ICSA Cults and Government

ICSA e-Newsletter, Volume 7, Number 2, 2008

International Cultic Studies Association, Cults, and Government

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

This paper first briefly reviews the history of International Cultic Studies Association, demonstrating how the demographics of its network have changed overtime and why these changes have reinforced the organization’s openness to dialogue. The paper next briefly discusses past and current attempts to involve the government in the cult issue. The author cautions against the passage of legislation to criminalize brainwashing or other forms of extreme psycho-social manipulation.

Founded in 1979 as American Family Foundation (AFF - the name was changed in 2004), International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) is a network of people concerned about psychological manipulation and abuse in cultic groups, alternative movements, and other environments. In order to help affected families and individuals, enhance the skills of helping professionals, and forewarn those who might become involved in harmful group situations, ICSA collects and disseminates information through periodicals and Web sites, conducts and encourages research, maintains an information phone line, and runs workshops and conferences. Since its inception, ICSA has tried to apply professional perspectives to practical problems of families and former group members. The success of this endeavor depended upon treating these people with compassion and understanding.

The founder of ICSA/AFF was Mr. Kay H. Barney, an engineer and business executive whose daughter had become involved with the Unification Church. During the late 1970s several dozen parents’ groups had formed around the U.S. Other countries also had parents’ groups, although there was little international communication at that time. Many of the U.S. organizations became affiliates of the Citizens Freedom Foundation (CFF), which was chartered around the same time as AFF. In the early 1980s CFF became the Cult Awareness Network (CAN).

Mr. Barney believed in the cause that united the diverse people involved in secular and religious cult education organizations, namely, the necessity to increase understanding about the oppressive control wielded by certain new groups that were mostly, but not always, religious. He also believed, however, that it was necessary to take a professional perspective, that is, to study the field scientifically and to apply these findings in a balanced, responsible manner. He founded AFF as a nonprofit, tax-exempt research and educational organization whose founding board of directors appointed its successors, thereby ensuring a relatively smooth succession. The founding directors included Mr. Barney, Rev. Dr. George Swope, a minister, Ed Schnee, a concerned parent and businessman, and David Adler, a publishing executive and former group member.

AFF and other grassroots organizations came into existence when parents of usually college-age cult members discovered their mutual concerns and decided to take concerted action. Some of these parents lobbied for legislation that would make it easier for parents of cult members to force their adult children to submit to psychiatric observation (“conservatorship” legislation); others focused on public and preventive education by speaking to schools, churches, synagogues, and civic groups and by telling their stories to journalists. Many also became proponents of “deprogramming,” a process in which an adult child would be “snatched” from the street, for example, or lured to a secure place away from the group’s pressures so that he/she could be forced to listen to people tell about the negative side of his/her group. Although initially “deprogramming” referred to involuntary and voluntary interventions, by the late 1980s most people used the term to describe involuntary interventions only, using “exit counseling” to describe interventions that the group member voluntarily agreed to participate in.[2] A survey that I conducted in the early 1980s[3] found that deprogrammings were successful about 60% of the time, a finding very close to that obtained by Bromley a few years later[4].

During the 1970s, interest in cults also increased substantially among sociologists of religion. These sociologists, however, tended to oppose deprogramming and conservatorship legislation, which many of the parents supported. To these parents, sociologists also appeared to focus on the positive aspects of cults and to downplay the harms that so struck the parents. As a result, some parents’ groups did not see sociologists as resources.

Finding little support among sociologists of religion, parents turned instead to a handful of mental health professionals who seemed to be sympathetic to the notion that formerly traditional young people were indeed changing radically in harmful ways as a result of a group involvement. Most mental health professionals at the time tended to dismiss cult joining as a transient adolescent rebellion or as an expression of deep-seated emotional or family conflicts. But some mental health professionals, most notably Dr. Margaret Singer in California and Dr. John Clark in Massachusetts, believed that cult environments were characterized by socio-psychological forces powerful enough to radically change the behavior and attitudes of recruits.[5] A recent survey of psychologists[6] demonstrates how much attitudes within the mental health profession have changed. About half of 695 psychologists surveyed had had professional or personal experience with cults and somewhat more than half supported a “law against brainwashing,” a finding that surprised me because of what I perceive to have been a movement away from this perspective within the ICSA network, although support for legislation has always existed.

