Issue 2 - 2000


By Alain Woodrow
The Tablet - 29 January 2000

A clampdown on cults in Europe might infringe religious freedom, our Warsaw correspondent argued last week. A different view is held by our Paris correspondent who says that cults should be judged - but by their acts rather than their beliefs. Furthermore, the same test should be applied to church groups.

Jonathan Luxmoore's timely article in The Tablet last week "War or peace with cults?", asks the right questions. Is Europe being overrun by dangerous religious groups, who pose threats to state security and the moral health of society? And are the proposed remedies correctly conceived?

Luxmoore has no difficult in showing that the frontier between sect and bona fide religion is tenuous, and that in some European countries evangelical Christians, minority Protestant churches, and even the Anglican and Catholic churches have been banned by governments that are over-protective of the "national faith". He also rightly denounces the practice of many countries in Eastern Europe of making an arbitrary distinction between "historic churches" and those established more recently, between majority and minority religions.

His conclusion follows logically: "That dangerous sects exist cannot be doubted. But can actions of a fraudulent few be used to justify curbs on a law-abiding majority?" His answer is "no", because then there will not be "anything to prevent the same restrictions being applied to mainstream Christian communities too, by zealous secularising politicians who persist in seeing all religion as anti-social and unhealthy".

At this point I part company. Persecution of religious belief, whether taught by "historic" majority churches or minority "exotic" groups is indeed to be denounced. Voltaire's dictum still holds good: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." If the Adorers of the Onion (I assure you this sect exists) wish to worship the humble bulb of this alliaceous plant, the State, as a neutral authority, cannot stop them.

In the fight against the sects, however, it is not their beliefs that are in questions, but their actions. If they seek to impose their belief on others by illegal means, then the state must step in, in its role as defender of freedom and democracy for all.

Let us return to Luxmoore's question. Is Europe threatened by the new sects? The danger exists, although it should not be exaggerated. Most religious groups give inflated figures of their membership and influence. But the numbers are irrelevant: it is the tactics employed by these movements that are reprehensible, not their size.

Secondly, are the remedies proposed by national governments correctly conceived? Unlike Luxmoore, I think anti-sect legislation, where it exists, has been limited, timid and tardy. The State has too often ignored the threat to personal freedom posed by certain totalitarian cults, whether through ignorance, laziness or on the advice of the mainstream churches which, following Luxmoore's reasoning, fear that their legitimate freedom of action will be hampered by such legislation.

In France, the major new cults - the Moonies, Scientology, Krishna, the Children of God, Soka Gakkai - arrived from Asia or the United States in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Since then, some cult leaders have been brought before the courts by their victims with few tangible results. The law is very lax, and the cults have found many ingenious ways of getting round it.

In June 1977, I published a book on the phenomenon, Les Nouvelles Sectes (the first of many about this subject to appear), and was promptly faced with six libel actions (three from the Church of Scientology) of which I won five. Court actions are a favourite weapon used by the sects against their detractors. They are used to threaten and intimidate, and as most sects are very rich they can afford to lose court cases. Even if a critic of a sect wins his case he is out of pocket since, under French law, he must pay the costs of his defence, unless he in turn attacks the sect to claim damages.

Another favourite ruse for a banned movement is to reappear under another name. In November 1977, four Scientology leaders, including its founder, Ron Hubbard, were convicted of fraud by a French court and condemned to prison sentences and heavy fines. Only one of them, the then head of the Scientologists in France, turned up for the trial, and he was later acquitted, deemed to be "in good faith". The movement changed its name to l'Eglise de la Nouvelle Comprehension (the Church of the New Understanding) and spawned a number of satellite organisations.

During the numerous conferences and debates which followed the publication of my book, the questions which recurred most frequently from all audiences (schools, parishes, hospitals, the military, cultural clubs, freemasons, television debates) were twofold: how do you define a sect and what difference is there between a sect and a church on the one hand, and what can be done to combat the dangerous sects on the other?

There is no clear answer to the first. The word "sect" is from the Latin sequor, to follow, a derivation influenced by secare, to cut and designates a breakaway group of people who share the same beliefs and follow a charismatic leader". But it has taken on a pejorative meaning and is used by mainstream churches to describe those whom they consider to be heretical dissidents. This loaded word should be used with the greatest caution and only in its strictly neutral sociological sense, and one should always clearly distinguish between a movement's doctrine and its activities. The former is the sole concern of the believing community and cannot be censored by the State in a free society, the latter are the concern of the State and must comply with the law.

