CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne
Like other contemporary new religions, Adidam has been controversial. Some of the group’s controversy grows out of social and cultural factors generic to the conflicts surrounding many NRMs. In Adidam’s case, these more general issues have been exacerbated by Adi Da’s “crazy wisdom” teaching style, the group’s period of radical social experimentation, and Adi Da’s claims to Avatarhood. Adidam came to the general public’s attention during a brief period in the mid eighties when the San Francisco Examiner discovered that former members had filed a number of lawsuits. The accusations leveled against Adi Da seemed tailor-made for tabloid journalism. Though the furor died down quickly after the case was settled out of court, this controversy continues – over two decades later – to shape outsiders’ perceptions of Adidam. In this paper, I will briefly survey the larger controversy surrounding contemporary new religions. The paper will then examine post-involvement attitude data gathered from former members of Adidam. Similar to the ex-members of other NRMs, most of the people who have left Adidam are not negative about their membership period, but rather, positively value the time and energy they invested in the group.
In the heyday of what some have called the “Great American Cult Scare” of the mid-1970s, kidnappings members of controversial religions were being aired on the nightly news, legislation was seriously proposed that aimed to cripple or even outlaw minority religions, and “anti-cult” groups were successfully convincing much of America that most non-traditional religions were evil, exploitative organizations which “brainwashed” their members. However, after the furor surrounding the Jonestown incident in late 1978 had died down, so did the controversy? Conflict between alternative religions and anti-cultists continued, but on a significantly reduced scale.
I became interested in these issues in the early 1980s. While a graduate student, I researched ex-members of controversial religious groups. My findings, which on certain points replicated the findings of earlier researchers, served to undermine the “cult” stereotype. However, because I was addressing the issue as it was winding down, I had little impact upon the controversy. My findings were eventually published in scholarly journals, where they had minimal influence outside of academia. Like many other researchers in this field, I turned my attention to other subjects.
In the 1990s, a variety of different factors induced me to again look at the controversy involving non-traditional religions. I closely followed the events surrounding the Federal Government’s attack on the Branch Davidian community outside of Waco, Texas. Scholars of minority religions as well as others were shocked and dismayed when the community was immolated on April 19, 1993. Then a series of violent incidents involving a tiny handful of other non-traditional religious groups took place over the next five years, involving the Order of the Solar Temple, AUM Shinrikyo, and Heavens Gate. As one might have anticipated, these events served to resurrect the controversy of the 1970s.
As I survey the current resurrection of this conflict, I am struck by the renewed relevance of my earlier research. Ex-members of non-traditional religious movements still provide one of the keys to understanding the controversy. Groups opposed to religious minorities base much if not all of their attack on the testimony of former members who relate tales of manipulation and abuse. Former members who have “actually been there,” and who have supposedly witnessed all of the horrors about which outsiders can only fantasize, provide the stereotype with its most important source of empirical evidence. These narratives, anti-cultists would have us believe, give us insights into the real nature and purpose of such groups, belying the benefic image minority religions project to the world.
In my research, I discovered that most voluntary defectors were ambivalent or even positive about their former religion, often characterizing their membership period as a beneficial learning experience (e.g., Lewis 1986; Lewis 1989). In sharp contrast, people who had been intensively counseled by anti-cultists described their membership and their former religion in terms of popular negative stereotypes about “cults.” The conclusion one must draw from these findings is that so-called “exit counseling” (the new name for deprogramming, whether voluntary or involuntary) by anti-cult vigilantes is not the therapeutic intervention it has been portrayed, but is, rather, an intensive indoctrination process in which one’s religious faith is destroyed and replaced with anti-cult ideology. While I would never assert that there is nothing to be criticized in certain minority religions, a careful consideration of this conclusion should cause any thinking person to hesitate before accepting the more extreme accusations proffered by anti-cultists.
Anti-cultists depend heavily upon former members for the ultimate proof of their accusations. In addition to shaping public opinion by recounting stereotyped atrocity tales, these ex-members feed into the controversy in a number of other ways: At the level of basic research, these individuals are respondents to pseudo-scientific surveys designed to substantiate such claims as that “cult” brainwashing techniques induce mental illness in their members, and that child abuse is widespread in alternative religious groups. In a variety of different court battles, ex-members recruited by anti-cultists provide negative testimony against their former movements, such as in child custody cases where one of the parents is a “cult” member, and in cases where governmental agencies need evidence for violations of various governmental regulations. The testimony of a former Branch Davidian was, for example, part of the evidence used to obtain a search warrant for the assault on the Davidian community.
