CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

Polish anti-cult movements and their vision of cults and sects

by Agnieszka Koscianska
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2000 international conference, Riga, Latvia, 29-31 August 2000. Preliminary version: please do not reproduce without the consent of the undersigned

My research consisted in fieldwork of two kinds. First, anthropological interviews and participant observation. I interviewed members and heads of both cult and anti-cult organisations, I participated in their meetings and I observed anti-cult therapy, I also talked to ex-members, but not only to apostates (Bromley 1998) engaged in anti-cult movements. Second, I analysed texts in the Internet as well as in pro and anti-cult magazines and books.

The best word to describe relation between anti-cult and cult movements in Poland is war. In my thesis I analysed sources of the conflicts in context of Pierre Bourdieu (1998) theory of the circle of symbolic violence.

In this paper I can present only small faction of my work. I would like to present the vision of sects and cults created by anti-cult movements.

But first I have to give short language explanation. The Polish word ‘kult’ – ‘cult’ is not so popular in Polish like in English and is not so pejorative. The most popular word in Poland to describe religion movement is ‘sekta’ – ‘sect’. And this word has very strong negative connotation. So Polish anti-cult propaganda uses the word ‘sect’ or ‘destructive cult’. You can hardly ever hear the word ‘cult’. I am using the term ‘sect’ in its Polish meaning.

I focused on one of the anti-cult organisations the Family and Individual Preservation Society. In the typology by Massimo Introvigne (1993) I would situate this organisation on the border between postrationalist anti- and counter-cult.

This group is very small - about 20 people, but they are very active and they have strong influence on mass media.

The ideological leader of this organisation is a Dominican nun.

She is charismatic leader. She is very convincing. She knows how to talk to people. That is a very interesting person, she spent several years in India working as a nurse and studied religion. From there she brought ‘indiaphobia’.

She has also strong influence on other anti-cult organisations.

Most of the members are ex-members of NRM and parents and amateur therapists.

They published a manual for teachers to prepare lessons about ‘sects’ and ‘destructive cults’ financed by Ministry of Education and numerous leaflets, for example ‘Witness on Going out from Sect’ or a text entitled ‘Sects and Religion Studies in Poland’.

They have duty hours two times a week in Warsaw and once a week in Lublin. They cooperate with other organisations, for example with Civitas Christiana from Krakow. They do not cooperate with some Warsaw movements like Dominican Centre. As far as I know there is the strong conflict. Dominican Centre is more professional and employs psychotherapists. They claim that ‘sects’ are addictive like drugs and alcohol. They use the same therapy technique. They consider members of the Family and Individual Preservation Society to be families of addicted people.

In anti-cult publications one can find world ‘sect’ in number of different contexts. They haven’t come up with one clear definition. So they can label some organisations as ‘sects’ without any reason or explanation.

When the word sect is used?

In order to answer this question I analysed my interviews, fieldnotes and the anti-cult publications and web sites.

The world sect can be used to refer to:

  1. New religious movements.
  2. New Age Movement:
  1. mind control
  2. yoga
  3. new age schools
  4. alternative medicine.
  5. Anthroposophy Schools
  6. ecological movements
  7. Far East system of unarmed combat etc.
  1. Some non-governmental and charity organisations (maitri - Christian charity organisation which supports poor people in India, and Wielka Orkiestra - wiatecznej Pomocy - a Polish charity organisation that collects money during big actions once a year. This organisation is supported by artists and musicians and also by ISCON).

The word ‘sect’ might be also used to describe institutions and phenomena which in opinion of members of anti-cult movement are closely related to sects.

  1. Vegetarian diet.
  2. Some of university departments like India studies and Religion studies.
  3. Interest of nuns and priest in alternative medicine.

Nearly every association can be called a ‘sect’ and depicted as a dangerous group.

To protect young people and their parents from these dangerous cults, the anti-cult movements organise meetings, conferences, concerts and other kinds of actions for example ‘Vacations without Sects’).

They publish leaflets and posters with very brutal anti-sect symbolism.

Figure 1. ‘Going out from Sect - the Witness’ cover of the leaflet published by Family and Individual Preservation Society.

Figure 2 ‘They are Everywhere - Sects" - invitation a a conference organised by one of students associations at University of Warsaw.

Figure 3 ‘ Attention! Sects!’ from a leaflet published by Civitas Christiana.

