriate", the trust's only option – apart from accepting the decision – was to appeal to the tribunal and become a test case for other Brethren congregations, and potentially for other religious groups too.

When parliamentarians and parts of the media found out about its decision, they were quick to accuse the commission of "anti-Christian" bias. Brethren elders were invited to give evidence to the public administration select committee, during which Charlie Elphicke MP claimed the regulator was "committed to the suppression of religion". The case also dominated last month's Westminster Hall debate on charity registration, with some MPs calling for a full parliamentary inquiry.
To the surprise of many, the Brethren have run a tight public relations campaign – not that they're relishing the attention. "It's a feeling of puzzlement and great sorrow to us that we're having to go through this battle," says Rod Buckley, a member of the Preston Down congregation. "I don't quite understand it. We do a lot in the community and people that know us, know that."

Buckley points to the Brethren's soup kitchens, food parcel collections and the help they gave to those affected by the recent floods as clear examples of their positive impact on the community. He adds that while holy communion – the "Lord's supper" in Brethren parlance – is accessible only to members, other events are open to all. No different, he says, to many mainstream religious groups.

The commission stresses that it does not have general concerns about religious charities, but those following the case have warned it could have wider ramifications. "It does potentially impact on other organisations, particularly where they restrict access to participation in religious services, meetings or activities, or where there's an emphasis on an enclosed community," says Stephanie Biden, a senior associate at charity solicitors Bates Wells & Braithwaite.

In an unprecedented move, the tribunal has allowed the commission to file anonymous witness statements and for witness protection measures to be put in place. The decision is in response to evidence received by the commission from former Brethren members, whose relationships with family members still in the group are particularly sensitive.
If these witnesses do testify at the full hearing in March 2013, the tribunal may have to answer a question that could have far-reaching consequences: when do allegations of harm against a particular religion or denomination outweigh potential public benefit? There is no shortage of controversial religious groups on the register, after all.

Despite the commission's protestations, the case is unlikely to be seen merely as a clarification of charity law. The regulator has found itself at the centre of a row about religious freedom – and with the Brethren vowing to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary, it's a row that's likely to get even more heated in the coming months.

James Gray is an independent campaigns adviser and writer with a particular interest in education. His Twitter username is @james_gray_

Jan 3, 2013

Logic-Tight Compartments: How our modular brains lead us to deny and distort evidence

Michael Shermer

How our modular brains lead us to deny and distort evidence

January 1, 2013

IF YOU HAVE PONDERED how intelligent and educated people can, in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence, believe that that evolution is a myth, that global warming is a hoax, that vaccines cause autism and asthma, that 9/11 was orchestrated by the Bush administration, conjecture no more. The explanation is in what I call logic-tight compartments—modules in the brain analogous to watertight compartments in a ship.

The concept of compartmentalized brain functions acting either in concert or in conflict has been a core idea of evolutionary psychology since the early 1990s. According to University of Pennsylvania evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite (Princeton University Press, 2010), the brain evolved as a modular, multitasking problem-solving organ—a Swiss Army knife of practical tools in the old metaphor or an app-loaded iPhone in Kurzban’s upgrade. There is no unified “self” that generates internally consistent and seamlessly coherent beliefs devoid of conflict. Instead we are a collection of distinct but interacting modules often at odds with one another. The module that leads us to crave sweet and fatty foods in the short term is in conflict with the module that monitors our body image and health in the long term. The module for cooperation is in conflict with the one for competition, as are the modules for altruism and avarice or the modules for truth telling and lying.

Compartmentalization is also at work when new scientific theories conflict with older and more naive beliefs. In the 2012 paper “Scientific Knowledge Suppresses but Does Not Supplant Earlier Intuitions” in the journal Cognition, Occidental College psychologists Andrew Shtulman and Joshua Valcarcel found that subjects more quickly verified the validity of scientific statements when those statements agreed with their prior naive beliefs. Contradictory scientific statements were processed more slowly and less accurately, suggesting that “naive theories survive the acquisition of a mutually incompatible scientific theory, coexisting with that theory for many years to follow.”

