The Effects of Religious Cults on the Health and Welfare of Their Converts

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The Effects of Religious Cults on the Health and Welfare of Their Converts (1977)
Congressional Record, in the United States House of Representatives
John Gordon Clark, M.D. and Congressman Leo J. Ryan
84477The Effects of Religious Cults on the Health and Welfare of Their Converts1977Congressional Record, in the United States House of Representatives
John Gordon Clark, M.D. and Congressman Leo J. Ryan
The Effects of Religious Cults on the Health and Welfare of Their Converts

The Effects of Religious Cults on the Health and Welfare of Their Converts



Thursday, November 4, 1977

Mr. RYAN: Mr. Speaker, the activities of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church continue to cause distress for many of us. As you know, the House Subcommittee on International Organizations, chaired by my distinguished colleague, DONALD FRASER, is investigating allegations of close ties between the Reverend Moon and some of his organizations and the South Korean Government, including the KCIA. As a member of the subcommittee, I am, of course, disturbed over such allegations. My greatest concern, however is for those young people who have been converted by these religious cults and for their parents, who have suffered the loss of their children.

One of these parents, Mrs. Ida Watson Camburn of Sunnyvale, Calif., brought to my attention the testimony of John G. Clark, Jr., M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, before a Vermont senate committee, which was investigating religious cults. Dr. Clark’s remarks, based on 2-1/2 years of research, deal with the effects of some religious cults on the mental and physical health and welfare of their converts. I highly recommend his conclusions to my colleagues:


In this statement to the committee established by the Vermont Legislature, I intend to present substantive conclusions drawn from 2-1/2 years of research on the effects of membership in some religious cults on personal health of their converts. My conclusions are rather grim: The health hazards are extreme! Though I will talk primarily of the absolute dangers to mental health and personal development, I must also as a physician draw attention to equally serious, often life threatening, dangers to physical health.

I will state that coercive persuasion and thought reform techniques are effectively practiced on naïve, uninformed subjects with disastrous health consequences. I will try to give enough information to indicate my reasons for further inquiries as well as review of applicable legal processes.

From the specific data gathered during the time of my investigations a rather accurate history of involvement in the cults can be now adequately described. In doing this I believe I can adequately demonstrate why I think there are major health hazards as well as many other social concerns directly caused by activities of the particular cults which we try to define as destructive. The destructive cults are numerous and include the very well known ones such as Hare Krishna, the Unification Church, the Scientologists, and the Divine Light Mission, all of whom are utilizing the same basic techniques. The fact that I use the word techniques indicates that these investigations have delineated a series of technical aspects to these questions which need to be understood and can be explained.

All of the groups that we are talking about have living leaders who are demonstrably wealthy. The beliefs of all these cults are absolutist and non-tolerant of other systems of beliefs. Their systems of governance are totalitarian. A requirement of membership is to obey absolutely without questioning. Their interest in the individual’s development within the cult towards some kind of satisfactory individual adult personality is by their doctrines, very low or nonexistent. It is clear that almost all of them emphasize money making in one form or another, although a few seem to be very much involved in demeaning or self denigrating activities and rituals. Most of them that I have studied possess a good deal of property and money which is under the discretionary control of the individual leaders.

Most of the cults of concern consider themselves purely religious; some others appear to be more political. One of the most important of the common properties of such cults is the presence of a leader who, in one way or another, claims special powers or may even allow himself to be thought of as the Messiah. Such leaders do have special personal qualities, including a unique worldview and special willingness to effect drastic changes in the thinking and behavior of followers.

