Anti-cult movement


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Book published by the International Cultic Studies Association (a.k.a. AFF) a major anti-cult organization

The anti-cult movement (ACM) is one of the sources of opposition to cults and new religious movements (NRMs) that it considers harmful. The movement grew out of concerned parents in the USA in the 1970s when their children joined high-demand groups, such as the Divine Light Mission, Children of God, ISKCON, and the Unification Church. See also opposition to cults and new religious movements .

The anti-cult movement believes that a set of groups can be distinguished from legitimate religious groups in that they appear to exploit and abuse their members; are often centered around an unreliable charismatic leader; and may use deceitful ways of recruiting and retaining members. The movement further believes that the public should be warned about these groups and, where necessary, their members removed from the group's influence. Anti-cultists do not trust information stemming from the leadership of these groups and believe that the only reliable information comes from disaffected former members.

The anti-cult movement promotes several methods for warning people about and, where necessary, extricating them from, groups considered harmful: for example, deprogramming techniques (now obsolete), exit counseling, and by providing information, mainly via websites and publications.

The anti-cult movement has been widely critiziced by scholars, in particular about deprogramming methods they consider illegal and about the lack of scientific validity of some of the theories esposed by the movement such as mind control and brainwashing. Scholars have also challenged the validity of apostates' testimony, one of the tenants of the movement.



The anti-cult movement (ACM) developed in the 1960s from parents concerned by the efforts made by new religious movements that were attracting young people at that time. The anti-cult movement of today goes beyond a group of concerned parents, and it includes a diverse platform composed of individuals, ex-members, groups, and organizations who attempt to raise public consciousness about what they feel are serious emotional, spiritual and physical abuses by various new religious movements, cults, new religious movement, or sects.

The cult controversies in the 1960s and 1970s resulted in growing interest in scholarly research on alternative religions and the creation of academic organizations for their study. The majority of scholars and organizations that study and critique the anti-cult movement, are criticized by them, and referred to, disparagingly, as cult apologists. A small minority of scholars tend to side with the ACM.

In its early days, the movement resorted to conservatorship laws to get hold of cult members and forcibly "treat" them, and tried (and failed) to legalize this practice further by trying to pass deprogramming laws.

The anti-cult activities of orthodox Christian groups, are discussed in The counter-cult movement.


The term was coined as part of the controversy surrounding religious cults. In the 1960s and early 1970s, middle-class youths in the United States started to follow new religious movements, such as the Children of God, the Unification Church, the Hare Krishnas, the Divine Light Mission, and Scientology, that were foreign to their families and often at odds with the traditional middle-class values and ideas. The families of these young people organized themselves because they became worried about what they considered bizarre belief systems and the behavior of their children. Some of these organizations of concerned relatives grew into the anti-cult movement.

Types of opposition to cults

Two main type of opposition to cults are observed, religious and secular*:

  • Secular anti-cult activism, generally more concerned about emotional, social, financial, and economic consequences of cult involvement. One of the claims made by some secular anti-cultists is that the cults they critique are organized in such a way as to deliver money and power to their leaders at the expense of their adepts. Another one, is about some of the techniques of persuasion they use. See Anti-cult brainwashing theories.

The geographical scope of the movement

The main American anti-cult organization, the International Cultic Studies Association (formerly known as the American Family Foundation), opposes several groups that it considers harmful.

The secular anti-cult movement is not an American singularity, although a number of sizeable and expanding cults originated in the United States. Some countries have introduced legislation against cult abuses. See Cults and governments.

Apostates and Apologists

Some critical former members (sometimes called apostates) of cults have joined the ACM or are related to them. Other critical former members have their own networks that are loosely related to the ACM. Testimonies of disaffected former members have been used extensively by the ACM to warn people against cults. The validity and reliability of these testimonies is the source of intense controversy amongst scholars. See Apostasy in new religious movements.

The field of cults and new religious movements is studied by social scientists, sociologists, religious scholars, psychologists and psychiatrists. The debates about a certain purported cult and cults in general are often polarized with widely divergent opinions, not only among current followers and disaffected former members, but sometimes even among scholars as well. For example, the American religious scholar J. Gordon Melton holds the view that cults rarely do serious harm and that stories of apostates cannot be relied upon. In correspondence with this view, he went to Japan just after the Aum Shinrikyo's sarin attack to declare that Aum Shinrikyo was innocent. Other scholars challenging the validity of apostate testimonies include Brian R. Wilson, Massimo Introvigne, and Anson Shupe. David G. Bromley questions the veracity only in case the former members are pressured by a countermovement to put them in a theoretical or religious framework, such as the brainwashing theory.