The most important Polish anti-cult publication is ‘Anatomy of Sect’. The author a priest, Andrzej Zwolinski is very radical and aggressive in his speeches and writings. ‘Anatomy of Sect’ is not as radical as rest of his texts. This book has become the fundament of polish anti-cult propaganda. The major theses of this work are as fallows:

  1. The crisis of civilisation, church, family and friendship, and the activity of Satan are the main sources of contemporary popularisation of ‘sects’.
  2. The main attribute of every sect is charismatic leader. He or she is considered to be sacred and can decide about life and beliefs in group.
  3. The structure of ‘sect’ is the structure of power.
  4. ‘Sects’ have false doctrine.
  5. ‘Sects’ use the authority of holy books like Bible or Vedas.
  6. There is no place for individuality in the group.
  7. ‘Sects’ use the manipulations technique.

Comparing this points to international anti-cultic beliefs, they seems to be similar.

Sects are dangerous, they destroy the family, they do the brainwashing they do not say the truth etc.

What is specific for the Family and Individual Preservation Society is that they present sects as the global danger. They show the ‘sects’ as a serious social problem and threat to the European culture.

I reconstruct the worldview of members of Family and Individual Preservation Society. They construct something like the infallible social theory.

As I said not only NRM are considered to be sects. Also yoga can be called sect. According to anti-cultic propaganda during yoga lessons gurus manipulate people.

When I responded saying I know people who do yoga exercises, they do not complain and they behave in a normal manner and they are really satisfied the answer was that dangerous yoga sect lets these people live in normal way because they use them to advertise yoga. They are students who are going to be the future Polish elite and they are going to promote yoga as a clue to their success. And the sect is going to have own people in the elite. In fact, yoga exercises and the other techniques of breath control are the cause of changes in mind. The associations that organised courses of this kind, as well as closed communities are the training grounds for mad psychologists and neurologists experimenting on human brain.

Every argument against this theory is interpreted in opposite manner, Every critique only supports this point of view.

But the most interesting manifestation of this theory is the explanation why vegetarianism is dangerous. All dieticians say that Poles eat too much meat and too much fat. Diet, reach in fruits and vegetables, is promoted by mass media and specialists. But according to anti-cult organisations vegetarianism is not only a diet, but also an ideology. Parents of young people who became vegetarians should worry, but they do not, because they know from mass media that this is the healthy diet. They do not know that mass media are paid by sects to promote vegetarianism, which always goes together with belief in reincarnation. What is wrong with reincarnation? People who promote reincarnation want to build EU around the principles of Vedic morality and based on the caste social system. Germans export ‘sects’ like ISCON to Poland to make Poles to understand that they are lower caste – the slaves.

According to anti-cult ideology ‘sects’ and ‘cults’ are a part of secret international conspiracy, which also includes scholars and politicians. The head of this conspiracy is the Evil One - Satan. NRM and the New Age are a very good tool to promote the vision of the world which Satan want to create.

Every person, who comes to the Family and Individual Preservation Society, is given the same explanation. Please imagine that your child has problem, you don’t what is going on, and you go to a specialist association and the therapist says to you that your daughter or son is manipulated to serve secret conspiracy against the family and the country.

The leader of this organisation - the Dominican nun - supports several polish anti-cult movements with her ideas of sects secret plans.

The Catholic Church officially criticises Family and Individual Preservation Society, and the leader has some problems - she was suspended.

Right wing politicians, priests who sympathise with the view of archbishop Lefebvre, and mass media support anti-cultic worldview.

And the two conclusions

1. At the beginning of my research I thought that I could analyse this phenomena in context of classical anthropological terms, relation between insider and outsider. But in the course of my fieldwork I saw that this interpretation is no deep enough.

Conflicts around new religions are also political conflicts. The victims of this conflict are young people who are under symbolic struggle, between two antagonists groups and they are looking for their way of life and their parents who want the best for their kids.

I cannot see any solution. Thinking in Pierre Bourdieu categories this is the conflict of between different doxas and is permanent. The misunderstandings start at the level of everyday life where the ideology embodies.

2. Second conclusion is not so serious. The anti-cult group is similar to the ‘sects’ with regard to its nature. They have charismatic leader, false doctrine. They use the authority of Holy Bible, they manipulate. Using the terms from ‘Anatomy of Sect’ they are an ‘anti-sect’.


Introvigne M.

1993 Strange Bedfellows or Future Enemies, "Update and Dialogue", October.

Bourdieu P.

1998 Distinction. A Social Critique of Judgement of Taste, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Bromley D.

1998 Linking Social Structure and the Exit Process in Religious Organisations, "Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion", vol 33, No 1.

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