Objectionable Aspects of Cults

Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 2, Number 2, 1985, pages 358-370

Objectionable Aspects of “Cults”: Rhetoric and Reality

Thomas Robbins

I am in sympathy with the aim, expressed in the introduction to this issue, of zeroing in on what is really objectionable about “cults” and distinguishing it from other attributes of movements which are sometimes disturbing, but are more tolerable. I acknowledge that cults have sometimes egregiously violated the “rules of interpersonal fair play.” Nevertheless, I think that the Editor’s comment that “to the chagrin of “ideologues of the underdog” it is this lack of interpersonal fair play rather than heresy, minority status, or unusual behavior which is at the heart of the concerns of parents and others about cults, is really somewhat of a half-truth. I think that the existence of interpersonal foul-play is sometimes inferred from unusual behavior. I think that violation of the rules of interpersonal fairplay, under which the Editor includes “disrupting members’ life-pursuits” and “interfering in family relations,” is often simply equated with its posited consequences (e.g., someone dropping out of dental school or leaving the family faith) or else it is assumed to have occurred when these troublesome consequences arise. I think repugnance for heresy has been a factor in evangelical antipathy to Unificationism. I think that the perception that educated young persons are holding .preposterous” beliefs in the sanctity of a Hindu idol or a Korean businessman has sometimes been the basis for inferring interpersonal fouls, as have “unusual behavior” such as speaking in tongues, “excessive Bible reading,” repetitive chanting, or being obedient to spiritual “elders.” Too often interpersonal inauthenticity tends to be inferred from or equated with its posited disruptive consequences.

Disruptive or nonconformist consequences presumably related to interpersonal influence can be directly observed (e.g., persons performing weird rituals, talking strangely, leaving school) by concerned persons. In contrast, the latter are more likely to find out second hand (from ex-devotees and “experts”) about the violation of interpersonal rules, which have allegedly produced the observed disruptive and nonconformist consequences. The testimonies of the experts and ex-devotees may often provide socially acceptable rationales for “principled” opposition to something which is objectionable on other grounds.


What is interpersonal foul-play? Certainly extreme deception such as concealment of the identity of a recruiting group and its membership requirements (as practiced by the Moonies at Booneville) would qualify. But lesser degrees of deception are nearly ubiquitous. I was recently interviewed for an academic position; I neglected to discuss some problems in my teaching methods of which I was aware. Was l being dishonest or just “putting my best foot forward?” Was it reprehensibly deceptive that the Mormon proselytizers who came to my house to give me the introductory lecture on Mormonism did not discuss the lost tribes, the tablets, Joseph Smith, and the Angel Moroni; but rather emphasized “Mormon attitudes toward Christ: and by implication the continuity of Mormonism with broader Christian traditions? Some evangelicals have indeed complained bitterly about “deceptive” Mormon advertising, which stresses pro-family themes and plays down theological doctrine such that new converts think they are joining a traditionalist church and end up affirming doctrinal error and risking perdition. Where should the line be drawn? And if a meaningful and realistic line is drawn which does not make too much of ubiquitous “petit deception” (see Robbins, 1984a), what will the implications be for the critique of cults, which has sometimes been grounded in a wild generalization of the Moonist-Booneville scenario to cultist proselytizing per se (Robbins, 1984b)? The longer we participate in a movement the more we learn about it. We may learn that the kindly, saintly guru is power-hungry or horny, or that the group’s activities are dominated by the imperative of fundraising. Our disillusionment doesn’t automatically mean that we have been reprehensibly deceived.

Emotional Manipulation

Emotional manipulation in religion is nothing new. The early Methodist preachers, John Wesley, Charles Wesley, and George Whitefield, “improvised their sermons and aimed at generating violent emotions in their listeners, at filling them with terror of hell or, more precisely, with dread of sin, which is true hen. Their great talent (which, they prided themselves, was much more than a clever stratagem) was to produce, in the breasts of those who heard them, a crisis of despair followed by a sudden relaxation and a mood of blissful peace. They performed genuine wonders. They inspired sudden fits of fainting, convulsions” (Halevy, 1971:35-36). Indeed, revivalism has generally been viewed as primarily a technique of manipulated emotional catharsis. “Whatever technical device he may employ, the revivalist never commits the error of reasoning. No logical argument comes from his platforn4 no reasoned appear (Godwin, 1950:24).

