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Religious Tolerance logo

The Anti-Cult Movement 


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Anti-Cult Movement (ACM) topics covered by this essay:

bulletDefinitions of Terms
bulletIts history
bulletIts beliefs
bulletInvolvement of child protective services
bulletInfluence on psychiatry
bulletCurrent status

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Definitions of Terms

The anti-cult movement (ACM) is composed of a number of individuals and agencies which attempt to raise public concern about what they feel are serious emotional, spiritual and physical abuses by religious and other groups.

Terminology is confusing, as it is in many other areas of religion. People frequently assign different meanings to various terms. We recommend the following definitions:

bulletAnti-cult movement: (ACM) A group dedicated to raising public awareness of what they perceive are the dangers of cults. They see cults as engaging "in 'brainwashing,' 'mind control,' 'sinister manipulation,' 'creation of environments of totalism,' etc." 1 They consider the theological beliefs of new religious groups to be of lesser importance. Some in the ACM have attempted to convince individuals to leave religious groups. Some have engaged in criminal acts, such as kidnapping, assault, attempts at non-consensual brainwashing, etc., in order to force them to leave. These latter activities have been largely abandoned, in favor of what they call "exit counseling."
bulletCult: A vicious "snarl" word used:
bulletBy the media to refer to dangerous, destructive religious groups.
bulletBy the anti-cult movement, mainly to refer to a wide range of new religious movements who they accuse of engaging in psychological abuse.
bulletBy the counter-cult movement, mainly to refer to Christian groups that hold one or more non-traditional religious beliefs -- other than those shared by the counter-cult movement.

The term is always hurtful. No group will willingly accept being called a cult. Since the term has so many different and mutually exclusive meanings, we recommend that it not be used as a stand-alone term. If you do use it, we suggest that you carefully modify the word to make its meaning clear, as in "benign cult" or "destructive cult." A better, emotionally neutral term to use is "new religious movement." An even better policy is to use the name of the group itself, without attempting to classify it.

bulletCounter-cult movement: (CCM) A group composed of many hundreds of conservative Christian ministries. Their prime goal is to hunt down and expose heresy within their religion. Most people in the CCM believe that they personally follow true Christianity. They attack Christian faith groups which have one or more fundamental beliefs different from their own. (e.g. belief in the nature of Jesus, belief about the virgin birth, resurrection of Jesus, criteria for salvation, etc.)  Their motivation is to preserve the purity of Christian belief. Their goal is to warn individuals against accepting what the CCM groups believe are deviant, mistaken and dangerous beliefs. Most CCM groups believe that either great happiness in Heaven or eternal punishment in Hell awaits everyone at death. As they see it, one's final destination is determined by one's beliefs while on earth. Thus it is absolutely vital to hold the correct beliefs, or one is doomed.

CCM activities can become confusing. One group's heresy is another group's orthodoxy. If faith group "A" regards group "B" as heretical, then "B" probably considers "A" to be also promoting heresy. Also, Christianity has changed so much over the past two millennia that all of the Christian groups in the first century CE would probably be regarded as heretics today by the CCM.
bulletCult Apologists: A "snarl" term used by some in the anti-cult and counter-cult movements to criticize sociologists, theologians, other academics, etc. who study new religious groups, who find most of them to be quite benign, and who advocate religious freedom.
bulletNew Religious Movement (NRM): an emotionally neutral term used to refer to recently created and usually small faith groups. We recommend this term in preference to "cult."

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History of the Anti-cult Movement

The ACM started as a response to a series of spiritual movements in the 1960's. Countless new religious movements (NRMs) had appeared in North America. Many were headed by a single charismatic leader. Numerous young adults flocked to these groups, seeking an intense spiritual experience and inter-personal intimacy. Some of these movements encouraged their followers to sever relationships with their friends and families of origin. Many followers abandoned their academic pursuits in order to devote more time to the movement. Some parents became alarmed, fearing that their children had become the mindless victims of mind control techniques and brainwashing. The movie The Manchurian Candidate (1962) supported this concept; many viewers believed that the degree of control over brainwashing victims which was shown in the movie could be attained in real life. A very successful book which attacked new religious groups was published in 1965 by an Evangelical Christian author, Walter Martin. 2 Although primarily a counter-cult book, it contains a anti-cult chapter "The Psychological Structure of Cultism" which heightened many parents' concerns. The book went through 36 printings between 1965 and 1985! A new edition was published in 2003. The book is still in print in 2004 and is widely stocked in conservative Christian bookstores.

