Testimony Offered to the Maryland Task Force to Study the Effects of Cult Activities on Public Senior Higher Education Institutions

Annapolis, Maryland July 27, 1999

By James T. Richardson, J.D., Ph.D.

Professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies

University of Nevada, Reno




I am a trained social scientist with a specialization in religion who has done research of various kinds, as well as taught research and statistics classes at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Thus I can comment on research methodology questions, such as those that relate to the activities of this task force. I review journal articles for a number of refereed professional journals, as well as review book manuscripts for several book publishers in my areas of expertise.

I have done research on various new religious groups and their activities, as well as reactions to them, for nearly 30 years, both in the U.S. and overseas. This has included research in Australia, New Zealand, Poland, Hungary, and Russia, as well as Western European countries and Scandinavia. I have done research on some of the more controversial groups, and have focused some of my research in two major areas that have attracted attention - recruitment and fund-raising

Much of this research has been descriptive in tone, focusing on such questions as characteristics of participants, activities and processes within groups, and how the groups are organized and change over time. But considerable work has tested various theories that seem to apply to such groups, such as theories of why and how people join such groups, and whether participation is harmful to participants.

In recent years I have become fascinated with questions of social control of new and minority religions, i.e. effort to control or suppress them by private citizens and groups, as well as governmental agencies, including the courts. I have done considerable research and scholarly writing on this topic, focusing mainly on governmental entities, but also attending to how private groups and individuals interact with those agencies in efforts to effect social control.

Out of this recent work I have published a number of articles in law reviews and journals for the judiciary, as well as in books dealing with related issues, such as concerning the quality and type of evidence accepted in cases involving controversial religious groups. All told, I have published five books and over 100 journal articles and book chapters on various aspects of controversial new and minority faiths. I will allude to some of these publications today, and I have copies of some that may be germane to your deliberations.

I have also been involved in other relevant professional experiences perhaps worth mentioning. I have testified on matters involving new religions to other legislative hearings, most notably in my own state when unsuccessful efforts were made to pass some strong, anti-cult type legislation in 1985 (I described this in a publication). I also have consulted in some court cases involving new religions, and have testified a half dozen times over the years in cases where my research was relevant to the question at hand. I have done workshops for professionals in social work and law enforcement on topics related to new religions, particularly on the topic of the "Satanism scare" which was such a hot topic a decade or so ago, and about which I and others co-edited a book.

I have taught a number of continuing legal and judicial education courses in the U.S., Canada, and Australia focusing on evidentiary issues and admissibility criteria. I direct the Masters of Judicial Studies program at my university, offered in conjunction with The National Judicial College (NJC), and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ). This program has about 90 trial judges at any one time, working on Masters degrees in Judicial Studies. I teach a social science evidence course in that program and work with many judges on their theses.

Recently, I have been Principle Investigator of a large survey of trial judges (500) on the issue of judges' knowledge of science and admissibility criteria for scientific evidence. This research, funded by the State Justice Institute, with assistance from the Federal Judicial Center, the NJC and the NCJFCJ, as well as my university's Center for Justice Studies, was done with the goal of developing an evidence "bench book" and course materials for judges having to assess allegedly scientific evidence.

Most recently, I have been involved in assisting some members of law enforcement to better understand religious groups with which they might have contact. These invitations came as a result of assessments made after the Waco tragedy. I and some other social scientists have offered seminars and scholarly presentations to groups of law enforcement personnel as a part of their effort to be better prepared.


I will briefly comment on a number of issues relevant to the work of the task force, drawing on my experience and training, and what I have learned of the activities and goals of the task force. Included are the following obviously interrelated issues:

1. Mission statement and survey planned by the task force;

2. Competition between the therapy and counseling communities and spiritual alternatives;

3. Use of the term "cult, "a negatively connoted term;

4. Whether newer religions on campus actually constitute a threat to individuals and to institutions of higher learning;

5. Constitutional and practical issues associated with trying to write special regulations pertaining to so-called "cults;"

6. Inadequacies of "brainwashing" explanations for participation in new religious groups;

7. Volition and seekership as explanations of participation;

8. Positives and negatives of participation.


I strongly support research to gather data relevant to policy decisions. But, the research must be done properly, or bad decisions may result. The mission statement developed by the task force has a flaw in that it assumes harms are being done by participation, and precludes the very idea that some good could come from participation. Nowhere are there mentions of other things that can and do sometimes interfere with students' lives, such as fraternities and sororities, participation in athletics, the use of drugs and alcohol (binge drinking), sexual activities, and ideas of suicide. The focus of the mission statement and survey seems to be only on selected religious groups, the apparent neutrality of the language notwithstanding.

