CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

Watching for Violence

A Comparative Analysis of the Roles of Five Types of Cult-Watching Groups

Eileen Barker (London School of Economics)
A paper presented at The 2001 Conference in London. Preliminary draft, not to be quoted without permission
[Final version to be published by David G. Bromley in Cults and Violence (forthcoming).]

Cults and violence are commonly bound inextricably together in the public mind. There have, after all, been some horrifying testimonies to their connection in the recent past: the murders and mass suicide of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, and the Solar Temple; the terrifying siege at Waco which ended with the fire that killed the children trapped in the compound along with David Koresh and his followers; and, perhaps most ominous of all, the poisoning of innocent travelers on the Tokyo underground by members of Aum Shinrikyö.

Undoubtedly these tragedies would not have occurred had the movements not existed and carried out the actions that they did, but the actions did not take place in a vacuum. All of them, and even the Heaven’s Gate suicides, were part of a "cult scene" that includes other members of the wider society - and among the key players in "the cult scene" are the cult-watching groups (CWGs). These are organizations and networks of people who, for personal or professional reasons, contribute to the complex of relationships between new religious movements (NRMs) and the rest of society

There are those who argue that, were it not for the existence of CWGs acting as ever-vigilant watchdogs, there would be far more violence than there has been. There are also those who argue that it is some of the CWGs themselves that have contributed to what violence there has been through their aggressive attacks on the movements, exacerbating rather than ameliorating the situation. Both of these positions can have some truth in them - but truth is rarely that simple. Although some reference will be made to violence occurring more or less directly between CWGs and NRMs, the primary aim of this chapter is to offer a more general, comparative background to incidents such as those mentioned above, by pointing out some of the complexities of the "cult scene" and how, in a variety of situations, the activities of CWGs may or may not "make a difference."

A number of points will be argued about the relationship between NRMs, CWGs and violence. First it has to be recognized that violence can come from either direction, both to and from the NRMs or CWGs. Secondly, activities by CWGs can both increase and decrease the probability of a violent outcome. Thirdly, while some of the violence occurs directly between NRMs and CWGs, most of it is indirect, involving, as intervening variables, (i) other actors (such as the media, governments, law enforcers, vigilante groups and the general public) and (ii) aspects of the general social environment (such as the economy, the political situation, migration, and the self-perception of mainstream religions). Fourthly, CWGs vary enormously. It will be suggested (a) that it is helpful to understand their activities as stemming from the interests and/or aims of the group, and (b) that their efficacy depends on the resources (such as funding and status) that they can command. Fifthly, changes occur in CWGs, NRMs, other key players and society over time and across space. Sixthly, the same activities performed by the same CWG can result in different outcomes on different occasions; in one set of circumstances the potential for violence can be increased by a CWG acting in almost the same way as it does when, in another situation, the potential is decreased.

Five Types of Cult-Watching Groups

There are numerous ways in which CWGs can be, and have been, distinguished from each other. Many of these distinctions are evaluative, even highly emotive, with members of one group assuming the worst about members of another. This is not a particularly helpful approach if we want to understand more about the dynamics of processes in which the groups are involved. Then it has been suggested that cult-watching groups recently set up by governmental agencies should be distinguished from, say, those set up by parents; but the governmental groups have little in common with each other, and little follows merely from their origins (although, obviously enough, government-supported groups will have access to considerable resources). Others would distinguish between general CWGs and those that specialize in particular movements or types of movements; but, again, such divisions are not particularly illuminating.

Decades of research into "the cult scene" have led me to the conclusion that the most useful way of distinguishing between groups is to take as our key defining characteristic the underlying question to which each group is primarily devoted to giving an answer in its cult-watching activities. Other characteristics frequently follow from these questions. Thus, we can find governmental and non-governmental groups subsumed under the rubric of one type of group, and other governmental and non-governmental groups fitting more neatly into another type.

The types are not meant to represent reality but to function as conceptual tools, allowing comparisons to be made between the abstractions which serve as a kind of template. One will, therefore, find real groups and/or their individual members both overlapping different types and changing with the passage of time. The types can, nonetheless, help us to recognize (a) how differences between the groups' behaviour and influence are not necessarily idiosyncratic, but reveal systematic similarities and differences allied to their different interests; (b) where there are exchanges and influences between the groups; and, most relevant to our immediate concerns, (c) the effects that the different perspectives and related actions can have on promoting or defusing potential violence.

Table 1: Ideal Types of Cult-watching groups


Ideal Type


Question underpinning existence

What (potential) harm is caused by ‘destructive cults’? What are the heretical beliefs of NRMs? What do NRMs do believe? How do they relate to rest of society? How does society treat NRMs differently? What is right & good about NRMs? How are they abused?
Main aims, interests and/or purpose Help victims; alert potential victims; control or ban dangerous cults Explain where & how NRMs deviate from The Truth Increase understanding based on objective information Protect human rights of religious minorities Defending NRMs; exposing CAGs
Membership Relatives; ex-members; exit-counsellors; Mental-health professionals Theologians;

Apologists; believers of the faith community

Academics and other scholars and professionals Human rights activists;

Professionals, esp. lawyers

Members and sympathisers of NRMs
Evaluation Negative (Negative) Neutral (Neutral) Positive
Feared source of violence Unidirectional - from destructive cults onto members and non-members Not primary concern (except when Satanic or millennial) NRMs and/or society; concerned with interaction and comparison Any abuse of human rights Unidirectional -from society in general or particular groups
Selected for NRM image ‘Bad’ or criminal acts ‘Wrong’ or ‘false’ beliefs Beliefs, practices & comparisons Discrimination by society ‘Good’ acts


Ignored or rejected for NRM image ‘Good’, ‘normal’

and/or acceptable behaviour

‘Correct’ and/or shared beliefs Truth of beliefs & non-empirical judgements Beliefs, actions irrelevant to discrimination ‘Bad’ acts of NRMs;

Social tolerance

Sources of information for cult-watching activity Ex-members; relatives; media;

own counsellors;