Cognitive dissonance may also be at work in the compartmentalization of beliefs. In the 2010 article “When in Doubt, Shout!” in Psychological Science, Northwestern University researchers David Gal and Derek Rucker found that when subjects’ closely held beliefs were shaken, they “engaged in more advocacy of their beliefs … than did people whose confidence was not undermined.” Further, they concluded that enthusiastic evangelists of a belief may in fact be “boiling over with doubt,” and thus their persistent proselytizing may be a signal that the belief warrants skepticism.

In addition, our logic-tight compartments are influenced by our moral emotions, which lead us to bend and distort data and evidence through a process called motivated reasoning. The module housing our religious preferences, for example, motivates believers to seek and find facts that support, say, a biblical model of a young earth in which the overwhelming evidence of an old earth must be denied. The module containing our political predilections, if they are, say, of a conservative bent, may motivate procapitalists to believe that any attempt to curtail industrial pollution by way of the threat of global warming must be a liberal hoax.

What can be done to break down the walls separating our logic-tight compartments? In the 2012 paper “Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing” in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, University of Western Australia psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky and his colleagues suggest these strategies: “Consider what gaps in people’s mental event models are created by debunking and fill them using an alternative explanation…. To avoid making people more familiar with misinformation…, emphasize the facts you wish to communicate rather than the myth. Provide an explicit warning before mentioning a myth, to ensure that people are cognitively on guard and less likely to be influenced by the misinformation…. Consider whether your content may be threatening to the worldview and values of your audience. If so, you risk a worldview backfire effect.”

Debunking by itself is not enough. We must replace bad bunk with sound science.

Aspects of Recovery

Recovery from cults is a multifaceted process; initially it is the separation from the group, group practices, and meetings that bound us to the group. 

Therapy helps address the emotional aspects of group involvement – feelings of betrayal, abuse and vulnerability to recruitment. It helps to develop and understanding of how the group’s doctrine was used to manipulate and encourage commitment.

Our focus in this article is the development of an intellectual understanding of the characteristics of cultic groups – how they differ from non-cultic groups – and of the tactics often used to engender a high level of commitment, a key element of recovery.


Deception lies at the core of mind-manipulating and cultic groups and programs. Many ex-members and supporters of cults are not fully aware of the extent to which they have been tricked and exploited.

The following checklist of cult characteristics helps to define such groups. Comparing the descriptions on this checklist to bring your attention to aspects of the group with which you were involved may help bring your attention to areas of group life that are a cause for concern.

If you check any of these items as characteristic of the group, and particularly if you check most of them, you might want to consider reexamining these areas of the group and how they affected you. Keep in mind that this checklist is meant to stimulate thought. It is not a scientific method of “diagnosing” a group.

Checklist of Cult Characteristics

We suggest that you check all characteristics that apply to you or your group. You may find that your assessment changes over time, with further reading and research.

  • The group is focused on a living leader to whom members seem to display excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment.
  • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
  • The group is preoccupied with making money.
  • Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
  • Mind-numbing techniques (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, debilitating work routines) are used to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
  • The leadership dictates sometimes in great detail how members should think, act, and feel (for example: members must get permission from leaders to date, change jobs, get married; leaders may prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, how to discipline children, and so forth).
  • The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and members (for example: the leader is considered the Messiah or an avatar; the group and/or the leader has a special mission to save humanity).
  • The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which causes conflict with the wider society.
  • The group’s leader is not accountable to any authorities (as are, for example, military commanders and ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream denominations).
  • The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify means that members would have considered unethical before joining the group (for example: collecting money for bogus charities).
  • The leadership induces guilt feelings in members in order to control them.
  • Members’ subservience to the group causes them to cut ties with family and friends, and to give up personal goals and activities that were of interest before joining the group.
  • Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

The Distinction Between Cultic Groups and Non-Cultic Groups

Making the distinction between cultic groups and non-cultic groups is significant. Group propaganda often tries to blur the distinction between cults, sects, communes and society’s organizations, (“The Catholic Church is a cult.” “The Marines are a cult.”).

“I have had to point out why the United States Marine Corps is not a cult so many times that I carry a list to lectures and court appearances. It cites 19 ways in which the practices of the Marine Corps differ from those found in most modern cults….