In short, the mission statement and the survey instrument are what social scientists would call biased and limited. This is always a problem to face when doing research. Those doing the research obviously have an idea about what they expect to find. So, sometimes deliberately, but more often inadvertently, the researcher in developing survey instruments and in other ways, ends up encouraging responses that support the preferred research hypothesis, and limiting those questions or approaches that might yield information unsupportive of the major hypothesis

More is required than just a good survey instrument, however. It is extremely important that if a survey is done, those doing the survey do not reveal preferred responses to those answering the questions. Thus, any cover letters sent with an instrument need to be carefully examined for possible bias and suggestiveness. No names or organizations with well-defined positions on these matters should be associated with the survey. Indeed, the name of the Task Force itself should not appear, since that establishes expectations in the minds of respondents. If the survey is done by phone, the introductory remarks must be carefully developed to be neutral, and no interpretive comments should be made by the interviewer to "help" the respondent know what responses are desired or expected.

Last but not least, those doing the data analysis and writing of results need to be neutral and objective, but if this is difficult, all sides to an issue need to be represented when the data are analyzed and written up for dissemination. This kind of neutrality is often achieved through the use of a disinterested third party firm or unit that does research for hire or as a part of its regular assignment. Even then, those supervising the research need to attend to issues of bias, especially if the topic is a controversial one.


I was surprised and concerned to see such a negatively connoted term as "cult" appearing in the very bill authorizing establishment of the task force. The use of that term in the legislation is a major victory for those who want to control or suppress newer religious groups on campuses. The term presupposes many things, and carries much negative baggage. When an effort, to which I alluded, was made in the 1980s to exert legal control over new religious groups in my home state, the bill drafters, after initially using the term "cult," chose to delete every reference to the term in subsequent drafts of the legislation, simply because their legal counsel said the term was undefinable and problematic in terms of constitutional protections and prohibitions.

If a group or set of groups is successfully labeled a "cult," then the battle is nearly over, and those doing the labeling are close to declaring victory. That word has great power to paint in a negative way, and the brush is very broad indeed. It reminds us of the great power of the word "communist" or "pinko" back in the 1950s and even beyond. Battles have been fought over the use of the term cult in courts, and on occasion judges have ruled that the term cannot be used because of its prejudicial nature.

I will leave you a paper Jane Dillon and I did some years back on the power of this term, and the processes whereby a word such as "cult" can achieve hegemonic status in a given society, as has apparently been done in the Maryland legislature, since the term "cult" is so freely and casually used in the legislation itself.


Much of the concern about new religions is promoted, or at least legitimized, by therapists and counselors. Sometimes that conflict is derived from rather open competition between therapies, counseling, and the new religions, since they are often competing for the same participants (middle class and above members of society). Many people, including young people, are relying on religious alternatives to assist them in resolving problems and difficulties which might have been dealt with by therapists and other mental health practitioners.

The mental health community has promoted a brilliant interpretation of these competitor groups. Not only are the competitors dismissed for offering false alternatives to achieving mental health and peace of mind, but those who have participated in the alternatives are defined, at least by some, as suffering some sort of mental disorder for having done so! This interpretation ignores much scholarly research evidence, but it is popular and seductive, as we know. Such a perspective seems to have guided the development of the legislation establishing the task force, a law that might be characterized as a full employment bill for therapists and counselors of a certain stripe.

I have written extensively about this competition between the mental health professionals and new religions, and will leave copies of a few relevant papers with the task force. Included will be copies of a paper where this competition and conflict argument is spelled out. This paper, done with Brock Kilbourne, was published in the largest social science refereed journal in the world, The American Psychologist, a flagship journal for the American Psychological Association. Basically, this paper explains the fierceness of the conflict between new religions and the mental health community by noting the many similarities between them, and then offered a conflict interpretation of the situation.

