Family Perspectives on Involvements in NRMs

Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 1, Number 1, 1984, pages 79-102

Family Perspectives on Involvements In New Religious Groups

Lawrence B. Sullivan, Ph.D.


Questionnaire responses from 105 family members concerned about a spouse’s, child’s, or sibling’s involvement in a new religious group are analyzed and discussed. Among the areas investigated are background characteristics of persons in groups, family members’ perceptions of such groups,. Family members’ opinion regarding the reasons for and consequences of involvement, the need for services in this area, and legal/ethical ramifications of the family and social conflict associated with conversion to new religious groups.


This report describes and discusses a study of 105 persons from across the nation in various new and nontraditional religious groups and cults. The study is based on the reports of close family members, primarily parents, of these involved persons. Family members responded by mail to a questionnaire asking for their descriptions of background data and personal characteristics of these involved kin and for their views concerning the circumstances and consequences of the involvement. The sample was drawn from those writing to the Missing Student Project of the University Religious Council at the University of California at Berkeley in the spring of 1980 in response to a nationally syndicated column by Abigail Van Buren recounting the interest of the Council in these issues.

The Missing Student Project (1978-1981), supported by a grant from the Rosenberg Foundation of San Francisco, was initiated to fulfill several purposes. Most importantly, the project was designed to determine the circumstances under which persons of college age might join new religious groups. The project also intended to provide families, students, religious and mental health professionals, and others with educational and referral services concerning such groups and involvements in them. In undertaking these objectives the project hoped to define and explore the concerns about such involvements frequently expressed by family members and counselors familiar with these situations.

These data thus define the views of close relatives of persons involved in various new and nontraditional religious groups, and they suggest hypotheses and directions for further research and analysis. At a future date, we may analyze these data in terms of differences among groups. In this discussion we concentrate on those features that characterize these persons and groups on average, and mention just a few apparent differences between types of groups. These differences indicate possible bases for future, more systematic social, psychological, ideological, and ethical distinctions.


In its second year, the Missing Student Project undertook to gather systematic data about the characteristics of persons who join new religious groups and about the circumstances and consequences of their joining. Because it proved very difficult to establish research relationships with persons actually in such groups, the project decided to seek data from family members of such persons.

The opportunity to gather these data was occasioned by a large volume of letters written to the University Religious Council in response to a column in which Abigail Van Buren mentioned the Council’s interest in these issues. In June of 1980 the project mailed questionnaires to 212 of these persons. These 212 represented all those from whom we had received letters and who seemed likely to know someone in a group. The project received 127 responses, or 60% of those solicited. Although we cannot be certain that respondents were representative of the population of letter writers, the unusually high response rate suggests that those responding are reasonably representative of all questionnaire recipients, i.e., letter writers who seemed to know someone in a group.

It should be borne in mind, however, that results to be reported are from a sample of family members rather than from persons in groups per se. Furthermore, the method of recruiting the sample resulted in a subject population that tended to be worried and concerned about involvements in new religious groups. Prior to responding to the mailed questionnaire, family members had an opportunity to read a brief pamphlet prepared by the University Religious Council outlining some of the troubling characteristics of cults. In addition, some of the text of this brochure was published in the “Dear Abby” column. Thus, questionnaire respondents may have been predisposed to be critical of their involved kin’s group. The sample, however, represents a wide variety of persons and groups, and the questionnaire covered a much wider range of issues than were mentioned in the “Dear Abby” column or the Council’s brochure.

The questionnaire concentrated more on the characteristics of persons involved than of groups. It asked respondents, usually a parent and occasionally another close family member, to give their description of the involved person and their views about the circumstances and consequences of the involvement. The questionnaire was standardized and included items and ratings with both pre-selected and open-ended response choices. These covered topics such as: (1) personal background data of the involved person, including religious upbringing, education and work experience, living situation, family relationships, and personal characteristics; (2) identity and characterization of the beliefs and practices of the group joined; (3) perceived reasons for joining the group; (4) perceived consequences of joining; (5) reactions of respondent and others to the involvement; and (6) perceived needs for services related to involvement.

Most questionnaire items translated readily into simply coded scales or measures and required no judgment in coding for subsequent data analysis. Thus, question 5 asked: “How sure are you that this person really is in a new religious group or cult?” Respondents could check any of four standard responses from “very sure” to “not at all sure.” Question 24 asked: “How quickly did he or she become involved with and committed to the group?” with three standard responses available from “slowly, over months” to “quickly, within days.”

