Book Review - Leaders and Followers--A Psychiatric Perspective on Religious Cults

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1992, Volume 9, Number 2, pages 260-261. 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 - Leaders and Followers: A Psychiatric Perspective on Religious Cults. 

Formulated by the Committee on Psychiatry and Religion, Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry. Report No. 132. American Psychiatric Press, Washington, DC, 1992, 70 pages.

This is one of numerous monographs published by the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry (GAP). This invitation-only organization's reports on psychiatric issues are addressed to both professionals and laypersons. Like most GAP reports, it can be read in about 90 minutes. This report on "religious cults" was written by GAP's Committee on Psychiatry and Religion, not to be confused with the multiauthored report from the American Psychiatric Association's committee of the same name.

The stated aim of the report is neither to decry nor to defend cults, but to help in the "rational" evaluation of patients identified as cult members. The book does offer an excellent and lengthy set of questions for a therapist to ask to gain insight into whether a patient is under the sway of a destructive cult. The report's conclusion is that while some cults are benign, others are so destructive that legal measures should be taken to prevent members from joining.

Unfortunately, the report obtains its "fair" perspective by being overly vague when some detail would help, and by offering extensive detail on religious sects that have little in common with contemporary cults. References from all spectra of the literature are cited as sources, but the report offers no criticism as to the very different conclusions of some of these references. There are no new data here.

Cults are simplistically viewed as juvenile religions that will grow up one day, and not as a specific kind of group that can have a religious, psychological, political, health, or self-development motif. The report "blames the victim," suggesting cult members suffer from "developmental arrest" and "poor reality testing," prior to entering cults; while bad cults make the members even sicker, "benign" cults offer "mentors, goals, and ideals" without the pressure of maintaining a 2.0 average.

The report states that "brainwashing" does occur in cults but offers little in the way of specifics. An extensive biography of the Reverend Mr. Moon says little more about brainwashing than its being an allegation of his "enemies." The Bhagwan's 100+ Rolls Royces are implied to represent the end results of "freedom of choice." Meanwhile, there is an extended treatise about the Essenic sect of the Dead Sea Scrolls, while Scientology is summarized in two benign sentences. All of this unfortunate vagueness may be related to the inability of the Essenes to sue their critics for libel since they all died some time ago.

The weaknesses of this book outweigh its merits. It is pricey at $12 since 12 of its 70 pages list the names of GAP psychiatrists and committees.

John Hochman, M.D.

Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry

UCLA School of Medicine

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1992