The emergence of unconventional new religious groups during the late 1960s and into the early 1970s was accompanied by widespread media coverage of these "cults," their supporters, and their critics. The surge of new religious movements (NRMs) that flourished during the 1970s and 1980s consisted primarily of youthful converts who were the successors to the countercultural protesters of the previous decade. In addition to the more extreme elements of the Jesus Movement (such as the Children of God and the Alamo Christian Foundation), various Eastern groups, including the Hare Krishna and the Divine Light Mission, together with eclectic organizations such as the Unification Church, were being labeled "destructive cults" by parents and other critics who claimed that mind-control techniques were being used to subvert and entrap vulnerable youth.
Largely because of allegations made against controversial NRMs by distraught parents, there emerged in the early and mid-1970s various ad hoc citizen groups in opposition to cults and in support of "victimized" families. By the end of the decade a powerful grassroots "anti-cult" movement had been formed to lobby public officials and to expose the activities of fringe religious groups described as "totalistic" and "authoritarian" by their opponents. One of the earliest countercult organizations was the Citizens Freedom Foundation, founded in 1975, which later (in 1986) became the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), the largest and best known of the anti-cult groups. CAN was forced into bankruptcy in 1996 as the result of legal action brought against it. An attorney in the case was associated with the Church of Scientology, a longtime foe of anti-cult organizations.
CAN and similar groups disliked the label "anti-cult." They saw themselves supporting freedom of religion while fulfilling several functions that their critics viewed with skepticism: serving as support groups for families and former members; providing information to the public through preventive education; and exposing what they defined as the fraudulent and illegal activities of destructive cults.
The membership of one well-known countercult organization, the American Family Foundation (AFF), consists largely of mental health professionals, scholars, lawyers, and activist laypersons. AFF promotes research on new religious movements and publishes the Cultic Studies Journal and a newsletter, The Cult Observer. It sponsors conferences on topics relating to NRMs and serves as a resource for the media and the general public. The existence of AFF represents a shift toward professionalization and institutionalization that has characterized much of the anti-cult movement in recent years.
Whereas some anti-cult groups initially tended to be linked by the NRMs to the controversial practice of "deprogramming" (forced removal of members from cults), they have moderated considerably and now advocate voluntary "exit counseling" or "strategic intervention therapy" instead of the involuntary methods used earlier to help people separate from cult experiences. The activity level surrounding various forms of intervention has decreased since the 1980s due largely to the changes that have taken place in the religious groups opposed by the anti-cult activists. Some of these religious groups no longer exist or have experienced dramatic membership declines. Others have evolved into forms more compatible with the larger society and have moved closer to the cultural mainstream.
The controversy surrounding the NRMs and their critics inevitably spilled over into the academic and professional communities. Sociologists and others did not restrict their research and writing to the nontraditional religious groups, but increasingly turned their attention to the dynamics of the countermovements. Scholars and mental health professionals intensely debated the validity of concepts such as "brainwashing" and "thought reform," sometimes bringing the discussion into the courtroom as expert witnesses.
Differences in research methodologies and conceptual frameworks produced two distinct and opposing "camps" regarding how new religious movements and cults should be characterized and how society should respond to their presence in our midst. One camp assumed a largely negative stance toward cultic groups, championing notions of mind control as an explanatory framework for the behavior of some cult members. These scholars were seen by some observers as extensions of the anti-cult movement. Those academics more favorably disposed to new religions were labeled "cult apologists." They rejected the brainwashing model and preferred the more neutral designation "new religious movement" to the term "cult." Both "sides" assumed a crusading spirit that moderated somewhat in the 1990s when representatives of both positions agreed to participate in joint publication efforts and conferences. Nonacademic anti-cult activists remained wary of such developments.
Saliba, John A. Understanding New Religious Movements. 1996.
Shupe, Anson, and David G. Bromley, eds. Anti-CultMovements in Cross-Cultural Perspective. 1994.
Singer, Margaret Thaler, with Janja Lalich. Cults in OurMidst. 1995.