Counseling and Involvements in NRMs

Cultic Studies Journal, 1984, Volume 1, Number 2, pages 178-195

Counseling and Involvements in New Religious Groups

Lawrence Bennett Sullivan, Ph. D.


The questionnaire responses of 17 persons specializing, to varying degrees, in counseling with respect to involvements in new religious groups are described and discussed. Topics covered include: groups most often the focus of counseling; backgrounds and training of respondent; respondents’ views concerning reasons for and consequences of involvements; and respondents’ views about methods of counseling, as well as special counseling issues presented by such involvements. Responses are evaluated in light of the author’s survey of needs for such counseling in the San Francisco Bay area, and the author’s experience and beliefs concerning difficulties in seeking successful counseling.


Involvements in new or nontraditional religious groups and cults often evoke desires for counseling, if not on the part of those involved, then on the part of family members concerned about the involvement. The nature of these family concerns and the groups most often their source were described in a previous report in this journal (Sullivan, 1984). It has been widely recognized that needs for counseling or psychotherapy in these circumstances, and the best ways of meeting these needs, differ from those usually encountered in counseling situations (West and Singer, 1980). The present report describes and discusses data bearing on the characteristics of such counseling and psychotherapy and on the backgrounds and views of some who offer it.

These data were gathered by the Missing Student Project of the University Religious Council at the University of California, Berkeley in the spring of 1980. The Missing Student Project (1979-1981), supported by a grant from the Rosenberg Foundation of San Francisco, was designed to determine the circumstances under which young persons become involved in new religious groups and to identify and meet needs for services related to such involvements.

The present report focuses on the questionnaire responses of 17 persons from throughout the United States who provide counseling and psychotherapy to those affected by involvements in new and nontraditional religious groups and cults. These responses define the circumstances and characteristics of this specialized counseling, as well as relevant features of these persons’ training and backgrounds.

At the time we obtained these data, our goal was to characterize more generally the success with which needs for such counseling are met by a range of possible sources. Hence, we simultaneously surveyed various public and private counseling agencies and services in the San Francisco Bay Area, in order to determine the frequency with which these needs are directed to and met by them. This survey is described here, in the Introduction, to provide a background for consideration of the data concerning specialized counseling presented in the Methods and Results sections.

The Missing Student Project surveyed this culturological niche by successive approximations. We first telephoned more than 50 public and private mental health and counseling agencies and services in the vicinity of the Bay Area to ask how often they encounter involvements in new religious groups and cults as service needs. Our inquiries indicated that staff at such facilities infrequently encounter such involvements and do not consider them important service priorities. This inattention results in part from the infrequency with which these issues come to the notice of general public service clinics, and in part because, as a matter of policy, limited resources are devoted to more traditionally defined, serious mental disorders. However, these agencies and some mental health referral services reported receiving occasional requests for referrals for counseling specifically related to religious groups. They told us that typically they are at a loss as to whom and how to refer.

In order to document more fully these preliminary results, we solicited by mail questionnaire data from the directors of a sample of these agencies and services, concentrated in the Bay Area but including others in Northern California. Of the more than thirty agencies solicited, we received detailed useable reports from the directors of eleven. These eleven agencies represent a professional staff of 241 counselors and therapists, serving a client population of more than 10,000 per year for counseling and therapy, averaging twelve sessions per client. Agencies in Alameda, San Francisco, Marin, San Mateo, Contra Costa, and Santa Cruz counties are included. They range from publicly financed community mental health agencies serving primarily lower-income groups to public and private family service agencies serving lower-middle, middle, and upper-middle class populations. All major ethnic groups and all types of presenting problems are represented.

With the exception of one agency in Santa Cruz County directors reported that issue of involvement in new religious groups or cults are encountered in less than one per cent of their clients, and that when encountered the issue is of only moderate significance. Further, the groups most often encountered are not exclusively the more commonly known. While they include the Unification Church, Scientology, occult, and Eastern groups, also mentioned are various Christian charismatic and fundamentalist groups. The agency in Santa Cruz, serving 2,000 clients a year, reported that as many as one-fourth are involved in non-traditional religious groups, but this is rarely the focus of therapy or counseling.