Similarly a number of items asked for respondents’ evaluation in the form of ordinal ratings of reasons for and consequences of involvement. Thus, question 26 asked: “How important are each of the following, in your opinion, in explaining why this person became involved with this group?” Respondents were able to rate each of twelve possible reasons as being either “highly important,” “important,” “somewhat important,” or “not important.” The reasons included: “personally troubled/disturbed,” “extreme persuasion/indoctrination,” and “appeal of group’s beliefs/practices.” The last response for this, as for other similar items, was an open-ended “other,” which asked the respondent to elaborate.

Some items were either partially or wholly open-ended, and thus required initiative on the part of the respondent and judgment in coding. Item 12 asked: “Do you consider this group a cult?” with the pre-selected response choices of “yes,” “no,” and “don’t know/not sure” followed by the open-ended “Why do you think this?” Similarly, item 13 asked: “Please describe this group’s beliefs and practices.” The final two items of the questionnaire were likewise open-ended, asking “What do you consider to be the most important needs for services in this area?” and “What additional comments or advice do you have for persons working in this area?”

For items such as these, which required judgment in coding, the author and two undergraduate research assistants first listed all distinct responses for each item and then, by content analysis, created response categories based on low-level inference. For example, this process for the open-ended item asking “What other special family or personal circumstances help explain this involvement?” resulted in the following coded categories: parents’ divorce/separation; other significant trouble in family or origin; own divorce/separation; loss of important relationship or loved one; job/school troubles; physical illness/limitations; financial difficulties/setbacks; alcohol/drug problems; specifically diagnosed and/or treated psychological or psychiatric troubles; specifically mentioned or strongly implied emotional troubles; and other.

The author and the two research assistants, after training, coded the questionnaires. Because most items required no judgment in coding, formal reliabilities were not calculated. However, information reliability checks indicated extremely high reliabilities for the majority of items with pre-selected responses and very high reliability for the items requiring low-level inferences. In those few cases where any of the three coders was unsure as to the appropriate coding, he or she consulted with another coder and made a decision accordingly.

Consistent with the study’s goal of defining and documenting the concerns of close family members, data analysis is restricted to descriptive statistics that describe the frequency distributions and central tendencies for each of the items.

It is important to note here that in this research our definition of new religious groups was operational in that we let those responding to us determine which groups would fit in the category “new religions.” Fortunately, there were no glaring incongruities between those groups most often the focus of respondents and our intuitive standards. Most frequently mentioned were widely known groups such as Scientology, The Way, Unification Church, Divine Light Mission, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Yet there was considerable representation as well from small groups unknown to us, and a few single mentions of groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and the World Wide Church of God. Our sample is thus indicative of the kinds of groups most likely to trouble family members of those involved.

Some might feel that this biases our analysis in various ways. For example, it has been argued that a relatively small number of groups, including some represented in our sample, can be characterized as “destructive cults” and distinguished from other new or nontraditional religions. Others may feel that some groups included are entirely respectable and ought not to be included. We can only observe that it is not we, but our respondents, who by their concern have determined the number and proportions of groups.

The data discussed below are drawn from the reports of family members of 105 persons in new religious groups as defined by respondents. These 105 were selected from a total of 127 who returned the questionnaire. The 105 respondents selected for the study were chosen on the basis of their having been “very sure” that the family member about whom they were reporting was in a new religious group.


Data characterizing these persons can be divided into two categories. First is objective data, which an immediate family member would both know and report accurately (such as age, education, employment, and religious upbringing). Second is more subjective characterization of involved persons, including their psychological characteristics, their social lives, and their family relationships.

The objective data are of interest for two reasons. They provide a detailed characterization of the sample against which to interpret the more subjective data, and they can be interpreted as characterizing to some degree other persons involved in new religious groups, especially where family members may be concerned.

Background Characteristics of Persons in Groups

Background characteristics of the 105 involved persons are summarized in Table 1. Of these 105, 53 are female and 52 are male. They range in age from 18 to 46, are from all areas of the country and from urban, suburban, and rural communities.

