cult recovery 101


Should I Stay or Should I Go? Religious (Dis)Affiliation and Depressive Symptomatology

Matthew May Oakland University, Rochester, MI, USA Sage Journals Society and Mental Health December 29, 2017 Abstract Religious affiliation is generally associated with better mental health. The nonreligious, however, currently constitute one of the fastest-growing religious categories in the United States. Since most of the nonreligious were raised in religious…

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.

Logic-Tight Compartments: How our modular brains lead us to deny and distort evidence
Michael Shermer
How our modular brains lead us to deny and distort evidence
January 1, 2013
IF YOU HAVE PONDERED how intelligent and educated people can, in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence, believe that that evolution is a myth, that global warming is a hoax, that vaccines cause autism and asthma, that 9/11 was orchestrated by the Bush administration, conjecture no more. The explanation is in what I call logic-tight compartments—modules in the brain analogous to watertight compartments in a ship.
The concept of compartmentalized brain functions acting either in concert or in conflict has been a core idea of evolutionary psychology since the early 1990s. According to University of Pennsylvania evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite (Princeton University Press, 2010), the brain evolved as a modular, multitasking problem-solving organ—a Swiss Army knife of practical tools in the old metaphor or an app-loaded iPhone in Kurzban’s upgrade. There is no unified “self” that generates internally consistent and seamlessly coherent beliefs devoid of conflict. Instead we are a collection of distinct but interacting modules often at odds with one another. The module that leads us to crave sweet and fatty foods in the short term is in conflict with the module that monitors our body image and health in the long term. The module for cooperation is in conflict with the one for competition, as are the modules for altruism and avarice or the modules for truth telling and lying.
Compartmentalization is also at work when new scientific theories conflict with older and more naive beliefs. In the 2012 paper “Scientific Knowledge Suppresses but Does Not Supplant Earlier Intuitions” in the journal Cognition, Occidental College psychologists Andrew Shtulman and Joshua Valcarcel found that subjects more quickly verified the validity of scientific statements when those statements agreed with their prior naive beliefs. Contradictory scientific statements were processed more slowly and less accurately, suggesting that “naive theories survive the acquisition of a mutually incompatible scientific theory, coexisting with that theory for many years to follow.”
Cognitive dissonance may also be at work in the compartmentalization of beliefs. In the 2010 article “When in Doubt, Shout!” in Psychological Science, Northwestern University researchers David Gal and Derek Rucker found that when subjects’ closely held beliefs were shaken, they “engaged in more advocacy of their beliefs … than did people whose confidence was not undermined.” Further, they concluded that enthusiastic evangelists of a belief may in fact be “boiling over with doubt,” and thus their persistent proselytizing may be a signal that the belief warrants skepticism.
In addition, our logic-tight compartments are influenced by our moral emotions, which lead us to bend and distort data and evidence through a process called motivated reasoning. The module housing our religious preferences, for example, motivates believers to seek and find facts that support, say, a biblical model of a young earth in which the overwhelming evidence of an old earth must be denied. The module containing our political predilections, if they are, say, of a conservative bent, may motivate procapitalists to believe that any attempt to curtail industrial pollution by way of the threat of global warming must be a liberal hoax.
What can be done to break down the walls separating our logic-tight compartments? In the 2012 paper “Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing” in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, University of Western Australia psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky and his colleagues suggest these strategies: “Consider what gaps in people’s mental event models are created by debunking and fill them using an alternative explanation…. To avoid making people more familiar with misinformation…, emphasize the facts you wish to communicate rather than the myth. Provide an explicit warning before mentioning a myth, to ensure that people are cognitively on guard and less likely to be influenced by the misinformation…. Consider whether your content may be threatening to the worldview and values of your audience. If so, you risk a worldview backfire effect.”
Debunking by itself is not enough. We must replace bad bunk with sound science.

