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Dispelling the Myths:

The Psychological Consequences of Cultic Involvement

by Paul R. Martin

from the Christian Research Journal, Winter/Spring 1989, page 8. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.

For over seven years Jennifer was a successful missionary with a well-respected mission organization. Still a faithful servant of God's Word she returned to the States and joined what seemed to be a good evangelical church. Gradually she and the rest of the church were drawn under the spell of their dynamic pastor. Over time she began to believe and practice things that previously would have been morally unthinkable to her. Although she claimed to be happy, inwardly she was filled with anxiety, guilt, and fear. And yet, no amount of persuasion could convince her that her group was in error.

It literally took a miracle for Jennifer to see the errors of her church's distorted teaching on relationships and spiritual growth. Although much better, she is now into her second year of therapy with a Christian counselor. It will likely take some time still to sort through what this so-called "church" did to her and other members of that congregation.

Randy, a sophomore at a major midwestern university, and a truly converted Christian, sought a fellowship that was "on fire for the Lord." After finding the "perfect church" Randy was quite happy and content for a time. Then he fell in love with one of the women in the church. There was only one problem -- his church forbade dating. Before Randy knew it, his casual and circumspect encounters with this girl -- viewed by the elders as disobedience and faction -- resulted in his excommunication. The experience so stunned him that his life was never the same. Randy respected the elders and so he accepted as true the charges of faction and of having a wicked heart. Although he tried to make amends with the church, he never seemed able to satisfy the elders.

For some ten years Randy remained an outcast, even believing he was an outcast from God. Any attempt to work or return to school was short-lived. He was haunted by feelings of rejection. In desperation, his parents sought many forms of help. Even some of the finest psychiatrists in the country found it difficult to reverse the damage done. As a middle-aged man, Randy still struggles with confusion, despair, occupational uncertainty, and dating difficulties.

Surprisingly, Jennifer and Randy displayed the same symptoms of disillusionment, depression, confusion, and despair as many of the young people who had once been captive to the well-known cults such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Unification Church ("Moonies"), and The Way International.

Yet how could this be? These two people were professing Christians, involved in so-called Christian groups. Unfortunately, there are so many cases like these that pastors and counselors (including myself, a licensed psychologist) have seen that the problem simply cannot be ignored. In my own case, I was slow to face and recognize the problem because -- like many others -- I accepted some erroneous assumptions concerning cultic phenomena. These assumptions effectively created a sense of denial in me concerning these hurting people. In this article I shall elaborate on these widely accepted myths concerning cultic involvement.


Ex-cult members do not have psychological problems. Their problems are wholly spiritual.

Although often believed by both Christians and ex-cultists, myth #1 has no basis in reality. As a result of extensive research with some 3,000 ex-cultists, Dr. Margaret Singer observed significant instances of depression, loneliness, anxiety, low self-esteem, overdependence, confusion, inability to concentrate, somatic complaints, and, at times, psychosis.[1] In addition to Singer's authoritative research, there are many articles and books that describe the psychological distress of ex-cultists. (Many of these findings will be referred to in the body of this article.)

My own experience verifies the findings of Dr. Singer. Lori (a girl I treated after she left an aberrational church group) presents a typical example of the overdependence and insecurity of a former cultist. She asked me: "Is it okay to have cold cereal for breakfast?" "Can I listen to the radio?" It was as though Lori was a little child needing approval and guidance for her every move.

Mental health professionals also propagate the first part of myth #1. While not endorsing cult membership, Dr. Saul Levine, department head of psychiatry at Sunnybrook Medical Center in Toronto, asserts that the experience can be "therapeutic" and that "a reassuring majority have not been damaged."[2]

Though I do not totally doubt the accuracy of Levine's findings, I am troubled that he wrote his material after (and in spite of) the horrors of Jonestown. He makes no reference to the countless tales of woe related by thousands of former cult members.