Cults clearly differ from such purely authoritarian groups as the military, some types of sects and communes, and centuries-old Roman Catholic and Greek and Russian Orthodox Orders. These groups, though rigid and controlling, lack a double agenda and are not manipulative or leader-centered. The differences become apparent when we examine the intensity and pervasiveness with which mind-manipulating techniques and deceptions are or are not applied.

Jesuit seminaries may isolate the seminarian from the rest of the world for periods of time, but the candidate is not deliberately deceived about the obligations and burdens of the priesthood. In fact, he is warned in advance about what is expected, and what he can and cannot do….

Mainstream religious organizations do not concentrate their search on the lonely and the vulnerable … Nor do mainstream religions focus recruitment on wealthy believers who are seen as pots of gold for the church, as is the case with those cults who target rich individuals …

Military training and legitimate executive-training programs may use the dictates of authority as well as peer pressure to encourage the adoption of new patterns of thought and behavior. They do not seek, however, to accelerate the process by prolonged or intense psychological depletion or by stirring up feelings of dread, guilt, and sinfulness …

And what is wrong with cults is not just that cults are secret societies. In our culture, there are openly recognized, social secret societies, such as the Masons, in which new members know up front that they will gradually learn the shared rituals of the group … In [cults] there is deliberate deception about what the group is and what some of the rituals might be, and primarily, there is deception about what the ultimate goal will be for a member, what will ultimately be demanded and expected, and what the damages resulting from some of the practices might be. A secret handshake is not equivalent to mind control.

How the United States Marine Corps Differs from Cults

  1. The Marine recruit clearly knows what the organization is that he or she is joining … There are no secret stages such as people come upon in cults. Cult recruits often attend a cult activity, are lured into ‘staying for a while,’ and soon find that they have joined the cult for life, or as one group requires, members sign up for a ‘billion year contract…’
  2. The Marine recruit retains freedom of religion, politics, friends, family association, selection of spouse, and information access to television, radio, reading material, telephone, and mail.
  3. The Marine serves a term of enlistment and departs freely. The Marine can reenlist if he or she desires but is not forced to remain.
  4. Medical and dental care are available, encouraged, and permitted in the Marines. This is not true in the many cults that discourage and sometimes forbid medical care.
  5. Training and education received in the Marines are usable later in life. Cults do not necessarily train a person in anything that has any value in the greater society.
  6. In the USMC, public records are kept and are available. Cult records, if they exist, are confidential, hidden from members, and not shared.
  7. USMC Inspector General procedures protect each Marine. Nothing protects cult members.
  8. A military legal system is provided within the USMC; a Marine can also utilize off-base legal and law enforcement agencies and other representatives if needed. In cults, there is only the closed, internal system of justice, and no appeal, no recourse to outside support.
  9. Families of military personnel talk and deal directly with schools. Children may attend public or private schools. In cults, children, child rearing, and education are often controlled by the whims and idiosyncrasies of the cult leader.
  10. The USMC is not a sovereign entity above the laws of the land. Cults consider themselves above the law, with their own brand of morality and justice, accountable to no one, not even their members.
  11. A Marine gets to keep her or his pay, property owned and acquired, presents from relatives, inheritances, and so on. In many cults, members are expected to turn over to the cult all monies and worldly possessions.
  12. Rational behavior is valued in the USMC. Cults stultify members’ critical thinking abilities and capacity for rational, independent thinking; normal thought processes are stifled and broken.
  13. In the USMC, suggestions and criticism can be made to leadership and upper echelons through advocated, proper channels. There are no suggestion boxes in cults. The cult is always right, and the members (and outsides) are always wrong.
  14. Marines cannot be used for medical and psychological experiments without their informed consent. Cults essentially perform psychological experiments on their members through implementing thought-reform processes without members’ knowledge or consent.
  15. Reading, education, and knowledge are encouraged and provided through such agencies as Armed Services Radio and Stars and Stripes, and through books, post libraries, and so on. If cult do any education, it is only in their own teachings. Members come to know less and less about the outside world; contact with or information about life outside the cult is sometimes openly frowned upon, if not forbidden.
  16. In the USMC, physical fitness is encouraged for all. Cults rarely encourage fitness or good health, except perhaps for members who serve as security guards or thugs.
  17. Adequate and properly balanced nourishment is provided and advocated in the USMC. Many cults encourage or require unhealthy and bizarre diets. Typically, because of intense work schedules, lack of funds, and other cult demands, members are not able to maintain healthy eating habits.
  18. Authorized review by outsiders, such as the U.S. Congress, is made of the practices of the USMC. Cults are accountable to no one and are rarely investigated, unless some gross criminal activity arouses the attention of the authorities or the public.
  19. In the USMC, the methods of instruction are military training and education, even indoctrination into the traditions of the USMC, but brainwashing, or thought reform, is not used. Cults influence members by means of a coordinated program of psychological and social influence techniques, or brainwashing.”

