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Cults and new religious movements (NRMs)

Safe sects? Early warning
signs of dangerous faith groups"


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The following essay is by James R. Lewis of Santa Barbara, CA.


'Dangerous cults,'  'genuine religions' and other stereotypes.:

While the majority of minority religions are innocuous, many have been involved in social conflicts. A handful of these conflicts have made national and even international headlines, from the siege of the Branch Davidian community to the group suicide of Heaven's Gate members. One consequence of these highly publicized incidents is that they have served to reinforce unreflective stereotypes about "cults" and "cult leaders" that are appropriate for some--but certainly not the majority of--minority religions. Unfortunately, such stereotyped information is often the only "data" readily available to the media and law enforcement at the onset of such conflicts.

Putting aside the technical discourse of sociologists, in ordinary language people talk as if there is an objective category of groups called "cults" that can be distinguished from genuine religions. In this commonly accepted view, cults are by definition socially dangerous false religions, led by cynical cult leaders who exploit followers for their own gain.

This stereotype is, however, deeply flawed, and for more than one reason. In the first place, "cult" is a socially-negotiated label that often means little more than a religion one dislikes for some reason. To certain conservative Christians, for example, a "cult" is any religion that departs from a certain traditional interpretation of scripture. Alternatively, ultra-conservative Christians who take a strictly fundamentalist approach to scripture often appear "cult-like" to many mainline Christians. In other words, one person's cult is another person's religion.

In the second place, the founders of new groups are--despite whatever personal flaws some might have--almost always sincerely religious. Part of the problem here is that most people unreflectively assume that religion is always something "good." If, therefore, a given religious body does something "bad," then ipso facto it must not be "real" religion. Instead, it must be a false religion, created for no other reason than the founder/leader's personal gain. This attitude is, however, naive. The ancient Aztecs, to take an extreme example, regularly tortured and sacrificed other human beings as part of their religious rites. These practices were, in fact, a central aspect of the Aztec religion. But, however much we might be able to explain and even to understand why the Aztecs engaged in such practices, no contemporary person would defend these rites as "good."


Dangerous groups:

The proper question to ask, then, is not whether some particular group is or is not a cult (in the sense of a "false religion"), but, rather, whether or not the social-psychological dynamics within a particular religion are potentially dangerous to its members and/or to the larger society. Unfortunately, once we get beyond such actions as torturing and murdering other human beings, the criteria for what one regards as harmful can be quite subjective. It has been seriously asserted, for example, that requiring "cult" members to be celibate and to follow vegetarian diets are harmful practices. Similarly, requiring followers to engage in several hours of meditation per day plus discouraging the questioning of "cult" doctrine have often been portrayed as parts of a group's "brainwashing" regime designed to damage one's ability to reason properly.

Once again, the problem with such criteria is that they are naive. If celibacy was harmful, for example, then how does one explain the lack of more-than-ordinary pathology among monks and nuns? Also, if certain mental practices actually damaged the brain, then why do members of intensive religious groups perform so well on I.Q. tests and other measures of individual reasoning ability? Such critical criteria also reflect an abysmal ignorance of traditional religious practices: Many traditional religions have promoted celibacy, restricted diets, prescribed lengthy prayers and meditations, discouraged the questioning of group ideology, etc. Clearly, if one wants to delineate serious criteria for determining "bad religion," then one must focus on traits that embody more than the observer's ethnocentric attitudes.

To begin with, making a radical lifestyle change as part of joining a religious group should not, in itself, be taken to indicate that the individual has therefore become involved in something harmful. Friends and family members may feel that an individual is making a mistake to quit a job or to drop out of school--actions that, by the way, very few contemporary new religions would actively encourage--but a free society means nothing if one is not also free to make mistakes.


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Developing objective early warning signs:

If one wishes to develop objective criteria for distinguishing harmful or potentially harmful religious organizations from harmless religions, one needs to place oneself in the position of a public policy maker. From this perspective, religions that raise the most concern are those groups that tangibly, physically harm members and/or non-members, or engage in other anti-social/illegal acts. However, a public policy maker might well respond that this post facto criterion is too little too late, and that what is needed are criteria that could act as early warning signs--criteria indicating that a previously innocuous group is potentially "going bad." The following discussion will make a stab at developing such criteria, with the caveat that the presence of the less serious factors listed below in any given group does not automatically mean they are on the verge of becoming the next Heaven's Gate.

Charismatic Leader: As part of this discussion, we shall be referring to a few false criteria for distinguishing a healthy from an unhealthy religion. In the first place, the mere fact that a group is headed up by a charismatic leader does not automatically raise a red flag. This is because new religions are much like new businesses: new businesses are almost always the manifestation of the vision and work of a single entrepreneur. In contrast, few if any successful businesses are the outgrowth of the work of a committee.

Divine Authority: Also, to found a religion, a leader usually makes some sort of claim to special insight or to special revelation that legitimates both the new religion and the leader's right to lead. The founder may even claim to be prophet, messiah or avatar. While many critics of alternative religions have asserted that the assumption of such authority is in itself a danger sign, too many objectively harmless groups have come into being with the leader asserting divine authority for such claims to be meaningful danger signs.

Use of Authority: Far more important than one's claim to authority is what one does with the authority once he or she attracts followers who choose to recognize it. A minister or guru who focuses her or his pronouncements on the interpretation of scripture or on other matters having to do with religion proper is far less problematic than a leader who takes it upon her- or himself to make decisions in the personal lives of individual parishioners, such as dictating (as opposed to suggesting) who and when one will marry. The line between advising and ordering others with respect to their personal lives can, however, be quite thin. A useful criterion for determining whether or not this line has been crossed is to examine what happens when one acts against the guru's advice: If one can respectfully disagree about a particular item of personal--as opposed to religious--advice without suffering negative consequences as a result, then the leadership dynamics within the group are healthy with respect to authority issues.