These responses from agency directors accord with our telephone survey, indicating that counseling needs resulting from involvements in new religious groups are not often met by those agencies likely to serve a wide cross-section of the public. The results also provide validation for our impression that most needs for counseling services related to involvements in new religious groups, if they are met at all, are responded to by persons who specialize in such counseling.

Because involvements in these groups often result in requests for counseling, it is desirable to know how this specialized counseling is sought and provided. To determine this, we contacted by mail a sample of persons known to offer this counseling. We asked them to respond to a questionnaire describing their backgrounds, training, and relevant counseling experience. The results of this questionnaire solicitation are described in the remainder of this report.


Our questionnaire solicitation of those offering specialized counseling was extensive but not especially systematic. We simple called and wrote to as many people throughout the United States whom we could identify, or who were brought to our attention as offering such counseling. In a letter, we stated the purposes of our inquiry, and asked that they complete an enclosed questionnaire. Each of those contacted was invited to suggest names of others who might also be solicited. Of several dozen persons thus contacted, we received completed questionnaires from 22. Of these 22, four reported not having sufficient experience to respond adequately, while one was judged by ourselves to have too limited experience, having counseled one person only. Thus, we are able to report in detail about the backgrounds and views of 17 persons specializing, to varying degrees, in counseling with respect to involvements in new religious groups.

The best evidence we have of the degree to which these 17 are representative of others who offer such counseling comes from their reported views and experiences. All can be characterized as critical of one or another group claiming religious status, and most came to our attention as a result of informal contacts and referrals among those persons and organizations concerned about these groups. None of these persons, however, approximates the negative images sometimes alleged to characterize “deprogrammers.” All, for example, disavow the use of deception or coercion in counseling. While several persons known nationally for their work in such counseling failed to respond to our solicitation, others known nationally did. Some of our respondents, as will be clear in the report of results, practice such counseling only occasionally. On the whole, then, our sample represents those offering counseling concerning involvements in new and non-traditional religious groups and cults from a critical perspective, most of whom have some professional training, and provide this counseling frequently to occasionally.

The questionnaire, eight pages in length, has sections devoted to: personal and professional background; specific professional experience with new religious involvements; initial circumstances of counseling or therapy; characteristics of persons involved in groups; factors seen as explaining initial and continued involvement; personal consequences of involvement; circumstances and techniques of therapy actually provided; and recommendations concerning counseling and other needs with respect to involvements in new religious groups.

Thus, in the section on “initial circumstances of counseling or therapy,” respondents were asked: “Please list the number of the above defined clases for which the following persons were the first to seek your assistance. ___Person actually involved in the group in question. ___Members of the involved person’s immediate family (spouse, parents, sibs) ___Other relatives ___Other (please describe).” Next they were asked, “At what stage of the affected person’s involvement in the group was counseling initially sought by the above (give number of cases for each)? ___Person was just considering involvement ___Person was in first week or two of involvement ___Person was in first several months of involvement ___Person had been involved one to two years __Person had been involved for more than two years.”

Subsequent questions asked about the involved persons’ “initial attitude or orientation toward their experience at the time counseling was first sought,” with responses ranging from “highly positive toward the group, with few if any doubts” to “highly negative, with little doubt or reservations.” Finally, the last question in this section asked, “If initially your assistance was not sought by the person actually involved in the group, how were you able to establish a counseling relationship?”

Most questionnaire sections reflected this mix of open-ended and behaviorally-anchored, closed-ended questions. However, the questions asking for estimates of the reasons for an effect of involvements included a number of ratings. Thus, respondents were asked to “please give your general estimate of the overall significance of each of the following factors as reasons why these persons joined these groups.” Assignable rating ranged from 1 (“highly important and very common factor”), through 3 (“significant or fairly frequent factor”), to 5 (“rare or infrequent factor”). Factors rated included: “personally troubled or disturbed”; “seeking the truth, the answer”; “lonely, seeking a community”; “searching for a guru or master”; “deception/unusual persuasive techniques”; “appeal of the group beliefs/practices”; “trying to separate from family”; “trying to improve/strengthen self”; “appeal of group lifestyle”; “seeking new spiritual experience”; and “other,” which invited elaboration.