Social scientists, such as Professor Brian Wilson have studied the phenomenon called atrocity story as it pertains to apostates of NRMs, explaining that ".. to vindicate himself in regard to his volte face requires a plausible explanation of both his (usually sudden) adherence to his erstwhile faith and his no less sudden abandonment and condemnation of it" and "... [the apostate], seeks to reintegrate with the wider society which he now seeks to influence, and perhaps to mobilize, against the religious group which he has lately abandoned."

Opponents of the view that cults are rarely harmless and that apostates testimonies cannot be relied upon are the scholars David C. Lane, Benjamin Zablocki, and Stephen A. Kent.

Some anti-cult activists are very critical of these scholars and use the word cult apologist for them. They accuse the cult apologists of being naive, bad scholars and above all reproach them of not warning people who should be warned, as well as of being funded by the cults themselves. These scholars, in turn assert that "Cult apologists, [are those] claiming to champion religious freedom and religious tolerance."[1] ( Scholarly cooperation between these anti cult-activists and scholars acussed of being "cult apologists" seems to be virtually non-existent.

In a paper paper presented to the 2002 Society for the Scientific Study of Religion Conference[2] (, Douglas Cowan presents the political, ethical, economic and personal impact of such distinction and the range of opinion about what "cult apologist" means in the context of three basic domains as follows:

  1. The Evangelical Christian countercult: In the context of the evangelical countercult, it seems that one does not actually have to "defend cults" to be labeled a "cult apologist." Rather, in the manner of "the one who is not for us is against us," as a second indicator simply critiquing the critics is sufficient.
  2. The secular anti-cult: While the evangelical Christian countercult has very little use for the brainwashing or thought control hypothesis, the secular anticult movement's deployment of "cult apologist" is almost exclusively concerned with maintaining either the viability of that hypothesis or the validity of ex-member testimony as part of its anecdotal mainstay.
  3. The secular scholarship: The scholarly community finds it difficult to come to consensus on most of these issues as agreements in their assessments of new and controversial religious movements, and in scholar's own personal scales, the balance of freedom of religion vs. the potential danger posed by groups or "types of groups" is weighs differently.

Organizational opposition to cults

According to a taxonomy proposed by the late Professor Jeffrey K. Hadden, from the University of Virgina's Department of Sociology, there are four distinct classes of oppositions to cults.

Note: Professor Hadden was accused to have been not critical enough of cults and being a cult apologist by several anti-cult groups. [3] (

Religious opposition

  • Cults viewed as engaging in heresy;
  • Their mission is to expose the heresy and correct the beliefs of those who have strayed from "truth";
  • Deception rather than possession is the metaphore used;
  • Opposition to cults serves two important functions: protects members (especially the youth) from heresy, and increases solidarity among the faithful.

Secular opposition

  • The autonomy of individuals is professed to be the manifest goal, achievable by getting people out of religious groups;
  • The struggle is about control (politics), not about theology;
  • Sometimes organized around families who have or have had children involved in a "cult";
  • Aim is to disable or destroy the cult or NRM organizationally.


Apostasy: the renunciation of a religious faith. See Apostasy in new religious movements.

  • Apostates and those who engages in active opposition to their former faith;
  • The anti-cult movement thas actively encouraged former members of religious groups to interpret their experience in a "cult" as one of being aggregiously wronged and encourages participation in organized anti-cult activities.

Entrepreneurial opposition

  • Individuals who take up a cause for personal gain.
  • Alliance or coalition to promote their agenda is ad hoc.
  • A few entrepreneurs have made careers by creating organized opposition.

Social influence of countermovements on apostates

Social scientist Dr. David G. Bromley coined the term atrocity story that describes a tendency to give a one sided view of events in case an apostate is recruited into a countermovement and pressured to describe his experience in a negative view.

Criticism of the anti-cult movement

Critics of the anti-cult movement often accuse that it has done the following:

  • created a moral panic and witch hunt through exaggeration of the harm and dangers of new religious movements;
  • generalized inappropriately, lumping together relatively harmless groups with dangerous groups, such as the Peoples Temple;
  • endorsed pseudoscientific theories regarding brainwashing and mind control;
  • infringed religious freedom through deprogramming;
  • polarized the debate over new religious movements due to its focus on the negative aspects of these groups.

