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Strange Bedfellows or Future Enemies? - Massimo Introvigne

Is the split between the secular anti cult and the religious counter cult movement bound to grow into open antagonism?

by Massimo Introvigne


A large body of sociological literature exists concerning the so called “anti cult movement” both in the United States and internationally. Most students of the anti cult movement, however, fail to realize that this movement consists of two separate and increasingly conflicting sub movements, one secular and the other sectarian.

The distinction between a secular anti cult and a religious counter cult movement was introduced by J. Gordon Melton and by the undersigned (1). The terminology distinguishing between “anti cult” and “counter cult” organizations has now been adopted by specialized counter cult publications such as the Christian Research Journal (2) and surfaced recently even in the pages of Christianity Today (3).

On the other hand the distinction is normally not used by the anti cult newsletters and journals. At least an official document of the Roman Catholic Church – the pastoral letter New Religiosity and New Evangelization of Monsignor Giuseppe Casale, Archbishop of Foggia – mentioned the distinction between the anti cult and the counter cult movements, elaborating on the main differences (and criticizing both movements from a Roman Catholic standpoint) (4).

In this paper I will further comment on the differences between the anti cult and the counter cult movements, and assess how these differences are relevant in the social interaction involving the movements against the “cults”, the new religious movements themselves and the scholars. In the last part I would offer some final comments on the “question of truth” that seems to be a main point of contention involving the anti cult movements, the counter cult movements, the Churches and the scholars.



A typology of the movements against the cults


In this first section of my paper I will list the main areas of difference and dissent between anti cult and counter cult movements and introduce two further sub typo­logies, one doctrinal and one sociological.

a) We could distinguish between subjective and objective differences between the anti cult and the counter cult movements.

From a subjective point of view, the counter cult movements are composed almost invariably and totally by Christian pastors and laymen concerned with the growing rate of defection from Churches to “cults” and other religious movements perceived as being outside of the Christian fold. Although Catholic counter cult movements (such as G.R.I.S. in Italy) do exist, the large majority of the counter cult movements are Protestant, and the large majority of the Protestants involved are Evangelical.

The anti cult movements have a secular origin, and a significant number of their members and leaders are non religious secular humanists or secular members of the mental health and legal professions.

The subjective criteria are however neither absolute nor sufficient in order to distinguish between the two movements. Clergymen – Protestant and occasionally Catholic – are involved in the anti cult movements; in this case, they tend to adopt its language and style (a case in point is in the United States Father Kent Burtner, a Roman Catholic priest).


Jews in the anti–cult groups

Additionally, although a few representatives of the Jewish community have a distinctive counter cult attitude, a surprising number of Jews – both secular and deeply religious – are involved in the anti cult movements. Of course one reason is sociological, and connected with the fact that the Jewish community has been particularly affected by defection to the “cults”; this explains the hard line taken by a number of prominent Jewish leaders and their cooperation with the anti cult movements.

However some anti cult leaders with a Jewish background have offered themselves an alternative explanation. Judaism is not a missionary religion and at least its Orthodox branch has always regarded conversion with some suspicion (5). Judaism traditionally does not seek conversions and – although the attitude of Reform and Conservative Judaism is somewhat different – Orthodox Judaism regards a “genuine” conversion as something quite rare. It is possible – as some Jewish leaders of the anti cult movements have suggested – that even the most secularized Jews maintain a suspicious attitude towards religious conversion in general – the more so against “sudden” conversion – and are accordingly inclined to join the anti cult movements, which are equally suspicious of the conversion dynamics (6).

Accordingly, the subjective elements are not crucial to identify the differences between the anti cult and the counter cult movements. The objective features are more relevant. The key feature – and the standard slogan – of the secular anti cult movement is that it only discusses deeds, nor creeds. It is not interested whether any particular religious persuasion is true or false; it claims to be only interested in behaviour which it regards as harmful to individuals, families or the society at large.


