CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

"From Parchment to Pixels:
The Christian Countercult on the Internet"

by Douglas E. Cowan (University of Missouri - Kansas City)
A paper presented at The 2001 Conference in London


Few if any religious movements or organizations have not made use of Internet technology in some way. The Christian countercult movement is no exception. E-space provides a library for the storage and retrieval of countercult material; a platform for the articulation and testimony; an online community in which countercultists and former members can find mutual support and reinforcement; and a cyberpolitik unrestrained by the commercial exigencies of print publication.


In the years of the early Christian church, their forerunners wrote with sharpened styli and lampblack ink, carefully tracing Latin characters onto parchment scrolls, folios, and codices. Their works bore names like Adversus haireses (Irenaeus), Contra Celsum (Origen), and the Praescriptionibus adversus haereticos, Tertullian's Prescription against Heretics. In our modern-and some say post-modern world-the styli have become keyboards, the ink minute bundles of energy, and the dry leaves of parchment glowing computer screens. Among others, the Prescription against Heretics is now the Cult Awareness Research Ministries, the Ex-Masons for Jesus, and Dave's Cult Page.

When Irenaeus and Origen wrote, if their books travelled at all they took weeks or months to reach their destinations. Now, anyone with access to the Internet can find and view Countercult websites in a matter of seconds; downloading material and printing it consumes mere minutes. More important for our purposes here, though, is the fact that anyone with basic equipment, software, and server access can now contribute to a movement that began in Christianity with the early apologists and continues unabated to this day.

I want to be clear from the outset that, while I would put few if any of the modern countercult in the same intellectual class as the patristic authors, I believe that an argument can be made to locate the Christian countercult movement as a current manifestation of the same social process that has been in play since the first decades of the Christian church. In terms of a sociology of heresy and orthodoxy (Zito 1983), the Countercult represents the battle to define the parameters of acceptable cosmology and soteriology no less today than did Irenaeus, Origen, Tertullian, and Augustine nearly two millennia ago.

In the past three decades, numerous books and articles, both popular and academic, have dealt with various aspects of the secular anticult movement. Very little, however, has specifically considered its Christian correlate-the evangelical countercult movement. With a few exceptions (e.g., Hexham and Poewe 1986, 1997; Melton 2000; Saliba 1999), if it is discussed at all, the Countercult is often considered a mere variant of the larger Anticult (e.g., Barker 1982; Bromley and Shupe 1987; Shupe and Bromley 1980).

That the Countercult has been subsumed under the rubric of its more sensational cousin should not surprise us. While exorcisms may occur with varying regularity in some evangelical and fundamentalist domains (cf. Larson 1989, 1996, 1998, 1999; Modica 1996), the lurid descriptions of deprogramming that attracted high levels of media and scholarly attention in the 1970s and early 1980s exist almost entirely within the world of the Anticult (cf. Shupe and Bromley 1980; Shupe, Spielmann, and Stigall 1977). Until the late 1980s and mid-1990s, the Countercult was restricted either to religious publishing houses and/or the often prohibitively expensive path of print self-publishing. Even though groups such as the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and the Spiritual Counterfeits Project (SCP) have been around for decades (Hexham 1981; Martin 1965), there has been relatively little attention focussed on them in either the secular media or the scholarly literature.

In my opinion, two processes have led to recent expansion of the Countercult, and warrant a more careful consideration of it as an entity quite distinct from the Anticult (cf. Cowan 2001). First, a number of new, professional and semi-professional countercult groups came into existence following the organizational shake-up of the CRI after the death of Walter Martin in 1989. Many people who had worked either for Martin or for his successor, Hank Hanegraaff, left the organization under a variety of circumstances and began countercult ministries of their own[DC1]. Rob Bowman, Richard Abanes, Rich Poll, Paul Carden, and Ron Rhodes, for example, are all former CRI employees who left in the wake of the Hanegraaff troubles, and either started or aligned themselves with Internet countercult ministries.

Second, for most of its post-war history, the Christian countercult has been limited by and to the exigencies of print publication, audio- and video cassette production, and, for those who could afford it, like CRI and free-lance exorcist, Bob Larson, radio broadcasting. The advent of the Internet, however, as well as the ready availability of web authoring tools, domain hosting, and server support, has resulted in an explosion of interrelated countercult sites. Now, those who have felt called to this ministry but in the past have been unable to participate can, for the price of MS Frontpage and a local Internet Service Provider, actively engage in the Countercult. In terms of website numbers, the Countercult presence on the Internet far exceeds that of the Anticult. I will suggest some reasons for that a bit later.