Graphic Adapted from Cults In Our Midst: The Hidden Menace to Our Everyday Lives
Adapted from Cults In Our Midst: The Hidden Menace to Our Everyday Lives, Margaret Singer with Janja Lalich, Jossey-Bass, 1995. Reprinted with authors’ permission.

AFF News, Vol. 2, No. 4, 1996

Jan 2, 2013

“Cults” and Globalization: Reflections and Questions

Mike Kropveld

Revised from a presentation at the International Symposium on Cultic Studies (Bangkok, Thailand), organized by Graduate School of Philosophy and Religion, Assumption University, Thailand and the Institute of Religious Studies, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, China, December 15–16, 2011.

In my presentation today, I will give an overview of definitions for cult. Then I will briefly discuss harm and intervention.

Definitions for Cult

A couple of months ago, a media storm occurred after an American evangelical pastor referred to Mitt Romney, a front-running candidate for the leadership of the United States Republican Party, as a member of a cult because of his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly referred to as Mormons).[1] The pastor later qualified his statement by saying that he viewed the Mormons as a theological cult.
I have often heard the statement, “We all know what a cult is.” In my opinion, however, the belief that we all know what a cult is, is both a presumption and a generalization.
In fact, no one agrees on how to define a cult. For example, in France, a country that has taken an active approach to dealing with cults, the president of MIVILDUES, the French government agency that deals with this issue, recently stated, “There is no legal definition of a cult in France, not more than elsewhere in the world. I don't know any country in the world with a definition for it.”[2] 
The many government reports that have focused on cults over more than twenty years confirm this statement.[3]
The word cult may be one of the most confusing terms to use. The word is derived from the French word culte, which comes from the Latin noun cultus, meaning care, labor; cultivation, culture; worship, reverence... And so by this definition we can apply the term cult to any group of religious believers: Southern Baptists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholics, Hindus, or Muslims. However, the term has since been assigned very different meanings. Whereas the original meaning of cult is positive, more recent definitions vary from neutral to extremely negative.[4]
In the past two decades, pejorative connotations to the word cult have become more common. For many, the term raises images of people lining up for their fatal drink of Kool-Aid[5] or carrying out brutal acts at the behest of an omnipotent leader.[6]
Lists of so-called cults[7] have been created, leading to the assumption that all such groups are similar and dangerous. By extension, because a group has not made it to a list does not necessarily imply it does not pose a problem.
At times, I have been criticized for “muddying the waters” with regard to the term cult. Some people have expressed frustration when I do not respond with a “yes” or “no” when asked whether or not a certain group is a cult, or whether it is a cult or a religion, or whether or not the group in question is dangerous. After all, they are directing their questions to theexecutive director of Info-Cult!
Info-Cult’s view is that individuals can have a positive experience in a so-called “bad” group or a bad experience in a so-called “good” group. The reality is that groups in our society exist on a continuum, from groups that value the integrity and opinions of each of its members, to high-demand groups that function according to the leader’s wishes and demands. And a variety of factors may influence the experience someone might have in a group, or the impact a group may have on society. Some such factors to consider include:
  • the general functioning and evolution of a group;
  • the relationships among its members;
  • the psychological needs and personalities of the members; and
  • the leader’s influence on the members.
In 2006, I co-authored a book entitled The Cult Phenomenon: How Groups Function.[8]This book examines how Info-Cult has evolved over the years with regard to its view on how groups function, the reasons individuals join such groups, and the nature of the relationship between groups’ leaders and their members and society.[9]
I was motivated to write this book, in part, by the thousands of calls Info-Cult had received since its inception in 1980. The callers usually were looking for information and used the termcult to refer to a wide variety of groups, including the following:
  • Religious, political, psychological, and commercial groups in which the leader(s) appear(s) to exert undue influence over followers, usually to the leader’s(s’) benefit
  • Fanatical groups, regardless of whether or not leaders exert a high level of psychological control
  • Terrorist organizations, such as Bin Laden’s group, which induce some members to commit horrific acts of violence
  • Religious groups deemed heretical or socially deviant by the person attaching thecult label
  • Any unorthodox religious group—benign or destructive
  • Communes that may be physically isolated and socially unorthodox
  • New Age, psychotherapeutic, “healing” groups that advocate beliefs in a transcendent order, or actions that may occur through mechanisms inconsistent with the laws of physics
  • Any group embraced by a family member whose parents, spouses, or other relatives conclude—correctly or incorrectly—that the group is destructive to the involved family member
  • Organizations that employ high-pressure sales or recruitment tactics, or both
  • Authoritarian social groups in which members exhibit a high level of conformity and compliance to the expectations and demands of leaders
  • Extremist organizations that advocate violence, racial separation, bigotry, or overthrow of the government
  • Familial relationships in which one member exerts an unusually high and apparently harmful influence over the other member(s)—e.g., certain forms of dysfunctional families or battered women’s syndrome[10]
If a group is labeled as a cult, we should be asking the following questions: Who labeled the group, and how has that label been designated? What criteria have been used and what research has been undertaken to evaluate the group? And, equally significant, what information does the label provide, for example, about the group’s:
  • beliefs;
  • rules and norms;
  • history and evolution;
  • role of leadership and members;
  • views on children, women, and the elderly; and
  • interactions with the community at large.
Regardless of the label that we use to describe a group, the fact remains that social dynamics of groups, of any kind, are complex; and we should observe and understand each group individually. At all costs, we should avoid the temptation to lump groups together.
Graphic of book: Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism
At the same time, it is wise to keep in mind how we use terminology related to the issue of cults and new religious movements—in particular, those terms that promote a dichotomy of good versus evil and do little to contribute to a better understanding of this issue, and to support dialogue among those with differing views.[11] Examples of these terms are anti-cult movement, pro-cult movement, and cult apologist. these divisive labels function as “thought-terminating clichés,” to use an expression from Robert Lifton’s seminal book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.[12]

