Book Review - Cults: Faith Healing and Coercion

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1989, Volume 6, Number 1, pages 107-116. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion

Marc Galanter

New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. 230 Pages, $22.95. Reprinted with permission from the Cult Awareness Network News, August, 1989.

Marc Galanter is a professor of psychiatry and Director of the Division of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse at the New York University School of Medicine.

Galanter's book, Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion, appears at a time when scholars and the general public are searching for quality research and insight into cults, but it is unfortunate that this book fails in its purposes. It is marred by major defects. First Galanter equates highly diverse groups on the basis of a single feature which he terms charisma; he then relies on a markedly restricted and outdated list of references; and finally he analyzes cult membership only after a person has joined a group, ignoring until late in the book the active agency of cults in recruiting members. He views most cult members as distressed seekers who find "relief by joining" a group, thus adding to the literature on victim blaming. Galanter writes that his "purpose is to convey a psychological understanding of the charismatic group....A charismatic group consists of a dozen or more members, even hundreds of thousands....Members 1) have a shared belief system, 2) sustain a high level of social cohesiveness, 3) are strongly influenced by the group's behavioral norms, and 4) impute charismatic (or sometimes divine) power to the group or its leadership" (p.5). He further writes, "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." Soon Galanter views cults, Alcoholics Anonymous and the Ayatollah Khomeini under the rubric of charismatic groups.

He is aware that the Ayatollah sent to the Iran-Iraq war front "youth twelve to seventeen years,...unarmed...often bound together by ropes in groups of 20 to prevent the faint of heart from deserting"(p.194). Few persons familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous and its non-coercive, non-violent, independence-promoting methods would attempt to explain its conduct in the same category with the Ayatollahs and many modern cults.

Galanter's two major reasoning problems are: he equates groups with extremely diverse conduct as similar by the very fact that he labels them charismatic -- a single attribute is allowed to override their vast differences. He then offers a retrograde explanation of affiliation with a sect (read cult) after membership has occurred, neglecting to take into account the active recruiting tactics of the groups. These two tactics -- calling diverse groups charismatic but ignoring their vast differences in conduct, and beginning his explanations about membership only after a person has become involved with a group -- keep him in logical binds throughout the volume.

One common attribution (charismatic) among myriads of characteristics on which groups such as cults, the Ayatollah, and Alcoholics Anonymous differ, is not logically the most important characteristic in understanding their conduct. For example, elephants, lions, and sheep all breathe oxygen. However, elephants are herbivores with no natural predators; lions are carnivores with no natural predators, and sheep are herbivores who get preyed on a lot. It is their differences that are paramount in explaining their conduct. Their differences tell more about the conduct of these animals than the fact that all these organisms metabolize oxygen. Once Galanter has committed himself to the idea that cults, terrorists, and Alcoholics Anonymous are charismatic groups (never defining charismatic) and then adopts the premise that he is going to reason about membership only after affiliation with a group has occurred, he has many problems.

Galanter attempts to equate and analyze these diverse groups by applying concepts from systems theory, ethology, sociobiology, social psychology, and studies of altered states of consciousness. Yet in the end, he fails to meet his own goal of conveying "a psychological understanding of the charismatic group." In spite of forays into many theories of human behavior, and his awareness that group pressures, influence, and many psychological issues exist, he does not convey that he grasps how social influence and social and psychological coercion work upon any one human psyche. A reader expects a psychiatrist to offer an explanation of the inner mental states that result from the transactions between the mind of the new member and the conduct of the charismatic group. However, Galanter avoids dealing early on in the book with group recruitment practices, even though later he writes of subterfuge and deception in recruiting practices.

The author does not achieve any synthesis among his many notions about sect-cult-charismatic group memberships because he uses parts of many models to partially explain bits and pieces of members' behavior. A reader is never offered a unified conceptual framework. Galanter's assumptions are: 1) Distressed people experience relief on joining charismatic groups. 2) This "relief effect" keeps the member in the group and the group rewards conformity and acceptance, thus reinforcing the person's desire to remain. 3) Leaving the group produces distress. He then jumps from this perspective, to a "different scientific perspective--a systems approach....In looking at a system, we do not first ask what motivates an individual member to act. Instead we say, How are the group needs met by the overall behavior observed in its membership?" It is jumps in reasoning like this which leave a reader with a smorgasbord of bits and pieces of theories and the feeling that Galanter does not consistently analyze his material, especially as he hesitates early on in the book to deal with the known, active recruiting tactics of the groups he has studied.