Anti-cultists have portrayed the many academics that have criticized the “cult” stereotype—and who, as a consequence, have tended to defend non-traditional religions against unreasonable persecution—as naive and gullible. They would assert that researchers who study such religions without relying heavily upon critical ex-members have missed the key to the entire issue. However, many scholars of stigmatized religions, myself included, have a secret fear that they will one day examine a controversial religious group, give it a clean bill of health, and later discover that they have defended the People’s Temple, or worse. I believe that this anxiety causes us to be, if anything, more skeptical than the average observer and to strive even harder for methodological objectivity. It is concern for methodological rigor—not naiveté—that causes careful researchers to approach skeptically the information provided by hostile ex-members—former members who often have their own axes to grind.
Anti-cultists have never seriously addressed my research. Instead, I have been dismissed as a cult “apologist” (an ad hominem excuse for ignoring my research), or my research has been misrepresented as being built around a contrast between former members and current members. In Michael Langone’s words, in his introduction to Recovery from Cults:
Sympathizers tend . . . to accept at face value cultists’ reports while doubting the accuracy of ex-cultists and their reports, sometimes pejoratively referring to them as “apostates”. . . . (Langone 1993, p. 32)
My 1989 article, “Apostates and the Legitimation of Repression,” is the first reference cited in Langone’s note immediately following this remark. The fundamental error in this portrayal—as Langone himself surely knows—is that my research had nothing to do with current members. Rather, I collected data entirely from former members (“apostates”), and contrasted the attitudes of voluntary defectors with the attitudes of ex-members who had been indoctrinated by the anti-cult movement.
Because Adidam is organized somewhat differently than most of the minority religions that were attacked in the seventies and eighties, the group largely avoided assaults from the anti-cult movement. Adidam members were not subjected to involuntary deprogramming, kidnapping, and other aggressive actions taken against Moonies, Hare Krishnas, and the like. The pattern of the post-involvement attitudes of voluntary defectors, however, shed considerable light on Adidam and its relationship to the cult controversy. These findings will be discussed below.
Since the mid-seventies, mainstream scholars—particularly sociologists of religion—have been steadily churning out studies directly relevant to the “cult” controversy. (Because of the negative connotations of “cult,” academics prefer to use the expression “new religious movement.”) At this point in time, a collection of the books devoted to this controversy plus books on new religions containing at least one full chapter directly relevant to the controversy—and I mean a collection of mainstream scholarly works, not popular pseudo-studies—would fill a standard library bookcase. This does not include the large number of relevant articles published in academic journals which, if Xeroxed and collected, would form a stack several feet high. The anti-cult movement, however, has chosen to ignore this body of scholarly literature because it refutes the negative stereotypes they rely upon to justify their continued existence.
For example, the operative question that social scientists have asked with respect to the stereotype of cultic “mind control” is: How does one distinguish “cult” brainwashing from other forms of social influence—forms of social influence like advertising, military training, or even the normal socialization routines of the public schools? Some anti-cultists have theorized that members of minority religions are trapped in a kind of ongoing, quasi-hypnotic state, while others assert that the ability of members to process certain kinds of information has “snapped.”
The problem with these and similar theories is that if cultic influences actually overrode the brain’s ability to logically process information, then individuals suffering from cultic influences should perform poorly on I.Q. tests or, at the very least, should manifest pathological symptoms when they take standardized tests of mental health—and when tested, they don’t. In point of fact, such empirical studies indicate that members of new religious movements are actually smarter and healthier than the average member of mainstream American society. (Sowards, Walser & Hoyle 1994; Michaels & Drake 2009)
Other kinds of studies also fail to support the view that new religions rely upon non-ordinary forms of social influence to gain and retain members. For example, if new religions possessed powerful techniques of mind control that effectively overrode a potential convert’s free will, then everyone—or at least a large percentage—of the attendees at recruiting seminars should be unable to avoid conversion. However, sociologist Eileen Barker, in her important study, The Making of a Moonie, found that only a small percentage of the people attending seminars sponsored by the Unification Church—an organization many people regard as the “evil cult” par excellence—eventually joined. Furthermore, of those who joined, more than half dropped out within the first year of their membership. In another important study, Canadian psychiatrist Saul Levine found that, out of a sample of over 800 people who had joined controversial religious groups, more than 80% dropped out within two years of membership—not the kind of statistics one would anticipate in groups wielding powerful techniques of mind control.