“Cult” according to Counter–cultists

The secular anti cult movement wants to free people from “cults”; it does not presume to tell them what religious or philosophical ideas they should join once they have left the “cult”. A fraction of the mental health profession has added fuel to the fire of the secular anti cult movement by advancing the controversial theory of “brainwashing”. Pop psychology has contributed the still more dubious theory that “subliminal messages” are hidden everywhere, from rock music to apparently innocent books.





the religious opportunist as fraud

the “heretic” as fraud



demonetization in the context of “spiritual warfare”

The counter cult movement disagrees with almost every priority espoused by its secular counterpart. Its proponents maintain that the borders between belief and behaviour are less clearly marked than the anti cult movement would prefer to believe. Counter cultists insist that false belief – or heresy – breaks the law of God and this is at least as dangerous as any behaviour contrary to the laws of men. A “cult”, from this perspective of view, is not primarily a money making enterprise, but is defined as a heresy. One problem with this perspective, of course, is that each religious persuasion has its own definition of heresy and hence of “cult”, and counter cult movements of Protestant and Catholic origin are surely different in many respects. Another difference between the counter cult movement and the secular anti cult movement is that counter cultists are obviously not happy when someone simply leaves the “cult”, unless he or she is converted to the “true” faith.


Rationalists and post–rationalists

b) A sub typology may be introduced distinguishing between a rationalist and a post rationalist brand of both anti cult and counter cult movements. Why do “cults” continue to grow? Explanations may be quite different.

In the “rationalist” groups, the main explanation is that human beings are indeed gullible, and it is a fact of life that they will become victims of clever frauds, particularly in religion. Anti cultists will emphasize the secular features of the fraud (e.g. “bogus” miracles) and the counter cultists its religious elements (e.g. “manipulating” the Scriptures), but the fraud explanation remains prominent.

The post rationalist explanations of why “cults” succeed, on the other hand, invest “cult” leaders with almost superhuman powers and abilities. For the religious post rationalist counter cultists, “cult” leaders are in contact with Satan or the occult. For their secular counterpart of the anti cult movements, “cultists” have the more than human power of “brainwashing” their victims; but, as it has been noted, “brainwashing” in some anti cult theories appears as something magical, the modern version of the evil eye (7).

The post rationalist phase of the sectarian counter cult movement has been reinforced by the “spiritual warfare” theories. The “spiritual warfare” movement, born in the 1970s and 1980s in Californian Evangelical and Pentecostal circles, gained international prominence in 1986 when the best selling novel This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti (8) was published. By 1991, one and a half million copies of the novel had been sold (9).


Different explanations

Peretti’s novel is about a battle fought through exorcisms and prayers by both humans and angels against devils, and against human beings who become “demonized” and promote a wide range of “cultic” ideas and behaviours, including Eastern “cults” and the New Age. After Peretti’s success the idea that “cults” are spread through “demonized” individuals has become common in Evangelical circles, and in some Catholic circles heavily influenced by Evanglical and Pentecostal “demonization” theories.


Figure 1 shows four possible kinds of movements against the “cults”:

– The first model is the rationalist anti cult movement. The basic paradigm of this movement is fraud, perpetrated by religious opportunists in order to make money at the expense of the gullible. The most typical rationalist anti cult movements are those of the “professional skeptics” whose aim is to “debunk” the claims made for religious miracles and psychic phenomena.

Although the existence of professional skeptics is at least as old as psychical research and spiritualsm (stage magicians, for example, took pleasure early in the 19th century in showing that they were able to replicate the phenomena of the spiritualist mediums), currently the most influential group of skeptics in the international anti cult scene is the US based Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), publisher of the widely read magazine Skeptical Inquirer (10).


An Italian organization of skeptics

In Europe an organization very similar has been established in Italy under the name of CICAP (Comitato Italiano di Controllo delle Affermazioni sul Paranormale, Italian Committee to Control the Claims of the Paranormal). Although administratively independent, CICAP emphasizes its connection with CSICOP. The main spokesman for CICAP is TV journalist Piero Angela, who has for years written books and produced TV shows against the paranormal and the “cults”. He has been successful in enlisting the aid of popular writers such as the comic novelist (and amateur philosophy historian) Luciano De Crescenzo, and of famous scientists such as Italian Nobel prize laureates Carlo Rubbia and Rita Levi Montalcini, as well as astrophysicist Margherita Hack, who was already well known as a spokesperson for secular humanism.

Imitating the modus operandi of CSICOP, its Italian counterpart whose TV programs are now aired in other European countries has also obtained the help of stage magicians such as Victor Balli, who claims to have replicated more than one thousand phenomena ususally presented as miracles or evidence of the supernatural by religious movements and psychic groups. CICAP has also tried to create a media event by offering a prize of $ 100,000 to anyone who may offer unimpeachable evidence of a “genuine” paranormal or miracolous event. It has been said that in the United States “as a popular movement and antiparanormal lobbying group, CSICOP has been a spectacular success” (11). Compared to CSICOP, CICAP and similar European organizations have been only a minor success, but they routinely attract media attention and have produced hundreds of news clippings.