As much as I encourage a nuanced approach to defining the term cult and understanding the cult phenomenon in general, I think we would all agree that there are groups that do harm. To quote Michael Langone of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA): “Some groups may harm some people sometimes, and some groups may be more likely to harm people than other groups.”[13] I would add that contributing factors include a group’s location, the nature of its leadership, and at what period in its history we are looking at it.
In fact, it has been observed that members of groups can be harmed in different ways, including psychologically, physically, and financially. Following are examples of each:

Psychological Harm

  • Denial of affection
  • Attacks on self-esteem
  • Limited or restricted access to information
  • Limited or restricted access to education
  • Child neglect
  • Dependant-adult neglect
  • Elder neglect

Physical Harm

  • Physical abuse
  • Food and sleep deprivation
  • Refusal to provide access to adequate medical treatment
  • Sexual abuse

Financial Harm

  • Fraud
  • Financial demands by the group that threaten the individual’s financial well-being
  • Nonremunerated work
Whenever there is an imbalance of power, the potential for abuse in many different relationships, such as the following, exists:
  • Parent–child: child abuse
  • Husband–wife: spousal abuse
  • Professor–student: psychological abuse, sexual abuse
  • Therapist–client: psychological abuse, sexual abuse
  • Boss–employee: workplace abuse
  • Pastor–parishioner: sexual abuse, financial abuse
  • Government–citizens: human-rights abuse
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that people in religious, therapeutic, New Age, occult, or other types of groups can be at risk of being harmed.
We need to be prudent, however, because in some cases we can view harm subjectively and assign a meaning that is culture-bound. For example, in Russia some groups are seen as harmful and often described as cults because they are perceived as a threat to the traditional culture and religion; they view certain groups as a form of Western imperialism. Recently, a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose publications are considered to be “extremist literature,” was arrested for possession of the group’s writings.[14] In contrast, in North America, Jehovah’s Witnesses not only are free to possess their literature, but also are permitted to hand it out on city sidewalks or by going door-to-door.
At the outset of my presentation, I noted what an American evangelical pastor had to say about Mitt Romney. That example illustrates that some groups are labeled cults because they deviate theologically from some other group’s(s’) beliefs.[15]


