hose cherubic-faced flower sellers and saffron-robed street dancers--as "deranged weirdos" has been challenged by recent reports in professional mental-health journals.
Some of the research suggests that members of "cults," "sects," or "new-age religions" may not only be happier and better adjusted than they had been in the "real world," but that the longer they remain in the group, the better adjusted they become.
Can this be true? Are "cult" members really happier, better adjusted, free from anxiety and from the abuse of drugs and alcohol so prevalent in modern society? Do the groups, as the research suggests, exert a beneficial effect on their members?
Despite the optimistic reports, serious questions remain, some centered around the difficulty of researching cults. When research has been permitted, it has most often been on topics--and under conditions--favorable to the groups. While one can certainly understand a group's desire to avoid hordes of invading researchers, the lack of free access diminishes the validity of the findings.
More fundamentally, however, research cannot be separated from the social context in which it takes place. As critics point out, cult members live in an environment in which conformity of thought amd action are paramount. Norms of conduct demand declarations of happiness and contentment. Dismay, doubt or distress are regarded as spiritual failing. Peer expressions of new-found joy, often coupled with exaggerated accounts of pre-group sinfulness, reinforce the rush to bliss.
It is not until most people leave a group that the full impact of the cult experience becomes clear. For many members, the reduction in anxiety and distress has been a result of avoiding the normal, albeit troublesome, developmental issues of young adult life: choice of career, of sexual values, of marital status. Such issues, however, do not disappear. They remain latent, reemerging when the ex-member once again confronts the "real world."
For many ex-members, the capacity to deal with the real world is diminished. Their experience is akin to being frozen in time. Old friends may have graduated from college, moved on to careers, or married. Feelings of loneliness and isolation may be overwhelming.
Further, the social environment of the cult induces passivity, dependency and indecisiveness. Obedience--not initiative--is called for. Adaptive within the group, such charcteristics may seriously hinder an ex-member's readjustment to life. For some, even the simplest day-to-day decisions may prove burdensome.
In addition, the jargon of the group--designed to promote a sense of exclusivity--can constrict language, and with it, thought. Ex-cult members are apt to display a narrowing of focus: an "intellectual shriveling."
More ominously, the repetitive chanting and meditation required of devotees in many groups have been known to produce altered states of consciousness--trance-like states in which judgment is suspended and suggestibility heightened. Away from the group, ex-members may find themselves, without warning, meditating, chanting, or hallucinating visions of the group leader's face. Such "floating" experiences can be enormously disturbing and disruptive, particularly if taken as signs of the cult leader's divine power.
Although the mental-health consequences of cult involvement are not readily evident, there has been sufficient evidence for the American Psychiatric Association to include in its latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders a category that encompasses those symptoms generated by cult involvement.
To be sure, not every odd group is a cult, nor are all cults equally destructive. Comparisons with traditional religions, however, are invidious. Persons entering traditional religions do so with informed consent--with knowledge of the consequences of their decision. Even within cloistered orders, there is ample time to reflect on one's commitment before final vows are taken. In most cult groups, opportunities for such careful deliberation do not exist.
The relationship between mental health and membership in a cult is hardly static. What one sees depends on when one looks. Research demonstrating the beneficial effects of cult membership does not--as a snapshot does not--provide a total picture.