IMPORTANT:This page has used Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia in either a refactored, modified, abridged, expanded, built on or 'straight from' text content! (view authors)


Template:Original research Opposition to cults and to new religious movements (NRMs) comes from several sources with diverse concerns. Some members of the opposition have associations with cult-watching groups which collect and publish critical information about one or multiple groups they consider cults. Other opposition comes from traditional religion (notably the Christian countercult movement), from secular cult-critics, from skeptics, and from critical former members (sometimes referred to in literature as apostates). Sociologists David G. Bromley and Anson Shupe characterized this as an "anti-cult movement."[1][2]

Types of opposers

The Christian countercult movement

Some evangelical Christian groups have formed specifically to counter what they view as heretical cultic versions of their respective religions, to prevent current followers from joining NRMs, and to convince former members of their respective religions who have converted to NRMs to return. For example, persons associated with the Christian countercult movement express concerns about heresy and about harm to members of purported cults and to society.

The anti-cult movement

In academia the "Anti-Cult Movement" (sometimes abbreviated as "ACM") refers to a collectivity of groups and individuals that pursue an opposition to cults and to some new religious movements (NRMs). Sociologists David G. Bromley and Anson Shupe initially defined the ACM in 1981 as a collection of groups who embrace brainwashing-theory,[3] but later observed a significant shift in ACM ideology towards a "medicalization" of the memberships of new religious movements.[4]

Many opponents of "cults" dispute the usage of the term[5], and would prefer the label "cult critics" rather than "anti-cult" activists.[6]

Critical former members

Scholars of sociology and of religion sometimes refer to critical former members of cults or of New Religious Movements as "apostates". Those scholars also use the term "defectors" to identify those former members who do not express criticism.[7]

Regarding the appropriateness of the terms "apostate" and "defector", cult-critic Michael Langone writes that "[a]lthough, strictly speaking, these terms may not have been intended to be value judgments or statistical generalizations about the truth claims of critics (Bromley, 1998), they clearly came to be perceived as such in both camps."[8]

Critical former members sometimes form loose networks[citation needed], often with an active presence on the Internet[citation needed]. They voice concerns about consequences for members of their former group: about wasted time and money, about psychological harm, and sometimes about physical harm. They watch and criticize their former group and provide to the general public information and their perspective, alleging a lack of disclosure on the part of such groups. Such "critical former members" often have the stated aim of enabling prospective or current followers to make an informed choice about joining and/or staying with the group. The motivations of these critical former members, the roles they play in the anti-cult movement, and the validity of their testimony, remain highly controversial.[citation needed]

Hadden's taxonomy of opposition to cults

According to a taxonomy proposed by Professor Jeffrey K. Hadden from the University of Virginia's Department of Sociology, four distinct classes of opposition to cults exist:

Religious opposition

  • the opposition views cults as engaging in heresy
  • the opposition views its mission as exposing the heresy and correcting the beliefs of those who have strayed from "truth"
  • the opposition uses a metaphor of deception rather than possession to explain cultic activity
  • opposition to cults serves two important functions: it protects members (especially the youth) from heresy, and increases solidarity among the faithful

Secular opposition

  • the opposition professes the autonomy of individuals as the manifest goal, achievable by getting people out of religious groups
  • the opposition sees the struggle as about control (politics), not about theology
  • the opposition sometimes self-organizes around families who have or have had children involved in a "cult"
  • the opposition aims to disable or destroy the cult or NRM organizationally


("Apostasy" defined as the renunciation of a religious faith. See Apostasy in new religious movements.)

  • the opposition consists of apostates and those who engage in active opposition to their former faith
  • the anti-cult movement has actively encouraged[citation needed] former members of religious groups to interpret their experience in a "cult" as one of suffering egregious wrongs; and encourages participation in organized anti-cult activities

Entrepreneurial opposition

  • the opposition consists of individuals who take up a cause for personal gain
  • ad hoc alliances or coalitions promote the entrepreneurial agenda
  • a few entrepreneurs have made careers by creating organized opposition[citation needed]

Cult-watching groups

In order refrain from using possibly derisive categories such as "anti-cult" and "cult apologist" Eileen Barker tried to introduce a new set of more neutral labels for various groups that disseminate information about purported cults with the intent of influencing public and government perception of them.