Table 1

Gender N %

Females 53 50

Males 52 50

Relationship to respondent

Son 41 30

Daughter 40 38

Sibling 8 8

Father 1 1

Other relative 15 14

Age in years of person in group Range Mean

At date of response 18-46 27.08

At date of joining group 4-42 23.52

Length of time in group in months 1-148 42.23

Education in years 10-20 14.16

Education by level achieved N %

Less than high school graduate 3 3

High school graduate 33 31

Some College 34 33

College Graduate 23 22

Post-graduate 12 12

Professional or higher management 5 5

Technical or lower management 5 5

Skilled 25 25

Semi-skilled 37 37

Unskilled 3 3

Type of work, last job prior to joining group

Retail or service business 37 35

Social services or education 16 15

Unemployed 13 12

Manufacturing 7 7

Technical or scientific 5 5

Farming 2 2

Entertainment, athletics 2 2

Other 22 21

Religious upbringing

Protestant (major denominations) 47 45

Catholic 31 30

Other Christian 11 11

Jewish 7 7

Non-religious 4 4

Anti-religious 0 0

Other 4 4

Religious affiliation/beliefs just prior to joining group

Protestant (major denominations) 26 28

Catholic 17 18

Other Christian 11 12

Jewish 4 4

Non-religious 15 16

New or nontraditional 5 5

Other 15 14

Region of residence prior to joining group

Northeast 26 25

Southeast 9 9

South 5 5

Eastern Midwest 18 17

Western Midwest 6 6

Mountain 3 3

Southwest 29 28

Other 1 1

Population of city/town of residence

Major metropolitan, 500,000+ 24 23

Medium city, 100,000-500,000 24 23

Small city, 25,000-100,000 27 26

Town, 5,000 to 25,000 18 17

Rural, under 5,000 6 6

Living arrangements just prior to joining group

Living alone 26 25

At home with parents 25 24

At school 22 21

With spouse, children 16 15

Traveling 5 5

Other 11 11

Persons in school or college at time of joining group

In school/college 44 44

Not in school/college 57 56

These background factors show, in addition to the even distribution by sex and wide geographic distribution, that the ages of subjects at time of report averages 27 years, while their ages at time of joining the group averaged 23.5 years. The modal age of joining was 21, and the median age was 22. Not only are these persons very involved in their groups, with 67% being described as completely involved with no other activities, but they tend to be long0term participants as well. Average length of involvement to the date of response is 42 months.

Given the average age of subjects, they tend to be fairly well educated. Total years of education range from 10 to 20. All but three of the subjects are high school graduates, 34 have some college, 23 are college graduates, and 12 have some post-graduate education. Forty-four percent joined their group while attending school or college. Work experience seems typical of persons of this age, tending to be limited to semi-skilled work, mostly in retail and service businesses. A quarter of the sample have had skilled jobs, though very few have technical or scientific backgrounds or work experience.

The large majority of these subjects were brought up in one of the three major faiths. Seven were Jewish, 31 Catholic, 47 from major Protestant denominations, and 11 from other Christian denominations. Only 4 were brought up non-religiously.

Characterization of Groups Joined

It is against these background factors that we can begin to understand the circumstances of involvement and the perceptions of family members about it.

Of first interest is the range of groups joined. Table 2 shows the numbers of persons affiliated with each of those groups mentioned twice or more. Most often mentioned are Scientology, The Way of Victor Paul Wierwille, the Unification Church of sun Myung Moon, the Divine Light Mission of Guru Maharaj Ji, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Christ Family, the Church of Bible Understanding, and the Church Universal and Triumphant of Elizabeth Clare Prophet. Persons in these groups totaled 58. More than 30 persons were in groups mentioned but once (Table 2). Many of these were unfamiliar to our staff, but included smaller cults and sects (often Christian-derived) and a handful of Eastern-oriented groups.

Reflecting the worry which family members felt about these involvements, 87% of respondents considered the group in question to be a cult. An open-ended question asked why they thought this. Responses indicated that those characteristics perceived by respondents to qualify a group as a cult included: the use of psychological control (28%); the extreme devotion to a particular leader (27%); and financial exploitation (21%). Although a large number also mentioned some aspect of the group’s ideology or beliefs (22%), much less prominent were the mores and lifestyle of the group or it’s worship practices (Table 3).

