Outline for a Talk on Cults, Thought Reform and Mind Abuse

Authored By: Fr. William Kent Burtner


By Rev. Wm. Kent Burtner, O.P.

Virtually every former member of a cult, thought reform or mind abuse group will tell you that if they had only known what they were coming close to, they would never have gotten involved. The authors of this present volume believe that programs of information about thought reform and mind abuse should be a part of virtually every eductional program.

The aim of our education is not to say "this group is good," or "that group is bad." Even if this were the best method of teaching, the groups about which we are concerned have such a variety of front names, and the phenomenon of mind abuse, cults, etc., is so widespread, that one could never provide an adequate catalog. Rather, we wish to give to people the tools they will need to judge for themselves whether being part of a given group will be in their best interests.

What follows here is a sample talk or lecture on the topic. It is intended as a guide that can be adjusted, abridged, augmented or otherwise changed to meet the needs of a particular audience. Certainly, every example, sub-heading or the bracketed examples, need not be included. Rather, the speaker should consider the audience and gauge the talk specifically to it.

The topics covered here include an introduction, the definition of a cult, and reasons why cults pose a problem today for us. In addition there is material on recruitment, and a consideration of what keeps people in the cult after they find themselves involved. Also included is what is new about the cults, and what we might learn about ourselves, our world, and our church, as a result of reflecting on the phenomenon of cultism.



The word "cult" describes a relationship between a leader and a group, or less commonly between a pair of individuals, where the leader utilizes the techniques of thought reform. A cult will be characterized by these two behaviors:

1. It does not tell the truth about itself.

2. By means of unrestricted use of psychological and social control techniques, it makes its members unable to resist its influence and authority.

The result is that members of cults cannot make their own life decisions, determine their future goals, feel their own feelings, or make their own choices.

If the ability to use one's gift of reason is what makes us human, then these groups rob their members of their basic humanity.

Not all cults are "religious": There are political cults, psychological cults, health cults, sports cults, etc.

Also, particular individuals who are qualified leaders of respectable groups or institutions may break out of their socially approved roles and use thought reform techniques without the sanction of their superiors.

Cults exist all over the world, but most especially in countries with rapidly changing social structures. There are millions of people affected worldwide.

While most cult leaders become wealthy, the aim of these groups is to acquire power over others.

While most cults have wealth or seek it aggressively, money is valuable to such a group only because it will help it attain the power which the leader believes that he/she ought to have by right of divine (or some other special agency) appointment.

Most cult leaders are seeking to dominate the lives of other people, rather than to do any altruistic works in the world. Cults that do these works usually do them in order to gain credibility.

Cults are a problem because they deprive people of their God-given rights to self-determination and rob them of their human freedom.


Most people want us to believe the best about their group. They are also willing to tell the truth about their:

-- ideology,

-- the meaning of becoming a member,

-- what the goal of the group is,

-- what is expected of new members.

But Cult groups are NOT willing to do so. Cult leaders know that if they do, people might not join, or might leave.

The deception is within the system of recruiting, not simply a reflection of an over-enthusiastic member trying to help a cause.


Thought Reform:

The term "thought reform" was used originally in China in the early part of this century. The Chinese ideographic characters were originally mis-translated as "wash brain," and hence the term often used, "brainwashing." Dr. Margaret Singer, an American psychologist, refers to thought reform programs as those programs developed in the earlier part of this century by such persons as Mao Tse Tung, who developed the programs used in "thought reform universities and camps" in order to effect a change in the individual's political beliefs. These she speaks of as "first generation" thought reform programs. Subsequently, other people have used the same techniques in a more refined way in order to go beyond the intents of the political reformers. The aim of these "second generation" thought reform programs is to change the personality functioning of the individuals brought under the program of thought reform.

Dr. Singer has listed six characteristics of thought reform programs that are applied by cults to their members:

1. Gain social control over the person.

Get them to come to more and more events given by the group, to attend long seminars, to begin doing mental exercises that allow for little or no quiet time, or time to think by one's self, or place them in a controlled environment that does these things consistently.

The aim is to get control of the time one spends inside one's mind.