One of the clearest signs that leaders are overstepping their proper sphere of authority is when they articulate certain ethical guidelines that everyone must follow except for the guru or minister. This is especially the case with a differential sexual ethic that restricts the sexual activity of followers but allows leaders to initiate liaisons with whomever they choose.

Above the Law: Perhaps the most serious danger sign is when a religious group places itself above the law, although there are some nuances that make this point trickier than it might first appear. All of us, in some sphere of life, place ourselves above the law, if only when we go a few miles per hour over the speed limit or fudge a few figures on our income tax returns. Also, when push comes to shove, almost every religion in the world would be willing to assert that divine law takes precedence over human law--should they ever come into conflict. Hence a group that, for example, solicits donations in an area where soliciting is forbidden should not, on that basis alone, be viewed as danger to society. Exceptions should also be made for groups or individuals who make a very public protest against certain laws judged as immoral, as when a contentious objector goes to jail rather than be drafted into the military.

On the other hand, it should be clear that a group leader who consistently violates serious laws has developed a rationale that could easily be used to legitimate more serious anti-social acts. Examples that come readily to mind are Marshall Hertiff, founder/leader of Heaven's Gate, who regularly ducked out on motel bills and who was once even arrested for stealing a rental car, and Swami Kirtananda, founder of the New Vrindavan community, who was caught authorizing the stealing of computer software before being arrested for ordering the murder of a community critic. Documentable child abuse and other illegalities committed within the organization are also covered by this criterion.

End of the World Scenarios: Another misconceived criterion is perceiving groups as dangerous because of apocalyptic theologies. Almost every religion in the larger Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition has an apocalyptic theology, even the traditional peace churches that forbid members from participating in the military. Thus, contrary to the assertions of some contemporary critics of religion, having an apocalyptic theology does not, in itself, raise a red flag. This is because in most apocalyptic scenarios it is God and his angels who fight the final battle, not flesh-and-blood human beings. The human role is spiritual, and the "saved" fight a spiritual war, not a literal, physical war.

An apocalyptic theology is only dangerous when individual followers believe they are going to be called upon to be foot soldiers in God's army, and prepare themselves by stocking up on weapons and ammunition. Groups that come to mind here are some of the Identity Christian churches who see themselves as preparing to fight a literal war with God's enemies. On the other hand, a community's possession of firearms--in the absence of such a theology of physical confrontation--is probably not dangerous, if no other danger signs are present. If the simple possession of firearms by members was a significant danger sign, then the Southern Baptist Convention would be the most dangerous "cult" in the nation.

Salvation: Another false, yet frequently voiced criterion is that religious groups are dangerous which see only themselves as saved and the rest of the world as damned. Like apocalypticism, this trait is far too widespread among traditional religions to constitute an authentic danger sign. A more meaningful characteristic should be how a religion actually treats non-members.

Group Isolation: Another criterion is a group's relative isolation. This trait is somewhat more complex than the others we have examined. On the one hand, there are abundant examples of traditional religions establishing communities or monastic centers apart from the larger society that have posed no danger to anyone. On the other hand, some of the worst abuses have taken place in the segregated (usually communal) sub-societies of certain minority religions. From the suicidal violence of People's Temple to the externally-directed violence of AUM Shinrikyo, it was the social dynamics found in an isolated or semi-isolated community that allowed such extreme actions to be contemplated.

In order to flag this characteristic while simultaneously avoiding stigmatizing every religion that sets up a segregated society as being potentially dangerous, it might be best to invert this trait and state it as a counter-indicator. In other words, rather than asserting that any religion with a partially isolated community is potentially dangerous, let us instead assert that the relative lack of such boundaries indicates that the group in question is almost certainly not dangerous.

Deception: A final early warning sign is a group's readiness to deceive outsiders. Some critics have asserted that a recruiter who invites a potential convert to a dinner without mentioning that the event is being sponsored by such-and-such church is deceptive. Others have criticized religions possessing a hierarchical system of knowledge to which only initiates are privy. These kinds of criticisms are silly. When a guru publicly asserts that no one in his organization is involved in illegal drugs and police later find a LSD laboratory in his basement, that's deception.


Warning signs:

To summarize, the traits we designated above as early warning signs of 'bad religion'" are:

  1. The organization is willing to place itself above the law. With the exceptions noted earlier, this is probably the most important characteristic.
  2. The leadership dictates (rather than suggests) important personal (as opposed to spiritual) details of followers' lives, such as whom to marry, what to study in college, etc.
  3. The leader sets forth ethical guidelines members must follow but from which the leader is exempt.
  4. The group is preparing to fight a literal, physical Armageddon against other human beings.
  5. The leader regularly makes public assertions that he or she knows is false and/or the group has a policy of routinely deceiving outsiders.

Finally, we noted that, while many benign religions establish semi-segregated communities, socially dangerous religions are almost always isolated or partially isolated from the larger society.

These five traits are about as close as one can get to legitimate, objective criteria for judging whether or not a given religious organization is going--or has gone--"bad." With the exception of placing the group's actions above the law, none of these characteristics, taken by themselves, are necessarily cause for alarm. On the other hand, a group possessing more than one or two of the above traits might well bear closer scrutiny. As a corollary to this line of analysis, minority religions possessing none of the above traits are, from a public policy standpoint, almost certainly harmless.

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