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Cults and new religious movements

Levels of belief coercion within religious groups.
Real & imaginary high-demand religious groups.

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Levels of belief-coercion within religious groups:

Essentially all religious groups require their members to conform to specific beliefs; they attempt to restrict members' behaviors to certain norms. But faith groups vary greatly in the level of demands and the degree of control that they maintain over their membership:

  • At the "low control" end might be a congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Association where members are not required to believe in and follow a specific creed. They are encouraged to critically investigate all sources of spirituality for themselves. A main role of the minister and the rest of the congregation is to help each member to develop his or her own ethical and belief systems.
  • The vast majority of the 1,500 or so religious organizations in North America place greater demands on their members than the Unitarian Universalist Association, but in no way can be considered high-demand groups. In the more conservative denomination, pressure for the individual to belief is a natural outgrowth of some of their theological beliefs; they often teach that only a select few who trust Jesus as Lord and Savior will be saved; the vast majority of humans will remain unsaved and spend eternity in Hell. This teaching places considerable pressure on the member to believe. Some denominations use the threat of excommunicating or disfellowshipping members in order to enforce conformity. Those members who obtain their entire spiritual, religious, and social support from the faith group frequently find exile to be very disruptive. 
  • At the higher end of the spectrum might be a Roman Catholic convent or monastery that requires its members to adhere to a strict schedule of sleep, work and prayer, a limited diet, poverty, celibacy, total acceptance of decisions by those in authority, etc.
  • Next would be actual mind-control groups. These are often small, local, new, Christian groups who make extremely high demands on their members, and are often led by a single charismatic individual. Their total membership is quite small.
  • At the "high demand/control" end would be the destructive doomsday cults which so completely control their members that they have occasionally led many to their deaths through suicide and murder.

Actual "mind-control groups:"

One definition of a Mind-Control group is

"A religious group that engages in extreme spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional manipulation of its members in order to control closely their beliefs, thoughts, emotions and behavior"

The critical word here is "extreme".

There have existed (and continue to exist) many truly abusive mind-control groups in North America. Usually, these are headed by a single leader who uses manipulative techniques to control his/her followers. The group is tightly knit and often remains hidden unless some criminal act is discovered. Almost all are Christian (probably because about 75% of the North American population follow this religion). The Anti-Cult and Counter-Cult Movements rarely target these groups, perhaps because their activities are not publicly known. Also, they are invariably to be local groups with a small membership. They are virtually undetectable unless some criminal activity brings them to the attention of the police and press.

Sometimes these mind-control groups become known because of their use of physical abuse, particularly of children. A massive study of child abuse funded by the US federal government did uncover a troubling level of what they called "religion-related abuse". Much of this abuse probably occurs within mind-control cults. The study identified three main forms of child abuse:

During 1995, two instances of unintentional deaths during exorcisms were widely publicized in North America. One occurred in California; the other in Ontario Canada. Similar deaths have been extensively published since, at the rate of about one per year. One can reasonably assume that there was much unreported abuse during exorcisms that did not lead to death of the victim. Accounts of children needlessly dying of treatable diseases surface from time to time in which the church group required that prayer be used in place of medical intervention.

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A non-existent mind-control cult:

There is one group that up to 90% of Americans believe exist: an inter-generational, underground, international Satanic conspiracy which kidnaps children, abuses them physically and sexually, ritually kills them, eats their flesh and drinks their blood. This is perhaps the longest lasting urban folk tale in existence, having been circulating since about the 2nd century CE. There are a whole range of myths that have arisen about these groups: they allegedly keep thousands of women in concentration camps to generate babies for sacrifice; they kill about 50,000 infants in the United States every year; their rituals are inverted, sacrilegious parodies on Christian religious practices, etc.

Belief in Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) became widespread in the 1980s, partly triggered by the publishing of the book "Michelle Remembers." Many therapists began experimenting with Recovered Memory Therapy which generated false "memories" of abusive events in clients' childhoods. Some of these memories reinforced beliefs about SRA. By the mid-1990s, due to the lack of physical evidence of childhood abuse, beliefs in SRA declined.

No hard evidence has ever been found to support any of these beliefs. Many of the myths are traceable to the "burning times" during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, when many tens of thousands of people suspected of selling their souls to Satan were routinely rounded up, tortured and executed.


  1. 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 late 1970's. It explodes the "brainwashing" scare.
  2. D.G. Hill, "Study of Mind Development Groups, Sects and Cults,", Toronto (1980)
  3. "Study of Mind Development Groups, Sects and Cults in Ontario", Ontario Government (1980)
  4. S.J. Gelberg, "On Leaving the 'Hare Krishnas'", Communities, Issue 88, Fall 1995, Route 1, Box 155, Rutledge MO 63563. Cost is $4.50 in the US, US $4.50 elsewhere. This article describes a member's gradual disillusionment with the movement, which lead up to his departure from the group.
  5. S.V. Levine, various articles, cited in: S.B. Ferguson et al, "New Dictionary of Theology", Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, IL (1988), Page 460-461.
  6. Eternity On-line Magazine has an essay: "How Cults Manipulate People" at

Copyright 1995 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published: 1995-SEP-11

Latest update: 2008-AUG-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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