Origins and Prevention of Abuse in Religious Groups
ICSA Today Vol. 7. No. 3, 11 - 13
Based on a paper presented to the World Parliament of Religions, October 17, 2015, Salt Lake City, Utah
I have arrived at the content of this essay through my research and clinical work with abuse victims of cultic groups over a period of 35 years. Different people define the term cult in different ways. I have found it more useful to focus on cultic dynamics in relationships, rather than cults per se. We may characterize a cultic dynamic by a fervently held ideology and an entitled, often charismatic leadership that seeks to induce others not only to comply with the high level of demands issuing from the ideology, but also to wholeheartedly embrace the ideology. An authoritarian dynamic, such as one finds in a prison, enforces compliance, but a cultic dynamic enforces compliance and belief. We may view a cultic dynamic, then, as a special case of an authoritarian dynamic.
According to this view, Orwell’s 1984 described a cultic dynamic in the interrogation and indoctrination of Winston Smith. The authorities could easily have disposed of Smith with a bullet in the head. Instead, they exerted great effort to convert him to the ideology against which he had initially rebelled. They wanted him to obey and believe, and they were willing to inflict much pain and abuse on him to achieve this goal. Thus, the book ends with the famous conversion statement, “I love Big Brother.”
The irony of such a cultic dynamic is that the expressed ideology, which appears to be so important, tests members’ degree of subjugation rather than the degree to which they hold “right beliefs.” As in 1984, cult ideologies can change, sometimes radically, depending upon the needs of the leader. Certain core beliefs, or what we could call ruling propositions, must be enforced rigidly: “Guru is God incarnate”; “Pastor Ron is a prophet of God”; “I love Big Brother.” But the ideology attached to these ruling propositions is changeable and disposable. When followers shift their beliefs as the group’s ideology changes, they demonstrate their fundamental subjugation to the will of the leader. Today they passionately exclaim that “A is true.” Tomorrow they passionately exclaim that “A is false.” What doesn’t change is that they passionately exclaim whatever the leader wants.
What Is the Connection Between Abuse and Cultic or Authoritarian Dynamics?
I think that we can profitably explore that question by first considering the distinction between treating people as objects or subjects. When we treat individuals as subjects, we respect them. We recognize that they have goals, desires, needs, beliefs, faults, and virtues that may differ from our own. However, instead of trying to change them to be like us, we project an attitude of good will. We wish them well, even when we disapprove of their actions, goals, or beliefs.
This is the essence of agape love, which should be distinguished from other forms of love: familial, friendship, erotic. Traditionally, agape, the highest form of love, reveals itself in actions, not sentiments (Rev. Robert Pardon, personal communication, May 6, 2016).
Such love doesn’t require a mush of nonthinking agreeableness. We can strongly disapprove of another’s actions, goals, or beliefs. However, we can also respect that person’s freedom and not try to limit or impede that freedom, even when the person makes what we deem to be bad choices. In a sense then, love avoids enmeshed relationships. Love keeps a respectful distance, a distance that honors the freedom of human beings who, like us, want to be the authors of their own lives.
This doesn’t mean that love is standoffish. We can lovingly (i.e., respectfully) question, advise, or even admonish another. But we do this in a way that respects the person’s agency and freedom. We treat her as a subject.
When we treat another person as an object, we do not keep a loving distance. We implicitly, if not explicitly, assert that we should be the author of the person’s life. We sometimes see this dynamic in stark relief in cultic groups that not only manipulate but also grossly exploit their members.
In other groups, the leader’s intentions may be less exploitative, or even benevolent. The method a person chooses to express those intentions, however, may be disrespectful and produce unintended consequences. A leader (or a parent concerned about a loved one’s cult involvement) may, for example, browbeat, intimidate, or make tendentious arguments to move the person toward actions, beliefs, or goals that are deemed to be in the manipulated person’s best interest. In such cases, one treats the person as an object to be manipulated, not as a subject, a free agent, whose choices—even wrong choices—one respects. One may falsely invoke love as a rationale for meddling in another’s life.
To avoid such well-intentioned disrespect, one needs to understand the subject-object distinction in relationships. But one also needs to know how to communicate respectfully and effectively. One of the genuine accomplishments of the counseling profession has been the development of detailed communications training programs, which many helpers in the cultic studies field recommend to families with loved ones in cults.
What Factors Determine Whether or Not a Person Treats Others As Subjects or Objects?
Sometimes a person’s psychological makeup may influence how respectfully he treats others. Some people are psychopaths, who lack empathy and may be wired to treat others as objects. Others may suffer from varying degrees of narcissism that compel them to see the world from an egocentric vantage point. These people may not even realize that they are treating others as objects because for them the outside world is merely an extension of self. Their intentions may be benign in origin, but destructive in outcome.
Sometimes an inherent imbalance in power within a relationship may tempt those who have greater power to manipulate those with less power. Obviously, those who are predisposed to treat others as objects (i.e., psychopaths and narcissists) will probably succumb more readily to this situational temptation than those with more empathic psychological makeups. But given the right combination of circumstances, many, if not most people, will succumb. A body of social psychological research, e.g., Zimbardo’s famous prison experiment, demonstrates that certain situations can cause good people to do bad things.