Mind control and brainwashing

Post rationalist anti cult movements are still secular rather than sectarian, but rely almost exclusively on brainwashing as a preferred explanation for the success of “cults”. Particularly when their leaders are not mental health professionals, they tend to look at brainwashing as something mysterious and magical and, to some extent, parallel the attitude of post rationalist counter cultists who attribute the spread of “cults” to the Devil.

It often happens that European movements against the cults heavily depend on an American counterpart. As CICAP depends on CSICOP, the most important European post rationalist anti cult movement – CCMM and ADFI in France, AIS, CROAS and Pro Juventute in Spain, FAIR in England, ARIS in Italy – depends and in some cases would probably not even exist without inspiration and materials from CAN (Cult Awareness Network) and the American Family Foundation. The Italian ARIS, for example, emphasizes that it is “a secular group”, “in contact with similar organizations in Europe and the United States”, and avoids to pass judgement on “matters of doctrine or theology” (12). “Cults”, for ARIS, are rather a “serious problem of mental health” due to the “sophisticated techniques of mind control” used by the new religious movements. These techniques are typically described as almost magical: “they are capable of working on anyone, even on those who may think they are immune” (13). “Very few people”, if any, join a “cult” voluntarily; “normally, joining a cult means only that a mind control operation has been successful” (14). In order to counter these “mind control operations” most post rationalist anti cult movements (even if not all) would be glad to suggest a deprogrammer and cooperate with him.


Rationalist counter–cultists

Rationalist counter cult movements are typified in the U.S. by the Christian Research Institute (CRI). It would seem paradoxical to label its founder Walter Martin (1928 1989) as “rationalist”. No offense, however, is intended. On the contrary, “rationalist” means in this context that, although on a religious background, “cults” are explained here mostly through empirical elements (including false theology and heresy) rather than by relying principally or exclusively on the Devil’s activities.

“Rationalist” counter cultists, as faithful and normally conservative Christians, of course believe in the personal existence of the Devil, and do not exclude that the Devil is pleased because of the success of the “cults”. On the other hand, they think that an excessive interest in the Devil is unhealthy and typical of the “cults” themselves, and seek first alternative explanations.

In Europe rationalist counter cult movements are probably less common than in the United States, but they do exist. I would include in this field the Dialog Center International – ecumenical, but Lutheran in its origin – founded by Johannes Aagaard in Denmark, and the Roman Catholic organization G.R.I.S. in Italy. Normally because they do not accept to quickly blame all the “cults” on the Devil’s immediate action, this kind of movements and ministries are more interested in doing scholarly work and in reading the works of secular scholars, although of course they often do not agree with them.


Spiritual warfare

I would propose to call the Christian groups whose explanation of the “cultic” phenomena heavily involves the Devil the post rationalist counter cult movements.

These kind of movements are not well established in Europe. Some examples however exist. In Catholic circles, post rationalist counter cultism of the “spiritual warfare” kind is normally discouraged. It surfaces however, from time to time, in counter cult authors members of, or influenced by, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, which in turn is obviously influenced by trends prevailing in Eng­lish speaking Pentecostalism where “spiritual warfare” and “demonization” theories have been widely discussed and partially accepted (15).

In Italy Tarcisio Mezzetti, an influential lay leader of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, has lectured extensively against “cults”, the occult and the New Age introducing many “spiritual warfare” themes (16). Another Catholic author who relies on demonic explanations of new religious movements is Armando Pavese of Alessandria, a specialist of parapsychology. In 1992 he devoted a book to Sathya Sai Baba, where he suggests that Sai Baba’s “miracles” may be “real” but produced by the Devil and that the Indian guru may be “a form of the Antichrist” (17). Pavese’s campaign against Sathya Sai Baba has been instrumental in convincing the Roman Catholic Church to stop the activities of Mario Mazzoleni, a Catholic priest from Bergamo who had accepted Sai Baba as a divine incarnation and had lectured expressing his belief in Sai Baba and in reincarnation (18). Mazzoleni has been formally excommunicated in 1992, a rare measure today in the Roman Catholic Church when adopted against identified individuals. But, in general, it is rare that the kind of arguments used by the post rationalist counter cult movements about “demonic” influence in the “cults” and “demonization” are taken seriously by mainline Churches in Europe.