Before commenting on his efforts to apply many theories without truly seeming to understand how social influence actually operates, and offering little or no grasp of its "psychology," which he contends is his goal in the book, it is well to inspect his "bibliography" (which actually is a reference list). The citings are relatively outdated. Eighty percent were published before 1980. This is a real defect since the fields he purports to draw upon (systems theory, sociobiology, drug and alcohol abuse, and cult and terrorist studies) are each fast-developing fields with vast literatures accruing since 1980. Beyond being outdated, the references reflect a narrow and selective coverage of the fields. He cites only one reference on terrorists and fails to include a single work written by an ex-member of any cult. Further, from the vast array of books about cults, he notes only Conway and Siegelman. Thus, his references are dated, narrow, and nonrepresentative of the areas he purports to consider. In analyzing his premises and theses, one comes to see that in order to apply his selected ideas from theoretical fields, he had to avoid acknowledging a vast literature or he would have had quite a different book.

The index contains no headings labeled "cults, coercion, faith, or healing" the terms in the book title. In the text he applies the term "cult" only to small groups with little threat power, (the Word of God, p.108), writes of cults in the abstract, or labels now defunct groups such as the Peoples Temple, MOVE, the Manson Family, and Black Jesus as cults (p.192). Knowing the threat power of some of the large groups he terms sects, almost any author and publisher today attempts to avoid pre- and post-publication legal harassments. Perhaps now the terms sect or even charismatic group will become touchy ones.

Galanter writes in the preface that he found the study of "contemporary charismatic groups" compelling "because of the remarkable ability of these groups to exert influence on the thought and behavior of their members, often greater than our most potent treatments. An understanding of the `cult' phenomenon might offer valuable insights in areas as diverse as the treatment of mental illness and the understanding of group violence." He then outlines the various theories and paradigms he used in his work, such as systems theory, sociobiology, and ethology.

Each of the above theories is based on a process-oriented, transactional vantage point. In studying a process, it is essential to heed the time, the circumstances, and the context in which any transaction between persons or systems occurs. A researcher must remain aware of where in an ongoing process he/she begins observing. Each theory Galanter relies on assumes a researcher is aware that he/she is cutting into an ongoing transactional process in which the researcher must take into account the prior states of the components of the system and the interaction process that begins upon contact. Sociobiology, systems theory, etc. each assumes a researcher has accurately noted the process between components at the point the researcher begins his observations and deals with the interaction effects one upon the other among the components. Once committed to his notion of the "relief effect," Galanter absolves the group from any active part in getting the member into the group. Thus, to Galanter, the new member was a distressed seeker who found a group. Let us look at an analogy.

Assume a woman is home watching television. The doorbell rings and an encyclopedia salesman introduces himself and his wares. Assume further that the salesman is able to sell a set of encyclopedias to the woman. Any analysis of this transaction or process, be it by the man next door, a systems theorist, a sociobiologist, etc., will note the salesman initiated the transaction. The woman did not go out seeking an encyclopedia salesman. Yet Galanter begins most of his analyses of membership in "charismatic groups" after a person has affiliated with a group--after the salesman has left, so to speak. He would reason the woman in the apartment was a distressed seeker of encyclopedias. For most of his book, in spite of his forays into theory, he reasons on the basis of a simple "distressed seeker looking for a group."

The author, in spite of later noting in his book that groups actively seek out new members, primarily uses a "seeker looking for a charismatic group" explanation of membership. He then unidirectionally attributes motivations.