Critics of the anti-cult movement include J. Gordon Melton, the sociologist David G. Bromley, and other scholars associated with the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR). Massimo Introvigne from the CESNUR, attributes to the anti-cult movement the following apology:

  • We favor religious freedom, but "cults and "sects" are not religions.
  • When pressed to define what is a cult and what is a religion, anti-cultists reply:
    • People join a religion voluntarily, but they are induced to join a cult through psychological manipulation (ie."brainwashing").
  • When confronted with skepticism from scholars who have refuted the accusations of "brainwashing" and psychological manipulation, the anti-cultists state that:
    • Scholars can't be trusted.
    • The way to determine if a group is a cult is to ask the people who have left the organization (ex-followers or apostates).
  • When challenged that studies have shown that many more people who leave such groups state that they were not manipulated as those who state they were and that the majority of those who leave these organizations are indifferent, the anti-cultists then assure legislators that:
    • There are organizations (anti-cult organizations) who specialize in these matters and they can help determine who are reliable witnesses (referring to those apostates who are working with them).

In the same mode, the Association of World Academics for Religious Education (AWARE) claims that the anti-cult movement is vested interest in maintaining the conflict and "have been unresponsive to objective scholarly studies, and has proceeded with business as usual, as if these studies were non-existent. Scholars whose work directly challenges the ‘cult’ stereotype are dismissed [by the anti-cult movement] as either naive or as being in collusion with the cults."

Other organizations and institutions studying new religions and the anti-cult movement include:

  • The Religious Research Association [4] (
  • The Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) [5] (
  • The Institute for the Study of American Religion [6] (
  • The International Society for the Sociology of Religion [7] (
  • The University of Virginia Religions Movements project [8] (

Critics of cults, recognizing the diversity of groups lumped under this label have identified of "cult", or "destructive cults", as the object of their concern. The criteria offered generally involve communal totalism, authoritanism, charismatic leadership, manipulative and heavy-handed indoctrination, deceptive proselytization, violence and child abuse, sexual exploitation, emotional intensity in group life, and alleged use of mind control. Other controversies postulated by these critics, include tax privileges, public solicitacion, faith healing and rejection of modern medicine, mental health jeopardy to participants, and corporal punishment.

In the book "Why Waco?: Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America" James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher assert that the anti-cult movement exacerbated the fanatical reaction of destructive cults by encouraging a cult phobia among the public and authorities, that helped to precipitate mass tragedies like Jonestown, Waco, and the Heaven's Gate. According to these critics, the most active being American-based cult representatives, the anti-cult movement of today is the main force behind purported discriminative measures promulgated against minority groups in France, Germany, and China.

Anti-cult brainwashing theories and de-programming practices

The most important addition of anti-cult scholars, like Margaret Singer, was the application of existing theory on "brainwashing", or "coercive persuasion", to cult involvement. According to this theory, some followers of "cults" are held there by some psychological phenomenon, not fully explained by modern psychology but presumably similar to hypnosis, which impairs their judgement regarding the cult. Some anti-cult theoreticians argue that if a person has been deprived of their own free will by brainwashing, treatment to restore their free will must be initiated even if it is initially against their will.

These anti-cult theories of brainwashing, mind control, or “coercive persuasion” were rejected in 1983 by the American Psychological Association(APA) in an amicus curiŠ brief stating that "The coercive persuasion theory ... is not a meaningful scientific concept", that "The methodology of Drs. Singer and Benson has been repudiated by the scientific community" and that the hypotheses advanced by Singer are "little more than uninformed speculation, based on skewed data." [9] (

Although there is precedent for this in the treatment of certain mental illnesses that are medically and legally recognized as depriving sufferers of their ability to make appropriate decisions for themselves, the practice of forcing treatment on a presumed victim of brainwashing (a practice known as "deprogramming") has always been controversial and has been frequently adjudged illegal as well. Only a small fraction of the anti-cult movement has ever been involved in deprogramming. Deprogramming was criticized by human rights organizations such as the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, and many deprogrammers, including its pioneer Ted Patrick, served prison terms for the practice. As a result, it has been abandoned by the anti-cult movement in the USA, in favor of the voluntary, legal practice of exit counseling.

