Cult Awareness Network

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Cult Awareness Network

During the cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, a significant number of American teens and young adults broke away from conventional religious communities and began a search for spiritual fulfillment. At the same time, numerous new religious movements (NRMs)—both Christian and non-Christian in orientation—emerged claiming to offer salvation and mystical enlightenment. College students appeared especially open to religious experimentation during this period, and many joined these alternative spiritual communities. Not surprisingly, the parents of these students were upset upon learning that their sons and daughters had dropped out of school or left jobs to join high-demand communities that engaged in strange ritual practices and were critical of normative societal institutions. Oftentimes, membership in an NRM also coincided with a sudden break in family relations. Out of these family problems were born local groups of parents, such as Free the Children of God (FREECOG), whose mission was to warn society of the dangers of "cultic" groups and to rescue young people—by force if necessary—from their grasp.

Eventually these local groups saw the need for a national organization and formed the Citizens' Freedom Foundation. This group had fifteen hundred members by 1975. Between 1976 and November 1978 the "anticult movement" began to decline due to infighting and tax problems. What survived were local groups of parents who were concerned with cult activity in their city. The groups typically published a newsletter, sponsored programs to inform local citizens about the dangers of alternative religions, and helped anxious parents get in touch with "deprogrammers."

In November 1978 the Jonestown community in Guyana engaged in collective suicide, and the resulting public outcry gave the anti-cult movement, and the Citizens' Freedom Foundation, a new lease on life. Throughout the 1980s the foundation, which was renamed the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), spearheaded the anti-cult movement on the national level. It had a paid staff of four and a national network of volunteers. CAN's literature described itself as "a national, tax-exempt nonprofit educational organization, dedicated to promoting public awareness of the harmful effects of mind control." The organization sold anti-cult books and videos and collected information about alternative religious communities. It also organized a support group for former cult members called Focus. CAN spokespersons such as Cynthia Kisser regularly appeared on national news programs to warn of the growing danger of new religions.

In the 1990s CAN was forced into bankruptcy when it lost a lawsuit brought by a young man in a Pentecostal church in Washington State. The plaintiff, Jason Scott, had chosen to stay with the church when his mother left after a disagreement with church leaders. Scott's mother contacted Shirley Landa, a volunteer for CAN in Seattle, Washington. She helped the mother get in contact with professional "deprogrammer" Rick Ross. Ross kidnapped Scott and held him for five days against his will in an attempt to get the youth to change his beliefs. The deprogramming was unsuccessful, and Scott subsequently won a historic $1.8 million judgment against CAN. This judgment—which has been upheld on appeal—coupled with lawsuits brought against CAN by the Church of Scientology led to the network's demise on June 21, 1996.

In an ironic denouement, lawyer Steven L. Hayes, a member of the Church of Scientology, purchased CAN's name, logo, P.O. box, and toll-free phone number in bankruptcy court. To its credit, the new CAN has made every attempt to connect anxious parents with NRM scholars who have researched particular groups and can thus provide an informed perspective on their beliefs and practices.

See alsoAnti-Cult Movement; Belonging, Religious; Brainwashing; Cult; Freedomof Religion; New Religious Movements; Proselytizing; Psychologyof Religion; Religious Communities; Scientology, Churchof.

Bibliography

Bromley, David G., and Anson Shupe. StrangeGods:The Great American Cult Scare. 1981.

Shupe, Anson, and David G. Bromley. The Anti-CultMovements in Cross-Cultural Perspective. 1994.

Phillip Charles Lucas