In the face of these and other empirical studies, social scientists have asked the further questions of: Given the lack of empirical support, where does the brainwashing notion originate? And, What is the real nature of the conflict that the “cult” stereotype obscures? The general conclusion of sociologists (as analyzed in, for example, David Bromley and Anson Shupe’s classic book-length study, Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare) is that the principal source of the controversy is a parent-child conflict in which parents fail to understand the choices of their adult children, and attempt to reassert parental control by marshaling the forces of public opinion against the religious bodies to which their offspring have converted.
This core conflict is then exacerbated by an irresponsible mass media less interested in truth than in printing exciting stories about “weird cults” that trap their members and keep them in psychological bondage with exotic techniques of “mind control.” Also, once an industry is established that generates enormous profits through the “rescue” of entrapped “cult” members (I am here referring to exit counseling/deprogramming), special-interest groups come into being that have a vested interest in promoting the most negative stereotypes of alternative religions. These special interest groups add further fuel to the parent-child conflict by scaring parents with lurid stories of what will happen to their adult child if they fail to have her or him deprogrammed. In this manner, many otherwise reasonable and well-meaning parents are recruited into the controversy.
This, essentially, is the picture of the “cult” controversy that social scientists have pieced together over the last two decades. Because of its vested interest in maintaining the conflict, the anti-cult movement has been unresponsive to objective scholarly studies, and has proceeded with business as usual, as if these studies were non-existent. Rather than responding directly to mainstream social science, a handful of anti-cultists with academic credentials have instead conducted research on their own terms, creating alternative periodicals, which feature pseudo-scientific studies supporting the “cult” stereotype.
For example, the Cultic Studies Journal, published by the International Cultic Studies Association (formerly the American Family Foundation), creates the impression that it is a mainstream scholarly journal. You will, however, rarely find it on the shelves of university libraries. The Cultic Studies Journal fails to pass muster as a legitimate academic periodical because, in the first place, it is not (or was not, until relatively recently) a refereed journal, meaning that—in marked contrast to real scholarly periodicals—the articles that appear between its covers do not have to pass a critical review by other members of the academic community. In the second place, the few empirical studies published by the Cultic Studies Journal utilize unacceptably biased samples, namely samples of former members of minority religions who have been intensively indoctrinated in anti-cult ideology.
This sampling bias is usually justified by such assertions as, to cite from a representative article published in the Cultic Studies Journal, “It is unlikely [my emphasis] that cults will permit objective, scientific studies in the near future.” (Eichel, Eichel, and Eisenberg 1984) “Unlikely”? What do the authors mean by, “unlikely”? When one reads between the lines, it is clear that what they really mean is something like: “We didn’t want to admit any evidence that might possibly contradict our presuppositions, so we didn’t bother to actually ask any religious groups if we could study their members.” By way of contrast, truly objective researchers have found that alternative religions are almost always open to being studied. Psychiatrist Saul Levine, for example, studied dozens of controversial groups and found that,
In spite of the fact that almost every group deeply suspects the motives of therapists in general . . . no leader has ever turned down my request [to be permitted to study members], nor has there ever been a lack of volunteers willing to cooperate with me. (Levine, 1984)
My strong guess is that if you were to bring this point up to anti-cult researchers, they would reply that, even if minority religions are open to being studied, empirical research must focus on former members because current members would “obviously” convey false information. However, even within the population of ex-members, anti-cultists have confined their studies to former members of new religions who have been intensively indoctrinated in anti-cult ideology, namely deprogrammed and exit-counseled former members. The unacceptably prejudiced nature of this subpopulation was demonstrated in an important study by social psychologist Trudy Solomon (reported in her “Integrating the `Moonie’ Experience”), as well as in a replication of Solomon’s research by this writer (Lewis 1986; Lewis 1989).
