Anticult Movements

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ANTICULT MOVEMENTS are the complementary reverse side of the coin to new religious movements (NRMs). Anticult movements may be focused on one group, as was the nineteenth-century anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party or the various anti-Mormon efforts. Anticult movements may also be more inclusive in their focus, as with the nativist antiblack, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic Ku Klux Klan of the twentieth century. In modern terms, most anticult movements are multidimensional and espouse a dislike (and often a nonunderstanding) of nontraditional religions. This opposition includes the belief that NRMs are subversive of revered social institutions, the prediction of imminent danger from such groups, and claims that such groups do not "legitimately" attract willing converts but rather employ beguiling means to build a slavelike membership base. Anticult groups often make appeals to civic values and patriotism to justify their opposition to NRMs. Historians show that such countermovements, either secular or sacred in their oppositional thrusts, are a sociological consequence of resentment toward incipient or spreading religious pluralism in North America, Europe, and even Asia (in particular, Japan and the Peoples Republic of China).

The Modern North American Anticult Movement

While sectarian opposition and competition among religious groups seems to be ubiquitous, the most recent wave of secular anticult groups (cult being the pejorative label for a myriad of publicly unpopular NRMs, such as the Unification Church, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and the Church of Scientology International) began in North America during the late 1960s and early 1970s. At this time there were a variety of cultural factors that combined to allow persons, particularly young adults, the opportunity to experiment and "dabble" in exotic alternative religions. These factors included the end to the American military draft for males, the disillusionment of some with the Vietnam War, various social reform movements, and the actions in 1965 to rescind older twentieth-century alien restriction laws that facilitated the immigration of gurūs, swamis, and other teachers from Asia into the United States.

North America became the springboard for the export of a secular template of anticultism to Europe, as well as to Israel and various South American countries. For many years North America has been home to a religious wing of the anticult movement that has opposed NRMs as promoting false doctrine and that produces a largely conservative Christian apologetic literature. It is the secular wing of the anticult movement, however, with its emphasis on the presumed social-psychological dynamics of conversion, retention, and removal of NRM members, that has garnered the most public attention and legal controversy.

The secular anticult movement has always been a loose network of organizations, some aimed at individual NRMs and others opposing a broader array of groups. There has also always been a laissez-faire understanding of just what constitutes a "cult" or "destructive cult," though there have been numerous failed attempts by anticult spokespersons to arrive at a precise definition. A large part of the latter problem is that so many NRMs (cults and sects) possess characteristics of more established churches and denominations, from charismatic leadership to wealth and elitist dogmas.

The first organization in the modern secular anticult movement was Free the Children of God, which was established in Denver in 1971 in response to high-pressure recruitment of teenagers and young adults by the Children of God (later renamed the Family). Free the Children of God also objected to the Children of God's migratory communal lifestyle. Other local anticult groups, largely made up of relatives of young persons who joined such unconventional religious groups in lieu of pursuing more conventional career and family trajectories, spontaneously arose across the United States. As these anticult groups gradually discovered each other, they began communicating and making common cause. Soon these organizations, many quite small, began arranging joint conferences, and they eventually made attempts to coalesce into national organizations. The first national (and largest) anticult group was the California-based Citizens Freedom Foundation, formed in 1974; this group was renamed the Cult Awareness Network and relocated to Chicago in 1985.

In 1979 a second national organization, the American Family Foundation, emerged out of the Citizens Freedom Foundation. Comparing the two, the Cult Awareness Network was more activist and public-relations-oriented, including (as is now known indisputably from the group's records) not only endorsing coercive "interventions" called deprogrammings to remove legal adults from NRMs, but also serving as a clearinghouse to connect desperate aggrieved families with deprogrammers. The American Family Foundation, on the other hand, functioned entirely as a repository for information on NRMs, sponsoring white paper reports and conferences, publishing a professional journal, lobbying for anti-NRM legislation, and seeking to attract degreed professionals, academic or otherwise, to support its cause.

Working sometimes in parallel, sometimes in concert with the Cult Awareness Network and the American Family Foundation, have been several other groups and individuals. First, there has been a small but highly visible coterie of coercive deprogrammers, who later, due to negative publicity from civil libertarians, relabeled themselves "exit counselors" or "thought reform specialists." Most have not been professionally trained in any behavioral science; instead, they act in maverick, entrepreneurial fashion to "retrieve" NRM members on a fee-for-service basis and attempt to convince them to renounce their unconventional allegiances. Second, there has existed a small but vocal network of mental health and behavioral science professionals who have enjoyed a good deal of publicity as spokespersons for the anticult movement, presenting themselves to the media as experts on the controversy and providing counseling and rehabilitation services to exiting NRM members. Third, there have been voluntary groups, usually short-lived, of former NRM members who offered transition support to other former NRM members as they readjusted to secular society.

What both the national organizations and the smaller groups have held in common is a fundamental assumption that NRMs use a subtle but nevertheless powerful "mind control" method to recruit and retain members. Anticult activists thus interpret NRM membership as the end result of manipulative practices that undermine individual capacity for voluntary thought and action, practices that are popularly known as brainwashing. This assumption became tempered by the late 1980s, as seen in anticult conference presentations and in its literature, as mainstream psychiatric, psychological, and sociological research across a host of NRMs demonstrated the mind control thesis as too simple a model for explaining human influence processes.

NRMs fought against anticult groups and deprogrammers with their own professional apologists, conferences, sympathetic literature, publicity campaigns, and lawsuits. Although anticult groups won the battle in the public imagination by discrediting many NRMs, the NRMs won the legal battles through libel lawsuits and other litigation against deprogrammers (who often failed in their deprogramming attempts). One result was that the Cult Awareness Network was driven into bankruptcy in 1995 after a series of punitive suits, the most important of which concerned deprogramming referrals.

The North American anticult movement's failure to mobilize governmental and regulatory agency sanctions, except occasionally at the local level, to support its cause of "exposing" and putting an end to what it considered outrageous NRM behavior, has been coupled with an inability to forge an alliance with religious-based opposition to NRMs. The religious countercult movement, which dislikes the term anticult, has always emphasized voluntary exit of NRM members and a return to "true doctrines," an approach incompatible with coercive deprogrammings. The secular anticult wing, on the other hand, has always claimed that it is not concerned with religion, but only opposes mind-control practices. Moreover, in various secular anticult documents, one can perceive a distinct antipathy to religion, in particular to conservative high-demand religious groups.

Still, at the very time that the Cult Awareness Network was being damaged by legal entanglements and the entire anticult movement was being marginalized as a credible force in the United States, its leaders were acting as missionaries to export their ideology to other countries. They promulgated it at conferences, through correspondence, and at personal meetings with government officials and grassroots anticult groups in Canada, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Germany, France, and England. The Cult Awareness Network, now defunct, and the American Family Foundation, still active in 2004, were recipients of inquiries for information concerning possible affiliation with smaller anticult groups in various parts of the world, including Africa (e.g., South Africa, Nigeria), Asia (e.g., the Philippines), Eastern Europe (e.g., Russia), South America (e.g., Argentina), and the People's Republic of China. For a time, at least, the discredited ideology of the North American anticult movement has been accepted to justify the potential exercise of political and other institutional sanctions abroad. Anticult movements appear to be a staple in pluralistic, globalizing societies to the same extent as new religious movements.

See Also

Brainwashing (Debate); Cults and Sects; Deprogramming; Law and Religion, article on Law and New Religious Movements.


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