Another paper discusses the anti-religion biases in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual published by the American Psychiatric Association, the famous DSM that is used in so many legal actions in our country. Yet another paper is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek description of a new mental disorder. This disorder, which is characterized by an irrational fear of so-called "cults" and other new and strange religions, is called "Cultphobia," a term which I would hope could be added to the DSM sometime in the future. In another paper entitled "Cult/Brainwashing Cases and the Freedom of Religion," I give a detailed analysis of two days of testimony of a major figure in the mental health community which was offered in a major case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The tendency to denigrate things religious is clear in this testimony, as if the great desire of the witness to convince the court of the superiority of mental health approaches to problems of meaning in modem society.


New religious groups have changed many lives, sometimes in ways not pleasing to at least a few parents, siblings, and friends. Some ex-members also may decide that they had made a bad choice, as well, and seek to explain that choice in terms that relieve them of total responsibility. Thus, we can find anecdotal evidence that some people do not like certain newer religions, or they do not like what supposedly happens when someone joins such a group. But, we can also find many people who think participating for a time in new religions was a positive and fulfilling experience.

I would suggest that it is sophistry at its worst to simply dismiss claims of positive experiences of members of the groups on the grounds that they do not know what happened to themselves, or that they are too "brainwashed" to know better. It is also insulting to these young adults who would make such claims, and denigrates them and their decision making, as well as their religious experiences. Such claims should be accorded at least as much credence as those of unhappy ex-members.

We have conflicting evidence of an anecdotal nature, which leaves us seeking other ways to assess the meaning of the new religions. We could gather more data, if the effort to do so is not so biased as to generate prejudicial and questionable information, as has already been discussed. I hope that the task force does move forward with a solid piece of research, and I would commit to assisting in the developing the questionnaire and supervision of the research, if that would be of help. Well-done research could show us just how many people have been negatively and positively impacted by religious and other groups and activities operating on campuses.

Until we have such information, however, we have to use other indicators of the potential threat of new religions operating on campuses. One thing to consider is the size of most such groups, which are usually quite small. Good data is hard to find, since most groups do not want to admit how little impact they may be having, and those opposing the groups usually want to make them out to be a larger threat than is actually the case. But, just to offer some illustrations from some of the more controversial groups, the estimates are that there are no more than 2,000-3,000 members of either the Unification Church or the Hare Krishna in this country, and there were never more than 8,000-10,000 during the heyday of these two groups in the 70s and 80s.

One reason the groups are so small is that they are transitory of "pass through" organizations. The vast majority of people who come in contact with these groups ignore them, or if they become interested and participate any at all, the participation is usually limited to a short time. Patience should be the watch word of those concerned about a choice of a son or daughter that they may think a bad one. Research has shown us that chances are quite good that the son or daughter will, on their own, decide to leave the group after a time. Those interested in such an outcome should maintain contact with their son or daughter, and make sure they know they are welcome to return at any time.

Given these basic demographic and organizational facts, policy makers must raise a question of whether there really needs to be a concerted response by governmental agencies to what is at worst a minimal threat.


There are, as you know, concerns about the basic constitutionality of efforts to limit religious choices of young people who chose to participate in newer faiths operating on campus. If participants are of legal age, then their choices must be honored, whether we think those choices good ones or not. Basic constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and of association support such a position.

Some limitations can be placed on how groups operate on campuses, based on public safety considerations and on the educational mission of colleges and universities. However, whatever limitations are placed on religious groups must also be placed on all other student groups. I would hope that you would not be considering proposing regulations that would in fact end up causing limitations on activities of all student groups. We need more groups functioning to develop real communities on campuses, not less! I recall a recent NPR program about an effort to suppress a lesbian organization on a campus in Utah that resulted in all other student groups being precluded, as well.

Also, if you recommend new regulations you will want to consider how they will be implemented, and the cost of doing so, weighing this against the minimal harm that can be documented. For instance, regulations that are overbroad, vague, and which involve use of considerable discretion by college officials will not pass muster under the equal treatment standard of the constitution.

