The Internet as a New Place for Sects

Cultic Studies Review, Volume 7, Number 1, 2008, pages 20-41

The Internet as a New Place for Sects

Luis Santamaría del Río


The spread of new information and communication technologies has given a new dimension to the sectarian phenomenon. After reviewing how the Internet has become important in the religious field, this paper shows how sects use the Internet, how they present themselves on the Internet, and how they act in cyberspace. The paper also addresses other topics: groups that stand out for their activism or publicity campaigns on the Internet, virtual conversions, and how different groups attack or praise the Web

A professor in applied economics made a comment regarding “computer overload,” stating that “we are analogical beings trapped in a digital world we have created ourselves.” [2] That’s true. Every aspect of our lives has been invaded by new technology, specifically the Internet, as a new means of communication, training, working, and even developing relationships. The huge volume of data and hyperlinks is simply overwhelming and makes a thorough study on any topic concerning the influence of advancing technology a daunting task. Thus, I offer an overview of one such topic that pertains to the reality of the sectarian phenomenon on the Internet. [3]

In this article, I intend to provide an overview of cults in cyberspace that will allow us to see where cults are on the Internet, identify their purpose, and consider how we ought to use the information cults have provided there—information that we ourselves can find on our computer. I will start with the religious phenomenon that exists on the Internet, and then proceed to relate the diverse aspects that stand out in terms of the sectarian phenomenon on the Internet.

Religious Phenomena on the Internet

This virtual world is increasingly interfering with the different components of our lives. Those of the younger generation—in particular, persons born with “silver computers in their mouths”—are most affected by this new technology. The emerging influences of the Internet are also affecting religious phenomena. If Saint Anselm coined the expression “fides quaerens intellectum” [4] in reference to the essence of theology (faith seeking understanding), nowadays we can find an updated proposal, “fides quaerens internetum” (faith seeking the Internet), an expression that reflects how widespread the spiritual phenomenon is throughout cyberspace.

The Internet, as you will find out in the section devoted to the topic of New Age or Neopaganism, contributes to the existence of a spiritual eclecticism and syncretism. One mouse click is enough to display all the religious and spiritual traditions and new trends right before you on your computer screen. This availability of material reemphasizes the existence of the already classic expression “spiritual supermarket.” The religious phenomenon is simply another consumer good in our market society.

According to the latest research carried out by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 64 percent of the United States’ 128 million Internet users have “used the Internet for spiritual or religious purposes.” [5] According to this report,

the ‘online faithful’ are devout and use the Internet for personal spiritual matters more than for traditional religious functions or work related to their places of worship. But their faith-activity online seems to augment their already-strong commitments to their congregations.

In this case, the Internet serves as a supplement to offline religious life, rather than a substitute for it. Therefore, this personal experience contributes to the presence in a religious institution:

It is possible that those currently affiliated with religious institutions will maintain a foothold in both the online and offline worlds, remaining loyal to their offline affiliations while also continuing to use the Internet for more personal expressions of their faith. [6]

Some studies have also appeared in the United States of America that analyze the religious experience of teens and youths on the Internet. “The Web is part of this generation’s identity.” [7] Therefore, according to the experts, it is not unusual for members of this generation to use the Internet as a means for expressing themselves. The problem is that “although teens demonstrate some discernment regarding the evaluation of information on the Web, their capacity to critically evaluate religious information on the Web is lacking.” [8] Hence, it is necessary that some educational intervention be used to assist this particular population in judging the religious information they find on the Internet. The figures in this study show a progressive increase in Internet use to find religious information similar to the results in other studies.

The Sectarian Phenomenon on the Internet

According to Mr. Rafael Gómez, four primary reasons explain the emergence of large, prominent sects (i.e., Mormons, Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the great religious revival) in the United States of America throughout the 19th century:

  1. A lack of one main religious tradition, which leads individuals to respect all of them.

  2. The discovery of religion as a source of income.

  3. The use of social media, such as press, radio, and now television and the Internet.

  4. Freedom, above all, even if it means deception, or “taking people in.” [9]

It is interesting to observe the similarity between that socio-historical situation and the current context within cyberspace, where every religious tradition and every spiritual and esoteric group are on equal footing, and many people have seen the religious phenomenon as a profitable business. [10] Thus, the Internet serves as another avenue of the media in which complete freedom and relativism make it impossible to distinguish truth from falsehood.

A religious phenomenon so fragmented, blurred, and viewed as an actual “spiritual supermarket” finds in the Internet the perfect place for the shambles of lesser spiritual groups and feelings .[11] After all, the Internet is the ideal space for flexibility, for lack of hierarchy and institutionalization, for selective and personal appropriation of anything, for subjectivism, and for every single mystery still to be discovered.