Debunking of the anti-cult movement myths

Eileen Barker and her book, Making of a Moonie, proved with documented research that few people contacted by members of the Unification Church becomes involved and showed how high the attrition rate was for people who "moved in". Her study indicates that conversion to the Unification Church is not a process of brainwashing or mind control that prospective followers cannot resist.

The counter-cult movement

The counter-cult movement (also referred as "discernment ministries", "heresy hunters" or "heresiologists" or generically as CCM) is composed of conservative Protestant Christian individuals and agencies who raise concerns about religious groups which they feel hold dangerous, non-traditional beliefs. These ministries are motivated by a concern for the spiritual welfare of people in the groups that they attack. They believe that any group which rejects one or more of the historical Protestant Christian beliefs is a danger to the welfare of its members, and to the Christian faith itself.

The counter-cult groups target mainly religious groups which regard themselves as Christian but hold one or more unorthodox beliefs, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Unification church, Christian Science, and Jehovah's Witnesses, although some within this movement also target non-Christian groups, such as Wicca, Neopagan groups, New Age groups, Buddhism, Hinduism and other Eastern religions.

An umbrella group the Evangelical Ministries to New Religions (EMNR) was formed as a professional association for individuals and ministries addressing "cults" of Christianity, new religious movements, and world religions.

Scholars differentiate the sectarian movement as the counter-cult movement and the secular movement as the anti-cult movement.

See also the Christian countercult movement.

List of anti-cult activists

The following people are anti-cult activists who criticize groups that they consider to be cults. Many of these anti-cult activists are apostates and target only the group from which they have become disaffected. Some of them call themselves "exit counselors". For more activists, see Christian countercult movement.

See also

Cult | List of purported cults
Opposition to cults and NRMs | Christian countercult movement | Anti-cult movement
Religious intolerance | Post-cult trauma | Apostasy | Witch hunt | Bigotry
Cult of personality | Cult checklists | Charismatic authority
Mind control | Exit counseling | Deprogramming

Edit  (


  • Bromley, David G., Ph.D. & Anson Shupe, Ph.D., Public Reaction against New Religious Movements article that appeared in Cults and new religious movements: a report of the Committee on Psychiatry and Religion of the American Psychiatric Association, edited by Marc Galanter, M.D., (1989) ISBN 0-89042-212-5
  • Hadden, Jeffrey K., The Anti-Cult Movement Available online (
  • Wilson, Brian R., Apostates and New Religious Movements, Oxford, England 1994
  • Tomas Robbin and Dick Anthony, Cults in the late Twentieth Century in Lippy, Charles H. and Williams, Peter W. (edfs.) Encyclopedia of the American Religious experience. Studies of Traditions and Movements. Charles Scribner's sons, New York (1988) Vol II pp. ISBN 0-684-18861-9
  • Tabor, Fames D. and Gallaher, Eugene V. -Why Waco?: Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America ISBN 0-520-20899-4


  • Anthony, D. Pseudoscience and Minority Religions: An Evaluation of the Brainwashing Theories of Jean-Marie Abgrall. Social Justice Research, Kluwer Academic Publishers, December 1999, vol. 12, no. 4, pp. 421-456(36)
  • Conway, Flo & Jim Siegelman, Snapping (1978), excerpt ( ISBN 0964765004
  • Hassan, Steven, Combatting Cult Mind Control ISBN 0892813113
  • Hassan, Steven, Releasing The Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves ISBN 0967068800
  • Introvigne, Massimo, Fighting the three Cs: Cults, Comics, and Communists – The Critic of Popular Culture as Origin of Contemporary Anti-Cultism, CESNUR 2003 conference, Vilnius, Lithuania, 2003[11] (
  • Introvigne, Massimo The Secular Anti-Cult and the Religious Counter-Cult Movement: Strange Bedfellows or Future Enemies?, in Eric Towler (Ed.), New Religions and the New Europe, Aarhus University Press, 1995, pp. 32-54.
  • Langone, Michael D. Ph.D., (Ed.), Recovery from cults: help for victims of psychological and spiritual abuse (1993), a publication of the American Family Foundation, W.W. Norton & Company, ISBN 0-393-31321-2
  • Singer, Margaret Ph.D., Cults in our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace (excerpts ( ISBN 0787967416
  • AD Shupe Jr, DG Bromley, DL Olive, The Anti-Cult Movement in America: A Bibliography and Historical Survey, New York: Garland 1984.

External links

pl:Ruchy antykultowe


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