According to sociologists John Lofland and L.N. Skonovd (1983), the Moonies and a few other contemporary “new religions” have essentially revived the revivalist “conversion motif” of manipulated ecstatic experiences in a group or crowd context. This motif has been central to American history but has declined in significance since the early 20th century, although it is central to religious and conversion dynamics in many areas of the world today. Because it has been relatively scarce in modem America, scholars and intellectuals, embracing a parochial rationalism, have perceived the revived revivalism of new movements as a totally new and horrendous monster which they have confused with true “brainwashing,” which Lofland and Skonovd see as something rather different and extremely rare (Lofland and Skonovd, 1983:14-20).

John Wesley et. al produced their frenetic conversions “In the semibarbaric provinces, which no one had thought of either civilizing or Christianizing since the Reformation, in the industrial regions in which an ever-denser population, lacking schools and churches, was crowding...” (Halevy, 1971:37). Revivalism has often been directed toward undisciplined, disorganized masses (e.g., first generation urban proletariats) who were disciplined and controlled as well as psychologically compensated for their travails through fervent evangelical religion. Emotional religion: pentecostalism, revivalism and faith healing, was all right for “them:” the lower classes, the rural yokels, the people of Dixie, etc. When fervent emotionalist religion spreads among educated middle class youth it becomes illegitimate “brainwashing.”

The attack against intense religion, which is now alleged to be insidiously infiltrating respectable denominations (Robbins, 1985b), reflects a secularist premise that only a deracinated intellectualist religion which does not control one’s practical activities is legitimate. Intense involvements with highly generalized symbolic realities which cannot be verified by rational-empirical criteria but which have empirical consequences for controlling behavior are interpreted as evidence for an induced neuro-pathological syndrome, e. g., “information disease” (Conway and Siegelman, 1978; see also Robbins et. al., 1983). But any emotionally fervent religion will be susceptible to the charge of emotional manipulation, since rituals and meanings evoking emotions will be socially organized. What is being demanded is really an emotionless and/or totally privatized religion.

Autonomy and Coercion

A wonderful Jules Feiffer cartoon depicts a young boy and girl growing up listening to parents, teachers, an Army sergeant, politicians, and the media tell them what to think and whom to hate. Finally, the now elderly couple watches a TV documentary which exposes a new and sinister menace: CULTS AND THE THREAT OF MIND CONTROL!

We are more ready to doubt the autonomy of persons whose ideas and behavior are unusual than that of conformists. This disposition could be viewed as strange, since the forces of social conformity are so strong that it might be expected that nonconformists are more autonomous than others.

Are “cults” particularly “coercive?” In Coercive Persuasion . Edgar Schein (1961) makes it clear that he regards coercive persuasion as transpiring in a variety of culturally valued contexts, e.g., religious orders, the army, fraternities, and mental hospitals. The process tends to be evaluated in terms of its goals, i.e., it is OK to mold a marine but sinister to produce a commie or a Moonie. Ebaugh (1977) notes the close parallels between social control processes in a respectable cloistered religious order and Robert Lifton’s model of thought reform.

In the 1983 annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Thomas Dunn gave a provocative paper, “Religious Monopoly: The Co-Optation Of The Family As a Conversion Tool.” Dr. Dunn argues that in terms of producing closed minds, the most effective mind control is associated with the pattern in which “two or more institutions collaborate for the purpose of instilling a particular ideology... The family and the church routinely enter into covenants designed to ensure the religious conversion of a family member(s). As such, a religious mindopoly, which uses the family in the conversion process, is a vastly superior technique to the most effective form of brainwashing.” Critics of this paper may want to challenge the implicit equation of “most effective” with .more objectionable,” yet this is precisely the latent premise of those who have argued that insidious cultist brainwashing is “worse” than brainwashing in P.O.W. camps or other physically coercive contexts.

