Have Cults Declined

Editor’s Corner: Have Cults Decline

Michael D. Langone

On September 27, 2014, The New York Times Sunday Review published an op-ed by Ross Douthat (nytimes.com/2014/09/28/opinion/sunday/ross-douthat-the-cult-deficit.html?smid=nytcore-ipad-share&smprod=nytcore-ipad&_r=0) that suggested that the number of cults and/or cult membership has declined significantly, and that this decline might be a bad thing for society.

This op-ed, which is misleading in many ways, does nevertheless raise important issues.

Mr. Douthat is correct in one statement: “Cults can be dangerous, even murderous, but they can also be mistreated and misjudged.” Cult critics sometimes denigrate the latter half of this sentence, while cult defenders sometimes diminish the first half. But both halves of the sentence are true. We should not be simplistic when we’re talking about cults, for the picture is more variegated than it may at first appear.

However, the writer succumbs to simplification when he infers a decreased prevalence of cults because “we don’t hear nearly as much about them.” What he should have said is that cults haven’t made the front page in a long time, so we don’t notice them as much. But they are most assuredly still around.

ICSA collected 377 news stories about cultic groups between February and August of 2014, and those stories are only a small percentage of the total that we found. Between September 2013 and August 2014, we surveyed 451 visitors to our website. Three hundred sixteen persons listed well over 150 distinct groups to which they or a loved one belonged. Dozens of other persons said either that the group had no name or was a family or one-on-one relationship.

I suggest an alternative hypothesis (as a scientist, I realize that more data is required to assert this as a fact or even a finding): The Internet has made it difficult for larger, more well-known groups to thrive because potential recruits do Web searches, find out about the group’s “dirty linen,” and walk away. Those groups with a small or nonexistent negative history traceable on the Internet, in contrast, may be able to recruit more effectively because whatever deceptions they may resort to are more likely to work.

Ironically, in the Internet age the media may be responsible for preventing dubious cults from reaching front-page status. Today, media exposés remain permanently available on the Web and may impede a dangerous or potentially dangerous group’s recruitment of new members and its continued control of current members. Tragedies that may have occurred perhaps did not occur because cult leaders had more difficulty controlling the flow of information into and out of their groups than was formerly the case.

Although media coverage made permanent on the Web may prevent the well-known groups from recruiting as much as they once did, those born or raised in these and other groups (often called SGAs—second-generation adults) enter our network with increasing frequency. Approximately 20% of the 200+ attendees at our 2014 annual conference, for example, were born or raised in groups. SGAs do not attract as much media attention as cult joiners because SGAs tend to leave their families, who have no interest in publicity, whereas people newly involved in cults tend to have families who are sometimes eager to share their concerns with the press.

Another factor that may account for a smaller media footprint for cults is the research finding that former cult members who approach cult-watch organizations are older than they were during the cult-media heyday of the late 1970s and early 1980s. A study from 1978 found that cultists who later entered the cult education network joined at about age 21 and remained in their groups for 2.7 years on average. A study from 1991, in contrast, obtained an average age of recruitment of 24.8 and an average length of stay of 6.7 years. Families are probably more likely to take action and to get media attention when a college-aged loved one becomes involved in a cultic group than when an adult child becomes a member.

I’m more reserved than the Times writer, and I won’t say that the number of cultic groups or movements today is the same, more, or less than 30 years ago. I don’t know, and neither does anybody else. The scientific evidence simply isn’t good enough to warrant such assertions, especially given the disagreement about the criteria that must be met to label a group a cult (see ICSA’s FAQ, “What is a Cult?”).

Even if some funding agency were willing to underwrite an epidemiological study large enough to collect useful data on cult prevalence, its findings would still be of limited use because there is reason to believe that many members would never participate in the phone surveys that are typically used in such studies. There are, for example, thousands of people in isolated polygamist groups scattered through the West who are unlikely to be counted in such surveys. Furthermore, even members in cities may be less likely to be picked up because so much of the members’ time is taken up in service to the group, so they are not likely to respond to researchers. And then there is the “devil factor”: Survey researchers are part of the demonic “outside world” and to be avoided.

Therefore, the data that we have (see our post on prevalence at icsahome.com/articles/prevalence) needs to be taken with a grain of salt, especially if one is asking about changes over time. The research that exists suggests that about one percent of the population has had some involvement in a cultic group at some time in their lives. And organizations such as the ICSA can list at least several thousand distinct groups about which they have received inquiries. But we cannot speak scientifically to the question of whether or not the number of members or number of cultic groups is changing.

If, however, one grants, for the sake of argument, that the number of cults has declined, as the Times opinion piece has suggested, one might still challenge its assertion that this decline has a causal connection to declining creativity in society. First of all, there is a kind of circularity in his argument. The writer says that we don’t see as many “interesting” cults today (only “vapid” ones); therefore, there is less creativity in society. The premise and conclusion appear to be entangled since interesting cults appear to be both evidence of and a defining feature of creativity in society. Perhaps the existence of interesting—i.e., bizarre—cults reflects a society’s tolerance level, not its creativity. Is a group such as the Breatharians (one can live on air alone if one is sufficiently advanced spiritually) indicative of cultural creativity? Does such a group cause mainstream religions to question their beliefs about the necessity of nourishment for the body? Or does the existence of such a group reflect the society’s capacity to tolerate kooky beliefs?

It may be the case, as the Times piece suggests, that “a wild fringe ... is often a sign of a healthy, vital center.” Maybe, but maybe not. During World War II, the United States of America had a pretty firm and coherent center, but not very many wild fringe happenings; people were too busy winning a war. If today’s often-cited polarized electorate is a sign of a weak center, we ought to have a more subdued fringe than during WWII. However, today’s fringe may be simply less interesting, although just as large as during other times. Maybe we have fewer front-page groups—the ones that Mr. Douthat notices—and more small and isolated groups. I don’t know. And without hard data—data that, as noted, is not easy to come by, I certainly wouldn’t affirm a relationship between societal coherence and the prevalence of cultic groups.

Last, Mr. Douthat missed the most important point about cults: namely, that some cultic groups harm some people. That happened yesterday. It happens today. And it will in all likelihood happen tomorrow. Whether the number of cults or number of cult members has declined or not is irrelevant. The numbers are still significant. And the people who are hurt need and deserve our help.


Douthat, Ross (2014, September 27). The cult deficit. The New York Times Sunday Review, SR12. Available at nytimes.com/2014/09/28/opinion/sunday/ross-douthat-the-cult-deficit.html?smid=nytcore-ipad-share&smprod=nytcore-ipad&_r=0

About the Author

Michael D. Langone, PhD, a counseling psychologist, received a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1979. Since 1981 he has been Executive Director of International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA). He has written and spoken widely on cult-related topics and is Editor-in-Chief of ICSA Today.