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The Anti-Cult Movement (ACM)


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Topics covered by this essay:

bullet "Heaven's Gate" suicide and the appearance of cult "experts"
bullet Activities in North America
bullet Recent growth of the ACM in Europe

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The "Heaven's Gate" Mass Suicide and the rise of cult "experts."

Thirty nine members of the Heaven's Gate religious group in San Diego County, CA in late 1997-MAR committed group suicide. The media exhibited a feeding frenzy for even the smallest scrap of news about the group. Various TV networks even interviewed two employees of a local car wash used by the members, and some waiters at a restaurant frequented by the group.

"Cult experts" came out of the woodwork in droves, some promoting religious intolerance against a wide spectrum of new emerging religions. The media appears to have accepted at face-value each person who came forward, claiming to be an expert in this area. As a result, the public's fear about widespread dangerous cults increased greatly. Each "expert" had his or her own theory; many were mutually exclusive:

bullet Keith Andrew Kovacs of DAWN, Inc. circulated a posting on the Internet which claimed that the suicide was really a mass-murder - "just the latest slaughter of peaceful people by a government frantically trying to conclude plans to implement a police state here in the US." His theory is that the Heaven's Gate group were highly skilled hackers and cryptography crackers who broke into computers of highly secure military and government sites and thereby learned about high tech weapons, devices, and implants which had been developed by US intelligence agencies. They then wrote an interactive computer game called Cyberpunk, using the names and correct descriptions of the various devices. Fearful that news of the new devices would be publicized, the FBI raided their commune, confiscated the computer programs, killed the members and made it look like a group suicide. Kovacs predicts that the Federal Government will propose new "legislation to protect families from the menace of cults that can invade the home and drive people to commit suicide or even murder their own parents."

This rumor is not based on fact. The Cyberpunk game was written by Steve Jackson Games in Austin, TX. The employees there are role-playing game authors, not hackers or cryptography specialists.

bullet Dr. Carl Raschke of the University of Denver seemed to believe that there are many cults from different religious backgrounds who had coordinated a series of mass suicides. They were to start at the spring equinox on 1997-MAR-20, accelerate at the time of the Buddha's birthday on MAY-22, and cease around the summer solstice JUN-21. No such mass suicides followed.
bullet Some conspiracy theorists promoted the concept that the Heaven's Gate suicide was orchestrated by the CIA, as part of its continuing mind-control programs.
bullet Hal Mansfield, of the Religious Movements Resource Center in Fort Collins, CO indicated that millennialism has spawned many New Age groups, ranging from UFO enthusiasts to survivalists and Neo-Christians. He stated that some estimate there are 2.5 million adherents within these groups.
bullet On MAR-28, Gina Smith, an Internet specialist on Good Morning America attempted to link Heaven's Gate with Satanism, Neo-Paganism, and the Unification Church -- three unrelated religious traditions. The implication was that all are dangerous, both to society and to their own membership. She pulled up the World Pagan Network home page and mentioned that Paganism is something that parents should  watch out for (i.e. protect their children from). No explanation was given why Pagans are dangerous. She later apologized on her computer radio program for misrepresenting Pagans. She felt that Good Morning America would not permit her to apologize on their TV program.
bullet The New York Post for 1997-MAR-31 contained an article titled "Freudian Sect - Experts: Cult's road to suicide was driven by sexual torment." The concept that a spiritual group would be driven to suicide by sexual frustration does seem a bit of a stretch.
bullet According to a Zondervan News Service posting of 1997-APR-3, Billy Graham referred to Heaven's Gate during a press conference in San Antonio where he launched his South Texas Crusade. Usually, Dr. Graham promotes tolerance towards other Christian groups. This time he seems to have demonized mind-control groups. He said: "These sects and cults are worldwide. Cults are made up of people who are fanatically following a leader who lead them astray. I believe that in back of it all is the Devil, who has his plans and counterfeits of Jesus Christ."

