We live in a country that constitutionally protects the freedom of religion. This is a precious liberty which allows men the freedom to believe any way he chooses. This is a pluralistic society.
But it is a mistake to think that one can practice his religious philosophy any way he chooses. There are restrictions. For instance a Satanist may not practice human or animal sacrifice even though it may be part of his tradition. Also no one may exploit or defraud someone else in regard to their possessions or their mental health.
The freedom of speech serves as a check and balance against abuses in that it is that vehicle which exposes these abuses. The one exercising this right has the responsibility of being factual in his information, otherwise there is the vulnerability of libel and slander.
As Christians addressing the issue of cults, we face some complexities.On one hand we can define a cult within the framework of Biblical parameters. There is a solid basis for this as we have the objective revelatory truth in Scripture with clear passages addressing the issues, as well as a long history of tradition which has thoroughly addressed fatal heresy.
On the other hand though, we also define a cult or cultic behavior in terms of sociological/psychological and ethical criteria which can be somewhat cloudy. For instance, one man's indoctrination may be another's brainwashing. There are a number of mitigating factors.
This is the stuff of important debates involving complex issues of psychology, sociology, religion, medicine and law. For instance, Christianity Today recently reported that religious and legal scholars expressed great concern about the arrest of members of the Church of Scientology in Spain for alleged criminal activity. The American Bar Association along with the National Council of Churches become strange allies of the Scientologists. This is similar to the reaction of the evangelical right which came to the defense of Sun Myung Moon when he was charged with tax fraud. There is concern over a government's right to scrutinize, interfere with or in any way exercise jurisdiction over a religious group.
While one is hard pressed to defend anyone's right to obviously violate the law of the land, where is the line drawn between government intrusion and the protection of an individual and his right to informed choice? In other words in the religious marketplace, one has the right of choice even to be wrong. But an individual's right to freedom of choice must be protected. If fraud, coercion, thought reform, manipulation, hidden agendas, etc. are methods used by cults to recruit and control members, then they should not be above scrutiny, criticism, and exposure.
Sometimes cult watchers and ministries come under criticism by the secular mind and especially by people who are connected with cults. The secular mind erroneously equates tolerance with love. The thinking goes "judge not... all roads lead to God... who are you to say that your way is right... you are intolerant and a bigot."
Such views are short-sighted but can be expected in a relativistic, non-Christian public. But one shouldn't be so open-minded that their brains fall out. When asked "Are you intolerant?" you may respond, "As a Christian I do feel a loving responsibility for my fellow man. Is it right to be intolerant of evil? Is it right to help someone who is being taken advantage of? If you see someone about to walk across a mine field, thinking they were out for a pleasant stroll on the beach, is it wrong to try and warn them of the danger?"
Criticisms frequently utilized by those associated with cults usually focus around assumptions that if we are critical of religions, we promote bigotry and hatred and thus undermine the free exercise of religion.
Also heard now are accusations that anti-cult groups are actually merely self-serving and are supported by a small fringe group of attorneys, mental health professionals, and professional deprogrammers who are propagandists out to line their own pockets by exaggerating and blowing the dangers all out of proportion.
On the contrary, we feel that people the caliber of Dr. Louis West, Director of the Neuropsychiatric Institute and Chairman of the Dept. of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Science at UCLA; Dr. Margaret Singer, professor of psychology, Dept. of Psychiatry at University of California-Berkeley; and Dr. John Clark, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School (to name a few), cannot be classified in the category of self-serving propagandists.
There are large numbers of destructive groups and practices operating in our culture today and there is much evidence to support the term destructive. As a direct result of involvement with groups, there are cases of mass suicide, incidental suicide, human sacrifice, murder, child abuse, involuntary servitude, entrapment, obstruction of justice, fraud and a whole range of criminal activity and psychological casualties, which can be best described as the unethical use of influence and control. Many families and marriages have been fragmented and destroyed as well.
A destructive cult may be disguised as a Bible-based church, a human potential self-improvement course, business management courses, or even a political party. Sincerity and caring acceptance may even appear to be evident in the group without the members realizing they are being manipulated.
