A particularly sensible and insightful paper on life in cults. I would accept nearly everything he writes as being correct of life in 1970's Divine Light Mission with some minor quibbles. In fact not everyone was as happy as he states. Some people were dedicated devotees who religiously followed the prescribed lifestyle, rites and rtuals but it did not "work" ie they were no happier that they alrady had been and in some cases unhappier because of that lack of promised result.

CULTS and New Religious Movements

A Report of the American Psychiatric Association
Edited by Marc Galanter, M. D.
Committee on Psychiatry and Religion

Chapter 6
Saul V. Levine, M.D., C.M., F.R.C.P.(C)

Readers of this volume and other literature on the subject (1-6) might conclude that all cults are particularly bizarre and oppressive. They might also assume that these terrible groups have typical life-styles which defy imagination, and which are obviously weird, unique, and novel. The truth is that these groups did not invent the wheel; just about every ritual or practice, good or bad, which I have seen in the various groups deemed by the public as cults, has had precedence in other settings, perpetrated by individuals, families, and "acceptable" religions as well as businesses, political movements, and other closed social systems.

There is no prototypic "Day in the Life of … " in these groups, any more than there is a uniform pattern for all families. But there are similarities of process, as opposed to content. All the intense group belief systems (a far less lilting but more accurate depiction than that pejorative, four-letter "cult") have overriding characteristics that account for their hold on their members.

Let us examine some common features of all the groups that society as a whole calls cults. We must bear in mind, however, that the label cult is partly in the eye of the beholder, and that a remarkable array of groups has had that eponym applied to them. Groups that this author has heard called cults by concerned relatives of members have included Catholics, Mormons,



Orthodox Jewry, Born Again Christians, Bahai, IBM, est, and Gestalt, to name but a few. For purposes of this chapter, however, we will use as examples groups about which there appears to be considerable external unanimity. That is, these four–Hare Krishna, the Unification Church, Children of God, and the Divine Light Mission–have probably been held in less esteem by more people than most of the other groups combined (other similarly vilified groups models which have inspired widespread fear and loathing include Scientology, The Way International, Bagwan Rajneesh, Jews for Jesus, Synanon, and others).

Common Characteristics

Belief System

Each group has a written tome which is supposed to be the ultimate font of resident knowledge accumulated over the millennia (or months!) and passed down from the deceased or very much alive and deified guru to the common membership. The theology may seem illogical or incomprehensible to an outsider, but this is of little consequence. They can and do level the same charges against our own beliefs. As a matter of fact, this "not understanding" is sometimes comforting to novices, as it suggests an exalted level of comprehension among the leadership, and something to aspire to. The tome, in the form of papers or books, tracts or treatises, or magazines, is used in recruitment and often sold in order to raise money for the group. The magazine of the Hare Krishna, Back to Godhead, is often disseminated freely, while the "Mo Letter" written by the leader of the Children of God (Rev. Moses Berg) is used as a tract to guide behavior. The Moonie bible, called The Divine Principle, is written by the Unification Church's Rev. Sun Myung Moon, and is sold in many parts of the world. The magazines of the Divine Light Mission, a Hindu-derived religion with Guru Maharaj Ji at the helm (deposed in 1977), are called And It Is Divine and Love Song and are sold extensively on the streets of North America.

The Belief System provides an overriding raison d'être, a seemingly new system of values, an external focus of attention (7, 8). It is furthermore "sanctified," or given a lofty level of

Life in the Cults 97

spiritual and worldly significance. The members feel that instead of being preoccupied with materialism, competition, and acquisitiveness, or contemplating their navels in philosophical and existential dilemmas, they are now involved in something which is not only captivating but of vital importance to the group, and by extention, to the world. When one reads between the lines, however, and observes closely, the "new" values are not only not radically different, but in fact often approximate the very practices (especially accumulation of wealth) which they avowedly deride.


It may sound silly, but one cannot be a cult unto oneself. It takes numbers of people acting in a concerted, shared, cohesive effort to produce the phenomenal elevation of the group in importance and the subjugation of the self, which we see so regularly. The group's beliefs, activities, members, and leaders become all-encompassing and embracing. The members feel that they are unequivocally accepted, and integrated into this special social system. They are vital cogs in a wheel of vast significance. The sense of belonging cannot be overemphasized. It creates an inner "specialness" (some might call it "preciousness"), and a united feeling of "us (inside) against them (outside)." The more the perceived outside antagonism or even persecution, the greater the sense of justification of the group cause. Everything is done by everyone: there are shared emotions, catharses, and experiences. Even in groups with few demands, an implicit and powerful group pressure is engendered; a centripetal force which involves group cohesion and unwavering commitment. There are two levels of group: one is the greater membership throughout the country and world. The other is the particular and relatively small congregation or temple, ashram, or commune. Even if a large religious organization is "known" to be dangerous, it is more important to look at the local representation, because there are often vast differences in attitudes, relationships, and treatment of members. The feeling of belonging to an important group with a shared belief system is considerably enhancing to the individual; as time goes on the smaller group becomes the top priority to the members, superseding the


larger religion (9, 10). With the passage of a few months, the relationships formed in the small group become paramount, as vital, or, moreso, as the belief system.