As I have argued elsewhere (Robbins, 1984b), the critique of “coercive” cultist indoctrination tends to entail a broad and relatively unbounded concept of “coercion.” Repetitive chanting, repetitive tasks, radiating warmth towards new converts (“love-bombing”), and teaching devotees about sin, guilt and retribution have all been transvalued as “coercive” techniques which destroy autonomy. We return here to the topic of “emotional manipulation.” Religions have been evoking anxiety and remorse over sins and the threat of retribution for centuries. It would seem ludicrous to assume that persons who have experienced such warnings, who (like most of humanity) work at repetitious tasks, and who chant repetitively have thereby lost personal responsibility.

Breaking Up Families

“If any man come to me, and hate not his own father and mother, and wife and children, and brethren, and sisters yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke, 14:26). Members of the Children of God and other sects are “- posed to this and similar biblical texts (e.g., Matthew 10:35-36) to justify the shifting of devotees’ loyalty from biological relatives to spiritual brethren (Rosenzweig, 1979). However, there is evidence that many religious sects throughout history, including first and second century Christianity, had a divisive impact on the families of converts. This accusation was made against Christianity by Celsus, a second century Platonist who saw in Christianity “an attempt to subvert society, to destroy family life” (Frend, 1982:63). Christian proselytizers would not dare to say a word in the presence of respectable adults, “But, when they get hold of the children in private, and silly women with them, they are wonderfully eloquent, to the effect that the children must not listen to their father, but believe them, and be taught by them” (quoted in Frend, 1982:63). Deception was also implicated in Christian “anti-family” missionary propaganda. Christian teachings were concealed from the parents and masters of youthful potential recruits, who would be told that the missionaries did not feel comfortable in the presence of wicked and benighted parents and school teachers; but the youngsters, “should leave father and their school masters and go along with the women and little children who are their playfellows in the wooldresser’s shop, that they may learn perfection. And by saying this, they persuade them’ (quoted in Africa, 1965: 187).

‘There was more than an element of truth in Celsus’s remarks,” comments a contemporary church historian. “In times of stress, families were driven apart and the women members who were Christian sometimes found their worst enemies in husbands, fathers, and brothers who had been shamed by their action” (Frend, 1982:65). Tertullian affirmed that spouses who hindered their wives’ Christian involvements were doing the devil’s work (Pagels, 1982).

Messianic movements operating in an initially hostile or indifferent environment tend to be divisive in their impact on the existing families of converts and potential converts. This is the sociological truth underlying Matthew 10:35, “For I have come to part asunder a man from his father, and a daughter from her mother...” Ultimately, the anathematizing of this divisiveness entails the view that there ought not be messianic movements! Yet our Judaeo-Christian Culture,” which some want to defend against intolerant sects, is in part the product of a messianic movement!

Rigorous control and minimization of new members’ familial contacts has also been customary in respectable monasteries and cloisters, according to one sociologist, who also noted the close parallels between a respectable order’ s social control patterns and Robert Lifton’s model of thought reform (Ebaugh, 1977).

The proper ethical question must ultimately be: what tactics have been employed to transfer the allegiance of a young person to the “spiritual brethren” from the .mere fleshly kindred?” Given a messianic movement, I would view some elements of “emotional manipulation” and “petit deception” as well as such staples as repetitive chanting to be unremarkable. But there are abuses which should at least be exposed and protested. Recently I saw a Canadian (CBC) documentary on the right-wing Catholic order, Opus Dei. Young devotees are allegedly isolated from parents who lose substantial contact with them. This might be expected in a disciplined religious order; however, it is also alleged that teenagers are lured to summer camps and retreats without the participants or the parents being informed of the religious tie-in and the proselytizing goal. Teenage participants are alleged to be urged to keep certain things about the experience secret from their parents. These allegations, which seem to echo Celsus” complaints, are more serious. Yet His Holiness, John Paul II, smiles beneficently on Opus Dei and has freed its operations from any accountability to local diocesan authorities, which precludes parental complaints from having any institutional effect. But then His Holiness may be applying a spiritual insight unavailable to the more fallible detractors of Opus Dei!