It appears that the techniques utilized by these cults are very similar overall although each one uses its own peculiar style. It would appear obvious that all of these cults have worked out ways of gaining access to susceptible individuals in order to have served to any degree. Those who succumb to the enlisting efforts seem to be divided into two rather distinct groups. The first is composed of the "seekers" of whom we all know, popularly though incorrectly thought to constitute the entire population of susceptible people. They are schizophrenic, chronically so, or borderline personalities. It is quite clear that the existence of emotional or personality problems is a reason for becoming involved in the cults and that most mental health professionals consider only this reason at present. These inductees involve themselves in order to feel better because they are excessively uncomfortable with the outside world and themselves. Such motivated versions are "restitutive," in that the "seekers" are trying to restore themselves to some semblance of comfort in a fresh, though false, reality. We also see this attempt at restitution in the development of the so called secondary symptoms of schizophrenia and other forms of mental illness as the attempt at restitution of a troubled or damaged mind to put together a new, simplified mental world and style of reasoning in order to compensate for the terrible awareness (or near awareness) of personal vulnerability. Approximately 58% of inductees were found to be in this first group from my studies.

The remaining 42% of the examined sample, however, were not ill or damaged in the sense I have mentioned before. That is, they were found to be apparently normal, developing young people who were going through the usual crises of development on the way to becoming adults, who, for any of a number of reasons, had fallen into the trap laid by the cults and had been taken in. On examination they were strong growing students on the average who were facing the normal pains of separation from their families, the normal depressions therefrom, the new, clear slightly feverish view of the complexity of outer reality which is a part of early college life. I think of their joining the cult as being "adaptive;" that is, they are presented with certain problems by the social and physiological processes which are not in themselves as pathological as those involved in the "restitutive" conversions. In some ways it is this more healthy "adaptive" group that is most alarming to the observer.

From a clinicians point of view the first or restitutive group under the influence of cult indoctrination and practices is very much at risk. In many ways it can be very easily shown from long experience within the mental health field how very much more damaged they may become by being given a thought disorder by a group that conforms to a prior tendency to this sort of thinking disability. Their chances of ever developing a good relationship to outer reality and becoming autonomous individuals must, perforce, diminish with the passage of time. I am reminded of the chronic schizophrenics of some years ago whose psychotic style of thinking became totally institutionalized when placed in the back wards of hospitals for such a long enough time that they ultimately could no longer think at all effectively. The healthier second group, though theoretically less totally vulnerable, is more easy to identify with; their problems may be especially revealing, as I will try to explain.

These people tend to be from intact, idealistic, believing families with some religious background. Often they had not truly made any of the major shifts toward independence, and so, left home at the appropriate time believing they were ready for freedom. When this belief was seriously challenged in this brave new world by their first real set backs or by any real crisis they became covertly depressed, thus enhancing their susceptibility to the processes of conversion.

For individuals in this state of vulnerability to be converted a series of circumstances, techniques and events must occur to bring about the complete subjugation of mind and person which I am attempting to describe. The first event is the gaining of access to these potential converts, which is raised to a high art by all of the successful cults. Some even have printed manuals describing where to approach prospects, exactly what types of initial pressure to put on each of them and what the odds are that they will acquire a certain number of converts from a given amount of pressure well applied. The general openness of manners of this group adds to the ease of access. Once such a prospect has agreed to investigate the rather simple propositions expressed by the representatives of the cult he or she is brought into the next and highly sophisticated activities of the conversion process. From the first, intense group pressure, lectures, lies, false use of facilities and other inter-personal pressures unexpected by the individual are brought to bear. Singing, chanting and a constant barrage of the kinds of rhetoric which catch the young idealistic minds are constantly in play. So intense is this that individuals who are under such pressure and are susceptible tend to enter a state of narrowed attention, especially as they are more and more deprived of their ordinary frames of reference and of sleep. This state must be described as a trance. From that time there is a relative or complete loss of control of one’s own mind and actions which is then placed into the hands of the group or of individuals who have been the direct contact with the individual inductee. This induction period has also been described as "coercive persuasion."

