Presenting accounts of “apostates” as evidence, anti-cultists insist that “cults” are not “true” religions and that they gain converts through “brainwashing”.
by Massimo Introvigné
Article 6 of 7. Read article 1, article 2, article 3, article 4 and article 5.
In the 1970s, sociologists developed the new concept of “moral panic” to explain how certain social problems become overconstructed and generate exaggerated fears. Moral panics have been defined as socially constructed social problems characterized by a reaction, both in media representation and in political forums, out of proportion to the actual threat. Two additional characteristics of moral panics have been mentioned. First, social problems that have existed for decades are reconstructed by the media and public narratives as “new” or as the subject of an alleged recent dramatic increase. Second, their prevalence is distorted by folkloric statistics which, although not confirmed by academic studies, are repeated from media to media and can inspire political action. A good example of folkloric statistics in our fields are the exaggerated and ill-founded “statistics” on cases of sexual abuse among Jehovah’s Witnesses, aimed at creating a moral panic around the issue.
According to Philip Jenkins, “the panic reaction does not occur because of a rational assessment of the magnitude of a particular threat”. Rather, it is “the result of ill-defined fears that eventually find a dramatic and oversimplified focus in an incident or stereotype, which then provides a visible symbol for discussion and debate” (Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, 170). Jenkins emphasizes the role in creating and managing moral panics of “moral entrepreneurs”, who have a vested interest in perpetuating specific fears.
“Sects” have often been studied as the targets par excellence of moral panics. According to, again, according to Jenkins, “Sects perform a practical integrative function by providing a common enemy, a ‘dangerous outsider’ against whom the mainstream can unite and reaffirm its common norms and beliefs. Depending on the legal and cultural environment of a given society, tension between cults and the dominant community can result in active persecution or take the form of ostracism and negative stereotyping” (Jenkins, Pedophiles and priests, 158). Anti-cultists act as moral entrepreneurs, and the religious minorities they target as “cults” are presented, rather than as legitimate social agents (much less social resources), as a social problem and the object of a moral panic.
As mentioned earlier, moral panics are never without some sort of objective basis. No one seriously denies that certain religious organizations have been or are now guilty of criminal activities, from clear cases of fraud to pedophile crimes by members of the clergy and mass suicides and homicides of the Order of the Solar Temple. Critics of “cults” tell us that misguided scholars are “cult apologists” willing to deny that criminal or illegal activities are ever perpetrated by new religious movements or religious organizations in general. These “cult apologists” would be rather strange characters, but if they exist, I’ve never encountered any. I introduced myself the category of “criminal religious movements”. No scholar denies that there are criminal organizations and individuals who claim to operate in the name of religion, just as others commit crimes in the name of politics or economics.
The real problem, however, is prevalence, not existence. While it is obvious that the members of some religious organizations in some circumstances commit crimes, there is no evidence that members of “all” or “most” groups labeled as “cults” by their opponents are guilty of illegal activities. There is also no evidence that crimes are committed more often by personnel of new religious movements than by clergy or members of traditional religions. On the contrary, studies on sexual abuse and pedophilia by the late sociologist Anson D. Shupe (1948-2015) have shown that these scourges are more widespread within the main religions than within groups qualified as “cults”. While some of the latter, including the Japanese movement Aum Shinrikyo, have been implicated in terrorist attacks, their crimes pale in comparison to those committed using or misusing the name of dominant religions such as Islam.
Moral panics begin with a base in reality, but escalate through exaggeration and folk statistics when appropriate commentary for a particular incident or incidents becomes widespread. It is by intensifying, not creating, moral panic that moral entrepreneurs with vested interests, in our case anti-cultists, come into play.
Anti-cult ideology proceeds through a four-step model. First, the model asserts that some minorities are not really “religions”, but something else: “sects”, or criminal associations. This is not a particularly new argument. In July 1877, anti-Mormon author John Hanson Beadle (1840–1897) wrote in the Scribner’s Monthly that “Americans have only one religion [Mormonism] and that is the only apparent exception to the American rule of universal tolerance. (…) Of this anomaly, two explanations are proposed: one, that the Americans are not really a tolerant people and that what is called tolerance is only with regard to our common Protestantism, or of the more common Christianity; the other, that something peculiar to Mormonism takes it out of the sphere of religion.
Beadle’s astute observation effectively blackmailed American readers into concluding that Mormonism was not a religion. In fact, readers were likely attached both to religious tolerance and to the idea that the United States was, by definition, the land of religious freedom. In civilizations where religious freedom is recognized as a value and protected by the Constitution, the only way to discriminate against a religious minority is to pretend that they are not religious at all.
Likewise, we can find in anti-Jehovah’s Witness literature the claim that what is called “the Watchtower” is not really a religious organization but a multinational “corporation” handling huge sums of money. . The criticism fails to mention that any form of organized religion needs funds and financial structures to function, but is typical of the first pillar of anti-cultist ideology, which attempts to remove “cults” from the sphere or of religion.
Second, the model posits that what distinguishes genuine religions from groups falsely claiming their right to the religious label is something called brainwashing, mind manipulation, or mind control. bitter winter devoted a series to brainwashing and its critique by leading scholars, to which I would refer interested readers.
Third, since brainwashing theories are subject to considerable scientific criticism, the model requires thirdly discrimination between sources and narratives. Anti-cultists make little or no use of mainstream scholarly sources. Instead, they use the narrative of those whom social scientists normally define as “apostates.” The term is not synonymous with “former members”. “Apostates” are former members who have become active opponents of the group they left. Although many of these ex-members resent being called “apostates,” the term is technical, not pejorative, and has been used by sociologists of religion for decades. bitter winter also published a series on “apostates”, explaining that not all ex-members, and in fact only a minority of them, turn into public opponents of the groups they left, i.e. say in “apostates”.
The objections that “apostates” are not necessarily representative and reliable are satisfied by the fourth stage of the anti-cult model. “Cults”, it is argued, are not religions. They are not because they use “brainwashing”, whereas religions are by definition united by free will. We know they are “brainwashing” because we rely on the testimony of “victims” (ie “apostates”). And we know that the “apostates” are representative of the members of the groups, or at least the former members, because they are screened and selected by private and reliable watchdog organizations, i.e. the selfs. -called anti-cult organizations. Anti-cult organizations, we are told, are more reliable than academics because the former, unlike the latter, have “hands-on” experience and work with “victims.” But in fact, anti-cult organizations are not interested in objectivity. Their job is to apply the anti-cult ideology to all the groups they have designated as “cults”.
This four-step model plays a significant role in perpetuating moral panics and portraying false images of many new religious movements. Ultimately, since we are asked to believe that only witnesses promoted by anti-cult movements are reliable, we can conclude that the ideology of anti-cultism wants to persuade us that a “cult” is a “cult”. “because it is designated as such by the anti-cultists.