Reflecting on Cultural Diversity in Response to Cultic Activity

Cultic Studies Review, Volume 1, Number 1, 2002

Reflecting on Cultural Diversity in Response to Cultic Activity

Herbert L. Rosedale, Esq.

President, AFF


The problems posed by cultic groups highlight the need for societies to continually balance competing rights of and obligations to its citizens. The use of “freedom of religion” as a slogan to protect abuses perpetrated by groups should be exposed as simplistic. Likewise, attempts to suppress noncomformity in the name of social order and protection should also be exposed. Responsible and careful scrutiny of harms perpetrated by groups and harms implicit in state proposals to limit group-perpetrated harms is needed. Such scrutiny should occur in a climate that encourages open dialogue among parties inclined toward different views of the proper social balancing of rights and state obligations.

The study of cultic activity includes issues involving the abuse of power, pressured manipulation, and deprivation of informed choice, regardless of the alleged religious justification. In recent years it has become increasingly clear that authorities around the world are examining these issues. It is necessary, therefore, to avoid simple, ethnocentric analyses and responses. Instead, focus must be upon disciplined, objective, and factual scrutiny.

Such examination must seek to elicit shared values in regard to the human condition and relationships, while retaining recognition of the need for respect and for restraints on infliction of unconsented-to harm. (I use the perhaps awkward adjectival construction “unconsented-to” in order to emphasize that in this area the legal system’s primary concern is harm to which victims do not give free and unpressured consent.) Among our goals should be the recognition of responsibility as a concomitant of power and the furtherance of dialogue to define the spectrum of tolerance.

At the same time, however, we cannot impose on such study a local view of history and culture. Neither may we assume that deviance from parochial behavior patterns requires ideological correction. These issues have surfaced as the American Family Foundation has facilitated international and intercultural exchanges of views on cult-related issues. They cast light on the divergences in different societies' responses to perceived cult activity and are often best viewed considering the particular political and social relationships and history of that society.

I here endeavor to briefly touch on a number of these complex issues. Preliminary analysis shows that when we seriously address cult-related issues we are on the cutting edge of some of the most difficult intellectual and social issues of our time. Among those prominently addressed are relationships between the individual and society and the polity's role as the guardian of or threat to essential human values. Consideration must be given to the establishment of limits on the absolute freedom of individuals to act out their desires without regard to the consequences on others. Another element of the matrix is society's obligation to provide for its members' education, health, and welfare while permitting diversity and choice. Finally, in our dialogue we seek to recognize some commonality that proceeds from our increasingly global interface while still preserving the multiple individual cultural heritages that make each of us different from our neighbor.

Religion and Secular Worlds

A society's response to perceived cultic activity is often affected by its view of the separation of church and state and the appropriate social roles of religious, mystical, and nonrational behavior. A society may institutionally link church and state, but even with an "established" religion varying degrees of tolerance of religious and social dissent may exist. A particular society may see cultic activity as a falling away from the true faith and ideology binding the society together and, consequently, as a threat to the society's goal of achieving religious or political salvation. In such societies, heresy can be secular and cultic activists may be seen as politically revolutionary. Even absent an ideology demanding conformity in society, cultic activity can often be viewed as a destabilizing threat to the rule of law and the political structure.

Societies that seek to protect religious freedom through a separation of church and state may nonetheless permit the regulation of activities conducted in the name of religion, if they violate that society's view of essential human rights. Examples have included inflicting torture, denying medical care to minors, and practicing slavery. Determination of what factually constitutes infliction of unacceptable harm may differ depending upon varying constitutional and political forms. Such a determination, however, depends upon thoughtful and careful assessment of specific situations. Using “religious freedom” as a slogan to avoid confronting these complex issues is a perversion of the true meaning of human rights and a cover for abusive religious conduct that should be exposed and criticized, not hidden from public scrutiny.

