Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.
Executive Director, ICSA
Editor, Cultic Studies Review
Cognitive therapy is similar to religious conversion in that both are associated with changes in a person’s fundamental assumptions about the world, self, and others. These fundamental assumptions derive in large part from experience, rather than rational deliberation. In some conversions, powerful inner experiences, whether manipulated (“outer generated”) or not (“inner generated”), may cause a person to adopt new fundamental assumptions. Sometimes, a new set of experiences can cause a convert to reject the new assumptions and leave the group. The resulting disillusionment may cause serious adjustment problems. The impact and implications of inner experiences should be considered when trying to help former group members.
The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines conversion as “the action of converting or fact of being converted to some opinion, belief, party, etc.” (p. 546). This definition makes a useful distinction between “converting” and “being converted,” what I have sometimes referred to as “inner-generated” and “outer-generated” conversions.
We typically associate conversions to cultic groups as “outer-generated”; that is, as being in large part the product of manipulation and deception. But not all conversions are manipulated, not even all cultic conversions. As Zablocki has pointed out, what many of us would call cultic environments are characterized more by the difficulty people have getting out than by the diverse ways through which they get in (Zablocki, 2001). Hence, conversion to cultic groups cannot always be explained by theories of manipulation. We need other models that take into account, but are not limited by, factors of manipulation.
In this brief paper, I will propose another way to look at conversion. What I will discuss does not rise to the level of being a “theory.” I hope, however, that it points the way toward a more useful theory than those we currently have.
By definition, all conversions—manipulated and non-manipulated—presume that one’s way of viewing and relating to the world has changed in some fundamental way. (I don’t use the term “conversion” here to refer to changes of religion that are made, for example, to maintain marital harmony. I use the term only to refer to genuine and significant changes in worldview.)
What accounts for such dramatic change? Nobody really knows. There are many theories of conversion. Indeed, the disciplines that study conversion—psychology, theology, religious studies, anthropology, and sociology—embrace many competing theories.
I prefer and will discuss here a cognitive psychological approach, which assumes that human beings tend toward logical consistency in their beliefs and behaviors. I say, “tend toward” because only a fool would deny that we human beings aren’t nearly so logical as we think we are. Indeed, one of the more widely respected psychological theories—i.e., the theory of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957)—addresses the ways in which people resolve inconsistencies between and among their beliefs and behaviors. Nevertheless, that we are bothered by logical inconsistencies testifies to our tendency to seek logical consistency.
The cognitive approach (Beck, 1979) assumes that people have a limited set of core assumptions about the world, the self, and others, and that numerous peripheral beliefs derive from these core assumptions. These beliefs—core and peripheral—have action consequences. When the beliefs are disordered or out of touch with reality, psychopathological behavior may ensue. Thus, Alfred Adler, Freud’s first dissenting disciple and the first modern cognitive psychologist, talked about the individual’s “private logic” (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1979). Neurotic individuals, according to Adler, are neurotic because their private logic includes beliefs about the world, self, and others (e.g., “I must be perfect in all that I do or I am nothing”) that cause them to come into conflict with or withdraw from other people. According to Adler, the individual’s faulty private logic develops not from how he or she handled childhood sexuality, as Freud maintained, but from how he or she handled the inferiority that is the natural condition of all children. To Adler, the key factor in development is not that children are sexual, but that they are little and weak.
Children’s fundamental assumptions about world, self, and others develop from how they and their environments respond to the unavoidable starting condition of weakness and dependence. In normal development, little, weak children are typically raised in loving, secure homes that reward their small steps toward maturity, thereby enabling them to develop a healthy self-esteem and learn how to manage in the social world that all but hermits inhabit. In neurotic development, children are typically raised in an emotionally stunted and psychologically unsafe home in which their small steps may be disparaged or ignored, causing them to develop assumptions about life that may lock them, for example, in defeatist (e.g., “I am a loser who will fail in all that I attempt”) or pretentiously compensatory (e.g., “I must be perfect in all that I do”) patterns of behavior. (Needless to say, some individuals can respond to deficient childhood environments in ways that lead them to become healthy adults, despite the environment in which they were raised. But the odds of healthy development in such an environment are, to say the least, less than in a loving, secure environment.)
The important point to keep in mind is that our fundamental assumptions about life emerge in large part from our experience, not from our rational deliberations.
Modern cognitive therapists, though rarely acknowledging Adler, say much the same thing, only more systematically. Aaron Beck, the father of modern cognitive therapy, calls the individual’s core assumptions “schemas” (Beck, 1979); Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Therapy, talks about the irrational assumptions that troubled people hold (Ellis & Harper, 1975). Indeed, psychologists have even developed instruments for assessing the ways in which a person’s thinking may be out of whack. One such measure, for example, is called the “Dysfunctional Attitude Scale.”
Cognitive therapists believe that they can more effectively help distressed people by teaching them how to recognize and challenge the core assumptions that generate conflict, and how to try out and practice assumptions and behaviors that are likely to have more desirable consequences. Hence, the perfectionist operating on the assumption that “I must be perfect in all that I do” is tactfully guided (although in Albert Ellis’s case, the individual may be bluntly directed) to the realization that this belief is irrational and produces unhappiness. Of course, helping a client get to this realization is no easy task to accomplish and requires much more tact and skill than this summary statement implies. Making such a fundamental change in one’s life doesn’t result only from rational discussion, although this can be an important factor. The change results in large part from personally experiencing the consequences of behaviors associated with other fundamental assumptions—however tentatively and even reluctantly one may have attempted these new behaviors, typically with the support and encouragement of the therapist, family, and friends.
