Parents of students who left college to become full-time missionaries created a secular opposition to “cults.” Later, other targets were added.
by Massimo Introvigne
In the previous article of this series, I mentioned how I introduced in 1993 a distinction between a sectarian “counter-cult” and a secular “anti-cult” movement, which has been widely adopted Counter-cultists were mostly interested in doctrines they identified as heretical, and wanted to convert “cultists” back to the orthodox Christian fold. They rarely acted in court or asked the governments to legislate against “cults,” and rather fought their battle through books, articles, and lectures.
The anti-cult movement, on the other hand, was created in North America by parents of young adults who in the late 1960s and 1970s had joined new religious movements as full-time members, renouncing secular careers. The missions of these movements, both coming from Asia and born in America (such as the Children of God), were successful among college students influenced by the dissenting “hippie” movement, who saw in the new religions an alternative to pursuing what some of them saw as dull bourgeois careers.
Most parents had no quarrel with what mainline Christians regarded as unorthodox theologies, but strongly objected to the fact that their children had decided to drop out of university, and serve as full-time missionaries. They did not believe that this was a free choice, and encountered the ideology of “brainwashing,” a concept created during the Cold War to explain how such a bizarre theory as Communism had been able to persuade so many “normal” Westerners.
The anti-cult movement was thus born. It had three important differences from the old religious counter-cult movement. First, it proclaimed not to be interested in creeds, only in deeds, and defined a “cult” not on the basis of its theology but of the harm it inflicted on its members, largely created by the alleged practice of “brainwashing.”
Second, it only aimed at persuading the “cultists” to abandon the “cults” and go back to pursuing a normal career, and was not interested in converting them back to their parents’ religion. Third, it tried to enroll the cooperation of the governments and courts of law, which would not be sensible to theological criticism of “heresies” but might perhaps be persuaded that “brainwashing” was a crime.
The parents of some who had joined the Children of God founded in 1971–72 an organization called Free Our Sons and Daughters from the Children of God (FREECOG). Parents of young adult members of controversial groups other than the Children of God, and professionals such as lawyers and psychologists, also joined the new anticult movement, creating the Citizen’s Freedom Foundation (CFF). FREECOG and CFF later merged into the Cult Awareness Network (CAN). Gradually, the professionals replaced the parents as the leaders of the anti-cult organizations.
The secular anti-cult movement emphasized in its early years its opposition to what it called the “big three” “cults,” i.e., the Unification Church, ISKCON (popularly known as the Hare Krishna movement), and the Children of God (later renamed The Family). These were the groups young college students were joining in these years, becoming full-time missionaries and abandoning the secular careers their parents had hoped to see them pursuing.
Later, human potential groups and neo-gnostic movements such as the Church of Scientology also became targets of the secular anti-cult organizations. Some of their members had invested in them significant amounts of money, which also angered their relatives, and anti-cultists quickly accused these groups of “brainwashing.”
At this stage, the religious organizations most attacked by Christian counter-cultists who accused them of heresy were rarely targeted by the secular anti-cult movement. They did not fit the anti-cult profile of a “cult” as a group joined mostly by young people who engaged in it full-time abandoning their prospects of a secular career, and led by a supposedly manipulative and malignant “guru.”
However, anti-cultists needed to expand their support base. When they discovered that a religious counter-cult tradition had been in existence for decades if not centuries, they tried to find supporters there by claiming that groups disliked by Christian counter-cultists for theological reasons, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, were also “cults” vulnerable to a secular critique based on the argument that they used “brainwashing” and harmed their followers.
For example, a prominent anti-cultist such as Steven Hassan later wrote that, “It is no secret that I consider Watchtower [sic] a destructive cult. The group and its practices are a prime example of undue influence and they truly meet all the qualifications of a cult.”
The anti-cult organization pursued its aims through three different tools. First, it launched a number of public campaigns claiming that “brainwashing” was real, and “cults” were a major threat. It managed to establish close relationships with several media personalities, who created a sinister image of “cults” that persists to this day, and is applied by the media even to groups that, as mentioned above, where not originally listed by anti-cultists among the “cults,” such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Second, they lobbied state legislators to introduce anti-brainwashing statutes, and supported some well-publicized court actions where former members who had left new religious movements claimed they had been manipulated and sued for damages. Ultimately, Constitutional concerns prevailed, and no anti-cult legislation was passed in any American state, although some of the court cases were successful (but most were not).
Third, the anti-cultists supported a new practice called “deprogramming,” which had been created by Ted Patrick (b. 1930), whose son had encountered the Children of God. Patrick was among the founders of FREECOG and developed a technique involving the kidnapping of “cultists” and their detention in secluded facilities, where they were bombarded with negative information about their “cult” until they surrendered and “de-converted.”
Others joined, and deprogramming became a lucrative, if not always successful, profession. Patrick insisted that the violence inherent in deprogramming was needed because the victims had been previously “brainwashed,” but courts disagreed. Some deprogrammers had to pay heavy damages, and some went to jail.
Anti-cultists became concerned with their potential liability in cases against the deprogrammers, and decided to keep a lower profile. Some decided to abandon the pro-deprogramming CFF, focusing more on research, education, and propaganda. They will eventually establish in 1979 the American Family Foundation (AFF), later renamed the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA).
Anti-cultists, however, were re-energized by the suicides and homicides of the Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978. Although the Peoples Temple was technically a congregation affiliated with a mainline Christian denomination, the Disciples of Christ, and had never been a main target of the anti-cultists, it was quickly offered as evidence that “cults” were a lethal menace. Deprogramming gained new momentum, although the CFF, renamed CAN, now officially did not approve of the practice, and quietly referred concerned parents to deprogrammers without advertising the connection.
The involvement with deprogrammers eventually caused a major crisis in the anti-cult movement. We will discuss it in the final article of this series.