Currently, the database I am building on the Countercult in cyberspace contains nearly two hundred separate websites. They can be typologized in a number of different ways. On the one hand, there are the website presences of professional countercult organizations, or those components of other professional ministries that are dedicated to countercult activity. On the other hand, numerous, often very elaborate websites are authored by amateur countercult apologists. While some sites include extensive discussion of NRMs, others contain little more than hyperlinks to more detailed pages.

Still others, notably those managed by professional countercult ministries, are not really designed to provide resources over the Internet at all; rather, they function as cyber- storefronts advertising the ministry's print, video, and audio products. That is, they participate in an "information supermall," rather than an "information superhighway"-which is, I think, a better metaphor for the Internet anyway. Finally, some sites are "generalist," in that they treat any and all groups considered heterodox by the operators; 2 others are group specific, functioning more on the order of exit resource and post-exit community. 3

In fact, with the growing availability of homepage software and server support, amateur countercult sites have sprung up like fairy rings in the cyber-forest. They range from "Amazing Grace," which is run by a retired Imperial County sheriff, to the "Cult Awareness and Information Center," operated by an Australian ex-Jehovah's Witness; from "Dave's Cult Page," the pet project of an undergraduate journalism student at Cal State, Northridge, to "Doc Bob's JW Page," which is operated by another former Witness, who admits he is neither a doctor nor does he play one on TV.

Besides the obvious commercial applications for the professional countercult, the Internet provides, for the first time in Christian history, an intervailing, mutually supportive network that extends both in time and space beyond the physical boundaries of community and congregation. In the Internet, the "consistent and continual conversation" that Berger and Luckmann (1966:172-9) hold to be so important to the ongoing maintenance of plausibility structures exists on a scale unimagined even a scant decade ago. In the Countercult's use of the Web, this conversation functions in four ways: as a library; as a platform; as a community; and as a cyberpolitik.

Library: "Everything I need to know is at my fingertips."

In his contribution to our book, Ken Bedell notes that the "hunger for information [is] almost universal. At all levels of church organization people expect that they can find answers to questions on the Internet" (Bedell 2000:191). A columnist in a leading British Internet magazine urges readers to "Use the Net like Polyfilla and fill the gaps in your knowledge with ready-made, instant info bites" (Wright 2000:51). Providing these "ready-made, instant info bites" is the most obvious use to which the Web is put by the Countercult. Rather than have to seek out and purchase resources from Christian bookstores, persons looking for information on Wicca, Oneness Pentecostalism, the Jehovah's Witnesses, or whatever group is of interest to them, can simply click onto websites for the Apologetics Index, Baptist World Cult Evangelism, Cultwatch, or the Midwest Christian Outreach, and "fill the gaps" in their knowledge.

Since most Countercult sites are collections of either essays or hyperlinks to essays, access to information is quick and easy. Questionable, though, is the accuracy of the information presented, as well as the agenda that is being served by the way information is selected, framed, and presented.

Like the Countercult in print, the Countercult on the Net is a carefully managed presentation of selected truths, half-truths, spun truths, and untruths. Its library is designed not to inform the visitor about the group in question, but to confirm for the visitor why that group is heterodox, why it should be avoided, and why conservative Christianity is the only viable option in place of it. As well, again like the Countercult in print, the Countercult on the Net is intended as an "equipping force" to supply Christians with apologetic resources for their own encounters with NRM members. Rather than a public library, it is rather like those few shelves of a conservative seminary library that are devoted to "Cults and Other World Religions." The difference, of course, is that this library is open to the public.

One example of the library function-and its inherent problems-is CARM, the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry. Begun originally as little more than the Internet project of an interested layperson, CARM is now a 501(c)3 countercult ministry run almost entirely on the Web. The site operator is now an ordained fundamentalist minister who is currently in search of a pastorate, and he writes that "CARM is simply one man, me, Matt Slick. I write all the articles on the site-except for the testimonies and archived debates on the evolution board." In his definition of "cult," Slick cleaves fairly close to the Countercult party line: "Generally, [a cult] is a group that is unorthodox, esoteric, and has a devotion to a person, object, or a set of new ideas." Numerous other Countercult sites link to his, many with laudatory comments on the "objectivity" of the information Slick presents. And, unless one looks specifically for Slick's personal information, CARM's web presentation could easily deceive a visitor into thinking it is a multi-staff, professional research organization.

