One of the sessions
at AFF's 1999 annual conference was a panel discussion involving
representatives from 13 cult educational organizations in Europe, North
America, and the Far East. Mr.
Peter Heinrich, a management consultant and member of AFF's advisory
board, moderated the discussion.
The discussion's goal
was to identify a set of action recommendations on which all
participants could agree. The
method consisted of a period devoted to brainstorming followed by
discussion aimed at categorizing, consolidating, and evaluating
suggestions in order to assemble a list of action recommendations on
which a consensus could be established.
Though sharing a
common interest in the cult issue, panelists had diverse backgrounds.
There were researchers, mental health professionals, lawyers, a
journalist, former group members, religious professionals, a judge, a
medical doctor, and administrators of organizations.
The organizations they represented are also diverse.
Some try to build upon clinical and/or scholarly research; some
are sustained by the dedication of families and/or former group members
who volunteer time to this issue; some approach the issue from a
Christian perspective; and some are governmental entities.
A list of panelists and their organizational affiliations can be
found at the end of this document.
Biographical sketches are provided when available.
organizations submitted papers on this subject.
These are currently being edited and/or translated and will be
made available later on AFF's Web site, along with this report.
After listing the
brainstorming and consensus items, I offer a commentary on the panel's
topic. I wish to thank
those panelists and other colleagues who made suggestions or comments on
an earlier draft, which was submitted to the panelists.
However, I take sole responsibility for the ideas expressed in
the commentary, which should not be interpreted as a consensus
brainstorming session, participants identified the actions listed below.
When you examine this list, keep in mind that brainstorming calls
for uncritical listing of ideas. Evaluation
of the ideas occurs after the brainstorming session.
More rehabilitation centers
More researchers; more research
Extend, organize, integrate Internet efforts
Integrate cultic studies into trauma, public health, human
Increase funds from government
Increase legal recourse for families and compensation for
Apply criminal law
Get information about groups
Understand dynamics between groups and society
Investigate charity law; create a national registry of all
Create a special forum for families and ex-members to talk
Learn from other organizations dealing with trauma
Put more effort into differentiating among groups
Educate youth in general critical thinking and discernment
skills - not just about cults
Invest time and money to develop curricula for faith
communities, schools, and other groups.
Continue to meet together; share ideas
Be present on WWW and address untruths on other sites
Study the problem
Provide education on comparative religion in schools
Adequate training for professionals; e.g., law enforcement,
mental health, clergy, seminarians.
More exchange; more information between our groups
Study cultural differences in why people join cults in
Have a discussion on the price of democracy and what it takes
to maintain it
Dialogue between groups and society
Take immediate action against unlawful activity
Introduce a systematic method of collecting data
Reach an international consensus on manipulation as a
continuous scale with cults on an extreme
Reward openness and honesty with privileges
Treat as a matter of public health; human rights
Create a government body of religious affairs run by
Diagnosis of individuals who have been harmed
Educate medical professionals
More behavioral research
Respect differences between country approaches to the problem
and between society and the groups
Encourage and facilitate more debate
Review libel laws to see if they inhibit debate
Persuade more clergy to come to conferences
Create a catalogue of helping organizations and resources
Educate media representatives so they get it right
List cases and judgments on cults in all countries
Persuade media to become more interested in the issue
brainstorming session, panelists grouped individual items in broader
categories and put aside items on which there was disagreement. The
discussion that followed the brainstorming session included much more
information than can be shared here. I will incorporate some of the
discussion points in my commentary below.
(Contact AFF if you would like to obtain a video of the
endorsed the following actions. Although
this list of actions reflects a consensus of the participants, it should
be kept in mind that participants might disagree on precisely what these
items mean, how to prioritize them, and how to implement them.
These issues are left to future discussions.
Conduct more research
Provide education on critical thinking
List and examine laws, policies, and legal cases in various
Continue to have international meetings
Enforce existing laws
Work more effectively with the media
Help families and ex-members
Encourage reform and reformers
Encourage public debate
cult problem has three significant dimensions: harm, religious freedom,
Harm in this context
may be psychological (e.g., depression; induced states of dependency),
economic (e.g., being tricked into giving one's inheritance to a group),
physical (e.g., medical neglect of children; rape or other sexual
abuse), educational (e.g., a child raised in a group that doesn't allow
him to learn basic educational skills), spiritual (e.g., losing one's
pre-group religious faith in reaction to disillusionment concerning a
leader one formerly deemed to be "God's anointed"), or legal
(e.g., having one's basic human rights abrogated by the dictates or
manipulations of an autocratic leader).
Although some cult
spokespersons and sympathizers may argue that cultic environments do not
harm people, many, whether sympathizers or critics, would probably agree
with the following proposition: Some
groups under some conditions harm some people sometimes.
