Cults and New Religious Movements
By James K. Walker
Theologians and religious historians rarely stress
the important role the Gutenberg press played in the Protestant Reformation.
Martin Luther's message of Scripture, Faith, and Grace
alone (Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia) were able to
quickly capture the hearts of Germany - peasants and nobles alike - through
technology. In what was the cutting edge of early 16th century communication,
Luther's sermons and tracts could be printed and distributed throughout
Germany and the rest of Europe in a matter of days. And it was done quickly
and cheaply. Unable to match a fraction of the financial power of Rome,
an obscure dissident monk was able to deftly rebut Catholic critiques by
blanketing Germany with his missives. Using movable type, the expensive
and time-consuming task of hand copying manuscripts was eliminated and
the era of the religious tract had begun. Catholicism
itself was changed and never fully recovered. The ideas of the reformation
won in Germany, most of Europe, and North America due at least in some
small part to the power of movable type.
Today hundreds of other religious movements are seeking
their own world-changing reformations. And in this case the Internet is
their Gutenberg press. It has been said, "Freedom of the press belongs
to those who own one." With the advent and popularity of the Internet and
specifically the World Wide Web, the cost of a "press" has been reduced
to a personal computer, a telephone line, and $19.95 per month. It is even
less if one makes use of free, advertisement-based email and web space.
With these humble tools, anyone can publish his or her message on the web
and potentially preach their gospel to a global congregation. Cults,
occult groups and new religious movements
have been quick to see the potential and are flocking to the Internet.
a popular index of web sites lists 156 sites in three categories under
the heading "Occult." A Yahoo search on the terms "witch" and "neopagan"
yields 240 and 19 sites respectively with some redundancy. The word "psychic"
generates an impressive 343 web sites in five categories and a search on
"New Age" produces 25 categories and 408 sites although a number of them
relate to New Age music rather than religion.
Ranking sites by popularity, WebSideStory <www.websidestory.com>
rates over 30,000 participating web sites in 36 categories including 988
in the Religion category. Among their top 50 web sites are four sites promoting
witchcraft, two promoting New Age or Pantheism,
one site advertising Yoga, one plugging Mormonism
and another offering studies in Shamanism.
These nine sites alone are attracting almost 70,000 visits per month. WebSideStory
statistics only include sites that participate and do not include very
popular "official" sites such as those published by Scientology,
the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society,
and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Mormon Web Sites
In order to have it "done right," the LDS Church delayed
the launch of their official site, <www.lds.org>
until December of 1996. The site was launched in part to counter "misinformation"
and to correct web surfers who may have been "misled by calling up a variety
of Web sites" (Deseret News, February 1, 1997,
Web sites critical of Mormonism are very popular. One
site devoted solely to helping Latter-day Saints "recover from Mormonism"
is ranked by WebSideStory as the 15th most popular participating
religious site scoring over 10,000 visits per month. LDS Apostle Henry
B. Eyring of the Quorum of the Twelve said the Church wanted an official
site in part to help "set the record straight" (Ibid.,
Another LDS Apostle, Jeffrey R. Holland, echoed these
concerns in an interview with Lauramaery Gold published in the book, Mormons
on the Internet. When asked about those "who say their perception of
the [LDS] Church changed for the worse because of information they found
online," Holland replied that "A lot of people publish a lot of things
that really require a response" (pp. 29-30).
Holland revealed that this was a major goal of the LDS site. The Church
wanted "to serve the nonmember, investigators who didn't know about us,
people who were inquiring. We wanted them to have accurate information.
We were aware that there was a lot of inaccurate information being put
out by others" (p. 27).
In a telephone interview with Watchman Fellowship, LDS
spokesman Val Edwards, Director of Special Affairs in the Public Affairs
Department, said that proselytizing is not the Church's primary purpose
in providing the official site. He acknowledged that free copies of the
book of Mormon are offered on the site but he could give no statistics
for those who have requested copies through the web site or for converts
initially reached through the web. "It can serve a missionary function
but is not designed to replace the traditional missionary program" (February
It is obvious, however, that impressing potential converts
is at least one of the Church's goals. For example the LDS Church hopes
that one subtle benefit of their web site will be to deflect the negative
public perception that Mormonism is non-Christian. The LDS-owned Church
News reported that from the opening page, "Visitors to the Church's
Web site are greeted by a full-color reproduction of Del Parson's well-known
painting of Jesus - undoubtedly helping to dispel the misconception that
Church members are not Christian" (March 1, 1997, p. 6).
