Cults, Conversion, Science, and Harm

Cultic Studies Review, 1(2), 2002, 178-186

Cults, Conversion, Science, and Harm

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

Executive Director, AFF

Editor, Cultic Studies Review

An introductory paper presented to AFF's 2001 Annual Conference, “Cults, Conversion, Science & Harm,” Holiday Inn, Newark, NJ Airport, May 4-5, 2001


Personal vs. social (intrinsic vs. extrinsic), sudden vs. gradual, and inner-generated vs. outer-generated aspects of conversion experience are discussed in order to illuminate the complexity and variability of conversions associated with cultic groups. Negative aspects of conversion are discussed in relationship to psychological, ethical, social, and theological concerns. The importance of differentiating these concerns and studying the varied ways in which harm manifests in cultic groups is stressed.

Cults and Conversion

In his classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James defines religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” (James, 1961, p. 42). James's definition of religion is useful when one focuses on the experiences of men and women earnestly seeking a deeper personal relationship with God or the ground of being. His definition is compatible with what Gordon Allport, a pioneer in the psychology of religion, called “intrinsic religion” — that is, "faith as a supreme value in its own right" (Hood, Spilka, Hunsberger, & Gorsuch, 1996, p. 11). But James and many others with an interest in religion often overlook the less compelling kinds of religious experience that Allport categorized as “extrinsic religion”: “religion that is strictly utilitarian; useful for the self in granting safety, social standing, solace, and endorsement of one’s chosen way of life” (Hood, et al., 1996, p. 11).

An especially interesting variety of experience that is often, though not necessarily, religious is conversion. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1971) defines conversion as “the action of converting or fact of being converted to some opinion, belief, party, etc.” (p. 546). This definition implies a useful distinction between “converting” and “being converted” — what I have sometimes referred to respectively as “inner-generated” and “outer-generated” conversions. The people about whom James wrote typically had sudden, inner-generated conversions that were highly personal. Some contemporaries of James, however, studied conversions that had much more prominent social, or outer-generated, aspects. J. B. Pratt, for example, claimed that the born-again experiences in American fundamentalism were largely a result of social expectations: Adolescents were “born again” because their social world expected them to be “born again” (Pratt, 1920).

We have, then, several dimensions of conversion experience to consider:

  • Personal vs. social (intrinsic vs. extrinsic)

  • Sudden vs. gradual

  • Inner-generated vs. outer-generated.

These dimensions should be viewed as continua, or even as intersecting dimensions, not as dichotomies. Extrinsic, social conversions might have profound personal aspects, just as profoundly personal conversions might have extrinsic, utilitarian aspects.

Perhaps I reveal only my own bias, but I believe that a general tendency exists to view personal, inner-generated conversions as more authentic than outer-generated, social conversions. Suddenness in a conversion can make it especially interesting, as it did for James, but suddenness might also make the conversion suspect, if there appear to be psychopathological or utilitarian motivations for the conversion. Outer-generated conversions might also stimulate skepticism, although the skepticism is likely to be blunted when the person is converted to a belief system shared by those judging the conversion.

Cults and other groups, including some large-group-awareness trainings, have generated controversy in large part because they are often viewed as “engineering” conversions. The highly sophisticated programs of the Moonies in the 1970s were for a long time viewed as the archetypal cult conversion. These conversions were relatively sudden, outer-generated or “engineered,” and, at least to skeptical outside observers, crassly utilitarian. Similarities to research about “brainwashing” from the Korean War were easy to see.

Cult converts, however, were not the empty-headed zombies that sensationalized media reports made them out to be. Despite the powerful social forces shaping their conversion, converts often did have profound personal experiences of their relationship to a divine, transcendent reality. The biases I mentioned earlier tended to make most of us recoil from the possibility that people could be manipulated into having such highly personal and psychologically deep experiences of conversion. But some observers, such as Dr. John Clark, one of the pioneering mental health professionals in this field, saw the depth of the personal change in these “engineered” conversions as the most striking and fascinating aspect of the phenomenon. In various talks Dr. Clark called cult conversion an “impermissible experiment” on the reshaping of personality, impermissible because no ethical researcher would ever do what cults routinely did. He did not see the conversions as superficial or simplistically extrinsic — and neither did most of the terrified parents who consulted him about their children involved in cultic groups, whether religious, political, psychological, or even commercial in nature. Dr. Clark emphasized that the engineering of personality change is not limited to religion (Clark, 1979). Moreover, he maintained that even when such “engineering” has beneficial effects, it should be subject and subordinated to ethical evaluations.

Other observers, mainly academicians in sociology or religious studies, saw the personal depth of these conversions as self-validating. They disdained the sensationalized media accounts and objected to the simplistic brainwashing models that some activists used to justify deprogramming, which the academicians passionately opposed. An ideological antipathy toward the so-called “medical model” seemed to make some of these academicians oppose in a knee-jerk manner any theories, however sophisticated, that suggested that the conversions they observed were engineered or exploitative. The academic cult wars, which continue to this day, had begun.