To argue that groups never harm people contradicts
incontrovertible evidence (e.g., Aum Shinrikyo, Solar Temple, Jonestown)
and implies that, unless one holds the absurd belief that no group ever
harmed any individual, some special factor immunizes cults (or "new
religious movements") against those group dynamics that may cause
harm. Why "new
religious movements" should be so uniquely immune to the potential
for harm that exists in all groups is a question that seems never to be
addressed, probably because no plausible defense could be made of such a
privileged position for "new religious movements."
Some might ask why
single out cults if they are subject to the same kinds of dynamics as
other groups. There are
three vital differences that justify paying special attention to cults.
First, abundant evidence indicates that harm is more prevalent
and/or more serious in some groups (e.g., Aum Shinrikyo) than in
contemporary mainstream religions or other established organizations in
democratic societies. Second,
the harms most commonly associated with mainstream religions and other
established organizations (e.g., the problem of sexual abuse of
children) tend to reflect individual pathology, not an abusive social
mainstream religions and other established organizations have had the
time to develop accountability mechanisms that tend to come into play,
however belatedly, when abuse occurs. Although, these accountability
mechanisms are by no means perfect, they do afford a measure of
protection to society. Cults,
on the other hand, have usually not had enough time and/or motivation to
develop accountability mechanisms. Those that have done so or are in the process of doing so (ISKCON
being a notable example) should be studied closely, for an increased
understanding of this process may make it easier to persuade other
controversial groups to follow along this path.
Any debate on the
question of harm, then, should focus not on whether it occurs, but on:
the nature of the
the prevalence of
harm, within and across groups;
the causes of harm;
the degree to which
harm-producing factors operate in specific groups; and
how to limit harm.
These are all
empirical questions that, in theory, may be answered by a well-designed
program of scientific research that would undoubtedly take many years to
complete. Existing research
sheds light on these questions, but it doesn't provide definitive
answers (contact AFF for more information).
Hence, individuals of integrity may make different judgments
about aspects of the harm question.
Some, for example, may read the evidence as suggesting a high
level of harm, while others see a low level.
Unfortunately, the polarization that has occurred in this field
tends to inhibit communication that would enable interested persons to
understand fully why others draw different conclusions from the same
The list of consensus
actions suggests that panelists recognized that the level of knowledge
and understanding in this field is not as high as it could be.
They agreed that more research is necessary, that the public
debate on the subject should be pursued, and that more international
meetings should occur to facilitate information exchange and dialogue.
The panelists also agreed that reform movements and reformers
within controversial groups should be encouraged.
This last action recommendation probably reflects participants'
positive perceptions of another panel discussion at this conference:
"Can Cultic Groups Change: The Case of ISKCON."
This panel discussed the positive changes that have occurred
within ISKCON (the Hare Krishna movement) during the past 10-15 years.
The fact that organizational representatives believe that such
reform should be encouraged in other groups demonstrates that, contrary
to the accusations made in some quarters, the prime motivation of these
organizations is a desire to help people who have been hurt and to
prevent harm to others, not blind prejudice against any groups outside
Not all cultic groups
are religious, so the issue of religious freedom comes into play only
for those that are. But
since the majority of controversial groups are religious, the religious
freedom issue must be considered.
spokespersons and academic sympathizers have implied that accusations of
harm related to cultic groups (new religious movements) are incompatible
with respect for religious freedom.
The message seems to be that if one says anything "bad"
about new religious movements, then one is necessarily against religious
freedom. This proposition
is patently absurd. Must
one be against religious freedom if one criticizes the religiously based
genital mutilation practiced in some countries? Must one be against religious freedom if one criticizes
so-called "Christian" groups that advocate racial
The invocation of
"religious freedom" in response to accusations of harm is a
ploy designed to draw attention away from the evidence on which the
accusations are based. The
issue is not a simplistic "harm" or "religious
freedom." The issue is
reconciling and balancing competing social values, only one of which is
religious freedom. One
cannot resolve these conflicts by denying that they exist, which, for
all intents and purposes, occurs when one becomes so preoccupied with
one competing social value that one excludes consideration of all
others. That exclusive
social value may be religious freedom, but it may also be harm.
Simplistic and one-dimensional perspectives can arise on both
sides of the debate.
sympathizers are perceived as having made this mistake. Although they
may offer thoughtful criticisms of proposed remedies, they rarely
propose alternate solutions to the problems under discussion.
Consequently they are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as saying,
"what cult problem?" Their views, then, tend to be discounted by those who do see
a problem calling for attention. As
a result, these sympathizers are effectively removed from the playing
field, that is, from the collective effort to reconcile conflicting
values by finding remedies that appropriately address harm while
simultaneously respecting and protecting religious freedom and other
In a similar way,
some cult critics are perceived as being so preoccupied with harm that
they will run roughshod over human rights.