This approach can help us understand why the United States Supreme Court found that polygamy violates the law, regardless of its religious sanction, while the "I Am" group could receive constitutional protection for its manipulative preaching, even as it continued to prey upon victims of its fraud. The perceived family threat violated core social values, but the Court balked at imposing fraud regulation on the preaching of some religious groups. Today we see change in both areas, as some politically sensitive officials refrain from prosecuting polygamy and its consequences while others seek out consumer fraud grounds to hold religious charlatans accountable. These changes reflect cultural trends over time within a society. Differences in assessments concerning the balancing of rights and state obligations, however, occur at any given moment across national boundaries.

There is, of course, a distinction that is commonly made in most societies. When a religious group ventures into the commercial area and sells products, not preaching, the religious identity of the seller does not avoid state regulation of such matters as wage and tax payments, consumer labeling, and fraud.

Likewise, the separation of church and state does not wholly preclude examination of the bona fides of adopting a religious label. This area of investigation, which often turns on sincerity of belief, tends to tread close, however, to the monitoring of the acceptability of ideas.

When a society evaluates its treatment of mystical and nonrational behavior, conflicts often arise when such behavior intrudes upon state educational, health, and family policies. Thus, introduction of some kinds of faith-based healing in lieu of medical treatment can raise social conflicts, as can ideologically driven attempts to revise conventional views of history, science, and society as taught in public schools and elsewhere. Examples include the disputes over teaching creationism in public schools, the prosecution of the Church of Scientology and certain of its members, and the prosecution of the Alamo Foundation for the illegal exploitation of its members.

The Chinese situation vis a vis cults is especially interesting and illuminating. In evaluating the current situation in China, we should examine the reasons why the Chinese sought to regulate and control Falun Gong. They perceived its practices as a widespread threat to health, family well being, and social order. When its members proliferated and challenged the social and political structure, the State confronted Falun Gong. Yet the government appears to tolerate the Unification Church, which, though it has political dogma inconsistent with the establishment's view, promotes behaviors consistent with official family policies.

Regulation of religious groups and state action against religious group members who violate core social values does not ipso facto constitute an abridgment of the rights of the group's members. It is not that simple. Before a balanced judgment can be made, it is necessary to determine if the religious group has indeed caused harm and, if so, whether or not a proposed remedy will successfully ameliorate the harm or do more harm than the perceived problem. Depending upon the specific nature of the problem and the proposed remedy, it may sometimes be appropriate to regulate religious behavior, while at other times it may be inappropriate.

In responding to the perceived harm of cultic activity, governments can take various approaches. In some instances, the approaches may involve criminal prosecution; in other instances, they may involve the withdrawal of tax or other benefits accorded a religion or not-for-profit group. Alternatively, governments may apply licensing procedures to activities of a group, whether those regulatory restrictions are professional or commercial or derived from criteria for eligibility for recognition as a religion.

In these contexts, however, as we search for common global values, it is necessary that the methods used by the society to address the harm inflicted by cults and related groups be consistent with the recognition of commonly respected human rights and values. Actions to protect against perceived injury are just as subject to critical inquiry as the harm itself. Thus, societies may pervert processes and institutions that help maintain social stability by zealously and indiscriminately suppressing a perceived threat. The possible negative consequences of means must always be weighed against the beneficent ends that are desired. Abandonment of the rule of law and the perversion of psychiatric and medical treatment so as to re-indoctrinate or correct deviant views is an example of overzealous “threat management.” These and other kinds of governmental overreaction should not be immunized from critical scrutiny and condemnation.

As we see more globalization of communities and information, these inquiries surface. There should be no place for concealed cruelty. Objective examination should be encouraged as part of the response to the problems posed by cultic activity. We must, if we are to be responsible, continually examine both cult harm and the responses to such harm. We should not focus solely on condemning the inquiry or response without condemning the harm caused by the group, if indeed the group has been shown to be a perpetrator of harm. Neither, however, should we condemn the harm and ignore excesses and abuses in the responses.

