Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion

Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion

Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion

Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion


From the mass weddings of Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church to the mass suicides at Jonestown, charismatic cults and their devotees have become facts of American life. Once exotic offshoots of the Sixties counterculture exciting suspicion, scorn, terror, and counter-terror (as in the brief vogue of "deprogrammers"), cults have grown so common and entered so many areas of public life--managing everything from roadside flower-sellers to major metropolitan newspapers and nation-wide political campaigns--that only spectacular disasters like the immolation of the Philadelphia cult MOVE seem to remind us how extraordinary their burgeoning really is. Using material gleaned from fifteen years of direct encounters with cults and their detractors, as well as a wide range of his quantitative research, Marc Galanter shows not only how cult members feel and think at all stages of their involvement but also how larger social and psychological forces interact within the cults to command and reinforce individual commitment. After examining the powerful combination of social cohesiveness, shared beliefs, and altered consciousness that cults offer potential recruits, Galanter shows how these forces are orchestrated into self-contained social systems that relieve anxiety within while warding off threats--real or imagined--from without. Finally, he demonstrates this basic system in action, both in apparently successful movements like the Unification Church and in catastrophic failures such as MOVE and Jim Jones's People's Temple, and reflects on how and why some groups turn to violence. The book is full of compelling stories--first-person accounts of conversions, daily life under the rule of charismatic leaders, disillusionments, and departures both voluntary and forced--and fascinating overviews of many of the most influential cults, including the most comprehensive psychological analysis ever published of the evolution of the "Moonies." Many of Galanter's findings, especially his account of the similarities between cults and "zealous" self-help movements, are highly controversial, and his discussion of the powerful influence that Alcoholics Anonymous exerts over its members will spark much debate. Moving beyond the exposes and confessions that have characterized so much of the literature on this subject, Galanter offers the most extensive psychological analysis of cults available. Although based on extensive on-site research, it is immediately accessible to both the general reader and to anyone personally or professionally concerned with cults.


Individuals who become involved in a religious cult or radical political group may do things that puzzle and dismay their friends and family. They may don saffron-colored robes, shave their heads, or give away their family legacies. They may accept strangers 10,000 miles away as prospective mates, dedicate their lives to panhandling, or simply disappear. Their families may ask, "How could this happen? Nothing would have led us to expect it."

Strange as these transformations in attitude and action are, they can be understood in terms of psychological principles. These principles in turn can be explained and illustrated by recent research findings from seemingly diverse groups that share a "charismatic" quality. Charismatic groups are highly cohesive. They impute transcendent powers to the group's leader or its mission, and they strictly control members' behavior by means of a shared system of beliefs. Among these groups are cults and zealous religious sects; some highly cohesive self-improvement groups; and certain political action movements, among them some terrorist groups.

Three examples of individual members' experiences illustrate the impact of such cult-like groups. The first involves a young woman whom I interviewed some time ago.

After breaking up with her boyfriend, Debbie left home on the East Coast to start summer school at a college in California. She was optimistic, if also a bit apprehensive, about her upcoming adventure. Her parents expected her to do well in the school environment, as she had dealt quite successfully with high school and the first year in a local college. Before summer school began, though, she was befriended by a group of youths who suggested that she get to know members of their informal organiza-

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.