Table 2

List and Frequencies of groups represented by sample

Group N %

Church of Scientology 12 11

The Way 11 11

Divine Light Mission 7 7

Unification Church 7 7

ISKCON (Hare Krishna) 7 7

Christ Family 5 5

Church of Bible Understanding 5 5

Church Universal and Triumphant 4 4

Local Church (Witness Lee) 3 3

Transcendental Meditation 3 3

Bubba Free John 2 2

Assembly of God Church 1 1

Body of Christ 1 1

Bowens Mill 1 1

Brother Evangelist 1 1

Calvary Chapel 1 1

Children of Jesus 1 1

Church of Fulfillment 1 1

Church of the Beginning and the End 1 1

Community of Jesus 1 1

Cornucopia Institute 1 1

Fellowship of Believers 1 1

Guru Sri Chinmoy 1 1

Jehovah’s Witnesses 1 1

Jesus People Church 1 1

John Rogers 1 1

LeRoy Jenkins Evangelistic Assn 1 1

Lifespring 1 1

Light House 1 1

Navigators 1 1

New Age Ashram 1 1

New Life Foundation 1 1

Prophets of Doom 1 1

Religious Science 1 1

Shalome Acres 1 1

Smithtown Tabernacle Full Gospel Church 1 1

Society of Brothers 1 1

The Work 1 1

World Wide church of God 1 1

Yoga Dham 1 1

Other, Christian derived, one mention 17 16

Other, Eastern, one mention 4 4

Other, unclear, one mention 11 11

Name not given or unknown 4 4

Table 3

Respondents’ Perceptions of Group Characteristics

Does respondent consider group in question to be a cult N %

Yes 90 87

No 2 2

Don’t know/not sure 12 12

Factors mentioned by respondent _ N %

as defining group as a cult

Psychological control of members 29 28

Authoritarianism or extreme devotion to particular leader 28 27

Isolation of member and/or exclusion of nongroup activities 27 26

Ideology or beliefs 23 22

Financial exploitation or control of member 22 21

Recruitment/conversion practices 9 9

Special worship practices 9 9

Different mores or lifestyle 5 5

Respondents also were asked to characterize the group’s beliefs and practices (Table 4). Responses to this open-ended question should be taken neither as a definitive description of any particular group’s actual beliefs and practices nor as exhaustive of the respondent’s knowledge. Rather, they provide an overview of those beliefs and practices most salient to troubled family members.

Among those aspects of belief most frequently noted are: devotion to a particular leader (42%); special doctrines or textual interpretations (28%); special psychological states (13%); and special god or gods (11%). The most often described practices include: financial demands (31%); control of sex and social lives (25%); unusual diet or dress (24%); and special worship practices (22%). Whatever the truth about each of these groups, those features to which family members are most sensitive are: the devotion to and control by a single, often living, individual; the unusual beliefs and doctrines; and the control of large aspects of involved individuals’ lives, including social relationships and finances.

Table 4

Respondents’ Perceptions of Group Beliefs and Practices

Aspects of Group beliefs most salient to respondents N %

Devoted to a particular leader 44 42

Special doctrines or textual interpretation 29 28

Practice special psychological states (e.g., meditation) 14 13

Have special god or gods 11 11

Special or elect community 9 9

Believe in reincarnation or other reality 8 8

Strive for self-perfection or enlightenment 7 7

Believe Christ has returned 6 6

Aspects of group practices most salient to respondents

Financial demands or control 33 31

Control of sexual and social relationships 26 25

Unusual diet or dress 25 24

Special worship practices 23 22

Isolation of member from non-members 14 13

Anti-modern or anti-materialistic 12 11

Communalism 8 8

Special counseling or confession practices 5 5

Perceived Reasons for and Consequences of Involvement

Given this not terribly positive picture of the groups or their effects on members, we and our respondents are faced with a difficult question: How and why did these persons become involved, and why do they continue to be involved?

In theory we might imagine several competing but not necessarily mutually exclusive hypotheses in answer to this question. One set of hypotheses refers to the groups and their characteristics, both negative and positive. Another refers to involved individuals and their needs, goals, and vulnerabilities. Among group characteristics which might explain involvements are recruitment and conversion practices, including various kinds of psychological manipulation and control. Other aspects of the group might actively appeal to individuals, including the beliefs, the community, the leader, the practices, and the lifestyle. Various groups could, or course, differ in the degree to which the success of their conversions depended on these factors, and those converted could differ in their amenability to these appeals and strategies.

Among individuals who join, various predisposing factors might favor conversion, e.g., simple loneliness, spiritual searching. Such characteristics might include developmentally determined needs commonly experienced by many persons during later adolescence and early adulthood, e.g., the search for identity, the need for community, and the need for intimacy. Other individual factors associated with joining might include special spiritual needs or emotional troubles.

Table 5 shows the relative importance respondents accorded to a range of factors that might explain the involvement. Although all factors listed are rated, on average, as of some importance, the most important by far are extreme persuasion and indoctrination by the group, followed closely by deception. From the point of view of these family members, then, the major causes of involvement are negative aspects of the groups.

