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Cults and new religious movements

Coercive techniques used by
high-demand religious groups

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Role of discipline in religious groups:

Much of the propaganda of the anti-cult movement is based on a misunderstanding of the role of discipline within high-demand religious groups. For centuries, such groups have required their members to submit to a restricted diet, work hard, spend hours in repetitive prayers, live a very simple life without luxuries, conform to the rules of the group, remain celibate, abandon smoking and drinking, etc. Such requirements within convents and monasteries have been long accepted in society. Some within the Anti-Cult Movement attacked sincere religious faith groups for these same practices, and concluded that the groups are profoundly evil, dangerous and manipulative.

The reality is that most people join these groups and stay as long as membership remains a positive experience. Some leave after a few days; others stay only for a few weeks; still others stay for years, but later leave for a variety of reasons. 1,2 People are almost always physically free to leave religious groups. If organizations attempted to restrict freedom of movement, they would be vulnerable to a charge of kidnapping or forcible confinement.

There have been rare instances reported where destructive cults have prevented members from leaving. The People's Temple case in Jonestown is one of the few examples. During their last days, when the situation was quickly degenerating into mass suicide and mass murder, armed guards kept people from leaving. The Students of the Seven Seals (Branch Davidian) in Waco TX is a more typical example. Members were allowed to leave even during the midst of the armed standoff with government agencies.

There can be a potential negative side to membership in high demand religious organizations. Some require their core, dedicated members to accept strong discipline; this can develop a deep commitment to the church. In the case of Unificationists, for example, such members must remain celibate before marriage, abstain from tobacco and alcohol and work long hours. The group can become their whole life, the source of their religious, cultural, social, and other support systems. If they become disillusioned by some aspect of the church, they can find it difficult to leave the organization and abandon these support networks. When they do leave, they sometimes become angry with themselves and the church, believing that they have wasted perhaps years of their life within the group.

The Venice Family Clinic in Venice, CA, in cooperation with the International Cultic Studies Association is providing a free service "... for people who have left cults or other high demand groups." In their advertising material, they quote the disorientation that "Joan" experienced when she left a high-demand religious group:

"It was a huge shock to me leaving, like stepping onto another planet."

"I grew up in a Bible based cult. I felt so claustrophobic in my group I felt that I had to leave. I thought that the group was right in their beliefs but I wasn't good enough for the group. I also thought that I would die quite shortly after leaving the group because I had sinned against God by leaving. But still I left."

"I was one of 9 children and while not the eldest child I was the first in my family to leave. As with others who had also left the group, my whole family and everybody else in the cult stopped speaking to me when I left."

"I had real trouble shopping after I left. I remember finding it so hard to work out how to dress, how to decide which clothes to buy. I felt very alone and knew that no one understood where I had come from. I was frightened, young, very naive and faced with a culture which I had no experience of and which was completely alien to me." 3

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Methods used by "high-demand" groups

They use all of the techniques as "low demand" faith groups use: requiring members to accept a system of beliefs, conforming to certain behavioral norms; expecting them to involve themselves in the life of the congregation, etc. However, mind-control groups add many additional methods, and take them all to a much higher level. Some are:

  • Members' access to outside information is severely restricted
  • Their thoughts, beliefs and emotions are tightly controlled by:
    • stress; e.g. long hours of work; little or no free time
    • restricting sleep
    • requiring endless repetition of prayers
    • auto-hypnotic exercises
    • generation of fear and paranoia; viewing the outside world as threatening
    • restricting criticism of the leadership or group policies
  • Their behavior may be controlled by:
    • public shaming and humiliation
    • requiring personal confessions
    • isolation from outside contacts, including their family of origin

Members are not physically restrained from leaving the group. They are not held prisoner. They can walk away at any time. But there are strong pressures to remain. If they left, all social and emotional support would disappear; they will often be shunned. Some groups teach that God will abandon or punish them if they leave. They may be told that they will die in the imminent war of Armageddon if they leave the protection of the group.

These high-demand groups tend to have a rapid turnover of membership. Members are initially attracted  because they feel loved and supported. In time, many find the group experience to be less positive. They may leave after days, weeks, months or years.

Fortunately, the total membership of high demand/mind-control groups is miniscule, compared to the total number of people involved in new religious movements generally.

References used:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. From a pamphlet distributed by the Venice Family Clinic, 2008-AUG.

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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