Her five types of "cult watching groups (CWG)" are:[9]:

Barker model
Group Type Financial sources
cult-awareness groups (CAGs) Membership dues; government; trusts; fees
counter-cult groups (CCGs) Internal to believers/churches; selling literature
research-oriented groups (ROGs) University research-funds; government; churches; police; trusts
human-rights groups (HRGs) Larger bodies; NGOs; churches
cult-defender groups (CDGs) New Religious Movements (directly or indirectly); membership-fees

Expressing opposition

Faced with the phenomenon of what they see as a cult or NRM, those opposed to such a group have a range of ways of expressing their opposition.


Template:Ambox/small Apologetics and debates may serve to highlight perceived heretical behavior. Informational campaigns of greater or lesser stridency and/or logic may bring perceived facts to the attention of the public, of potential perceived victims, and of authorities.


Template:Ambox/small Collectively, persecution of a scorned group can take the form of official campaigns such as overt inquisitions or more passive (often legalistic) discrimination. Less official-seeming action can take the form of apparently more spontaneous, grassroots-based pogroms.

On the individual level, perceived victims of alleged cults may face kidnapping, writs of guardianship, deprogramming and exit-counseling.

Academic study

Reliability of the testimony of critical ex-members (apostates)

See Apostasy for a more detailed treatment of this subject.

Academics debate as to the reliability of the testimonies of critical former members (apostates). Some scholars challenge the reliability of apostates' testimony. For example Bryan R. Wilson, a professor of sociology at Oxford University, in a collection of essays[10] he edited in 1981, writes that apostates from new religious movements generally stand in need of self-justification, seeking to reconstruct their own past and to excuse their former affiliations, while blaming their former closest associates. Wilson introduces the concept of the atrocity story (compare the "atrocity tale" of Bromley, Shupe and Centimiglia, (1979)[11]) that apostates rehearse in order to explain how, by manipulation, coercion or deceit, the group that they now condemn recruited them.

Other academics find such testimonies of former members generally reliable. For example, Benjamin Zablocki, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University, when analyzing leaver responses, found the testimonies of former members at least as reliable as statements from the groups themselves.[12]

The APA, Margaret Singer and theories of brainwashing

In the early 1980s sociologist Richard Ofshe and psychologist Margaret Singer, both affiliated with UC-Berkeley, became controversial figures due to their involvement as expert witnesses in court-cases against new religious movements, during which they presented anti-cult theories of brainwashing, mind-control, or "coercive persuasion" as concepts generally accepted within the scientific community.[13] The American Psychological Association (APA) in 1983 asked the psychologist Margaret Singer, one of the more vocal proponents of coercive persuasion theories, to chair a task-force (the APA taskforce on Deceptive and Indirect Techniques of Persuasion and Control (DIMPAC)) to investigate whether brainwashing or "coercive persuasion" did indeed play a role in recruitment by such movements. Before the taskforce had submitted its final report, however, the APA pre-empted it in an amicus curiæ brief in an ongoing case. The brief stated that "[t]he methodology of Drs. Singer and Benson has been repudiated by the scientific community", portrayed the hypotheses advanced by Singer as "little more than uninformed speculation, based on skewed data" and claimed that "[t]he coercive persuasion theory ... is not a meaningful scientific concept".[14] The brief characterized the theory of brainwashing as not scientifically proven. The brief itself suggests the hypothesis that cult-recruitment techniques might prove coercive for certain sub-groups, while not affecting others coercively. However, the APA withdrew as an amicus less than two months later.[15]

When the DIMPAC report finally appeared in 1987, the APA's Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology (BSERP) rejected it as lacking "the scientific rigor and evenhanded critical approach necessary for APA imprimatur" because the Board did "not believe that we have sufficient information available to guide us in taking a position on this issue".[16]

In their collaboration Religion and the Social Order: The Handbook on Cults and Sects in America : 1993,[17] Bromley and Hadden present ideological foundations of the theories of brainwashing[citation needed]; they also conclude that such theories lack scientific support[citation needed]. They argue that the perceived simplistic perspective that they find inherent in the brainwashing metaphor appeals to those attempting to locate an effective social weapon to use against disfavored groups,[citation needed] and that the relative success of such efforts at social control should not (in their opinion) detract from the lack of scientific basis for such opinions.[citation needed]

Psychologists, sociologists, many ex-members of purported cults, and most cult-critics now agree[citation needed] that the term "brainwashing" does not properly apply to the recruitment- and retention-techniques used by so-called or alleged cults. Given the linguistic/semantic controversy[citation needed], some cult-critics like Steven Hassan, author of the book Combatting Cult Mind Control (1988), started using the term mind control as an alternative label. See also cults and mind-control controversies.