Some cult sympathizers will tend to see, perhaps with
justification, these cult critics' proposed solutions as Trojan horses
covering a hidden repressive agenda or as "solutions" that
discount human rights. If
the cult sympathizers are undiscriminating, they will then oppose all proposed solutions and reinforce the perception that these
particular sympathizers say, "what cult problem?"
This situation is
unfortunate, for even these individuals on opposite extremes of the
critic-sympathizer debate may make some valid and useful points.
It is important to
note that different countries have taken different approaches to the
religious freedom issue concerning cults. I am not a legal expert and am
not familiar with the specific situations in different countries, so I
speak with some hesitation. I
do tend to agree, however, with a comment made during the panel
discussion. This comment
stressed that the issue is not whether or not different democracies
affirm human rights (for they do), but how these diverse countries use
their laws to protect those rights and make judgments designed to
reconcile conflicting rights. It was noted that the same U.S. State
Department that has criticized certain European governments on human
rights issues related to cults requires visa applicants to declare,
among other things, whether or not they are members of a communist
party. I do not put
forth this point in order to advocate any particular governmental
position, but to suggest that we closely examine cultural differences
and political dimensions of the issue before weighing in on one side or
for the problems posed by cults may be divided into the following
harm before it occurs;
those who have been harmed;
those who have inflicted harm that is illegal or that results from
those who have inflicted harm that is legal but unethical.
The panelists agreed
on actions that cover all four of these categories: prevention,
assistance, law-enforcement, and criticism.
Research is relevant
to all categories, for the specifics of what we decide to do rests upon
our knowledge and understanding. The
more we know and understand, the more informed our actions will be.
Panelists agreed that
education is central to efforts to prevent harm.
Public discussion through the media and education of
professionals (who minister to the public in various ways) should be
encouraged for two reasons: (1) so that those who haven't been adversely
affected will be better informed and able to defend themselves, should
they belong to or consider joining a group; and (2) so that those who
have been affected will learn where to get help. Young people, who are especially vulnerable, should be taught
how to think critically so that they will be less likely to be seduced
by sophistry and/or psychological manipulation.
And reformers within controversial groups should be encouraged
and supported in order to decrease the probability of future harm.
and families, i.e., those who have been harmed or who have loved ones
who are at risk, is central to most of the organizations' missions.
AFF, for example, maintains a Cult Information Service, runs
workshops for families and ex-members, and publishes a number of books,
videos, and reports designed to help affected persons.
agreed that existing laws should be enforced and were generally open to
the possibility that new laws be considered, though caution should be
panelists did not explicitly advocate category 4 (rebuking those who
inflict harm that is legal but unethical), their discussion implied an
endorsement of this remedy. One of the primary functions of public discussion of this
issue is to criticize questionable practices of controversial groups.
Although such criticism may not penetrate the defensive
boundaries of some groups, it may have a positive effect on other groups
(e.g., where there is even a nascent reform movement or some mechanisms
for accountability). Criticism,
however, should be presented respectfully, discerningly, and forcefully
when appropriate. Blanket
condemnations of groups tend not to contain much useful information. Specific, detailed, and nuanced criticisms, on the other
hand, can be useful to all parties, including those who are sincerely
interested in reforming their groups.
In my view it is
vital to distinguish between criticism of unethical but legal practices
and punishment of illegal practices. For example, most people in
democratic societies would probably agree that it is unethical for a
religious group to lie about its identity in order to persuade
nonmembers to come to a function aimed at recruiting them. Most people would probably also agree that criticism of such
deception is warranted, if not obligatory.
But such deception, however reprehensible, is not necessarily
illegal (although it may be depending upon its nature and effects and
the legal traditions of the country in which it occurs).
The law may sometimes tolerate a certain level of deception
because outlawing "micro-harms" may have unintended effects
that are more harmful than the "micro-harm" that is outlawed.
Consequently, arguing against an overreaching legal proposal does
not necessarily mean that one is against all legal controls, for one may
believe ethical criticism is more appropriate than legal restraint in
that particular instance. Nor
does advocacy of legal controls in some cases mean that one believes
that legal control to right all perceived wrongs is always called for.
Again, the issue is not either-or.
It is a complex process of balancing competing rights and social
polarization of views that has occurred in this field magnifies
suspicions among the participants.
It sometimes seems that views are so polarized that people in the
two "camps" do not communicate, even when they talk to each
other. Moreover, they
rarely appear to read materials put out by the other "camp."
This informational isolation diminishes the understanding of both
sympathizers do not appreciate the evidence attesting to the nature and
magnitude of harm, which means that their understanding of their chosen
field of study, i.e., new religious movements, contains a large blind
spot. Cult critics do not
benefit from the scholarship and research produced in the so-called
sympathizer camp, which means that their proposed remedies may be based
on incomplete information.