Because of the small number of respondents, closed-ended questions were analyzed in terms of frequency distributions. Analysis of the responses to open-ended questions was relatively informal. We simply summarized the range and commonalities of responses, identifying areas of consensus and divergence of views. In the report of results the responses to the open-ended questions are characterized as seemed most accurate to the author. Results of closed-ended questions are reported in table form.


Extent of Experience by Counselor and by Groups

In the two years preceding the date of their responses, these 17 persons have among them provided psychotherapy or counseling in more than 900 separate instances of involvement in new religious groups (Table 1). These involvements are confined to a relatively small number of groups. By far, the most frequently mentioned is the Unification Church of Reverend Sun Myung Moon, accounting for more than one-fourth of these 900 requests. Also prominent are the Church of Scientology, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Divine Light Mission, and The Way. Other groups mentioned include Christ’s Family, the Fellowship of Friends, Church Universal and Triumphant, and the Church of Bile Understanding. The frequency with which given groups are mentioned indicates the extent to which they evoke concern sufficient to result in specialized counseling being sought and offered.

The degree to which these therapists and counselors specialize in involvements in new religious groups and cults varies considerably. The total number of clients seen with respect to this issue in the two years preceding their responses ranges from 6 to 250 (average of 43). The percentage of total clients during this same time period (relative to the counselor’s total caseload) ranges from 5% to 100%. From what we know of other therapists and counselors offering such counseling, this variation is common. Some persons provide no other type of counseling, often defining themselves as anti-cult or exit counselors exclusively. Others provide such counseling occasionally to frequently. As will b e discussed shortly, those who provide no other type of counseling differ in several ways from those for whom this is less exclusive.

Table 1

Extent of Specialized Counseling Expderience During

Two Years Preceding Responces:

By Counselor and By New Religious Groups

Number of persons and/or families seen in last two years regarding involvement in new religious groups

Range Mean Total

6-250 43 902

Names of groups most often involved

N (approximate) Groups

  1. Unification Church

  2. The Way

  3. Scientology

  4. Divine Light Mission

  5. ISKCON (Hare Krishna)

10 or less Christ Family

Fellowship of Friends

Church Universal and Triumphant

Church of Bible Understanding

Training and Personal Characteristics of Counselors

There are few remarkable features of the personal characteristics and training of these therapists and counselors. They are equally male and female, ranging in age from 26 to 54, with an average of 41 (Table 2). The large majority have graduate degrees and training in counseling or psychotherapy. Nine have masters and four doctorates. However, several also have specialized religious education, and three have advanced training in some aspect of religious studies.

The exceptions to this picture are those for whom counseling related to new religious groups is an exclusive activity. These tend to be persons with no professional training in counseling. Four of our sample fit this pattern. Two were themselves in new religious groups and left to become critics, while two are motivated by personal concern.

In part, because these four, the theoretical and clinical orientations of these therapists and counselors seem less conventional than might be expected. Only a minority profess a psychodynamic or traditional approach to counseling and therapy. The majority subscribe to various less traditional approaches such as Gestalt, humanistic, client-centered, and so on. Nontheless, the majority of these persons have had professional experience counseling or doing psychotherapy in public or private clinics or through church offices. Thus, on the whole they have practiced more conventional counseling or therapy in more usual circumstances.

Though several of these persons have advanced training in religion, their religious backgrounds and identifications are fairly conventional. Most were raised in one of the three major traditional faiths. Two are Jewish by upbringing, three are Catholic, and eight are from major Protestant denominations (Table 2). Although as adults there is a tendency for some to have moved away from their earlier upbringing, nine are still identified with their original faith. Most are actively religious, though only moderately so.