Heaven’s Gate: The First Scandal

When the first signs of social unrest regarding the Internet appeared, the Web was described as a place brimming with pornography, drugs, racism, and sects. If we want to locate the recent historical roots of the presence of sectarian groups on the Internet, we can find the origin in the collective suicide carried out by the members of the Heaven’s Gate sect. Thirty-nine followers were found dead at the sect’s ranch in California in March 1997. According to group members, they wanted to free themselves from their bodies and leave on a spacecraft behind the comet Hale-Bopp.

Members of the sect worked as Web designers for Higher Source, a company they set up. They used their Web site to spread their ufological and apocalyptic doctrine. Furthermore, to lure those interested, they hid words about this subject in the background of their Web site. Another suicide victim in California claimed to be emulating this event. He was not a member himself, but his suicide followed in detail the instructions posted on their site: “Some may be looking forward to follow us…, it’s advisable to ‘exit’ in some western or south-western part of the USA.” Some members were very active on the Internet and used chat sites to attract followers.

To a certain extent, the Internet was to blame for this collective suicide. A mere Web site seemed to be a powerful instrument in attracting followers; however, the sect had existed for about 20 years. So, the question lies in whether or not the Internet was to blame for the tragedy. No, it wasn’t. But it was certainly the ideal medium for an organization obsessed with new technologies and science fiction to spread its doctrines and attract new members. [12] One cannot forget that ufological groups have found in cyberspace the perfect place to disseminate their beliefs, which in turn “match” their doctrines.

According to B. Leblanc:

the mistake would be precisely in seeing them as a vague and nebulous threat which appears on the Internet following a well-defined strategy; we do not have any evidence to confirm it. On the contrary, it seems as if we were witnessing a distribution more or less representative of the different religious and spiritual beliefs present in our society, owing to a significant permeability of cyberspace. [13]

It is true that the presence of sects on the Internet is, in principle, a reflection of what we can find in the real world (not always, though, as we will see later). Yet, it is also true that the sects have different strategies when using the Internet. I will explain some of them.

The Internet As a Strategy: Public Image and Virtual Apologetics

A main reason for sects to have such a strong presence in the Internet setting is to offer favorable information about their respective organizations. Doing this helps to avoid the occurrence of curious Internet users coming across numerous search engine hits written by detractors or former members. Thus, within the first search results we will find the group’s official impeccable home page, offering attractive content and presentation: first-hand information, an abstract of their doctrines and activities, a biographical sketch of their founder or leader, news, and other very appealing information.

Nowadays, a sect’s Web site is its main window to the world and has become the most universal place for the sect. [14] For this reason, some widespread groups from all over the world offer information in different languages or have a localized page for every country. Sects with different “front” institutions multiply their Web sites; such is the case for the Church of Scientology or the Unification Church. [15] The Internet becomes a perfect propaganda medium when groups have such a vast number of domains and so dominate search rankings that their detractors’ sites do not get seen. Another strategy consists of some of their members’ making personal Web sites, where they defend the group and spread their beliefs.

A typical case study found in treatises on ethics and Internet law is the turbulent history of the Church of Scientology and its detractors on the Internet. A judge has even ruled that the Church’s strategy consists of silencing critics in the name of copyright. [16]

Real Information?

With regard to sects, some people believe the Internet is a direct reflection of what can be found in real life. This, however, is not true in all cases. Cyberspace offers this great window to the world that can be seen as an ideal opportunity to manipulate and overdo reality. Some groups are omnipresent on the Web, with large official Web sites interconnected so that they appear to be more important statistically and in number than they really are. Sects’ propaganda campaigns carried out in other media, such as the Raelian Movement (with the cloning campaign), the Church of Scientology (the campaign with Tom Cruise, among others), and the Unification Church (with the Milingo case), are some examples that show the importance of having a media presence to help spread the group itself.

Free Action and Survival in Totalitarian Groups

The title of this section especially refers to Falun Gong. Since the Chinese government first prohibited that organization in 1999, the Internet has become its main means of survival, to the extent that it has been described as a “new cyberreligious movement.” [17] According to a thorough study by N. Porter, [18] in 1995 the works of the group’s leader, Li Hongzhi, could be found on the Internet. Therefore, he did not have to go back to China to spread his teachings in seminars after he had left the country. Although Internet access was not common in that country in those years, all the forbidden information could be found and transmitted. After the Falun Gong practice was forbidden, Li Hongzhi’s presence on the Internet became much stronger in terms of both the content and the quality of his Web sites.