In determining whether or not a group poses a risk and the nature of the risk, and in making a fair and informed assessment about an individual or a group, it is important to ask the following questions:

  1. To what extent have we accepted the accusatory assessments made by certain individuals or groups, without checking the accuracy of the allegations made?
  2. Do we ask for documents or other empirical facts in order to make an informed and critical evaluation?
  3. Do we readily accept allegations against controversial groups because we believe they are capable of doing what they are accused of?
  4. If there are reports about problems associated with a group, how prevalent are the problems?
  5. Do we assume that those involved in a controversial group or the group under consideration have not changed over time?
  6. Where and how was the information about the group obtained? How representative is the information, and, depending on the source, what other factors should we be considering?
  7. What evidence is there for determining whether the information is accurate?
  8. Did the information come from current members, former members, families with a loved one involved, or from professionals/other experts?
  9. Has anyone attempted to establish a contact with the individual or group?
  10. Have we informed ourselves about what is happening in the group: its origins, its doctrine, its leader(s), the leader’s(s’) role, and the motivations and experiences of the members?
After we have evaluated a particular group, we must be open to the possibility that there may be insufficient facts to support any intervention. This conclusion may lead to a decision either to monitor the situation or to take a wait-and-see approach. We also should consider the simple fact that it may be a case of smoke and no fire.
If an intervention by agencies of the state is warranted, the following questions can help us in coming to a decision about a suitable course of action. These questions can also be helpful for families who are dealing with a loved one involved in a group.

  1. What do we hope to achieve in intervening? Have the motives and objectives been clearly and precisely established?
  2. What strategies can we take to reach our goal?
  3. What are the pros and cons of adopting a particular approach (with a focus on the cons)?
  4. What are the criteria for evaluating whether or not an intervention is successful? For example, is the approach making things worse? And if so, how could it be modified?
There are other considerations to keep in mind:

  • Laws in different countries require that certain professionals are legally and ethically bound to report to protective services when there is even a suspicion of harm to a child, a senior, or to a dependent adult.
  • What appears to function in one country may not be applicable in other countries because of factors such as each country’s history, culture, laws, relationship with religion, and past experience with cultic or totalistic movements.[16]
  • Governments have at their disposition an enormous amount of power and, in dealing with any group, should be extremely cautious in wielding that power. Unless there is a serious and legal reason, the state should show restraint.
  • Different situations may call for different criteria to determine whether or not an intervention is appropriate and feasible. For example, should a family intervene when they have a loved one in a group they perceive to be harmful? Should state authorities intervene to control certain cultic groups?
In closing, I have raised a number of questions in this presentation that I and others have asked over the years, and I would be very interested in what you have to say. Thank you.