The Interests of Society and its Members

Regardless of its specific form, the social polity has obligations to its members. Caveat emptor is not applicable to health, safety, and welfare. Nor does society abdicate its obligations in favor of charlatans, manipulators, abusers, and fraudulent promoters. Free speech does not protect against the regulation of consumer fraud or the shouting of fire in a crowded theater. The state takes action to protect the health of its members by providing for immunization, vaccination, and state supported treatment facilities for those suffering mental and physical illness and disability. What, however, is the state's role in education and the development of critical thought of its citizens? What is an appropriate state role in licensing and supervision of professionals? Some societies are more proactive than others in these areas.

Cultic oriented practitioners often trumpet the assertion that they have uniquely successful methods of education, health protection, formulas for prosperity, and keys to success, whether based on magic, faith, or proprietary dogma. Toleration of some alternative approaches to social concerns is sometimes acceptable, but at other times, to do so would abandon society's obligations to its citizens. It is one thing for a society to allow speculation as to the causes of a particular historical event. It is another to allow medical procedures to be consummated without sterilization or to have infected persons or animals roam freely to spread disease among the healthy. Allowing freedom to express one's unpopular opinions, wear bizarre costumes, or engage in ceremonial theatrics does not evidence abdication from regulation of unconsented-to harm.

Balancing the right and obligations of a state to protect its members and their property may sometimes require special restrictions to protect those who are more vulnerable. In many areas, cult regulation uses as a basis criteria of consumer regulation and protection against fraud, notwithstanding the fact that these may impinge upon absolute free speech and expression. There seems to be no general call for abolition of fraudulent securities promotion or the placing of warning labels on poisonous products. Hence, the general principal of balancing rights and obligations is not challenged, even though disputes may arise about its applicability in specific areas involving cultic groups.

Recent prosecutions for infliction of corporal punishment on children, which was defended as religiously motivated "discipline," have led to determinations in which the state has exercised parens patria custody rights over those children to protect them against further abuse. Criminal verdicts against parents for starving children or denying them medical care for commonly recognized illnesses have been rendered in a number of jurisdictions in various countries. Compulsory vaccination and blood transfusions for minors are sometimes imposed over parents' religious objections, as is the requirement to attend school. In a number of instances, societies have imposed a standard of heightened protection for those whose capacity is impaired or who are placed in situations which openly foster the abuse of power or the deprivation of free will. Liability for abuse of trust and confidence may be imposed on doctors, lawyers, gurus, priests, and teachers. In situations involving abuse of trust, coercion is not required to be physical, and both the state and society recognize that setting and role often provide the background for non-physically coercive circumstances.

Recently, in the United States a dialogue has commenced in conjunction with proposed government funding of faith-based programs to achieve desired social ends. Opinions differ as to whether the good works achieved are over balanced by the risks inherent in supervision and control that follows governmental funding. A dialogue about means and ends, and who will have the task of guarding the guardians seems inevitable.

Professional Regulation and the State

By undertaking professional recognition and regulation, the state enters into a relationship with the profession as a whole and establishes a responsible regulatory environment with individual members of the profession.

In establishing boundaries of protection for its members, a society may determine to grant certain groups particular rights (e.g., tax benefits to religions, the right to carry weapons to police) or to give to other groups the imprimatur of state sanction as evidence of competence and authority (e.g., engineering and plumbing licenses and status as pharmacists, doctors, lawyers, psychologists, and teachers).

In many instances, state regulation and supervision is supplemented by peer review and the development of codes of ethical restraint and review to check the potential abuse of laypersons by professionals.

Thus, society is concerned with the impact of professions on society. With some professions, the focus is on competence – such as engineering and plumbing – but with others, the role of regulation takes on varying hues based on the social matrix. Regulation of the medical profession, for example, involves an evaluation of the role of alternative medicine, quackery, and scientific discipline. Ethical questions regarding the roles of health and disease and life and death shape a society's views of the degree of regulation necessary with regard to medical practice concerns. Like questions are faced as the scope of medicine goes beyond the physical to include psychiatry and psychology. Regulation often comes to grips with issues of individual freedom and state concepts of the role and function of treatment and therapy in the society.