Initially he uses a one-way attribution to explain membership (seekers were looking for, approached and voluntarily affiliated with a group.) Later in the volume, Galanter reveals he is not unaware of the subterfuge, deception and other practices that by this point in history many thousands of observers and former members have revealed about many of the groups Galanter describes. He says of the Unification Church: "Discussions with church members from different parts of the country indicated that during the peak recruitment years of the early 1970s about half the new members were brought into the sect by deceptive means"(p.135). "In the San Francisco Bay area, the major source of recruits for the sect, the process was generally surreptitious"(p.133). Having written of the "induction by subterfuge"(p.134), and the "covert recruitment techniques"(p.135), Galanter describes in a workshop he observed "communication was regulated...conversations and ideas that did not bear on the themes under discussion were discouraged...the balance between active members and non-member recruits during small group discussions also assured control by the leaders over was possible to suppress deviant points of view, often before they were expressed. Potential converts were therefore engaged throughout the two days in an organized agenda determined by the leadership, and designed to discourage ideas contrary to the group's perspective"(p.137).

The book contains a number of statements that are to say the least puzzling, for example: "A member's decision to leave the Unification Church reflects malfunction in the monitoring of the church"(p.61). He reports that group has "a center for the management of disturbed members"(p.172), after strongly positing that group membership produces a "relief effect." Of his research methods, he writes that members "answered a structured questionnaire anonymously and sent their responses to me for computer coding"(p.174). Then (p.175) he writes: "To learn more about the role of coercion in relation to member's attitudes, I arranged to have the project team designate which respondents had been deprogrammed based on their knowledge of each one"(p.175). A reader wonders how Galanter defines "anonymous" if his project team knew who the participants were and had in fact located the subjects for him. Both this follow-up study and his earlier current member study brings to awareness the many criticisms made by other researchers that "there are no secrets in the group." Thus when a member of a high control group is asked to be a study subject that member knows the rules and the consequences of violating them. Such a person often is dependent in all areas of life on the group, knows that deviance monitoring is central and ever-present, and knows that non-compliance has serious social, emotional, financial, and other consequences. When management administers a questionnaire, how "spontaneous" and "truthful" can answers be? How can anonymity be assured, especially in groups where members have themselves monitored mail, phone calls, and know that a "party line" has to be expressed to outsiders? Such persons are patently aware of the penalties for deviance from these prescribed attitudes. Answers to questionnaires administered and collected by management under conditions in which there is knowledge that deviation is not tolerated causes those evaluating such research to ask how much credence can be given the answers. Perhaps some of Galanter's own findings help to assess this, especially his contention that joining charismatic groups reduces distress, but later when ex-members fill out questionnaires, they reveal that distress was present during their membership.

The writer never really defines coercion but alludes to it as if there is only physical coercion. At the same time, he writes confusingly about Robert Lifton's seminal studies of thought reform. He refers (p.64) to Lifton's work as being about " prison camps" citing Lifton's 1961 book which assiduously uses the term thought reform and was not about prisoner of war "prison camps" but about Chinese and western civilians' thought-reformed both inside prisons and in non-prison settings. Elsewhere after describing the system of social controls in the Oneida community, many of which he has cited as used presently in the charismatic groups, he writes: "These techniques stand in sharp contrast to the crude, coercive ones described by Lifton and others in their studies of brainwashing by the Chinese Communists"(p.40). Since Lifton wrote eloquently about social and psychological pressures, it is difficult to know what "crude" methods Galanter has in mind. His writings suggest he does not understand the power and effectiveness of social and psychological coercion. This leaves him with the limited notion that only physical brutality and physical force coercion exist. He eventually finds himself in a logical morass when he writes (p.64) about the sects he has studied explaining that: "In voluntary conversions contact must be maintained in a subtle (or deceptive) way, without forcing the individual to comply with the group's views." How voluntary is a conversion induced through deception? And how non-coercive in our society is deception? Is not deception a way of forcing compliance?

Another amazing statement is: "Members of charismatic groups are remarkably compliant in filling out long questionnaires, so long as it is sanctioned by their leadership. I have found, however, that more independent sorts in less zealous groups can give an investigator no end of trouble"(p.32). A reader can conclude that Galanter finds dealing with the subservient, the controlled, the totally obedient members of totalistic groups preferable to dealing with free and independent subjects.