Table 5

Respondents’ Perceptions of Importance of Various Factors in Explaining Involvement

1 = highly important to 4 = not important

Factor Mean N*

Extreme persuasion/indoctrination 1.40 67

Deception by group, members 1.70 54

Appeal of group beliefs 1.87 43

Improving oneself 1.87 41

Seeking truth, the answer 2.00 37

Seeks new spiritual experience 2.09 34

Appeal of group lifestyle 2.12 33

Personally troubles 2.16 37

Lonely, seeking community 2.34 26

Separating from family 2.53 28

Seeking spiritual leader, guru 2.57 20

*N = number of respondents rating factor as highly important.

After these two factors come a range of positive and negative characteristics of the person involved, as well as a few positive characteristics of the group as perceived by the involved person. “Trying to improve oneself” and “appeal of the group beliefs” are ranked as equally important, followed closely by “seeking truth or the answer,” “seeking new spiritual experience,” and “appeal of the group lifestyle.”

Toward the end of the list are what might be termed negative needs or characteristics of the individual, such as being “personally troubled or disturbed,” “lonely, seeking a community,” and “separating from family.”

This ranking accords with the overall view of the groups and their beliefs and practices held by these family members. It also accords with their perceptions of the effects of involvement. Table 6 shows the average ranking accorded a set of negative outcomes. “Restricted lifestyle,” “separation from family and others,” “loss of critical thinking” and “financial exploitation” are seen as very common consequences of involvement. In an open-ended question asking for “the most troubling thing about the involvement,” most often mentioned were “psychological control and loss of psychological autonomy,” “loss of life direction,” “loss of contact,” “intellectual ill effects,” and “economic exploitation” (Table 6). Again, the theme here is the control which the group has achieved over the individual and the resulting harm to the individual.

From these data it is clear that these family members have a consistent and negative interpretation of the reasons for and effects of involvement. They believe that these religious groups often practice recruitment and conversion techniques which are unethical, deceptive, manipulative, exploitive, and damaging, psychologically and otherwise. Given their familiarity with the involved persons, their views should be taken seriously.

Considering the priority accorded negative characteristics of the groups in effecting involvement of their kin, it is of interest that our respondents do not entirely discount additional contributory characteristics of the involved individuals themselves. It seems wise to explore such suggestions on the assumption that persons who join new religious groups are not recruited entirely at random. This would seem to be especially true of those persons, like our sample, who have become very much involved and continue to be so for long time periods.

Table 6

Respondents’ Perceptions of Negative Effects of Involvement

Negative effect Mean N*

Restricted lifestyle 1.57 61

Separation from family 1.69 57

Loss of critical thinking 1.72 66

Financially exploited 1.82 55

Emotional restriction 2.29 39

Overworked 2.60 29

Physically rundown 2.87 27

*N = number of respondents mentioning factor as “very much so” resulting from involvement.

Aspects of involvement most troubling to respondents N %

Psychological control/loss of psychological autonomy 44 42

Loss of life direction 33 31

Loss of contact 27 26

Intellectual ill effects 22 21

Economic exploitation 20 19

Adoption of false or loss of true beliefs 13 12

Emotional ill effects 12 11

Physical ill effects 10 10

Two guiding perspectives organize this exploration. One refers to the ages at which our sample most often joined groups, typically from 18 to 26. Another considers those characteristics that may distinguish joiners from non-joiners regardless of age.

A major need of late adolescence and early adulthood is to establish a social and personal identity, usually through career and work life. Also important is the need to separate from family and establish other significant relationships, especially intimate interpersonal relationships. Joining a new religious group at this age would have major implications for resolution and management of these issues. Extensive or total participation in a group would provide answers to many of these questions. Aside from the opportunity to identify with an ideology, a cause, and a leader, the group would provide a social network and (apparently) facilitate the separation from family. Our concern is not that involvement in a group does not meet these needs, but that it may do so in ways that are not in the person’s or society’s best social, psychological, or ethical interests.

In our data there is evidence that many of these persons lacked strong interpersonal relationships outside of the group. Few were involved in a marital or serious love relationship, and in most of these cases the person’s partner often encouraged him/her to join the group. In addition to being rated as somewhat unstable and unhappy with respect to love relationships, most subjects were also rated as somewhat unstable and unhappy with respect to plans for the future, indicating that many were unsure of themselves and their life direction (see Table 6). These factors all might predispose persons toward involvement.