2. Reduce the person's self-esteem.

People begin to see their own lives as less valuable, less meaningful, to see their own life experiences and lessons they have learned as less valuable, to doubt the truth of what they have learned in the past, to feel that the new group knows them better than anyone else, that the leadership of the group is very powerful, knows a lot, or everything. Recruits think of themselves as being inadequate, become less able to clearly understand what they are in the face of constant pressure to conform, to be socially acceptable, to accept the warmth of others in the group.

3. Reduce old ways of functioning, choosing, behaving.

The individual begins to think of the group as very powerful, themselves as powerless. Older ways of acting are discouraged. Individuals come to believe that they are not as good as the group in which they find themselves.

4. Induce new ways of functioning, choosing, behaving.

Models of behaving are shown by older members, rewards are given for new behaviors, punishments for failure to conform are meted out.

5. A closed system of logic is used to keep the person from questioning the group's beliefs, or its particular behaviors. If the premises are wrong, so too are the conclusions.

6. A special, non-informed state exists in the mind of the prospective recruit. Specific information which they would otherwise require to decide whether or not to affiliate with a group is deliberately withheld from prospective recruits. They may belong to the group for an extended period of time before such information is given to them, if at all.


Who could get involved? (Everyone!)

A. Cult recruiters have a target population that varies from group to group, and from time to time within a group.

1. Each group focuses on a few "types" to seek out.

2. Since the recruiters themselves are usually from that "type" themselves, they can spot someone else from that category easily.

B. A Typical Recruit is a normal, well-functioning member of society.

1. Profile of a typical recruit:

a. Mentally healthy, normal social skills for their age.

1) More than 70% of cult indoctrinees do not have any psychological problems before they meet their group.

b. At a time of some temporary sadness, disappointment, or of major change in their lives.

1) Often between the ages of 18-26, a period of great change for most young people. [Social roles have changed dramatically in the last years. Once it was common to use the phrase "to go out on a date," and it had a specific meaning. That phrase has very little denotative meaning today. In fact, a woman newspaper reporter told this author of being asked out on a date and she had to reply "What do you mean?"]

2) Older people are also susceptible. [Persons of a more mature age are likely to have some funds set aside for their retirement years and are more likely to suffer from loneliness as their long-time friends become infirm or deceased. When someone comes along who is friendly, does them favors or chores, and offers them some means of future security, the defenses acquired over many years may yield to the need for companionship, and leave them vulnerable.]

c. Generally above average intelligence.

d. Tendency toward high ideals, commitment to making the world a better place.

2. The typical recruit is not seeking a new "group experience" at the time he is recruited.

a. Important: The recruiter "finds" the recruit, not the other way around.

b. The recruit would otherwise recover from the temporary "low" period, as we all normally do.

3. The recruiter manages to invite the person to come to a group activity.

a. Each group offers something of value to attract the new member.

1) Referred to as a "hook" by some groups.

2) If these groups offered nothing of value, who would ever join?

a) the recruit's "mistake" may well be presuming that the things offered subsequently by the group will be as good as those he or she received in the beginning.

b. This is geared to bring the person into the group slowly, while providing friendship and seeming comfort to the inductee.

c. Examples of group activities include: Bible study programs, training in meditation, lessons in some skill from yoga to cooking, a free personality test, an invitation from a stranger to smoke a "joint," a chance to get a very good job (but the demand is to attend some workshop or obscure training program whose goals are not clearly spelled out), or the chance to join some special people for a trip to the woods or to another city. As one former cult member put it, "If you have found the most wonderful people you have ever met, belonging to the most dedicated and friendly group you could ever have come across, if it answers all the questions you've ever had, if it has a very special place just for you, if it all seems too good to be true, then it probably is!"

4. Virtually anyone can be caught in a similar situation.

a. Many people believe that they could not be the victim of thought reform, mind abuse, or "brainwashing." To believe this about yourself makes you much more vulnerable. If you believe that it couldn't happen to you, you are less likely to protect yourself from it.

b. A person without a temporary period of sadness or disappointment finds an advertisement in a newspaper or magazine inviting him, or meets a co-worker or friend who invites him, to come to learn a new skill in his trade or profession, interpersonal communications, or other benefits. The program is in reality run by some cult or thought reform group. In the course of the program, the group induces the feeling of sadness or disappointment, and begins the thought reform process.