Solomon found that the negative attitude of ex-Moonies toward the Unification Church was a direct function of “method of exit and degree of contact with the anti-cult movement.” In other words, as one might have expected, former Moonies who were forcibly deprogrammed and who continued to associate with the anti-cult movement were far more negative toward the Church—and were far more likely to agree with anti-cult rhetoric about “mind control” and the like—than were ex-Moonies who had left voluntarily and had little or no contact with groups like the Cult Awareness Network and the American Family Foundation. In my replication of Solomon’s research, I found essentially the same pattern among 154 former members of a half dozen different controversial religious movements (which, it should be noted, did not include Adidam).
What Solomon’s findings and my findings clearly indicate is that, with respect to the present controversy, the apostates who are presented to the public by the anti-cult movement have been carefully selected. While few if any apostates are ever completely objective about their former religion, ex-members who have been intensively “counseled” should be especially suspect as being less-than-neutral witnesses.
By relying upon this subset of ex-members, the anti-cult movement involves itself in a circular proof process. In other words, rather than forming generalizations based on a broad range of data, the anti-cult movement generates its own data by imposing its a priori brainwashing ideology on a select number of apostates, and then “discovers” evidence for its ideology in the testimony of these same individuals. Anti-cultists depend upon this subset of former members for the ultimate proof of their accusations. Because of the nature of this hermeneutical circle, all anti-cult research based exclusively on studies of former members must be rejected as pseudo-science, unworthy of serious consideration. And the inadmissibility of such studies leaves “brainwashing/mind control” ideology without any empirical basis of support.
In early April of 2009, a post-involvement questionnaire was posted online, using the questionnaire service that is part of Constant Contact (http://www.constantcontact.com). I then began asking current members with whom I was acquainted to provide me with email addresses for former members, as well as to put me in touch with other current members who might be in contact with former members. I felt that this way of proceeding would likely produce a more balanced sample than if I had made a similar request of the Adidam organization or if I had contacted people involved with hostile, anti-Adidam websites. At this stage, the response has been underwhelming – only thirty-three former Adidam members out of eighty have completed the questionnaire, though this response rate (41.3%) is quite good. Because of the relatively small number of respondents, I will characterize the present report as a pilot study.
Out of thirty-three respondents, all but three were North Americans and the great majority were Caucasian (29 or 87.8%). Thirty (90.9%) self-identified as heterosexual, with one homosexual respondents and one bisexual (plus one non-response). Half were raised Protestant (17 or 51.5%) and almost a third Catholic (10 or 30.3%). Two were from Jewish backgrounds, four reported no religious background, one was raised Unitarian, and one respondent was raised in Adidam. In general, these traits generally make the sample congruent with prior research on members of new religions (as reported in, for example, Dawson 2003).
Also, again similar to studies of other alternative religions, respondents were generally highly educated. However, this sample’s educational accomplishments – almost two-thirds or 63.5% had a Bachelor’s Degree, while another 15% held some an Associate’s or some sort of Technical Degree – exceeded other groups for which we have comparable data (refer to Table One):
TABLE 1 – What is the highest level of education you have completed?
Less than High School 0 0.0%
High School/GED 3 9.0%
Some College 5 15.1%
2-year College Degree 2 6.0%
4-year College Degree 7 21.2%
Master’s Degree 8 24.2%
Doctoral Degree 6 18.1%
Technical Degree 3 9.0%
If these findings can be extrapolated to current members, then the educational level of Adidam outpaces all other new religions for which educational statistics have been collected. The closest runner up is the Osho (Rajneesh) movement. In a study of Rajneeshpuram members, Latkin et al. (1987) reported that 64% held a college degree. In a further random sampling, they “uncovered 24% with a masters degree and 12% with a doctorate of some sort” (Dawson 2003:122). Though the educational level of members and former members might drop with more respondents, my general impression of Adidam is that it attracts highly educated people, so I do not anticipate a radical drop in the level of educational accomplishments.