Virtually all the groups are rigidly structured, hierarchically and pyramidally, That is, there is no disputing that there is a single, overall leader, who is usually imbued by the group with superhuman and mystical powers. At times he is formally deified, as with the Divine Light Mission's Maharaj Ji–"The Perfect Master"–or the Unification Church's Rev. Moon–"Messiah." But even if the leader does not make claims to having a direct pipeline to God, it is obviously a need among the membership to ascribe special personal characteristics to these exalted individuals.

These ultimate leaders can be young (Maharaj Ji was 15 at the height of his dominance) or old (Moon is in his 60s), male or female (e.g., Elizabeth Clare Prophet of the Church Universal and Triumphant), alive or deceased (the Hare Krishna follow the teachings of the late A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada), and present or absent (the Church of God's Moses Berg has been missing for a few years, as was L. Ron Hubbard of Scientology). Charisma, contrary to popular misconception, is an unnecessary ingredient in the leader. However, the groups are in themselves intrinsically charismatic, demanding, proselytizing, and evangelical.

The senior members just "below" the top, the designated "lieutenants," have always struck me as being the obsessional enforcers of rigid dogma. The guru or reverend at the apex may have more flexibility, imagination, and creativity, but those on the rung below are the epitome of true believers–unwavering, inflexible, even intolerant. As time goes on, the local leaders become dominant in importance in the lives of members. It becomes very difficult to evaluate the life of a member merely on the basis of being a member of "a" group. I have seen loving, gentle members and local leaders in groups which are intrusive and exploitative, like the Children of God. Conversely, there have been groups not known for these coercive tactics that have had regional representatives who in fact subvert the ideology and life-style of the group.

Life in the Cults 99

Meeting Places

All the intense group belief systems have meeting places which, over a period of time, take on a decidedly uniform internal appearance, no matter where in the world they are located. This should not be surprising to anyone familiar with churches, synagogues, or mosques. Similarly, Hare Krishna temples and Divine Light Mission ashrams are largely replicated from city to city. These prayer centers are usually located in urban environments, in converted mansions, churches, or institutions. But this is the case even in groups which have not got formula or prescribed external and internal architecture and design. Common pictures (usually photographs of the leaders), statues, arrangement of seating, group literature, printed prayers or exhortations, ornaments, and a central focus (lectern) or podium of some sort, are de rigueur. Group activities of various sorts ensure that the space is utilized functionally as often as possible. That is, the meeting place "becomes" part of the daily rituals (see below). But, as with all aspects of group functioning, there is a unique atmosphere and culture, chemistry, and "vibes" which is almost palpable and varies from center to center, even within the same group. The members' coalesced personalities and backgrounds certainly play a role in determining the prevailing ambience, but the most important determinant is the local leader (mahatma–Divine Light Mission; president–Hare Krishna).

The majority of the meeting places are in urban areas, but most of these groups have rural retreats which serve multiple ' purposes. At times they are used as vacation centers which senior members utilize for rest, recreation, and rejuvenation. More commonly, they serve as initial recruiting centers, in the preliminary screening and indoctrination phases–certainly the Moonie rural retreats (camps) are commonly used in this way. Some of the groups live in rural communes, supporting themselves via farming or cottage industries, in addition to selling their religious wares (Children of God).

Rules and Regulations

Each of the intense group belief systems I have studied has had a set of precepts and rules, which are designed to regulate and control behavior. The various aspects of life so governed range


from dress to diet, to sex, drugs, or social demeanor. The extent of control varies from moderate influence all the way to totalistic determinism.

For example, in the Hare Krishna movement, the bright saffron robes and shaven heads of the young men are not uncommon sights (although common civilian appearance is now acceptable); diet is strictly vegetarian, no meat, fish, or eggs; no intoxicants ,(including tea or coffee) are allowed; no gambling is permitted, including participating in "frivolous" sports or games; no illicit (i.e., premarital) sex, including dating or courtship. Similarly, in the Divine Light Mission, members are expected to turn over all material possessions and earnings to the religion and to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, meat, and sex. In both cases, total devotion and constant preoccupation with the teachings of the group are demanded. The young members of the Unification Church and the Children of God are indoctrinated into following the teachings of Rev. Moon and Rev. Berg, respectively, but the prime rules and regulations are designed to ensure successful fundraising.