Social scientists who study new religious movements, such as Jeffrey K. Hadden (see References), understand the general proposition that religious groups can have considerable influence over their members, and that that influence may have come about through deception and indoctrination. Indeed, many sociologists[who?] observe that "influence" occurs ubiquitously in human cultures, and some argue that the influence exerted in "cults" or in "new religious movements" does not differ greatly from the influence present in practically every domain of human action and of human endeavor.

The Association of World Academics for Religious Education (AWARE), in addressing and giving a definition of deprogramming, claims that "... without the legitimating umbrella of brainwashing ideology, deprogramming — the practice of kidnapping members of NRMs and destroying their religious faith — cannot be justified, either legally or morally".[18] The FACTNet (Fight Against Coercive Tactics Network) no longer considers forcible "deprogramming" an acceptable method for helping someone to exit a cult, and asserts that: " professionals often called exit counselors or intervention specialists use methods which are voluntary, in which cult members agree to meet with loved ones and a professional for open and honest discussion over a two to five day period."[19]

Dr. James Richardson, a Professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, claims that if the NRMs had access to powerful brainwashing techniques, one would expect that NRMs would have high growth rates, while in fact most have not had notable success in recruitment (most adherents participate for only a short time). Richardson characterizes the success of groups in retaining members as limited. In addition, Tom Robbins, Eileen Barker, Newton Maloney, Massimo Introvigne, John Hall, Lorne Dawson, Anson Shupe, David G. Bromley, Gordon Melton, Marc Galanter, Saul Levine and other scholars researching NRMs have argued — and established to the satisfaction of courts[who?] and relevant professional associations[who?] and scientific communities[who?] — that there exists no scientific theory, generally accepted and based upon methodologically sound research, that supports the brainwashing theories advocated by the "anti-cult movement".[citation needed]

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published[citation needed] a statement in 1977 relating to brainwashing and mind-control. In this statement the ACLU opposed certain methods "depriving people of the free exercise of religion". The ACLU also rejected (under certain conditions) the idea that claims of the use of "brainwashing" or of "mind control" should overcome the free exercise of religion.

Disputes about "cult apologism"

See Cult apologist for a more detailed treatment of this subject

Some critics of cults, such as Anton Hein, severely criticize scholars like Melton who disagree with their views. Hein uses the term "cult apologist" for them. Those[who?] offering such criticism accuse such scholars of naïveté and poor scholarship; and above all they reproach them for not warning people who need warning, as well as of receiving funding from the cults themselves. Douglas Cowan quotes Hein as writing:[20]

A cult apologist is someone who consistently or primarily defends the teachings and/or actions of one or more movements considered to be cults — as defined sociologically or theologically ... Cult apologists generally defend their views by claiming to champion religious freedom and religious tolerance. However, they tend to be particularly intolerant toward those who question and critique the movements they defend.

Scholarly cooperation between these "anti-cult" activists and scholars labeled "cult apologists" seems virtually non-existent.[21]

In a paper presented to the 2002 Society for the Scientific Study of Religion Conference, Douglas Cowan presents the political, ethical, economic and personal impact of such distinctions and the range of opinion about what "cult apologist" means in the context of three basic domains as follows:[20]

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

The role of the media

The public often gets views about a new religious movement, controversial group or purported cult via the media; and the media may sometimes present such views negatively and/or in a sensationalized manner. Some sociologists detect what they call a negative summary event as a recurring theme that manifests as opposition to new religious movements. In the words of James A. Beckford, the concept of the negative summary event "[...] refers to the journalistic description of a situation or event in such a way as to capture and express its negative essence as part of an intermittent and slow-moving story. An apparently isolated happening is thereby used as an occasion for keeping the broader, controversial phenomenon in the public mind."[citation needed] James R. Lewis writes in his book Cults in America that the media tend to focus on conflict, which focus leads to stories which perpetuate what he calls the "cult stereotype".[22]

