What is a "Cult"?
The word "cult" was originally applied to mean the same thing as "religion". In fact, until the last century, all religions were called cults. Within a religion, the word "cult" was used to refer to the religious organization as a whole, its religious practices, or its congregation, and in academic circles, it is still used as such to refer to any religion prior to the twentieth century. However, in modern times, it has been given a narrower, pejorative application. Wikipedia describes a cult (June 2012) as "a new religious movement or other group whose beliefs or practices are considered abnormal or bizarre..." (The footnote claims to derive the definition from the Oxford English Dictionary). The Wikipedia article goes on to state (apparently regarding new Christian sects), " They have been criticized by mainstream Christians for their unorthodox beliefs."
Are Jehovah's Witness beliefs "abnormal" or "bizarre"? Though contrary to many so-called "orthodox" beliefs, they are based upon the Scriptures. Check for yourself. Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Jesus is not God, (Read John 14:28) that the Gehenna is not a place of souls burning alive forever but of God's final destruction of the soul, (Read Matthew 10:28, Revelation 20:13-15 and Revelation 21:8) that we do not have crosses or any other statuary or emblems, (Read 1 Corinthians 10:14 and 1 John 5:21) that we are not under the Mosaic Law, but if someone is repentant, they will act in accord with their repentance, (Read 2 Corinthians 7:11, James 2:10-26 and Galatians 5:18, 22-23) that Christians are supposed to preach house to house by twos, (Read Matthew 10:5-11:1, Mark 6:7-13, Luke 9:1-6 and Luke 10:1-24) and that they are to "abstain from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood." (Read Acts 15:20)
Is being "new" a reason for calling a religion a "cult"? Was not Christianity at one time counted as a "new" religion? Are Jehovah's Witnesses new or "unorthodox"? It depends upon your definition of these things. Jehovah's Witnesses strive to return as close as possible to the first century beliefs and practices of early Christians, thus their beliefs are neither new nor unorthodox as demonstrated above. However, the organization that came to be known as Jehovah's Witnesses was formed in the late 1870's as a simple Bible study group that slowly grew into a nation-wide movement in the United States. They became known by all as "The Bible Students" and it became their adopted name. In 1916, a group called "The American Bible Students" (ABS) broke away and failed to make any significant growth. Those that remained were called "The International Bible Students" (IBS). Eventually, they officially adopted the name "Jehovah's Witnesses", based on the scripture at Isaiah 43:10-13.
Jehovah's Witness beliefs are only considered unorthodox in relation to more mainstream Christian religions, such as Catholics, Protestants and Baptists who rely upon extra-biblical doctrines such as the Trinity, hellfire and immortality of the soul. Because Jehovah's Witnesses reject such doctrines, they are declared "unorthodox". But rather than relying upon the commands and traditions of men (Mark 7:6-8), Jehovah's Witnesses use the Bible as their sole guide to doctrine. (2 Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 4:12-13)
The Oxford English Dictionary, from which Wikipedia got its definition of "cult", cites the American Journal of Sociology 85 (1980), p.1377: "Cults[...], like other deviant social movements, tend to recruit people with a grievance, people who suffer from some variety of deprivation." So immediately the image of angered people with rings around their eyes comes to mind, but if you have ever met Jehovah's Witnesses, and most have, even if they do not know it, you will know this not to be so. In fact, the above-mentioned journal's statement would more aptly fit the apostates from various religious organizations that form their own organization specifically aimed at opposing the group they left or members of a religion that isolates (deprives) people of any sort of social interaction, such as with the suicide and murder cults mentioned at the outset.
What Does It Mean to Be "Destructive"?
What constitutes a cult as "dangerous" or "destructive"? Wikipedia again explains, "A destructive cult is a religion or other group which has caused or has a high probability of causing harm to its own members or to others." Though it does not state its source, this is not an unreasonable definition. (Note, too, the use of the word "cause", indicating action on the part of the cult in the destruction of one's life.) Wikipedia also recognizes a divergence of opinion about what constitutes a dangerous/destructive cult, some being fairly liberal in their application toward loosely perceived mental abuse.
Webster's Dictionary defines "destructive" in its loosest form as "tending to overthrow, disprove, or discredit." Seeing as the term "destructive" gets tossed around to discredit Jehovah's Witnesses, what does that say about those who claim it? But let us give an honest analysis of Jehovah's Witnesses under this definition.