Lastly, I would comment on what I see as an effort to reestablish an in locoparentis position on campuses. For many reasons, both practical and legal, that standard was abandoned on nearly all campuses long ago. To reassert such a standard goes against cultural values, law, and common sense. reestablishing in locoparentis selectively (say, just in the area of religion) violates the equal protection and equal treatment constitutional standards. To reassert it pervasively would be a bureaucratic nightmare to administer, and it would also place public higher education institutions in a very vulnerable position in terms of assumption of liability for actions of their students.


Terms such as "brainwashing" and "mind control" suggest powerful psychotechnologies that can be used to overcome the free will of America's brightest and best, no matter what they really want to do. The existence of such psychotechnologies is disputed by most behavioral and social scientists, especially if no physical coercion is involved. If physical coercion is involved, research on Korean POWs has shown that what was achieved with a couple of dozen POWs was not "real" conversion, but temporary compliance by some POWs already predisposed or interested in the message of their captors.

For many years, brainwashing based claims were used with relative impunity in courts, and judges allowed such terms to be used freely. However, eventually the legal system "caught up" with scientific reality, and such cases did not then fare so well. Attorneys learned that, even though such claims were widely accepted within the general public (including potential jurors), the claims were lacking in scientific support. Judges began nearly a decade ago to disallow such claims, and they tossed some fairly prominent people out of court when they tired to testify to the scientific basis of such brainwash based claims. I have a copy of the most prominent such case with me (U.S.v. Fishman, 1990), and will leave it for the record.

Such claims were thrown out because they did not meet the so-called Frye test of "general acceptance" within the relevant disciplines. And in another major case in the Federal Court in Washington, D.C. such evidence was not allowed even when the standard was lowered to one of "substantial acceptance."

In 1993 the 70 year old "general acceptance" standard was modified significantly in the Daubert case, which established four guidelines for the acceptance of scientific expert testimony. Those guidelines included general acceptance, but also added such things as whether the theory behind the testimony was subject to being falsified, and what error rates were when people were classified using the theory. I presented an invited paper at a conference on Science and the Law at University College Faculty of Law two years ago which applied the new guidelines to brainwashing based testimony. That paper, done with my colleague, Professor of Psychology Ginsburg, was later published, and I submit a copy for consideration by the task force.

Basically, what the paper says is that, no matter how popular the ideas of brainwashing and mind control are, they cannot be established scientifically. You cannot establish a set of criteria for discerning a brainwashed person that are not subjective in their application. Thus, what is typically meant by such claims is that since someone is a member of such and such a group, he or she must have been brainwashed, since no one in their right mind (especially my son or daughter) would make such a choice unless they had somehow been forced to so choose. That backward reasoning is tautological. It is not a scientific claim to say that someone has been brainwashed, and then, in answer to the question of "how do you know that," to say, "because they joined the Moonies." And it is very subjective to add to that they now act differently, since this is a free country, and people who are of age can legally act differently from what their friends and family expect.

Brainwashing claims are also ideological. The terms brainwashing and mind control, like that of "cult," are powerful "social weapons" to be used against groups that are disliked. If people become convinced that a group uses such negatively defined processes, then such a group is not deemed worthy of constitutional protections due a religion in our society. Thus, a group so accused may be read out of the religious fraternity, and placed in another category of groups not deserving of normal protections in our society. This kind of thinking has resulted in some terrible tragedies in human history, done in the name of proper political and religious beliefs.

I will submit some other papers I have done that are relevant to the brainwashing issue. Included is one that critiques such theories from the point of view of research and theories, particularly in social psychology, and offers an alternative explanation of the process of participation that emphasizes the negotiated nature of the decision to participate. Also included is a paper published in Australia that focuses on the significant ethical problems of making brainwashing claims against newer and weaker faiths. And I will include the Journal of Church and State paper mentioned earlier -"Cult/Brainwashing Cases and the Freedom of Religion" - that discusses how such claims are being used to undercut religious freedom of minority religions.


If not because they are "brainwashed," then why do young people join newer religions, and try them out if only for a while (remember those attrition rates)? I have been asked that question many times over the three decades of my research, and I have concluded that the answer is really very simple: "They want to." I have interviewed participants in many countries around the world, and they all say the same thing. Something about the group and the people doing the recruiting made them interested in what the group represented. Something about their lives at the time of the encounter with the group made them willing to listen. And so they choose to listen, and a small subset who listen may choose to join, at least for a time. They agree to try out the lifestyle of the group, and attempt to learn the ethic of the group and its new beliefs.