Most Falun Gong followers from the United States of America polled by Porter visited the group’s Web site regularly. According to Porter:

The practitioners who use the Internet do not do so in lieu of any other Falun Dafa activities (getting together at practice sites, reading the books, etc.), and there generally is not much informal interaction between practitioners on the Internet. [19]

Since the Chinese authorities have banned direct access to this movement’s information, there are official filters, censorship, and tight control of Internet access (this means that those who get access to the information can be arrested). The most common way for followers to be informed is by subscribing to email lists.

Falun Gong’s sites offer the following information: the experiences of those who converted and went through a radical change in their lives, the negative consequences that the attacks on the movement inflict upon the karma of the attackers, the defense of Falun Gong’s practices and the organization’s version of what is really happening in China, disapproval of the punishments and tortures suffered by the group’s followers in that country, the “distorted” and biased news in Falun Gong’s favor and interests (and the elimination of different points of view), editorial articles with authoritative weight, and so on.

Apart from the Internet’s communications value, as a means to exchange information, the representatives of Falun Gong acknowledge the importance of using the Web to proselytize, in order to reach more people who do not yet practice their exercises (for this reason, their main Web sites in Chinese also offer a translation in English). Since 1997, communication among the group’s hierarchy is carried out only via the Internet. Electronic mail is the ideal means to mobilize their followers within the shortest time possible and to give them orders on how to act when facing persecution. According to the movement's spokesperson, G. Rachlin, “We do everything via the Internet.”

Doctrinal Propaganda

The paradigm of using cyberspace for the purposes noted above is evident in the countless number of groups with Christian origins: “If cyberspace is a digital ocean, then Christianity online is its tidal wave.” [20] First, anyone who goes on these groups’ Web sites can see how difficult it is in most cases to know exactly what kind of group it is—whether it is a historic Christian church, a free denomination, a local group, a sect, and so on. On all these Web pages we can find information about Christ and faith; and many of them share the same postulates as the Protestant reformation. However, it is difficult to distinguish what they really are. [21]

In terms of its presence on the Web, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS Church) has experienced outstanding progress. In comparison to 1997, when it had 500 Mormon Web sites, by the year 2000 these figures had soared to 6,000 sites. A fairly thick book about this movement on the Internet, Mormons on the Internet 2000-2001, offers detailed information about the LDS Church’s Internet presence and development. [22] L. Gold, the author and a member of the movement, states, “I see God’s hand in the technology revolution taking place in the world today” (xviii). And after she describes all the positive aspects brought by the Internet to the Mormon community, she also adds the negative aspects: criticism and calumnies, hatred and lies, partial truth and attacks, jokes and biased facts.

This book stresses the importance of the Internet for propaganda and proselytizing purposes. The Internet also offers proven results: “It is, in fact, a whole new paradigm for spreading the gospel. There are already countless new members of the Church who credit their Internet experience as a significant factor in their decision to be baptized” (6). Furthermore, there is a list with the "religious" uses of the Internet by the Mormons (11-23), such as to take part in the community, to strengthen testimonies, to better understand the Gospel, to share the Gospel as a resource for working, to acquire a deeper knowledge of it, to keep up-to-date, to correct false images, to manage internal issues, to renew friendships, to discuss ideas, to keep in touch, to prepare meetings, and to better understand other members. The users also acknowledge that “as with anything good, the Internet can be used for bad, for distracting the members, for encouraging dissension, and for increasing misunderstandings” (23).

This same use of the Internet, as seen within an established movement as the LDS Church, can also be applied to many other Christian groups, except the use “to lead the genealogical research,” which is particular to the Mormon movement and is its most popular site on the Internet. In fact, millions of Internet users looking for information about their ancestors access the genealogical archive, made up of millions of files that this group has on the Internet.

Gold points out another interesting idea. The Internet paves the way for proselytism and personal relations to attract followers. “If you find yourself uncomfortable approaching co-workers, neighbors, and your seatmate on the airplane about the gospel, you’ll find that your inhibitions quickly disappear in the anonymity of the Internet” (10); the same applies to new followers. This situation clashes directly with the strategy of another important movement, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Experts Chryssides [23]and Mayer [24] have already pointed out that in spite of Jehovah’s Witnesses being the pioneers in the use of the new technologies for proselytizing, they are reluctant to give up door-to-door preaching. Thus, their Web sites offer just doctrinal information and serve as a “press room.” The sites do not provide any e-mail addresses and do not offer any alternative to face-to-face contact.