-ve information from scholars

NRM literature;

Testimonies of


NRMs; ex-members; family; society;

group dynamics;

rest of society

Legislation; treatment of and/or violence to NRMs NRMs; CWGs; media; society
Direct knowledge of NRMs Anxious parents and former members of NRMs Reading the literature; own previous belief Observation, questionnaire, interview, literature Limited acquaintance Membership,




Generalising from distressing individual cases Hermeneutic

comparison of Scriptures

Empirical testing with comparison Collecting data related to HR abuses Collecting data; generalising

(all groups use some volunteers)

Membership dues; govt; trusts; fees for counselling & expert witnessing Internal to believers; churches; selling literature University research funds; govt; churches; police; trusts; Larger bodies;

NGOs; churches;

NRMs (directly or indirectly); membership fees
Credibility to non-CWGs Mixed — but most used by media Low outside faith community High among non-committed Mixed; high if larger group Low
Influence Strong Weak Varies Varies Weak
Indirect contribution towards violence Lowers as watchdog; Heightens through polarisation Rarely effects situation in modern secular democracies Lowers through providing accurate information and direct contact Lowers as watchdog of civil rights violations Negligent effect, though can heighten through polarisation & exposing ACGs

The types, which are illustrated schematically in Table 1, are: cult-awareness groups (CAGs); counter-cult groups (CCGs); research-orientated groups (ROGs); human-rights groups (HRGs); and cult-defender groups (CCGs). These labels are not altogether satisfactory, but they have been chosen partly in an attempt to avoid at least some of the derisory connotations and dismissive arguments that have come to be associated with categories such as "anti-cultist" and "cult-apologist". My only defence for including the term "cult" in the type-labels is that acronyms such as "NRMWG", CNRMG or "NRMAG" not only sound cumbersome, but would probably confuse and/or irritate more people than they pleased. I do, however, use the term NRM in preference to "cult" when talking about the movements themselves, rather than their watchers.

To complicate matters slightly further, it needs to be recognized that, despite the overall category of "cult-watching groups," the extent to which members of the groups are actually engaged in watching NRMs varies enormously. Members of some groups have never met a member of a new religious movement face to face; others are former members, having been in one or other of the movements for periods ranging from a couple of days to twenty or more years; yet others will have got to know movements, and perhaps lived with them for varying periods, as part of their research. Those with no direct knowledge rely on secondary sources that they believe to be "trustworthy" - which can mean ferreting out information that will fit and reinforce their preconceptions of the movements.

Members of CWGs usually agree on some basic facts about a movement (such as when, where and by whom it was founded), but all of us both include and exclude particular aspects of actions, beliefs, organizations and processes in our descriptions of phenomena. This selection is not merely arbitrary, but shaped partly by our interests - where we are "coming from" - which means that those who share a common agenda are likely to share similar images of the movements (Barker 1995). As part of the battle to get their own positions heard, the different CWGs also construct images of themselves and of the other groups, each trying to promote its own perspective in as positive a light as possible whilst, to a greater or lesser extent, denigrating those of the other types.

Cult-Awareness Groups (CAGs)

The fundamental question underlying the activity of CAGs is "In what ways do or might the movements harm individuals and/or society?" The predominant concern is to warn others of dangers, and to control the activities of the movements.

CAGs have frequently originated with the organization of those who have suffered personally as distressed relatives or former members of movements. They may also include deprogrammers, exit counsellors and thought reform consultants (many of whom are ex-members); and, sometimes, private detectives, lawyers, medical health practitioners and clinical psychologists who bring their professional skills to helping those who seek their assistance. Some CAGs have been initiated by governments (as in France) or are predominantly supported by the national Church (as in Russia).

Members of cult-awareness groups perceive themselves as caring and experienced in the suffering that the movements inflict upon families, and concerned about the dangers threatening society at large - as evidenced by the violence, criminal activities and other anti-social behaviour in which cults have indulged. Given the question they are addressing, it is not surprising that CAGs paint a picture of the movements that highlights what they see as the "bad" characteristics, while ignoring anything that could be seen as praiseworthy or even ordinary. The analogy has been made with asking a divorce lawyer what marriage is like. Members of cult-awareness groups associate with those who have suffered (especially parents and former members) and encourage them to define their experiences in terms that stress the role of the NRM and minimize the responsibility of the "victim." Particularly impressive witnesses for CAGs are the apostates who testify to the horrors they underwent while in an NRM; they (like the divorcee) were there - unlike academic researchers who, the argument goes, see only what the movement’s hierarchy wants them to see.

There is a sense in which stories of violence (the self-immolation of members of Ananda Marga or the murder of Sharon Tate by the Manson Family) are welcomed by CAGs. They "prove the point," and repeated reference is made to movements as "destructive and/or doomsday cults," with frequent mentions of the violence, murder and/or mass suicide associated with Jonestown, Waco, Aum Shinrikyö, the Solar Temple, and/or The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God - even when the movement that is being talked about is a peace-loving community which has never harmed anyone.

CAGs want not only to warn people of the dangers of cults, but also to try to ensure that their behaviour is controlled - even, in some cases, outlawed altogether. To this end they hold meetings, produce literature, lobby governments and other organizations and individuals who could support their cause. They also make extensive use of the Internet. Several members of CAGs offer themselves as expert witnesses in court cases, testifying in particular about the mind control techniques that they claim, with more or less sophistication, are used by the movements.

Counter-Cult Groups (CCGs)

For CCGs the important question is not what NRMs do, but what they believe and how these beliefs differ from what they, the counter-cultists, hold to be true beliefs (Introvigne 1995). CCGs’ descriptions of NRMs thus concentrate on "wrong" beliefs rather than on those beliefs that they have in common, and frequently rely on an interpretation of their Holy Scripture to demonstrate the error of a movement’s theology.