An article on the categorization of new religious movements in U.S. print media published by The Association for the Sociology of Religion (formerly the American Catholic Sociological Society), criticizes the print media for failing to recognize social-scientific efforts in the area of new religious movements, and its tendency to use popular or anti-cultist definitions rather than social-scientific insight, and asserts that The failure of the print media to recognize social-scientific efforts in the area of religious movement organizations impels us to add yet another failing mark to the media report card Weiss (1985) has constructed to assess the media's reporting of the social sciences.[23]

Larry R. Moffitt, vice-president of the Tiempos del Mundo newspapers (owned by Sun Myung Moon), asserts that after an entire body of believers runs afoul of the law in a dramatic and sensational manner such as the mass suicides at Jonestown, the Branch Davidians and the suicide of the Heaven’s Gate group , "[...] it doesn’t take many of these episodes for the public to view any religion whose founding prophet is currently living, as being of one this dangerous ilk."[citation needed]

Newspaper columnist Cal Thomas makes reference to perceived stereotypes in journalism dictated by "[...] a raging, unforgiving, imposing, intolerant, arrogant secularism that claims that any idea or authority that comes from a source higher than the mind of humankind is to be a priori overruled as unconstitutional, immoral, illegal and ignorant."

Michael Horowitz, a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, characterizes the dominant culture as an environment of religious persecution: "Today's elites find it hard to believe that Christians can possibly be the persecuted rather than the persecutors … Believing Christians have been patronized as polyester bigots against whom a modern, thinking, caring culture must protect itself."[citation needed]

A survey conducted in 1983 by John Dart and Jimmy Allen found[citation needed] that an "unhealthy distrust exists between religionists and journalists. Religious figures fear that people may misunderstand and misrepresent them; journalists fear making mistakes and incurring religious wrath.[...] The resulting apprehensions inhibit the free flow of information and only add to misunderstanding."

A 1999 United Nations report, citing several mission reports, noted that "the media, and in particular the popular press, all too often portrays matters relating to religion and belief in particular religious minorities, in a grotesque, not to say totally distorted and harmful light." The U.N. Special Rapporteur "recommended starting a campaign to develop awareness among the media on the need to publish information that respects the principles of tolerance and non-discrimination."[24]