We can also focus on the Worldwide Church of God, founded by Herbert W. Armstrong, and its subsequent history, which has caused the appearance of an overwhelming number of schismatic groups more “faithful” than the followers of the “mother church” used to be. M. Morrison, a representative of the Worldwide Church of God, once said to me, “The Web sites criticizing the movement are numerous Web sites run by former members who preferred our old legalistic doctrines; their Web pages do not really affect us. Although we visit them occasionally, we reply on very few occasions.” All these groups follow the same pattern on their Web sites. This pattern revolves around distributing books and brochures. With a prophetic, apocalyptic, Sabbatical emphasis and doctrines of Anglo-Israelism, all of them offer information on line, as well as in the more traditional paper publications. Thus, both electronic and paper publications are used hand in hand. Among these sects, the most important one is the United Church of God, which gathers most of the “dissidents” and has a strong presence on the Internet, apart from being very active nonelectronically.

Before we finish this section about the presence on the Internet of groups that seem to be Christian, worth mentioning is the existence of racist or supremacist sects (such as Aryan Nations or the Creativity Movement, formerly the World Church of the Creator), which use the Internet to spread their messages loaded with radical Jewish hate and racial hatred (they manipulate the teachings of Jesus Christ in the most offensive way to justify their misanthropic ideologies). This practice has lead these groups into legal problems.

From the East and Beyond

The various groups with an Eastern origin also have learned how to benefit from the Internet to make known their doctrines in Western societies. According to Swami Atma, the person in charge of Sivananda Yoga in Los Angeles, “The Internet is a springboard to encourage people to get more involved.” [25] However, it can never be used to substitute for the yoga exercises practiced together with the teacher. The Web can be a double-edged sword for Orientalism: Although the information given online usually helps to boost the fame of some gurus:

…at the same time, the Net may undermine the tradition of the guru, which historically has pivoted upon the direct transmission of subtle energies between guru and student. With its lack of any central governing authority, however, Hinduism as a whole will probably flourish on the Net. [26]

Certain movements, such as Transcendental Meditation and its many institutions, Elan Vital, Sahaja Yoga, Brahma Kumaris, or the International Association for Krishna Consciousness, have important official Web sites. This last group also has encouraged Krishna’s followers to publish their own personal Web pages, which has led to the appearance of hundreds of them that praise Krishna and thus reduces the effect of their critics.

Movements born in the Far East, such as Japanese or Korean “new religions” (according to sociologists’ nomenclature), have immediately adopted the use of new technologies. From the beginning, these groups have made the most of the media—for instance, to broadcast their ceremonies. As we have already seen with other groups, the Japanese sect Agonshu experiences the paradox of technological development:

Starting with his leader, Kiriyama Seiyu, up to his followers, they all consider that modernization is to blame for the divorce of the Japanese people with its true roots and, at the same time, they broadcast on TV every single ritual event and produce hundreds of videotapes and short films for TV informing with their ideology. [27]

According to the researcher R. Vofchuk, the Japanese movements do not use either the media or the Internet, as a tool to attract new followers. But “modern technology is an effective tool to communicate messages to those converted, or to bring some information to the relatives of the believers, but not to attract new followers.” [28] It is true that some groups do not intend to spread themselves and acquire new foreign converts (this would be the case for the Korean movement Taejonggyo, which pays homage to its ancestors and does not have a single word in English on its Web site). However, other movements, such as Won Buddhism, adapt themselves to new geographical and cultural means to attract new followers:

When the new Korean religions try to spread to non-Korean converts, they sometimes discover that they have to fine-tune both their image and their message in order to make a more attractive image for Americans and to make it easier for them to understand their teachings and practices. [29]

Attacking the Web

Some sects consider the Internet “God’s blessing,” [30] while others criticize it harshly. Among the latter, Jehovah’s Witnesses stand out. In their publications we can find frequent warnings about the dangers of the Web (pornography, terrorism, etc.). They warn about using electronic mail, which can be used to spread lies and shams, false stories that do not encourage the true pious devotion. The sole source of information for members must be the organization’s leaders, and Jehovah’s Witnesses refer to them when they claim that:

the Christian congregation is the theocratic means through which we are fed spiritually by “the faithful and discreet slave.” Within God's organization, we find direction and protection to keep us separate from the world as well as motivation to keep busy in the work of the Lord. [31]

They even ban their followers from publishing Web sites that contain information about the group.

What really seems to worry Jehovah’s Witnesses group leaders is that the members might get in touch with critics and, especially, former members of the group:

Some Web sites are clearly vehicles for apostate propaganda. Such Web sites may claim otherwise, and those who sponsor a site may give a detailed explanation to affirm that they truly are Jehovah's Witnesses. They may even request information from you in order to verify “you” are one of Jehovah's Witnesses. [32]

The very cybernetic Church of Scientology can even surprise us sometimes as we find some of its own members harshly criticising the Internet. [33] (The strong controversy already mentioned about this group and the Internet might be connected to this subject.)