Members of CCGs are likely to include clergy, theologians, some former members who have converted to the new faith, and others who are committed to the theological position shared by that particular group. Counter-cultists often have a missionary zeal and not infrequently present themselves as saviours of lost souls; they may, however, be denigrated as religious fanatics and/or bigots by their opponents. A more common problem they have to face is ignorance of their existence or just being ignored by those who do not share their faith.

Research-Oriented Groups (ROGs)

Research-oriented groups ask the questions "What are the movements like?" "How can we understand and explain their beliefs and actions, and the ways in which they interact with the rest of society?" While ROGs include the cult-awareness question about the harm that NRMs might cause, they are equally interested in investigating situations in which harm is not perpetrated and in finding more "ordinary" information about the movements: their beliefs, practices, organization and the processes that occur both internally and as a result of their direct and indirect relationships with non-members. This means that (as in this volume) they are concerned with tracing the roles (if any) played by non-members in the exacerbation or amelioration of situations that might result in violence. ROGs are also concerned to point out changes that occur with the passage of time - that, for example, children raised in ISKCON are now protected from violence and other kinds of abuse as carefully as pretty well any children in the West - and possibly considerably more so than many.

Furthermore, ROGs will try to contextualise information through comparison with other religions and/or those who share socio-economic and various demographic characteristics with members of the movement concerned. They might compare the rate of violence in an NRM with the rate of violence among, say, Roman Catholics or Methodists, possibly concluding that members of the new religion exhibited a lower rate of violence than their peers in an older religion. The research-oriented scholar would then investigate what factor(s) could account for the different rates. In other words, while violence certainly occurs in some NRMs, comparisons can show this does not necessarily mean that violence is typical of NRMs and atypical of other religions or, indeed, "ordinary" citizens.

ROGs are less likely than CAGs to accept theories of mental manipulation as being the over-riding reason for an individual’s joining a movement and/or his or her behaviour while a member. Scholars will, nonetheless, examine the influence that a movement has on potential converts and their members, and study different patterns of authority and dependence, systematically taking into account several more factors than other CWGs are wont to do. Interestingly enough, such research methods can result in ROGs becoming aware of real or potential problems that are overlooked by the more generalizing condemnation that can arise from a CAGs’ approach.

ROGs consist primarily of scholars (particularly of religious studies and the social sciences), but may include members of mainstream religions, relatives of members of movements and former members who want the public to be alerted to both real and potential problems, while also having a desire to promote as balanced and objective a picture of the new religions as possible. There may also be a network of specialists such as lawyers, doctors, professionally trained counsellors and therapists upon whose services the ROG can call or to whom it can refer those who come to it for expert assistance. Like the CAGs, ROGs rely heavily on former members, both for information and for offering support to others who have left a movement. ROGs are, however, aware that some former members will have had (both in the movement and, perhaps, after leaving it) experiences that may not be the same as other former members’ experiences and may thus portray the movement in different ways - just as some divorcees manage to keep a relatively happy relationship with their ex-spouse, while others grow increasingly bitter after the split (Lewis 1986).

ROGs perceive themselves as seekers of objective information in order to provide the most reliable basis for action. Their methods include participant observation, interview and questionnaire, but the fact that, qua social scientists, they have no special expertise that allows them (a) to evaluate non-empirical theological beliefs or (b) to make moral judgements frequently results in their detractors claiming ROGs do not care about (i) The Truth (a complaint of some counter-cultists) or (ii) the suffering of individuals (an accusation frequently raised by Members of cult-awareness groups, who sometimes label ROGs as cult-defenders when they refuse to condemn all NRMs as "destructive cults." The cult-defenders themselves are likely to complain that ROGs are members of cult-awareness groups because they refuse to offer unequivocal support for the movements).

ROGs differ from each other along the proactive dimension. Some, such as RENNER, meet for conferences that are not open to the general public, exchange scholarly papers resulting from their research, and publish their findings in academic journals or books. Others, such as INFORM, make information readily available to anyone who asks for it; like CAGs, they produce leaflets and popular books, organize public seminars, give talks at schools, universities, church groups, youth clubs and various other places, and appear on both radio and television. Some also give evidence in court - either for or against a movement. Members of ROGs have also found themselves increasingly called upon by government departments and law-enforcement agencies around the world, not only to give factual data about the movements, but also to help such people understand more about the interactive processes that could lead to unintended and undesired consequences - including violence.

Human-Rights Groups (HRGs)

Human-rights groups are more concerned with asking how society treats the movements than with what the movements themselves do; one might, therefore, argue that they should be labelled "watching-out for cults groups." Like ROGs, HRGs are neutral in their evaluation of the movements in that they consider the rights of NRMs to be on a par with those of any other organizations, irrespective of beliefs and actions that, while they may contravene social mores, do not harm others or contravene the criminal law.

HRGs consist, not surprisingly, of people who believe strongly in human rights issues and frequently include persons with legal training; but, unlike CAGs, which believe that the movements take away the rights of their members and their members’ relatives, HRGs tend to concentrate on preserving the rights of the movements. Some HRGs include members of ROGs, CDGs and/or NRMs among their number; some human-rights activists know relatively little about the movements.

Cult-Defender Groups (CDGs)

Cult-defenders ask questions about how NRMs have been mistreated and/or misrepresented. They present themselves as fighters for the truth about the NRMs, indignantly preserving the freedom of religion and standing up for an unpopular cause frequently, they claim, against "secular humanists." In some ways like a mirror image of CAGs, CDGs focus on positive aspects of the movements, ignoring or explaining away any dubious actions and what they dismiss as anti-cultists’ "atrocity tales." They are particularly vocal in their condemnation of deprogramming and exit counselling. They may also claim that violent situations are the fault of CAGs, the government, law-enforcement agencies, the media or some other body or individuals, rather than the NRMs themselves.