Galanter's clearest and most useful chapter, is that in which he draws upon his training as a psychiatrist. Here he gets closest to explaining the transactional interplay between psychological and social influence processes operating in a group and individual responses to group process. For most of the book he has left his fields of expertise -- psychiatry, drug and alcohol abuse -- and attempted to look at the "group" features without actually providing transactional links between group activities and individual reactions. However, in this chapter he has made an attempt to relate altered consciousness, group process, and individual reactions. He reports observing altered states of consciousness in members of the Divine Light Mission, TM, Deutsch's Baba group, the Unification Church and "est." He writes of Erhard Seminars Training that: "Certain alterations of consciousness and subjective state within this large group context are apparently used to promote this conversion-like experience. Workshop members are subjected to a variety of unsettling circumstances for long hours at a stretch that act to peel away those layers of psychological stability that normally bolster their usual state of consciousness"(p.80-81).

Galanter claims that joining a charismatic group reduces emotional distress. Yet when writing about Transcendental Meditation he notes: "One senior editor at a New York publishing house had mild hallucinations if she exceeded the prescribed forty minutes per day" of TM meditation (p.70). Elsewhere he devotes attention to a number of persons who had major psychological problems while in charismatic groups and makes no effort to reconcile his theory that joining produces a "relief effect." At points he states that leaving a charismatic group, especially if at the urging of family, is the cause of any distress he detects. He is hard put to deal with the known distress reported by and seen in members of charismatic groups whether he saw the persons or dealt with responses from them on questionnaires.

For example, in a follow-up study of 66 who left the Unification Church, he writes (p.174) "36% reported that they had experienced `serious emotional problems' after leaving...24% had `sought out professional help' for these problems and two had been hospitalized." A reader cannot tell if the 36% includes the others or if one is to add 36%, 24%, and 3% for a total of 63% with "serious emotional problems after leaving." At various points in the book he attempts to explain that distress reported by ex-members was caused by their "leaving" and does not consider the role of their experiences while in the group as possibly related to their states after leaving.

This book falls short of what is expected from a person who was the editor of the American Psychiatric Association's official report on cults and new religious movements. It reveals the writer has had only brief clinical experience with members of only a limited number of groups, and most of that from paper and pencil questionnaires or talks with management personnel in the groups, and a few persons seen in consultation. There is little or no indication that he has had long-term therapeutic or other contact with former members of even the groups he studied via questionnaires. This combined with his reference list, which has already been described as narrow and nonrepresentative, of the available literature leaves a reader wary about expressing enthusiasm about this book or recommending it broadly.

The book does have some interesting sections about the roles of altered states of consciousness in priming and altering attitudes. The book contents suggest the author has not had enough hands-on-experience with a large variety of sects and cults, nor experience with truly studying and analyzing the effects of various group practices on members' psychological and psychiatric status. He has left his role of a clinical psychiatrist and ventured into efforts at social surveys and group data gathering.

On the whole the author is protective of "the sects" he has studied. He is aware that cults-sects-charismatic groups have the potential for harm to individuals and, depending on their behavior, can present problems to the general society.

The epilogue and the appendix include caveats encouraged by the editors or reviewers. In those eight pages Galanter briefly comments on the down-side of the groups he calls charismatic: "Aggression sometimes flows from the zeal of charismatic religious sects and domestic political movements gone awry; this combination has fueled the growth of international terrorism"(p.191). He then refers to "religious cults," naming Charles Manson, Jim Jones, Lindberg Sanders and "political charismatic groups," naming only the Weathermen and the Order in his comments on terrorism. Since he has not cited any of the vast literature on violence by cults, and only one reference on terrorists, this epilogue and added warning about violence from cultic groups is rather pale and "tacked on."

He wavers between purporting an awareness that not all is well in the "sects" and being an apologist for them. An example of the latter occurs when he attempts to "explain away" the conformity of 5150 members of one of the mass Unification Church weddings: "When the day of the ceremony arrived, members who were to be married dressed in identical outfits, as if to flaunt their conformity before those who insisted that the church made automatons of its members. The 2,075 brides all wore Simplicity Pattern #8392 with the neckline raised two inches to preserve their modesty; the grooms wore dark blue suits and maroon ties"(p.153). A reader had to ask, if Galanter likes the conformity of the members when they fill out questionnaires for him, how can he here attribute to them that utter conformity is a sign of humorous flair on their part -- 2075 women and 2075 men all agreeing spontaneously! Were they earlier just kidding when they filled out his questionnaires?

Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D.

University of California, Berkeley

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1989, Page 101