Looking for the answer

"I want the answers to life, I want someone to understand me", said one contributor to The Godmongers (Radio 4), William Nicholson's late Sunday evening examination of the various cults which have sprung up in the past 10 or 15 years: The Children of God, The Divine Light Mission, Hare Krishna, Scientology, Transcendental Meditation, The Unification Church - also known as the "Moonies" after the founder, Sun Myung Moon. In this first programme, Mr Nicholson was looking at those movements through the eyes of past and present followers with the emphasis on what they thought they had gained: tomorrow, in the second and final part, he will be considering what their discipleship has cost them - and not only in financial terms. On the strength of the opening performance, I'm inclined to recommend it as a very promising listen.

In contrast to the Lifelines series on meditation which was presented by a transcendental meditator, the tone of The Godmongers was critical - by which I mean not hostile, not dismissive, but not acceptant either. It was typified by the identification of five "needs" which cult followers appear to be pursuing when they join whatever it may be, two of which are neatly summed up in my opening quote: they want the answers to life and they want someone they can look to as an ideal, understanding father. In addition, suggested Mr Nicholson, they seek the support of a likeminded group, direct religious experience and a discipline or rule to follow, even if it imposes quite severe constraints. The interesting thing about this analysis is that, if you settle for a less than-all-embracing "answer" and substitute for "direct religious experience" the words "emotional satisfaction", it describes the reasons why people join groups whose aims are, on the face of it, quite different: drama clubs, debating societies, political parties … reasons which in other contexts we would have no hesitation in describing as social and/or psychotherapeutic. We tend to categorize and value groups according to their avowed purposes, but perhaps it is the purposes of group joiners we should be looking at. It is also quite striking that, with even less modification, the cultists' five needs are the same as those which the churches are said to satisfy but which in many people's minds they no longer do. Cults, we heard, have grown in the hollows left by religion.

If indeed they flourish by meeting what only appear to be religious needs they also generate ways of thinking common to group joiners of all kinds and actually at odds with what religion is supposed to be about: one contributor described how, secure in the possession of The Answer, she had come to look down on her Christian fellow citizens; a second, a Hare Krishna devotee, added a strong whiff of the television commercial with the remark "our philosophy has more answers". The strength of any group arises partly from such feelings of superiority and I think they will not be different in kind, but merely stronger if that superiority can I be related to possession of the Truth. Of course this in its turn can create some rather comical perceptions of what is going on: as another Hare Krishna-ite observed, referring to the un-enlightened passers-by who watch those quaint progresses down Oxford Street, "the people become stunned" and, again, they get "such an experience from chanting …". My goodness, yes! For all this, several words of praise are due not only to Mr Nicholson, but to his production team: John Wilkins, who directed, Mike Robinson, who researched, and possibly most of all to the completely self-effacing interviewer, Ted Harrison, who got so many people to say so much.

Lets Talk About Me continues well. In some respects it is a catalogue of what is currently available from the head-shrinking industry: psycho-analysis, encounter groups, primal therapy, psycho-drama, various behavioural approaches - but I think the sort of survey Dr Anthony Clare conducts is probably exactly what is needed, in the circumstances. People in general simply do not know what psychiatry is up to. Judging by what we have heard so far, their new knowledge may, not cheer them very much and one of the series' virtues is that it finds time for the odd contributor who will ask what one is to think of a society, like the United States, where psychiatry has really got a grip and "one is too busy taking one's emotional pulse all, all, all of the time". Another bonus is the impression Dr Clare manages to convey - some of it by Irishness - that he himself is not overwhelmed by the performance of his profession. I enjoyed his reflection on the primal therapists and psycho-dramatists that, "being a child takes on the appearance of a psychiatric problem in its own right". Sally Thompson's production capped that with a rendering of "Hush? little sibling, don't you cry, you'll be adjusted by and by", one of several ditties which used sparingly, have enlivened the programmes but not cheapened them.

International Assignment is often worth tuning to of a Saturday morning and last week's edition provided exceptional interest with a report by James Wilkinson on the Californian prison of San Quentin. More comfortable and less restrictive in many ways than its British counterparts, it also sounded more dangerous: drugtaking is rife and violence so common that the visitor is warned that should he be held hostage, no deals will be made with his cantors - a warning Mr Wilkinson had cause to remember when momentarily isolated in a hostile group of inmates.

David Wade