Unification News for June 1997

The Odyssey of New Religions Today

Rev. Dean M. Kelley

In this book John Biermans has made three important contributions. He has gathered together the pertinent findings of social science researchers and courts of law on the subject of new religious movements and the persecution they suffer. He has added the insights of his own personal experience as a member of the Unification Church who has been the victim of an unsuccessful attempt at "deprogramming". And he has included information from his files gathered as one of the staff attorneys of the Unification Church, recording the experience of other members at the hands of would-be faithbreakers.

These contributions are very much needed to counter the prevailing misinformation and hysteria about "cults" which have been so successfully spread by articulate anti-cultists and sensation-seeking media. The average person has little opportunity to survey the scholarly literature on the issue and so is unaware that most of it does not support the anti-cult hysteria, which is largely based on atrocity tales disseminated by apostates and equally unreliable allegations circulated by a handful of mental health practitioners who appear to know very little about religion.

At the scholarly conferences of the Religious Research Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Association for the Sociology of Religion, numerous research papers are presented on the various new religious movements by highly regarded observers like Gordon Melton, David Bromley, Anson Shupe, Tom Robbins, Dick Anthony, Eileen Barker, James Richardson, Herbert Richardson, the late William Shepherd, and many others (I mention these names because I happen to know these individuals and have respected their work over the years). They represent the prevailing consensus in the community of students of religious behavior, and that consensus views the anticultists' shrill denunciations as simply contrary to the general body of empirical evidence gathered by people who are not trying to foment a vendetta against "the cults."

It is, of course, quite possible that some individuals have had a bad experience with a particular new religious group at some particular time and place, just as there are individuals who have had a bad experience with one or another of the older and more conventional religions. But a few bad experiences do not necessarily discredit an entire category of organizations in other walks of life.

A similar common-sense perspective needs to be brought to the study of new religious movements, and John Biermans' sampling of the scholarly literature helps to restore perspective on that subject.

It is helpful, within that perspective, and contributing to it, to have the views of some "insiders", since outsiders alone, however objective or sympathetic, cannot fully interpret the experience of any religion. Insiders' accounts, taken alone, can of course be as misleading and self-serving on the one side as critics' and apostates' testimony on the other. But they provided a needed depth to the perspective which can be gained from no other source. In studying any social organization, particularly religion, one needs to ask, "How do they see themselves?" One should not be content with that data alone, but one should certainly not omit it, lest the result be the kind of outsider's caricature which is typical of muckraking journalism and anti-cult polemic. In this book John Biermans combines an insider's insight with extensive quotations and references from scholarly research and court decisions, which together give a three-dimensional perspective of verisimilitude.

In a way, it is a pity such a book as this should be needed. It should not be necessary in a land which prides itself on esteem for religious liberty (at least in the abstract) to insist that members of new religious movements really are human beings entitled to as much respect for their religious choices as anyone else. But when there are organized alarmists and detractors with articulate spokespersons who have made lucrative careers out of denouncing and combating "cults", then at least some countermeasures are needed. And those of us who cannot make careers out of countermeasures owe a debt of gratitude to the few, like John Biermans, who have taken time from more constructive endeavors to try to set the record straight.

It is even more remarkable that an entire chapter and more should be necessary to try to counter the bizarre but prevalent notion that there is some secret technique of "mind control" or "brainwashing" or "coercive persuasion" which enables some sinister cult leaders to gain total mastery over the wills of other persons without their consent. It should not require lengthy and scholarly argumentation to establish the absurdity of this notion, but apparently it does, and even then many will not be convinced, any more than the average inhabitants of Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century could be disabused of the notions of demon possession and witchcraft.

Even a moment's commonsense reflection should enable one to realize that if someone had perfected the art of enslaving others without the continuous application of physical coercion, he would have discovered a power which tyrants and sorcerers have been seeking for centuries, and he would not need to confine his ambitions to the relatively rickety instrument of a religious movement but could take over the world. That the leaders of so-called "cults" have no such magical powers is apparent from the facts that their recruiting efforts are relatively ineffective and that the rate of slippage from attrition (defections without outside intervention) is incredibly high. In fact, there is nothing in the phenomenon that cannot be explained by the age-old practices shared by older religions, the media, commercial advertising and political propaganda, and all protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Some may think that this book comes along after the worst is over and the dust has begun to settle. It is true that forcible deprogrammings are not as frequent as they were a few years ago, but they still occur. The three federal circuit courts of appeals which have ruled on the issue have found deprogrammers liable to their victims under the federal civil rights law, and none have found the contrary. Spokespersons for the anti-cult movements assure us that deprogramming is crude and passť, but it still goes on, and is still the greatest offense against religious liberty on this continent in the latter half of the 20th century.

The anti-cult movement has now professed to narrow its target to "destructive cults"-a term not known to social-science research in religion-and to characterize its work as simple "cult awareness education." Nevertheless, anticultists show no greater insight into, or respect for, the choices young adults make in religion than before. They insist that they are not violating anyone's religious liberty; they are merely trying to prevent actual harm to unsuspecting and victimized converts. It is certainly not a violation of religious liberty to warn people about the supposed dangers of some or all new religious movements, or to try to persuade those who are their members to depart (so long as force or threat of force is not used), even if the information relied on is faulty or biased (which it often is). That, too, is protected by the First Amendment (with a few narrow exceptions such as slander, libel and defamation). And there may indeed be some "cults" which are "destructive", though it is hard to see how that term applies to the groups about which the anticultists are so exercised, generally rather well-meaning, idealistic bands of people trying to do what they think God requires.

It seems that what really distresses the anticultists is conversion, especially to religious movements which make high demands of their members for commitment of the whole self to a spiritual cause. Apparently a gradual and partial commitment to a mild and conventional faith is permissible, but a sudden conversion to a rigorous and alien lifestyle with requirements of total allegiance to the faith is not. But religious liberty includes the right "to change (one's) religion or belief" (Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), and to do so suddenly and totally, whether others like it or not. Cautions of prudence and circumspection are always in order. Everyone should "look before they leap" in religion as in others of life's ventures. But arbitrarily maligning new religions and impugning their motives is not in order-even if protected by the First Amendment-if one makes any claim to respect other people's religious liberty.

And applying to new religions a double standard, so that it is thought to be iniquitous for them to do what is permissible for other religions or for other human enterprises, is dishonest and pharisaic. For instance, the Scientologists were criticized for being "deceptive" and "underhanded" in buying property in Clearwater, Florida, under an assumed name when that is a standard practice in the real estate business, followed in the same period in nearby Orlando by the Walt Disney organization in buying up property for the development of Disney World. Giving wholehearted and unswerving loyalty to one's employer or labor union or lodge or (traditional) religion is thought to be a laudable thing, but giving such loyalty to a new religious movement is seen to be somehow pernicious.

As John Biermans and the many authors he quotes suggest, much of the hysteria generated by the anti-cult alarmists is needless. Most of the new religious movements are not deleterious to their members and may indeed improve their life situations. When they cease to meet their members' needs and interests, the members move on to other things without the need for personality-damaging outside intervention. If people could learn to respect the religious choices of their (adult) offspring and to retain some perspective and (uncommon) common sense about such matters, religious liberty would be in much better condition than it is today in the United States. This book should help contribute to that end.

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