Do Jehovah's Witnesses 'tend to overthrow'? Jehovah's Witnesses have never planned nor attempted an overthrow of any government, religion or other authority. On the contrary, Jehovah's Witnesses teach subjection to the superior authorities, and in fact have the best record of obedience to authority among all religions, except where they are asked to defy God, showing they have superior obedience to the ultimate authority. (Romans 13:1-4; Acts 5:29) The only thing Jehovah's Witnesses overthrow is deeply entrenched teachings and bad reasoning. (2 Corinthians 10:3-6)
Regarding the words "disprove" and "discredit", this is clearly just regarding reputations. Every religion in the world attempts to disprove or discredit the statements of those they disagree with. They could hardly survive otherwise. But that is not exactly destructive in the sense of harming themselves or anyone else.
But wait, if we narrow the field to Webster's first definition, we find it says, "causing destruction or much damage." Do Jehovah's Witnesses cause destruction and much damage? There are a few accusations against Jehovah's Witnesses that claim that Jehovah's Witnesses do just that. These involve "disfellowshipping", (aka, excommunication,) our stand on the issue of blood transfusions, claims that we exercise "mind control" and the claim that those in or who leave Jehovah's Witnesses have a higher rate of mental illness. We'll address these later, but first, let us look at some cults in recent history that have proved truly destructive. You know about Jonestown, but let us look at some others.
Destructive Cults in Recent History
The year is 1969. Charles Manson, after a brief involvement with Scientology in prison as early as 1961, became a hippie philosopher guru, and for years had predicted that racial tensions would result in a race war that would climax at the battle of Armageddon based upon a vision he claimed to have had. He referred to this as "Helter Skelter" after a song on a Beatles album, of whom he obsessed after its release, and was convinced it was talking to the family. He instructed several of his acolytes, mostly females he seduced and treated as servants and prostitutes, known today as the Manson Family, to perform a string of grizzly murders over a 2 week period to incite Helter Skelter. Charles Manson ruled the family using intimidation and sexual liberation.
1984, Rajneeshpuram followers of a very charismatic Indian mystic, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, now called "Osho", performed a bioterrorist attack, unleashing salmonella on the salad bars of ten restaurants in order to reduce numbers of Muslims in the area in order to influence a local election. Rajneesh's secretary, Sheel Silverman, under the alias Ma Anand Sheela, used the threat of outside forces to influence a small group of her followers to perform various acts of spying on members of her own sect, sabotage, arson, attempted murder, and attempted mass murder by poisoned food. She used Rajneesh's teachings of sexual liberation and other sense fulfillment to attract followers and used intimidation to influence those on both the outside and the inside of her sect.
Members of Aleph performed the sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway in 1995. Aleph is a religious syncretism of Yoga, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity with the writings of Nostradamus that is still considered "dangerous" today. In the late 1980s, the cult began attracting attention with accusations of deception of recruits, conspiracy to commit murder and of holding cult members against their will and forcing members to donate money. In 1989, members of the cult in Russia, under the direction of the local leader, strangled a cult member who tried to leave and then microwaved the corpse in an attempt to obliterate evidence of their deed.
Marshall Applewhite, in 1997, lead members of Heaven's Gate, a UFO religion, to commit suicide when it was deemed that comet Hale-Bopp signaled the coming apocalypse and that they needed to shed their bodies in order to attain to the "Next Level". Though condemning suicide, they redefined the term "suicide" as "to turn against the Next Level when it is being offered," and the term "recycling" to mean 'hating this world strongly enough, even our flesh body, to the extent to be willing to leave it without any proof of the Next Level's existence.' "To be eligible for membership in the Next Level," Marshall said, "humans would have to shed every attachment to the planet." (Balch, 2002, p. 211) They were required to give up all human-like characteristics such as their family, friends, sexuality, individuality, jobs, money and possessions (Balch, 2002, p. 211). Applewhite claimed to be a "walk-in", which was "an entity [from another planet] who occupies a body that has been vacated by its original soul." (Lewis, 2001, p. 368) Marshall taught that "ancient astronauts" planted the seed of mankind and was soon to reap the results. Members were required to give up all material possessions and make any sacrifices necessary for the group in order to escape human suffering. Several members, including Applewhite, underwent castration.
The Order of the Solar Temple, an occult order and UFO cult, previously known as l'Ordre International Chevaleresque de Tradition Solaire (The International Knightly Order of the Solar Tradition), caused the mass suicides of its members in Quebec, Canada (twice), France and Switzerland from 1994 to 1997 during the solstices and equinoxes, and in 1998 attempted the mass suicide of members in Germany. They also killed a baby under claims of it being the anti-Christ in Quebec. They are a secret society that claims to be continuing the Order of the Knights Templar. They contain a similar structure and rituals to that of the Freemasons, though not associated. It is perhaps through threats (given in Freemason rituals) and the lure of secrecy that the cult influenced its members.