Table 2

Training and Personal Characteristics of Counselors

Ages in years

Range Mean

  1. 41.35

Religious Upbringing

N Response

  1. Protestant (major denominations)

  2. Catholic

  3. Jewish

  4. Other Christian

  5. Non-religious

  6. Anti-religious

  7. Other

Present religious identification

N Responses

5 Protestant (major denominations)

3 Catholic

2 Other Christian

  1. Jewish

  2. Non-traditional

  3. Non-religious

  4. Other

Degree of active religious involvement

N Response

  1. Active

5 Not active

Highest degree achieved

N Degree

  1. Bachelor’s

  2. Master’s

4 Doctorate

Type of Professional Training

N Responses

  1. Advanced training in counseling and/or psychotherapy

  2. Advanced training in religion

  3. Both of the above

6 Other

Counselor’s estimate of years of full-time experience as counselor/therapist

Mean Range

6.0 yrs. 2-20 years

Counselor’s orientation as counselor/therapist

N Response

3 Psychodynamic and/or traditional

6 Non-traditional (gestalt, humanistic, client-centered, etc.)

3 Behavior/learning theory

  1. Other

Primary emphasis of practice as counselor

N Response

  1. Private or public agency

4 Special group dealing with new religions

  1. Church-affiliated

  2. Private practice

  3. No affiliation or other private practice

Circumstances of Specialized Counseling

In the majority of these counseling situations, a member of the involved person’s immediate family, rather than the involved person himself or herself, first sought counseling (Table 3). This suggests the concern evoked among kin familiar with those involved, as well as the extent to which such counseling differs from more usual counseling. Most often this counseling ws not sought until after the person had been involved for at least a month, and often much longer. At this time, the involved person typically was judged to be quite positive abou the group and his or her involvement with it. Those involved were equally male and female, and at the time counseling was sought the large majority were between 18 and 25 years of age (Table 3).

Table 3

Circumstances of Counseling

Percent of persons first seeking counseling

Percent (apx.) Response

65% Member of person’s immediate family

20% Person actually in group

15% Other

Stage of involvement when counseling was first sought (regardless of who first sought counseling)

Percent (apx.) Response

5% Person was just considering involvement

15% First week or two of involvement

30% First several months

20% Several months to one year

15% One to two years

15% More than two years

Attitude of person involved toward group and involvement at time counseling was first sought (regardless of who first sought counseling)

Percent (apx.) Response

50% Highly positive toward group, with few if any doubts

15% Primarily positive, but with some questions

20% Ambivalent

10% Primarily negative

5% Highly negative

Ages of involved persons at time counseling was first sought

Percent (apx.) Response

1% Under 15 years

2% 15-18

30% 18-21

40% 22-25

20% 26-30

7% over 30

Percent of involved persons, by gender

Percent (apx.) Response

50% Female

50% Male

Perceived Reasons for and Consequences of Involvements

Table 4 shows the rankings given by these counselors to a range of factors that might explain the involvement. The first and third most important factors thought to explain involvements are recruitment and conversion practices of groups, namely, “extreme persuasion or indoctrination” and “deception by group members” (Table 4). Yet also accorded importance are characteristics of involved individuals. “Lonely, seeking a community” and “seeking truth, the answer” are ranked as second and fourth in importance, while “personally troubled or disturbed” and “seeking new spiritual experience” are ranked fifth and sixth. Notably low on the list are positive characteristics attributed to groups by those joining, such as “appeal of group lifestyle” or “appeal of group beliefs and practices.”

These therapists and counselors agree with the concerned family members, whose views we earlier reported, that the most important factors accounting for these involvements are extreme and deceptive recruitment practices of groups. Where they differ from family members is in the relative importance attributed to needs and vulnerabilities of involved persons themselves.

Consonant with the reasons seen as explaining initial involvement, “coercive pressures” are rated as by far the most important factors explaining continued involvement, though “importance of community” is also credited with some efficacy (Table 4). Again, these counselors see extreme pressures by the groups as most crucial in maintaining involvement, but as with factors explaining involvement initially, social needs are also granted importance.

These therapists and counselors see a wide range of deleterious consequences resulting from the involvements. This is to be expected given their beliefs about the factors explaining initial and continued involvement. Table 4 shows that “restricted/controlled lifestyle” and “loss of critical thinking” are thought to result “very much so” from involvement, while “separation from community/family,” “emotional restriction,” and being “financially exploited” are nearly as likely to eventuate. In brief, there is little doubt in these therapists’ and counselors’ minds that, for the groups most often the focus of their counseling efforts, a broad range of negative consequences typically ensue for those involved.