Platform: "I can finally say what I think."

Ex-member testimony is as much a staple of the Christian countercult as it is the secular anticult (cf., for example, Bromley, Shupe, and Ventimiglia 1983; Introvigne 1999). The fundamental difference-no pun intended-is that where the anticult is interested primarily in extraction and exit, the countercult has an additional mandate to effect migration from the problematic religious group to conservative Christianity (cf. Cowan 2001). In the Countercult, ex-member testimony functions in three separate modes-catharsis, warning, and exemplar-all of which are related to this additional mandate. While, in practice, these modes are often less than entirely discrete, it is useful to differentiate them here.

Prior to the ready accessibility of the Internet, few former members had the resources to tell their stories to anyone other than close friends, family members, and perhaps a church group or two. Countercult books regularly include ex-member testimony, but that testimony is chosen and shaped by the author of the book to serve his or her particular needs, not the needs of the former member. While not all former members want to tell their stories, the ease with which information can be web-published today has made it more common for those who do.

One former Boston Movement member has put up a website that comprises a single page devoted to her story. She writes: "I wanted to get to know God better. I was not a bad person. I went to church, was reading my bible, was doing good in school, but I wanted to go to bible study and this seemed to fit in perfectly with my schedule."4 An ex-Mason declares: "To make a long story short [Satan] helped me to join the lodge. I was made a Master Mason ... I thought I had found what I had been missing. But it was still the devil up to his old tricks."5 In this first mode, the Web functions as a platform for confession, for the cathartic articulation of personal experience.

Next, when used as warning speech, ex-member testimony deploys as an anecdotal atrocity: this is how horrible things happened to me; don't let them happen to you. Here, stress is laid on elements of recruitment and experience within the NRM, but in a manner designed to alert visitors to the alleged dangers of the group in question. For example: "My purpose in writing this account of my experiences is to make people aware of how it feels to be a Scientologist..."6

Finally, as the correlate of warning speech, the exemplar mode functions as an anecdotal miracle. Here, emphasis is laid on the successful conversion from the NRM to conservative Christianity, the triumphant migration from the false world to the true. Former Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientologists, Wiccans, you-name-it attribute their new life to leaving their former group and embracing evangelical-often fundamentalist-Christianity. These stories almost invariably contain a missionary, "if I can do it, you can too" flavour.

Communicty: "There are others out there who think as I do."

In both secular anticult and Christian countercult domains, one common element in apostate testimony is the sense of social isolation members experience when they belonged to the group in question. Post-exit, a concomitant sense of isolation arises from the perceived uniqueness of their NRM experience. No one understands what they've gone through. Thus, the capacity to socialize with former members, to learn that one's experience is not unique, to gather support for one's own perception of events, and to develop meaning thereby are extremely important components of the post-exit construction of reality. This draws, of course, on key elements of social construction and symbolic interaction theories (cf. Berger 1967; Berger and Luckmann 1966; Blumer 1969; Denzin 1992; Prus 1996)-that is, meaning is never inherent in a situation, it is always constructed in the dialectic of ongoing conversation. Over the Internet, former members from around the world converse with each other: validating similar experiences, and communicating through their own websites, on discussion boards, and by public and private email. Sword of the Lord Ministries, for example, provides video, audio, and printed interviews with ex-members of the Children of God ("The Family"); Saints Alive in Jesus began as the outreach ministry of ex-Mormon, Ed Decker, of The God Makers fame (Decker and Hunt 1984); Resource is for former members of the Boston Movement; and the Cult Awareness and Information Center is operated by and for "Recovering Jehovah's Witnesses." Both of these last examples include hyperlinks to "webrings" of similar sites. While the ICC webring is non-active, the "Recovering Jehovah's Witnesses" webring lists eighty-one separate sites in English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, and Slovenian (04-11-2001). The "Jesus Saves" webring, which is operated by and for ex-Mormons, catalogs 432 separate sites. While not all of these links remain active, prior to the ready availability of the Internet, this kind of international community establishment could scarcely be imagined.

Exjws.net, for example, bills itself as "a community of survivors with years of experience," and provides, among other things, a search engine to locate former Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide. Watchers of the Watch Tower World is an Internet ministry run by former Witness, Randall Watters (cf. Watters 1987). Among the services he offers are: Watchtower-related discussion boards, search engines for Witnesses, ex-Witnesses, and local ex-Witness support groups and conferences. Currently Watters lists more than fifty such support groups. Recovery from Mormonism has more than 130 apostate testimonies on site, as well as hyperlinks to email newsgroups and discussion boards designed for ex-Mormons. The primary foci of the Ex-Mormon discussion group are to "Discuss experiences with the Mormon church," and "Overcome the effects of having been a Mormon." The "ground rules" set by the moderator are simple: "Mormons are not allowed to 'defend the faith.'"