[1]Anderson Cooper 360°, CNN, October 8, 2011 (http://www.mediaite.com/tv/anti-mormon-pastor-to-anderson-cooper-romney-may-belong-to-a-cult-but-he-is-better-than-obama/).
2 France 3, Sun, July 3, 2011, with guest George Fenech, English translation (http://www.sott.net/articles/show/235545-Georges-Fenech-of-MIVILUDES-Nemesis-of-the-Scientific-Method).
3 Mike Kropveld and Marie-Andrée Pelland, The Cult Phenomenon: How Groups Function,Info-Cult (2006). See Appendix 6: Governments and the Cult Phenomenon, p. 165–168 (http://infosect.freeshell.org/infocult/phenomene/English/HTML/doc0018.htm#R248).
4 Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (http://www.religioustolerance.org/cults.htm).
5 Refers to the manner in which the members of Peoples Temple died in a mass murder/suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, November 18, 1978. Marshall Kilduff and Ron Javers,The Suicide Cult: The Inside Story of the Peoples Temple Sect and the Massacre in Guyana,Bantam Books (1978). Mary McCormick Maaga, Hearing The Voices of Jonestown, Syracuse University Press (1998).
6 Two examples that are especially significant in the province of Quebec where I reside are 1) The Order of the Solar Temple, in which more than seventy people died in three countries, in murder and ritual collective suicides operated in the province of Quebec. The murder/suicides were precipitated by the murder in September 1994 in Morin Heights, a village outside of Montreal, of a husband and wife and their three-month-old baby, who had tried to escape from the group. 2) The group led by Roch “Moses” Theriault had a history of physical and sexual abuse of its members, including the murder by Roch Theriault of one of its members.
7 For example, see the following: 1) France—“Les Sectes en France” Rapport Fait au Nom de la Commission D'Enquête sur les Sectes (le 22 décembre 1995) (http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/rap-enq/r2468.asp). 2) Belgium—Chambre des Représentants de Belgique:ENQUETE PARLEMENTAIRE visant à élaborer une politique en vue de lutter contre les pratiques illégales des sectes et le danger qu'elles représentent pour la société et pour les personnes, particulièrement les mineurs d'âge. (28 avril 1997); Partie I (http://www.lachambre.be/FLWB/pdf/49/0313/49K0313007.pdf); Partie II (http://www.lachambre.be/FLWB/pdf/49/0313/49K0313008.pdf).
8 Mike Kropveld and Marie-Andrée Pelland (see Note 3).
9 See Note 3. See also Mike Kropveld, “Governments and Cults.” Presentation given at the INFORM/CESNUR conference, Twenty Years and More: Research into Minority Religions, New Religious Movements and 'the New Spirituality.' London, England (2008) (http://infosect.freeshell.org/infocult/kropveld_inform2008.pdf).
10 Adapted from “The Definitional Ambiguity of ‘Cult’ and ICSA’s Mission,” Michael D. Langone, PhD (http://cultmediation.com/infoserv_articles/langone_michael_definitional_ambiguityofcult.asp).
11 Michael Kropveld, “An Example for Controversy: Creating a Model for Reconciliation,”Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2003, p. 130–150. Accessible athttp://infosect.freeshell.org/infocult/ControversyCSR.doc

12 Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in ChinaW. W. Norton and Company (1961).
13 Michael Langone, Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 18, 2001, p. 1.
14 A previous version of this paper, presented in Bangkok, indicated that the arrested member was sentenced to 2 years in prison. This information came from the article in Asia News, “Jehovah’s Witness gets two years in prison for possession of ‘extremist literature’”(http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Jehovah%E2%80%99s-Witness-gets-two-years-in-prison-for-possession-of-%E2%80%9Cextremist-literature%E2%80%9D-19529.html). I could find no other reference to that information, and other reports indicate that the arrested member was sentenced to 100 hours of community service. Sophia Kishkovsky, “Russian Terror Law Has Unlikely Targets,” The New York Times, November 3, 2011(http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/04/world/europe/russian-terror-law-has-unlikely-targets.html). “Russian court finds Jehovah’s Witness guilty of inciting hatred,” Amnesty International, 3 November 2011 (http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/russian-court-finds-jehovahs-witness-guilty-inciting-hatred-2011-11-03).
15 “Counter-cult” groups are composed primarily of conservative Protestant Christians who label groups as cults for having unorthodox or heretical beliefs according to their interpretation of the Bible. Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (http://www.religioustolerance.org/ccm.htm).
16 For more details, see the following: 1) Mike Kropveld and Marie-Andrée Pelland (see Note 3), and 2) Mike Kropveld, “A Comparison of Different Countries’ Approaches to Cult-Related Issues.” Paper presented at the European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Sectarianism (FECRIS) Conference, Cults and Esotericism: New Challenges for Civil Societies in Europe (HamburgApril 28, 2007) (http://infosect.freeshell.org/infocult/HamburgpresentationFECRISFinal-web.pdf).

About the Author

Mike Kropveld is founder and executive director of Info-Cult/Info-Secte (1980) based in Montreal, Canada (www.infocult.org). He is on the Board of Directors of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) and of the International Society for the Study of New Religions (ISSNR). Email: infosecte@qc.aibn.com