Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.
Executive Director, International Cultic Studies Association
In 1984 the Cult Awareness Network compiled a list of more than 2,000 groups about which they had received inquiries (Hulet, 1984). As of May 24, 2003 ICSA (formerly AFF) had 4426 groups listed in its electronic files, which are populated mainly as a result of inquiries or news reports. I would not hazard an estimate of what percentage of these groups would be at risk of harming members. The quality and quantity of data on individual groups is simply too low to justify generalizations.
Most cultic groups appear to be small, having no more than a few hundred members. Some, however, have tens of thousands of members and formidable financial power.
Several surveys shed some light on the number of people who may have been involved in what they perceived to be cultic groups.
Zimbardo and Hartley (1985), who surveyed a random sample of 1,000 San Francisco Bay area high school students, found that 3% reported being members of cultic groups and that 54% had had at least one contact with a cult recruiter.
Bloomgarden and Langone (1984) reported that 3% and 1.5% of high school students in two suburbs of Boston said they were cult members.
Sociologists Bird and Reimer (1982), in surveys of the adult populations of San Francisco and Montreal, found that approximately 20% of adults had participated in new religious or para-religious movements (including groups such as Kung Fu), although more than 70% of the involvements were transient. Other data in this study suggest that approximately two to five percent of the subjects had participated in groups that are frequently thought to be cultic.
A weekly omnibus survey conducted by ICR Survey Research Group for ICSA/AFF in 1993 found that about 1% of respondents said that they had been involved in a cult or what others might consider a cult.
Lottick’s (1993) survey of more than 1000 physicians (who are accustomed to making differential diagnoses) found that 2.2% reported that they or a family member had been involved in a cultic group, with "cultïc” clearly defined as a noxious group. It seems reasonable, therefore, to estimate that at least two million Americans have been involved with cultic groups.
In the research study that led to the development of the Group Psychological Abuse Scale (Chambers, Langone, Dole, & Grice, 1994) subjects' average age of joining was 24.8 and their average time in their groups was 6.70 years (308 subjects from 101 groups; 60% left on their own without outside, formal assistance; 13% had been deprogrammed; 17% exit counseled; 9% ejected by their groups). Assuming a lifetime incidence of 2,500,000 people having belonged to cultic groups, a "lifetime" period of 30 years, and an average length of stay of six years, I roughly estimate that approximately 500,000 people belong to cultic groups at any one time and approximately 85,000 go in and out of cultic groups each year.
However, as West (1990, p. 137) says, "cults are able to operate successfully because at any given time most of their members are either not yet aware that they are being exploited, or cannot express such an awareness because of uncertainty, shame, or fear." Therefore, in any survey, however random, the actual number of cultists is likely to be much greater than the number of persons who identify themselves as members of cultic groups or even of groups that other people might deem cultic. Because the group members do not identify themselves as such, they are not likely to be identified as cult-affected by psychotherapists or other helpers unless the helpers inquire into the possibility that there might be a cult involvement.
Bird, F., & Reimer, B. (1982). Participation rates in new religions and para-religious movements. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 21.
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