The difference between "sect" and "church" is equally elusive. Every church began as a sect, and every sect strives to become a church. The Christian church itself was a sect within Judaism (Acts 24:14). Few religious movements are wholly good or bad, most have their saints and sinners, their sincere believers and charlatans. The history of the Catholic Church, for example, is a chequered one. From a persecuted minority the church became a persecuting majority and reached the heights of intolerance with a highly trained secret police (the Inquisition) to track down and condemn deviants.

The only objective way today to separate Church from sect is to apply the litmus test, "By their fruits shall you know them". Most of these totalitarian movements use marketing techniques to recruit new members; soliciting in the street, door-to-door harassment, concealing the true nature (or even the name) of the sect. Later they generally insist that the neophyte make a clean break with his past, his family and friends, his job. The new sects have perfected intensive indoctrination techniques bordering on brainwashing: food and sleep deprivation, high-powered teaching sessions, constant surveillance, fear and threats to those tempted to leave the group.

The strict discipline practised by most sects ensures them a docile and mobile workforce. The greater the criticism from the outside, the greater the need for internal cohesion and quasi-military obedience. The movement becomes a besieged citadel, fighting a hostile world often identified as Satan. This blind obedience, based on delation and an elaborate code of punishment, can lead to such tragedies as the mass suicides of Georgetown in Guyana, or the recent affair of the Solar Temple sect in Switzerland. Fundraising seems to be the obsession of the more extreme cults. Their entire activity appears to be geared to this end: collecting in the streets, confiscating all the worldly goods of the new recruits, making them earn money for the sect by working without pay - money that is used solely for the growth and expansion of the movement, run like a multinational business corporation, and the financing of the luxurious lifestyle of its leaders. No sect, to my knowledge, spends a single penny on anyone outside its own confines, whereas the Churches finance many worthy charities to help all those in need, irrespective of their religion.

The attitude of cult members to their founder and charismatic leader, whether it be Jim Jones, Moses David, Sun Myung Moon, Ron Hubbard, the Maharishi or the many other oriental gurus who exert their fascination over spiritually starved Westerners, is usually fanatical, implying absolute submission, unhealthy adoration and an abdication of responsibility. What can be done to combat the dangerous sects? The dilemma is that these totalitarian movements cynically use the freedom accorded by a democratic society to further their own ends, and the temptation is great to fight them with their own weapons. The French author, Roger Ikor, whose son joined a macrobiotic sect and died of malnutrition, wrote an impassioned "J'accuse" to explain why he was prepared to "renounce the principle of liberty" in order to "put an end to the wickedness of the sects".

This obviously will not do. The end can never justify the means, even if traditional Thomist Catholic theology admits use of extreme methods in extreme cases, such as the use of revolution and just wars to overthrow an unjust tyranny. The existing weapons are few, but they are not ineffective. First, there is a crying need for information. Sects thrive on secrecy and prevarication. They must be exposed. The press has a vital role to play and in France the public is constantly informed about the new cults. This does not mean a witch-hunt or blanket condemnation of religious movements as Luxmoore fears, but a detailed account of individual cases.

Secondly, existing laws must be applied in full. The law condemns fraud, although it is often hard to prove, especially when the goods on sale are of a spiritual nature. Article 405 of the French penal code defines fraud as "Extorting money by false promises, lies and fraudulent practices." But there also existing laws against tax evasion and the exportation of capital (the sects claim to be non-profit making associations, but often send huge sums of money to their parent organisations abroad) or in favour of limited working hours (the present French government has just voted their reduction to 35 hours a week), a minimum wage, decent working conditions and social security - all of which could rein back the activity of the more unscrupulous sects.

When an organisation oversteps the mark by resorting to illegal practices, then the State has a duty to intervene. And the new cults are often guilty of practices of such as the employment of their members for no wages or social security, isolation from the outside world, sequestration of children born in the sect, harassment or bribery or opponents, prevarication as to the sect's true nature, and infiltration of public bodies on false pretences. Members of churches and self-styled religious groups who are victims of such practices have the same rights as any other citizen to be protected from exploitation, even if they have reached the legal age of majority and joined their group freely. All are equal before the law.