If the dialogue and
open exchange of information advocated by the panelists continues to
occur, then proposals about what should be done about cults will be more
likely to be fair, informed, and effective.
Organizations and Panelists
(American Family Foundation,
L. Rosedale, Esq., President of AFF, is a senior partner in the law
firm of Parker Chapin Flattau & Klimpl in New York City.
He has written several articles on cults and the law, contributed
a chapter to Recovery from Cults,
and is co-editor of The Boston
Movement: Critical Perspectives on the International Churches of Christ.
Bardin, Esq., is the chair of AFF's legal committee and its
Heinrich is a management consultant in New York City and a member of
AFF's advisory board.
(Asesoramiento e Informacion sobre Sectas; Assessment and Information
about Cults, Barcelona, Spain)
Maria Jansa, M.D. is a medical researcher and the medical
coordinator for AIS.
for Apologetics Research (San
Juan Capistrano, California)
Carden, Executive Director of the Centers for Apologetics Research,
has more than 20 years' experience in the field of cult-related research
Information Centre (London,
Haworth is General Secretary and founder of Cult Information Centre,
a non-sectarian, educational charity, based in London, England.
He has worked full-time as a specialist in cults since 1979 and
is an ex-cult member. He
was a co-founder of FOCUS Network (1982) in Dallas, Texas and also the
Council on Mind Abuse (1979) in Toronto, Canada, which he ran for eight
years before returning to the U.K. in 1987.
He focuses on exposing the dangers of the deceptive and
psychologically coercive methods of cults as a public speaker, acts as
an expert witness in civil and criminal cases, and has published
articles and comments in the national and international media.
He is a consultant to the police, educators, the religious
community, mental health professionals, and corporations.
(Family, Action, Information,
and Resource, London, England)
Minds (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
is Executive Director and Founder of Info-Cult - the largest resource
centre of its kind in Canada on cultic thinking.
Since 1980 Mike has worked with more than 2,000 former members
and families. He has
spoken, in Canada and internationally, to hundreds of professional and
community groups on the cult issue.
He is also involved in counselling and consulting, and as an
expert witness on cult issues. He has been featured on hundreds of radio and television
programs locally, nationally and internationally. In 1992 he was awarded
the 125 Commemorative Medal "in recognition of significant
contribution to compatriots, community and to Canada" by the
Government of Canada.
Barker, Ph.D. Dr. Barker, a Fellow of the British Academy, is
Professor of Sociology with Special Reference to the Study of Religion
at the London School of Economics and Political Science, University of
London. A former president
of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Dr. Barker has
written or edited nine books and written over 150 articles and book
chapters. Her books include
New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction, The Making of a
Moonie: Brainwashing or Choice? and Of Gods and Men: New Religious
Movements in the West. Dr.
Barker is also the head of INFORM, a cult educational organization in
Control Research Center
Ministre, Mission Interminist�rielle de Lutte Contre les Sectes
(Prime Minister, Interministerial Commission for Combating Cults, Paris,
Center of the Mexican Christian Institute
Mascarenas, M.D., Director.
Governmental Commission on �New Religious Movements�
Grip is a freelance journalist and author.
Mr. Grip has written several articles and five books in the field
of drug-abuse, psychiatry, family politics, motivation and creativity in
the field of work. He was
editor of the Pocketbook R, a periodical publication in the field of
social politics from 1981 to 1985.
Mr. Grip also was Guest Editor of the periodical book OTTAR from
1989-1997 and a Producer and Editor-In-Chief at the Swedish Broadcasting
Cooperation in a current affaires-program, working with news
(worldwide), analyses and long edited stories from 1987 to 1997.
He was one of two staff members heading the Swedish Governmental
Commission on the topic �New Religious Movements.� 1997-1998.
Branch is currently president of Apologetics Resource Center in
Birmingham, Alabama. At the
time of the conference he was vice president of Watchman Fellowship, one
of the largest Christian counter-cult ministries.
Mr. Branch is a board member of Evangelical Ministries to New
Religions (a consortium of a large number of Christian ministries to
cults and NRMs) and Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center.
He is chair of the Clergy Relations Committee for AFF.
Currently, Mr. Branch is completing a Masters of Divinity degree.
Retreat and Resource Center
Martin, Ph.D., a former member and a leader of The Great Commission,
is a psychologist and Director of the Wellspring Retreat and Resource
Center in Albany, Ohio, a residential rehabilitation center for ex-cult
members. Dr. Martin is
author of Cult-Proofing Your Kid. He
has written many articles on cults and has been interviewed by many
newspapers, radio and TV stations concerning cults.