Because many of these forums specifically prohibit active group members from joining discussions "to bash and ridicule,"7 the construction of meaning is restricted to an ongoing reinforcement and internalization (cf. Berger and Luckmann 1966) of the negative NRM experience, the exit process, and the successful conversion to Christianity. Countervailing voices-for example, those for whom the NRM experience is not negative- are simply bounded out of the conversation.

Cyberpolitik: "I can influence others to think like me."

Finally, there is the Internet as cyberpolitik, as an instrument of ideology.8 It is well known that opinions oft-repeated often metamorphose into social fact, sometimes with very real consequences: witness the fabricated 1990 testimony of Nayirah al-Sabah and the "babies thrown from incubators" story that played such a prominent role in the U.S. decision to escalate Desert Shield into Desert Storm (cf. Denton 1993; FAIR 1991; MacArthur 1992; Stauber and Rampton 1995); witness the utterly baseless figure of nine million women killed as witches during the so-called "Burning Times," which was first proposed by Matilda Gage in 1893, and has seen recurring deployment in many modern accounts of the period (cf. Gage 1980; also Daly 1984, 1990; Ellerbe 1995; Orion 1995; Reed 1994; Starhawk 1989; for a contrary view, see Ankarloo and Clark 1999; Briggs 1996; Hutton 1999; Purkiss 1996; Sharpe 1996). Similar dynamics obtain in the domain of Internet countercult apologetics. Like the Countercult in print-what I and others have referred to elsewhere as "Christian hate speech"-very little attention paid to the accuracy of the information presented, the interpretations made of that information, or the possibly adverse consequences of these.

Many of us gathered here are familiar with the work of Anton Hein, and his Apologetics Index website. Some of us-myself, Eileen, Massimo, Jeff, Irving Hexham, Anson Shupe, David Bromley, Gordon Melton-are listed on Hein's site as dedicated "cult apologists" of varying degrees of prominence. While his characterization of the understanding, motives, and expertise of these "cult apologists" is by-and-large inaccurate and insulting, it serves the agenda of the Countercult by placing these characterizations in the public library of the Internet. "Cult apologists," by the way, are those "claiming to champion religious freedom and religious tolerance."7

His consideration of the RTCG in Uganda is a useful example. Headlined "Uganda Doomsday Cult," its sub-headings include: "Other Ugandan Cults," "Controlling Cults,"9 and "Cult Apologists Rush In." While the first two are simply reprinted media reports, "Cult Apologists Rush In" is mainly Hein's own criticism of such scholars as Massimo Introvigne, Gordon Melton, James Lewis, and Catherine Wessinger.10

While he purports to support "freedom of religion," Hein interprets that concept to mean the "freedom to present research information that helps people make informed decisions about various movements, belief systems and world views." On his site, one finds a variety of articles, essays, news reports, diatribes, broadsides, and hyperlinks. Where else, for example, are you going to find online the complete texts of the Skeptic exchange between Stephen Kent, Gordon Melton, Anson Shupe, and James Lewis-all with appropriately derogatory editorial comments? Hein has also used the Internet in more proactive countercult apologetics. In the years that Irving Hexham's Nurel-L was an active Internet discussion group (cf. Cowan 2000), Hein was a vocal countercult presence there. With European anticultists, such as Tilman Hausherr and Roger Gonnet, Hein joined the group not for scholarly dialogue around NRMs, but to challenge the legitimacy of any tradition other than his own. Like Gonnet and Hausherr, Hein completely ignored the academic nature of the list, and used Nurel-L as simply another platform from which to denounce NRMs in favour of his own fundamentalist Christianity. Presenting himself on the list as an expert in countercult apologetics, Hein posted voluminously on any number of issues. He must have earned some credibility within the Countercult community, however, since he is now the co-moderator of Rich Poll's AR-talk and AR-vent discussion lists, and one of the most frequent contributors. A review manner in which he discharges his moderatorial duties-especially when confronting the few NRM members who post to AR-talk-reveals clearly the cyberpolitik of his approach.