In response to the perceived threat of cults, many non-profit, minimal-budget anti-cult agencies sprang up throughout the country, during the early 1970's. They considered most NRM's to be illegitimate religions which were a potential mental health hazard to young people. Rumors spread that some religious groups kept their members in a sort of prison and engaged in brainwashing techniques to convert them into near "zombies". (The American Psychological Association and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion 3 have expressed doubts that this is possible).

The tiny, local ACM groups coalesced into a smaller number of well-organized agencies:

bulletSome concentrated on educating the public about what they perceived as mental and physical health dangers posed by new religious movements. The information that they disseminated was valid with respect to a half dozen or so destructive religious groups. However the ACM often lumped many benign religious groups together with these doomsday cults. One result was to raise public hysteria against all small religious groups.
bulletStill others became more radical and took direct action against members of groups that they decided were "cults". They attempted to "liberate" members from their groups. Some parents of "cult" members, some disillusioned former members, and some kidnappers for hire became deprogrammers. For a fee which sometimes exceeded $10,000, they engaged in frightening activities:
bulletkidnapping adults;
bulletassaulting them;
bulletholding them for days against their will;
bulletattempting to forcibly brainwash them, so that they will abandon their religious faith and adopt the belief systems of the kidnappers;
bulletdeprive them of sleep, food, etc. in order to facilitate their emotional / mental / spiritual breakdown;
bulletprevent them from communicating with the people in their support network;
bulletcharging large sums of money for their services.

This has caused considerable emotional pain to members of new religious movements. The goal was to return them to their family of origin. It is ironic that the deprogrammers use some of the same practices that they accuse the "cults" of engaging in. They appear to have been generally successful in avoiding criminal charges. This is largely because their victims realize that such charges would implicate members of their family in a criminal conspiracy. In many cases, the deprogrammers convince the former members to leave the group, and to get on with their lives with no residual animosity towards the deprogrammers.

One influential ACM group was the Cult Awareness Network (CAN). It was an offshoot of an earlier Citizens Freedom Foundation - Information Services The latter was in turn an offshoot from the original Citizens Freedom Foundation. At first, CAN approved of deprogramming in principle. They maintained close relations with deprogrammers. One of them, Robert Brandyberry, allegedly stated that CAN officials had directly referred him to 75 to 85% of the persons who had paid him to conduct illegal deprogrammings involving kidnapping and criminal confinement. Although they claimed to have disassociated themselves from kidnapping and abuse, CAN remained a main referral service by which the public were placed in touch with violent deprogrammers. 

In the late 1970's, the American Family Foundation (AFF) was formed from a local chapter of CAN. The AFF has not supported violent deprogramming interventions. However, there was extensive sharing of lobbyists, directors, advisors, etc. between the CAN and AFF, at least during the early to mid 1990s. By the mid 1990's, CAN and the AFF were the main surviving national anti-cult groups. CAN went bankrupt in mid-1996; its assets were purchased by the "new" CAN. The AFF is still active.

This essay continues below.

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What ACM groups believe:

Various groups within the ACM have differing concepts about what defines a cult. They often list a group of factors that a cult exhibits. In their list of "Characteristics of a Destructive Cult," reFOCUS lists five. 3 They do not say how many of the 5 must be present in order for a faith group to be called a cult:

  1. An authoritarian power structure, with control concentrated at the top.
  2. Charismatic or messianic leader(s) (They define Messianic as meaning that the leaders identify themselves as God or state that they are the only persons capable of interpreting the Bible properly.)
  3. The use of deceitful methods in recruitment of new members and/or raising of money.
  4. Isolation of their membership from society; filtering of information.
  5. The use of mind control methods on the membership.

Mind control can involve many techniques. Robert Lifton describes eight of them in his book "Thought Reform & the Psychology of Totalism:" 4

bulletMilieu control: control of the group environment and communication.
bulletManipulation: Leaders are perceived as being chosen by God, history or some supernatural force. Salvation can only be attained through the cult.
bulletPurity demands: An us vs. them mentality is developed, in which cult members are the only pure and good.
bulletConfession: group confession and self-criticism is used in order to produce personal change.
bulletSacred Science: The cult's doctrines and ideology are considered sacred and must not be doubted or questioned.
bulletLoading the language: Conventional words and phrases are given special, in-group meanings.
bulletDoctrine over person: Members are conditioned to feel guilt if they ever question group doctrine. One must conform to the "truth," as taught by the group.
bulletDispensing of Existence: The group contains the elite; outsiders are evil, unsaved, and may not even have the right to exist. Leaving the group will have devastating consequences.