The Controversial Question of Conversion

Leblanc questions the efficiency of Internet sites as a tool to convert people: “The persistent presence of members guarantees traffic of information which tends to discredit many groups. On the other hand, one has to admit that a Web page is, above all, a static resource and, therefore, a passive strategy.” [34] For this reason, he sees as more appropriate the “active” dimension of the Internet to attract new followers, such as discussion groups and distribution lists. Dawson adopts the same stance:

The nature of religious contact offered on the Web, at least so far, tends to be too detached. Successful recruitment, as we now know, relies heavily on intense personal interaction with members of the religion and involvement in their activities. [35]

According to some psychologists and experts on computer addictions, the attraction of new followers using the Internet could be more efficient than it is since it reaches out to more people with emotional or spiritual deprivation. Those who are alone, weak, and the like get into a virtual world, where they can lose their inhibitions, take advantage of anonymity, hide themselves behind a different personality, meet someone who helps them to fulfill their deprivations. However, we cannot say that there are “fixed patterns” to attract new sect followers, although we can point out risk sectors. (We will discuss this topic later on when we talk about occultism and Satanism among young people.)

J. F. Mayer finds the Internet useful for proselytism, although just moderately. [36] A 20-page survey of 10 groups with Christian characteristics and another 10 non-Christian groups has even been carried out. The survey results identify up to 50 publicity strategies whose main goals are to show the group’s ideology and offer an idealized view of the group (e.g., nice, approachable, and desirable). According to the authors, this survey:

demonstrates how the influence methods used on NRM Websites follow many of the patterns already established in the literature on more conventional persuasive methods used in the advertising industry. As NRM Websites evolve exploiting technological opportunities, future research will likely reveal influence methods different from those in the classical advertising industry…[37]

For these reasons, these groups are very likely to reach a large number of people and try to convert them.

New Age and Neopaganism, the “Soul” of the Internet

Everything that could be classified under New Age has become the norm on the Web. If some people have described this new cultural and spiritual atmosphere as the soul of globalization, the same could apply to the Internet because the relationship between New Age and cyberspace is very close.

Some proponents of New Age philosophies even consider the Internet as the metaphor for the divinity, or even the deity itself. They find it easy to jump from reality to virtuality, exaggerating the “holistic” nature of the Web: the divine, the humane, and nature integrate themselves in a sole synthesis. To reach salvation, people just need knowledge, a new kind of gnosis they can use for personal development and that will enable them to reach their maximum potential, the plenitude of consciousness. According to this view, the Internet offers a vast database from which one might achieve this. Syncretism has become normal, and the Internet encourages, to a great extent, this key feature of New Age thinking.

Furthermore, some experts have pointed out the undoubtedly magical and esoteric nature of the circles in which the Internet was born in the 1960s. Both the technological revolution in Silicon Valley and the Wicca phenomenon appeared and developed in the same period in the San Francisco Bay area. For instance, N. Drury establishes a parallelism between the counter-culture movements in those years and the birth of the Internet. He sees the same historical and cultural background to both. Further, according to some authors, computers could be the LSD of the 1990s. D. Rushkoff considers that neopagans do not make any distinction between occult magic and high technology. He quotes a follower, “The magic of today is the technology of tomorrow. It's all magic, it's all technology.” [38] Quoting F. Champion, [39] everything that belongs to the “mystic-esoteric nebula” is widely spread on the Internet: divinity, lost civilizations, ufology, cabbalism, hermetism, neoshamanism, neodruidism, neo-Templarism, theosophy, Rosicrucianism, spiritualism, and so on, as well as witchcraft and neopaganism.

Virtual Demonism

Devil worship, including every different expression, uses the Internet to spread and to inform people. A large number of satanic Web pages offer “outside” documents on this group and trends, documents that generally speaking have dark and “gothic” aesthetics. The Satanic Bible by A. S. LaVey has a huge quantity of satanic material being exchanged among peer-to-peer networks. Some members of these demonolatry circles declare on their Web sites to be satisfied with the possibilities offered by the Internet to spread their ideas without the usual hindrances of prejudices and public sensationalism.

In a research paper by James R. Lewis about the profile of Satanism followers, we find that, in spite of the fact that half of those persons referenced have no personal contact, 85 percent of them communicate using virtual media. [40] Even more alarming is the massive presence of teenagers and youngsters in forums about these alternative beliefs, according to my own experience researching the Internet. For instance, it is hard to find a member who is more than 30 years old in Red Satánica (Satanic Network), [41] a popular Web portal in Spanish. Taking all necessary precautions regarding personal information on the Internet (people can give false or distorted information concerning themselves), it is a concern to find that many under-age young people use occultist and Satanist virtual media. The vast majority of these people do not belong to any group in the real world. However, they use these circles to try to find the mysterious and everything that might shock society in a revolutionary and protesting way. Perhaps they are tired of everything and do not feel fulfilled. [42]

The “Spiritual Circus”

The Internet presents itself as the ideal place for all kinds of groups to expand, including Christianity (especially, but not exclusively, in reformed circles, as we shall see). Anyone, supported by an organized group or not, can constitute his or her own “church,” even if we are talking about the Christian tradition or a schism, such as with Catholicism.