C. The group provides an environment that discourages a recruit from being his or her "normal self."

1. New recruits will be separated from friends, surrounded by new people, who are all part of the program.

2. New recruits will be given lots of love, shown a great deal of emotional "openness," and will be expected to return in kind.

a. The "openness" of such groups is usually staged for the benefit of the new member.

b. The new recruit may not be aware that some or all of those who are "sharing" are, in fact, committed members of the group.

c. The group asks a great deal of trust of the recruit, without giving the new recruit an opportunity to be sure that the group is itself trustworthy.

1) The overwhelming sense of warmth, interest in the person, flattery, etc., serves to defuse challenging questions.

3. A tremendous amount of new information is given to the new recruit over a very short period of time, so that the person has no chance to analyze it.

The information appears logical, but is actually full of enormous gaps in logic. [The appearance of logic is given by moving carefully from one point to another and another, and then making a large leap, which the listener is prone to think is just due to his or her lack of understanding. This is precisely what the group wants them to think. No opportunity is given to go back over and analyze the data at close range.]

4. Recruits are compelled to participate in activities that require them to depend on the members of the group in order to fulfill their role. [One well known group in California plays a variation of the children's game, "dodge ball." But instead of the game they grew up with, the game is full of very complicated rules, forcing new visitors to depend on the members of the group to understand their role. Another group teaches people lessons in communication, and each time recruits come to the class, they find that there is a different routine to begin, involving going from one person to another for a variety of instructions. Once again, the person is dependent on the group for the ability to do very basic activities.]

5. The recruit finds increasing demands made upon his or her time. [A group doesn't need to have a live-in situation to take control of a person's time. Rather, one can begin with, for example, a cultic Bible study program that at the beginning meets only once a week, and slowly finds pressure to come twice a week, to another set of activities, and eventually spends every free moment with the group.]

6. Certain interference with the individual's diet and sleep cycles occurs.

a. In some groups, it is impossible to get a balanced diet.

b. Some period of sleep deprivation is common to cults in general.

c. These elements need not be present at all times. Only an occasional reinforcement will be needed.


A. The pressures listed above are continued and will increase.

1. These pressures continue in varying degrees, increasing or decreasing what psychologists call "ego function."

a. These individuals are under varying pressures and given varying degrees of ability to function autonomously depending on what the group needs of them from one time to another, and the degree of commitment the group perceives in the individual.

b. Persons who reach "middle level management" positions in the group tend to become aware of the pressures they are using and which are being used on them. At this point they will either rationalize that what they are doing is "for God" or their higher purpose, or they will decide that their position, power and influence is more important than questioning the program of the group.

B. Two Important Dynamics of Coercion:

The rational and emotional faculties of an individual are attacked by a cult or any group using thought reform techniques in this manner:

1. Suspension of the individual's ability to analyze is accomplished by means of:

a. Logical fallacies. ["The world is so full of negativity, won't you try to be objective?" Except that "objective" now means to reject anything that might be construed as negative.]

b. Suspension of questioning. ["Your question is really a good one, but we will be talking about that in a later presentation. Won't you hold your question till then?" Except that the question is never dealt with. Another variation is to make questioners feel as if they "should have been able to figure that out" for themselves and that they are stupid for asking.]

c. The assumption that your own life experience is not sufficient to provide criteria by which to judge the program. ["The new truth we have received is more powerful than anything you have ever heard. We will show you the `spiritual' way to understand it." This author was told by members of one group at a presentation I was to make, that if I didn't base my comments about that group on the material they gave me, that was obviously being slanderous and they would have to "take the appropriate legal action." Neither my own experience counseling members of the group, nor research into it was creditable.]

d. Sensory overload. [Human beings can take in only so much new information in an analytical way at a time. When too much information is given, they begin to simply absorb it uncritically. With gross overstimulation, the person may have a psychotic episode. Sometimes cults will cause these so that the person will feel a greater sense of dependence upon them.

e. Use of body/brain physiology to simulate "mystical" experiences. [The followers of one guru will breathe deeply while chanting and dancing. When the music stops, they feel the great elation that was promised them. In fact, they are hyperventilating, and would feel just as "high" by chanting, dancing and breathing without the guru.]

f. Mystification. [One group says it can teach you to see "divine light," but after months of meditation sessions and a trip to another city to be "inducted," they have you gently apply pressure to your eyeballs. This is the "light" they spoke of. But after months of "preparation," it feels like something tremendous has happened.]

g. Trance induction. [Did you ever hear a speaker who started to speak slowly, rhythmically, in a monotone, and everyone seemed to drift off a bit? It is possible to put a large group of people into a light trance state. And once you do it often enough, you can teach people how to go into trances and give messages to themselves that they would not ordinarily do. And, it is all done under the aegis of "therapy," "spirituality," or some other good.]