Many in the ACM promoted the idea that mind-control groups went well beyond making high demands on their members. The groups were seen as reducing their members to near "zombie-like" status through severe psychological methods. These beliefs were often supported by testimony from disillusioned former members. This propaganda was readily believed by the general public. Cults were seen as kidnapping vulnerable youth and brainwashing them until their self-will was destroyed. The public had mistaken beliefs about the effectiveness of psychological "programming." This came from a number of sources of misinformation:

bulletmovies [e.g. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)] in which an individual was brainwashed and trained to become a political assassin. This was an exciting movie, but one that is not based on any psychological reality.
bulletinaccurate information concerning the effectiveness of brainwashing techniques used by the Communists during the Korean War. American soldiers were not brainwashed. Some were physically tortured until they broke.
bulletSome feminists, conservative Christians and others have promoted the concept that Satanic cults exits as highly abusive cults. They were seen as programming their victims to respond as robots without self-will, when triggered in various ways.

The  Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and other professional groups have expressed doubts that this level of mind-control is possible. Sociologists Bromley, Shupe and Hill 5,6 demonstrated that this type of brainwashing cannot be achieved. A special investigator for the Ontario government agreed. 7 Unfortunately, much of the public continue to believe otherwise.

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Involvement of Child Protective Services:

Many child protective services in North America had become caught up in the hysteria, suspected that children were being physically or sexually abused within religious groups and intentional communities. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, hundreds of children were taken into care on suspicion of abuse, without any solid evidence of wrongdoing by the adults.

The Family, formerly called The Children of God, were a main target of these seizures, worldwide. Over 700 of their children were examined by child protective services in various countries around the world. At least 475 were taken into care for a time. Not one case of child abuse could be confirmed. The rate of child abuse within COG households was apparently much lower than was found in society generally. 

Seizure of children by state child protective agencies has now almost disappeared, due to greater understanding by child protection officers of the realities of communal living, and due to their embarrassing losses in court.

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ACM influence on psychiatry: 

The anti-cult movement was successful in having "cult induced disorder" added to DSM-III (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual). This manual is in general use by psychiatrists, psychologists and other therapists throughout North America. Under the title "atypical dissociative disorder", the manual describes a variety of dissociative states:

"that might occur in persons who have been subjected to periods of prolonged and intensive persuasion (brainwashing, thought reform and indoctrination while the captive of terrorists or cultists)."

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Current status of the ACM and deprogramming:

The Family estimated in 1997 that 1000 deprogramming attempts per year were still made in the US. Illegal activities have since been largely replaced by "exit counseling" of NRM members who have already left their religious group on their own initiative. 

As described elsewhere in this series of essays, the old Cult Awareness Network (CAN) was forced to declare bankruptcy because of its criminal activities. Its name and assets were purchased by the new CAN. The AFF continues today as the leading ACM organization.

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References cited above:

  1. Jeffery Hadden, "On Cults and Sects," an essay in the "New Religious Movements" site at: http://cti.itc.virginia.edu/~jkh8x/soc257/cultsect.html#2
  2. Walter Martin, "The Kingdom of the Cults", Bethany House, Minneapolis MN (1965; Reissued with Hank H. Hanegraaff, Ed. in 1997) Order this book safely from the Amazon.com book store
  3.  "Characteristics of a Destructive Cult,reFOCUS, at: http://www.refocus.org/charcult.html.
  4. Robert Lifton, "Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China," University of North Carolina Press, (1989). Order this book
  5. D.B. Bromley, A.D. Shupe, "Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare," Beacon Press, Boston, (1981). This book describes the anti-cult movement that had its origins in the 1970's. It explodes the "brainwashing" scare.
  6. D.G. Hill, "Study of Mind Development Groups, Sects and Cults,", Toronto (1980)
  7. "Study of Mind Development Groups, Sects and Cults in Ontario", Ontario Government (1980)

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Copyright © 1996 to 2001 incl. and 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2004-MAR-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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