Book Review - Why Cults Succeed Where the Church Fails

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1986, Volume 3, Number 2, pages 258-263. 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 - Why Cults Succeed Where the Church Fails

By Ronald M. Enroth and J. Gordon Melton. Brethren Press. Elgin, Minois. 1985. 133 pages. Paperback. $4.95.

Reviewed by Rev. Walter Debold

Seton Hall College

The tide of this book is one that might generate sales among the many people involved in the “cult problem.” Everyone - parents, counselors, clergy, and former members - is mystified about the ability of cults to attract young people who come from a religious background. All are confused about the apparent failure of the churches to inspire the same dedication that seems to characterize the members of cults.

Are these groups doing something right? Are the churches and synagogues doing something wrong? Should the churches be learning a lesson? Is there something that they should be imitating? Or should they be carrying on a more effective educational campaign to warn their members about the evil of cults? Is cult involvement to be seen merely as a stage which one goes through on the path to maturity? Or, on the other hand, should the parishioners of the mainline churches become resigned to the fact that the cults are “new religions," here to stay and deserving of respect?

The co-authors of this small book met in the offices of Christianity Today and carried on the dialogue which is presented here in six chapters and an appendix. Enroth is a professor of sociology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara. Melton is the director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Evanston, Illinois. Each has a long list of publications to his credit Each of them would describe himself as an “evangelical,” but they differ in many ways. Enroth, for example, admits that he is usually seen as being in the “anti-cult camp” (p. 1). Melton, on the other hand, resists the very use of the word, “cult,” which he regards as obsolete (p. 5), a catchword for religions that deviate from the norms of a given culture. It is his judgment that the groups described by the term are neither particularly good nor particularly bad (p. 12).

Both men are very patient with one another in the discussion-. one of the most forceful statements is made by Enroth, who says, “You seem to neglect or gloss over what I consider to be the negative dimensions of cultic life" (p. 14).

Furthermore, Melton is severely critical of anti-cult organizations like the American Family Foundation and the Citizens Freedom Foundation (the Cult Awareness Network).

The discussion next turned to “deprogramming." Apparently Enroth and Melton were not in too great a hurry to tackle the question which constitutes the tide of the book. Both men interpret deprogramming to be a “forcible retrieval" of a cult victim. Both oppose it. Melton says, “I think of deprogrammers in the same way I think of rapists . . . (p. 23) [deprogramming is] a violation of everything we stand for in this country in terms of freedom and rights” (p. 24). He sees no evidence that an individual cult member has been “lured" into the group without freely choosing to join. He abhors the anti-cult book, Snapping, which he labels .anti-Christian.” On the matter of manipulation, Enroth politely disagrees with Melton: “I think there is a high degree of influence, control, and harmful manipulation in cultic organizations” (p. 40).

The reader begins to be impatient to get to the discussion of the problem posed in the title. He is curious to see what positions the authors will take. Has the Church failed? Are the cults succeeding, or are they merely a novelty that "I pass? The third chapter approaches the issue with the question, “Is there any good in cults?” Enroth feels that there has been an erosion of authority in our society leaving a vacuum. He suggests that the cult leader becomes a surrogate authority figure in the place of God (p. 48). The cult “offers opportunity for commitment and a degree of involvement sometimes sadly lacking in mainstream churches" (p. 5 1). Enroth adds that the "marginal groups” are more intense, more subjective, and more feeling-oriented (p. 5 1). People join them, he judges, because they meet real human needs for a sense of family, of community, and of purpose (p. 53). He is confident that most cult leaders are not charlatans, but sincere. It is his judgment that they believe what they preach (p. 57). If the question posed in the title is addressed anywhere in the book, it must be here in chapter three.

Melton next brings the fruits of his study to bear on the question. He reports finding that 80 to 85 percent of cult members come from homes at least nominally religious, although very few of these young people have been active in their churches or synagogues. It is his judgment that there exists in the home no religious authority, and dia4 as a consequence, children shop around in search of a religious commitment. Melton has found that some teenagers have had a bad experience with the traditional churches or with the insensitivity of some of the clergy. All of this has created a certain spiritual vacuum which leaves young people vulnerable to some guru who happens to come along.

Melton also contends that half of the people in the United States are raised as “secularists,” with the result that 50 percent of young adults have no religious background. Enroth agrees with Melton that these people find in cults warmth and a supportive community. Melton himself would prefer life in any cult over a purely secular existence because this would afford, in his view, a sense of the sacredness of life and an appreciation of the holy realm He judges that these “alternative groups” offer a place for the expression of teen-age commitment and a sense of community not found in the large, impersonal churches. It seems clear that Melton's views were formed in the crucible of his own spiritual journey, about which he speaks candidly. He was deeply affected by the "death of God” theology, and God was absent from his life for a time. But scriptural study and prayer, under the influence of the Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship, brought him to a new relationship with God. Melton also participated in a Pentacostal prayer group for a number of years and, in his words, “did quite a bit of running around with Full Gospel people."

The fourth chapter is entitled, “What is Heresy?" Melton defines it as a form of Christianity that deviates from the orthodox tradition on a major point of doctrine. He very carefully avoids calling the Unification Church “heretical”; he calls it “a totally new religious gestalt ... quite a synthesis” (p. 80). Both men oppose heresy hunting. Melton says that his approach is to assume that the members and leaders of a group are honest people of religious integrity, and he assumes that the Holy Spirit is with them and leading them to the point to which they have come (p. 90).

Addressing the problem of how to relate to cult members, Enroth calls for an educational effort to enable young people to develop discernment skins (P. 94). He sees a need for resources, counseling, and resocialization support for those coming out of cults (p. 97). He regrets that there are no halfway houses or rehabilitation centers (p. 98). He points out that we care for unwed mothers, drug addicts, and alcoholics, but do nothing for those coming out of extremist cults. In all this he expresses a concern that does not much trouble Melton.