The God Makers is a 55-ininute film being shown in some North Carolina churches to counter a perceived Mormon recruitment drive. “The film contends that the Mormon church is a dangerous cult that contributes to the breakup of families, has weird rituals, and is based on false doctrine (Green, 1984:20A). In the film “Several husbands and wives say the church encouraged them to dissolve their marriages after failing to win over non-believing spouses to the teachings of Mormonism.” A church spokesperson denies this, but if it were true, it would hardly be remarkable. It is not clear from the newspaper account of the film and its general portmanteau assault on Mormonism (which includes allegations about strange undergarments worn by Mormons, as well as affirmations of the frequency of suicide and psychopathology among Mormons) that the tactics whereby families are allegedly being rent are egregious. Too often complaints about cults “breaking up families” refer primarily to the mere fact of children or spouses being converted and the consequent familial strife and loss. “The mere conversion of a family member to a Messianic sect is viewed as objectionable, and unethical conduct is assumed. Evangelical proselytizing of Jews is deeply resented by the Jewish community, and it is assumed to be an inherently underhanded enterprise. Such conversions produce great pain. A colleague recently told me about having been approached by members of a settled Divine Light Mission community who inquired if he knew where they could get hold of a deprogrammer who could retrieve a member of their faith who had suddenly decamped with a bizarre Jesus sect which wanders from town to town in vans. Perhaps these bereaved DLM members will soon be joining the CFF!

The Heresy Factor

Little needs to be said here. I think one of the many reasons why Rev. Moon’ s Unification Church is the most detested of the cults is that he is believed by his followers to be the “Lord of the Second Advent” who is heir to the mandate of Jesus and comes to complete the latter’s unfinished work - a classical “new prophecy” Christian heresy. As a guest on Cable News Network’s Freeman Reports., Marcia Rudin noted that the Unification Church was surely not the most destructive of today’s cults since it hasn’t been involved in the death of children (unlike various several fundamentalist or faith-healing groups). Yet a survey of cult critics, many of whom were evangelicals, reported recently in The Cult Observer, indicated the U.C. was rated by respondents as the most dangerous contemporary cult. It was observed by respondents that the Moonies were following the Mormon path of trying to gain respectability, although this might be expected to lead to actual behavioral “moderation” and thus should perhaps be welcomed. Parenthetically, cults are often put in a double-bind whereby any apparent moderation on their part is perceived as rendering them even more dangerous and deceptive, as their surface moderation conceals their ultimate depravity, which is an immutable essence.

Is there a “heresy factor” in the stigmatizing of certain groups? Many indictments of disfavored groups combine allegations of interpersonal fouls with attacks on heresies, e.g., the anti-Mormon movie, The God Makers, uses cartoon figures to illustrate the alleged Mormon belief that Jesus had three wives. There is, indeed, a whole hoary tradition of evangelical fulmination against “cults.” Two decades ago the celebrated volume by Walter Martin, an evangelical scholar, The Kingdom of the Cults (1968) excoriated the “cults” of the 60s: Bahai, Christian Science, Mormonism, Watchtower, Nation of Islam etc. Most of these groups were dissident or heretical “Christian” groups. Like today’s crusaders against “mind control,” the evangelical scholar sought to embellish his indictment with the prestige of scientific psychology, in this case with Dr. Milton Rokeach’s work on “dogmatism” as a personality variable related to religious and political extremism. The author never considered the possibility that. in so much as dogmatism is a cognitive factor linked to religious systems, it could be partly rooted in the “One-Way” dogmatism and intolerance of evangelicals, which more esoteric authoritarian groups more or less extrapolate.

Heretics are often more detested than unbelievers, e.g., Bahai is persecuted more fiercely by the Shiites of Iran than am Jews. The Mormons and Moonies may be linked in the minds of some evangelicals for other reasons besides their drive for respectability.

Defending Our Culture

Michael Langone (1985) and others complain that “alien and intolerant” groups undermine Judaeo-Christian culture and provoke the “valid cultural outrage” of some persons, whose reactions and countermeasures may sometimes be too extreme. The view is widely held that the legal system should explore moderate ways to incline toward defense of the culture rather than the intolerant anticultural sects.

