Healthy Groups - Healthy Religious Conversion

There are many different types of groups, and most people in normal human society may belong to groups based on family, work, study, sport, church or hobby. A range of group processes operate in our society.  Our society has defined a set of norms for group operation.  Psychologists and Management Theorists have studied group processes and gained a general understanding which is applicable to all groups, be they political parties, social groups or any other community-based group. 

Common to all the healthy group dynamic processes are the following features:

  • Respect for members as individuals, allowing them to choose freely whether to join or leave.
  • Clear expression of purpose, values and beliefs of groups. (No fundamental hidden information which is revealed to "the inner circles")
  • Different opinions respected, members encouraged to think for themselves.
  • Respect for the "devil’s advocate" within the group - one group member may be appointed to honestly and vehemently argue the opposing views in order to test the group’s opinions and ensure they do not go off the track.
  • People learn to express themselves better in a group, learning and growing.

Negative group processes: Some of these will be present in even non-cult groups, (and political parties!).

Exclusive Claims. A group sees itself as somehow better endowed with knowledge, "God only communicates" with this small group or "through this leader’s voice". 
"Group-think", where members of the group come to a particular conclusion, and no process in the group challenges decisions. "Healthy debate" may be a contradiction in terms. 
Diversity Extinction.  - the group’s ideal is enforced and individual differences are effectively extinguished if possible.  Conformity is mandatory. 
Healthy and Unhealthy Religious Conversion
Healthy Conversion 
  • The convert is motivated primarily by internally generated searching.
  • The new belief system is at least relatively open and tolerant of other views, and will debate matters on their merits.
  • The convert’s critical faculties remain intact or are enhanced.
  • The convert is well integrated, in that various aspects of his/her life (values, relationships, talents, goals, educational achievements and the like) are coherently incorporated into the new outlook and behaviour.
Unhealthy Conversion
  • This type of conversion is provoked by manipulation and pressure from outside forces (i.e. the group).
  • The new belief system is simplistic, absolutist, and intolerant of other views.
  • Critical thinking is denigrated, and the convert’s critical abilities are impaired.
  • The convert’s autonomy is diminished.
  • The convert is poorly integrated, that is, has undergone a radical personality change in which parts of the self are rigidly compartmentalised, has severed ties with past friends and family, denies or diminishes the importance of personal history.
  • The convert is exploited financially and/or psychologically by a group. 

  (Taken from Ross & Langone, Cults: What Parents Should Know 1988)

In a healthy religious conversion experience, a person feels a sense of freedom from the world, a release from the false values of western culture (such as beauty-ism, consumerism, "magazine gloss culture").   Autonomy is increased, the person finds they question what they were told, they become more purposeful in a positive way.

All religious conversion is stressful, but in a healthy conversion, the stress leads to positive (usually gradual, with some significant turning points) change in the persons life.

Friends and family may be pleased or displeased, but the healthy model (espoused by mainline churches and groups interpreting the Bible) sees family as important, and the new convert as a seed of faith to their family of origin.  Even if this "family of origin" is dysfunctional or not walking with God, the emphasis of the Bible is to "respect your parents", and "live at peace with all people" even if you do not feel you can follow their instructions.

Unhealthy groups seek to cut off from mainstream society, and make the group the recruit’s only place of refuge.  Healthy religion seeks to interact with and improve society, not write it off.  Bible-based mainline Christianity has strong emphases on respecting parents and seeing the new convert’s family of origin witnessed to by changed life, shared with and included.

Recruiting - Common Experiences:
Many people can be vulnerable to joining a cult, often singles in late teens make good targets for recruiters.   A genuine Christian Evangelist will be seeking to free the person from perceived faults in our society’s values systems and get them to change their behaviour towards honesty, goodness, being at peace, accepting differences, valuing family and honouring a higher power to which the evangelist is equally responsible.  A Cult Recruiter will be seeking vulnerable people to catch into the group.  The recruit then becomes a source of money, power (free labour) or gratification to the group, and the group seeks to control the person’s behaviour and reduce the person’s autonomy.  It is this aspect of "control" which fundamentally distinguishes cults from genuine healthy religions.

Cults are aware of the following Keys to Vulnerability.

  • Being in new environment, for example, going to University
  • Being overloaded with work and/or study
  • Relationship difficulties.
  • Family conflict.
  • Needing genuine friendship, and finding friendship and support in a cult
  • Being highly "idealistic".
  • Young people with a genuine commitment to Christianity may be able to be convinced to do nearly anything if it can be shown to be "God’s Best".
  • A potential recruit displaying these features could be a target for a cult recruiter. They will frequently "love-bomb" a recruit, showing great attention and concern for their welfare. This "love-bombing" will make the warnings against cults lack credibility. Really, the recruit will find the group a very positive experience, with many deep emotional needs met and a new world view making sense of a confusing planet.

The typical recruit has found it impossible to fully accept many features of modern society. The self-centred values of the media, the advertising world, the divide between rich and poor, racism, the frustrating and unproductive public political debates, national injustices and the threats of future catastrophes leave many in our society searching for meaning.  Cults will frequently provide solutions to these concerns. Family members, friends and others may not share these concerns or may seem to be "part of the problem", whereas the cult may offer a means to a solution, and a hope that such issues are taken seriously.

Healthy Religious Conversion Experiences

A healthy Christian conversion will show some or all of the following characteristics:

  1. Positive improvement in strained family relationships, as the convert seeks to apologise or make restitution.
  2. Rejection of unhealthy western values of "consumerism & magazine gloss".
  3. Usually an improvement in work or study results as they are less distracted. - If they were a "work-aholic" and have changed values as a result of their conversion, then performance may suffer - life should be more balanced.
  4. Improved functioning of conscience - Christian guilt leads to change and forgiveness, not despair and avoidance.
  5. Positive approach to life, "enjoying getting out of bed in the morning".
  6. Acceptance that there is a lot to learn, and some things will always be beyond human understanding.
  7. The convert is a part of the movement of God in the world, not a special important individual with a unique destiny for whom the world has been crying out.