Once this state of passive, narrowed attention and willingness to be influenced is achieved, the true work of conversion (or of thought reform) begins in earnest. This is always a program of unbelievable intensity! During this, all of the cults step up their ideological reform pressures by increased group pressure, change of diet, and the introduction of elements of guilt and terror. The question of supernatural pressures that one must face in the future are brought out more and more explicitly and concretely. Many promises are made of redemption or safety, in the certainty that the world will soon end at which time there will be enormous rewards or terrible punishments to believers or non-believers. The threats may be implicit but are sometimes increasingly physical and explicit physical threats. Preaching is constant from all sides; supervision is absolute and privacy of body or of mind may not be allowed for days or weeks into the future even to use the bathroom. All relationships to other people are organized and stereotyped and no chance is given for idiosyncratic expression. The victims are induced rapidly to give all familiar and loved past objects – parents, siblings, home, city, etc. – and they are physically and emotionally moved to as foreign an environment as is possible to imagine. Thus, it becomes increasingly hard for them to reconstruct in imagination what one has once experienced some time in the past. Reality becomes the present and includes in its elements of the supernatural, magical; terrifying thought which has been expressed constantly all around. There is no base left for reality testing.

Perhaps as important a factor as any is that the base of each individual’s language which has been part of the mind and the body function from the very early stages, is slowly and deliberately changed. All words of any emotional importance have had some shifting of their meaning to an oversimplified, special sort of related definition. Each person is given more and more tasks to learn, to study, to grasp, and has less time to believe that the past ever existed. By this time the indoctrination has defined parents as being infected by Satan’s influence and parenthood is reinvested in the leaders of the cults. The urge to go home has been replaced by the need for the absolute authority of the cult and its leaders and at the same time the value of education and the need to go to school has disappeared from the consciousness. This much radical change of attitudes, loyalties and thinking style can occur and regularly does occur within a few days to a few weeks.

From this time the problem of maintenance of the state of mind is apparently rather simple. Leaving the old familiar life setting and renouncing it for a new communal theology the accepting of a new family with new definitions of love and denouncing of natural parents leads an individual to think all bridges to the past are closed and that a very brave move into a new world has, indeed, been made. In some cults members are taught intensive chanting and meditating procedures which in case of any attack on their beliefs can cover up all possible thoughts and doubts. Others can apparently reenter a trance state with a narrowed consciousness of reality the first moment that somebody questions or challenges their beliefs. They are then promoted to the next steps or stages in their cults usually as proselytizers, money raisers or in some cases garbage collectors.

In my opinion, the last stage of this process in both adaptive and restitutive groups probably may evolve after four to seven years. This would be "acculturation" and would be irreversible. This stage may be compared to that of the untreated person with a schizophrenic illness who slides without proper help into a kind of personal degradation which, if unchallenged or untreated in time finally becomes acculturated and permanent. Anyone trying to nudge a person from this acquired style of thinking and behavior as we in mental health field know very well is going to feel that he is the natural enemy of his own patient. In my opinion, I repeat, by acculturation this new style of thinking may become irreversible.

Before this final state cult members seem to experience two forms of personality: the original and the imposed. The original is complex, full of love relationships, expectations and hopes and, especially rich language. This richness of language is that which parents suddenly miss when they first see their thought-reformed children. Their reaction is appropriately panic! They recognize and correctly identify terrifying, sudden, unacceptable changes in the style of language and the style of relating as well as a narrowing and thinning down of the thought processes. Formally bright, fluent and creative individuals are rendered incapable of the use of irony or a metaphor and they speak with a smaller carefully constricted vocabulary with clichés and stereotyped ideas. They also appear to have great difficulty using abstractions in their speech or arguments. They do not love except in clichés and established forms. Almost all of the charged, emotion-laden language symbols are shifted to new meanings. Parents notice this long before professionals because they do not need cumbersome and elaborate tools to analyze language patterns. Their memories and intuition are sufficient.