It is interesting that throughout western history the view “that uncompromisingly affirms the sole authority of Christ over the Christian and resolutely rejects culture’s claim to loyalty” has been a fundamental motif which has appeared many times and “is widely held to be the typical attitude of the first Christians” (Neibuhr, 1951:45). Implicit in the beliefs of early Christians was “the thought that whatever does not belong to the commonwealth of Christ is under the rule of evil” (Neibuhr, 1951:50). Thus, the line was sharply drawn between the “new people” and the old society.

Apart from New Testament writers, the outstanding “Christ-against-culture” figure in the early church was Tertullian. “We turn our back on the institutions of our ancestors” Tertullian wrote in 197. For Tertullian, “Service to Christ .. demanded rejection of the world which belonged to Satan” (Frend, 1982:80). His attitude toward the dominant hellenic culture of the Mediterranean world was expressed in his famous question, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”

But not all Christians of Tertullian’s time were so uncompromising. Christian Gnostics claimed “that Christian perfection had no need of an exclusive attitude toward the world, or a Church organization” (Frend, 1982:64). Some of the Martyrdoms of Christians during the Roman persecutions were in varying degrees “voluntary” and some Christians appeared to be pathologically overeager for glorious martyrdom (Pagels, 1981). Orthodox Christians were more receptive to martyrdom than Gnostic Christians because the latter viewed the crucifixion of Christ as an inner spiritual and symbolic apotheosis while the orthodox saw the crucifixion as a unique historical and physical event. It followed from the latter interpretation that a Christian who endured martyrdom was imitating Christ and was thereby saved and exalted. Some orthodox Christians seemed to thirst for execution so that they could be “witnesses,” and they vehemently criticized Gnostic Christians whose subjectivism called into question the value of martyrdom (Pagels, 198 1: 100). The notion of apotheosis through martyrdom alien to Gnosticism, has figured in pre-Jonestown mass suicides such as the Phrygian Montanists and the Russian Old Believers (Robbins, 1980).

I mention the “moderation” of the Gnostics because it seems currently fashionable among cult critics to disparage thenl They are viewed as having in common with “New Age religiotherapeutic movements such as EST or Scientology a tendency toward “solopsism” and subjectivist epistemological perversions (Langone, 1985). A sweeping condemnation of “Monism” and the mystical view of the illusory quality of the phenomenal world generally ensues. It may surprise some cult critics at AFF that persons with commitments to some version of monistic or New Age worldview have been giving substantial thought to its consequences and egoistic perversions (Anthony, et. al., in press).

Let me propose some theses about culture:

1) Culture has origins which are sometimes radically sectarian. There wouldn’t be a Judaeo-Christian culture to defend without the alien, intolerant, and apocalyptic early Christians. What would American culture have been without the intolerant Puritans, who also created a Harvard. A week or so before America celebrates Thanksgiving to commemorate the “Pilgrim Fathers,” some anti-cult group usually holds a silent vigil to remind us of Jonestown. The temporal propinquity of these two commemorations is rather fitting because the pilgrims, like the Jonesians, fled the dominant society and culture, which they anathematized and from which they feared persecution, and attempted to build a new utopian society in the wilderness.

2) Culture change and despised sects have made positive contributions to these changes. The Methodist revivals were, as we have seen, emotionally manipulative, and were widely excoriated; but from them came forth a great church and, according to some experts, a disciplined, sober, and non-revolutionary working class. From the wild American revivals of the early 1800s came not only the Shakers and the Mormons, but also the Antislavery and Temperance Movements and the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Sociologist Bryan Wilson (1976) and his student Roy Wallis (1984) argue that today’s cults lack the capacity to exercise the transformative influence on modem society which the Methodists did on Eighteenth Century England. The bureaucratized control structure of modern society is said to be impervious to sectarian influence. The cults are thus doomed to marginality and to ineffectual protest against overpowering secularization; yet the issue is surely open to debate (Robbins and Anthony, 1978).