Perhaps reflecting the liberalizing influence of higher education, over half self-identified as affiliated with the Democratic Party (18 or 54.5%). Seven self-identified as Independents, two as Republicans, two as greens, and three as non-affiliated.
Somewhat surprisingly, over two-thirds of respondents were male (23 out of 33 or 69.6%). This stands in marked contrast to the general pattern of recruits to alternative religions, who tend to be predominantly female (Maclalek and Snow 1993; Wilson and Dobbelaere 1998; Latkin et al. 1987). This anomaly may, however, simply be an idiosyncrasy of the initial sample that will disappear after a more adequate sample is collected.
Another striking aspect of this sample’s profile is respondents’ average age, which was approximately fifty-five. Based on my informal observations of current members, I do not believe this to be an idiosyncrasy of the sample. Rather, based on interactions with the current membership, my impression is that the majority of followers became involved decades ago, and that Adidam has generally not attracted more than a handful of young recruits in recent years.
The average length of the sample’s formal involvement in Adidam was a little less than fourteen years, with a range of three to twenty-six years. The statistically-average former member in this sample joined in 1980 when he was twenty-six years old and left in 1994 when he was forty. The age at recruitment aligns well with the membership profiles of most New Religions, which are “disproportionately young” (Dawson 2003, p. 121). For example, in her study of the Unification Church, Barker found the average age at which people joined was 23 years old (1984, p. 206). Similarly, Rochford found that more than 50% of the members of the Hare Krishna movement had joined before their 21st birthday (1985, p. 47). As some of the New Religions of the sixties and early seventies have matured, this pattern appears to have changed. Thus, for instance, Wallis determined that the average age at which people joined Scientology was 32 years old (1977). Similarly, Wilson and Dobbelaere determined the average age at which people began participating in Soka Gakkai to be 31 years old (1998). This places the Adidam sample in the middle between the younger recruits to groups like the Unification Church and the Hare Krishnas, and the older recruits to Scientology and Soka Gakkai.
Another issue that has been discussed by researchers is the question of how people become involved in alternative religions. Much of the discussion in this area was stimulated by the Lofland-Stark model of conversion, which was developed in the context of a study of the early Unification Church in the United States (1965). This model has been heavily criticized, but it has been quite useful because the model put forward a set of variables involved in affiliation that were subsequently scrutinized by later researchers.
The thesis with the most empirical support is that recruitment to New Religions “happens primarily through preexisting social networks and interpersonal bonds” (Dawson 2003, p. 119). In other words, new members most often become involved through family and friends. Interestingly, if we can extrapolate from the sample of former members, Adidam is an exception to this general pattern:
TABLE 2 – Introduction to Adidam
Initial Point of Contact No. %
Family 2 6.0%
Friend 8 24.2%
Book 18 54.5%
Website 1 3.0%
Movie or Slideshow 2 6.2%
Poster/Flyer 0 0.0%
Other 1 3.0%
Non-Response 1 3.0%
Based on evidence from a variety of studies, Dawson notes, “the majority of recruits to the majority of NRMs [New Religious Movements] come into contact with the groups they join because they personally know one or more members of the movement” (2003, p. 119). However, if we can extrapolate from this sample, Adidam seems to offer a significant exception to this general rule. I was frankly surprised to find that over half of the respondents’ first point of contact with Adidam was a book, despite the fact that current members with whom I had spoken often mentioned they were initially attracted because of something they read in one of Adi Da’s books. Less than a third of the sample indicate that their initial point of contact was a family member or a personal friend.
In addition to collecting demographic and other data on the sample, the questionnaire also sought information on former members’ post-involvement attitudes. Toward this end, five questionnaire items measured certain key assertions that capture the essence of the negative stereotype through which minority religions are perceived: “Cults” are said to brainwash their members; their belief systems and practices are bogus; and their leadership is insincere, mistaken, or self-deluded. Additionally, I also thought it would be useful to ask former members if they ever referred to Adidam as a “cult.”
TABLE 3 – Have you ever used the term “brainwashed” to describe your involvement in Adidam?
Never 27 81.8%
Rarely 4 12.1%
Sometimes 1 3.0%
Always 0 0.0%
TABLE 4 – Have you ever used the word “cult” to describe Adidam?
