Cults and new religious movements (NRMs)
signs of dangerous faith groups"
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."
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.
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
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
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.
To summarize, the traits we designated above as early warning signs of 'bad
- The organization is willing to place itself above the law. With the exceptions noted
earlier, this is probably the most important characteristic.
- 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,
- The leader sets forth ethical guidelines members must follow but from which the leader
- The group is preparing to fight a literal, physical Armageddon against other human
- 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