2. Using GUILT as a key tool of manipulation.

Certain, or all, of a person's emotions are targeted by the group and are considered to be intrinsically evil. When the group stimulates these same emotions, the resulting emotion is guilt.

For the cultist, the belief is, "Your feelings are moral actions for which you are responsible."

Feelings in and of themselves are morally neutral. What we do with them makes all the difference. To be angry, unhappy, tired, or even have a sexual feeling is by itself not a moral or immoral act.

What we do as a result of having those feelings makes all the difference. We have always distinguished between a sin and a temptation. [If someone were very angry with you and decided to harm you physically, that would not be a very good use of his anger. On the contrary, if being angry at you, one were to sit down and have a long talk with you and work out your differences, that would be a virtuous use of the anger. The problem is not whether or not one is angry, but what one does on account of it. A cultic group will target on one or a whole cluster of feelings, label them as intrinsically evil, and make you feel guilty for having them.]

To have any doubts about the leader, or the truth or validity of the mission, doctrine, or behavior of the group is proof positive that some evil exists in the recruit.

C. Robert J. Lifton's Concept of Ideological Totalism.

NOTE: Recommended for a more advanced group, or where more detailed information is needed, see Robert J. Lifton's Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, specifically chapter 22 and his discussion of the eight areas of human dynamic that denote ideological totalism and which, when all are maximally utilized, the individual cannot assert himself or herself over against the group. Regarding subsequent issues in counseling, see Margaret T. Singer's article, Coming Out of the Cults, "Psychology Today," January, 1979.


A. Cults As Revitalization Movements, Historical Precedents.

1. In a way cults are not new. There have been periods of significant social change throughout the history of human civilization. When these intense periods of change come about, in every group there arise movements that attempt to bring about some kind of reintegration of the social fabric.

Some such groups become positive groups, and are helpful to people, others not so.

2. Such groups are helpful insofar as they help people understand the new stresses of the changing sociai fabric as comprehensibie and meaningful.

Groups also can attempt to deal with contemporary stresses by reducing understanding and awareness, and making up a new "myth" which reduces the real issues to simple ones.

B. Modern Cults As Thought-Reform Programs.

1. The first generation of modern thought reform programs began with "thought reform universities" and "thought re form camps" established by Mao Tse-Tung after his ascendency in China.

The aim of the psychological and sociai manipulation at work there was to cause the individuals within them to change their political ideology.

2. Based on the technology evolved in China and Korea, second generation thought reform programs came into existence beginning in the 1950s.

These modern programs have as their aim the alteration of the psychological functioning of the individual.

C. Using the second generation thought reform techniques, modem cults deal with the many intense stresses of modem life by closing off awareness and reducing individuals to mere functionaries in groups led by persons with ulterior motives.

1. Five areas of special stresses today are evident:

a. Political: our modern political system seems to leave individuals powerless to effect any change or growth.

b. Economic: the world economic system seems to be beyond anyone's control and people feel powerless and totally at its mercy.

c. Technological: with ninety percent of the scientists who have ever lived alive now, the technological revolution has just begun.

1) The computer age is just dawning.

2) The way in which we do business, education, etc., will never be the same as it was even thirty years ago.

d. Societal: Roles and social structures have changed so much that it is difficult for people to know and understand their place in society, or in the world.

Social relationships have changed drastically also, and one is never quite sure what is expected from others, whether in formal business relationships, friendships, or romances.

e. Psychological: The world has never known as much about the function of the mind as it does today.

1) That includes how to stimulate, motivate and control others.

2) Because we can easily label our own or other's emotional and mental states according to this understanding, we can also easily "judge" them, and thus we create enormous, unfulfilled expectations for ourselves.