The chapter which follows, devoted to “A Basic Reference Shelf,” ignores many books that deserve study and promotes others that merit little attention. This is not the strongest chapter in the book, but it should have been allowed to be the last Unfortunately, the editor saw fit to use as a filler an appendix entitled "The Flowering of the New Religious Consciousness.” The less said about that the better.

The term “new religions” and the expression “alternative religions” are not minted by Melton. They are euphemisms brought into usage by some academicians to throw a blanket of dignity over some very shoddy operations. It is impossible to guess at the motivations of those who subtly propagandize for these exploitative groups, but they surely have a strange understanding of the word “religion.”

If, for the sake of argument, one accepted the view of Allport that religion is the audacious attempt to bind oneself to creation and to the Creator and thus to find one's place in the scheme of things, then one would have to admit that there is nothing audacious about surrendering one's mind to another who is willing to become “the dispenser of existence." One may feel a certain security in escaping the responsibility to make decisions, but it is the security of a child and not that of a mature person. The mass suicide that Jim Jones orchestrated in the jungles of Guyana was not an act of religion. The surrender of the individual's critical faculties is not a matter to merit heavenly reward. As the bishops of the Second Vatican Council said in their address to Men of Thought and Science: “Thinking is not an option, it is a responsibility.”

For the Christian, a “religious consciousness" might imply an awareness colored by the Sermon on the Mount or by such writings of Saint Paul as the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, or by the Prologue to John's gospel. For the Jew, a religious consciousness will be shaped by Genesis, by Exodus, by Isaiah and the Wisdom books as well as by the interpretations of so many holy rabbis down through the centuries. But to place alongside these such items as The Divine Principle, Dianetics, or the initiation ceremony of Transcendental Meditation is simply inane.

It is Enroth who says that the cults offer “commitment, and “involvement” However dubious the commitment and however misdirected the involvement, one must agree with him on that point The cults do demand a complete, firm unwavering commitment to the Leader and his Idea. Invariably, this Faith must be productive of Works: some of the cults send their missionaries great distances to labor at the salvation of the world. For example, one girl was sent to Alaska by Moonies to sell plastic jewelry. (She reports that she brought in as much as $700 a day.) One young man was returned in very poor health from Japan where he was sent by the Children of God. A Jersey girl discovered Colorado under the auspices of the Hare Krishnas. The commitment of some college girls to the Circle of Friends enabled them to work two shifts of a security job in order to bring bark to their guru the money which they were led to believe would benefit handicapped children around the world. Each of these examples demonstrates the generous commitment which can be elicited by a cult One could only wish that the cause were more worthy of such devotion.

Again, Enroth insists that the cults meet real human needs by providing a sense of family, of community, and a sense of purpose. True. And the local churches may make some effort in this direction, but too often it is a rather feeble gesture. However contrived it may be, the cults do create a sense of community. (Let it be noted here that they do not hesitate to abandon members who become seriously ill and require extended medical care. Some have been cruelly unscrupulous in this regard.) The strongest tie that a young man or woman has to the cult is the awareness that one has met there some of the finest, most idealistic people that one has encountered anywhere. It is not surprising, then, that if a person is retrieved from such a group, there is always a deeply felt regret at leaving friends. (The temptation to call them up on the telephone will invariably trigger a desperate effort on the pan of the cult to recover the fish that got away!)

It would seem that Why Cults Succeed Where the Church Fails -- like this review -- assumes that everyone understands the meaning of “success.” Is there no need to define it? Is it to be judged quantitatively? If the cults recruit more young people than the mainline churches, is that to be seen as success for the one and failure for the other? Or, if the cults seem to have a higher rate of attrition, with clients dropping out quickly after they have joined, is that to be judged a failure? If the churches refuse to use high pressure recruiting methods, is that a deficiency on their part?

Perhaps success ought to be calculated in light of the goals which each has. The churches and synagogues are concerned with the worship of God and the sanctification of men and women. These religious institutions, seeing each person as an image of God, must stand in awe of the individual conscience. They may do nothing to diminish personal responsibility. Religion can only be a liberating force. When Jews or Christians are scandalized by oppression, the sense of scandal is, to quote Jacques Ellul, "a result of the Judeo-Christian roots of our civilization.”[1]

Freedom is the basic theme which ties everything else in the Bible together, from beginning to end. Freedom explains everything else in the Bible and gives meaning to the whole adventure of election, grace, and redemption as the Bible describes it It is certain that with the revelation at Horeb and the accomplishment of Jesus Christ, freedom entered the world.[2]

The tragic irony of our human situation is that we need to be free in order to have perspective on the conditions that enslave.

As soon as a person recognizes that he has been conditioned, this means that he has taken a position with respect to this necessity. He situates himself outside it in order to see it. Furthermore, he can define himself as conditioned only if he is free. Unless he were conscious of freedom, or willed to be free, he would not even know that he was subject to necessity.[3]

If the churches and synagogues were to stoop to the use of some “heavenly deception,” that would, obviously, be a betrayal of their raison d’etre. No matter how many adherents they lose to the cults, religious institutions must be faithful in their defense of freedom. Their present challenge is to raise up a generation which loves to be free and also recognizes manipulation. Unfortunately, it is easier to state this in general terms than to translate it into specifics. The book under review here will not help.


1. Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1985), 59.

2. Ibid., 58.

3. Ibid., 221.

Rev. Walter Debold is a member of the faculty of Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. He is the author of The Vatican Document on Sects and Cults, forthcoming in the Journal of Dharma (Centre for the Study of World Religions, Dharmaram College, Bangalore, India).

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 3, No. 2, 1986