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Debunking the Myth of Mind-Control

Salibo on Singer

And now diane starts quote psychologists, in answer re only sociologists... (long)

Diane Richardson <referen@bway.net>

28 Apr  97


From Academic Psychology Bulletin, vol. 7, no. 1, Spring 1985.

Psychiatry and the New Cults: Part I

John A. Saliba, PhD

Part I The New Cults: Dangerous Institutions Causing Mental Illness

The presence of new religious groups in our society has been the subject of heated debate in state legislatures and court rooms as well as in psychiatric and health care centers throughout the country (Brandon, 1982; Richardson, H., 1980). Explanations of their successful rise are important, not only for theoretical reasons but also, and more importantly, because they deal with practical issues relating to our understanding of mental illness and our procedures for health care. Further, they touch upon a fundamental principle in our society: that religious freedom is guaranteed to all under the law, which does not favor one particular religion or religious group. Reading through the voluminous literature on the subject (Robbins, Anthony and Richardson, 1978; 1981 & 1983; Hackett, 1981), one encounters such familiar problems as the meaning of religion, the nature of religious experience, the dynamics of conversion, and the impact of religious beliefs and practices on personality. Debate about the cults has also brought into focus the nature of family life, particularly the authority of parents over their offspring. The health of the average American family is one of the major questions which confronts us when dealing with some of the problems which have followed in the wake of the cults (Kaslow and Sussman, 1982).

Psychiatry and mental health have featured prominently in the legal debates about the cults. Those states that have tried to legislate against the cults have proposed amendments in their mental health and hygiene codes (Brandon, 1982). Similar attempts have been made in other countries, specifically in Canada and Germany (Richardson, H., 1980, pp. 90ff.). Psychiatric opinion on the cults is, therefore, central to our understanding of and dealing with this new phenomenon. This paper will explore the work of psychiatrists and psychologists on cults. In the first part we will examine and evaluate the view that the cults are dangerous organizations which create mental and emotional problems for those who join them. The second part will explore the position that the new religious movements are offering young adults different kinds of therapies which help them in one or several crises which they have to face during the course of their lives. The study will conclude with a discussion on the major issues brought about by psychiatric studies on the cults and with several suggestions for studying and understanding the new religions.

Margaret Thaler Singer on the Cults

One of the more influential psychologists in the debate on the cults is Margaret Thaler Singer. She has been actively involved in counseling ex-cult members and in testifying in favor of distraught parents in several trials involving the new religious movements. Since Singer's view is representative of those psychologists and psychiatrists who have taken an anti-cult stand (Clark et al., 1981; Clarke, 1978 and 1979; Goldberg and Goldberg, 1982; Hopkins, 1978; Etemand, 1978; Shapiro, E., 1977; Spero, 1983; note 1), the following outline of her position is fairly typical of a large section of counselors across the country.

The Cult and Its Features

The definition of a "cult" has been the topic of debate in the social sciences, especially in sociology (Stark and Bainbridge, 1979; Chalfant, Beckley and Palmer, 1982, pp. 109ff). Singer's implied definition can be summed up as follows: a cult is a spurious, pseudo-religious group headed by a powerful leader who offers empirical cures for all of life's problems (cf. West and Singer, 1980, p. 3246; Singer, 1979a, p. 72). Several distinctive features appear in most cults. First, cults are led by authoritative, domineering and ruthless leaders who control the lives of their followers (Singer, 1979b, p. 18). Singer calls these leaders "venal quacks" (West and Singer, 1980, p. 3245). Secondly, the cults are distinguishable by their double standard of ethics. While they openly promise spiritual advancement for those who join them and social benefits for all, in reality avarice, personal convenience and desire for power are the underlying motives of their founders and/or leaders (West and Singer, 1980, pp.3250 & 3252; Singer, 1979b, p. 18). Cult members are encouraged to deceive and manipulate outsiders (Singer, 1979b, p. 18). And finally, the cults bring about a major, disruptive change in the life-style of those who join them. Such a dramatic change of life-style and/or behavior is claimed by Singer (West and Singer, 1980, p. 3249) and others (Conway and Siedgelman, 1978) to be sudden, causing both physical and mental harm to most members.