Table 4

Counselors’ Perception of Reasons for and Effects of Group Involvement

Counselors’ perceptions of importance of various factors in explaining involvement in group: 1 = Very important to 4 = Not important

Mean Response

  1. Extreme persuasion/indoctrination

  2. Lonely, seeking a community

  3. Deception by group members

  4. Seeking truth, the answer

  5. Personally troubled or disturbed

  6. Seeking new spiritual experience

  7. Trying to improve or strengthen self

  8. Appeal of group lifestyle

  9. Trying to separate from family

  10. Appeal of group beliefs/practices

  11. Searching for guru or spiritual master

Counselors’ perceptions of negative effect of involvement: 1 = very much so to 5 = not at all

Mean Response

  1. Restricted/controlled lifestyle

  2. Los of critical thinking

  3. Separation from community/family

  4. Emotional restriction

  5. Financially exploited

2.00 Overworked

  1. Physically run-down

Counselors’ perceptions of why persons remaining in groups do so: 1= very important to 5 = not at all important

Mean Response

  1. Coercive persuasion

  2. Importance of community

3.17 Spiritual satisfaction

3.40 Freedom from responsibility

  1. Physical needs are met

Special Counseling Issues and Strategies

Involvements in new or non-traditional religious groups or cults present special counseling difficulties and issues. Open-ended questions asked respondents to address themselves to these. Despite the differences in training and professional orientation of these 17 respondents, there was considerable consensus among them about the nature of these issues and the best ways of dealing with them.

Most problematic is establishing a counseling relationship with the involved person, or coping with the inability to do so. All of these counselors and therapists disavow the use of deception or any form of coercion in counseling. When a counseling relationship is established where the involved person does not initially seek it, most often this is accomplished through family mediation. Even so, in less than one-half of these situations was a counseling relationship successfully established with the person involved.

When able to meet with the involved person, the major priority most often reported is to encourage the development of a critical perspective toward the group. This is done by presenting the individual with various facts about the group of which he or she might be unaware, such as its financial practices or the privileges of leaders. Also, many of these counselors and therapists reported drawing attention to the ways in which concersion might have been induced by manipulative techniques. Some counselors, presumably the more religiously inclined, also report critiquing the group’s ideology.

Assuming that these approaches meet with some success, respondents describe next having to deal with varied emotional reactions. These include: fear about normalcy or adequacy; anger and resentment at having been exploited; a sense of loss of identity; and fear about establishing a new life outside of the group. Frequently mentioned and apparently of some importance is the need to help the person understand the positive as well as negative aspects of the experience, so that it can be understood to have personal meaning, even though overall it may have been unfortunate.

For those persons who decide to leave their group, considerable “reality therapy” and other supportive measures seem indicated. These may range from helping someone use an alarm clock again to learning how to say “no”. Also reported as important at this stage are issues related to family, both those precipitated by the involvement itself and those existing prior to it. Here counselors or therapists may play a key role in helping family members define and explore these issues, which are reported to include dependency conflicts, anger at felt inadequacies of the parents, including their values and religious beliefs, and anxiety over excessive parental control. Several also mention the need to deal with other preexisting issues perhaps stabilized by group involvement, primarily a range of identity issues, including sexuality especially.

Even when a counseling relationship is established with the person involved, for approximately a third of these the individual chooses to remain with the group. There is some disagreement among respondents about the effects of counseling when the person stays in the group. Most feel that it is valuable in presenting alternative views and the awareness that should they wish to leave, others are able to assist them. But a minority feel that counseling where persons do not leave is to readily construed, with the encouragement of other group members, as a sign of the evil and hostility of the outside world.

Whether or not a counseling relationship is established with involved individuals, the needs of concerned family members are also central. Among the most commonly mentioned counseling needs of family members are: information about the group; ways of trying to establish and maintain communication with the involved member; fears about the effects of the involvement; and issues of guilt and responsibility. The need for basic information about the group is very frequently mentioned, underscoring the fact that often family members have little idea about what the group is like or what its beliefs and practices are.