In recent times, we have witnessed the development of criteria relating to impermissible experimentation, both physical and mental, in order to prevent ideologues from using medicine or psychiatry as a tool to shape members of society to fit their dogma. Such abuses of power are directly akin to the cultic excesses of totalitarian ideologues, whether religiously or politically motivated.

Lawyers, too, have often been pressed into roles as gladiators, carrying out the wishes of their clients without regard to their responsibilities as quasi officers of the state, or, on the other hand, carrying out the wishes of the state in order to suppress dissenters.

Boundaries of professional regulation by the state, therefore, must also balance the protection of the society's core values and the ability of the society to be flexible enough to adapt to new and dynamic times. Of course, the elucidation of “core values” can itself be a contentious task, within as well as across societies. This is why core values are probably presumed more often than they are delineated. Within the United States, core values may be illuminated by reviewing some of the founding documents of the nation (e.g., the Bill of Rights) and fundamental legal concepts (e.g., contract obligations). Some core values, however, may not appear in legal documents, but may be affirmed in unwritten ethical rules of the culture (e.g., tolerance, respect of another’s right to choose freely).

These values may manifest in various professional ethical codes, which brings us to the second aspect of the relationship between the state and the professions, namely, the regulation of particular members. Here, as noted, both the state and the professions recognize the imbalance of power in the relationships between professional and client and the consequent possibility of abuse. Many professions adopt ethical codes, as much to bring this imbalance to the attention of the professional as to protect the layperson. The existence and operation of these codes needs examination, development, and extension to other relationships where appropriate.

Together with these codes, however, regulation imposes a need for implementation of the criteria of professionalism that justifies the state cachet. We need a serious rethinking of the appropriate qualifications of those claiming to be therapists, trainers, counselors, and advisers. Professions need to be serious about exposing charlatans and those who seek to cultivate dependency as a treatment vehicle. The cloak of authority, whether mystically based or premised on secular authority, has often been used to hide abuse. Exposure and inquiry are needed.


In each of the areas examined above, we have noted the balancing process in which the state's view of its obligations and the role of individuals in society may result in different approaches to the regulation of cults, responses to abuses of power, and protection of individuals who are harmed by cultic groups. Of course, even the definition of harm is affected by the cultural values underpinning evaluations of the degree to which individual freedom should or should not be restrained by the perception of state interests.

Neither the extreme of a wholly totalitarian society in which all nonconformity is suppressed nor the extreme of absolute individual freedom ever exists. The balancing line is drawn at different places in different societies. Intervention and protection may vary across societies. Careful scrutiny, however, is necessary in order to determine the degree to which a cult or other group may abridge individual freedom, the degree to which its activities may inflict unconsented-to harm on its victims, and the appropriateness of state intervention and regulation aimed at ameliorating the perceived harm. Without such scrutiny a society runs the risk of tolerating behaviors that should not be tolerated or, conversely, suppressing behaviors that should not be suppressed.

The process, then, should be one of shared scrutiny in which dialogue may lead to mutual enlightenment and enlarged areas of agreement. This approach is more useful than a simplistic, polarizing approach in which recommended solutions are either to turn a blind eye to harm or to wipe out nonconformity.

In this age of increasing global communication and the exploding availability of information, both the harm done by cultic groups and the reactions of society must be examined carefully. As we seek appropriate solutions, we need to exchange information, be more precise in our evaluation of the accuracy of the information, and recognize that concerns about bias and prejudice do not invalidate information furnished by victims suffering unconsented-to harm or by group participants themselves.

Part of the reason for the formation of societies is the recognition of the need to protect the vulnerable and weak from the depredations of the stronger. AFF hopes through its publications and conferences to contribute to and encourage others to participate in the process of shared scrutiny and respect for different views. No view should be above criticism, and no disagreement should deny the value of dialogue.