Yet Another Look At The Transcendental Meditation Paper


Larry Husten

November 25, 2012

Editor’s note: Below are two responses to Robert Schneider’s defense of his Transcendental Meditation paper, which Schneider wrote in response to my earlier article about the publication of his paper.  In the first part I respond to some of the general issues raised by Schneider. The second part, from Sanjay Kaul, addresses the statistical issues discussed by Schneider.

I’m grateful for Kaul’s highly technical analysis of the statistical issues raised by Schneider, but I don’t think this case really requires a terribly high level of technical expertise. Common sense actually works pretty well in this case. A trial with barely 200 patients cannot be expected to provide broad answers about the health benefits of a novel intervention. As Kaul and others have stated on many other occasions, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and it is quite clear that the evidence in this trial is not extraordinary, at least in any positive sense.

Questions About Trial Reliability And Data– In his response Schneider tries to skate away from the inevitable questions raised about this paper when Archives of Internal Medicine chose to withdraw the paper only 12 minutes before its scheduled publication time. Schneider can pretend that this incident never occurred, but outsider readers can not help but wonder what sparked this extraordinary incident, and will not be satisfied  until the details are fully explained.

There are additional red flags about the trial. Schneider told WebMD that since the Archives incident “the data was re-analyzed. Also, new data was added and the study underwent an independent review.” Said Schneider: “This is the new and improved version.”
This is an extraordinary claim, because a clinical trial cannot be “new and improved” unless there were serious flaws with the earlier version. What exactly does it mean to say that a paper published in 2012 about a trial completed in 2007 is “new and improved”? (According to ClinicalTrials.Gov the study was completed in July 2007, while June 2007 was the “final data collection date” for the primary endpoint.)

The 5-year delay between the 2007 completion date and the publication of the data is highly suspicious.
What exactly caused this delay? The paper hints at one possible source of delay: as Kaul notes below, the investigators refer to the primary endpoint as a “DSMB-approved endpoint.” This suggests that the primary endpoint was changed at some point in the trial. As Kaul points out, it is not the job of the DSMB to either choose or approve primary endpoints. Since the trial was not registered until 2011 with ClinicalTrials.Gov it is impossible to sort this issue out unless the investigators choose to release the initial trial protocol and statistical plan.

Schneider’s response also fails to explain why there is a difference in the number of primary endpoint events between the Archives paper and the Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality & Outcomes paper, since the collection date for the primary outcome measure is listed as June 2007 on ClinicalTrials.Gov. I see no reason why the reason for this discrepancy shouldn’t be explained. Although the difference is only 1 event, it inevitably raises questions about the reliability of the data.

Trial Interpretation– Finally, I am deeply concerned about the way this trial will be used, or misused, to “sell” the brand of Transcendental Meditation in the broadest possible population, ie, everyone. Though the study was limited to African-American with heart disease, here’s what Schneider told the Daily Mail:

‘Transcendental meditation may reduce heart disease risks for both healthy people and those with diagnosed heart conditions. The research on transcendental meditation and cardiovascular disease is established well enough that doctors may safely and routinely prescribe stress reduction for their patients with this easy to implement, standardised and practical programme.’

Meditation may of course be beneficial, but it will never be a cure for heart disease, and it won’t replace other treatments. But here’s what Schneider told WebMD:

“What this is saying is that mind-body interventions can have an effect as big as conventional medications, such as statins,” says Schneider.

It shouldn’t be necessary to say, but the evidence base for statins is several orders of magnitude greater than the evidence base for meditation. Further, there have been no studies comparing meditation to statins. Any claim that meditation is equivalent to statins is preposterous.

To be clear, I have nothing against meditation. Generic meditation is cheap, safe, and even possibly effective. Branded Transcendental Meditation, on the other hand, is a cult, and it is out to get your money. An initial TM program costs $1500, and increases the deeper you get pulled into the cult. Here’s what Schneider told Healthday:

“One of the reasons we did the study is because insurance and Medicare calls for citing evidence for what’s to be reimbursed,” Schneider said. “This study will lead toward reimbursement. That’s the whole idea.”