For example, on the fundamentalist side we can search the Internet and find that an alternative Spanish Pope Peter II, Manuel Alonso, successor of Clemente Domínguez Palmar de Troya, is not the only one to compete to be the next Supreme Pontiff. We can find in traditionalist (non-Roman Catholic) the pictures, the respective eulogy, and the works of other rather curious popes: some who have also taken the name of Peter II (in Canada, France, the United States of America, Australia, and Germany); Michael I (David Bawden, from the United States of America, chosen in conclave in 1990); the group of Gregory XVII (the Canadian Gaston Tremblay); Lino II (Victor von Pentz); Pius XIII (Lucien Pulvermacher, popular Capuchin pope chosen in 1998 even with fumata bianca); Pax Immanuel (the German who leads the Christian Essenian Church and teaches Reiki). The list might be much longer, maybe even too long to complete.

If we move to the other extreme, we can see that the Web pages of those groups that have split from the Catholic Church are very active, pleading for female priesthood and optional celibacy. Every so often in the European press, we can read news about women being “ordained” by groups such as the Iglesia Carismática Católico-Apostólica de Jesús Rey (Catholic Apostolic Charismatic Church of Jesus the King), which was founded by the schismatic Argentinean bishop Rómulo A. Braschi. In short, the number of dissidents multiplies on the Internet, and their influence is exaggerated, distorting a reality of influence that is much less.

The lack of seriousness and authenticity of some participants in this “spiritual circus” is more evident on those Web sites from which any user can obtain a diploma of “ordained minister,” sometimes for free, but usually by paying a reasonable amount of money; for instance, the Universal Life Church. Any Christian reverence is lost; it is enough if the “holder” is a good person.

Summing Up

  1. Although religious experience requires the presence of a human community, the progressive privatization that characterizes contemporary spiritual life, practices and institutions contributes to the fact that many people, especially in the rich countries where there are computers and servers, find on the Internet the place and the means to satisfy their spiritual needs à la carte and in a watered-down way.

  2. Sects and the many different circles of new religiosity have made the most of this cyberspace pluralist universe to spread their beliefs and activities around the globe and at a low price. Furthermore, they take advantage of Internet’s lack of hierarchical structure and apparent equality to attract new members.

  3. Some authors, referring to the Heaven’s Gate case, [43] have already pointed out that the extreme endings of manipulative groups potentially can be avoided if the appropriate experts were to monitor the Internet more closely (the same could have been done to prevent some school massacres in the United States of America, terrorist attacks, and collective suicides carried out by those who had provided forewarnings of their actions through their Internet communications).

Some quotations by the philosopher S. Kierkegaard are still relevant in this regard: “…from now on those who are right will not be listened to, but those who speak louder”; “…the louder will prevail over the truth”; and “…the loud wins through the deep.” [44] Clearly, as we have seen, we can apply these quotations to the reality of the sectarian phenomenon on the Internet.


Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2008, Page

[1] I use the term “sects” because it is closer to “sectas” used in Spanish without being pejorative (like “cults” in English is), but with a technical sense that can serve our purposes better than the phrase “new religious movements.” I would like to thank Mario Álvarez Rodrigo for translating this article from Spanish to English.

[2] José B. Terceiro, in the seminar “Individuos y sociedades en un mundo tecnológico,” according to a note published on the Spanish newspaper El País, 20/04/05.

[3] I have already covered this topic in depth in Santamaría del Rio, L. (2003), “Las sectas e Internet: púlpito neorreligioso y foro de discusión”, Pastoral Ecuménica 59, 59–102. The following quotation can help to clarify the purpose of this piece of work: “We usually find ourselves in situations where we do not really know how to handle such a large amount of data trying to find what we are looking for; hence, the real value is not the information, but the information about the information in itself; i.e., the way to handle these data we have access to, which, otherwise, would be overwhelming and impossible to process.” (Díaz-Ramon, D. (2003), “Internet, mundo de extremos”; Joyanes, L. & González, M., II Congreso Internacional de Sociedad de la Información y del Conocimiento. Libro de actas. Tomo II, McGraw Hill, Madrid, 14–20).

[4] This was the title he chose initially for his book Proslogion. There is another curious expression, “From Yahweh to Yahoo”, that recently appeared in the title of a book about religious information written by Underwood, D. (2002), From Yahweh to Yahoo!, University of Illinois Press, Illinois.