Table 7

Respondents’ Perceptions of Persons Before They Joined Groups

Overall stability/happiness:

1 = very stable/happy to 4 = very unstable/unhappy Mean N* %*

Family relationships 2.14 30 30

Job or school 2.28 37 39

Friends and social life 2.30 38 38

Emotional frame of mind 2.52 48 51

Plans for the future 2.74 52 61

Love relationships or marriage .75 44** 60

*N/% - those rated very or somewhat unstable

** No response from 32, presumably because of lack of such a relationship

Person’s degree of religiousness, naivety, loneliness,

idealism: 1= very to 7 = not at all Mean

Idealism 3.12

Naivety 3.61

Loneliness 4.07

Religiousness 4.15

Despite the fact that involved persons were rated moderately stable and happy with respect to family relationships (Table 7), separation from family and limited subsequent contact is a common outcome of involvement. If involved persons had significant social ties with others prior to joining, then separation from these persons may suggest the group’s power to enforce a new identity and discourage the continuance of old commitments. On the other hand, separation may reflect unacknowledged instability and conflict attending the family relationships. Although a quarter of the sample were living alone just prior to joining, 24% were living at home with parents and 15% with spouse and/or children (see Table 1). Furthermore, relatively few of these persons were involved in significant love or marital relationships. This in itself suggests unmet needs and potential vulnerability.

Similarly, we might look to the character of pre-existing familial relationships for evidence of unmet needs and vulnerabilities that might predispose persons to the appeals of groups. Data suggestive of the kinds of family issues that may contribute to these involvements come from responses to the open-ended question: “What other personal or family circumstances help explain this involvement?” (See Table 8). Forty percent of the respondents mention either parents’ divorce/separation or other problems in the family of origin. This percentage far outweighs any other category such as trouble with job, school, alcohol or drugs.

Other factors less developmental in character may distinguish our sample, perhaps contributing to the likelihood of involvement. Two seem of possible significance: the religious histories of involved persons and their family and friends, and the emotional stability of involved persons. Table 8 shows that 22% of the sample had changed religious beliefs at some time prior to joining their present group, indicating that a significant minority of the sample had been seeking resolution of spiritual or religious identity. This tendency to previous change of religious beliefs is most typical of those in smaller, apparently Christian-derived groups, and is less typical of those in groups such as Scientology, Hare Krishna, and the Unification Church.

In addition to their own previous religious conversions, there is evidence that conversions of those close to our sample may have influenced their adoption of a new religious identify. Twenty-two percent of the sample are reported to have family members or friends who have joined new religions (Table 8). Although most of these are friends, four are mothers, two are siblings, and 14 are other close relatives. For a minority of our sample, then, there is interpersonal support and modeling for conversion. Again, this tendency is most typical of those in smaller, apparently Christian-derived groups. Despite this evidence of prior religious concerns among a minority of the sample, family members do not perceive these involved persons as on average highly religious prior to joining their group. Nor are they seen as especially naïve or lonely (Table 7).

Table 8

Personal and Family Circumstances Possibly Related to Involvement

Had involved person ever before

changed religious beliefs N %

Yes 23 22

No 72 69

Don’t know/not sure 9 9

Had any of individual person’s family

Or friends joined new religious groups

Yes 22 22

No 78 78

Which friends or relatives joined

Mother 4 19

Sibling 2 10

Other relative 4 19

Friend 9 43

Two or more of the above 2 10

Had involved person ever before experienced

Spiritual or emotional troubles or crisis

Yes, spiritual 3 3

Yes, emotional 41 39

Yes, both spiritual & emotional 5 5

No 28 27

Don’t know/not sure 28 27

Other personal or family circumstances mentioned

By respondent as helping to explain involvement

Parents separation or divorce 12 11

Other conflict/troubles in family 30 29

Own separation or divorce 9 9

Loss of other important relationship 17 16

Trouble with school or job 15 14

Physical illness or limitations 2 2

Financial difficulties 1 1

Alcohol or drug problems 4 4

Specifically diagnosed mental illness 1 1

Other emotional troubles 26 25

Perhaps the most difficult predispositional issue is the possibility that converts to new religious groups may be emotionally troubled. It is notable that only one person in this sample was reported to have been specifically diagnosed and treated for mental illness. Yet there are indications in our data that, as perceived by family members, many of these persons were emotionally troubled.

Table 8 shows the proportion of the sample who are reported to have previously “experienced spiritual or emotional troubles or crisis.” Although only 8% are reported to have previously experienced spiritual troubles, 44% are reported to have previously experienced emotional troubles or crisis. Thus, many of these family members are aware of emotional difficulties in their involved kin. This report is consistent with the 25% of respondents who mention emotional troubles or problems of the involved person as a circumstance helping to explain involvement. However, because only one involved person in our sample is described as having been specifically treated for mental or emotional problems, we must be cautious in attributing to them more than ordinary emotional stresses and strains.