Here’s the real source of my discomfort with this trial. For true believers like Schneider, fighting heart disease is important only insofar as it can be employed to further the interests of TM. Scientific standards and medical progress are unimportant in the larger scheme of promoting TM.

Read the comments left by Michael Jackson and Chrissy on my earlier post to learn more about the dangers of TM. Or do your own research on the internet.

Here’s Sanjay Kaul’s response:

Power calculation

By convention, the difference that the study is powered to detect (delta) varies inversely with the seriousness of the outcome, i.e., larger delta for ‘softer’ outcomes and smaller delta for ‘harder’ outcomes. This does not appear to be the case in the current study. For the first phase of the trial, the power calculation was based on a 36% risk reduction in death, nonfatal MI, nonfatal stroke, rehospitalization or revascularization (the original primary endpoint). Then, for the 2nd phase of the trial, the power calculation is based on a 50% reduction in a narrower but harder outcome of death, nonfatal MI, nonfatal stroke (the revised primary endpoint). I find it curious that the authors justify their choice of the revised primary endpoint as ‘DSMB-approved endpoint’! Since when is the DSMB charged with choosing or approving trial endpoints?

Incidentally, the Proschan-Hunsberger method refers to conditional, not unconditional, power. To compute conditional power, the investigators had to have looked at data by arm. Thus, some penalty should be paid for the ‘interim look’ in the form of requiring a larger z-score (lower p value) to claim statistical significance. They did not appear to do this.

Strength of evidence

The conventional frequentist approach relies heavily on the p value which tends to overstate the strength of association. Complementary approaches such as the Bayesian inference are available that utilize Bayes factor, a more desirable metric to quantify the strength of evidence compared with p value. For instance, the Bayes factor associated with a p value of 0.03 (observed in the trial) is about 10, which means that at a prior null probability of 50%, there is still a 10% chance of null probability based on the trial results, more than 3-fold higher than that implied by a p value of 0.03. So the evidence falls in the category of at most ‘moderate’ strength against the null.

Another way of assessing the strength of evidence is to quantify the probability of repeating a statistically significant result, the so-called ‘replication probability’. The replication probability associated with a p value of 0.03 is about 58% which is unlikely to pass the muster of any regulatory agency. The FDA regulatory standard for drug approval is ‘substantial evidence’ of effectiveness based on ‘adequate and well-controlled investigations’ which translates into 2 trials, each with a p value of 0.05. At the heart of this standard (or any scientific endeavor) is replication. The replication probability for 1 trial with a p value < 0.05 is only about 50%; replication probability of 2 trials with p value <0.05 is about 90%. In 1997 the rules were changed to base approval on the basis of a statistically persuasive result obtained in 1 trial, i.e., p value <0.001 for a mortality or a serious irreversible morbidity endpoint. The p value of 0.001 is equivalent to 2 trials with 1-sided p value of 0.025 (0.025 x 0.025 = 0.000625 or 0.001). Thus, the current trial results do not comport with ‘substantial’ or ‘robust’ evidence.

Distribution of endpoints

It seems highly unusual that 80% of the primary events were fatal. If true, it means that the subjects were dying either from a non- MI-, non-stroke-related events such as sudden cardiac death or heart-failure death (as in patients with advanced heart failure) or non-cardiovascular events not accounted for by the adjudication process.

Adjusted analyses

Although many have discussed how adjusting for baseline covariates in the analysis of RCTs can improve the power of analyses of treatment effect and account for any imbalances in baseline covariates, the debate on whether this practice should be carried out remains unresolved. Many recommend that the analysis should be undertaken only if the methods of analysis and choice of covariates are pre-specified in the protocol or statistical analysis plan. This is not easily discernible without registration of clinical trials.