Never 19 57.5%
Rarely 6 18.1%
Sometimes 6 18.1%
Always 1 3.0%
TABLE 5 – Which of the following best describes the teachings of Adi Da?
True 22 66.6%
More true than false 10 30.3%
More false than true 3 9.0%
False 1 3.0%
TABLE 6 – Which best describes Adi Da?
Great Religious Teacher 30 90.9%
Average Teacher 3 9.0%
Not a genuine Teacher 2 6.0%
TABLE 7 – How would you describe your attitude to Adi Da since ending your membership?
Positive 18 54.5%
More positive than negative 8 24.2%
Neither positive nor negative 5 15.1%
More negative than positive 1 3.0%
Negative 0 0.0%
This pattern of responses indicates that the great majority of individuals in the sample do not feel that the popular, negative stereotype of alternative religions fits their experience. While these former participants might believe in the existence of other groups that do fit the cult stereotype, they clearly do not feel that they had been members of such a group.
The pattern of responses recorded in Table Five appears to indicate that a third of former members rejects some or all of the teachings of unique to Adi Da. Based on prior research on former members of other New Religions, I would infer that these ex-members continue to adhere to those aspects of the Adidam belief system that are congruent with other neo-Hindu groups and with the larger metaphysical/”New Age” subculture (Lewis 1997; Lewis 2009). Tables Six and Seven, on the other hand, capture a certain ambivalence this sample of former members feel toward Adi Da. On the one hand, they overwhelmingly describe him as a great teacher. On the other hand, however, many members of the sample had less than positive feelings toward Adi Da.
Another theme in the negative stereotype of non-traditional religions is that people who want to leave are discouraged – often in a heavy-handed way – from doing so. Subsequently, if they succeed in extracting themselves from the group, they are shunned. Two questionnaire items addressed these themes:
TABLE 8 – When you ended your membership in Adidam, were you able to do this freely, without interference from the community of Adidam?
Easily 29 87.8%
Somewhat easily 3 9.0%
Somewhat difficult 0 0.0%
With difficulty 0 0.0%
TABLE 9 – How would you describe your relationship to the Community of Adidam since ending your membership?
Positive 19 57.5%
More Positive than Negative 9 27.2%
Neither positive nor negative 5 15.1%
More negative than positive 0 0.0%
Negative 0 0.0%
As indicated by the responses reported in Table Eight and Table Nine, these aspects of the stereotype do not apply to the experience of even a single member of the sample.
A final item, asking how their involvement affect their lives for better or for worse (Table Ten), took a step back from both the stereotype and the particulars of Adidam, and asked respondents to provide a general evaluation of the time they spend in the group. Once again, the patterns of responses were predominantly positive.
TABLE 10 – Has your involvement with Adi Da and Adidam influenced your life for better or for worse?
Better 31 93.9%
Mixed 2 6.0%
Worse 1 3.0%
Lastly, the questionnaire also included an open-ended item that asked former members how and why they left. This item received twenty-six useable responses that could be classified into five categories:
TABLE 11 – Why Respondent Left Adidam
“Simply stopped” 4
Grew away; “life got in the way” 9
Six responses focused on the guru as the reason they left, often saying that, though they agreed with the teachings, they did not think Adi Da and/or his personal lifestyle adequately embodied these teachings. Several respondents also indicated that they could not accept Adi Da’s claims to Avatarhood. Surprisingly, only two respondents mentioned that some sort of disagreement with the organizational leadership or disenchantment with the community led to their defection.
Five respondents stated that they just could not keep up with the rigorous demands of Adidam’s lifestyle guidelines and spiritual practices – Adidam’s Sadhana, to use the relevant South Asian term. Four respondents said that they “simply stopped” participating and gave no further information. Finally, nine respondents indicated that they “grew away” from Adidam, or that the demands of living prompted then to drop out – in the words of one respondent, “Life got in the way.”
If the attitudes of this sample can be extrapolated to the population of all former members, what this data indicates is that vocal ex-members who attack Adidam on the Internet are not representative of most former participants. This does not mean their criticisms should be rejected as entirely lacking in merit. Rather, it means that the impression created by this handful of individuals – that most former members feel that they we abused and are angry with Adi Da and Adidam – should be rejected as lacking in merit.
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