Aside from providing information about the group, techniques in counseling family members include reassurance about the possibility of maintaining communication, with suggestions for how this may be done. Also, family members often are referred to family support groups, where they can meet and work with other families similarly affected. There apparently was little attention in this early stage of counseling to possible family issues related to involvement.


The counseling described here differs in several respects from more conventional counseling. In the majority of these situations the person involved in the group is not the first to seek counseling assistance. Counseling usually is initiated by and offered to families of persons involved. Further, counseling is often limited to family members and cannot include the person in the group. Finally, as the very process of defining our sample of counselors and therapists shows, those offering such services are self-selected, and must meet the needs of those affected with little assistance from usual sources of counseling and psychotherapy.

The rationale for undertaking counseling in these circumstances, aside from the distress and concern of family members, is indicated by the ratings assigned by these counselors to factors explaining how and why these 900-some persons became involved in their groups. While being lonely and personally troubled are rated as contributing to some of these involvements, the most important factors are judged to be coercive and deceptive recruitment practices of groups. Additionally, a wide range of perceived harmful effects upon those involved also provide a rationale for counseling.

These counselors and therapists agree with the family members whose views we earlier reported that coercive and deceptive recruitment and conversion practices are of central consequence in determining initial and continued involvement. However, they give more recognition than do family members to the contributions of family issues and to social needs and vulnerabilities of the individuals. Interestingly, they agree with family members that spiritual needs and the ideologies and religious practices of groups are relatively less important factors in explaining involvement.

As with our study of “family perspectives on involvements in new religious groups,” (Sullivan, 1984) the views of these counselors and our conclusions concerning them must be conditioned by the particular involvements and groups in question. Presumably, these 17 and others offering such services are most willing to counsel in those situations where they can assume the likelihood of negative consequences. In practice, the major guideline for this assumption, based on clinical experience, seems to be the identity of the particular group. Groups most often the focus of these counseling efforts (notably the Unification Church) are often described as destructive cults. It seems likely that other new or non-traditional religious groups would not be characterized as readily in negative terms. Further clinical experience and research on varied new religious groups could determine how readily this characterization would generalize to other groups.

The issues and problems described by these 17 may not generalize even to all members of those groups most often cited. Larger groups, or small groups as they become larger, will probably evidence fewer consistently distinguishing characteristics of recruitment methods or of those recruited. Some groups may have distinguishable subsets of members, who are most likely to be victims of deceptive, coercive, and exploitative practices. Probably, too, these counselors are more sensitized to those victimized than those helped by some new religious groups. Their characterization of the rationale for an circumstances of counseling reflects this emphasis.

Based on the reports of these counselors and therapists, we must conclude that counseling has limited value in the majority of these involvements. Counseling is time-consuming and expensive. It relies on the determination of those affected and the skills and reliability of those offering it. Often it is impossible to make contact with the person in the group. Even when possible, various antagonisms of the groups must be contended with. Counseling consequent to involvement, no matter how skilled, cannot counter the recruitment and public relations tactics of these groups. We must look to other means in responding to the threats posed by these groups to the values of a democratic society informed by the ethical heritage of many religions.

Even to the degree that such counseling is effective in individual cases, both those needing it and those offering it face the dilemma that it tends to exist outside usual counseling referral systems. Thus, it depends on the initiatives of those providing it, and on relatively informal referral networks. The informality of these networks is shown by our difficulty in simply identifying those who offer such counseling. Families and involved persons seeking such counseling are often at the mercies of those to whom they are first referred. This puts an unusual responsibility upon those offering or referring for this counseling, particularly given the polarization of opinion regarding such services.

As with evaluation of recruitment and conversion practices of new religious groups, ethical standards in counseling with respect to these involvements are of great importance. The counseling efforts of those unpersuaded of the benignity of some groups are sometimes criticized. It has been claimed that those offering such services may breach ethical standards in counseling. Certainly one must agree that however unethical, coercive, or manipulative the recruitment practices of some groups, those providing services in response must maintain high ethical standards. It is desirable that those offering these services have training in assessment, diagnosis, and psychotherapy. The reports of these 17 counselors and therapists suggest that many offering this specialized counseling have relevant professional training, and observe appropriate ethical standards.