And there is no reason to show more indulgence towards established churches than towards new sects. There is a risk that some of the new conservative movements in the Catholic Church might be tempted to resort to the same methods used by the sects - secrecy, cult of personality, excessive autonomy with regard to the hierarchy - and such abuses should be exposed and corrected. It is the practices of any religious group that must be scrutinised, not the doctrine that it preaches.

FAIR thanks the publishers of The International Catholic weekly, The Tablet, for their kind permission to reprint this article. The Tablet website address is: www.thetablet.co.uk.


Federal Department for Social Security and Generations

Vienna, 6 April 2000 (BMSG). The demand for information from concerned people about so-called sects is daily shown in the calls to the Officers in my Department, Federal Minister for Social Security and Generations, Mrs. Elisabeth Sickl said today. information and consultation is demanded by the people in Austria. The brochure "Sects - Knowledge protects!" is an essential aid. Since the presentation of the first edition, November 1996, more than 400,000 copies of this brochure, edited by the Ministry of Youth have been distributed. This clearly reflects the great demand for more information about sects, their activities and methods, the Minister said.

I consider that the homepage of my Department, http://www.bmsg.gv.at (Youth Section), an especially important source of information for our young people said Mrs Sickl. The demands for information about sects will increase in the future, because sectarian methods are also found in the large area of esoteric, in economy and in other areas of society. The claim for religious freedom alone must not be an excuse to prevent information about methods and practices of those organisations who show sectarian habits, if it concerns the welfare of children and families and the endangering of mental and physical health, according to Mrs. Sickl.

Freedom of religion and opinion are important gods in our society, worthy of protection. But this also means that every citizen must have the freedom to join or to leave a group without pressure and manipulation. The countrywide network of Consulting and Information Offices has been enlarged in the last years, but the demand for help by far exceeds its availability.

Under the leadership of the Federal Office for Sectarian matters and with the assistance of my Department, the education of experts in this very area will be forged, said Mrs. Sickl.

As in the areas of addiction and violence, so in the problem area of sects, prevention will have increased importance. Especially adults working with children, youth leaders, teachers, educators, must become aware of this subject, to be able to strengthen young people in their development towards, independence, self-confidence and ability to criticise.

Sects and sectarian methods are spreading and areas of our concern go beyond the responsibility of my Department. I will, therefore, as I said in the Parliament's Family Committee, together with their Regional Governments, invite to an Interministerial group, to work out Interdepartmental means to protect citizens against harmful influences of sects, cults and esoteric movements, the Minister concluded.



In his article "Cults, Violence, and the Millennium" (Cult Observer Vol 16, No 4, p5), Michael Langone suggests that the following three characteristics "are central to the definition of a cultic group." These are centralised control by a charismatic leader; an "us-them" mentality which isolates; and a lack of toleration of dissent. I will address each issue in relation to the Falun Gong. My comments will be based on material found in the Zhuan Falun. This book is considered by practitioners to be more important than the Bible, Koran, and Torah combined. Li Hongzhi is the founder of the group and the author of the book which is taken from his public lectures. I will give a brief overview of these three characteristics as found in the Zhuan Falun and then go into more detail.

Control - In this article "control" will refer to psychological means of control. However, particularly in the case of Falun Gong, it may be important to also examine the elements of control in an organisational sense and in relation to external actions by its members. Psychologically, control comes from three main venues in the book: 1) setting up Master Li as omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent and listing what he can GIVE practitioners. 2) telling practitioners the DON'Ts what they should not do if they wish to remain true cultivators 3) telling practitioners what they will LOSE if they go wrong.

Closely related to the DONT's is the lack of toleration for dissent. However, the lack of toleration for dissent or criticism is not only found within the group, but also applies to anyone outside the group.

The development of the us-them mentality and the ensuing isolation is perhaps the first characteristic to be developed. It closely relates to the scare tactics used to control practitioners, and helps create an anxious dependency with high anxiety around no longer being a "true" cultivator.