Audiences, clients and movements

c) A second sub typology may perhaps be introduced. I believe that the well known distinction proposed by Stark and Bainbridge (19) between audience cults, client cults and cult movements may be relevant for both anti cult and counter cult movements.

Some crusaders against the “cults” only seek an audience: they write books, occasionally appear on television, but do not care to organize their followers. Others seek clients, offering a wide range of counseling services for a fee, from the extreme “deprogramming” to the more gentle “exit counseling”.

Finally, leaders of the crusade against the “cults” may decide to organize social movements with a newsletter, a hierarchy, a close knit system of beliefs and attitudes. Particularly when the movement against the “cults” belongs to the post rationalist group it may exhibit the same features it attributes to “cults”. “Many of the same arguments used against new religions can be plausibly made against the ACM [anti cult movements] as well” (20). Some movements against the “cults” exhibit, in fact, a set of beliefs – primarily the belief in a widespread and mysterious “cult conspiracy” – that does not appear to be shared by the society at large. When members of these movements against the “cults” start regulating their life based on this set of beliefs they become a marginal group, devoted to – and identified by – persuations regarded by the majority as bizarre and even deviant; they become – in their own sense of the word – “cults”.



New Theaters for the Cult Wars


The expression “cult wars” has become common to indicate the bitter confrontation between the “cults” and their opponents, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s (21). The distinction between anti cult and counter cult movements, however, allows us to identify different theaters where the war has been and still is fought.


What groups are cultic?

a) The first – and most obvious – theater concerns the war between the “cults” and their opponents. This is, however, a strange war from at least two different points of view.

First, not all who fight against the “cults” agree in the identification of their enemy. It is not only a matter of scholarly definition of “cult” or “new religious movement”. People who see themselves at war have little time for technicalities. But what is relevant for them is whether certain specific groups, or categories of groups, are “cultic” or not. The anti cult movement – true to its program of watching deeds, not creeds – would not care for orthodoxy or Christianity. It would also ignore the endorsement or otherwise of the mainline Churches. The anti cult movement cares for quantity, not for quality. When it feels that the religious pressure exerted by a group on its members is too high, it would call the group “cultic”.

Most anti cult movements include in their list Opus Dei, notwithstanding the fact that this group has been endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church to the point of creating for it a special canon law structure, a Diocese without a territory, and of beatificating its founder after a surprisingly short canon process in a ceremony where the Pope told a crowd of 300,000 that Opus Dei is not only a movement endorsed and recommended by the Church but “a way towards sanctity” and a model of “Christian humanism” for the whole Catholic community (22). The anti cult movement would also include groups normally recognized as legitimate by the Evangelical community.


Mormons, Freemasonry and Roman Catholics

On the other hand, the anti cult movements normally (with few exceptions) would not regard Mormonism and Freemasonry as “cults”. Particularly in the United States they would rather regard them as established and mainline institutions.

Even a cursory look at the Christian counter cult literature would show that the single most targeted group is the Mormon Church, and that serious efforts are devoted to warn Christians against Freemasonry. These are not only matters of preference. If “cult” is defined as heresy from the standpoint of Evangelical Christianity it becomes normal to include Mormonism. If “cult” is described secularly as a non mainline, high pressure group the inclusion of Mormonism would become questionable at best.

Of course, there is no single definition of “orthodoxy”. In the most recent autho­ritative statement by the Roman Catholic magisterium – the general report of Francis Cardinal Arinze at the Concistory of 1991 (where the Pope indicated the new religous movements and abortion as the top pastoral priorities for the 1990s) – it was suggested that Roman Catholics substitute the derogatory word “cults” with “new religious movements”.

However the use of “new religious movements” by the Catholic magisterium is not the same as in English speaking scholarly literature. The statements distinguishes between various categories of “new religious movements”. Apart from more obvious categories, it mentions “new religious movements of Christian background” – typified by the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses – and even “new religous movements of Protestant background”, to indicate the Evangelical and Pentecostal denominations particularly active in proselytization among Latin American Catholics. The project called “New Religious Movements” of the International Federation of Catholic Universities, sponsored by four Vatican Secretariats, routinely includes among its topics discussions on Mormons and even Pentecostals. It is equally true that a number of Evangelical publications of the post rationalist brand include the Roman Catholic Church among the “cults”, and Walter Martin was heavily criticized for not including the Catholics in his “kingdom of the cults”.


Increasingly uncomfortable bedfellows

b) A second – and less obvious – war theater is slowly developing. It concerns the conflict between the anti cult and the counter cult movements.