In the 1980s ICSA/AFF focused on building a network of professionals and lay activists, collecting information about cultic groups, and articulating clinical perspectives designed to help families worried about a loved one’s cult involvement.

In the 1990s ICSA/AFF, though continuing to work with families, changed its focus to ex-group members and research. This change resulted from the maturing of the professional network, which recognized a need to do more than articulate clinical observations, and changes in the population of people who sought help from ICSA/AFF and other organizations.

Two surveys of ex-members demonstrate how the population entering the helping network changed. Conway and Siegelman’s 1978 survey[7] of 426 subjects came from 48 different groups, with 5 groups accounting for 76% of the subjects and one group, the Unification Church, accounting for 44% of the subjects. An unpublished survey I conducted in 1991 had 301 subjects from 101 groups, with the top 5 groups accounting for 33% of the subjects, and with the Unification Church accounting for only 5% of the subjects. Deprogrammed subjects constituted 70% of Conway & Siegelman’s survey, but only 13% of mine. In my survey, 60% of the subjects had left their groups with no intervention (“walk-aways”), while 9% reported that they had been ejected from their groups. The average age of joining for the Conway & Siegelman sample was 21, but 24.8 for my sample. The average length of time in the group was 2.7 years for the Conway & Siegelman sample, but 6.7 years for mine. Both surveys used a snowball technique to gather subjects, so each more or less reflected the people who were entering the helping network at the time of the survey.

By the early 1990s, it had become clear to most people within the helping network that the population of people needing help and the variety of cultic groups were more diverse than appeared to have been the case in the 1970s. Those of us who had studied the sociological literature in the 1970s realized then that the “true” population of interest was more diverse than it appeared. I, for example, lamented what I called the “Moonification” of the cult phenomenon.

Once a critical threshold of people became aware of the diversity of help seekers, the helping network as a whole became more open to theoretical formulations of cult conversion that departed from the Moonie conversion model, which itself was based mainly on one influential Moonie center in Booneville, California[8]. Moreover, the proportion of parents and ex-group members within the network changed dramatically and contributed to the openness because ex-members, having been in groups, were more aware of the diversity within and across groups than were parents. In the 1970s and early 1980s, parents constituted by far the largest portion of the network. By the late 1990s, ex-members were the dominant category. Today, ex-members are still the dominant subgroup within the helping network, and, as more ex-members obtain advanced degrees, they constitute an ever increasing percentage of the helping professionals and researchers within the network. At our conferences today, parents are the smallest of these four subgroups: ex-members, helping professionals, researchers, and parents. Our conferences have always been open to the public, and we always had cult members in attendance at our conferences (except perhaps for conferences in the early 1980s we might have run jointly with other organizations that were less open). During the past 10 years conference attendees have come from several dozen countries. In 2005 we began to have our annual conference in Europe in alternate years.

This increasing openness made it possible for ICSA’s leadership to dialogue with so-called pro-cultists and with cult members. At our 1999 annual conference, we invited two members of ISKCON to participate in a panel discussion on problems and changes within ISKCON. To my relief and surprise the panel was very well received, in part because of the obvious sincerity of the Krishna speakers, who acknowledged many abuses of authority within their movement. Around the same time we also began a dialogue with Eileen Barker, who had approached us with some trepidation, and laid the groundwork for further dialogue with the so-called “pro-cult camp.” During the years that followed, a number of Dr. Barker’s colleagues attended or spoke at our conference, including Burke Rochford, Phil Lucas, Jim Richardson, Gordon Melton, Nancy Ammerman, Dick Anthony, Jean-Francois Mayer, and Rob Balch. Although their attendance was viewed suspiciously by a few, most attendees had come to accept the premise ICSA/AFF had been advancing for a number of years: It doesn’t hurt to talk to people with whom we may disagree.