In order to understand the impact of the cults on our society, one must begin by identifying and estimating their prevalence. Singer estimates that there are some three million Americans involved in about 2500 to 3000 cults which vary in size from two dozen members to thousands of ardent followers. The majority of those committed to cult belief and practice are young adults, between the ages of 18 and 25. Most of them are well educated, often with college degrees, and come from middle-class and upper-middle class families (West and Singer, 1980, pp. 3248 & 3250; Singer, 1979a, p. 72; 1979b, p. 18).

The majority of the new religious movements can be classified, according to Singer, into ten types:

1. Neo-Christian religious cults; 2) Hindu and Eastern religious cults; 3) occult, witchcraft and satanism cults; 4) spiritualist cults; 5) Zen and other Sino-Japanese philosophical cults; 6) race cults; 8) psychological cults; 9) political cults; 10) certain communal and self-help or self-improvement groups that, over time, become transformed into cults. (West and Singer, 1980, p. 3249).

Singer herself has studied members of groups where an intensive relationship between the leader and the devotees is a dominant feature. Among those specifically mentioned by her are Jim Jones's People's Temple, the Church of Scientology, the Divine Light Mission, Synanon, the Worldwide Church of God, the Unification Church, the Hare Krishna, and Transcendental Meditation. Seventy-five percent of those ex-members she has counseled had left the cults through legal conservatorship and most of them had seen deprogrammers. None, she assures us, had been through deprogramming in the extreme form (Singer, 1979a, p. 75). Singer evaluated their condition as pathological. These ex-members were spacey, programmed individuals who had been changed into zombie-like creatures (West and Singer, 1980, p. 3249). One of the methods Singer used to study them was to compare the change that had taken place in them since they joined the cult. She achieved this by interviewing at least two relatives and/or friends of the ex-cult members in order to obtain a history of her patients. In this way she could compare the intellectual interests, academic accomplishments, and emotional behavior in the pre-cult and post-cult stages (West and Singer, 1980, p. 3249). Singer seems to have been overwhelmed by the drastic transformation which membership in cults is capable of achieving in young adults who join.

Many practices followed by most of the cults are, for Singer, a cause for alarm. After being recruited under false pretenses, cult members are exploited and practically enslaved. They are subjected to long training sessions in which they are indoctrinated into cult belief and behavior (Singer, 1979a, p. 75). Their total obedience to the cult and its leaders is maintained by programs of "coercive persuasion," or "brainwashing" (Singer, 1978, p. 16). Retaliation against defectors, antagonism against parents, seclusion from outside contact, and rigid control of one's individual life are among the negative qualities common in many of the new cults (West and Singer, 1980, p. 3248). The chief model Singer uses to understand what happens when a person joins a cult is the Chinese indoctrination or brainwashing of prisoners of war (West and Singer, 1980, pp. 3248 & 3251). Jonestown is indirectly taken as a paradigm of what might happen to many contemporary cultic groups.

Negative features of the cults are brought into focus when these new religious groups are compared to other apparently similar institutions in our society. Cults are distinguishable from communes in many important aspects. Communes have no rigid structure headed by a powerful leader who holds absolute, divine authority. They are not reinforced by the religious concept of revelation. They have no rigid boundaries: people are allowed to come and go from communes freely, without fear. Unlike cults, communes pose no threat to society (West and Singer, 1980, pp. 3247-3248). Similarly, when compared to other religious groups, like religious orders or to other strict organizations, like army training camps, the similarities are superficial. Trainees in religious orders are indeed sequestered, but only temporarily. Ritual fasting and mortification are also present but they are not imposed on all by force as an essential part of religious life. Applicants to religious orders often go through psychiatric screening and are informed of the duties and obligations that come with membership. Members of religious orders start their new way of life with a trial, an experimental period prior to full commitment (West and Singer, 1980, pp. 3252). Members of the new cults behave like programmed robots: intensive smiling, repetitive monologues of cult jargon, and a preachy conversational style rather than dialogue are commonly shared behavioral patterns (West and Singer, 1980, pp. 3251). Members of established religious orders, on the other hand, exhibit an average variety in their behavior and are, moreover, outgoing in their relationships with outsiders, making a real contribution to social life (Singer, 1979b, p. 18).

