Science in Christian Perspective
Cultic Conversion: Analysis and Response
Richard J. Stellway
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Wheaton, Illinois 60187
From: JASA 31 (September 1979): 218-219.
The past decade has witnessed a startling increase in cult
membership. While estimates
vary on the actual number of people involved, extensive research conducted in
connection with the Berkeley Religious Consciousness Project suggests that the
phenomenon is quite widespread with fully one out of four persons interviewed
in the San Francisco Bay Area indicating attraction to the "new
Although far fewer were actively involved, the fact that so many were attracted
says a great deal about the extent of their influence. Add to this
the fact that
many of those who are caught up in the cults have defected from
institutions, and there is plenty of cause for concern by the
Before attempting to come to terms with the cultic conversion phenomenon, we must first understand the tactics incorporated by the cults in securing converts. A review of the methods practiced by cults such as The Unification Church, People's Temple, Hare Krishna, Children of God, and The Way reveals many similarities. By abstracting and combining these similarities t have developed a five-stage model of the conversion process. While the model is not wholly descriptive of the procedures employed by any one cult, the model should serve a heuristic purpose by presenting a composite picture of the methods and techniques incorporated by cults in general.
Phase One: Impression Management
a. Warm Indulgence
Upon attending a cult meeting-which may be billed as a dinner or lecture or simply a social gathering-visitors and guests soon find themselves in an atmosphere which seems to radiate warmth. In this "love bombing" operation, they are surrounded by devotees with smiling faces who shower their guests with compliments. Images of permeating warmth and unconditional acceptance are fostered by frequent references to the cult as a closely knit family unit bound together by ties of affection and common purpose.
For persons who are suffering from lack of acceptance and selfworth and for those who are longing for understanding and a sense of belonging, this initial encounter may prove overwhelming... and disarming.
b. The Promise
In the messages presented reference is made to some basic problem existing in the individual and/or in society which the cult promises to resolve. The problem identified ranges from evil to ignorance and the effects attributed to it encompass the full range of human suffering. The promises are also often vague and general with one cult, The Way, announcing that, "You can have whatever you want." For Jim Jones the promises included health for the sick, hope for the downtrodden, and power for the powerless.
c. Validation of the Promise
During first phase induction, considerable energy is directed toward instilling confidence in the cult's ability to make good on its promise. Members readily provide dramatic and convincing statements about what they have been able to accomplish and become, thanks to the cult or its leader.
The elaborate staging operations conducted by Jim Jones toward this end are now well known. The bussing of members between the San Francisco and Los Angeles temples and, perhaps more noteworthy, the fake healing and resurrection services all served in the interest of impression management.
Phase Two: "Grooming"
Following the initial appeal, visitors are encouraged to remain with the cult for a time, possibly overnight but potentially indefinitely. Their decision to stay signals the beginning of the "grooming" phase, a phase designed to prepare the seeker for full immersion into the cult.
During this phase potential converts find themselves separated from family, friends, and community-anything which might serve as a reminder of their identity or compete with the cult for attention or ideology.
While isolated from outside contact, cult "guests" are caught up in intense interaction with the group via praying, chanting, singing, working, and/or travelling. While conforming to a demanding schedule, they find themselves getting less sleep than usual, dining on low protein meals and occasionally skipping meals entirely. Perhaps without fully realizing it, they begin to succumb to exhaustion. All of this contributes to a gradual dulling of the senses and suspension of coherent thought processes. This state of exhaustion, combined with the absence of an alternative support group, make them prime candidates for cultic indoctrination.
Phase Three: Indoctrination1
During the impression management phase a person is given only a partial idea-and sometimes a totally erroneous idea-of what the cult is really about. However, in the third and subsequent phases, individuals are gradually exposed to certain "inner truths."
In the intensive indoctrination phase potential converts are induced to adopt a new way of viewing themselves, the cult (or "sect" as many prefer to be called), and the outside world. They are bombarded with the idea that the self is nothing, the group and its leader are everything, and the outside world is misguided, unsympathic, hostile, and dangerous. Former acquaintances, even relatives and long-time friends, cannot be trusted. In the process, feelings of personal guilt and insufficiency are nourished and intensified to the point where individuals become alienated from themselves and from former associates. Little by little their willingness to put their fate in the hands of a "perfect" leader increases.
Phase Four: Action
Prior to Phase Four potential converts may have remained relatively passive. However with the onset of the action phase, a critical moment arises as they are asked to take some action. This may involve a confession of guilt, a renunciation of past life, a public humiliation rite, and/or a pledge of loyality to the group and particularly to its leader. This verbal response is typically followed by pressure to give a "concrete" expression of commitment. (People's Temple members were induced to sign away property holdings, bank accounts,-even their children-to the cult.) As one former cult member observed, "After you've made a commitment of this magnitude, it's difficult to admit you've made a mistake." Apparently the dissonance is such that converts will go to great lengths to rationalize what they've done. In short, they've become hooked.
Phase Five: Commitment Maintenance
After people have joined the cult, a number of measures are incorporated to insure continued loyalty and commitment... and to minimize the likelihood of defection. Anything which might detract from their total allegiance to the goals of the cult and its leader is discouraged or blatantly banned. Consequently romantic attachments are discouraged and sexual access is strictly controlled. All contact with the outside world is carefully regulated. Reading material is censored, and what little is approved must be read only in the presence of those who can provide the "correct" interpretation. Visits with former friends and associates are discouraged and correspondence with them is carefully monitored.