I welcomed this change, for I had had productive discussions with so-called pro-cultists in the late 1970s and early 1980s. However, the court battles of the 1980s and early 1990s had stifled dialogue between the two “camps” of “pro-“and “anti-cultists” as lawyers pitted experts against each other. Scholarship suffered as academicians and helping professionals were drawn into advocacy battles in which “winning” is more important than finding the truth. In the preface to a collection on academic disputes and dialogue[9], I discuss this process in detail.


Fortunately, at least in the USA, attempts to use government and/or the courts to “solve” the cult problem have, so to speak, found their water level. The 1970s campaigns to pass conservatorship laws, which would have enabled parents of cult members to subject their adult children to psychiatric observation, failed, and they failed during the heightened emotional climate produced by Jonestown. In my view, this was a positive development. The category “cult” is vague. The variables that determine the degree to which a particular group member is under the influence of a cult leader are many, and they interact in complex ways. Having the government force a person to submit to psychiatric examination simply because he/she belongs to a particular group category ignores the enormous variety of ways in which individuals within that category behave and interact. I believe that most legislators realized that conservatorship laws would have created more problems than they would have solved.

The failure of conservatorship legislation did not mean that people who were indeed harmed by cultic groups were entirely without remedy. They have been able to appeal to a multitude of existing laws and civil remedies, including undue influence lawsuits, sexual abuse prosecutions, child abuse prosecutions, child custody dispute procedures, violation of labor laws, etc.[10] However, former members of cultic groups or parents of cult members cannot seek compensation simply because some people think the group in question is a cult. Each case must be evaluated on its own merits.

There has been some controversy about brainwashing and the courts, with partisans on both sides claiming that the legal system has sided with them. In fact, the picture is mixed. Those claiming brainwashing have won some and they have lost some, and they continue to win some and lose some. The court system seems to have settled into its customary case-by-case approach in these matters, which, in my opinion, is how it ought to be.

In a democracy, state power should be applied judiciously. When a particular harm is concrete, specific, and contrary to existing laws (e.g., “I was raped and here are the bruises and witnesses to prove it”; “I was cheated out of $100,000 and here are the financial records to prove it”; “These test scores show that my child’s education in my ex-wife’s group is grossly inadequate”; “My time card and the group’s bank records show that I worked long hours but was not paid even the minimum wage”), the state may act to provide an appropriate remedy to a wrong. When, however, a particular harm is vaguely construed (e.g., “I was brainwashed”; “I was psychologically abused”; “I didn’t receive the therapeutic help I was promised”), the exercise of state power becomes more difficult to justify, for when the state seeks justice for person A, it usually has to restrict the freedom in some way of person B. Democratic governments are rightly reluctant to restrict the freedom of its citizens.

Although in principle I am open to the possibility of crafting new laws to limit cult abuses, I am skeptical about the viability of legal remedies with which I have some familiarity, such as that recently suggested by Lottick.[11] They propose that the following criteria might form the basis of a law against brainwashing:

Sustained, nonconsensual, mental and physical constraint;

Orchestrated, deceptive, and malicious manipulation; and

Subversion of the self-concept, or “attack-on-the-self.”

Although these criteria are consistent with clinical observations of cult victims and are useful concepts in the treatment of former cult members, they pose insurmountable problems, in my view, as legal criteria for a crime. How does one objectively assess these criteria? Even if one used a psychological measure of self-concept, how can one determine if a given person’s self-concept has been attacked when one has no pre-group test data against which to compare the current findings? If the manipulation is orchestrated and deceptive but not malicious, does the criterion apply? How does one determine if alleged manipulation is orchestrated, deceptive, and malicious? If recruiters are themselves manipulated, how can they be held responsible for manipulating new recruits? If, as usually occurs, a group member claims that he freely chooses his behavior, how does one demonstrate “sustained, nonconsensual, mental and physical constraint”? Who is charged with making these decisions? Furthermore, how does one prevent the law from being applied to situations for which it was not intended, e.g., parental alienation claims in contentious divorce cases? Will divorcing parents have to worry about criminal brainwashing charges in addition to their other legal burdens?

