Culti in declino? Il parere di Michael Langone, Direttore Esecutivo dell’International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA)


Il mese scorso, Ross Douthat uno dei più seguiti editorialisti del New York Times pubblicava un articolo di fondo titolato “THE CULT DEFICIT”, in cui ripercorreva le recenti tesi di Philip Jenkins, -celebre e prolifico storico delle religioni e docente presso la Baylor University (Texas)-, e di Peter Thiel, -capitalista d’impresa e polemista, cofondatore di PayPal e uno dei primi investitori di Facebook-, per i quali si assisterebbe a un declino dei culti e di gruppi controversi, che tuttavia andrebbe letto come segnale preoccupante piuttosto che confortante tanto per i credenti appartenenti a religioni più tradizionali quanto per l’intera cultura occidentale.  Per i due autori, infatti, il declino dei culti rappresenterebbe un indicatore di stagnazione religiosa ovvero la mancanza di una spinta creativa per la vitalità religiosa ma anche, come sottolineato da Thiel nel suo ultimo libro, per ogni innovazione umana. All’articolo di Douthat erano seguiti numerosi commenti critici e repliche anche da parte di accreditati studiosi del fenomeno settario come Steven Hassan, di consulenti in materia di gruppi controversi quali Rick Ross e del giornalista Tony Ortega. Ross Douthat pubblicava successivamente un nuovo articolo ma senza minimamente accennare alle considerazioni espresse da altri. Anche la replica all’articolo di Douthat, da parte del dott. Michael Langone, considerato un’autorità in materia di culti e Direttore Esecutivo dell’International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA),  a quanto si apprende dalla medesima replica postata su fb e che riportiamo di seguito, è stata, per usare le  parole dell’autore “sfortunatamente ma non sorprendentemente” ignorata dal NYT.

Benché il dott. Langone non contesti alcune considerazioni di Douthat, tuttavia ritiene che in generale quanto affermato possa essere pericolosamente fuorviante.

A margine del testo redatto dal Diretto Esecutivo dell’ICSA, abbiamo inserito i link alle repliche  di Tony Ortega, Steve Hassan e Rick Ross.


Reply to “The Cult Deficit,” by Ross Douthat, New York Times, Sunday Review, 27 September 2014

Michael D. Langone, PhD
Executive Director
International Cultic Studies Association*


The New York Times Sunday Review published an opinion piece by Ross Douthat (September 27, 2014 – that suggested that cults have declined significantly in prevalence and that this decline might be a bad thing for society.

Mr. Douthat’s essay is correct in one statement: “Cults can be dangerous, even murderous, but they can also be mistreated and misjudged.” Cult critics sometimes denigrate the latter half of this sentence, while cult defenders sometimes diminish the first half. Yet both parts of the statement are true.

But the main assertions of Douthat’s essay, that cults have declined in prevalence, and that cults are a sign of creativity in society, are dangerously misleading.

About cults, Mr. Douthat says, “we don’t hear nearly as much about them.” What he should say is that cults haven’t made the front page in a long time. Our organization collected 377 news stories about cultic groups between February and August of 2014, and those stories are only a small percentage of the total that we found. Between September 2013 and August 2014, we surveyed 451 visitors to our website. Three-hundred-sixteen persons listed well over 150 distinct groups to which they or a loved one belonged. Dozens of other persons either said that the group had no name or was a family or one-on-one relationship.

I suggest an alternative hypothesis (as a scientist I realize that more data is required to assert this as a “fact” or even a “finding”): The Internet has made it difficult for the larger, more well-known groups to thrive because potential recruits do Web searches, find out about the group’s “dirty linen,” and walk away. Those groups with a small or nonexistent negative history traceable on the Internet, on the other hand, may be able to recruit more effectively.

Ironically, the media in the Internet age may be responsible for preventing dangerous cults from reaching “front-page status” because media exposes remain permanently available on the Web and may impede a dangerous group’s recruitment of new members and maintenance of current members. Truths on the Web, then, may set at least some people free.

Although media coverage made permanent on the Web may prevent the well-known groups from recruiting as many people as they once did, it does not necessarilyreduce the number of smaller groups that can form even more easily using the Web, or that can avoid the Web and remain under the radar. And it does not reduce the number of people born or raised in cultic groups (often called SGAs – second-generation adults), who in fact enter our network today with increasing frequency. Approximately 20% of the 200+ attendees at our 2014 annual conference were born or raised in groups.

I’m more reserved than Mr. Douthat and won’t say that the number of cults today is the same, more, or less than 30 years ago. The scientific evidence simply isn’t good enough to warrant such assertions, especially given widespread disagreement about what constitutes a cult.

Even if some agency were willing to fund an epidemiological study large enough to collect useful data on cult prevalence, its findings would still be of limited use for at least two reasons. First, many cult members would never be reached by the phone surveys that are typically used. There are, for example, thousands of people in isolated polygamist cults scattered through the West who are unlikely to be counted in such surveys. Moreover, so much of cult members’ time is taken up in service to their group that even if they have reachable phone numbers, they are not likely to respond to researchers. Second, there is the “devil factor”; to many cult members survey researchers are part of the demonic “outside world” that cult members are trained to avoid.

Therefore, any data we may have (see our post on prevalence – needs to be taken with a sizable grain of salt, especially if one is commenting on changes over time. The research that exists suggests that about one percent of the population has had some involvement in a cultic group at some time in their lives. And organizations such as ICSA can list at least several thousand distinct groups about which they have received inquiries. But these prevalence estimates are not definitive, and e cannot speak scientifically to the question of whether or not the number of cult members or number of cultic groups is changing.

Even if one grants, for the sake of argument, that the number of cults may have declined, as Douthat suggests, one can still challenge his assertion that this decline has a causal connection to declining creativity in society. Douthat sees the decline of what he calls “interesting” cults as a sign of declining societal creativity.

Perhaps the existence of “interesting,” i.e., “bizarre,” cults reflects a society’s tolerance level, not its “creativity.” Is a group such as the Breatharians (who assert that one can potentially live on air alone) indicative of cultural “creativity”? Does such a group cause mainstream religions to question their beliefs about the necessity of nourishment for the body? Or may the existence of such a group reflect the society’s capacity to tolerate unrealistic and even harmful beliefs?

It may be the case, as Douthat suggests, that “a wild fringe. . . is often a sign of a healthy, vital center.” But maybe not. During World War II, the USA had a pretty firm and coherent center, but not very many wild fringe happenings. If today’s often cited polarized electorate is a sign of a weak center, we ought to have a more subdued “fringe” than during WWII, but that does not appear to be the case to this observer. Today’s fringe may simply be less visible (for reasons suggested above), though just as large as during other times. Maybe we have fewer “front-page” groups – the ones that Mr. Douthat notices – and more small and isolated groups. I don’t know. And I certainly wouldn’t affirm a relationship between societal coherence and the prevalence of cultic groups without hard data, data that, as noted, is not available today.

Lastly, Mr. Douthat misses the most important point about cults, namely that some cultic groups harm some people. That happened yesterday. It happens today. And it will happen tomorrow. And the people who are hurt need and deserve our help.

*Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, this reply was not published by the New York Times. We share it, however, with the ICSA community, many of whom saw and were disturbed by the Times Oped.


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NOTA: Vedi altre repliche all’articolo di Ross Douthat, ai seguenti link:


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