The anti-cult movement (ACM) refers to groups and individuals who oppose cults and new religious movements (NRM). Sociologists David G. Bromley and Anson Shupe initially defined the ACM in 1981 as a collection of groups embracing brainwashing-theory, but later observed a significant shift in ideology towards a ‘medicalization’ of the memberships of new religious movements.
This countermovement has reportedly recruited from family members of ‘cultists’; former cult members, (or apostates); church groups; and associations of health professionals. A significant minority opinion suggests that analysis should treat the secular anti-cult movement separately from the religiously motivated (mainly Christian) groups. The anti-cult movement might be divided into four classes: secular counter-cult groups; Christian evangelical counter-cult groups; groups formed to counter a specific cult; and organizations that offer some form of exit counseling.
In the first half of the 20th century, some conservative Christian scholars, mostly Protestants, conducted apologetics defending what they saw as Christian mainstream theology against the teachings of perceived fringe groups. More-or-less mainstream churches and groups continue this activity today on various levels of theological expertise, collectively described as the Christian countercult movement. Members of this movement normally defined a ‘cult’ as any group which provides its own, unconventional, translation of the Bible or which regards non-canonical writings as equivalent to Biblical teachings. The Calvinist writer Anthony A. Hoekema considered that ‘cults’ included Seventh-day Adventists, Mormons, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and their splinter-groups, such as the Branch Davidians. Most proponents of the Christian countercult movement keep a distance from secular opposition to new religious movements.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, middle-class youths and adults started to follow new religious movements and other groups (then — as now — usually lumped together as ‘cults’), such as the Children of God, the Unification Church, the Hare Krishnas, the Divine Light Mission, Scientology, and Synanon. These movements often stood at odds with traditional middle-class values and ideas. The families of these young people became worried about the behavior of their children, and about what they (the families) considered bizarre belief-systems. They started to organize themselves into grassroot movements, some of which merged and became regional or national organizations. One of the first such organized groups in the USA, FREECOG, originated in 1971 with parents whose children had become involved in the Children of God group.
In its early days, some such groups lobbied for conservatorship-laws to forcibly ‘treat’ cult members. They tried (and failed) to legalize this practice by lobbying for deprogramming laws. Public opposition to NRMs grew after the mass-suicide of members of the Peoples Temple at Jonestown in 1978. The cult controversies in the 1960s and 1970s also resulted in growing interest in scholarly research on alternative religions, and in the setting-up of academic organizations for their study. The controversy divided scholars into two opposing camps: The first camp was the religion coalition, which defended the right of (new) religions and religious groups to continue with their beliefs and practices. This coalition consisted mainly of scholars of religion. The second camp comprised the individual rights coalition, which defended the rights of individuals against abuse by religious or non-religious groups and individuals. This coalition consisted mainly of psychologists and psychiatrists. Sociologists surfaced in both camps. Each camp has in the last twenty years produced not only scientific works but also polemics, and some proponents still regard the ‘other’ camp as unscientific.
Commentators differentiate two main types of opposition to cults: religious opposition (related to theological issues) and secular opposition, which is concerned with emotional, social, financial, and economic consequences of cultic involvement, where ‘cult’ can refer to a religious or to a secular group. Secular critics of cults realize the diversity of the groups popularly filed under the ‘cult’ label and do not express concerns with all of those groups, but differentiate (for example) between harmful and harmless ‘cults,’ using allegations or evidence of communal totalism, authoritarianism, charismatic leadership, manipulative and heavy-handed indoctrination, deceptive proselytization, violence and child-abuse, sexual exploitation, emotional intensity in group life, and the use of mind-control. Some individual groups get criticized for alleged tax-privileges, public solicitation, faith-healing and rejection of modern medicine, mental health jeopardy to participants, and corporal punishment.
Cult-watching groups often use testimonies of former members of cults. The validity and reliability of such testimonies can occasion intense controversy amongst scholars: Anson Shupe, David G. Bromley, and Joseph Ventimiglia coined the term ‘atrocity tales’ in 1979, which Bryan R. Wilson later took up in relation to former members’ narratives. Bromley and Shupe defined an ‘atrocity tale’ as the symbolic presentation of action or events (real or imaginary) in such a context that they come flagrantly to violate the (presumably) shared premises upon which a given set of social relationships should take place. The recounting of such tales has the intention of reaffirming normative boundaries. By sharing the reporter’s disapproval or horror, an audience reasserts normative prescription and clearly locates the violator beyond the limits of public morality. Italian sociologist Massimo Introvigne argues that the majority of former members hold no strong feelings concerning their past experiences, while former members who dramatically reverse their loyalties and become ‘professional enemies’ of their former group form a vociferous minority. The term ‘atrocity story’ has itself become controversial as it relates to the opposing views amongst scholars about the credibility of the accounts of former cult-members.
UC Santa Barbara professor of religious studies Phillip Charles Lucas came to the conclusion that former members have as much credibility as those who remain in the fold. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, a professor of psychology at the University of Haifa, argues that in the cases of cult-catastrophes such as People’s Temple, or Heaven’s Gate, allegations by hostile outsiders and detractors matched reality more closely than other accounts, and that in that context statements by ex-members turned out more accurate than those offered by apologists and NRM-researchers.
A somewhat similar movement, generally not considered part of the ACM, exists within a recognized religion: the Christian countercult movement (CCM). The CCM offers two basic arguments for opposition to cults and new religious movement: one based mainly on theological differences; the other based on defending human self-determinism and targeting mainly groups (religious and non-religious) with alleged cultic behavior (according to the definition of the secular opposition to cults).
In the USSR, all the important questions of the state-religious relations were resolved by Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, KGB, the Counsel about religions. There was no background for any ACM as a social initiative. But some party functionaries thought that all the religions were reaction force and ‘sects’ were especially dangerous. In Russia ‘anticultism’ appeared in early 1990s. Some Russian protestants used to take part in criticizing of foreigner missionaries, sects and new religious movements. Their chiefs hoped that taking part in anti-cult declarations could demonstrate that they were not ‘sectarians.’ Now anti-cult movements, better known as ‘anti-sectarian movements’ take part in making laws about religion in Russia.
Both sympathizers and critics of new religious movements have found the topic(s) of brainwashing or mind-control extremely controversial. Some members of the secular opposition to cults and to new religious movements have argued that if brainwashing has deprived a person of their free will, treatment to restore their free will should take place — even if the ‘victim’ initially opposes this. Precedents for this exist in the treatment of certain mental illnesses: in such cases medical and legal authorities recognize the condition(s) as depriving sufferers of their ability to make appropriate decisions for themselves. But the practice of forcing treatment on a presumed victim of ‘brainwashing’ has constantly proven controversial, and courts have frequently adjudged it illegal. Human-rights organizations (including the ACLU and Human Rights Watch) have also criticized deprogramming. While only a small fraction of the anti-cult movement has had involvement in deprogramming, several deprogrammers (including a deprogramming-pioneer, Ted Patrick) have served prison-terms for the practice, while courts have acquitted others. For the most part, the anti-cult movement in the US eschews deprogramming in favor of exit counseling.
The Foundation against Intolerance of Religious Minorities, associated with the Adidam NRM, sees the use of terms ‘cult’ and ‘cult leader’ as detestable and as something to avoid at all costs. The Foundation regards such usage as the exercise of prejudice and discrimination against them in the same manner as the words ‘nigger’ and ‘commie’ served in the past to denigrate blacks and Communists.