A. JAMES RUDIN
Religion News Service, July 15, 2002
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the ugly social pathology of destructive religious cults has received less attention than usual. In addition to concern about future acts of terrorism, many Americans falsely believe cults are no longer a danger to society.
In fact, some cults have carefully changed their high profile strategies of past years.
But a recent national three-day meeting in Orlando, Fla., of the American Family Foundation, our nation’s premier anti-cult organization, was a painful reminder that cults continue to inflict enormous harm upon many people. They have not disappeared; indeed, they have proliferated despite reduced media attention and fuzzy collective memories.
Sadly, cult abuses abound, including mistreatment of young children, brutal sexual exploitation of women, criminal mishandling of publicly collected funds, systematic breakup of traditional family units, extraordinary financial enrichment of cult leaders and a host of other crimes.
The 200 conference participants included acadmics as well as lawyers, ethicists, psychotherapists, clergy, authors and former cult members. This rich diversity made for an exciting meeting. A careful and necessary balance was struck between the AFF’s strong support for constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and the legal prosecution of cults when they commit criminal actions against their hapless members or the public.
That complex balance is best described as deed vs. creed, That is, a person or group is free to express any religious belief no matter how odious or weird it may appear to outsiders. But the appropriate legal authorities — federal, state or local — must vigorously prosecute those responsible for criminal actions carried out in the name of religion.
Another critical issue discussed at the conference centered on the academic study of cults. New York City attorney Herbert Rosedale, the AFF president, wondered why the overwhelming majority of sociologists of religion have
Rosedale is correct. Whenever I raise serious questions about cult actions or cite the criminal actions of such groups, much of the academic community sneers at such evidence and label critics “enemies of religion.”
But truth has a curious way of surviving such mischievous intellectual games. Cults do inflict damage on their members, sometimes even causing death. The reports from the therapists present in Orlando were painful to hear because they described severe spiritual, emotional and physical damage.
Hopefully, the deliberate academic campaign of belittling the personal testimonies of former cult members will cease and the campus apologists for cults will finally recognize many groups are much more than “new religious movements.” Cults are often something more sinister: They carry out destructive and illegal activities under the protective camouflage of religion.
The AFF conference was notable because countercult leaders from 12 countries participated in the meeting. Their reports — from Japan, Mexico, Austria, Denmark, Canada, China, Spain, Great Britain, Canada, Colombia, Switzerland and France — were graphic reminders that dangerous religious groups are an international problem.
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