Now, what does all of this have to do with conversion?
In conversion, as in cognitive therapy, a person’s fundamental assumptions change, and he or she tries out new behaviors consistent with the new assumptions and finds them to work, at least temporarily. Sometimes, before the conversion, the convert, like the therapy client, is troubled and unhappy with how his or her life is going. But sometimes the convert’s life is working just fine. What causes the change?
There is no simple answer to this question because there are many types of conversion, involving many types of people, coming from many types of circumstances. Hence, in what follows, I make no claim to explain all conversions. I merely hope to illuminate some.
I believe that, as with the cognitive-therapy client, personal experiences, particularly compelling inner experiences, are often the dominant factor in changing fundamental assumptions. These inner experiences may be engineered, as is sometimes the case with certain large, group-awareness trainings or the classic Moonie Booneville weekend. They may sometimes be a reaction to seemingly paranormal actions of a guru or other person claiming some kind of divine mandate, such as Sai Baba’s appearing to make objects materialize out of thin air. Sometimes, the process of reevaluating one’s fundamental assumptions may be stimulated by the experience of meeting a person who operates under a radically different set of assumptions and who appears to have achieved an enviable level of happiness or inner peace.
Once such experiences cause us to reorder, or begin reordering, our fundamental assumptions, the natural human tendency to be logically consistent drives us, over time, to reconsider and, if necessary, rearrange our peripheral beliefs and behaviors to make them more consistent with the new assumptions we are embracing. Such a process may be intellectually and emotionally challenging, so it is not surprising that we will reach out to others for support and guidance. In highly manipulative groups, somebody is always waiting in the wing to make sure that one draws the “correct” conclusions from the compelling experience that elicited the reevaluation process. In less high-pressure, more ethical groups, members may encourage a prospective convert to think carefully about the new belief system in private and over a period of time. A Franciscan priest, for example, once told me that novices were encouraged to spend a year “in the world” before taking their vows, to make sure that their vow-taking truly reflected an inner calling and wasn’t merely a superficial response to psychological needs.
In some cultic groups it is not unusual for a person to go through the following stages:
§ Prospective converts perceive the leader as having some special ability or charisma (he reads minds; he heals people; he induces altered states of consciousness in people) that triggers a powerful inner experience (e.g., of the leader’s spiritual “presence”), which in turn causes them to reconsider their assumptions about the world, self, and others.
§ The leader’s minions, who become aware of prospects’ openness to their belief system, will, frequently with much genuine concern and sincerity, do what they can to ensure that they make the “correct” interpretation of those experiences.
§ Prospects come to accept, at least provisionally, the fundamental assumptions, what I have sometimes called the “ruling propositions” on which the group is based—e.g., guru is God incarnate, pastor Bob is a modern-day prophet, Sister Veronica is God’s messenger. The leader and/or group thus come to have a high level of credibility and authority for the prospect.
§ Prospects yield to these pressures, whether they be mild or strong, and reach a point at which they implicitly if not explicitly declare, “I believe!” The initial declaration is usually directed at the ruling propositions, e.g., “guru is God incarnate.” Prospects are now converts.
§ Converts rearrange their peripheral beliefs and behaviors to make them more consistent with the new set of assumptions and their derivative peripheral beliefs and behaviors. Again, these actions frequently are accompanied by varying degrees of social guidance and/or pressure. For example, accepting that “guru is God” implies obeying guru, even if his orders make no sense (“Whom am I to question God?”).
§ Converts become comfortable with the new set of beliefs and behaviors and begin to live according to them.
§ Other group members, sometimes without realizing it, provide rewards and punishments that tend to strengthen new converts’ loyalty to the group.
§ Converts become aware of inconsistencies, contradictions, abuses, or failed predictions within the group or organization.
§ Normal cognitive dissonance processes combined with group pressures cause the member to search for rationalizations to explain away these disturbing discrepancies.
§ So many disturbing discrepancies accumulate that, as one ex-member put it, the shelf of rationalization on which they were placed collapses.
§ Members once again begin to reconsider fundamental assumptions; only this time they reconsider the assumptions, the ruling propositions, of the group to which they had claimed allegiance, sometimes for many years. Support from family, friends, or professionals can sometimes facilitate such reevaluation and a decision to leave the group.
This process can sometimes be painfully disillusioning to group members or former group members, who may be reluctant to “trust,” to attribute credibility to future spiritual experiences (Lucas, 2003). Although models that stress manipulation may apply to some such cases, they do not necessarily apply. And even when they do, the individual’s inner experiences, which affect what he or she believes, are likely to have had a profound impact. This impact and its implications should be addressed when trying to help former group members adjust to life outside the group.
Ansbacher, H., & Ansbacher, R. (Eds.). (1979). Superiority and social interest: A collection of later writings [of Alfred Adler], 3rd revised edition. New York: Norton.
Beck, A. T. (1979). Cognitive therapy of depression. New York: Guilford Press.
Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. (1971). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ellis, A., & Harper, R.A. (1975). A new guide to rational living. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Lucas, P. (2003). Spiritual harm in new religions: Reflections on interviews with former members of NRMs. Cultic Studies Review (1) –www.culticstudiesreview.org.
Zablocki, B. (2001). Towards a demystified and disinterested scientific theory of brainwashing. In B. Zablocki & T. Robbins (Eds.), Misunderstanding cults: Searching for objectivity in a controversial field, pp. 159-214. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
This material was originally prepared for a presentation at AFF’s annual conference, June 14-15, 2002, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Orlando (FL) Airport.