Rules designed to insure continued commitment are strictly enforced. Detection of deviance is facilitated by the continual presence of other cult members and any who are caught violating a rule are quickly (and sometimes severely) punished. Meanwhile frequent business meetings, prayer meetings, and/or group discussions insure that converts are continually subjected to the influence of the leader and the ideology of the cult.
Humiliation exercises (rituals) of various forms become the order of the day. In the People's Temple confessions of guilt or weaknesses, interlaced with numerous references to the strength, goodness, and wisdom of the leader became typical. Moreover, parents were encouraged to sign bogus confessions of child molestation and, in at least one instance, a woman was forced to have public sex with a man she detested. Such exercises have the effect of nurturing and maintaining feelings of guilt, inferiority, and nothingness and operate to further increase their openness to influence.
To discourage converts from defecting, stern-often emotion laden-warnings of what would befall converts if they should ever leave the group are typical. Members are told that they will be harassed by evil spirits or placed in mental institutions. Jones liked to play up the dangers of being killed or imprisoned by the CIA, FBI, or KKK. (Just before the mass suicide occurred, he warned the colony that any survivors would be castrated and tortured by the Guyanese Army.) In extreme instances, the cult may resort to threatening to kill or maim members, or persons in their families, should they leave.
To determine whether the conversion techniques employed by the cults would best be described as super salesmanship or brainwashing (coercive persuasion) would require a cult-by-cult and case-by-case analysis. However, it is clear that many of the techniques closely parallel those described by Edgar Schein,3 Robert Lifton,4 and others who have studied the methods used on captured American soldiers during the Korean War. (Chinese brainwashing techniques included destroying physical resistance, removing all social and emotional support, undermining one's sense of integrity, etc.) Moreover the results are similar insofar as converts experience regression, repression, altered world views, and partial or complete loss of ability to think freely, coherently and abstractly.
Having reviewed the conversion practices employed by many contemporary cults, we can return to our original question. How should the Christian community respond to the cultic conversion phenomenon? At least three responses appear to be in order. First, in remaining true to its mission to be the light of the world, the church is obliged to direct attention to, and forcefully condemn, all tactics of deception, mortification, manipulation, and exploitation as practiced by the cults. And while the level of commitment manifested by cult followers may appear commendable, when it is based on coercion rather than on reasoned reflection, when it is more leader centered than people or God centered, it too must be denounced. Such action will serve to warn potential converts and the rest of society to the dangers posed by the cults. In addition, by contrasting unethical cultic procedures with Christian values, our Lord will be glorified.
A second response necessarily flows from the first. In condemning she unethical or immoral conversion practices of the cults, the church comes under obligation to evaluate its own methods. In the course of such examination certain questions must be raised:
- In its zeal to win converts, is the church careful to avoid deception or any
appearance thereof? Or, does the church occasionally de-emphasize the costs of
discipleship while promoting its benefits?
- In seeking conversions, is the church careful to encourage reasoned and sober reflection? Or, does the quest for conversions occasionally become a competitive venture in which more stress is placed on securing speedy conversions?
-In seeking to cleanse itself from all unrighteousness, is the church careful to avoid withdrawal? Or, does the search for purity occasionally become an excuse for retreating from social involvement to the point where it no longer provides salt to a needy world?
- In coping with its critics does the church remain open to feedback? Or, does it become so threatened as to discourage or condemn all evaluation efforts?
- Does the church balance its focus on human fraility and sinfulness with an emphasis on God's triumphant grace? Or, does it occasionally highlight personal shortcomings and guilt to the point where members are conquered by a sense of failure and remorse?
Such questions may be difficult to raise, yet they must be addressed
if the church
is to forcefully condemn the unethical conversion procedures
incorporated by the
Thirdly, the church must do all in its power to prevent its members from being taken in by the cults. In equipping Christians with an appropriate armor of defense, three ingredients are crucial:
A sound knowledge of Scripture. Many cults, including those of Asian origin, frequently quote Scripture and liberally incorporate references to God and Jesus in their teachings. For the person not steeped in biblical teaching, such appeals may prove most convincing. A familiarity with Scripture will quickly reveal the inadequacy or errancy of cultic sources of salvation, authority, and wisdom.
A knowledge of cult conversion techniques and the purposes they serve. Methods of persuasion and coercion prove most effective on those who fail to recognize them or their intended results. (Prisoners who have successfully resisted intensive brainwashing efforts have attributed much of their success to their knowledge of the techniques of their captors.)
Active involvement in a Christian support group. There is evidence to suggest that people tend to become involved in a cult while in a period of stress, sorrow, or uncertainty. Not only does a Christian support group help maintain the vitality of one's faith, but it provides a source of direction and encouragement to its members as they face life's problems.
1Glock, Charles Y., & Bellah, Robert N., eds. The New Religious Consciousness. Berkeley: University of California Press,
2Indoctrination may have already occurred during the grooming phase such that a clear-cut distinction between Phase II and Phase III does not always exist.
3Sehein, Edgar H., Coercive Persuasion. New York: W. W. Nor ton, 1961.
4Lifton, Robert J., Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totemism. W. W. Norton, 1961.