Mormon leaders also seem concerned about possible confusion
or misinformation from their own member's private web sites. Yahoo lists
over 150 unofficial sites that are published by Latter-day Saints and are
favorable to the Church. Gold notes that through this unofficial LDS online
community, "there are already many, many instances of people joining the
Church because of contacts that originated over the Internet" (Mormons
on the Internet, p. 29).
Yet despite these converts, Holland seemed disturbed
by doctrinal information disseminated by the members. He warned: "We have
Relief Societies and Elders Quorums with their own home page. We have returned
missionaries with their own home page. We have freshmen at BYU with their
own home pages.. When it comes to official doctrine and policy, we would
rather tell our own story than have somebody try to tell it for us." Holland
seemed to prefer that individual Mormons limit their Web pages to topics
like "athletic scores, favorite recipes, missionary reunions and single-adult
dating services" (Church News, March 1, 1997
Watchtower on the Web
The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society has also been less
than thrilled by the prospect of their own people publishing religious
web sites. Reading religious information published by others or even participating
in chat rooms where beliefs are discussed is strongly discouraged. The
Society warns about the danger of apostasy via the Internet saying, "We
have to realize that many web sites have been created by people with immoral
or dishonest intent. And many sites that may not be immoral or dishonest,
such as chat groups, are a plain waste of time. From all such, stay away!"
(Awake!, January 8, 1998, p. 12).
Watchtower spokesman, Judah B. Schroeder, Deputy Director
of Public Affairs Department told Watchman that logistics, not apostasy,
was the main reason Witnesses are not encouraged to discuss religion on
the Internet. "The primary reason for not turning everyone loose is the
logistical aspect. We want people to contact us directly" (Telephone
Interview, February 12, 1998).
To facilitate this direct contact in January 1997, the
Watchtower released its own official site, <www.watchtower
.org>, containing information on everything from doctrinal beliefs
to bloodless medical care in 15 languages. The Society again cautioned
Witnesses from publishing their own understanding of Watchtower teachings
saying: "There is no need for any individuals to prepare Internet pages
about Jehovah's Witnesses, our activities, or our beliefs. Our official
site presents accurate information for any who want it" (Our Kingdom
Ministry, November 1997, p. 3).
Schroeder told Watchman that the Society's web site philosophy
is not merely informational. The Internet is seen as part of a global witnessing
strategy - not just to inform but to convert. "I am aware of numerous occasions
where people have found our site, requested more information and eventually
become Jehovah's Witnesses. We see this as something that has a great future"
Cult Critics on the Internet
Those opposing cults are also on the Internet including
ex-members, secular cult-watching groups and Christian discernment ministries.
Yahoo lists over 30 sites (both secular and Christian) under "Society and
Culture: Religion: Cults" the vast majority of which are providing critical
information. There are 17 additional sites listed as opposing Mormonism.
Yahoo indexes even more sites as specifically critical of the Watchtower.
They list 26 sites under "Jehovah's Witnesses: Opposing Views" and 12 other
sites under "Former Jehovah's Witnesses."
The religion drawing the most opposition on the Internet
appears to be the Church of Scientology. Yahoo cites 33 web sites devoted
to criticizing Scientology with titles like "Bridge to Nowhere" and "The
Cult of Greed and Power." Yahoo also provides links to four indices of
critical information, 11 sites dealing with Scientology's Internet copyright
feuds, and one of the most popular religious newsgroups on the Internet,
To counter the critics, Scientology has used copyright
lawsuits, raids, private investigators and various forms of intimidation.
They have also published, in numerous languages, a number of official and
promotional sites to publicize their views including <www.dianetics.org>,
and <www.scientology .org>.
For more on Scientology's war with its critics on the Internet, see The
Watchman Expositor, Vol. 13, No. 2, 1996, "Scientology's
Many cults and new religions like Scientology see the
Internet as both a potential and a threat. Converts can be made but secrets
can also be exposed.
Freedom of information, like freedom of religion, should
be championed by religions with nothing to hide. Christians should welcome
the opportunity to learn about alternative beliefs and to share their faith
via the web. By embracing and incorporating today's technology believers
can reach their world with traditional Christian faith. In doing so the
biblical message of Scripture alone, Faith alone, and Grace alone will
still triumph in the changing religious climate of today's reformations.