Us-Them - Since the us-them mentality is such a fundamental characteristic, I will begin by describing it in more detail. The Zhuan Falun describes "ordinary people" as being degenerate, likely to be bad, likely to disturb you, likely to contaminate you, and possibly evil or demons out to possess or eat you. Li, at best, cares nothing for the ordinary person. He only cares for those who are cultivators. Li expresses his feelings towards ordinary people when he states: "Anyway, an ordinary person is an ordinary person. No matter how he does damage to his body, we do not care." Li reminds the practitioners that "Such light-opening does not apply to your relatives or to your friends because we only take care of the cultivators." (This also provides motivation for practitioners to recruit loved ones.) Li's care for the practitioners will be unconditional, as long as they are true cultivators. He tells them that after hearing his lecture (or reading his book or seeing his videotape), there will be a great gap between themselves and "ordinary people." He suggests that having ordinary friends "doesn't matter much" but then adds, "However, if that person indeed possesses something evil, it could be very bad and you had better not have contact with him." Li says that, "Except those who tell you to avoid fatal dangers, all those who tell you to get benefits in the society of ordinary people are demons."

Some of the control tactics involve telling you what will happen if you fall from grace. "Your body will be reduced to the level of an ordinary person and the bad things will be returned to you." He is the one who gives you the good things and who can take away the bad things. If you fail, and return to being an ordinary person, these good things will be lost and the bad things will be returned to you by him. The good things include an instantly high level of cultivation, the opening of your celestial eye, and guaranteed protection and unconditional care by him. The bad things include bad karma and physical illness. He promises "Now that you want to cultivate your future life will be rearranged and your physical body will be put right." He is the only one who can save you, and if you fail in his method, then no one can save you; you are "doomed." Any thought you might have "condemning the teacher and the Great Law" is a test to see if you can overcome such evil thoughts.

Toleration-This leads us into the lack of toleration of dissent. Within the group, certain DON'Ts help create an intolerant atmosphere; don't make notes or marks in his books since they are holy objects, don't listen to non-practitioners, and don't speak of the teachings of your own words (since you know so little compared to him); you must only quote him directly. Li also states that "the least deviation of your thinking will surely incur danger to your life." An interesting aspect of this lack of toleration for dissent and criticism is how it applies to those outside the group as well. This has resulted in practitioners showing up at various locations to protest critical comments on papers, on TV programmes, and in front of government buildings in China. A seventy-two year-old theoretical physicist named He Zuoxiu, published an article in the Teenager Science Technology Outlook titled "I'm opposed to Qi Gong Practice by Teenagers." In the article he also questioned the "so-called magical effects of Falun Gong." As a result, on April 19th 2000, practitioners staged a sit-in at his university, the number growing to 6,000. A Beijing TV station that broadcasted an interview with Zuoxiu had 1,000 practitioners show up at its door to protest. He Zuoxiu says he was also "harassed" by Falun Gong members, with seven groups coming to his home to debate with him, his answering machine was flooded with calls, and over 200 letters "of abuse" were sent to him.

With so much good promised if you follow, and so much bad predicted if you leave, there is strong reason to remain. Since Li Hongzhi has stated that "I am rooted into the cosmos, whoever challenges you can challenge me, and to be frank can challenge the cosmos," who wants on the wrong side of the cosmos?"

Reprinted with the kind permission of AFF. The Cult Observer, Vol 16, 1999 (12). Patsy Rahn, the author of this report, a recent summa cum laude graduate of UCLA, is now in Chinese Language Studies at that Institution.


Today 44 young adults filed a $400 million dollar damage suit against the "Hare Krishna" for sexual, physical and emotional torture inflicted upon them as children. The suit says Plaintiffs were sexually, physically and emotionally abused, along with hundreds of other children, who were kept during two decades at Hare Krishna's boarding schools.

The suit, filed in the Federal District Court in Dallas, Texas, names the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) as the lead defendant, along with sixteen other ISKCON entities and seventeen individual members of its Governing Board of Commissioners, including the Estate of the movement's founder, Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. The plaintiffs reside in various cities in the United States, Canada and England.

The suit also seeks a Federal injunction to force ISKCON to stop all forms of child abuse.

More details of the child abuse and of the plaintiffs, legal claims including Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO), are set out in the Complaint. It can be read and downloaded from www.turley.com.

For more information, contact:

Windle Turley, attorney
6440 North Central Expressway
Dallas, Texas