To the extent that such difficulties do characterize persons who join new religious groups, it may be that they deal with the troubles not by seeking therapy or counseling, but by joining a church, undertaking a spiritual technique, or following a master. As one young woman considering joining a group told the project director: “It wouldn’t matter to me about the work or the lifestyle if I knew the Guru was the answer.” Because respondents report that a large minority of the involved persons were emotionally troubled and that 40% experiences conflict related to family or origin, it seems reasonable to conclude that many of these involved persons were affected by difficult family and personal circumstances.

Despite the essentially negative perceptions that family members have of these groups and their effects on involved kin, 32% do acknowledge at least some positive effects of involvement. Among positive effects mentioned (See Table 9) are “seems emotionally stable or happy,” “less trouble with drugs or alcohol,” “more purposeful or responsible.”

Table 9

Respondents’ Perceptions of Positive Effects of Involvements

Does respondent see any positive effects N %

Yes 30 32

No 50 53

Don’t know/not sure 14 15

Possible positive effects mentioned

Seems emotionally stable or happy 11 11

Knows person claims benefits, may question this 10 10

Less trouble with drugs/alcohol 7 7

Improved relations with family 2 2

More purposeful or responsible 4 4

Improved relations with others 5 5

Improved work abilities 4 4

Seems physically well 2 2

More self-understand or insight 2 2

Other 15 15

Although no more than 11% of the sample mentioned any one of these things as positive results, this recognition suggests that while these involvements may be on balance negative, they are not necessarily exclusively so. In fact, 10% of the respondents explicitly state that the person in the group claims to have benefited, although the respondent may question this.

Needs for Services

We should remember that these family members initially wrote seeking help or advice concerning the involvement in question. One section of our questionnaire asked them to describe their views about the major needs for services related to involvements in new religious groups. Consistent with their views about the reasons for and effects of involvements, the most frequently mentioned need is for more available counseling resources (Table 10). Also frequently mentioned are information about specific groups, such as their beliefs and practices, and other information, such as organizations providing services to families affected by such involvements. Publicity about the negative effects of the groups and about prevention programs also are frequently mentioned. Finally, although the question asked about needs for services, respondents mentioned the need for various kinds of legislation to regulate such groups 35 times.

Table 10

Reactions of others to Person’s Involvement

How upset or approving were the following

About involvement

1= very upset to 5 = very approving Mean

Mother 1.39

Father 1.45

Siblings 1.65

Friends 1.85

Spouse or loved one 2.97*

Work, school associates 2.10

Other relatives 1.50

*Only 31 responses, presumably because most respondents

did not have such a relationship

How important does respondent consider it to be to get

Person out of group

1 = very important to 4 = not important 1.31

Reasons why respondents consider it

Important to get person out of group N %

Psychological control/loss of psychological autonomy 48 46

Loss of life direction 33 31

Intellectual ill effects 25 24

Financial exploitation 23 22

Adoption of false or loss of true beliefs 17 16

Emotional ill effects 17 16

Loss of contact 15 14

Physical ill effects 14 13

Most important needs for services as

Seen by respondents

More available counseling resources 38 36

Information on groups 36 34

Publicity re negative effects of groups 26 25

Other information 18 17

More effective government action 17 16

Legislation restricting religious status 10 10

Legislation controlling group practices 9 9

Other legislation 16 15

Prevention programs 8 8


These family members are consistent in their perceptions about the reasons for and effects of involvement. They emphasize the major role in conversion of deception and manipulation by the group and its members, as well as the many negative sequelae of such involvements. Yet the research does suggest some characteristics that may distinguish persons who join new religious groups under these circumstances. There is evidence of some family conflict and perceived, if not treated, emotional troubles, as well as other possibly predisposing personal characteristics and circumstances. These range from having a friend or relative join a group to having previously changed religious beliefs.

None of these, however, characterizes more than a minority of the sample. Nevertheless, these factors, taken in conjunction with other factors (e.g., the involved person’s youth, uncertainty about the future, idealism, and lack of close interpersonal relationships), may make some people more amenable to the appeals of these groups. In the minds of family members, however, the consequences of these involvements are, on the whole, sorry to relate.