A large part of the difference between Levine's findings and those of researchers who recognize problems among ex-cultists could be due to the populations sampled. Levine studied people who were generally in cultic groups for short periods and who volunteered to be interviewed. As opposed to this, it is doubtful whether some members of "utopian" or separatist cults would volunteer to talk to a psychiatrist if they were having real doubts about the group. The members' fear and guilt -- as well as distrust of the psychiatric profession -- would perhaps be too great an obstacle. Additionally, Levine admitted that even his sample of cultists experienced "severe emotional upheaval in the first few months" after returning home.[3]

Researchers who report problems usually have dealt with people who have left on their own, were counseled to leave, or have been deprogrammed, and want help. In such cases the problems were real and the hurt very apparent. Researchers, however, have not settled the issue of what percentage of people in these groups suffer psychological harm. Nor have they shown what personality types will be detrimentally affected by cultic involvement.

Concerning the spiritual problems experienced by cultists, it is true that these are often present in addition to the emotional distress. These spiritual problems, however, generally originate with the group's unbiblical teachings rather than having their source in the individual's own relationship with God. It has been my experience that almost all former members of religious cults or extremist sects (including those which claim to be evangelical) are confused about such things as the grace of God, the nature of God, submission to authority, and self-denial. It is noteworthy that groups with widely varying doctrinal stances -- from the Hare Krishnas to Jehovah's Witnesses -- uniformly distort God's grace and character.


Ex-cult members do have psychological disorders. But these people have come from clearly non-Christian cults.

Myth #2 is really assuming one of two things. First it may assume that genuine Christians never have psychological problems. However, many well-known Christian theologians and psychologists are on record as stating that true Christians do suffer psychologically. The late Dr. Francis A. Schaeffer, for example, wrote:

Second, Myth #2 may presume that there are only non-Christian cults. And yet my personal experience (which has been verified by the considerable research of others) has been that some Christian groups are cultic in practice. This being the case, abusive Christian groups can and frequently do exacerbate previously existing psychological disorders relating to the individual's personality, family, occupation, etc., and can even produce such disorders where they were not already present.[5]

A number of recent studies have shown that psychological distresses are experienced by members in both Bible-based (and even doctrinally orthodox) groups and non-Bible-based groups. In fact, the psychological problems are similar. Flavil R. Yeakley, Jr., reports that a certain type of group-induced personality distortion has contributed to guilt, low self-esteem, frustration, depression, serious emotional problems, overdependence, and irrational behaviors in a number of well-known religious organizations.[6] Of the groups he studied, the following indicated objectively measured signs of personality distortion: the Boston Church of Christ, the Church of Scientology, the Hare Krishnas, Maranatha Campus Ministries, the Children of God (now called the Family of Love), the Unification Church, and The Way International.

Now, Maranatha and the Boston Church of Christ are seemingly Bible-based ministries. Maranatha is a fundamental, charismatic sect (advocating "dominion" or "kingdom theology") that has been criticized at times for authoritarian excesses, among other things. Likewise, the Boston Church of Christ and its many sister campus churches all over the U.S. have been roundly criticized for authoritarianism and coercive persuasion techniques. Both of these groups would contain "born again" members.

What is alarming about these findings is that groups which are at least marginally Christian are producing psychological harm quite similar to that produced by non-Bible-based cults. All of these groups were found to be molding their members into a composite personality that included judging (i.e., relating to the world in terms of value judgments) and extroversion. But not all people are by nature extroverts or judger-type personalities. Some people are by nature introverts and perceiver-types (i.e., those who view the world in a more descriptive manner without needing to draw conclusions based on their observations). To attempt an alteration of personality types is to invite disaster in the form of neurosis and other emotional difficulties.

Yeakley also tested members of the mainline churches of Christ denomination (not associated with the shepherding/discipling movement, as is the Boston church), as well as members of the Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches. In these groups, he did not find any evidence of group-induced personality distortion that would lead to psychological distress.

Unfortunately, orthodoxy per se is no guarantee that harm will not occur. My own research (with several hundred ex-cultists and about 50 on an intensive basis totalling about 2,000 hours) indicates that the severity of problems suffered by those in the extremist evangelical sects may be equal to or greater than that experienced by members of the better-known cults such as ISKCON, the Church of Scientology, the "Moonies", The Divine Light Mission, and The Way.[7]


Both Christian and non-Christian groups can produce problems, but all of the people involved in the groups must have had prior psychological hang-ups that would have surfaced regardless of what group they joined.