The anti cult movement has not spared its best efforts to secure some cooperation from the counter cult movements and the Churches. The small group of priests and ministers who attend anti cult conferences are immidiately publicized in newsletters and other literature, as the anti cult movement seeks to promote its image as an umbrella organization coordinating the efforts of all groups working against the “cults”.

However, Christian counter cultists are increasingly uncomfortable about this cooperation. Given that most counter cultists are Evangelicals strongly opposed to secular humanism, and most anti cultists are precisely secular humanists, they make in fact strange bedfellows.

A particularly important article summing up counter cult critism of the anti cult movement was published by Johannes Aagaard in the very first issue of Update & Dialog, a magazine “for associates and friends of the Dialog Center International”.

“The anti cult movement is in trouble”, wrote Aagaard (scholars, to him, are also in trouble, but we will discuss this point later). In fact the anti cult organizations “tend to set the truth question aside, for they consider the cults only as means of exploitation having no genuine religious characteristics”.

And this is only part of the story: the anti cult organizations “do not themselves ask the truth question. ... The normal attitude of parents organizations [a definition used by Aagaard almost as a synonym of anti cult movement] will be that they do not care about ‘creeds’, only about ‘deeds’. They will let people believe what they prefer to believe, and only when the creed is turned into some wrong deeds are the parents organizations expected to react. This is of course a distinction which cannot be uphold.”


“A creed is a deed”

“One has to understand” – insists Aagaard – “that a creed is a deed. And if one wants to stop the evil deeds one has to react already against evil creeds. But that makes an alternative creed necessary! That is where the parents organizations are in real trouble.” Either, according to Aagaard, they recognize that they need an “identity” or a very dangerous tendency may develop: “that parents against cults are also parents against Christianity” (23).

Although Aagaard is willing to admit that the anti cult movements also do “valuable” work, the question of the “inevitability of religion” he mentions (24) seems to make equally inevitable in the long run a conflict between anti cult and counter cult movements.

There are, also, specific issues adding fuel to the fire. Although very few anti cult movements (except perhaps in Spain, where local authorities appear strangely tolerant of such practices) will speak out openly in favour of deprogramming in the 1990s, all anti cult groups recommend exit counseling.

The Evangelical counter cult community is much less enthusiastic. In 1992 an article authored by popular counter cult writers William M. Alnor and Ronald Enroth was published by the Christian Research Journal (the publication founded by Walter Martin) taking a firm stand against exit counseling, “a big business mingled with instances of unethical activity”.


The core of the problem

The article – which adopts the terminology distinguishing between “anti cult” and “counter cult” attitudes – charges exit counselors with doing “involuntary exit counseling [a gentler word for deprogramming] using varying rationalizations to justify it”, with charging outrageous fees and with targeting sometimes Christian groups such as the Campus Crusade for Christ. Alnor and Enroth recognize that exit counselors have met, urged by the Cult Awareness Network, to police excessive fees, but recommend that “for the major exit counselors to assemble and decide what their prices should be smacks of a price fixing cartel similar to what the OPEC nations do regarding oil prices”.

The basic question, however, remains the old one opposing counter cult to anti cult movements. Exit counselors, the article says, do not care whether their “clients” will return to Evangelical Christianity. Christians, Alnor and Enroth say, are increasingly “disturbed by the exit counselors’ lack of concern to steer [their ‘clients’] toward evangelical Christianity” and “to guide cult members into a fuller understanding of correct biblical doctrine”.

It would be difficult to state more clearly where the problem lies between the anti cult and the counter cult movements. The conclusions do not allow to foresee a very peaceful future. “Christian ministries to cults – according to Alnor and Enroth – need to be wary when dealing with exit counselors ... We urge caution in making research files available to most exit counselors unless assurances can be made that such information will not be used in unethical situations”.

And the problem is not only ethic. “For the Christian” – write Alnor and Enroth – “the cults represent more than merely a social or psychological problem. In a very central way, they are a spiritual problem ... A truly Christian concern proceeds from an eternal perspective. What good is accomplished if people are extricated from cults but their spiritual needs, which draw them into the cults in the first place, including the question of their eternal destiny, are left unattended?” (25)

Once Evangelical counter cultists realize that the answer of the anti cultists to this question is very different from their own, cooperation becomes very difficult and the strange bedfellows will easily turn into future enemies.