Following the turn of the millennium, 778 members of a Roman Catholic break-away doomsday sect in Uganda, Africa, known as Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, were killed by the leadership. The movement was born out of the fear and disillusionment that arose in the 1980's from scandals in the Roman Catholic church, the AIDS pandemic, the Ugandan Bush War and the rule of Idi Amin. They forbade sex as well as the use of soap among many other strange extra-biblical practices. They were accused of child labor and kidnapping children. When their January 1st prediction of the apocalypse did not pan out, they gave a new date of March 17th to hold onto their hemorrhaging membership and donations. On that day, they lured 530 members into a building with much food and fanfare and blew it up. Many more were killed at various locations around the country in the weeks leading up to the event. Though the official death toll was 778 dead, the actual toll may be 921 killed. They used isolation, visions and predictions of visions that they could claim the fulfillment of, and deprivation of food and communication, as a means of controlling their members.
Though Islam is generally peaceful among most of its sects, on September 11th, 2001, al-Qaeda (the name given to a sect of Salafist Jihadists following Osama bin Ladden) orchastrated the largest terrorist attack in the world, killing more than 3,000 people in coordinated attacks resulting in the complete destruction of the World Trade Center towers, the decimation of the Pentagon, and the loss of additional flight 97 that was meant for the seat of power in the United States, the White House. Since then, wars have been fought in the Middle East centered around combating Islamic terrorism. Though many Muslims have simply been defending their homeland against what they perceive as a corporate imperialist agenda, the Salafist Jihadists are vehemently pursuing a campaign of civil destruction which they believe is sanctioned in their sacred writings.
Due to conflicting reports regarding the Branch Davidians incident in Waco, Texas, it was not included in this list.
Many religious leaders have also used their cults as recruiting grounds for sexual deviance. The means by which the cults listed here and their leaders dupe individuals is by recruiting those who are susceptible to blind faith and who are looking for control in their lives that they never had on their own. While brainwashing has not been proven, it is wholly possible for one to hand themselves over to be guided in whatever way a cult may guide them. So it often becomes as much a fault of the follower as it is the cult.
Destructive Cults and "Brainwashing"
As for "mind control" and "brainwashing", Wikipedia provides much information on the subject. But note that anyone who teaches something can be claimed to be "brainwashing". So let us just get to the finer points.
It must be noted that "brainwashing" or "mind control" is not accepted as legitimate.
In their book, In God We Trust, Thomas Robbins and Dick Anthony review brainwashing studies, particularly the studies by Robert Lifton and Edgar Schein regarding the so-called "brainwashing" techniques of China and Korea of political prisoners. In thoroughly repudiating the work and inappropriate court testimonies of Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer, they state, "What sensationalistic journalists had interpreted as conversion, turned out upon closer scrutiny to be simply coerced behavior collaboration accompanied by little, if any, internal attitude change towards communism." Robbins & Anthony actually label brainwashing claims a "hoax".
Robbins & Anthony state "This leaves the APA's position on brainwashing as equivalent to: more research is needed until a definitive scientific verdict can be given." And regarding materials covering the matter, "Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi and Jeffery D. Fisher accompanied the rejection memo [regarding a study on brainwashing]. The letters criticized 'brainwashing' as an unrecognized theoretical concept and [the author's] reasoning as so flawed that it was 'almost ridiculous.'" And, "After that time U.S. courts consistently rejected testimonies about mind control and manipulation, stating that such theories were not part of accepted mainline science according to the Frye Standard" (Robbins & Anthony; 1992: 5-29.)
Robbins & Anthony highlight the conclusions of Lifton & Schein, that you cannot have any coersion without the threat and presence of physical force. Even then conversion has never taken place and indeed cannot take place due to a lack of pre-existing sympathies. Even in the presence of pre-existing sympathies, conversion has never been demonstrated, but only coersion.
Now that we have explored the basics of what constitutes a "destructive cult", let's examine some of the foremost claims about how to identify a destructive cult. Many have attempted to make lists of things that constitute a cult, more often than not using Jehovah's Witnesses as their model. Any complaint they have heard thus becomes a criteria for determining a "destructive cult", though little actual consideration is given to the complaint, as can be demonstrated that most complaints about Jehovah's Witnesses can be applied to any organization, religious or otherwise. Such complaints are covered by the typical stresses of religious, social and employment life. These will be covered in the next blog post, Robert Lifton's "Thought Reform" List Fails.
The next blog post in this series is Robert Lifton's "Thought Reform" List And Others Fail.
The second blog post in this series is A Toothless BITE: An Analysis of Steve Hassan's "Anti-cult" B.I.T.E. Model.
The final blog post in this series is How to Really Identify Destructive Cults (Information You Can Actually Use).