Dr. John Clark has noted some of the following characteristics in those who have been affected by cults.
1. Loss of free will, personal control, and decision making skills;
2. Reduced use of irony, abstractions and metaphors;
3. Diminished intellectual ability, vocabulary and sense of humor;
4. Reduced capacity to form flexible and intimate relationships;
5. Paranoia and de facto slavery;
6. Poor judgement;
7. Physical deterioration;
9. Hallucinations, panic, guilt, identity, diffusion, floating;
10. Neurotic, psychotic or suicidal tendencies.
Coercive Persuasion Techniques
The following are typical methods employed by destructive mind control cults. Not all use all these methods but the more that are in place, the more danger is involved. Keep in mind we are talking about a highly emotional, extremely complex phenomenon. Note that in our delineating the process of radical conversion and thought reform, there will always be exceptions in detail or degree. There is some variation with regard to particular cult groups, and of course there will always be some diversity in the response patterns of individuals, depending on their susceptibility.
Isolation: Recruits are isolated from society and from contact with opposing points of view to prevent critical judgement.
Peer Group Pressure: Recruits doubt their own convictions when everyone around them acts totally convinced of other beliefs.
Love Bombing: A beguiling sense of belonging is contrived through flattery, touching, hugging.
Removal of Privace: One is never left alone to thing through and sort out these confusing new experiences.
Sleep Deprivation and Fatigue: Adequate sleep is prevented, work hours are excessive over long periods of time, making members vulnerable and disoriented.
Games: Playing strenuous games with confusing rules builds increasing dependence on group leaders for correct answers. This undermines decision making skills.
Indoctrination: Members are conditioned to stop thinking and to accept without question the "revealed truths" from the "master". Fatique prevents the members from seeing the contradictions.
Confession: Recruits are maneuvered into sharing innermost secrets. This helps destroy personal egos, induces them to buy the new "truths". Later any escape possibilities are compromised by the knowledge that these exaggerated secrets may be revealed.
Change of Diet: Omission of nutrients increases susceptibility to manipulation of one's emotional "highs" and "lows".
Guilt: Guilt is used endlessly to force members to work harder and without relief. Guilt about mankind's sorry state and the member's personal "sins" is used as a lever to force acceptance of "holier" beliefs.
Fear: Physical and spiritual fear is constantly injected to maintain group loyalty. The slightest negative thought is held to be soul threatening. Tragic consequences for self and family are prophesied for anyone leaving the group.
Chanting and Singing: Constant repetition of mind-narrowing chants block rational thought and induces a quasi-hypnotic state of susceptibility.
Childlike Dependence is promoted by denying opportunities for normal decision making. No questions are allowed. Total acceptance is mandatory.
Dress: Conformity in dress removes one's individuality and promotes disorientation.
Elitism: Only the group is righteous; everyone else is satanic, or at best, misguided.
Replacement of Relationships is promoted by sabotaging communication between members and families. Cult-arranged marriages further disrupt previous ties.
Rejection of Old Values: Old life values are constantly denounced to make them seem worse than they were -- even things that may be spiritually neutral.
Financial Commitment: A member may burn his bridges to the real world by donating earnings, savings, and possessions to the cult, thereby limiting escape possibilities due to a lack of money in order to start over again.
Any person experiencing an identity crisis, life crisis, or involved in a serious spiritual quest is theoretically vulnerable to the seductive outreach of cults as well as to true Christianity.
The fields truly are white unto harvest. Who then is willing to seek out and share -- real Christians, or the counterfeits?
We recommend the following books as resources:
1. Youth, Brainwashings and Extremist Cults by Ron Enroth (Evangelical);
2. Unholy Devotion by H. Bussell (Evangelical);
3. Scripture Twisting by J. Sire (Evangelical);
4. God Wants You Rich and other Enticing Doctrines by F. Bulle (Evangelical);
5. Combatting Cult Mind Control by Steve Hassen (secular);
6. Cults and Consequences by Commission on Cults, Jewish Federation Council (secular);
7. Cults in America: Programmed for Paradise by W Appel (secular).