In interpreting these data we must take proper account of the character of the sample. As noted, most of these family members were troubled about the involvement, and they had written us seeking advice or help. They had the opportunity to read a brochure sponsored by the University Religious Council outlining some of the distinguishing characteristics of cults and the reasons for concern about them. Thus, these family members are neither randomly selected, disinterested, nor naïve about some of the major issues and concerns raised by involvement in new religious groups and cults.

The individuals described by our respondents cannot be assumed to be representative of all persons involved in new or nontraditional religious groups, nor can the respondents themselves be assumed to be representative of relatives of such persons. Instead, the sample is best understood as defining the views of those troubled and concerned about these involvements and groups, and most especially of those who have sought assistance and advice concerning the involvement.

Also, the groups most often mentioned may not be representative of all new or nontraditional religious groups. Rather, they are best seen as representing groups most likely to trouble family members of those involved. Given the very large number of groups that might plausibly be called new or nontraditional religious groups and the reluctance of many such groups to accurately represent their membership and practices (much less cooperate in potentially critical research), it is nigh impossible to know if our sample is representative of all such groups or even of persons in any given group. Thus, without further careful research on particular groups, and especially research that allows for distinctions among groups, we cannot be certain that the factors we have tentatively identified as characterizing our sample would generalize across groups.

It seems likely that larger groups would recruit a wider range of persons and in a greater variety of ways, than smaller groups. Thus, larger groups, or small groups as they become larger, would probably evidence fewer consistently distinguishing characteristics either of those recruited or of recruitment methods. It is very difficult to accurately estimate the true size of many new religious groups, as they often discourage public awareness of other than those members and activities deemed worthy for public relations, however imaginatively conceived. Some new religious groups may be vastly larger than their efforts at public relations and the impressions conveyed by witting and unwitting media suggest. Groups dedicated more to, say, financial and political aggrandizement than to principles openly practiced may prove quite plastic, as they pursue these ends, in changing their means of recruitment to suit evolving social, political and intellectual conditions. The ideologies of some groups likely sanction just such plasticity of principle and practice.

The families in our sample experience in microcosm an issue with larger social implications. We must honor the deeply felt concerns of these family members, and at the same time recognize that the impact of some groups claiming religious status is more than an individual and private matter. To the degree that these groups win the allegiance of many, then the ethical, social, and psychological issues with which they confront us also gain urgency and importance. It is the nature of religious claims to be extensive and commanding, both upon individuals and societies. Societies founded upon separation of church and state and traditions of religious pluralism must test these claims.

Clearly, these involvements pose questions about the extend and limits of claims to religious liberty and tolerance. While our society is generous in honoring such liberty, it mist also consider those aspects of groups and their practices which unduly strain tolerance. Most germane to the present discussion are questions about recruitment and conversion practices. Whatever the facts and however much there may be variations among groups and across individuals, these family members strongly agree that a major reason for these conversions is deception and extreme indoctrination. This scenario at its worst sounds like a kind of psychological “shanghais.” This is an important issue deserving of further investigation, ideally on a group by group basis.

Whatever the success of claims to legal religious status, we must bear in mind that given the generosity of our laws regarding such claims, legal religious status has ethically modest common denominators, most notably favorable tax status. Tax and other advantages of legal religious status reflect the value our society ascribes to freedom of religious conviction. To most persons, these advantages are justifiable in part because religious groups are commonly believed to be governed by high standards consonant with the central ethical values of the Judaeo-Christian religious heritage and democratic political values.

Yet the very advantages accorded legal religious status should not distract us from the fact that qualifications for legal religious status are not ethically founded. However readily we may associate legal religious status with ethical standards and purposes, the law does not do so. Those concerned for ethically more robust claims to religious status must necessarily bring an ethical, rather than a legal, point of view to evaluation of recruitment, conversion and other practices of religious groups. To our mind, the ethical heritage of Judaeo-Christian religious values and of democratic political traditions leaves little room for secrecy regarding the bases of such an evaluation.

If groups claiming religious status are in conflict with such values and traditions, then it is the obligation of those concerned with upholding the integrity of these values and traditions to identify and publicize these failings. No invocations of protected legal status or high moral purposes can justify or sanctify serious violations of these standards. Such invocations debase the ethical meanings and purposes of religion. However, given the importance our society accords religious freedom, we must recognize that the costs of such freedom may be its ethical abuse by some groups at some times. The safeguard against such abuse may not be more restrictive laws so much as ethically motivated and well-informed public opinion.

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 conclusion of the project in 1981. he received the Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley in 1982, when he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and has taught in various capacities for the Department of Psychology at Berkeley, most recently as Visiting lecturer in 1982.

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1984