Because of the secular Anticult's trajectory of development, from family and friends of NRM members organizing to effect the extraction of their loved ones to professionalization as the AFF, the old CAN, COMA, and the current occupational incarnation as "exit counselors," the Anticult has been primarily interventionist in orientation. Certainly more interventionist than the Countercult. And this is not a mode that is well-supported by the Internet environment. Unless one exists in a "clockwork orange" scenario in which one is forced to view Anticult websites, the interaction level is so low and so voluntary that an Internet presence could conceivably affect only those NRM members who are already looking for exit resources, or those family members who are seeking NRM data or contact information for that Anticult group. At this point in time, however much power computers hold in our lives, proactive intervention in those lives through the Internet is still in the realm of science fiction.

On the other hand, the Internet supports very well both the conceptual model and the behavioural orientation of the Countercult. With some exceptions, the Countercult has been primarily information-oriented. Following the biblical injunctions at 1 Peter 3:15 and Jude 3,11 its objective is to provide Christians with the apologetic tools necessary (a) to counter the claims of competing worldviews and, (b) effect the conversion of NRM members to conservative Christianity.

Absent a global computer meltdown, two things will become clear in the near future. First, the Christian countercult presence on the Web will continue to grow-notably in its amateur and adjunct professional aspects. Second, because the Internet now presents perhaps the least complicated way to access information in the technological world, sociological research into the Christian countercult-as distinct from the secular anticult-becomes more important. Now, rather than choosing to go into a church or a Christian bookstore, people seeking information about "X" group can simply go online. I have given you a very brief introduction to the Countercult online; there are many aspects, I realize, that I have not explored-chat rooms, for example. These are items to be added to a more complete research agenda.

      APPENDIX: Some Christian Countercult Links11

      Amazing Grace:
      Apologia Report:
      Apologetics Index:
      Atlanta Christian Apologetics Project:
      Baptist World Cult Evangelism:
      Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry:
      Christian Research Institute:
      Cult Awareness and Information Center:
      Doc Bob's JW Page:
      Evangelical Ministries to New Religions:
      Ex-Masons for Jesus:
      Good Catholic Information:
      Harbor Lighthouse:
      Jews for Jesus:
      Midwest Christian Outreach:
      Mission to Catholics International:
      Mormonism Research Ministry:
      Reasoning From Scripture Ministries:
      Recovery from Mormonism:
      Saints Alive in Jesus:
      Spiritual Counterfeits Project:
      Sword of the Lord Ministries:
      Watchers of the Watch Tower World:
      Watchman FellowshipVV:


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[1]Douglas E. Cowan is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Sociology at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. This paper was presented in a Plenary Panel of the 2001 International Conference of CESNUR (Centre for Studies on New Religions), organized by INFORM, UK at the London School of Economics, April 20, 2001. The paper is not to be reproduced except for personal use without the written consent of the author. Copyright: Douglas E. Cowan. (cowande@umkc.edu).

[2]Cf., for example, Spiritual Counterfeits Project; Christian Research Institute; Apologetics Index; Apologia Report; Reasoning From Scripture Ministries; Watchman Fellowship; and the Evangelical Ministries to New Religions.

[3]Cf., for example, Saints Alive in Jesus; Watchers of the Watch Tower World; Resource; Mormonism Research Ministry; Ex-Masons for Jesus; Good Catholic Information; Jews for Jesus; Jehovah's Christian Witness; Mission to Catholics International.

[4]Angel, http://www.fortunecity.com/campus/medicine/364.

[5]Chuck Helton, http://www.ephesians5-11.org/ex_masons_for_jesus/helton.htm.

[6]Monica Pignotti, http://www.caic.org.au/stories/monica-p.htm.

[7]Helping Mormons Reach Perfection, http://www.helpingmormons.org/Support_Group.htm.

[8]If realpolitik is the ruthless and opportunistic reality of politics, as opposed to the idealist vision of the great state, then cyberpolitik in this context speaks to the underlying ideology of the Countercult. That is, for all the talk about freedom of religion, the world is divided dualistically-the saved and the damned. It is only those more enlightened states that prevent the cyberpolitik from being legislated.

[9]Anton Hein, http://www.apologeticsindex.org/.

[10]"Controlling," here, is used as a verbal, not an adjective

[11]For more Christian countercult links, see http://c.faculty.umkc.edu/cowande; follow the link under "Countercult on the Internet." If the addresses for these sites have gone dead, or if you find sites that are not listed, please let me know at cowande@umkc.edu

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