A significant number of those joining a religious group engage in a negotiation process with the group about what they can and cannot do as a member of the group, and it is at this point that often the negotiations break down and the person does not in fact join. (The paper mentioned earlier about the social psychological critique of brainwashing claims discusses this negotiation process in more depth.)

Aside from the lack of scientific research supporting brainwashing claims, there is a philosophical problem with such claims. Such notions should be morally offensive to anyone who truly believes in human volition. To say to someone that certain choices they may make are so bad that we are going to try to negate those choices, or disallow them being made at all, is demeaning of that person's basic humanity. Defending such a position seems very problematic.

In summary, research on recruitment shows that minuscule percentages of those coming in contact with the new groups choose to participate in any way, and of those, another very small percentage choose to commit to the group, even if temporarily. And, an even smaller percentage stay for any length of time or become permanent members, and virtually all of those are legally adults! So, I return to the thrust of my remarks, that being whether the Maryland legislature in its wisdom is trying to kill a fly with a nuclear missile?


Research results on the effects of participation in new religions show that there are in fact many positive outcomes from participation. There may also be some negative outcomes, particularly if outcomes are being measured by someone besides the participant themselves. And, as I have said, sometimes a small percentage of ex-members complain later about having been misled or tricked when they joined. Others, including Professor William Stuart, have spoken well about the problematic nature of such after-the-fact claims of what happened, and their potentially self-serving nature. I will not pursue that avenue, but will instead present results of a great deal of research directly germane to the issue of whether there are positive effects of participation. That research will be divided into two sections, one dealing with what I called behavioral changes, and the other focusing on results of research on clinical and personality assessment of hundreds of participants. First, the behavioral indicators will be reviewed.

I was invited to submit a summary of research results on effects of participation to a major textbook in the area of substance abuse. The invitation came because of my work on Jesus Movement groups, which are somewhat similar to the International Church of Christ in basic beliefs and theology. So, the results of my survey may be particularly germane to the focus of the task force. The paper I submitted, which was called, "New Religions as Half-Way Houses," had a theme that the new religions usually served to reintegrate participants back into a society that they had chosen to leave earlier. That paper was made a part of a chapter presenting research results on the positive effects of religious groups in helping people deal with substance abuse of various kinds.

I will submit a copy of this paper for the record. It discusses the impressive record of some of the new religions in getting young people to stop using drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, as well as limiting their involvement in what most might call destructive sexual behaviors. I am absolutely certain that I have talked with a number of young people over the years whose lives would have been completely wasted or lost had they not encountered the religious group that helped them straighten out their lives. For this to be ignored by those assessing the impact of such groups is very problematic.

Two sociologists Tom Robbins and Dick Anthony, published a paper some years ago that listed a number of positive functions cited in the scholarly literature as attributable to participation in newer religions. They cite the following and offer citations to the research making the claims:

1. Termination of illicit drug use;

2. Renewed vocational motivation;

3. Mitigation of neurotic distress;

4. Suicide prevention;

5. Decrease in anomie and moral confusion;

6. Increase in social compassion and social responsibility;

7. Self-actualization;

8. Decrease in psychosomatic symptoms;

9. Clarification of egoidentity; and

10.General positive therapeutic and problem-solving assistance.

I also was invited in the early 1980s to present a survey of research results of personality and clinical assessments of participants in new religions at a conference at Oxford University. The proceedings were published in 1985 in a book called Advances in the Psychology of Religion. Later I was asked to update those findings at an international conference in Krakow, Poland, and then again later for the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. This lengthy publication, which was featured by the journal, which I will present to the task force, contains a listing of every piece of research that I could find, using usual methods of searching, that attempted to assess in a systematic and scientific way the effects of participation in new religions.