  1. Bromley, David G.; Anson Shupe (1981). Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare. Boston: Beacon Press.
  2. Shupe, Anson and David G. Bromley. 1994. "," pp. 3-32 in Anson Shupe and David G. Bromley Anti-Cult Movements in Cross-Cultural Perspective, New York, NY: Garland, pp. 9-14.
  3. Bromley, David G. and Anson Shupe Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare. Boston: Beacon Press, 1981
  4. Shupe, Anson and David G. Bromley. 1994. "The Modern Anti-Cult Movement in North America," pp. 3-32 in Anson Shupe and David G. Bromley Anti-Cult Movements in Cross-Cultural Perspective, New York, NY: Garland, pp. 9-14.
  5. Kropveld, Michael: "An Example for Controversy: Creating a Model for Reconciliation", Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 2 No. 2, 2003.
  6. Langone, Michael D.: "Academic Disputes and Dialogue Collection: Preface", ICSA E-Newsletter, Vol. 4, No. 3, September 2005.
  7. Bromley, D. G., Shupe, A., and Ventimiglia, J. C. (1979). "Atrocity tales, the Unification Church and the social construction of evil". Journal of Communication, 29, 42-53.
  8. The Two "Camps" of Cultic Studies: Time for a Dialogue Langone (Retrieved Dec 2006)
  9. Barker, Eileen. (2003) "Watching for Violence: A Comparative Analysis of the Roles of Five Types of Cult-Watching Groups". In Cults, Religion, and Violence, edited by David G Bromley and J. Gordon Melton. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press. pp. 123-148.
  10. Wilson, Bryan R. (Ed.) The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism, Rose of Sharon Press, 1981.
  11. Bromley, David G., Shupe, Anson D., Ventimiglia, G.C.: "Atrocity Tales, the Unification Church, and the Social Construction of Evil", Journal of Communication, Summer 1979, p. 42-53
  12. Zablocki, Benjamin, Reliability and validity of apostate accounts in the study of religious communities. Paper presented at the Association for the Sociology of Religion in New York City, Saturday, August 17, 1996.
  13. Allen, Charlotte (December 1998). "Brainwashed! Scholars of cults accuse each other of bad faith". Lingua Franca (magazine). Archived from the original on 2000-12-03.
  14. CESNUR - APA Brief in the Molko Case
  15. Motion of the American Psychological Association to Withdraw as Amicus Curiae
  16. APA Memorandum on Brainwashing: Final Report of the Task Force
  17. David G Bromley: Religion and the Social Order: The Handbook on Cults and Sects in America : 1993. edited by Jeffrey K. Hadden. JAI Press, 1993. ISBN 978-1559384773
  18. See the undated quote via the new Cult Awareness Network by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance ( at, retrieved 2008-02-19
  19. Use of Forced Deprogramming Retrieved 2006-12-28
  20. 20.0 20.1 Cult Apology: A Modest (Typological) Proposal, Douglas E. Cowan, Paper presented to the 2002 Society for the Scientific Study of Religion Conference 'Boundaries and Commitments in NRM Research'", November 2002
  21. Lattin, Don (2000-05-01). "Combatants in Cult War Attempt Reconciliation / Peacemaking conference is held near Seattle". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2008-11-16.
  22. Lewis, James R. (1998). "Cults and the Media". Cults in America : A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, California, USA: ABC-CLIO. p. 29. ISBN 978-1-57607-031-4. ""this kind of reporting contributes to the perpetuation of the cult stereotype. ... the marked tendency of the mass media to report on a phenomenon only when it results in conflicts and problems.""
  23. van Driel, Barend and James T. Richardson. Research Note Categorization of New Religious Movements in American Print Media. Sociological Analysis 1988, 49, 2:171-183
  24. United Nations Interim report on the elimination of all forms of intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief prepared by the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights

Further reading

  • Anthony, Dick, Brainwashing and Totalitarian Influence. An Exploration of Admissibility Criteria for Testimony in Brainwashing Trials, Ph.D. Diss., Berkeley (California): Graduate Theological Union, 1996, p. 165.
  • Anthony, Dick. 1990. "Religious Movements and 'Brainwashing' Litigation" in Dick Anthony and Thomas Robbins, In gods we trust : new patterns of religious pluralism in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. ISBN 0887388000
  • Beckford, James A., Cult Controversies: The Societal Response to New Religious Movements, London, Tavistock, 1985, ISBN 0422796301, p. 235
  • Bromley, David G., & Anson Shupe, Public Reaction against New Religious Movements: article in Cults and new religious movements: a report of the Committee on Psychiatry and Religion of the American Psychiatric Association, edited by Marc Galanter, M.D., (1989) ISBN 978-0-89042-212-0
  • Bromley, David G. (Ed.) The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements CT, Praeger Publishers, 1998. ISBN 0-275-95508-7
  • Dart, John and Allen, Jimmy; Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media, Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, Vanderbilt University, September 1993
  • Hadden, Jeffrey K., The Anti-Cult Movement Available online
  • Hadden, Jeffrey K., The Brainwashing Controversy
  • Horowitz, Michael J., Breaking the Chains Around the Gulags of Faith, acceptance speech on receiving the William Wilberforce Award, February 5, 1997.
  • Moffitt, Larry R., Media and Religious Intolerance: A Clash of Alien Cultures, Presented at the conference of the International Coalition for Religious Freedom, October 10-12, 1998 – São Paulo, Brazil
  • Robbins, Thomas and Anthony, Dick, Cults in the late Twentieth Century in Lippy, Charles H. and Williams, Peter W. (eds.) Encyclopedia of the American Religious experience. Studies of Traditions and Movements. Charles Scribner's sons, New York (1988) Vol II pp. ISBN 978-0-684-18861-4
  • Thomas, Cal, remarks at a conference, Religious Liberty in America: Crossroads or Crisis?, sponsored by the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, March 16-17, 1993
  • Wilson, Bryan R., Apostates and New Religious Movements, Oxford, England 1994


es:Oposición a nuevos movimientos religiosos nl:Oppositie tegen nieuwe religieuze bewegingen en sekten

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.