We work in the general and as-yet-unnamed field of undue influence. This means that we come up against a small band of academics who believe we are eroding people’s rights, when our complete focus is actually upon preserving those rights. There are some in the study of “New Religious Movements” (NRMs) who, either through ignorance or naiveté, paint what they call the “Anti-Cult Movement” as a bunch of reactionary complainers who wish to hobble the spiritual creativity of humanity.
Religions form only a part of our purview. Many of the groups listed as “NRMs” by these academics make no claim to be religious; they are therapy, multi-level marketing or political groups like the Sullivanians, Landmark Forum or the Larouchies. We argue that a spectrum of influence exists, and that there is a line beyond which that influence is excessive. This concern is supported by laws concerning undue influence and coercive control. NRM apologists dismiss such laws as a belief in “brainwashing”.
At Open Minds, our concern is undue influence – where people lose control of their lives through coercive control – and we do not focus on any particular application of excessive influence, so we take in the whole range from domestic abuse to totalitarian states.
Most of us studying and reporting undue influence and coercive control are not against religious expression – quite the contrary. The Open Minds Foundation welcomes good-hearted theists, atheists and agnostics alike. We are not against “new” religious movements – or old ones. We are, however, against abuse, coercion and high-control relationships, whether they be spiritual, political, financial, personal, or take any other form. Detractors of our work are missing the point: we don’t just talk about religious groups, and we are not speaking about the beliefs, rituals and creeds of those groups, but instead, focus on the abusive, coercive actions of highly controling organizations and individuals. There are many beneficial spiritual and religious organizations out there, old and new, which do not systematically abuse their members. They are not our focus. We will always be concerned with fanaticism and anti-social behavior. And we will always protect free association and free expression. High control individuals and groups hide behind these freedoms and deny them to others.
I believe firmly in everyone’s right to believe whatever they want: I personally belonged to the neo-pagan tradition, which is highly anarchic in its lack of formal organization, and focused heavily on individuality. But I know that there are abusive, even destructive neo-pagan groups out there, because I was caught up in one. Saying that abusive groups don’t exist because most groups are not abusive is like saying there is no such thing as domestic violence because most marriages are not violent. It just doesn’t follow.
The “new religious movement” academics also claim that the techniques of persuasion and coercion used by predatory groups are merely theories, with no basis in fact, ignoring seven decades of evidence, from Sharif, Asch, Milgram, Lifton, Singer, Zimbardo, Aronson and Pratkanis, through to Cialdini and our own Steven Hassan, Jon Atack and Yuval Laor. Some individuals, instead of looking at the research, even try to discredit it, often by launching personal attacks on those who have contributed to this work. These latter efforts often come at the behest of such high-control groups as the Moonies and Scientology, who pay academics handsomely to talk only about the “good” side of the movements, or write bogus biographies of their creators, validating their status as “proper” religions – while ignoring those who have suffered abuse at their hands. Indeed, many follow the irrational credo of sociologist Bryan Wilson, that former members cannot be trusted to give accurate information – so denying them any voice.
In all of humankind’s organizations, there have always been wolves in the fold; it is our mission to expose those who use belief to exploit others. And, as Isaiah Berlin said, “Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep.”
I salute those in the social sciences who study the faith traditions of humanity; the study of human belief is an important field, worthy of the attention of the best minds. But it is high time that those few social scientists who view us as enemies open their eyes and understand that we are not opposing faith, but rather, by separating the true shepherds from the wolves, we are making the lives of those who live by faith easier, safer, and happier.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about a high-control group that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!