I cannot of course, deal with the dozens of studies I reviewed for these papers. But, I can quote from their conclusions sections, and leave a copy of the 1995 paper for the record and your perusal. In the 1985 paper I concluded:

The personality assessments of these group members reveal that life in the new religions is often therapeutic instead of harmful. Other information suggests that these young people are affirming their idealism by virtue of their involvement in such groups. Certainly there is some "submerging of personality" in groups that are communal or collective, simply because they do not foster the individualistic and competitive lifestyle to which we are accustomed, particularly in American society. However, there is little data to support the almost completely negative picture painted by a few (mental health professionals and others), p. 221

In the larger 1995 review, I say, "There seems little reason to modify the overall conclusions (of the 1985 review). Indeed, the statement can be made even stronger, based on the thorough and sophisticated research that has been done (since)." p. 165

In short, personality and clinical research done using systematic methods and accepted scales and measures does not show that participants overall differ very much if at all from normal control groups members. And some of the results on such items as amelioration of psychiatric symptoms is indeed impressive and pervasive in this research.


I urge the task force to use caution in any recommendations it makes and any information gathering it does. The task force should not choose sides in the developing conflict between religious and spiritual groups and those in the mental health community who would limit choices of young adults on campuses in Maryland. Our society is built on the ideas of personal responsibility, openness, and freedom of association, speech, and religion. It would be foolhardy to attempt to educate students by telling them that certain choices are off limits and not to be tried. It is the case that some of those choices are ones that some of us might think are bad ones. But, to limit everyone's freedom and even undercut our constitution because of a decisions we do not like is shortsighted and will be counterproductive. Making recommendations that effectively reassert a selective in loco parentis posture for certain disfavored groups would, if followed, result in an administrative and legal nightmare for the institutions. We already have legal methods of regulating activities of groups on our campuses, and none of us would want too stifle student community-building activities by some sort of draconian solution. Please tread lightly in this troublesome area, paying heed to the adage that sometimes the best course of action is no action at all.

References cited within this testimony
(those marked with an asterisk were not allowed into evidence, as part of the record of the hearing).

*Dillon, Jane, and James T. Richardson (1994). "The Cult' Concept: A Politics of Representation Analysis." Syzygy: J. of Alternative Religion and Culture 3: 185-197.

Ginsburg, Gerald and Richardson, James T. (1998). "Brainwashing' Testimony in Light of Daubert." In H. Reece (ed.), Current Legal Issues, 1:265-288.

*Kilbourne, Brock, and James T. Richardson (1984). "Psychotherapy and New Religions in a Pluralistic Society." American Psychologist 39: 237-251.

*Kilbourne, Brock, and James T. Richardson (1986). "Cultphobia." Thought LXI: 258-266.

Muffler, John, John Langrod, James Richardson, and Pedro Ruiz (1997). "Religion." In Joyce Lowinson et al. (eds.), Substance Abuse: A Comprehensive Textbook. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins.

*Richardson, James T. (1995). "Clinical and Personality Assessment of Participants in New Religions." International Journal of Psychology of Religion 5: 145-170.

*Richardson, James T. (1986). "Consumer Protection and Deviant Religion." Review of Religious Research 28:168-179.

*Richardson, James T. (1991). "Cult/Brainwashing Cases and the Freedom of Religion." Journal of Church and State 33: 55-74.

*Richardson, James T. (1995). "The Ethics of Brainwashing' Claims about New Religious Movements." Australian Religious Studies Review 7: 48-56.

*Richardson, James T. (1985). "Psychological and Psychiatric Studies of New Religions." In L. Brown (ed.), Advances in the Psychology of Religion. New York: Pergamon Press.

*Richardson, James T. (1993). "Religiosity as Deviance: Negative Religious Bias in the Use and Misuse of the DSM-III." Deviant Behavior 14: 1-21.

*Richardson, James T. (1993). "A Social Psychological Critique of Brainwashing Claims about Participation in New Religious Movements." In J. Hadden and D. Bromley (eds.), Handbook of Cults and Sects in America. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Richardson, James T., Joel Best, and David Bromley (eds.) (1991). The Satanism Scare. New York, NY: Aldine de Gruyter. (not offered, but referred to only)

Robbins, Tom, and Dick Anthony (1982). "Deprogramming, Brainwashing, and the Medicalization of Participation in of Deviant Religious Groups." Social Problems 29: 283-297. (Not offered, but referred to only)

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