The media has been using strange terminology when referring to the mass suicide group: "Techno Pagan" is one. "Techno" is a valid descriptor, because the Heaven's Gate group financed itself by writing high quality web pages. But "Pagan" is in no way accurate; the group is basically Christian, onto which UFO beliefs were grafted.

This essay continues below.

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Recent ACM activities in North America:

The Anti-Cult Movement (ACM) in North America appears to be in decline, for a number of reasons:

bullet Public awareness of high-profile, criminal deprogramming efforts by some ACM groups.
bullet Rejection by professional mental health organizations and much of the public of the danger of mind control and brainwashing by small religious groups.
bullet Lack of acceptance of ACM beliefs by the government.

However, many media reporters and the public generally still appear to believe in widespread, dangerous "cults." One activities was:

bullet 1998-MAY-21: An impressive victory was achieved by the ACM in Maryland. They had mounted a successful stealth campaign which resulted in the creation of a "Task force to Study the Effects of Cult Activities on Public Senior Higher Educational Institutions." The resolution which created the task force commented that "college students who become involved with cults undergo personality changes, suffer academically and financially, are alienated from their families and friends, and are robbed of the very things universities were designed to encourage."  The resolution does not define the term "cult"; it does not identify any particular organization as a "cult." The task force was formed to " the effects of cult activities on the University of Maryland System, St. Mary's College, and Morgan State University..." 1 The law requires the task force to "communicate with and obtain information from cult awareness organizations, former cult members, college administrators, campus security personnel, campus ministers, families of cult members and other interested parties..." It does not direct the task force to collect any information from existing members of NRMs, from NRMs themselves, from civil liberty groups, or from academics specializing in NRMs.

The Appropriations Committee conducted hearings on the Maryland House Joint Resolution 22. They heard from 9 witnesses: 8 identified themselves as proponent of the bill; the 9th said that they were both a proponent of the bill, and also took no position. (Quite an difficult task). Those opposed to the bill did not learn of its existence until it had passed the lower House and was two days away from being passed in the Senate. It passed in a flurry of other bills as the session closed. The final vote was 110-9 by the House and 38-7 by the Senate. It was signed into law by the Governor on 1998-MAY-21. The International Coalition for Religious Freedom reported in its 1999-APR report that: "no civil libertarians or scholars of new religious movements have been named" to the task force. 2,3

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Growth of the Anti-Cult Movement in Europe and Asia:

bullet Europe: The ACM appears to be alive and healthy in Europe, where it is accepted and promoted by by some European governments. For example:
bullet Austria: This country has had a three-tiered religious structure. A few religions are recognized as "state recognized religions;" they receive free broadcast time, government funding and tax exemptions. At a lower status are those religious groups which have "legal recognition." They can own property, have a bank account in their name etc. New religious groups have no recognition and essentially no rights. To obtain recognition, they have to prove that they have at least 300 members and must wait for 6 months after applying. Non-religious groups in Austria are only required to wait 0 to 6 weeks. "Legal status may be denied to religious communities by the Federal Minister of Education and Cultural Affairs if it deems that youth will be adversely affected by it, that psychological methods are used improperly to disseminate religious beliefs, or in the interest of public security, public order, health, or morality." 4
bullet France: Their federal government is attacking religious minorities via the tax system. Prime victims are the Jehovah's Witnesses and a small Evangelical Pentecostal church. They have prepared a list of suspect religious groups.
bullet Germany: There appears to be a concerted attack on the Church of Scientology by political groups, and by governments at the local, state and federal level. Germany's Interior Minister, Manfred Kanther, announced in early 1997-JUN that "All means available to the state" will be used to monitor Scientology's 30,000 members in that country, because the government believes that the church is a threat to democracy. Counterintelligence agents will be used.
bullet Russia: Recent legislation that severely curtails religious expression in Russia was passed in that country. It was motivated largely by the public's fear of dangerous "cults". The Japanese Buddhist/Christian destructive cult, Aum Shinri Kyo, had established a local office in Russia. But otherwise, that fear appears groundless. Anti-cult feeling among the public appears to exist independently of any hard evidence to support it. The largest New Religious Movements have memberships totaling only a few thousand. Yet, the public perceived them much larger than this. No religious group in Russia has ever been convicted of activities of which the ACM accuses them: mind control, stealing member's property, kidnapping people, being a threat to the state, etc.