Judgments about criteria such as those proposed by Lottick et al. have been made—sometimes quite rightly in my view—in civil disputes in which expert witnesses offer diverse opinions to judges. However, the criminal system is more demanding. That is why O.J. Simpson was found innocent in his criminal trial, but lost in a civil suit. In the case of cultic groups, the criminal case becomes even more complex. Who is to be charged with the crime? The leader, who may have had no physical contact with the alleged victim; indeed, who may not even know the alleged victim? The leader’s minions, who may themselves claim brainwashing as a defense against the charge that they brainwashed the alleged victim? Most cult critics would probably want to pin the blame on the leader, surely a worthy goal in some cases. This, however, would necessitate that the system of influence and control in a particular group be demonstrated in sufficient detail as to satisfy the criminal-justice system’s demands for “facts” that would show the leader to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a tall order.

That is why I believe most victims who seek redress point to harms that are already recognized as crimes and concerning which there are established legal methodologies for demonstrating the harm, e.g., physical abuse, sexual abuse, financial fraud, violation of labor standards. There is an adage, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In a powerful system of influence and control, one in which the term “brainwashing” might be applied, the leader’s power may very well tempt him/her to exploit his followers in various ways. The specific forms of exploitation may involve crimes, e.g., rape. I think it makes more sense for victims and their advocates to focus on established crimes, on the effects of the processes associated with the concept of brainwashing, rather than on the environment that gave rise to the criminal effects.

The current difficulty in asserting brainwashing or some related concept as a crime doesn’t mean that the victims of high-control environments were not injured in some way. It does mean, however, that a democratic, pluralistic government, which seeks the least restrictive alternatives in its attempts to prevent or right wrongs, may have to tolerate certain harms to individuals in order to maintain a proper balance between justice and freedom. What this proper balance is will vary from country to country. But no state can intervene in every claim of harm and seek perfect justice without becoming totalitarian, corrupt, and unmanageable.

Does this mean that there is nothing that governments can do to address the nonspecific as well as the specific claims of harm that former cult members and/or their families make? My answer is “no.”

First of all, governments can support research in this area. Some claims of harm are vague because we do not understand the phenomena in question adequately or because we haven’t developed appropriate methodologies for assessing the matter. Psychological abuse is a case in point. Forty years ago, psychological abuse was a vague concept. Today, however, there is a body of theory and research and a variety of assessment instruments that provide psychologists with tools to address psychological abuse among children and women, and to a lesser extent cult members. Even with the first two populations the research is far from complete, but we do know more about psychological abuse than we did 40 years ago. Adequate government research support might enable multidisciplinary teams to differentiate vague concepts such as “cult” and perhaps find subcategories of these concepts that might be precise enough to enable society to right certain wrongs that had hitherto been tolerated in the interest of freedom.

Even if research were not able to reach a level of precision and empirical understanding that would justify the exercise of state power (and my suspicion is that research will rarely be that compelling), the research could still contribute to the other three areas in which I believe governments can act: treatment, investigation of complaints, and education.

Research suggests that a significant minority, if not a majority, of people who leave cultic groups need psychological, medical, and/or social assistance (e.g., housing, employment). My clinical colleagues and I, who collectively have worked with probably over 10,000 former cult members, would vigorously argue that the ex-cult population has a constellation of treatment needs (related, for example, to dissociation, trauma, dysfunctional patterns of self-blame) that is different from other populations. Government support of treatment and treatment-oriented research could help many hurting people without threatening anybody’s freedom. In my opinion, it is scandalous that so few governments support treatment of people harmed by high-demand, cultic groups.