3) Culture, spiritual worldviews, and the interaction of the two are very complex. There are many varieties of “Monism” and their consequences vary. My colleague, Dick Anthony distinguishes between the “univocal” Monism of Scientology and EST and more subtle multivocal or symbolicist Monism. The issue here is whether by virtue of having been “trained” one can actually experience the world as illusory or whether this can only be experienced by rare “old souls” who have evolved higher consciousness over many incarnations, such that for nearly all devotees the world is only ultimately illusory and must be coped with as if it were real (see Anthony et. al., in press). Tipton (1981) distinguishes between “hard Zen” and commercialized “soft Zen.” The philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita affirms the illusory nature of the phenomenal world and might be expected to produce an antinomian rejection of (illusory) social institutions; yet this “subjectivism” is extrapolated in the Gita in a conformist pro-caste direction. The subjectivism of EST is also extrapolated (for better or worse) in a direction which legitimates careerist conformism and converges with the dominant American value of utilitarian individualism (Tipton, 1981). On the other hand, since culture is complex, radical sects are likely to be congruent with some but not other dominant cultural elements. The collectivism of Sun Myung Moon is alien to American traditions, but his Manichean, messianic anti-communism is very “American” (Anthony and Robbins, 1982). Thus, the Washington Times, published by Bo IR Pak, is said to be widely read among White House cadres. The critique of Moon’s ideology should perhaps lead to a critique of certain elements of “Americanism” (Robbins, 1983).

4) Finally, sects change over Um and usually accommodate to the culture.

There are exceptions; many disappear and a very few explode (e.g., Jonestown). Most of our churches had sectarian origins (apart from the sectarian features of early Christianity). In the United States there has been a continual accommodation of apocalyptic and intolerant religions to the American “religion of civility” whereby religious faiths have shed their apocalyptic and intolerant elements such that they would henceforth give “no offense” (Cuddihy, 1978). Perhaps this process should be encouraged, and the AFF and its publications do too little to publicize and encourage accommodative shifts (which tend rather to elicit suspicion). On the other hand, something may be lost in terms of deep, orienting belief when Catholics cease to believe that they are the “One True Church” or Jews water down the notion that they are the Chosen People. Tolerance, said G.K. Chesterton, is the virtue of people who believe in nothing.

Conclusion: “Cult”

In my view it is 6nw to stop thinking about various issues (e.g., unscientific healing, child abuse, deceptive proselytization, stressful or intensive indoctrination, absolutist and intolerant doctrines, or abuses in financial and commercial diversification) as primarily “cult issues” insofar as they relate to religion. It is also time to stop dividing up the religious groups into O.K. Churches and noxious cults, the latter being the exclusive repository of objectionable destructiveness. When this division is made, the “cult” category always ends up encompassing an extremely variegated and diverse array of groups and collectivities, which have practically nothing in common except some sort of controversiality and a lack of traditional familiarity (i.e., a “cult” is not the Methodist church).

The creation of an ill-defined, poorly bounded quasi-residual “cult” category may serve certain ideological, political, and organizational purposes. If a bunch of teenydruggers in Northport, NY New York, kill one of their members, or a bunch of persons (many of them familiarly related) in a Memphis ghetto follow a man with religious visions and shoot it out with the police, these entities are immediately labeled “cults” and thus placed in the same category as the nationally and somewhat hierarchically organized, ascetic, and strongly anti-drug Unification Church and Hare Krishna. These latter groups, plus several others, are the standard “cults” (or “destructive cults”), which have stimulated the growth of anticult organizations. So what we sometimes seem to have is a game of “round up the usual suspects” whereby atrocities perpetrated by a disparate collection of varied groups are indirectly utilized to mobilize opposition to the “usual suspects” in their Krishna robes, etc. In a sense, Rev. Moon and the other usual suspects were blamed for the Jonestown holocaust, its actual mastermind having gone beyond the realm of earthly chastisement.

If we are concerned with the rejection of modern medicine and consequent harm to children and others, I think we have to look at Christian Science (when I went to summer camp, one of my cabin mates, a Christian Scientist, told me that he had never been to a doctor) as well as excoriated groups such as the Faith Assembly. If we are concerned with corporal punishment and the consequent harm to children, I think we will find that numerous fundamentalist churches perceive a scriptural sanction for corporal punishment A teacher in a reputable Christian school in North Carolina (the school was affiliated with a Baptist group) was recently convicted of misdemeanor child abuse for a hard spanking that he administered, and I believe I have heard of a few similar cases.