I don't have time in this paper to elaborate upon the academic cult wars (see Amitrani & Di Marzio, 2000a and 2000b and Langone, 2000). Suffice it to say that both sides of the debate, cult critics and sympathizers (or what has less flatteringly been termed “anti-cultists” and “pro-cultists”), were partly correct.

Conversions can be engineered, but converts are not the passive pawns they appear to be in some critics’ portrayals. Interactive models are necessary to properly understand even the most manipulative of conversions. (See “Sex, Lies, and Grand Schemes of Thought in Closed Groups” by A Collective of Women in the special Cultic Studies Journal issue, “Women Under the Influence,” for an insightful analysis of how intelligent, thoughtful, and independent adults become "loyal and dedicated to our own undoing." [A Collective of Women, 1997]).

Conversions can be engineered, but non-manipulative entries into high-control environments can also be difficult to leave. The Moonie model so influenced people in this field that, for years, many professionals and researchers ignored the growing evidence that the Moonie model of conversion was not typical. Dr. Benjamin Zablocki (1998), in an important paper, "Exit Cost Analysis: A New Approach to the Scientific Study of Brainwashing," quotes Dr. Stephen Kent, who says that brainwashing is a useful “technique for retaining members not for obtaining members” (p. 218). These sociologists, who have organized two research programs for this conference, do activists and mental health professionals in this field a service by drawing our attention to this important distinction. (The distinction is certainly relevant to the case of people born into high-control groups, a subject of one of this conference’s programs.) Even when conversions are not engineered, the maintenance of the convert’s loyalty might involve high levels of manipulation and psychological coercion. Conversely, that an engineered conversion brings somebody into a relatively benign and non-manipulative environment might also sometimes be the case. Given the concern some mainstream campus ministries have shown for evangelists who, so to speak, put a notch on their Bible every time they “win” a soul for Christ, I suspect that some conversions to mainstream Christian denominations might be more manipulative than many realize (see special issue of Cultic Studies Journal “Cults, Evangelicals, and the Ethics of Social Influence,” 1985).

The powerful social forces in many controversial groups place these groups at risk for harming their members, psychologically, physically, and economically. (In this conference historian Dr. Jean-Francois Mayer and psychiatrist Dr. Robert Jay Lifton will inform us about two of the most conspicuous examples of groups that harmed their members, The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments and Aum Shinrikyo.) Cult sympathizers, to a large extent, appear to have been reluctant to write about these negative effects of conversion, although there are some notable exceptions (e.g., Rochford, 1998). Barker sheds light on this reluctance in a candid comment she made during her presidential address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in 1995:

If we are to be honest and self-critical, we have to admit that several of us have reacted against the selective negativity of the ACM by, sometimes quite unconsciously, making our own unbalanced selections. Having been affronted by what have appeared to be gross violations of human rights perpetrated through practices such as deprogramming and the medicalization of belief, there have been occasions when social scientists have withheld information about the movements because they know that this will be taken, possibly out of context, to be used as a justification for such actions. The somewhat paradoxical situation is that the more we feel the NRMs are having untrue bad things said about them, the less inclined we are to publish true “bad” things about the movements. (Barker, 1995, p. 305 – emphasis added)

Some cult critics have shown a similar reluctance to acknowledge positive aspects of the groups they criticize, although mental health professionals have long encouraged families to acknowledge their loved ones’ positive experiences, something that families, quite understandably, often find painful to do. But this perspective doesn’t always find its way into mental health publications on this subject.

In literature classes in college or high school, we all heard about two-dimensional and three-dimensional characters. The latter were preferable because they were more complex, more nuanced, more interesting — in short, they were more real. Similarly, we need three-dimensional theories of cult conversion, cult experience, and cult departure and recovery. The landscape is much more varied than we realize. That is why in this conference we have organized programs on positive and negative aspects of conversion, including positive descriptions of conversion to groups typically viewed as controversial. We need to look at the entire panorama of conversion — to nonreligious as well as religious groups, to benign as well as destructive group experiences — to understand the field well enough to make balanced judgments concerning what to do about the “true ‘bad’ things” to which Dr. Barker refers in the quote above.

Harm and Science

There is an appropriate vagueness about the term “bad,” which Dr. Barker uses. Different observers will object to different groups or to different aspects of the same group. What the observers have in common is a sense that the group inflicts harm on or inflicts offense to people, within or outside the group. In a paper I gave at our annual conference in Minnesota two years ago, I described four kinds of concern that cultic and related groups stimulate:

  1. Psychological concerns (e.g., high stress resulting from members’ being placed in demanding double binds) [A number of research presentations in this conference address psychological harm. Several programs address issues of recovery and healing.]

  2. Ethical concerns (e.g., the use of deceit and manipulation to persuade people to attend an introductory seminar)

  3. Social concerns (e.g., breaking laws, medical neglect of children)

  4. Theological concerns (e.g., whether or not a translation of a sacred text is accurate, whether or not a group's claim to belong to a particular religious tradition is valid)

If one is to maintain one’s intellectual integrity as a critic, it is important not to confuse or blend together these concerns, and it is especially important not to presume that the presence of one concern makes the group “bad” and, by imputation, infected by the other concerns. I suspect, for example, that some large-group-awareness training programs might be vulnerable to ethical critiques, even though no strong scientific evidence of widespread psychological harm exists.

