Ex-members who become apostates often “learn” their role from anti-cult movements.
by Massimo Introvigne
In the previous article, we saw that we should not confuse two different notions: ex-members and apostates. Most ex-members have no aggressive feelings against the organization they have left. Only a few become militant opponents. But why? What are the special features of those who become apostates?
There are two factors scholars have considered. The first deals with the religious organization, the second with the process of disaffiliation. It is normally assumed that the more controversial a religious organization is, the higher the number of apostates there will be. Bromley insisted that, although there are apostates in all religions, they are mostly found among the ex-members of groups their opponents have successfully labelled as “subversive.” Conversely, highly respected organizations will produce more defectors and less apostates.
Comparisons should preferably be made between voluntary associations a person freely joins rather than between denominations or churches within which he or she was born. There are, however, several voluntary associations within the mainline churches, such as religious orders, lay movements, and even the Roman Catholic priesthood in general. Although extremely vocal apostates exist among former Catholic priests and nuns, many of those leaving the priesthood or religious orders would rather blame themselves for their failure to meet the Church’s standards. Accordingly, they will often reconstruct their experiences through Type I (defector) narratives. This happens, we are told by Bromley and others, because the Roman Catholic Church is a powerful (although, of course, not unchallenged) organization. It is thus able, more often than not, to negotiate damage-controlling narratives with exiting members. By contrast, organizations perceived as subversive—including most new religious movements—are typically less able to negotiate damage-controlling narratives with exiting members, thus generating more apostates.
This theoretical expectation seems eminently reasonable on the surface, but is not entirely confirmed by empirical research. New religious movements are normally perceived as subversive, and they tend to generate extremely vocal apostates. As we have seen, however, surveys, when possible, seem to suggest that apostates may represent but a minority segment of former members of even the most controversial new religious movements. A large majority of former members can be classified as ordinary leave-takers, and some of them even as defectors.
A distinction may be established here between visible and invisible former members. Most former members are invisible insofar as they do not care to discuss their former affiliation. In fact, their very existence can often only be discovered through quantitative research that is able to access a group’s membership records. They are even less likely to be available for qualitative sociological work. Visible former members are primarily apostates, and the oppositional coalitions they have since joined make every effort to assure their visibility.
In fact, the crucial element concerns the process of disaffiliation. All studies show that those who have been kidnapped and successfully “deprogrammed,” i.e., submitted to intense psychological pressure to leave the “cult,” are much more likely to become apostates. Those successfully “deprogrammed” are a minority of those who leave movements labelled as “cults,” but so are apostates.
Even without being deprogrammed, a percentage of those who leave a religious organization encounter, before, during, or after the disaffiliation an anti-cult movement. This can happen because the process of disaffiliation is initiated by their relatives, who contact an anti-cult organization, or because the persons who consider disaffiliating are curious or genuinely interested in criticism of the religion they are a part of.
I mentioned in the previous article my quantitative study of ex-members of an esoteric group called New Acropolis in France. 8.3% of my sample reported that a contact with anti-cult organizations played a role in their process of disaffiliation. 70% of the apostates had been in contact with anti-cult organizations. 90% of those with such contacts considered New Acropolis “a cult,” against 10.3% of the others, and 80% believed they had been “brainwashed,” against 6.7% of the others. Of course, for some ex-members apostasy is psychologically convenient, as it shifts any blame for actions and beliefs that may now seem wrong or even silly from the former devotees to the “evil” movement that “brainwashed” or “enslaved” them.
If the role of the anti-cult movement is central in producing apostates, in turn, as Bromley wrote, “apostate testimony is central to the entire range of anti-cult-movement sponsored social control initiatives,” aimed at discriminating and if possible suppressing new religious movements. A few apostates (such as Steven Hassan, an apostate from the Unification Church) became deprogrammers and even obtained professional and academic credentials. Many others maintain contacts with anti-cult movements and, in Bromley’s term, continue to operate for the “moral status degradation” of the organizations they have left, so that “contented members are dismissed as brainwashed, civic projects are deemed public relation stunts, organizational affiliates are derisively labeled front groups,” and scholars who doubt the apostate accounts “cult apologists.”
Bromley also describes various kinds of “apostate careers.” Some make a living or derive a significant part of their income from books and lectures against the religion they have left. Some recruit other ex-members, trying to convert them into apostates. In turn, anti-cult movements use apostates to claim in their attacks against religions they label as “cults” that “the violations alleged are so fundamental and massive that protestations of innocence are summarily rejected.” When “a climate of hostile public opinion is created” by spreading apostate narratives, “social control” and public “sanctions” are invoked through “investigatory hearings,” court cases, and governmental discrimination (Bromley, “The Social Construction of Contested Exit Roles,” 42–3).
In conclusion, while apostates are a comparatively small minority of the former members of new religious movements, they are the most visible as they are the only one mobilized by the anti-cult movements, easily available to the media, or ready to testify in court cases against their former organizations.
Those who have followed this series would have found it leading to two conclusions: that apostates are not representatives of the larger population of ex-members, and that apostates narratives are decisively shaped by their encounter with the anti-cult movements and ideology.
Of course, not everything an apostate reports is false. In fact, no scholar of new religious movements would state that apostate accounts include only falsehoods. Nor, contrary to caricatures spread by their opponents, would scholars critical of the anti-cult movements ignore the apostate literature. On the contrary, they collect it and often publish bibliographies about it that are fairly detailed and complete. They also acknowledge that apostates may help formulating questions useful to scholars for further research, and in some cases act as whistleblower calling the attention on real illegal activities the authorities are able to verify.
In other cases, false accusations misled law enforcement and generated unnecessary suffering. For example, in Russia and Central Asia what international organizations and NGOs have widely described as outright persecution against the Jehovah’s Witnesses has been supported by a laundry list of accusations prepared by Jerry Bergman, a scholar whose field is microbiology (where he is highly controversial) rather than religion. Although Bergman compiled in 1999 a useful bibliography on the early years of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, he writes as an angry ex-member who has left the Jehovah’s Witnesses rather than as a neutral scholar. Translated into Russian and readily available on the Internet, his accusations have seriously damaged the cause of religious liberty and human rights in countries that were once part of the Soviet Union.
Media and courts of law would do well to keep in mind that apostates are not representative of the larger universe of ex-members of new religious movements, where the apostates are a minority, nor are they by definition the only or the most reliable witnesses about life in new religious movements. Yes, they were there, but so were many members or ex-members who did not become apostates, and apostates are defined by their socialization into the anti-cult community and ideology and their militant opposition against the movements they have left, which are in themselves powerful factors of distortion and bias. Accepting that what the apostates report is “the truth” about a new religious movement would be similar to assessing the moral character of a divorced person based on the testimony of an angry ex-spouse, or basing the perception of what the Catholic Church is all about on the sole testimony of disgruntled ex-priests.
Apostates accounts should not be ignored. But neutrality and objectivity suppose a method of triangulation, where the apostate reports are compared with accounts by members who remain in the movement, ex-members who did not become apostates, scholars who studied the relevant internal literature and conducted interviews, archival work, and participant observation. A serious use of the triangulation method also implies that the accused groups should be allowed to examine the apostates’ accusations and respond to them. Media reports triangulating and considering all these sources produce quality journalism. Media reports relying only or mostly on apostates produce hatchet jobs and tools for discrimination.