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Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare, by D. G. Bromley and A. D. Shupe, Jr., Beacon Press, Boston, 1982 - Michael D. Langone

reviewed by Michael D. Langone (Ph.D. psychology), director of research for the American Family Foundation

In the preface to their book, Drs. Bromley and Shupe state that one of their purposes is “to correct the impression that the so-called cults are mysterious” (p. x). They maintain that: a) cults are not new; b) although complex, cults can be understood; and c) the authors offer an independent assessment of the cult controversy which “will not please either side in the debate” (p. x). After reading the preface, I was hopeful that Strange Gods would in fact be a balanced assessment of the cult controversy, for I agree with their contentions that cults are not a new phenomenon and that they can be understood within the framework of contemporary social science. Yet I was also skeptical. The book’s subtitle, “The Great American Cult Scare,” and the authors’ desire to debunk the anticult position (“When we debunk, therefore, we are forced to pay more attention to anticult claims” p. x), made me suspect that Strange Gods would be just another hysterical attack on anticult hysteria.

To my consternation, the book was neither balanced (even though the authors might claim that my consternation reflects their book’s objectivity!) nor hysterical. I couldn’t enjoy it as a penetrating critique of the cult question; yet I couldn’t reject it as anti-anticult nonsense. Strange Gods succeeds in debunking the hysterical anticult position, but it oversimplifies the issue, obscures several fundamental aspects of the cult controversy, and displays a moral blindness that, ironically, has made me more sympathetic toward the anticult hysteria that I usually find so annoying.

Strange Gods demolishes the hysterical anticult position (but not the unhysterical anticult position) which considers all cult leaders to be greedy charlatans who brainwash their subjects to such an extent that they become mindless automatons, obeying robotlike the leader’s every command. That stereotype further maintains that there has been a historically unique explosion of cults in a “conspiratorial plot against Christianity, America, or innocent youth” (p. 19).

The authors have little trouble annihilating that vulnerable straw man. They show that: a) cults have existed throughout history; b) cults and the mainline society frequently come to blows because people are threatened by those who are different; c) not all cult leaders are unusually money-hungry or power-mad; d) cults differ widely in their belief systems and practices; e) cult members--including those belonging to the more controversial groups--are not mindless automatons; and f) mysterious forces need not be invoked to understand the process of cult conversion. A useful body of data is presented in defense of those propositions with which I, and most cult critics I know, agree.

Sense of Balance Lost

Unfortunately, in their zeal to protect the innocent against the zeal of the hysterical anticultists (witch hunts, after all, do occur), the authors lose their sense of balance. They seem to excuse the excesses of certain cults by suggesting that what they do isn’t so very different from what mainline religions, charities, or nonreligious charlatans do, none of whom have inspired nearly as much criticism as have religious cults. The authors maintain, for example, that neither the cults who “panhandle” nor “a significant number of conventional, respected charitable organizations” measure up to the “Good Samaritan ideal” (p. 173). They say that the fact that many outsiders regard the teaching of Scientology as simply quack psychology is not relevant, for “Americans traditionally have spent large amounts of money on quack remedies” (pp. 173-174). And they contend that aggressive conversion techniques are merely part of the American salesmanship tradition: “Used car salesmen, psychotherapists, and politicians all understand the value of ‘hooks’....‘Plants’ or ‘stooges’ have always been used by speakers wishing to influence a crowd” (p. 118).

Like indulgent parents excusing the delinquent activities of a miscreant child, the authors minimize the moral improprieties of cults. Yet they become cynical, stern moralists when evaluating the so—called anticultists: ex-members have “enjoyed a measure of short—lived publicity, and then faded away” or “have sought profit by writing books” (p. 200). “Deprogrammers are self—serving, illegal, and fundamentally immoral” (p. 204), and are “almost always totally untrained in any healing science or profession” (p. 202).

Double Standard

The authors, I believe, consider that double standard to be justifiable because they believe that the hysterical anticult response to cults is a major threat to freedom of religion. They apparently feel compelled to strike hard at their stereotype (caricature almost) of “anticultists” in order to provide the public with, in their view, a more balanced perspective of the issue. In so doing, however, they are following not the conventions of scholarship (which shun attacks on straw men), but the conventions of the American “information industry” (which thrive on succinct, extreme, and controversial positions on issues of public concern). Yet the fervor of their attack serves a useful social function in that it balances the extreme anticult position as presented in the “information industry.” One extreme calls attention to questionable cult practices, the other extreme warns about a potential witch hunt.