Although research is far from definitive, it does suggest that a sizeable minority, if not a majority, of former members of cultic groups (those characterized by high levels of manipulation and exploitation) suffer measurable psychological distress. Research (e.g., Lottick, 1993) also suggests that approximately 1% to 2% of the population has had at least a transient involvement with a cultic group, and that several hundred thousand people in the Western democracies probably enter and leave cultic groups each year.

These numbers represent a significant level of harm that, however much we might dispute its causes, is likely to motivate some people to take action and to try to persuade governments to take action. Several programs in this conference address international dimensions of the cult phenomenon. Others address counseling and related helping efforts.

Activists and professionals concerned about cults see their primary obligations as providing assistance and education, as helping hurting people and forewarning those who might become entangled with dubious groups in the future. As with helpers in other fields, these individuals cannot wait for the kinds of definitive scientific research that warm the hearts of academicians. They must act with incomplete knowledge because persons needing help now can't wait for science to advance.

This conflict results in a competition between action and research, both of which demand more resources than society is willing to commit to the cult issue. Sometimes action dominates and research is neglected or ignored. Sometimes research dominates and the needs of hurting people are ignored or neglected. Sometimes — and I hope this is true for AFF — action and research have a dynamic relationship in which the latter informs and modifies the former, which in turn provides information that stimulates the latter. Research undergirds action, which reveals new areas of research.

If research and action needs are coordinated and balanced, governmental and institutional authorities can more easily make informed and balanced decisions about assistance and educational needs of people affected by, or at risk of being affected by, harmful cultic entanglements. Good information is vital to these authorities because their special challenge is to balance competing rights and responsibilities, not to pronounce in favor of one over others. (Law professor Randy Kandel, Ph.D. and AFF President, Herbert Rosedale, Esq. will address these issues in their talks.)

Cult educational organizations must respect the need for authorities and their own organizations to continually inform, evaluate, and modify remedial actions to take account of new research findings. All organizations do not have to conduct research, but all organizations should try to cooperate with and keep abreast of research studies, especially those studies that have some practical implications for helping people. If we neglect study and research, we run the risk of becoming ideologically rigid like the groups we criticize, and we will never change our thinking because we think we know all that is worth knowing.

Instead, let us all acknowledge that we don't know as much as we think and that we should work together in order to learn together.


A Collective of Women. (1997). Sex, lies, and grand schemes of thought in closed groups. Cultic Studies Journal, 14(1) 58-84.

Amitrani, A., & Di Marzio, R. (2000a). “Mind Control” in new religious movements and the American Psychological Association. Cultic Studies Journal, 17, 101-122.

Amitrania, A. & Di Marzio, R. (2000b). Blind, or just don’t want to see? Brainwashing, mystification, and suspicion. Cultic Studies Journal, 17, 122-142.

Barker, E. (1995). The scientific study of religion? You must be joking! (Presidential address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion). Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 34(3), 287-310.

Clark, J. G. (1979). Cults. Journal of the American Medical Association, 242, 279-281.

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. (1971). Oxford (England): Oxford University Press.

Cults, evangelicals, and the ethics of social influence. (1985). Cultic Studies Journal (special issue), 2(2).

Hood, R.W., Spilka, B., Hunsberger, B. & Gorsuch, R. (1996). The psychology of religion: An empirical approach (second edition). New York: Guilford.

James, William. (1961) The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Macmillan. (Originally published in 1902.)

Kent, Stephen. (1997, November). Methodological problems studying brainwashing in Scientology’s Rehabilitation Project Force. Paper presented at the Annual Meetings of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, San Diego, CA (quoted in Zablocki, 1998).

Langone, Michael D. (2000). The two “camps” of cultic studies: Time for a dialogue. Cultic Studies Journal, 17, 79-100.

Lottick, E. (1993, Feb.). Survey reveals physicians’ experiences with cults. Pennsylvania Medicine, 96, 26-28.

Pratt, J.B. (1920). The religious consciousness. New York: Macmillan.

Rochford. E. B. (1998). Child abuse in the Hare Krishna Movement: 1971-1986. ISKCON Communications Journal, 6(1), 43-70.

Zablocki, Benjamin. (1998).Exit cost analysis: A new approach to the scientific study of brainwashing. Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, 1(2), 216-249

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., a counseling psychologist, is AFF’s Executive Director and editor of Cultic Studies Review. He edited Cultic Studies Journal (CSJ) and Recovery From Cults. He is co-author of Cults: What Parents Should Know and Satanism and Occult-Related Violence: What You Should Know. Dr. Langone has spoken and written widely about cults. In 1995, he received the Leo J. Ryan Award from the "original" Cult Awareness network and was honored as the Albert V. Danielsen visiting Scholar at Boston University. (