I encounter this myth regularly among both Christian and secular psychologists. I suspect that it will achieve a status of near immortality. It seems that no amount of contradictory evidence can persuade some that "normal" people can get involved in such groups. Sometimes reminding my colleagues about Nazi Germany helps to dispel this myth from their thinking. I ask, "Were all those Germans suffering from individual pathology that made them vulnerable to the Nazi religion?" Or I ask, "How about Iran and the Ayatollah? Are all of his followers fanatical, sick people, or were they fairly normal people who got fanatical and sick because of following him?" There are more than a few illustrations from history which underscore the falsity of myth #3.

My own clinical research, along with a number of other studies, shows that not all cult members had prior psychological problems. In fact, the proportion of those with prior problems (about 1/3) to those without is only slightly above the general population (about 1/4).

Levine, Singer, Maron, Clark, and Goldberg and Goldberg have all shown in separate studies that family or otherwise pre-existing psychological factors do not necessarily predict who will end up in a cult.[8] And, of course, their findings concerning who joins cults would be consistent with the dynamics of large social movements such as the Nazis, the fanatical Muslims, or Communism. Simply put, individual psychopathology does not adequately explain the phenomena of large fanatical mass movements.

Nonetheless, there are a few variables that do help predict who will join a cult or cultlike group. Singer, Maron, and a number of other researchers have spelled out several of these factors, some of which are: 1) a stressful event within the past year; 2) a transition phase in life (between family and independence, between school and career, or between dating relationships); 3) a longing for community and caring friends; and 4) a desire to serve a great cause and be part of a movement that will change society.

Now, for those who do have pre-existing problems, cultic life can be extremely dangerous. At least on this point most researchers seem to be in substantial agreement. For those with pre-existing emotional problems cultic involvement may produce dissociation, inability to think or concentrate, psychosis, hallucinations, or extreme suggestibility.[9]


While normal unbelievers may get involved with cults, born-again believers will not. And even if they did, their involvement would not affect them so negatively.

Myth #4 is perhaps the most dangerous of all because it prevents the provision of help to those who are really hurting. It is also an old myth, and was challenged as early as Old Testament times. Ezekiel warned that God's sheep could be abused by wicked shepherds (Ezek. 34:1-7). Regarding this, St. Augustine said: "The defects of the sheep are widespread. There are very few healthy and sound sheep....But the wicked shepherds do not spare such sheep. It is not enough that they neglect those that are ill and weak, those that go astray and are lost. They even try, so far as it is in their power, to kill the strong and healthy...."[10]

So it is obvious that God's sheep can be damaged by bad shepherds, and no more obvious examples of "wicked shepherds" could be given than the leaders of destructive cults and aberrational religious movements.

Myth #4 is particularly dangerous to the Christian community because it ignores the fact, pointed out by several Christian cult watchers, that a sizeable proportion of those involved in cults or extremist groups come from some type of evangelical church base.[11] Of the cultists I have personally worked with, approximately 25% came from evangelical or fundamental churches and over 40% had backgrounds in the large, more liberal Protestant denominations.


Christians can and do get involved in these aberrational groups and they can get hurt emotionally. But all they really need is some good Bible teaching and a warm, caring Christian fellowship and they will be fine.

There is certainly a lot of truth to this statement. Unfortunately, half-truths are often the worst form of error. Myth #5 is false for the following reasons: First, many persons who have left cults do not want Bible teaching or Christian fellowship. They are "once burned, twice shy."

Second, according to a recently published survey of about 300 ex-cultists by Conway and Siegelman, the following essentially nonreligious activities proved to be very important for rehabilitation:

Although many members of the extremist Christian groups return to evangelical churches, they often continue to suffer. These members will typically seek a church that is very similar to the one they left. Such people have left their former group because they were incapable of submitting to its demands, but they still believe many of its tenets.

For these people life can be a nightmare -- they feel they have left "the apple of God's eye" because they were, in their own terms, "too fleshly" or "too worldly" to keep up the pace. The rigor of cultic life had produced in them all the symptoms of burnout -- a state of spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion. Yet in their own minds the world is explained so totally in theological terms that they cannot even conceive any such term as burnout. Instead they wrongly conclude that they were not spiritual enough, that they failed and God has somehow rejected them.