Why People Join Cults

If cults are such defective organizations, why is it that so many young, intelligent adults are attracted to them? Singer gives two answers to this question. She first explains that the general cultural condition of our times encourages the rise and spread of new religious movements. Cults come into being during "periods of unusual turbulence in human history" (West and Singer, 1980, p. 3247). Modern young adults, she observes have adopted a neo-romantic, anti-intellectual posture. They have become skeptical of the large institutions of our society (West and Singer, 1980, p. 3253). Our age is experiencing a period of philosophical materialism and of rapid culture change (Singer, 1978, p. 16). It is not surprising that modern youth has become vulnerable to the lure of the cults. Secondly, Singer stresses the individual psychological make-up of the people who actually join these movements. Those who join a cult are vulnerable people (note 2). Shyness, home-sickness, uncertainty of purpose, alienation, loneliness, depression, and unchannelled idealism are the characteristics she notes in those attracted to the cults (West and Singer, 1980, p. 3248). People who are drawn to the cults are often between jobs and/or commitments. They are in conflict with their families or are struggling with serious life problems, such as sex and marriage (West and Singer, 1980, p. 3252). In a state of boredom, restlessness and confusion people find it hard to see any meaning or purpose in life (Singer, 1979a, p. 72). Drifting young adults are easily deceived by the promise of peace, security and happiness so readily assured by already committed cult members (Singer, 1979b, p. 19).

This vulnerability of modern youth does not mean, according to Singer, that the majority of those who become cult members are mentally ill or psychologically weak. Rather, they are normal, average individuals who share similar problems with the majority of young adults in our society. The family situation is not held to be responsible for driving people to join cults (West and Singer, 1980, pp. 3250 & 3252; Singer, 1979a, p. 80; 1979b, p. 19). The blame is placed on the cultic recruitment methods which successfully entice and dupe young adults "seeking relief from many age-appropriate developmental crises" (Singer, 1978, p. 16).

Effects of Cult Membership

Singer is alarmed at what she calls the effects of cultism on those who have been recruited. When one joins a cult a sudden catastrophic change takes place. The new members abandon their academic and intellectual pursuits. Their cognitive flexibility and adaptability are reduced. They become incapable of thinking rationally and of making their own decisions. In general, their psychological and physical condition deteriorates. They regress, becoming extremely passive and suggestible. Cults induce "empty mind" states and trance-like conditions rendering their member unrealistic in the face of life's problems and challenges (West and Singer, 1980, pp. 3248-3252; Singer, 1979a, pp. 75-76; 1978, pp. 17-18). The cults are, in Singer's view, dangerous groups which not only disrupt families but also create havoc in the general well-being and lives of those who have been lured into them.

It is not surprising that Singer thinks that cult members are in need of therapy. The cults make them sick -- so sick, in fact, that cult members who want to return to their former states of life are faced with many re-entry problems and require professional assistance (Singer, 1979b, pp. 19-20). Singer's main work has been with ex-cult members, helping them overcome their dependence on the cult and directing them in their attempts to regain control of their lives. This is not an easy task because the damage done by the cults take a long time to heal, and therapists are not trained to deal with the problem (Singer, 1978, p. 15).


Defense Introduction - Announcement - William's Sins Bainbridge - Timothy Miller - Hunts Attack - Robert Jay Lifton - Pattern of Defense - Loaded Language - Margaret Singer - DSM -1V - Clark's Defense -Kaplan and Saddock - Sociologist Vs Psychologist - Milieu Control - Hugglung's Reaction  Salibo on Singer - APA Statement - The Rabbits Foot

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This web site is NOT created by a Scientologist. It is created by a Scientology EX-MEMBER who is critical of Scientology. However, this ex-member is ALSO critical of the anti-Scientology movement. This does not make him a Scientologist, nor a defender of Scientology.

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