Rationalists versus post–rationalists

c) There is, also, a third theater, opposing what I have called “rationalist” and “post rationalist” opponents of the “cults”. Within the anti cult fold, skeptics often exert their skepticism not only against the claim of the paranormal or the “cults” but as well against the wildest claims of their fellow anti cultists. Skeptics often do not believe in extreme theories of “magical” brainwashing.

Parallel developments have occurred in the Christian counter cult community. I have chronicled elsewhere the bitter opposition that developed among Evangelical Christian opponents of Mormonism around the question of Devil worship secretly taking place in the Mormon temple. Post rationalist counter Mormon organizations have seriously argued that this is indeed the case, and have gone so far to argue that the very shape of the Mormon temples is “demonic” and designed to attract Satan’s influence.

These groups – although admittedly bizarre – are not irrelevant, and their books and cassettes have been widely disseminated in the Evangelical community, not only in the U.S. They have, however, found a strong opposition by other Evangelical counter Mormon groups that in my typology should be called “rationalist”. Well known Evangelical counter Mormons such as Jerald and Sandra Tanner have made abundantly clear that they regard the whole theory of a demonic connection in the Mormon temple architecture and ceremony as ridiculous and basicaly stupid.

The exponents of the “demonic” theory of Mormonism have reacted very strongly. The Tanners – key and well respected figures in the anti Mormon community for decades – have been accused of being Mormon agents, and a fellow counter Mormon minister has suggested that they are probably demon possessed and should seek the services of an exorcist (26).

What is worth noting in this story is that both the Tanners and their opponents are Evangelical Christians, and there is no question that both are strongly opposed to Mormonism and have devoted most of their lives to spread counter Mormon literature. Their bitter confrontation shows that conflicts between rationalist and post rationalist wings of the same movements could be very real.


Satanic panic

Another area of this confrontation concerns the alleged epidemic of satanic ritual abuse in the United States and in Europe. Again, the conflict in this case is not between the anti cult and the counter cult movement, but between the rationalist and the post rationalist wing within each movement.

While some anti cult organizations have – with different degrees of emphasis – espoused the theory that there is indeed a large secret international network involved in satanic ritual abuse, they have found their most outspoken critics not only within the scholarly community – sociologists generally maintain that no such secret network exists – but also among the rationalist “debunkers” and professional skeptics. One of the most harsh critisisms of the theory of the satanic conspiracy has been published by a committee with links to CSICOP (27).

Paradoxically, skeptics connected with CSICOP side on this controversy with some Christian counter cultists who are vigorously criticizing other Christian counter cultists convinced that the satanic conspiracy indeed exists. It is interesting to note that the same Christian Research Institute (the late Walter Martin’s organization) which took a stand against deprogramming and exit counseling, also devoted the cover story of its magazine in Winter 1992 to The Hard Facts about Satanic Ritual Abuse.


No compelling evidence for a conspiracy

The story – authored by the well known counter cult Evangelical authors Bob and Gretchen Passantino – takes one by one the alleged “proofs” of the satanic conspiracy and shows that no one of them really “proves” anything. Books like Michelle Remembers and Satan’s Underground – both classics of the conspiracy theory (28) – are heavily criticized, while the very skeptic book edited by sociologists James T. Richardson, Joel Best and David G. Bromley (29) is called “a good reference” and studies by anthropologist Sherril Mulhern (also critical of the conspiracy theory) are recommended.

The conclusion is that “there is still no substantial, compelling evidence that satanic ritual abuse stories and conspiracy theories are true. Alternate hypothesis more reasonably explain the social, professional, and personal dynamics reflected in this contemporary satanic panic. The tragedy of broken families, traumatized children, and emotional incapacitated adults provoked by satanic ritual abuse charges is needless and destructive. Careful investigation of the stories, the alleged victims, and the proponents has given us every reason to reject the satanic conspiracy model” (30).

As it could be seen, more than one issue promises for the future further conflicts not only between the anti cult and the counter cult movement, but also, within each movement, between the rationalist and the post rationalist wing. Strange alliances could also be formed, since rationalists of both groups could use very similar arguments when dealing with each one’s post rationalist opponents.


Critique of the “neutral” scholars

d) It may seem, from time to time, that a fourth theater of war opposes the movements against the cults and the scholars (occasionally, this is fought also in the Courts, as the recent U.S. lawsuit filed by Margaret Singer and others against a number of scholars and organizations of scholars shows). Scholars are assaulted for their detachment; rather than standing up against the cults, scholars seem to loose time in subtleties, technicalities and non essential questions.