The prototypical power relationship is parent-child. Though most parents are nurturing, some are not, so child abuse is a major social concern. The parent-child template is similar to what we see in other power relationships, which also may produce situational temptations for the holders of power. Thus, there is a body of research documenting sometimes alarming levels of abuse in relationships between teacher-student, therapist-client, pastor-church goer, and guru-devotee.1
Such power imbalances may create what one observer has called “situationally induced narcissism” (Rev. Stephen Parsons, personal communication). Over time, power may intoxicate and cause the power holder to fall into an egocentric narcissism from which the individual no longer sees other people as subjects to be respected. Power creates the opportunity for exploitation; intoxication dissolves the good will that undergirds respect, strengthens self-restraint, and opposes manipulation and exploitation.
Power imbalances involving religious professionals (priests, rabbis, ministers, gurus, imams, etc.) may pose special risks because most cultures esteem their religious professionals and do not place as many restrictions on them as other professions do (e.g., mental health professionals are answerable to licensing boards). Moreover, the transcendental belief systems of religious professionals may enhance the effectiveness of manipulators. A command attributed to the will of God can be a compelling imperative in the mind of a religious believer subordinate to a religious professional.
The degree of abuse that a person with power may inflict on somebody with less power can vary greatly, depending upon the psychological makeup of the power holder, the situational context, and the psychological makeup of the manipulated person. Those of us who have worked with cult victims have seen a range of abuse from mild to traumatic. None of the abuse would have occurred had not person A treated person B as an object to manipulate, rather than a subject to respect.
How Can a Person With Power Reduce the Risk of Abusing Others?
Power holders who sincerely want to treat others as subjects to respect rather than objects to manipulate can reduce the risk of abuse, can resist temptation, by knowing themselves, by understanding how rationalization is the tool of self-deception, and by genuinely listening to those over whom they wield power.
When we face our defects honestly, we are more likely to retain disciplined control over our actions than if we push awareness of these defects to the dim recesses of our consciousness. When we have but a dim awareness of our defects, we are more likely to be seduced by rationalizations that our pride concocts to shield us from facing the usually far-from-perfect reality of our inner world. We might call this process the phenomenology of self-deception.
If, for example, a leader of a religious group is obsessed with his mission, whatever it may be, he may become so blinded by the supposed importance of his ends that he remains conveniently unaware of the degree to which he is manipulating and mistreating people under him so that he can achieve his vital goals. His religious belief system may provide a stream of rationalizations that enable him to retain a sense of righteousness while abusing others: “Look at the wonderful fruits that our working in the vineyard of the Lord has produced.” “The Lord has blessed you by calling you to this work. Do not disappoint him.” “I am your guru. Obey me without question; otherwise, you will remain mired in self.”
When we fool ourselves, we need other people to tell us what is really going on, for if we knew the reality, we wouldn’t be fooling ourselves. If we don’t listen to others, at least some of whom may be right sometimes, we deprive ourselves of a means toward self-correction.
How Can People Outside a Relationship System Assess the Risk of Abuse?
Though there are many characteristics of cultic systems, research and clinical experience lead me to focus on the following questions to determine whether a system may be at risk of abuse:
● Is dissent tolerated, particularly dissent that may point out deficiencies?
● Are boundaries open or closed—that is, do members encounter substantial resistance if they try to leave?
● Is individuality respected, or are members expected to converge toward a common identity, frequently presented as a privilege of the elite?
What Can Religious Organizations Do to Reduce the Risk of Abuse?
To reduce the probability that abuse will occur, religious organizations should
● Educate those with power over others, with a special emphasis on the psychological dynamics of self-deception, rationalization, and interpersonal influence.
● Teach members of the organization how to recognize abuse and the factors that cause a risk of abuse.
● Establish accountability mechanisms, including ways in which members can report abuses, so as to deal with the abuse that WILL occur even in the best of organizations.
The culture of modern, pluralist democracies says, “Make your own life by choosing from the options available to you.” The culture of authoritarian and especially cultic systems says, “Conform and obey the rules.” The former emphasizes choice, options, and individuality; the latter emphasizes obedience, rules, and conformity.
One could argue that democratic systems and relationships are historical aberrations and that the default dynamic for interpersonal relations is authoritarian. If this is so, and I believe even a cursory investigation of history reveals it to be so, then authoritarian-cultic impulses will always threaten to disrupt a democratic, subject-oriented approach to human relations. In other words, there is always a risk of abuse resulting from treating people as objects, rather than subjects. Hence, we have to constantly call upon our better angels in order to persevere in treating others as subjects whose freedom should be respected.
 See, for example, ajph.aphapublications.org/cgi/reprint/89/3/358.pdf; ncjrs.gov/childabuse/prevalence.html; kspope.com/sexiss/sex2.php; www.christianpost.com/article/20090911/survey-reveals-prevalence-of-clergy-sexual-misconduct/index.html
About the Author
Michael D. Langone, PhD, a counseling psychologist, received a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1979. Since 1981 he has been Executive Director of International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA). He has written and spoken widely on cult-related topics and is Editor-in-Chief of ICSA Today.