There are implicit rewards for obeying and clearly living up to the letter and intent of the rules. In addition to explicit social reinforcement like smiles, congratulations, and compliments, there are implicit feelings of pleasure at fulfilling the precepts of the leader and the religion. It is also the only way to rise in the hierarchy. The "better" one does in more than meeting the demands of the group, the greater the chances for being selected as a shining light. Commonly, the extent to which one does not approximate the rules, or worse, breaks the rules, will determine a relatively short stay in the group. In these instances extrusion by directive or ostracism is guaranteed.


With few exceptions, the members are young (median age 22), white, middle-class, relatively well educated, and from intact families. There are equal numbers of men and women in most groups. There is no evidence to suggest that the various memberships are any more "pathologic" than any other comparable cohort of nonmember peers. Because like members tend to attract each other, one finds subtle differences in group identities from center to center, even within the same religion. For exam-

Life in the Cults 101

ple, some might be more intellectual; others are openly affectionate; others from more affluent backgrounds.

The new members might be called premies (Divine Light Mission), or novices, or trainees, and they come across as eager, closed-minded, happy true believers (see below). They join because of a confluence of factors. They are at that time in what I call a "critical period"–a state of alienation (feeling out of the mainstream, separate, powerless to affect their lives significantly), demoralization (dispirited, lack of enthusiasm, no raison d'être), low self-esteem, and some problems in separating from their families. During that critical period, an individual has a void to fill, manifesting itself in an emotional and ideological hunger. He is suggestible, with a need for stability and goals, support and structure. He is in a state that I call autohypnosis, that is, self-programmed to succumb. If during that particular period, a group makes itself available, a group that is clean-cut, seductive, and attractive, from the same social milieu, and is not threatening (drugs, sex, violence, etc.), then a small percentage (perhaps fewer than 1 in 200) will succumb to their warm invitation and overtures.

During the period of ultimate commitment to the group, they are often alienated or estranged from their parents. They are suffused with self-righteousness and justification. They feel especially sanctified and enhanced. Not only are their earlier feelings of alienation, demoralization, and low self-esteem overcome, but they feel "wonderful" in all respects. They experience happiness, clarity of thought, and high motivation. They feel healthier and want to share their sense of self-improvement; they proselytize, they propound, they bore. Their bliss and happiness are, however, not contagious. Their simplistic reasoning, their overriding commitment, their narrowed focus, their suspension of critical judgment–all of these offend and concern us, but they are hallmarks of fundamental true believers (11), of any ilk.

Miscellaneous Characteristics

Money. It is extraordinary that a commodity that plays no role whatsoever in the theology of the groups except as a decidedly materialistic concern, should be such a dominant aspect of the total operation of these intense groups. Not only are


selling, earning, and soliciting part and parcel of the daily operation, but taking and turning over personal savings are either encouraged, expected, or demanded. Furthermore, from the perspective of outsiders, especially parents, the perception that their children are being financially exploited is seen as one of the most pernicious and malevolent aspects of the group. This is particularly of concern when the leader (Moon, Maharaj Ji, Bhagwan Rajneesh, Hubbard, and so on) lives in ostentation and offensive opulence, while the members may be at the subsistence level. In the state of ultimate commitment, a true believer feels better for having raised and or given money to the cause. It also aids in overcoming cognitive dissonance (the cause "must be" worthwhile to have attracted these funds). All kinds of rationales are given and accepted for the displayed wealth of the leaders, but it is fascinating to see the blind acceptance being replaced by questioning and scorn as the hypocrisies and double standards begin to make themselves felt.

Language. In any closed group, language takes on a particularly significant dimension. It becomes part of the uniqueness and cultish identity, a source of pride in being privy to special meanings, new words, or old words used in new ways. For example, in the Divine Light Mission, words like "knowledge" ( a kind of revelation or insight to the Perfect Master), "beauty" (everything is "beautiful"), "divine," and "love" are used respectively during indoctrination and in everyday discourse. A new word like "satsang" (spiritual discourses in the Divine Light Mission), "darsheen" sic (seeing the Master), "litnessing" (witnessing in the Church of God), or "systemite" (evil, devil-influenced individual) can give the members the added sense of being part of a loftier, more esoteric and complex–and important–mission.