The criticism of the scholars is, to some extent, common to the anti cult and to the counter cult movements. However the most astute counter cultists have now recognized that differences exist. Again the anti cult movement accuses the scholars to downplay the evil deeds, while the counter cult movement criticizes the sholars because they seem not to care about evil creeds.

Aagaard thinks that a number of scholars have formed what he calls an “anti anti cult movement”. “This sort of scholar” – he writes – “is in trouble. In his or her neutrality the role of an anti anti cult agent takes over the role of the scholar.”

If, according to Aagaard, “the anti cult movement is in trouble, ... the anti anti cult movement is in an even more serious trouble by its lack of identity. Show me your hand and I shall tell you who you are. If you have no hand, you are nobody!”

Aagaard has other kinds of criticism, too. “Methodologically” – he writes – “this tends towards science for science’s own sake, and that is of course ‘old hat’. Like it or not you are part of the game. To pretend to stand aside having no creed of your own makes for cheating.”

Here, however, one notices that Aagaard uses the same arguments against the secular anti cult movement and against the scholarly “anti anti cult movement”. In fact, he writes, “the anti cult movement and the anti anti cult movement seem to have one important point in common: they will and must await the truth question. They will not go for the creeds for that will hit back and force them to take up the age old question: what is truth? And to answer that they would have to take theology seriously.” (31)



The Question of Truth


Aagaard makes in his article an important point: the “question of truth” is central in the new cult wars. There are, however, different questions of truth.

a) There is, first of all, a question of factual truth. Before involving different philosophical or ethical judgements, the new cult wars are concerned about whether specific facts are true or not.

When, for example, post rationalist anti cultists and counter cultists insist that thousands of babies are killed yearly by the satanic conspiracy, their conflict with more rationalist opponents of the cults and with scholars is not about whether satanism is ethically acceptable or should be tolerated or condoned. The conflict arises because almost all the scholars – and many rationalist opponents of the cults – maintain that there is no evidence that there is a worldwide, huge satanic conspiracy. They do not evaluate in a different way the same data; they deny that the data offered by the theory of the satanic conspiracy are factually true.

Similarly, the controversy about the pretended worship of Satan in the Mormon temple is not about the right for Mormons to worship Satan in their temples or whether such worship should be prohibited. Critics of the “Lucifer God” doctrine – including the undersigned – simply deny that such a thing as Satan worship in Mormon temples existed in the past or exists now. Again, the question is not ethical judgement but factual truth.

Scholars are of course aware that truth is defined in very different ways by Thomas Aquinas or Karl Popper, but very few of them will maintain that propositions such as “ten thousands babies are ritually sacrificed by Satanists every year” or “Mormons secretly worship Satan in their temples” could not be subject to a final and reliable assessment in terms of “true” or “false”.


Truth about creeds

b) There is, also, truth about creeds. Here we should be very careful in order to avoid a possible misunderstanding. Take the often repeated proposition “Mormons today believe that Adam, the first man, and God our Father are one and the same”. Is this proposition “true”?

“True”, here, could have two different meanings. The first meaning is again factual – although Karl Popper warned us that factual statements about the “World 3” of doctrines and theories are still more difficult to assess. From this point of view, at any rate, the question is: “Do Mormons today really believe that Adam is God?” The answer is no: Brigham Young said something similar in the 19th century, but today the Adam God doctrine is regarded as heresy and ground for excommunication by the Mormon Church (32). We could then conclude that when anti Mormons claim that Mormons believe today in the Adam God doctrine (as opposed to the 19th century) their claim is factually false. They could, of course, qualify their statement and argue that some Mormons – members of splinter groups – still believe in the doctrine, but this would be a word game.

It is entirely a different question whether the Adam God doctrine is “true” or “false” from a theological point of view. From the standpoint of traditional Christianity (and even of 1993 Mormonism) it is certainly “false”.

The two problems – whether it is “true” that Mormons believe it, and whether the doctrine is theologically “true” – are obviously different. Aagaard is right when he argues that most scholars are not interested in assessing whether the doctrines of the new religious movements are “true” in a theological sense.


Assessments of creeds

However, this does not mean that the same scholars are uninterested in determining whether it is “true” that a particular movement believes in a particular doctrine.