I think it is also appropriate for government to turn to responsible cult experts to conduct investigations of specific groups that have raised concerns. Such investigations, which INFORM and CIAOSN have performed for governmental authorities, are a subcategory of research, but their methodology may be modified to meet the requirements of the particular situation.

In my view, it is also appropriate for governments to fund educational programs, particularly those aimed at youth and designed to help people become more discerning in their relationships with groups in general, not just cults. All groups have elements of influence and control. Certain cultic groups may be extreme examples of influence and control. Educational programs that teach people how to recognize and resist influence and control tactics can make them more informed and alert consumers in the ideological marketplace that expands as societies become more pluralistic. Instead of telling people to avoid certain “bad” groups, we should teach them how to critically evaluate all groups.

People of integrity can argue about the quantitative dimensions of harm, for our scientific understanding of this field leaves much to be desired, so we inevitably must make judgment calls about these issues. To deny that anybody is harmed, however, is to stick one’s head in the sand. Unfortunately, such ostrich-like behavior is not unusual, for, as law professor Marci Hamilton has demonstrated[12], certain elites in society (at least in the U.S.A.) have tended to have a naive view of religion in which they deny the historically obvious fact that people sometimes do bad things in the name of religion.

In summary, governments should pay attention to claims of harm, but they should also recognize that even we experts don’t understand the field as much as policy makers might like. Therefore, governments should be prudent in their actions concerning claims of harm concerning cults. Where claims of harm are precise, substantial, and demonstrable, governmental action may be justified. Where claims of harm are vague or not persuasively demonstrable, governments should be cautious and should support research, treatment, and educational actions that can help people or make them more informed consumers in the ideological marketplace in which cultic and other groups operate.


This paper was presented as part of a panel discussion, “Government and Cults: Toward a Common Ground,” at the April 16-19, 2008 conference of INFORM and CESNUR at the London School of Economics. The opinions expressed in the paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other people associated with ICSA. The organization encourages dialogue and does not take a position on the issues discussed here.

[2] See Stephen Kent, Ph.D. & Joseph Szimhart, “Exit Counseling and the Decline of Deprogramming”: http://icsahome.com/infoserv_articles/kent_stephen_exitanddeclineofdeprograming_abs.htm. Also see Carol Giambalvo, “From Deprogramming to Thought Reform Consultation”: http://icsahome.com/infoserv_articles/giambalvo_carol_deprogramming_to_thought_reform.htm

[3] Langone, Michael D. (1984). Deprogramming: An analysis of parental questionnaires. Cultic Studies Journal, 1(1), 63-78.

[4] Bromley, David G. (1988). Deprogramming as a mode of exit from new religious movements: The case of the Unification Movement. In David G. Bromley (Ed.), Falling from the faith: causes and consequences of religious apostacy. Beverly Hills: Sage.

[5] See Margaret Singer’s 1979 article “Coming Out of the Cults”: http://icsahome.com/infoserv_articles/giambalvo_carol_deprogramming_to_thought_reform.htm

[6] Lottick, Edward A. (2008). Psychologist survey regarding cults. Cultic Studies Review, 7(1), 1-19.

[7] Conway, F. & Siegelman, J. H. (1982, January). Information disease: Have cults created a new mental illness? Science Digest, pp. 86, 88, 90-92.

[8] Taylor, D. (1982). Becoming new people: The recruitment of young Americans into the Unification Church. In R. Wallis (Ed.), Millennialism and charisma. Belfast: The Queen’s University.

[9] http://www.icsahome.com/infoserv_articles/langone_michael_academicdialoguepreface_en0403.htm

[10] See ICSA legal articles collection (http://www.icsahome.com/infoserv_topic/tp_legal_article.asp), particularly Hominik’s “Cults in American Society.”

[11] Lottick, Edward A. (2008). A remarkable consensus. ICSA e-newsletter, Number 2.

[12] Hamilton, Marci. (2005). God vs. the gavel: Religion and the rule of law. New York: Cambridge University Press.