CDGs may consist of sympathisers and relatives of one or other of the new religions and of persons of another (or no) religion who are of an ideologically liberal disposition and have become disturbed by what they perceive as unfair treatment of the movements. They are also quite likely to include members of NRMs, who have, indeed, initiated some CDGs (such as the Scientologists’ APRL) and/or provided resources for their activities. It has also been the case that some academics, worried about the negative representation of the NRMs, have worked closely with some NRMs in order to present the other side of the picture. This can raise problems about whether a group such as AWARE, which has published some interesting studies of NRMs that had invited the academics and paid them to study their movement, is an ROG or a CDG. According to my definitions of my types, it wobbles between the two. It is a CDG in so far as only positive accounts of the NRM are selected at the cost of more negative aspects; and it is an ROG in so far as its members construct a balanced image of the NRM, investigating its beliefs and actions whether or not these are "good" or harmful. A study of the Church Universal and Triumphant (Lewis, 1994) has been criticised by some scholars on account of the role that the movement played in the data collection. Some of the chapters were impeccable in so far as their scholarly approach was concerned; others appeared to be more affected by the movement’s perspective than research-oriented methodology would demand.

But the difficulty in distinguishing one type from another is not necessarily due to potential overlaps. In the 1970s, there appeared an apparently extreme CAG called POWER (People’s Organized Workshop on Ersatz Religions) which advocated brutal deprogrammings in a quite widely circulated manual. Many readers were shocked by its violence-promoting contents, but equally shocked when they learned that it had been produced by the Church of Scientology. More recently, the "new CAN" (Cult Awareness Network) joined the ranks of CDGs after the "old CAN," which was unambiguously anti-cultist, had been declared bankrupt as the result of a court case involving a forcible deprogramming. It had its name and telephone number taken over by a consortium led by Scientologists, which now provides a cult-defender service for those who contact it, possibly under the illusion that they are dealing with the "old CAN."

CDGs that include members of several NRMs tend to have a rather short and not very productive shelf life. There are, of course, disagreements to be found within all CWGs, but the problem is particularly acute in CDGs when NRMs who have agreed to co-operate to further a common cause find themselves being expected to defend movements whose beliefs and practices are in sharp opposition to their own.

Direct Violence

Relationships between CWGs and NRMs, while they have included some fierce litigation, unpleasant threats and irritating inconveniences have only seldom resorted to direct violence. When there has been violence, it has usually involved sections of the cult-awareness movement. The lawyer, Sakamoto, who, with his family, was murdered by Aum Shinrikyö, was making enquiries on behalf of an incipient CAG; and one might (although it is rather stretching the definition) call the population of Antelope, Oregon, who were subjected to salmonella poisoning, members of an CAG.

Most members of cult-awareness groups eschew the path of violence for themselves, but some do feel that a "just war" may be necessary in certain circumstances. And there are a few who are undoubtedly belligerent. There have been incidents when members of CAGs have directly attacked members of one or other of the movements, but direct violence has been more frequently carried out by vigilante groups. There were, for example, a series of attacks on minority religions in Armenia in the mid-1990s by a group of paramilitaries; and violent assaults resulting in broken limbs have been carried out by angry relatives who might belong to a CAG but are not necessarily acting as representatives of their group. The most obvious example of systematic violence by CAGs has been forcible deprogrammings, which have relied heavily on the "brainwashing" metaphor to explain "recruitment" to the movements. Parents who turned to an CAG for help, or received a telephone call in which the caller reported having heard they had a "child" (who might be over 30) in a dangerous cult, could be advised that, if they (the parents) really loved their child and wanted to see him or her again, a deprogramming could be arranged (at what might be a cost of tens of thousands of dollars).

Although the deprogrammings have become less violent over time, some have undoubtedly been terrifying, and at least one suicide has occurred shortly after a young woman went through the ordeal - not uncharacteristically, the media blamed the movement from which the woman was forcibly "rescued" for the tragedy.

Numerous testimonies by those who were subjected to a deprogramming describe how they were threatened with a gun, beaten, denied sleep and food and/or sexually assaulted (Barker 1989; Kilbourne and Richardson 1982). But one does not have to rely on the victims for stories of violence: Ted Patrick, one of the most notorious deprogrammers used by CAGs (who has spent several terms in prison for his exploits) openly boasts about some of the violence he employed (Patrick 1976); in November 1987, Cyril Vosper, a Committee member of the British cult-awareness group, FAIR, was convicted in Munich of "causing bodily harm" in the course of one of his many deprogramming attempts; and a number of similar convictions are on record for prominent members of CAGs elsewhere.

Deprogramming continues in Japan, where, thanks to the activities of local CAGs, around 200 Unificationists may be forcibly abducted for deprogramming in a single year. But by the late 1990s "exit counselling" and "thought reform consultancy" (neither of which employ forcible abduction) had all but replaced deprogramming in the West. Nonetheless, the practice of deprogramming has contributed to worsening relations between NRMs and CAGs, and provided the NRMs with some "good atrocity tales."

Indirect Violence

As suggested earlier, violence rarely takes place in a vacuum. There has nearly always been a build up of antagonisms, resentment, hostility and/or hatred that can involve a number of contributory rather than direct causes for the eventual outbreak; the scene has been set before the catastrophe occurs and the proverbial straw finally breaks the camel’s back. The rest of this chapter adopts a more dynamic approach, exploring the more indirect ways in which CWGs make a difference in the "cult scene" by using and/or being used as a resource by other key actors and the wider society.

Given that few cult-watchers want to see outbreaks of violence, our problem is to understand some of the unintended consequences of cult watching. This is not an easy task. To begin with, there are methodological problems. Almost none of the well-known cases of violence involving NRMs in the West was predicted in advance by any CWG, and numerous predictions by the media and CAGs of impending mass suicides or violence have not been fulfilled. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of NRMs have shown little or no sign of directing any violent behaviour towards either themselves or anyone else. Violence has been the exception rather than the rule, and generalizations from these exceptions, especially when they are made without systematic comparison with the violence that takes place within the older religions and other areas of society, should be treated with the utmost caution.

