Fellows, R.C., M.T.S. When you’re asked about cults. Reprinted with permission.
Probably the two questions that I am asked most often about cults are, "How can you tell if a group is a cult?" and "What can I do if I know someone who is in a cult?"
IDENTIFYING A DESTRUCTIVE GROUP
In asking the first question, people usually mean, "How can I tell if a group is destructive?" A group can be deviant or heretical without being destructive. A group can also be destructive without holding particularly unusual beliefs.
Dr. Michael D. Langone of the American Family Foundation defines a destructive group as one that is manipulative and deceptive, exclusive, psychologically or financially exploitative, totalitarian, and/or psychologically damaging to its members or their families.
A group can be destructive without claiming to be a new religion or self-improvement method. Rather than attempting to determine if a group is a "cult," I try to get people to see how any group, and even a personal relationship, can be destructive to individual freedom if it is manipulative.
SOME CHARACTERISTICS OF DESTRUCTIVE GROUPS
Exclusive. The group claims or implies that they have the only right answer to a specific question or problem.
Totalitarian. The members are always expected to think, feel, and act in a manner prescribed by the group.
Psychologically damaging to the cult member or to his or her family. This is seen especially with groups that try to separate members from their families.
COUNSELING THE CULT MEMBER
You can help someone who has undergone a sudden personality change, or who is a member of a destructive group.
The techniques for communicating with those who are involved in manipulative groups consist primarily of active listening and creating an environment for change.
Keep lines of communication open. If you are the member’s friend or part of the family, leave the door open for him or her to come back at all times. Use active listening and remain calm. Make sure they know that you hear them. Make "I" statements about your position and feelings, and don’t humor them. At the same time, avoid ultimatums, orders, force, punishment, or rewards for leaving the group.
Communication with family and friends is most important for reintegration into life away from the group. Talk about the member’s past, former relationships, and life before the radical change. Maintain communication with others in the member’s life as you counsel him or her.
Keep arguments about the beliefs of the group to an absolute minimum. This is especially difficult to do. Avoid polarization, name-calling, and the misuse of the word "cult." Remember: deviant or heretical views by your standards are not necessarily destructive. Try not to deny others’ desires for spiritual meaning. Remain open-minded and avoid rigid positions. Focus on the restriction of free choice due to manipulation and deception.
Learn as much as you can about the group so that you can discuss it intelligently with the member. To learn about its beliefs, you can read the group’s own literature. To learn about the group’s activities, contact the American Family Foundation, which has information on some specific groups. Both have collections of published articles about specific groups they can send you.
Choose a therapist who is a specialist in exit counseling. Avoid therapists who use coercive deprogramming or who employ psychologically dangerous models of therapy. Make sure that any lawyers you retain are specialists in cult-related litigation.
Limit your involvement with the group. Don’t underestimate its ability to convert you. It is usually best not to give the member any money. This will be difficult for close friends and family members, just as it will be difficult for them not to humor the cult member. Basically, it seems to be most effective to take a relatively moderate position, focusing primarily on manipulation and deception in groups rather than on the irrationality of their belief systems.
(These suggestions for opening up communication with cult members are also useful in working with those who have come to believe some of the extraordinary pseudo-scientific and metaphysical claims made by various groups and individuals in our time.)
I have developed a workshop which aims to inoculate participants against involvement in destructive groups. One of the cornerstones of the workshop is a set of suggestions that I call "Ten Steps to Critical Thinking":
- Recognize demand situations that appear to require you to act in a certain way.
- Remember that you can say No.
- Recognize false dilemmas. Always add "none of the above" to any multiple choice before deciding.
- Sleep on it. Recognize pressure to decide quickly. Don’t act under stress.
- Look for the hidden agenda. What is really being said? What is not being said? To whom, by whom, and why is it being said?
- Recognize logical fallacies.
- Know what group or belief a person represents. Ask blunt questions and don’t accept vague answers.
- Recognize flattery.
- Ask questions. Challenge authority claims.
- Retain your sense of self-worth. Don’t be afraid to be different.
Religion scholar Jacob Needleman has said that it’s good to have an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out. And Charlie Chan said that the mind is like a parachute—it functions only when it’s open.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR AND ICEP
Author Robert C Fellows, who earned a master’s degree in theological studies from Harvard University, is a magician and mentalist who also conducts education programs and workshops that educate young people and others about the nature of cultic involvement and how to avoid them. For information on these programs, contact ICEP at the address below.
This pamphlet is produced by ICEP (International Cult Education Program), an organization composed of professionals and lay experts. ICEP educates staff and youth in colleges, universities, middle- and high schools, religious institutions, and other educational forums about cults and psychological manipulation. ICEP is a program of AFF (American Family Foundation). AFF, P.O. Box 2265, Bonita Springs, FL 34133. Phone: (941)514-3081; fax: (941)514-3451; e-mail: email@example.com; web site: http://www.csj.org.