The Anti-Cult Movement
TERMINOLOGY, HISTORY, BELIEFS, etc.
Anti-Cult Movement (ACM) topics covered by this essay:
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:
||Anti-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." |
||Cult: A vicious "snarl" word used:
||By the media to refer to dangerous, destructive religious groups.
||By the anti-cult movement, mainly to refer to a wide range of new
religious movements who they accuse of engaging in psychological abuse.
||By 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.
||Counter-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.
||Cult 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
||New Religious Movement (NRM): an emotionally neutral term used to refer to
recently created and usually small faith groups. We recommend this term in
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
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:
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.
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:
- An authoritarian power structure, with control concentrated at the top.
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.)
- The use of deceitful methods in recruitment of new members and/or raising of money.
- Isolation of their membership from society; filtering of information.
- 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
||Milieu control: control of the group environment and communication.
||Manipulation: Leaders are perceived as being chosen by God, history or
some supernatural force. Salvation can only be attained through the cult.
||Purity demands: An us vs. them mentality is developed, in which cult
members are the only pure and good.
||Confession: group confession and self-criticism is used in order to
produce personal change.
||Sacred Science: The cult's doctrines and ideology are considered sacred
and must not be doubted or questioned.
||Loading the language: Conventional words and phrases are given special,
||Doctrine 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.
||Dispensing 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
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:
||movies [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.
||inaccurate information concerning the effectiveness of brainwashing techniques used by
the Communists during the Korean War. American soldiers were not brainwashed.
physically tortured until they broke.
||Some 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.
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.
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.
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)."
Current status of the ACM and deprogramming:
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.
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
Walter Martin, "The Kingdom of the Cults", Bethany House, Minneapolis
MN (1965; Reissued with Hank H. Hanegraaff, Ed. in 1997)
book safely from the Amazon.com book store
"Characteristics of a Destructive
Cult," reFOCUS, at:
Robert Lifton, "Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of
Brainwashing in China," University of North Carolina Press, (1989). Order this
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.
D.G. Hill, "Study of Mind Development Groups, Sects and Cults,",
"Study of Mind Development Groups, Sects and Cults in Ontario",
Ontario Government (1980)
Copyright © 1996 to 2001 incl. and 2004 by Ontario Consultants on
Latest update: 2004-MAR-21
Author: B.A. Robinson