Then, as other authors in this volume illustrate, those cases that have occurred have differed from each other in several important respects, making it difficult to use these by themselves to test theories of what leads to (or away from) violence. Next, although we can construct a story that purports to explain some of the factors leading up to violence, it is impossible to prove a negative by claiming that, had it not been for the role of a CWG (or anything else), there would have been violence. We can, however, point to a number of cases in which the defusing of a volatile situation would clearly seem to have been facilitated by mediation between a movement and non-members who have been informed by reliable information and understanding. Examples might include the bloodless conclusion of the siege involving the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord (Noble 1998).

Another problem is the sheer complexity of the cult scene. To obtain a full picture, one has to take into account several other key players including the mass media; the general public; mainstream religions; officials, such as law-enforcement agencies, politicians, the legal profession and others in a position to act on behalf of society. Any or all of these can influence and be influenced by each other, with the CWG being but a link in a complicated, interactive chain. Exploring such interconnections can help us to understand better the considerable disparity in the extent to which the CWGs succeed in "making a difference."

On "the supply side," the strength and effectiveness of a CWG’s contribution will depend not merely what the CWG has to say (be this positive, negative or neutral; accurate, inaccurate or biased) but also the extent to which and by whom it is heard, which, in turn, will depend on the group’s ability to secure such resources as funding and status, and, thus, access to and credibility with other players.

On "the demand side," the various "target groups" in the wider society will be more or less open to accept the different CWGs’ depictions of the NRMs. We cannot, however, take the various "other players" in isolation; they themselves will have more or less power and/or inclination to influence the "cult scene," depending on a number of factors related to the structure and culture of the wider society - not insofar as these are part of the cult scene but insofar as they comprise the stage upon which the cult scene is enacted. The setting of this "wider society" may encompass a village, a nation or the entire globe; and it may include properties related to the economy, immigration, and the religious and/or political situation.

One way to elaborate the significance of a comparative perspective is to start from the observation that counter-cultists, in so far as they are concerned (by definition) with the question of theological error, have not been very successful in making a difference beyond their own faith circles in most of contemporary western society. Complaints about theological error have limited appeal, partly because in a pluralistic society not everyone shares the one faith, partly because of the relative secularization that has occurred at a societal level, and partly because of a de jure or de facto separation of Church and State. While a parish newspaper might print an article on the heresy of non-Trinitarian beliefs, the rest of the world will not rush to read it, or to turn on a programme discussing the niceties of interpretation of some (to them) obscure verse in Holy Scripture.

But this has not always been the case. Until fairly recently, theological arguments carried far more weight (Jenkins 2000). Witches and heretics such as the Cathars have been burned at the stake; the Inquisition was a CCG par excellence, convinced that the violence in which it indulged was in accordance with the will of God. Conversely, today we can find some Islamic countries with little demand for CCGs because their interpretation of the shari’ah provides sufficient criteria for distinguishing the faithful from infidels, and laws for dealing with the infidel are already in place. A counter-cult group in Afghanistan would appear to be surplus to requirement. It might, thus, be hypothesised that both the more secular and democratically pluralistic and the more monolithically religious a state, the less demand there is for CCGs.

If we turn to post-communist societies, however, we can find CCGs playing a significant role. Mainstream religions, having suffered under an atheistic state, frequently promote counter-cult sentiments in attempts to reclaim their flock; but their arguments stress nationalism and identity, rather than engaging in theological debate (Barker 1997) - although Jehovah’s Witnesses’ beliefs have been declared false in a Russian court. For political reasons, the State is likely to support the Church in its attacks on what it considers to be foreign or destructive cults, with the media eagerly publishing stories supplied by local and foreign CCGs about the movements’ alien and heretical (that is, treacherous) beliefs. In such circumstances, local officials have felt no compunction to prevent vigilante groups and, on occasion, even priests from violently attacking Krishna devotees, Unificationists and members of other NRMs.

But, while it is important to recognize the role of social "demand," it also has to be recognized that the salience of what a group has to supply can itself attract attention in the contemporary West. In the 1980s, nasty stories of satanic violence (including the rape and slaughter of virgins, and the ritual impregnation of "brood mares" to produce infants for human sacrifices) were widely publicized, first in the USA, then elsewhere around the world. All too frequently, however, the violence turned out to be a creation of a few evangelical CCGs, a particular type of therapist or law enforcer and/or the media. Despite intensive investigations, little was found to substantiate the gory claims that were being made. There is, however, evidence that the very fact that the media were circulating such stories gave some paedophiles and murderers ideas about how to gain an added frisson (and perhaps a defence they hoped would provide First Amendment protection). Furthermore, some young people, wishing to experiment and/or shock, have been stimulated by lurid accounts in the media to pursue satanic rituals that have, occasionally, resulted in violence (Richardson et al 1991).

In short, while CCGs are not normally a powerful force outside their own constituencies in present-day America, comparative analyses indicate that there have been, and still can be, situations in which they can contribute significantly towards promoting violence. They, like the other CWGs, are more readily "heard" in some times and places than in others.

Of course, some ears are clearly more influential than others. To have the ear of officials, especially members of the government, is likely to promote a cause more successfully than the agreement, however enthusiastic, of the "man (or woman) in the street."

There is, nonetheless, a very real sense in which the standpoint of the general population is of considerable importance to CWGs. Relatively few people have first-hand experience of the movements and, however much CWGs organize conferences, produce literature or talk to people, they are unable to make direct contact with more than a very small percentage of the general population. For the vast majority of people, their knowledge comes through the mass media, and several studies have shown that the conventional wisdom which has been picked up through the media (including the Internet) consists far more of negative evaluation than factual information (Beckford 1999).

Although cult-defenders would like to reverse this situation, and although some have had access to considerable resources such as money for lawyers or the publishing of literature, their credibility in the wider society has not been high and what little effect they have has been more a result of their exposing (and antagonizing) others rather than getting their message across. Indeed, CDGs tend to be treated with as much suspicion as the movements whose interests they try to promote, a "good story" about a "good cult" being regarded as almost a contradiction in terms and not something likely to attract the media.

