cult recovery 101

Are New Religions Harmful?

Are New Religions Harmful?

Some minority religions sometimes harm some people.

But, simply because a religion is unfamiliar, or new or ‘different’ does not mean that it is necessarily a cause for concern. Research shows that much of the ‘conventional wisdom’ about the movements is not always well-founded.

Criminal, dangerous or even ‘anti-social’ behaviour is by no means typical of all minority religions – and, of course, some mainstream traditional religions have been (and in some instances still are) responsible for appalling atrocities.

Generalisations can be both misleading and dangerous, and each case should be considered individually. However, problems that do arise may share a number of common elements, and certain trends can be recognised.

Although most alternative religions are law abiding, and suicide or murders such as those described below are rare, there are other factors that can more frequently cause concern.  Some groups exert strong social and psychological pressure on their members which can make individuals do things that they would not have considered doing prior to joining; sometimes it is hard for former members to explain or understand their behaviour when they were in the movement. Most frequently, it has been the members themselves who have been harmed, but sometimes individuals whom the group sees as its enemy have been harmed – only very rarely have movements (such as the Manson Family and Aum Shinrikyo) harmed the general public. 
Some examples of harmful new religions

  • In 1969, a group calling themselves ‘The Family’ under the leadership of Charles Manson (who referred to himself as Jesus Christ) committed a series of high profile murders in southern California. Upon their conviction for seven brutal murders, Manson and four of his followers received the death penalty, which was later commuted to life imprisonment.1
  • In 1978 about 914 members of The Peoples Temple, a movement combining elements of Pentecostalism, socialism and communism, died in a mass suicide-murder at Jonestown, Guyana.2
  • Between 1994 and 1997, seventy-four members of the Order of the Solar Temple, a movement based on a variety of esoteric teachings including Templarism and Rosicrucianism, died in a number of incidents involving suicide and murder in Canada, Switzerland and France.3
  • In 1995, twelve people died and thousands were injured in a sarin gas attack in Tokyo’s underground system by members of Aum Shinrikyo, a Buddhist-based group, founded by Shoko Asahara in 1986.4
  • In 1997, thirty-nine members of Heaven’s Gate, a UFO group, who believed that a spacecraft positioned behind the Comet Hale-Bopp would take them to a higher level of existence, committed suicide in San Diego, California.5
  •  In 2000, around 300 followers of the Ugandan Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, a movement which broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the late 1980s, were burned to death. Mass graves were later discovered, raising the death toll to more than 1,000 victims.6

Some common concerns:

“Once they get involved, they’ll never get away…”

  • A study of 104 participants in Unification Church (Moonie) workshops showed that 71% dropped out within two days. 29% stayed longer than two days, of these 17% stayed more than nine days. Only 9% of the workshop participants actually stayed over 21 days to join the Unification Church, meaning that in total 91% of the workshop participants had dropped out in under 21 days.7
  • Out of over 1000 participants who agreed to go to a Unification Church workshop, 90% did not join and the majority of those who did join had left within two years.8
  • Further research shows that most first generation converts have left, as have the majority of the first cohort of children born within the Unification Church once they reached adulthood.9

“Even if they leave, they’ll never be normal again…”

  • A study of 45 people who voluntarily left new religions showed that a large majority felt wiser for the experience rather than feeling angry or duped.10
  • A study of former members of the Shiloh Community, a fundamentalist Jesus community, indicated that the former members experienced no ill effects of past membership, had integrated well on return to the larger community, and did not differ from the general population on a symptom checklist.11 

“They must be out of their minds to stay in a group like that…”

  • Studies of members of several different new and/or alternative and spiritual religious groups find that most members are psychologically healthy.12
  • The psychologist Marc Galanter used the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) to conduct psychological studies on members of a new religion (the Unification Church). He found no evidence for a greater incidence of pathological profiles among members than among the general population.13
  • Residents of Rajneeshpuram (a township, now defunct, built by followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, later known as Osho) were found to have a high mental health score. Research indicated that Bhagwan’s followers had positive self-concepts, and, compared with the general population, lower feelings of personal distress and anxiety, and greater feelings of personal autonomy and independence of thought.14

Inform aims to alleviate unnecessary anxiety by providing accurate, objective information about alternative religious movements. This involves looking at each particular group and situation and sifting the facts and reliable information from the mass of opinions, assumptions, anecdotes and hearsay.