To conclude, I think it is mystifying to lump together all sorts of issues as “cult issues.” Instead of lumping these issues together in the pseudo-topic of “cults,” we should discuss each issue ( e.g., dangerous healing methods, child abuse) separately. Many of these issues really pertain to churches, some of which are presently involved in various controversial activities, including unscientific healing, promotion of corporal punishment manipulative proselytization, heavy-handed indoctrination, intolerant absolutist ideas, innovative financing, extreme political activism, and exploitative or otherwise crass commercialism. The current diversification of church activities, which partly reverses “secularlizing” and “privatizing” trends of the 20th century, goes far beyond the rise of totalistic “cults” (Robbins, 1985). It includes, for example, the growth of “Christian Schools,” which are engaged in various legal conflicts involving certification, racial discrimination, corporal punishment, etc.

The present diversification of “religious” activities is clashing directly with another current trend, the expansion of the authority and apparatus of the state and its regulatory mandate to enforce public accountability on organizations. Churches are privileged enclaves partly insulated from this trend. This generates resentment against religious organizations, which is enhanced by the expansion of their activities and attempts to expand the scope of their authority. The result of these antithetical trends is the present proliferation of legal conflicts over “church autonomy” (Robbins, 1985). Some of these issues focus on “mind control” and thus on the subtle nuances of intrapsychic consciousness. Psychopathology and loss of free will often seem to be inferred in effect from the seeming irrationality of someone’s conversion. In contrast, there are conflicts over financial and commercial operations in which what is really imputed to a religious operation is secular rationality such that regulation is deemed appropriate, as it is appropriate to regulate businesses (e.g., “Rev. Moon is just a businessman”). Since private religious faith does not have to be rational to have absolute legal protection, it is my view that the area of the financial-commercial diversification of religious movements is a more appropriate realm in which to confront alleged abuses legally than the murky realm of subjective consciousness and “mental coercion.” However, the coercive and manipulative practices of some groups should be subjected to vigorous criticism; but care should be taken in defining “coercion” to avoid confusing interpersonal fouls with their disvalued nonconformist consequences. I would reject a critique which implicitly anathematizes radical sectarianism and revivalism as illegitimate per se.

Finally, we should realize that we are witnessing a period of what sociologist Robert Wuthnow (1978) has called “religious populism,” one aspect of which is the diffusion of religious patterns such as fundamentalism, glossolalia (speaking in tongues), and faith-healing - once associated primarily with rural, southern or lower-class milieu - among the educated urban middle classes. Deviant New Christian groups, as well as older fundamentalist or Pentecostal groups, appear alien and antimodern to many parents of converts, who are prone to label these groups “cults” and buy into the “mind control” demonology initially formulated by the opponents of the Unification Church et. al. But the application of the label “cult” mobilizes emotions without clarifying anything. John Clark, quoted in Teen Magazine (April, 1983), describes speaking in tongues as a mind control technique; nevertheless, glossolalia, like faith-healing, fundamentalism and pentecostalism, has been around for quite a while. To what extent shall we abridge the toleration traditionally (but not without some qualifications) accorded such phenomena? This should be the question - not what to do about some putatively new-under-the-sun menace of “cults.”


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Robbins, T. (1986). “Religious Mass Suicide Before Jonestown: The Russian Old Believers.” Sociological Analysis, (in press.)

Rosenzweig, C. (1979). “High Demand Sects: Disclosure Legislation and the Free Exercise Clause.” New England Law Review, 15, 128-159.

Schein, E. (1961). Coercive Persuasion. New York - Norton. Tipton, S. (1981). Getting Saved From the Sixties: New Religious Movements and the Transformation of Moral Meaning in American Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wallis, R. (1984). Elementary Forms of the New Religious Life. London: Roudedge and Kegan Paul.

Wilson, B. (1976). Contemporary Transformation of religion, London: Oxford University Press.

Wudmow, R. (1978). Experimentation in American Religion, Berkeley: University of California Press.


Thomas Robbins, Ph.D., a sociologist, is the author of numerous papers and editor of several books on the sociology of religion, including The Law and the New Religions (with W. Shepherd and J. McBride).