On the other hand, the better-known HRGs, such as Amnesty International and the OSCE enjoy considerably higher status. They have included reports of violations of the human rights of NRMs in literature with a limited but relatively influential distribution; but, not altogether surprisingly, their defence of NRMs has far less appeal in most quarters than their cries for help for starving children in North Korea, flood victims in Bangladesh or AIDS sufferers in sub-Saharan Africa. HRGs that focus more specifically on minority religions (such as the International Academy for Freedom of Religion and Belief) have less wide-spread status, but have made some difference by holding conferences, publishing material and visiting officials around the world.

It is probable that HRGs’ protests and presence have reduced some of the more extreme violations of the rights of NRMs at the legal and/or governmental level, especially when the society is a signatory of international declarations and its rhetoric, if not always its practice, proclaims that human rights should be extended to all, whatever their beliefs. It is, however, always possible for human-rights protests to be counter-productive, especially if they are interpreted as interference in another state’s internal policies. American pressure has evoked somewhat tart responses not only in Russia but also in Germany and France.

Generally speaking, the CWGs most likely to make a difference to potentially violent situations in the contemporary West are CAGs and ROGs. Both can play a significant role as "watch-dogs." If no one were keeping a watchful eye on new, alternative movements, a few of these might consider they could get away with anything. Knowing that they are being watched, and that a violation of laws (or even social niceties) can result in restrictive responses, they might be more circumspect in their behaviour. Violence may well be prevented if people are alerted with information that will help them to recognize and assess the movements, and officials can intervene to curtail the more violently oriented proclivities of the movement. It should, however, be recognized that there will be occasions when aggressive watch-dogging is counter-productive because either the NRM thrives on confrontation and/or society reacts to information about the NRM in an exacerbating rather than a preventative manner. Such exacerbation can, paradoxically enough, be the unintended consequence of the very concern that CAGs have to prevent violence.

The relative balance of influence that CAGs and ROGs exert on other key players varies from country to country and is constantly changing. In Britain, although a number of CAGs exist and succeed in obtaining considerable coverage in the media, they have not been as successful as ROGs in obtaining resources or credence from the government, law-enforcement agencies or the mainstream Churches. Here, as in most parts of Scandinavia and Holland, there is a relatively long tradition of religious tolerance and relatively little fear of NRMs causing major problems for the established status quo. The Churches may not be doing well, but they are unlikely to blame the new religions; and politicians, although they may declare that they do not like the movements, would be unlikely to gain many votes by passing laws that violate their countries’ (sometimes violently gained) liberal democracies.

In France and Belgium, however, (and, to a lesser extent, Austria and Germany) CAGs have had considerable success in persuading the government to set up Commissions to report on cults and government-funded groups to fight the cults. The Reports included names of "cults" or "sects" supplied almost exclusively by CAGs, and although officials claim, quite correctly, that these are not official lists, they are taken as such by the public and have resulted in discrimination and violence directed towards the named movements (a short time after the Unification Church featured in one report a bomb was thrown into its Paris centre and a young Unificationist lost a leg). There are various theories as to why such societies have been so open to CAG influence: that, for instance, it is an expression of widely-held anti-religious sentiments; or that there are few, if any, organized ROGs to counter the wilder claims made by the CAGs. Such explanations could also feed into understanding the attitudes of post-communist countries, but one should add variables such as economic and political unrest, the precarious position of traditional religion and increasing expressions of nationalism combined with fear, distrust and resentment of the foreign. And, of course, when an NRM performs an apparently inexplicable atrocity, there is a universal desire to prevent the recurrence of such a tragedy. The CAGs were listened to with far greater attention after over 900 followers of Jim Jones died in Guyana; French-speaking countries were severely jolted by the Solar Temple deaths; the whole world was horrified when Aum Shinrikyö released sarin gas into the Tokyo underground. In the wake of such bizarre violence, it is hardly surprising that the CAGs’ question "How do we control the harm perpetrated by NRMs?" was given an added salience and urgency.

Given the media’s interest in attracting and keeping a wide audience of readers, listeners and viewers, and the assumption that most people have a voyeuristic curiosity in the uncomplicated, the sensational, the novel and the violent, CAGs usually have the edge on other CWGs when it comes to disseminating their image of NRMs. A circular, symbiotic relationship develops, with CAGs reproducing the media’s stories in their literature and, indeed, recycling them to the media as well as supplying them to government officials and others. In general, CAGs can reap the benefit of unqualified "good stories" and appeals for sympathy in cases of very real tragedy; they are, moreover, likely to attract the support of individuals with power, status and/or financial resources who have a personal or professional interest in cults.

On the other hand, ROGs can claim credibility and respectability through their recognized qualifications; it their professional expertise, with methodologically laid down standards for assessing competing truth-claims, that is responsible for whatever status and access to resources they acquire. Put another way, CAGs have the advantage of constructing an attention-attracting human story, while ROGs have the advantage of more reliable methods to construct a possibly less arresting story (Barker 1995).

Curiously enough, it is possible that the more extreme members of cult-awareness groups help ROGs to gain access to both the movements and other key players just because CAG depictions of the NRMs can be so generalized and negative. First, the NRMs are more likely to give ROGs access which they deny the media and CAGs in the hope that the researchers will at least be fair. Secondly, after continually hearing the litany of movements as "brainwashing-exploitative-potentially-violent-cults-under-the-control-of-a-ruthless-pathologically-unstable-leadership-whose-real-purpose-is-not-religious-or-spiritual-but-financial-gain-sexual-perversion-and/or-political-and-personal-power," governmental officials, law enforcers and others have come to reject the extreme CAG’s caricature as predictable and less reliable and useful than the more detailed and objective information that ROGs can provide. Both official organizations and relatives of converts to NRMs have also concluded in a number of countries that not only can ROGs provide information free of the potentially vested interests of Church and State, but they can also generally be trusted not to fan the flames in a delicate situation. And although they are renowned for cumbersome qualifications rather than snappy sound bites, ROGs are being increasingly used for comment on news and current affairs programmes when a "cult story" comes up, with at least some of the media trying to offer the public an "objective middle position" - usually between a member of a cult-awareness group on the one hand and a member of a movement on the other. Of course, a "middle position" is not necessarily the correct position, and there can be many "middles" between two extremes. The world is too messy to be able to assume that an average gives the truth.