Thus, in many ways Strange Gods is as inaccurate an analysis of the cult phenomenon as is the extreme anticult stereotype which it attacks. Both views simplify the issue. One says the problem is power-hungry cult leaders brainwashing followers; the other attributes the problem to a “conflict of interest, which occurs when two parties desire very different outcomes in the same situation but one of them gains only at the expense of the other” (p. 5). That explanation grossly overestimates the extent to which parents are motivated by “interests” and the extent to which a parent’s gain is a convert’s loss. “Love,” rather than “interests,” seems to be a more common (though certainly not universal) motive of parents. And ex-members--in the great majority of cases--feel that leaving the cult (whether voluntarily or by forcible deprogramming) was a gain for them as well as their parents.

The authors also seem to neglect the issue of “how” conversion comes about and is maintained, not because they are unable to understand “how,” but apparently because, in their eagerness to defend cults against witch hunters, they overlook the moral significance of “how.” In regard to converts, for instance, they say: “Manipulated and indoctrinated? Certainly. Rendered unthinking automatons and mindless robots? Hardly” (p. 98). Further, they state: “Ultimately there is nothing inherently wrong, in the moral sense, with the practice of shaping attitudes, even if it brings about radical change. The ‘wrongness’ depends only on whether we approve of who is shaping the attitudes and for what purpose” (p. 124). What about “how?” Isn’t that morally relevant? Would the authors approve of utilizing deception and extreme group pressure, for example, to inculcate students with the principles of elementary sociology? Or would they--as I suspect they would--advocate that sociology teachers work within certain ethical boundaries of “how” to teach, much as those of us in other professions (and those who sell goods or nonprofessional services to the public) are constrained by ethical codes regarding the “how” of our work.

Ethics in Question

The use of unethical methods of persuasion--the “how” of conversion--is the essence of the more level-headed criticism of conversion to cults. Not all cults persuade unethically, and not all cults accused of unethical methods of persuasion do so all the time. But “trickery” does occur, and it should be condemned, whether practiced by religious cults or by used car salesmen. In the case of religious cults, however, the consequences can be much more serious than in other kinds of “selling.” Realizing that one has spent five years devoted to a group that obtained one’s services by manipulation and deception will understandably engender more bitterness (and more “hysterical” criticism) than realizing that one has been duped into spending $400 on an unnecessary option on a new car.

I suspect that those who sincerely defend cults tend to minimize that point because fully acknowledging it might lead to legislative restrictions on “new religions,” not because such restrictions are a logical and necessary response to the problem, but because Americans tend to think that government must solve all public problems. Honest criticism of cults, therefore, is wrongly viewed as always implying a need for restrictive legislation.

A balanced perspective, on the other hand, recognizes that the “problem” is one issue and the “solution” another. One should not diminish a problem in order to challenge a “solution” one deems distasteful.

Drs. Bromley and Shupe have ably criticized (more so in other writings than in Strange Gods) one “solution” to the cult problem, namely, forcible deprogramming--which they regard as an infringement of religious liberty. (Intelligent defenses of forcible deprogramming, however, also exist. The essence of authentic controversy is that both sides of an argument have merit.) Unfortunately, in trying to defend religious freedom they tend, I think, to overlook or excuse many abuses of religious freedom. Furthermore, they do not adequately attend to “solutions” other than forcible deprogramming, for example, voluntary counseling, preventive education, public criticism. They thus unintentionally contribute to the propaganda that portrays criticisms of extreme cult practices as persecution, bigotry, or self-serving lies.

Some therapeutic groups are harmful because, for example, of an incompetent therapist. Some political groups are harmful. Nazism, for example, was a “new political movement” just as was the movement to found a Jewish homeland: one resulted in the birth of Israel, the other in the liquidation of 6,000,000 Jews. Is it, then, unreasonable to suggest that some “new religions” are harmful? Drs. Bromley and Shupe seem to think so.

Reprinted by permission from the June/July 1982 Advisor.