[5] Hoover, S. M., Clark, L. S., & Raine, L. (2004), Faith Online, Pew Internet & American Life Project. These results exceed, by far, those obtained in past reports: In 2001, the survey produced a figure of 25 percent (which represents the overall wired population out of 28 million people).

[6] Ibid., 20-21.

[7] Lutz, A., & Borgman, D. (2002), “Teenage Spirituality and the Internet”, Cultic Studies Review, Vol 1, No. 2, 137–150. Compare also the study published in 1998, “The Cyberchurch Is Coming: National Survey of Teenagers Shows Expectation of Substituting Internet for Corner Church,” Barna Research Group, Ventura. Another important aspect related to this point is the “communicative transmutation” many people experience when they are connected to the Net—above all, teenagers and people going through changes; those with social interaction problems, who are shy, and so on who change dramatically and become talkative and uninhibited “new identities” looking for the deep facet of life and themselves. This personality change can contribute to the spiritual search as well as their finding any other thing, even sects.

[8] Lutz, A., & Borgman, D. (2002), “Teenage Spirituality and the Internet,” o.c.

[9] Gomez Perez, R. (1990), La invasión del ocultismo, Ed. del Drac, 146–147.

[10] In 1986, N. Himmel, acquainted with L. R. Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology, stated in reference to the latter that “…whenever he was talking about being hard up he often used to say that he thought the easiest way to make money would be to start a religion.” (Miller, R., & Joseph, M. (1987), Bare-Faced Messiah. The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard, Penguin Books, London, 117.) Some other similar quotations appear in other books referring to talks with Mr Hubbard in the late 1940s.

[11] Consider also Schroeder, R., Heather, N., & Lee, R.M. (1998), “The Sacred and the Virtual: Religion in Multi-User Virtual Reality,” Journal of Computer Mediated Communication 4.

[12] “HG leaders used the Internet, mass-mediated entertainment, and Christian tradition to develop a fatally flawed architecture of apocalyptic vision. The content of the vision ultimately lured them to enact a ritual of communal death” (Brasher, B. E., (2001), Give Me That Online Religion, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 167).

[13] LeBlanc, B. -H. (2000), “Nouvelles religions, nouveaux médias: les “sectes” et leurs stratégies sociales à l’épreuve d’Internet,” Religiologiques 22, 104–105.

[14] “Most religious groups did not officially invade the Internet until the middle 90s. At that time, the business sectors were in the lead, since they had been faster to make the most of the new media. Nonetheless, there are some exceptions, the case of the Church of Scientology is very representative, since the Internet (regarding social strategy) was already used as a new tool to manage its image and, therefore, to manage its identity.” (Ibid.)

[15] According to D. Baker, Moonism has created a multitude of subsidiary organizations, with the purpose of being the “friendly face” of the movement, in order to propagate their doctrines more easily. However, Moon acknowledges that “just a quick look at the current Website with its evident references to the True Parents (Rev. Moon and his wife) shows that they are not reluctant to proclaim their Unificationist religion.” However, this openness about the association does not apply to all organizations, since some of them conceal their condition as a member of Moonism. (Baker, D. (2003), New Korean Religions in North America and on the Web, presentation at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, Atlanta).

[16] “Although the RTC brought the complaint under traditional secular concepts of copyright and trade secret law, it has become clear that a much broader motivation prevailed—the stifling of criticism and dissent of the religious practices of Scientology and the destruction of its opponents.” (Religious Technology Center v. Lerma, 908 F. Supp. 1362, 1368; E.D. Va. 1995, quot. in Brill, A., & Packard, A. (1997), “Silencing Scientology’s critics on the Internet: a mission impossible?” Communications and the Law 19, 1–23.)

[17] Karaflogka, A. (2002), “Religious discourse and cyberspace,” Religion 32, 279–291.

[18] Porter, N. (2003), Falun Gong in the United States: An Ethnographic Study, thesis, University of South Florida, 207–221.

[19] Ibid., 143.

[20] Zaleski, J. (1997), The Soul of Cyberspace, Harper, San Francisco, 99. According to this author, the Catholic Church “dominates Christianity in the real world, but not in the virtual one” (100). This is partly due to the fact that, as it happens with the whole Internet, most of the users come from the United States of America, where Protestantism is the main religion. “Only two influential Christian denominations seem to shun cyberspace”: the Amish and the Shakers (120).