Pay-off. There is an implicit premise of a personal reward for wholly dedicating oneself to the group. That is, in addition to the altruistic creation of "a better world," the explicit goal (in so many words) of all the groups, there is the expectation of achieving personal salvation, eternal exalted life in the hereafter, reincarnation as an enriched being, or even great rewards, material as well as spiritual, while still in this world. This is frequently broadly alluded to or hinted at, but not to the extent that narcis-

Life in the Cults 103

sism or selfishness can be attributed to members as a conscious motive.

The other payoff is in the here-and-now. Anyone studying these groups is struck by the happiness of the members. One might attribute this to "programmed bliss," but this does not do justice to the phenomenon. The members actually feel exceptionally well, physically and emotionally. Any symptoms of anxiety, somatic distress, mundane or existential preoccupations, simply melt away. The outer-directed, focused ideology, the overriding commitment, the intensity of the group, and the Answers enable imagined and real distress to dissipate.

A Day in the Life of …

Just like most families, these groups have set routines and rituals which become part of the everyday process of living. And, as with families, these vary widely in terms of schedule, rigidity, expectations, participation, and so on. There is no doubt, however, that the groups most universally condemned and labeled as cults are the ones that are the most demanding of rigid adherence to schedules, duties, and rituals.

In the Hare Krishna movement, the core daily behavior involves chanting and singing on sidewalks (sankirtana). By this means they spread their message, recruit, and raise funds by selling their magazine. But the day begins well before this activity, usually between 3:00 and 4:00 A.M. Showers are taken immediately, followed by dressing in clean clothes (saris for women, dhotis for men). At this point, chanting and prayers (from the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu prayer book) would occur in a relatively formalized service. Between 6:00 and 7:00 A.M. there are classes, in which Sanskrit scriptures are read, translated, and discussed. Chanting is interspersed throughout and between these activities. Breakfast is taken at 7:30 A.M. followed by cleanup and chores. The sexes are fairly well segregated. The women are expected to do more of the "domestic" chores, and generally have less of a prominent decision-making role (some would say more of a servile position). By about 10:00 A.M., the group is ready to leave the temple to begin the sankirtana, and continue in this activity throughout the day, with some breaks for lunch and chanting. They return around 6:00 P.M., shower, and after a


vegetarian repast, the sequence chanting of classes and prayer and study would recommence, ending at about 9:30 P.M., followed by bedtime (around 10:00 P.M.).

In the Children of God, wake-up is around 6:30 A.M. After wash-up, there follows a sequence of prayer (7:30 A.M. to 8:30 A.M.) and memorization and review (8:00 A.M. to 8:30 A.M.) of scripture (New Testament) and Mo quotes, and reading Mo letters (8;30 A.M. to 10:00 A.M.). At 10:00 A.M. the members have a communal breakfast, followed by Bible study until 11:00 A.M. Clean-up and chores ensue, and by noon, the group is ready to "hit the streets" with literature and motivation for proselytization and sales (of Mo letters). They return at 6:00 P.M., to have dinner at 7:00 P.M., and begin another hour and a half of prayers, classes, and reciting. This schedule is rigidly imposed six days out of seven; on a "free day," members are often expected to do work for the religion, and are seldom, if ever, alone.

The Divine Light Mission makes similar demands on its members, but the daily routine varies considerably depending on whether the Premie is living in an Ashram or on the outside. In the former, a fairly regimented, totalistic life-style is demanded, with the day's programs filled from the 5:00 A.M. awakening with meditation, prayers, selling magazines, proselytizing, and service. This last term refers to any activity enhancing the image of the Maharaj Ji but it often takes the form of working in a Divine Light Mission–run business (aside from selling And It Is Divine) like a restaurant, second-hand shop, or drug rehabilitation center. Those who live outside are expected to devote as much of their time as possible to the repetitive program, but it cannot be controlled as assiduously.

In the Unification Church, a comparable daily program is imposed on the trainees in the rural retreats. In contrast, however, interspersed throughout the day are dedicated opportunities for physical exertion–volleyball, calisthenics, fitness classes, and the like. There is also a seemingly jovial laissez-faire period of joking and singing songs. But ex-members describe these as equally well organized, programmed, and repetitive, all in the service of indoctrination and control.

Specific knowledge, doctrine, the musings of the master, the particular theology, and a rationale to translate these teachings into marketable entities, especially sales and recruitment, form the basis of the daily functioning of these groups. Nothing else is

Life in the Cults 105

as important. While I have been seen to be somewhat sympathetic to the groups for their cries of persecution, and outside attacks of ignorance, there is no doubt that the so-called cults have these as their central raison d'être. The lyrics (content) change, but the melodies (process) are identical.