Unfortunately, I don't often see these people; usually friends tell me about them. These ex-cultists are too ashamed to return to the cultic group, fearing they would only fail again. They continue to believe the cultic world view and involve themselves in a local church in the hopes of replacing what they lost in leaving the group. These people need help and, I suspect, there are several hundred thousand of them.

Still others who have left often find it hard to tie in with another group. They want to be involved with new groups, friends, and a new religious organization. Yet they often complain, "I fear being controlled, being told what to do all the time"; or "I don't know if I can trust church leaders again"; or "I'm afraid that if I open up about myself I'll be rejected again."

Perhaps the majority of these ex-members of extremist groups want to go on with their Christian lives but they are unable to read parts of the Bible anymore without eliciting negative associations. Verses such as "He who comes after me must first of all deny himself..." now bring strong reactions from the ex-member. Scriptural exhortations to "forget...what lies behind," or "be teachable," all produce confusion and resentment. Former members of shepherding groups have asked, "Where do you draw the line? Where is the balance in all these commands?" Sometimes when a former member hears someone say, "The Lord would have so and so...," he or she may respond with strong feelings of disgust, incredulity, anger, and sometimes even fear. Too many negative memories or flashbacks of group events and conflicts are triggered by these phrases. For these people evangelical fellowship is not a panacea or perfect healing balm. Clearly, something more is needed.

Another problem concerning myth #5 is that some pastors and Christian counselors are largely unaware of the fact that former members of cults or fringe churches have been conditioned to stop or cancel certain biblical thoughts that contradict the dogmas of their particular group. For those who engage in thought-stopping processes, a Bible study may likely be ignored or dismissed by some cliche they learned while in their group. These people would require a professionally supervised and non-coercive form of "deprogramming" before Bible study per se would be beneficial.

Similarly, verses dealing with faction and slander -- as well as the conditioned fear of even mentally entertaining such thoughts -- can have a thought-stopping effect. This prevents the hurting Christian from hearing Bible teaching and counsel that would free his or her mind from the guilt-inducing teachings of the group. It is clear that Christian helpers often overlook or misunderstand the erroneous teachings which serve as subtle control mechanisms. In certain fringe Christian groups, control mechanisms are frequently contained in their teaching on faction, slander, submission, or confession.[13]

It is necessary, then, for the helper to be able to systematically refute a particular group's teaching on, for instance, faction, slander, submission, or confession. This will allow the ex-member an opportunity to open up his or her mind and entertain thoughts that may have been hitherto viewed as "slander" but now can be viewed as "sound doctrine" or even "reproof." I cannot underscore enough the importance of getting these ex-members to think, and to think critically.


Perhaps the best way for these ex-members to receive help is to see a professional therapist such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, or mental health counselor.

As with Myth #5, Myth #6 is only half true and therefore also particularly dangerous. Being a professional therapist does not automatically confer expertise regarding cultic phenomena. Some therapists may be prone to subscribe to Myth #3. Therapists who operate according to Myth #3 may inadvertently play the "blame the victim" game; or they may commit what social psychologists call the "attribution error"[14] (i.e., the problem lies within the person and not within the group). Such therapy can make the ex-member even worse.

There is sufficient literature and research showing the deleterious effects of cultic or extremist group experience to forewarn those seeking counsel to be cautious when choosing a therapist who subscribes to the "benign" view of cultic involvement.[15]

A small percentage of professional therapists, on the other hand, not only consider cultic involvement but also religious interest per se to be unhealthy, and will seek to help the ex-cultists look at life more "realistically." Others are explicitly hostile toward Christianity. For example, N. Brandon declares that the Christian beliefs of sin and self-sacrifice are "as monstrous an injustice, as profound a perversion of morality as the human mind can conceive."[16] He encourages counselors to help their clients get free of such destructive doctrines.[17] A. Ellis views the concept of sin as the direct and indirect cause of virtually all neurotic disturbances.[18] Little comment is needed to point out the potentially disastrous effect of sending an ex-cultist to a therapist subscribing to such views. Counseling from such therapists could create a double sense of loss: 1) from the cultic group, and 2) from religious beliefs per se. The resulting confusion and spiritual disillusionment could last for years (not to mention the potentially eternal consequences of such counseling for the ex-cultist's soul).


What then is needed to help former members of these extremist groups? I recommend the following seven steps be taken.