Michael D. Langone’s Interview

Michael D. Langone’s Interview
on law against "cults"

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., a counseling psychologist, is ICSA’s Executive Director. He was the founder editor of Cultic Studies Journal (CSJ), the editor of CSJ’s successor, Cultic Studies Review, and editor of Recovery From Cults. He is co-author of Cults: What Parents Should Know and Satanism and Occult-Related Violence: What You Should Know. Dr. Langone has spoken and written widely about cults. In 1995, he received the Leo J. Ryan Award from the "original" Cult Awareness network and was honored as the Albert V. Danielsen visiting Scholar at Boston University.


His contributions are at this URL :


Interview by Raffaella Di Marzio

Di Marzio: What is your experience of the cult awareness scene in Italy?

Langone: I do not have direct experience of cult-related matters in Italy. My awareness comes from what I have read and from conversations with Italian colleagues in this field. My impression is that the cult scene in Italy is similar to that in other countries. Some groups are international; others are limited to one country or geographical area. The network of people providing education or assistance related to cultic groups seems to be surprisingly large in Italy, perhaps because the resources of the Catholic Church supplement those coming from a secular or mental health perspective. The journal Sette e Religioni has published many interesting articles. There have been many conferences in Italy. Unfortunately, because translation resources in this field are very limited, few people outside of Italy appreciate how much Italians are contributing to this field.

Di Marzio: In Italy some are proposing a special law against "cults" and "mind control". In your experience, are these laws useful?

Langone: First of all, I want to make clear that my opinion on this subject is a personal one and does not reflect any position of ICSA. Our organization encourages diverse opinions on such topics. Secondly, I approach this subject from the standpoint of a citizen of the United States. I recognize that European legal traditions are different and, therefore, do not present my opinions as “advice” to Europeans. My reflections are not advocacy; they are merely reflections.

I recognize that the desire to pass laws to protect people against cult-related harm is based on motivations of compassion and moral outrage. However, in evaluating a given legislative proposal I believe that it is vital to hold our emotions in check and evaluate each proposal dispassionately with our intellects. Moreover, it is necessary to look at the unintended as well as the intended consequences of a given proposal. A law that helps in area A may harm in area B. The unintended effects, then, must be weighed against the intended effects. For example, when I first entered this field in the late 1970s some parents' groups in the United States advocated for "conservatorship laws." These were proposals to make it easier for parents to force adult children in "cults" to be subjected against their will to a period of psychiatric observation. I opposed these proposals, none of which became law, because I feared that they gave too much power to mental health professionals and judges and could easily have been misused. These proposals are no longer made in the United States.

A few people in the United States are now looking with favor at legislative proposals or existing laws (such as exist in France) that focus on psychological manipulation in groups, proposals that could be construed as variants of the old "plagio" law in Italy. In principle I am open to the possibility that a law could be so carefully constructed and the methodology of enforcing that law could be so easily monitored that the unintended consequences and other limitations to basic liberties would be small compared to the benefits. However, I am very skeptical that this goal could be easily achieved. When I talk to parents about laws aimed at criminalizing manipulative recruiting, I often ask the question: "Which mother's child goes to jail?" In a high-demand, manipulative group, the leader's followers, many of whose mothers and fathers are concerned about their child's involvement in a cult, do the recruiting. They believe that what they do is noble, not unethical, because they have been indoctrinated into the manipulative system.

Research indicates that most will eventually leave their group, although we can't predict who will leave when and how much each person will be damaged by the experience. A law against manipulative recruitment will in effect target current victims of the manipulative system in order to gain a measure of retribution for former victims of the system, who themselves had been simultaneously victims and victimizers when they were current members. I realize that advocates of these goals really want to get the group leaders; however, I suspect that this objective will prove to be as difficult as arresting a drug kingpin or Mafia chieftan. The collateral damage of going after the leaders could be many tearful parents visiting their cult member children in jail.

The skepticism I hold toward such proposals, which I have very briefly described above, revolves around their capacity to achieve the intended consequences of the legislative proposal. One also has to look at deleterious unintended consequences. For example, the Southern Baptist denomination is the second largest Christian denomination in the United States, second only to the Catholic Church. Many Southern Baptists take the Great Commission very seriously and devote their lives to evangelization. Most are ethical in their methods of evangelization, although some can slide into cultic methods. (In 1985 I edited a special issue of Cultic Studies Journal in which evangelicals and others discussed the ethics of influence in proselytizing; a number of Southern Baptists participated.)

However, in some European countries Southern Baptists are unknown and evangelization is unknown. As a result ethical evangelists may be lumped together with the worst cult recruiters simply because the former are engaged in evangelization. If not very very carefully enforced, a law against manipulative proselytizing could easily be used to restrict the freedom of people who are culturally different but not unethical.

Di Marzio: I know you attended the last CESNUR conference in London. What is your impression?

Langone: The London conference was the first time I've been able to attend a CESNUR conference, so I do not have experience with prior conferences to which I could compare the London one, which was run jointly with the British organization, INFORM. I was pleased that a variety of points of view were present at CESNUR, including an interesting session with a panel of former SGAs (second generation adults, i.e., ex- members who were born into or raised in cultic groups). During the past 10 years a number of us have engaged in dialogue aimed at reducing the polarization of "pro-cultists" and "anti-cultists" that arose in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Different people and different organizations have different areas of focus in this field. Some, like International Cultic Studies Association (which I serve as Executive Director), focus on the harm caused by some groups. Other organizations and individuals have a more theoretical interest and look at sociological processes or historical lineages of groups. So long as there is a shared recognition that harm occurs, dialogue among these different kinds of organizations and individuals can be fruitful, and we can learn from each other, rather than pigeon-hole and shun each other as "pro-cultists" or "anti-cultists." I think the CESNUR conference recognized that there is harm and contributed positively to constructive dialogue.

Di Marzio: Is a dialogue between the cult awareness community and academics once labelled "cult apologists" productive?

Langone: As implied above, I definitely believe that such dialogue is productive, so long as those who do not focus on harm acknowledge its existence, and so long as those who do focus on harm do not insist that everybody share their focus.

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