The evidence for what I call a shift in personality which may be what we call in psychiatry "depersonalization," comes from several kinds of observation. The first is that, despite the appearance to very experienced clinicians of flagrant and classical schizophrenia in many converts the induced mental state being discussed does not respond to the most effective antipsychotic drugs or any of the methods of treatment customarily applied by mental health professionals to restore effective thinking. Thus, we are relatively helpless to restore thinking processes because under the current interpretations of the laws we cannot maintain physical control for long enough to bring about the confrontation therapies which might be effective in reestablishing the original personality style in the way it was done with the Korean war prisoners. On the other hand antipsychotic medicines are still effective in treating acute psychosis in these same people though not affecting the state of conversion.

The second and rather compelling piece of evidence is that the thought-reformed state is dramatically altered by the process of deprogramming about which, thought I cannot legally advise it as a therapy under most circumstances, a great deal is known. The deprogramming process as it is now practiced effects, in a large number of cases, a fairly rapid return to the old organization of the mind, a repersonalization, and brings back with it the old language skills and memories, original personal relationship patterns and of course the old problems. Furthermore it is regularly observed that for some time after the deprogramming the affected individuals are very vulnerable for about a year and, especially during the first few weeks to two months, they feel themselves aware of and close to, two different mental worlds. Their strong impulses to return to the cult are altered by logical reasoning processes and the great fear of some one taking control of their minds from the outside once again. During this time a former convert can quickly be recaptured either by fleeting impulse or by entering a trance state through a key word for piece of music or by chanting or by a team from the cult.

In general, however after a return to an original state of mind the individual’s problems begin to seem like ordinary health problems. Most of them are depressed, depleted people reminding one very much of that status of patients who have recently recovered from acute psychoses who are able to feel that for the first time in their lives they had lost a clear sense of reality and of control. They feel ashamed of what they have done and the pain they have inflicted, are very scared and for a while unable to manage their lives effectively. To remain within the strict mental and social confines of the cult experience for even a short time is disastrous for some who have become psychotic or have committed suicide. Continuing membership appears to invite a deeper acceptance of the controlled state of mind and, in my opinion, leads to the gradual degradation of ordinary thought processes necessary to cope with highly differentiated and ambiguous external life problems of the future. In this state after some time the intellect appears to lose a great many IQ points: the capacity to form flexible human relationships or real intimacy is impaired and all reality testing functions are difficult to mobilize so that moderate prior psychological disability is likely to be set back considerably and permanently in his or her maturation to adulthood and will certainly be impaired in the ability and capacity to deal with the real world’s opportunities and dangers. The loss of educational and occupational experiences will confirm these losses beyond any doubts.

This is the rough picture of the phenomenon of thought reform as practiced by present day cults and the natural history of this process and its effects on the involved individuals. Though incomplete it is based on examination of 27 subjects at all stages of involvement in six different cults as well as interviews with many more interested and informed observers. I believe the overall outline is sound though, of course, incomplete. The fact of a personality shift in my opinion is established. The fact that this is a phenomenon basically unfamiliar to the mental health profession I am certain of. The fact that our ordinary methods of treatment don’t work is also clear, as are the frightening hazards to the process of personal growth and mental health.

In this paper I have tried to describe the phenomenon of involvement of young people in destructive cults. The problems of special vulnerability to conversion were described and two major groups of susceptibles were identified. A natural history of access, induction by coercive persuasion, the process of thought and attitude reform and the maintenance of conversion described. An opinion that a permanent state of acculturation was likely to occur after a number of years was expressed. The rapidity of these catastrophic changes was emphasized as well as many of their qualities and these were related to mental health and maturational concerns.

Specific and important problems such as suicide, depression, psychotic reactions and psychosomatic disorders are most serious and deserve another discussion and much more study. It is also clear that the multiple, serious and often bizarre problems of physical illness need careful and official attention. Both the mental health and physical health problems presented by the activities of the cults should be investigated in much greater detail by official agencies. I believe that they merit active interest of such constitutive authorities as this legislative body who I trust can see some of the greater implications of all that has been discussed and will be further revealed in these hearings.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).

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