Equally, however, we must recognize that many counselors and therapists, including those formally affiliated with more traditional religious groups, have been reluctant or unable to meet the needs for services presented by these involvements. In part this results from limited understanding or interest in the issues. There is on the part of some an inclination to hold the umbrella of religious tolerance so high that the morally corrosive practices of some groups leach earth beyond averted eyes. Bouquets born of the exploitation described here, however politic their buying and selling, cannot mask the commerce in the labor and love of those who market them. Changes of this sort in the propagation of religious values are unwelcome mutants that choke more healthfully cultivated plants.

All groups claiming religious status should be evaluated by common standards that allow for those ethical, social, and psychological distinctions that can be fairly made among them. To seek to protect exploitative recruitment and other unethical practices of some groups by invocations of protected legal status, or worse, by claims of higher moral purposes, abuses the ethical standards common to those religions that have shaped our nation’s heritage. Most especially, the view of these 17 argue that the integrity of some individuals is sacrificed to the aggrandized visions of some group leaders. West and Singer (1980) have defined for these involvements the features that should guide professionals and others in dealing with them. These guidelines should be incumbent upon those with or without professional training.

In our experience with the Missing Student Project, we were struck by the zealotry induced in followers of some groups. Those inclined to see such groups as validly religious may ascribe to them honorable, even divinely principled, motives, To our mind, this view, in the case of some new religious groups, is seriously misguided at best. It ignores the relevance of basic ethical standards in the evaluation of recruitment and other group practices. Based on our experience, vastly too little attention has been given to the unethical means by which some new religious groups advance their causes, often at great cost to those so victimized, as well as to ethical standards by which all groups claiming religious status in a democratic society must be judged.

In our work with the University Religious Council, we were deeply disturbed at the degree to which those openly or covertly sympathetic to one or another of these groups sought willfully and systematically to subvert the efforts of those genuinely concerned about them. There is no doubt whatsoever in our minds that this subversion encompasses deception on the part of counselors and other who represent themselves as critics of some new religious groups. These persons seek to provide services to those troubled about groups or involvements in them. In truth, their misrepresentations are designed to sandbag critics, gather intelligence on group opponents, and advance the group’s causes. It is probable that some counselors and therapists whom we contacted in our questionnaire solicitation declined to respond partly out of fear that responses would be subject to just this sort of misuse. Regrettable as it may be, such caution is very realistic.

The first issue of this journal reports that Mike Kropveld of the Montreal Hillel believes that active cult members may pose as ex-cultists to undermine the research of those concerned about them. We agree that such activities are not uncommon. It is our belief that those covertly sympathetic to one or another new religious group may assume many guises and guiles to stymie the efforts of those honestly concerned about such groups. Such deceptions harm and demoralize those genuinely concerned about some new religious groups. These tactics serve the further purpose of inducing attitudes of fear and doubt that some groups depend on for their propagation. This practical sabotage and psychological terrorism must be seen as profoundly unethical, vastly surpassing putative shortcomings of those honestly concerned about new religious groups.

Because the devotions of some adherents of new religions may find expression in heinous chicanery, those subscribing to the services of individuals and organizations claiming to view new religious groups critically should doubly invoke the caveat: “Subscriber beware.” Those seeking counseling or other services should evaluate with care the professed attitudes and skills of those offering these services. Such professions, when false, make plain the lengths to which some new religious groups will go to advance their causes at the cost of common ethics, and the trust and concern of others.


Sullivan, L. B. (1984). Family perspectives on involvements in new religious groups, Cultic Studies Journal, 1, 79-102.

West, L. J., & Singer, M. t. (1980) Cults, quacks, and nonprofessional psychotherapies. In H. Kaplan, A. Freedman, and B. Sadock (Eds.), Comprehensive textbook of psychiatry, Vol. 3 (3rd ed.). Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins.

Lawrence Bennett Sullivan, Ph. D. was Project Director of the Missing Student Project of the University Religious Council at the University of California, Berkeley from 1979 until the project’s conclusion in 1981. Dr. Sullivan received his Ph. D. in 1982 from the University of California, Berkeley. He teaches as Lecturer in Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and at San Francisco State University.