Constructing "The Other"

To repeat, ROGs are aware of, and concerned about, the possibility of violence. One of the potentially dangerous characteristics of many new religions offering an alternative to the status quo is to make a sharp distinction between "us" and "them." Their vision of non-believers as "other" is reinforced by describing the latter as "agents of The Enemy," members of "the System," or "Babylon," or merely those who are not among the elect, and by encouraging their members to distance themselves from former associates [Luke 14:26]. This makes the movements difficult to study and potentially dangerous when neither leaders nor followers are subjected to questioning from alternative perspectives or outside control.

It has, indeed, frequently been observed that recruiting people to carry out violent acts is made much easier when the person on whom the violence is being perpetrated has been defined as "other," "abnormal" and/or not fully human. When there is a clear label we know more easily who is on our side and who is the enemy - rather like the uniforms worn in a war, or even the shirts worn in a football game and the scarves worn by the fans. Left merely to our own devices, we might mistake "one of them" for "one of us." Such processes of distancing can be found at the root of racial (or football) violence and have frequently been an integral part of the mindsets that encourage people of one nation to kill the people of another without compunction. Derogatory labels, such as Hun, Yid, Nigger, Jap - or cultist - identify and dehumanise "the other." The Nazi State had a terrifying lack of difficulty in convincing those who assisted in its eugenics programmes that the "patients" were less than truly human and ought to be eliminated for the good of humanity (id est, the Aryan race).

The power that an authority figure can wield is, moreover, not restricted to Mengele’s co-workers at Auschwitz. "Ordinary people," under no great pressure, have administered potentially lethal electric shocks when asked to do so by someone wearing a white coat (Milgram 1974); "ordinary people" can go along with the majority, doubting the evidence of their own eyes when all their peers appear to be seeing something different (Asch 1959). It is "normal" for people to kill others when their country calls; indeed, it is the Jehovah’s Witnesses who are "abnormal" when they refuse to take up arms against others - and it is for this reason that they have been killed and subjected to all manner of violence.

This construction of "otherness," found in some NRMs and a not insignificant proportion of the general population, can also spring from an CAG’s concern with harm emanating from NRMs. Through the media, CAGs have not only supplied "good stories," they have also provided the concepts and the grammar with which the general public (including officials) can frame their understanding of NRMs. Nouns such as "cult," "pseudo-religion;" verbs such as "brainwash", "manipulate", "exploit"; adjectives such as "bizarre", "fanatic", "violent"; and use of the passive voice for "victims" who have been duped and had to be rescued, effectively diminish the likelihood that members of NRMs could have made choices and/or be capable of leaving (although, in fact, most do, of their own free will). The cultist becomes reduced to another species, incapable of the normal reasoning and morality of "real people," and, thus, not to be treated as if they were like "us."

If it is part of the conventional wisdom that cults are dangerous, then law enforcers, politicians and others (including vigilante groups) will be "given permission" to attack NRMs verbally, legally or physically (or turn a blind eye when others attack them) without drawing as much wrath upon themselves (or losing as many votes) as might have been the case were they to attack older, more respected religions in a similar fashion, even when these may well be just as, if not more, harmful. It is far "safer" (less likely to result in negative repercussions for the attacker) if the objects of an attack are generally considered to be "getting no more than they deserve." There may be general agreement that "something ought to be done" about the danger in our midst, and that drastic measures may be called for in what has come to be perceived as a drastic situation. Such rhetoric can be seen as fanning the violence that has been meted out to NRMs in parts of Europe and the Former Soviet Union - and, indeed, in the United States of America.

Deviance Amplification and Diminution

It has been suggested that both CAGs and an NRM itself may construct images that define the NRM as fundamentally atypical of the rest of society. It has also been suggested that research shows that this is unlikely to be true - NRMs tend to be far more "normal" than either they or their opponents would have us believe. But what is also suggested by the study of instances where there has been a violent outcome is that it has frequently been the case that both sides have, to a greater or lesser extent, been engaged in dehumanising and mud-slinging activities across the divide, resulting in behaviours that in turn lead to a process termed "deviancy amplification," with each pointing to the "bad" behaviour of the other to justify "worse" behaviour on its own part - which is, in turn, taken as a justification for further inflammatory actions by the other side, resulting in an escalating spiral of deviation from "normal" behaviour.

Thus, the dissemination of what an NRM perceives as negative, inaccurate and/or biased depictions of itself can goad the movement and non-members alike into accentuating antagonisms as each sees the other behaving increasingly badly. Deprogrammings, confrontational television programmes, costly court cases, or the Scientologists’ acquiring the records of the old CAN, have not endeared either side to the other. Others then become involved in the battle, consciously or unconsciously adopting an increasingly anti- or pro-cult perspective. Eventually violence may erupt, which, with hindsight, might have been avoided had not only the NRM but also the other key players behaved differently.

The events that occurred in Waco in 1993 are frequently referred to as an example of such a situation, with cult-awareness sentiments expressed by an apostate, social workers and the media encouraging law-enforcement officers to accept a CAG-inspired perspective of Branch Davidians as a dangerous cult. An interesting twist can be observed at the time of writing (February 2001) when another confrontation that could easily spiral into further violence concerns Falun Gong and the Chinese government. The latter, having accused the former of multiple murders and suicides, as well as threatening the stability of the state, banned the movement in 1999 (Ji Shi 1999). The twist lies in the fact that, in this confrontation, the western media seem to be taking the side of the NRM rather than that of their opponents, the Chinese government, and are suggesting that to date the violence has been administered almost entirely by government officials. But, at the beginning of the year 2001, Falun Gong’s founder, Li Hongzhi, announced that members facing persecution could rightfully go beyond the movement's principle virtue of forbearance: "The way the evil is currently performing shows that they [government officials] are already utterly inhuman and completely without righteous thoughts" (www.clearwisdom.net). Not long after, some people claiming to be Falun Gong practitioners set fire to themselves in Tiananmen Square - and a new CAG of ex-members was formed in Yunnan Province in the hope of doing "something to assist the Party and the government to root out all cult organizations" (People's Daily, January 17, 2001). It would seem that the scene could be well and truly set for further violence.