Particularly alarming is the linkage between the ACM and state governments. Religious repression will probably grow within some countries in Europe in the near future. We expect that the panic will finally collapse, perhaps by 2010 CE, from lack of any evidence that religious groups pose a significant danger to individuals or to the state. 

In referring to the 1998 CAN/Ross/Scott decision by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, 5 Dr. Massimo Introvigne, managing director of CESNUR, commented that the decision "is another crucial blow to the credibility and the very existence of an organized anti-cult movement in the U.S. Its effects will sooner or later be felt also in Europe". (CENSUR is the Center for Studies on New Religions. It "was established in 1988 by a group of religious scholars from leading universities in Europe and the Americas.") 6

bullet China: The anti-cult movement is perhaps strongest in this country. The government has historical reasons for their fear. China has had a history of religious and spiritual uprisings that had catastrophic effects on the country, including deaths of tens of millions of people. The government has organized its own Catholic church independently of Rome. It has also organized its own generic Protestant church. It expects that all Christians will belong to one of these groups. Meanwhile, they have relentlessly suppressed independent, non-registered religious and spiritual groups, recently including the Falun Dafa -- a spiritually-based exercise and belief system. The government appears to fear any national group that is capable of organizing its followers into direct action. 

The Chinese government has adopted much of the terminology of the Western anti-cult movement. The official Xinhua News Agency issued a report on "cults" in the United States. 7 It quoted Berkley psychology professor Margaret Singer, one of the few remaining psychologists who supports the claims of the anti-cult movement. She died in 2003. The report discusses "spiritual poisoning." Cults are said to "not obey the law, they upset social order, and they create a menace to freedom of religion and social stability. Under the pretense of religion, kindness, and being non-political, they participate in political activities. Some of them even practice criminal activities such as tax evasion, fraud, drug dealing, smuggling, assassination, and kidnapping."

According to the Falun Dafa Information Center, the Chinese government has detained over 100,000 persons for the "crime" of practicing Falun Dafa. Over 20,000 have been sent to labor camps without trial. "Chinese President Jiang Zemin has called this the 'golden age of human rights' in China, but this 'golden age' has resulted in the deaths of over 1,600 innocent citizens who practice falun Gong...millions have been devastated by this persecution. This is state terrorism." 8

In defiance of the law which prohibits independent churches, Gong Shengliang organized the South China Church, a fundamentalist Protestant denomination. The government has banned the church as a "cult." He was convicted on charges including "using a cult to undermine the enforcement of the law," and has been sentenced to death. A second church leader, Li Ying, a niece of Shengliang was given a death sentence suspended for two years.

More details are online about the situation in China and in other countries.

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References cited above:

  1. "House Joint Resolution 22" at:
  2. Dan Fefferman, "Will Maryland lead U.S. into European-style 'Sectophobia'?" Religious Freedom Report, Vol. 2, #1, 1999-APR.
  3. "International Coalition for Religious Freedom's report on Maryland Task Force to Study the Effects of Cult Activities on Public Senior Higher Education Institutions," at:
  4. Alex Colvin, "New Austrian Legislation Creates Formula for Discrimination" a Religious Freedom Report by the ICRT (International Coalition for Religious Freedom) at:
  5. The CAN/Ross/Scott decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on 1988-APR-8 is at: and at:
  6. CENSUR's home page is at:   An essay describing the mandate and goals of CENSUR is at:
  7. Hu Xiaomin, "Xinhua reports on cults in the United States," Beijing Xinhua Domestic Service.
  8. " 'Golden Age of Human Rights' in China leaves four more tortured to death by Chinese authorities," Falun Dafa Information Center, 2001-DEC-20. Their web site is at 

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Copyright 1996 to 2001 incl. and 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2004-MAR-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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