2. These five areas leave individuals feeling powerless and less able to cope generally in society.

Institutions which help people understand their place in the world, especially the Church, are by their nature reactive to any given set of social circumstances, and hence, people will need to struggle for some time before new social understandings and new social structures come to be, and lessen that feeling of uncertainty and powerlessness that we find in society.

3. Cults make life simpler for their members, by eliminating awareness of the social stresses, rather than by making the stresses meaningful.

D. Similar applications of the techniques of thought reform exist as Mind Abuse:

1. Cultic relationships at work in families.

a. Abuse of spouses and children can take place emotionally, and these may be partly understood under the same rationale as mind abuse occuring in cultic relationships.

2. There is a great similarity between the kind of counseling used with victims of cultic mind abuse and that used for those caught up in the abuse of drugs or alcohol, or the counseling given to abused spouses or children.


A. Protecting ourselves and our young people.

1. Information is the best way to directly prevent the involvement of people in cults. Virtually every former cult member says something like, "If I had only known there were groups like this, I would never have come near to it."

2. We need to know and understand that:

a. When someone offers you something for free, it probably isn't. Few people from ghettos become involved, because they are "street wise" and can "see a con artist coming at twenty yards."

b. You have the right to information! Anyone who would deprive you of that is suspect.

1) Someone presenting an idea or solution should be able to defend his idea directly to you without appeal to other "higher ups" or be able to give you places to go to get that information outside the group.

2) You have the right not only to question the presenter about new information, but to validate it from sources you trust outside of the group.

c. When we are tired, under stress, suffering a loss of some kind, we are vulnerable.

1) Your feelings, whatever they are, are valuable and are not evil. You have the right to choose what you will do with them, and moral choices follow from that.

2) If someone causes you to feel obligated and/or guilty, they may have an ulterior motive. Back away and take time to evaluate the situation.

3) Check with your trusted friends, family, clergy, counselors, teachers when someone makes a new offer under these circumstances. This is true especially if you are feeling depressed or sad.

3. Realize that everyone, at one time or another, is vulnerable to the mind abuse of cults and other thought reform programs. So that they can work their programs on your mind, cults and other thought reform programs need you to believe that you couldn't be taken in.

B. Lessons for Our World

1. Cults and thought reform programs want our respect and to be seen as just another part of society no different from other segments.

In fact, when they claim for themselves the protection granted to other institutions for social good, we would do well to demand of them the same criteria of proof as we do for established groups.

2. Cults place their own ethics above the law, and ask of society some special treatment. The laws should be enforced equitably for all.

3. Tragedies such as those at Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978, can be prevented in the future by simple attention to the activities of such groups.

C. Lessons for the Church

1. It is clear that the spirituality of religious cults is counterfeit. But people hunger for genuine spirituality. They also need to live in community, to experience the love and care of others in immediate and practical ways. Oftentimes, the first time a person is able to live in a context where spirituality is overtly permitted is a cult environment, even if it will later be taken away. [For this reason, we need to provide a multitude of opportunities for young people to be with each other, to learn that spirituality and being a socially acceptable person are not mutually exclusive. Young people thrive on group interaction that is energetic, positive, genuine, and which allows for reflection.]

2. We often talk of community, but rarely deliver to our young people an authentic experience of community.

Hence the need for retreat experiences, group collaboration, etc., that give young people, and adults as well, an authentic experience of Christian community.

3. We tragically undervalue the contributions young people can make. Because adolescence is extended so long in western countries, the fulfillment of deep yearnings for meaningful contribution are often postponed. Cults challenge people and give them opportunities to feel that they are making a contribution that is of value.

4. The cults present a microcosmic world to us. From the study of cults and their relationship to society, it should be clear to us that we are in the midst of rebuilding the very fabric of the world's society. It will be from the resources of the Church and the great wisdom traditions in the world that this will be accomplished. We need to pay attention to this task with equal diligence.

5. In the last analysis, one does well to recall the words of St. Paul: ".. . .where sin increased, grace abounded all the more" (Romans 5:20).

Taken from "Cults, Sects, and the New Age," by Rev. James J. LeBar, available from Our Sunday Visitor Press, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750.

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