But it is not impossible for an upward spiral of deviance amplification to be countered by a downward spiral of deviance diminution; or, perhaps more frequently, for a social response to NRMs to encourage accommodation and peaceful co-existence rather than bitter antagonisms.

By not concentrating exclusively on their negative aspects, an ROG perspective can construct a more "normal" (and understandable) picture of a movement, and thus lower the temperature. Scholars have also noted that although new NRMs may initially emphasize what distinguishes them from the wider society, with the arrival of their second generation they are likely to undergo several changes, including a tendency to stress how similar they are to other religions and the rest of society (Barker and Mayer 1995). If they are encouraged or merely allowed to become more "normal," then their investment in the society becomes increasingly salient and (ceteris paribus) violence is less likely to erupt. Such changes tend to be recognized and publicized by ROGs more than by CAGs, who prefer to perpetuate stories about the movements’ earlier, more defiant, beliefs and practices.

Furthermore, the very fact that the scholars have often spoken and, more importantly, listened to NRMs can in itself diminish the divisive "them/us" attitudes that movements might have created and members of cult-awareness groups reinforced (Barker 1999). ROGs have sometimes been able to conduct or facilitate mediation, presenting alternative lines of action to the movements who may decide that, although not "on their side," ROGs are not "on the other side" either. Moreover, by studying an NRM’s beliefs, scholars can learn to "speak the language" and, thus, "translate" to others (who may include law-enforcement negotiators in volatile situations) the kinds of ways in which members of an NRM are thinking and what their behaviour is likely to be under certain circumstances. In the USA and a number of other countries law enforcement agencies who have to deal with violent situations have, particularly in the wake of Waco and Aum Shinrikyö, and in anticipation of millennial violence, now established relationships with scholars associated with ROGs. An increased understanding of what are considered by the NRM to be matters of ultimate concern can both increase the possibility of anticipating unintended consequences of certain actions on the one hand and enabling greater communication on the other (Wessinger 2000).

Concluding Remarks

Let me repeat that the types I have used are no more than constructs that are more or less useful for understanding the complicated processes of social interaction. Individual cult-watchers straddle and move between the types, and the groups themselves change significantly in response to other players and their own experiences. Some CAGs have become far more professionalized in recent years, and some of their members have started co-operating with some members of ROGs and even some NRMs who have expressed a desire to amend erstwhile harmful practices. But as either groups or movements become willing to break down boundaries, there is always the possibility of the more fervent members breaking away to form a "purer" schismatic group or movement. And, of course, entirely new movements and groups are continually appearing on the scene.

Stress has been laid on methodological difficulties and the intricacy of the social context within which CWGs comprise but some of the threads of the complicated tapestry that is being woven at any particular time and place. The general thrust of this paper has, however, been that, although one cannot predict that violence is inherently more likely or less likely due to the involvement of one type of group rather than another, CWGs can play and have played and will doubtless continue to play a significant, though usually indirect, role in "the cult scene."

It has been suggested that in so far as a CWG is primarily concerned about the danger that NRMs pose for individuals and society, the more likely the group is to point to whatever negative attributes it can, while ignoring the "good and normal." In so far as it labels all NRMs as destructive cults, without specifying particular practices of particular movements, in so far as it dehumanises, and defines as "other," movements in which members are reputably brainwashed by psychotic and unstable leaders; and in so far as it can draw on the stories of worried, anxious relatives and, even more forcefully, disillusioned and angry apostates, it is likely to attract the attention of the media. In so far as the media accept and reinforce the image of all NRMs as intrinsically and typically sinister, bizarre, and a dangerous threat, such an image will become accepted as part of the conventional, taken for granted wisdom of the general population. In so far as it is generally accepted and agreed that members of NRMs are less than normal human beings, people, including those in positions of authority, will be given permission to treat them as not deserving of the respect due to "normal" citizens, and even applauded for attacking them verbally, legally or/or physically. This can (but often does not) lead to encouraging the movement to react in an increasingly negative fashion, which can fan the flames of escalating antagonisms on both sides - and eventually result in the kind of violent outcome we witnessed at Waco.

On the other hand, what is presented as abnormal from a cult-awareness perspective might be seen as far more normal from a research-oriented perspective. Of course, potential dangers of NRMs should not be ignored because they occur elsewhere, but if we wish to understand processes that could lead to the perpetration of violence, we would be foolish not to recognize that we might understand these more easily if we acknowledge that they are not peculiar to NRMs and that there is much to be learned from wider studies. It is also true that selective and generalizing images which sensationalize and dehumanize NRMs can obscure more than they enlighten us about beliefs, practices and processes involving NRMs.

In so far as a group is asking what a movement is like, and is using a methodology that reveals as balanced and objective a picture as possible, it is likely that it will be made easier to alert people (potential converts and those in authority) to actual and potential dangers and to reassure them when the members of the movement are presenting no special threat to anyone. In fact, given the limited number of NRMs that have been involved in violent behaviour, the question "why is violence associated with cults?" might become "why is there so little violence associated with cults?"

Be that as it may, violence has occurred more often than any CWG would like, and none but the foolhardy would expect there not to be more violent incidents in the future. We might, however, become more aware of the ways in which situations can be exacerbated or defused. Our present state of knowledge is limited, but we have had the opportunity to learn something and we have the opportunity to learn more, both from the well-publicized incidents that have occurred in the United States and elsewhere, and from the behaviour of "ordinary" citizens.

We have learned that if we wish to increase our understanding of "the cult scene" sufficiently to reduce the prospect of future violence, cult watching is necessary. We have also learned that watching the cult-watchers is necessary.


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The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

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