In some situations, the information Inform can provide about a particular group and its context can be reassuring. However, there are other situations when Inform may provide information that alerts people to potential problems.

It can be difficult for friends and family members to respect the right of an individual to change his or her beliefs and practices while being aware that there may be genuine cause for concern for the member’s well-being. Some groups undoubtedly do cause harm to individual members. Some groups encourage high levels of commitment, encouraging economic, psychological, and emotional dependence. Some groups may have beliefs or practices which may lead to the imposition of physical or psychological harm and some practices may be illegal.

Inform can help by providing unbiased and accurate information that is as reliable as possible. For more information about what to do if you are concerned about a member of an alternative religious group, see our  Infom’s Guidelines.


Hutch, R.A. (1995) ‘Before I’d Be a Slave, I’d Be Buried in My Grave, and Go Home to My Lord and Be Free’The International Journal for the Psychology o f Religion 5(3): 171-176; Nielsen, D.A. (1984) ‘Charles Manson’s Family of Love’ Sociological Analysis 45(4): 315-337; Bugliosi, V. (1977) Helter Skelter: The Manson Murders. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Moore, R. (2006) ‘Review Essay: Peoples Temple Revisited’ Nova Religio 10(1): 111-118 and ‘Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple’ a website managed by Rebecca Moore sponsored by the Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University.

Lewis, J.R., ed. (2006) The Order of the Solar Temple: The Temple of Death. Ashgate: Aldershot.

Reader, I. (2000) Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan: The Case of Aum Shinrikyo. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon; Lifton, R. (1999) Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence and the New Global Terrorism. New York: Owl.

Balch, R.W. and D. Taylor (2002) “Making Sense of the Heaven’s Gate Suicides”, in Cults, Religion and Violence, D.G. Bromley and J.G. Melton, Editors, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge: 209-228.

Walliss, J. (2005) “Making Sense of the Movement for the Restoration for the Ten Commandments of God”.Nova Religio, 2005. 9(1): p. 49-66.

Galanter, M. (1989) Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 140-43.

Barker, E. (1984) The Making of a Moonie, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, p147.

9 Bird, F. and W. (1983) “Participation Rates in New Religious Movements and Parareligious Movements.” Pp. 215-238 in Of Gods and Men: New Religious Movements in the West, edited by E. Barker. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press; Barker, E (unpublished) and van Eck Duymaer van Twist, A. (2008) ‘Growing up in contemporary sectarian movements: an analysis of segregated socialization’ PhD Thesis, Department of Sociology, London School of Economics and Political Science, University of London. Available from the British Library’s Ethos service.

10 Wright, S.A. (1987) Leaving cults: The Dynamics of Defection (Monograph No. 7) Washington DC: Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, p87.

11 Taslimi, C.R., R.W. Hood and P.J. Watson (1991) ‘Assessment of Former Members of Shiloh: The Adjective Check List 17 Years Later’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 30, pp306-11.

12 Buxant, C., et al. (2007) “Cognitive and Emotional Characteristics of New Religious Movement Members: New questions and data on the mental health issue”. Mental Health, Religion, and Culture 10(3): 219-238 and Lilliston, L. and G. Shepherd (1999) “New Religious Movements and Mental Health”, in New Religious Movements: Challenges and Response, B. Wilson and J. Cresswell, Editors, Routledge: London, 123-140.

13 Galanter, M. (1989) Cults and New Religious Movements: A Report of the Committee on Psychiatry and Religion of the American Psychiatric Association, Washington, DC: The American Psychiatric Association.

14 Latkin, C.A., R. Hagan, R. Littman and N. Sundberg (1990)’Who Lives in Utopia?’ A Brief Research Report on the Rajneeshee Project’, Sociological Analysis, 48, 1987 73-81 and C.A. Latkin ‘The Self-Concept of Rajneeshpuram Members’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 29: 91-98.