In all of these groups, deviations from the norm are seen as heretical, undermining, and even dangerous. In the stage of ultimate commitment (true believers), it is highly unusual for members to choose to buck the phenomenal group pressure in order to pursue independent or different activities. But true believership is in by far the majority of instances a temporary phenomenon. It is followed, inexorably and almost inevitably, by a stage I call "seeds of doubt." This is typified by the member seemingly suddenly being aware of two major issues which had for many months (usually) or years been buried. The first is the apparent inconsistencies and hypocrisies in the group itself: for example, living at a subsistence level in the Divine Light Mission while the Maharaj Ji lived in ostentatious opulence. The second is the upsurging of longing and homesickness. Birthdays, anniversaries, parents, friends, lovers, pets, and so on, are increasingly missed. The armor of total belief and belonging is pierced. Once that happens, the individual will leave no matter what the group may decide to do to counter the sensed withdrawal. The first external signs are an apparent diminishment in zeal, followed by demonstrated fluctuations in participation in routines and ritual. The group might attempt overt pressure, confrontation, reasoning, ostracism, or a number of other ploys, but never to any avail. But observers looking at groups over a period of time will be able to pick out members who change in their dedication to the cause. They smile less, struggle more, ask for leaves, and do not engage in all the group activities. They are the ones on their way out, and out they will undoubtedly go.


Having been involved in clinical work and research on intense-believing groups and their members (9, 10, 12-17) for a few years, I have become both sanguine and cynical about global pronouncements and generalizations. I have seen terrible deeds perpetrated in cults (and in families and other groups), and I


have seen benevolent and uplifting experiences. Most, however, fall in between, being for the most part pedestrian and unimpressive. But the rhetoric among family members, true believers, and involved clinicians and others is deafening, and at times vicious. The vast majority of members go through these experiences relatively unscathed, have a tough time after they (almost inevitably) come out (usually in under two years), and gradually reconstitute and reintegrate. For most of the youthful members, the radical departure ends up as an intense life experience which few people would have recommended or prescribed, but which manages to serve a developmental purpose. They were undoubtedly jolted by the events and in retrospect, have difficulty comprehending how they could have gone that route. Once out, if "allowed" to leave by the "natural" processes of disillusionment (rather than extrusion or kidnapping), their feelings about the group are mixed, and almost never totally condemnatory.

Finally, if we have doubts as to the illegal or criminal intent or practices of particular groups, then prosecution and even persecution are in order. If not, in a democratic society, all manner of intense group belief systems have to be tolerated, as long as the laws are not broken. We can even learn from some of the groups about how to stimulate and captivate the energy and idealism of our normal youth, and about how to help or rehabilitate drifting or deviant young people.


1. Enroth R: Youth, Brainwashing and the Extremist Cults. Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan Press, 1977
2. Needleman J, Baker G (eds): Understanding the New Religions. New York, Seabury Press, 1978
3. Stoner C, Parke J: All God's Children: The Cult Experience: Salvation or Slavery? Radnor, PA, Chilton Book Co., 1977
4. West LJ: Contemporary cults–utopian image, infernal reality. The Center Magazine 15:2, 1982
5. Zaretsky I, Leone M: Religious Movements in Contemporary America. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1974
6. Singer M: Coming out of cults. Psychology Today, 1979
7. Frank JD: Sources and functions of belief systems, in Psychotherapy and the Human Predicament. Edited by Dietz PE. New York, Schocken, 1978, pp 260-269
Life in the Cults 107
8. Levine SV: Belief and belonging in adult behavior. Perspectives in Psychiatry 3:1, 1984
9. Levine SV: Fringe religions: data and dilemmas. Ann Soc Adolescent Psychiatry 6:75-89, 1978
10. Levine SV, Salter NE: Youth and contemporary religious movements: psychosocial findings. Can J Psychiatry 21:411, 1976
11. Hoffer E: The True Believer. New York, Harper & Row, 1951
12. Levine SV: Adolescents, believing and belonging. Ann Soc Adolescent Psychiatry 7:41-53, 1979
13. Levine SV: The role of psychiatry in the phenomenon of cults. Canadian Psychiatric Association Journal 24:593-603, 1979
14. Levine SV: Report on physical and mental health aspects of religious cults and mind expansion groups, in Study of Mind Development Groups. Ontario, Government of Ontario, 1980, pp 665-738
15. Levine SV: Cults and mental health: clinical conclusions. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 26:534-539, 1981
16. Levine SV: Radical Departures: Desperate Detours to Growing Up. San Diego, CA, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984
17. Levine SV: Alienated Jewish youth and religious seminaries–an alternative to cults? Adolescence 29:73, 1984