[21] There is a project, partly published by the Program for Latin American Socio-Religious Studies (Programa Latinoamericano de Estudios Sociorreligiosos, PROLADES) which is updated regularly and can be considered an "inventory" of all the religious groups in Latin America; it emphasizes those groups that are Christian. Consider also Holland, C. L., Hacia un sistema de clasificación de grupos religiosos en América Latina, con un enfoque especial sobre el movimiento protestante, (Toward a system for classifying religious groups in Latin America, focusing especially on the Protestant movement), Prolades, Costa Rica [].

[22] Gold, L. (2000), Mormons on the Internet 2000–2001, Prima Publishing, Roseville.

[23] Consider also Chryssides, G. D. (1996), “New Religions and the Internet,” Diskus 4.

[24] Consider also below, note 37.

[25] Zaleski, J., o.c., 209.

[26] Ibid., 216.

[27] Vofchuk, R. C. (2000), “Las nuevas religiones del Japón moderno. La importancia del Sutra del Loto (Primera parte),” Boletín de la Asociación Española de Orientalistas 36, 257–267.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Baker, D., o.c.

[30] According to the Web site of the Misión Internacional del Espíritu Santo (International Mission of the Holy Spirit, group founded in Costa Rica), “…the Internet is one of the signs of the end of time and God wants to have it available for His people. However, only the Holy Spirit could inspire the scientists’ and technicians’ minds to invent a network which speeds up the process of exchanging knowledge as it was prophesied to Daniel” [].

[31] “Use of the Internet. Be alert to the dangers!” Our Kingdom Ministry, 11/99, 2.

[32] Ibid.

[33] For instance, what Tom Cruise, member of this group, said for no reason at all in an interview about one of his latest films: “When we see the volume of drugs prescribed by psychiatrists, illiteracy, the crime rate, immorality… These problems are never seriously addressed. These are the enemies. When they talk about our huge capacity to communicate ourselves… In fact, there is little communication. The Internet has more to do with pornography rather than with really communicating.” (Calvo, J. M., “Spielberg y Cruise asustan al mundo,” in El País Semanal, 26/06/05). The Internet must be added to the list of traditional obsessions of Scientology. How odd!

[34] Leblanc, B. -H., o.c.

[35] Dawson, L. L. (2001), “Doing Religion in Cyberspace: The Promise and the Perils,” The Council of Societies for the Study of Religion Bulletin 30, 3–9.

[36] Mayer, J. F. (2000), “Les nouveaux mouvements religieux à l’heure d’Internet,” Cahiers de Littérature Orale 47, 127–146; Id. (2000), “Religious Movements and the Internet: the New Frontier of Cult Controversies,” Hadden, J. K., & Cowan, D. E. (Eds.), Religion on the Internet, JAI Press, New York, 249–276.

[37] Kjaerland, M., Alison, L., & Lundrigan, S. (2003), “A comparative study of persuasion and recruitment techniques exhibited by organized groups on the Internet,” University of Stavanger.

[38] Consider also Drury, N. (2002), “Magic and Cyberspace,” Esoterica 4, 96–100; Groothuis, D., (1997), “Technoshamanism: Digital Deities in Cyberspace,” Christian Research Journal 19.

[39] Consider also Champion, F. (1990), “La nébuleuse mystique-esotérique. Orientation psycho-religeuses des courants mystiques et ésoteriques contemporaines,” Champion, F., & Hervieu-Leger, D. (Eds.), De l´émotion en religion. Renouveau et traditions, Centurion, Paris, 17–69.

[40] Lewis, J. R. (2001), “Who serves Satan? A demographic and ideological profile,” Marburg Journal of Religion 6.


[42] An 18-year-old Spanish lady who takes part in one of these forums told me the following some time ago: “I don’t think it’s necessary to belong to any group. You just need to believe in it. Furthermore, it’s really hard to be accepted in a real group. I think the Internet helps us to get a closer view of Satanism, not only so as to get information, but also to get to know other people with similar beliefs. Without the Internet you would never get to know them.”

[43] “No one seems to have been listening when they declared their intention to soon end it all on their Web site. If we can learn from this mistake, monitoring the Net may facilitate the prevention of similar tragedies in the future” (Dawson, L. L, o.c.).

[44] Quoted in Lobo, J. A. (1982), “Manipulación de los ‘Mass Media,’” AA.VV., La manipulación del hombre, San Esteban, Salamanca, 104.


This paper is based on an open plenary presentation to the Annual International Conference “Understanding Manipulative Influence, Cults, New Religious Movements, and Other Groups” of the International Cultic Studies Association. Madrid, Spain, July 14-16, 2005.

About the Author

Luis Santamaria is Bachelor of Theology in the Pontifical University of Salamanca. He is also a member of the Red Iberoamericana de Estudio de las Sectas (RIES) [Ibero-American Network for the Study of Sects]. He has studied the cultic phenomenon for several years and has published a number of articles on this topic.