While some anti cult movements insist that they are only interested in deeds, scolars devote a significant amount of time to the reconstruction of each movement’s creeds. Indeed a number of anti cult and counter cult publications frankly recognize that they are indebted to scholars for clarifying the complicate creeds of some movements. The difference is that most scholars stop at the reconstruction of the creed, while the movements against the cults go on and brand these creeds as heretics.

In this perspective it is worth noting that even the secular anti cult movements are not as uninterested in creeds as they normally pretend. In fact they also assess the degree of “heresy” of the creeds; only they do not assess heresy against classical Christianity but against what they perceive as rationality and the modern worldview.

I would quote the two keynote speakers at the Barcelona anti cult conference “Totalist Groups and Sectarism” (April 22 25, 1993), Margaret Singer and Michael Langone. In Court testimony involving ISKCON Margaret Singer once said:

“I don’t use the term ‘religion’ when I am studying the practices of organizations, because it’s irrelevant to me what the content of the organization is”.


New definitions of heresy

However, in another paper Singer stated that the doctrines of the new religious movements are “cultic” because they are outside “the world of science, liberalism and rationalism” and, in many cases, “contrary to the general scientific understanding of causality”. They are impermissable because they do not “stay within the general tenets of our larger social order which is a democracy and which operates by the theories of scientific causality” (33).

Recently Michael Langone offered a checklist to determine whether trainings and therapies – generally called “products” – connected with the New Age are “cultic”. Questions include: “Does the product denigrate rationality?”, “Is there a lack of scientific evidence for the product’s alleged effectiveness? (Distinguish between scientific evidence and pseudoscientific evidence)” and “Would the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, the Pope, Billy Graham, and an orthodox rabbi agree that the product is nonsense or destructive?” (34).

Here we see clearly rationality, science, the “principle of causality” or the consensus of a large majority (very difficult to obtain if it really should include the Pope and Bertrand Russell) as a criteria for a latter day definition of heresy.

From a certain point of view, the question of “truth” is relevant for some and not relevant for others. But from another point of view there are, simply, different concepts of “truth”.


Three approaches to truth

c) Finally, I would recommend to take a closer look to the question of theological or philosophical “truth”.

It would not be correct to say that “scholars” in general are not interested in theological truth. After all few people would deny that the progress of contemporary religious social science has been possible thanks to the contribution of both secular and deeply religious scholars.

In an important essay – published as an introduction to the revised American edition of The Transcendent Unity of Religions by esoteric teacher Frithjof Schuon – Huston Smith in fact argued that scholars studying religions have adopted two different attitudes, the “theological, committed position” evaluating the other religions from the point of view of a deep religious commitment believing that one religion is “true”; and the “objective, detached position” believing that all religions are subjective enterprises, equally “true” or (according to the scholar’s own preferred emphasis) equally “false”.

Huston Smith also chronicles the efforts of some scholars to find a third position, and argues that only the “perennialist”, esoteric approach (the approach of Smith himself) may have a chance to succeed: religions are different and opposed in their exoteric surface, but united in their esoteric inner core.

Apart from the difficult esoteric “third way”, Huston Smith thinks that normally the “theological, committed position” – at least when it is not parochial or “fundamentalist” – guarantees a better understanding of religions than the “objective, detached position”, which is inherently relativist (35).

I have argued elsewhere that Smith’s “third way” is not convincing: the relativist would argue that, since there are as many esoteric doctrines as esoteric teachers, each “third way” only multiplies the number of “theological” positions available; while the follower of a particular religion would insist that the esoteric position is only another brand of relativism and the third way is only a special version of the second (36).


A possible way out of antagonism

But, apart from the esoteric “third way”, Huston Smith makes here a good point. The sciences of religion, and the understanding of the religions of the world – old and new alike – progress because of the different points of view offered by two different kinds of scholars, the “theological” and the “relativist”. Indeed, it is their continuous dialogue which add the fuel necessary for the understanding of religion – including the new religious movements – to progress.

Of course the “theological” scholars are willing to confront also the issue of whether a doctrine is theologically sound or “true”. But, for dialogue to be possible, they should recognize that even “non theological” scholars approach questions of truth continuously at their own non theological level: questions of factual truth, of thruth about whether a particular movement really believes in a particular doctrine, historical truths, methodological truths.

As Monsignor Giuseppe Casale explained in his recent pastoral letter – clearly a document written from a “theological” standpoint, if one wishes to adopt the distinction of Huston Smith – the dialogue between scholars of different persuasions is what CESNUR is all about. The quest for factual truth and the ideal of professionalism in religious sciences are values per se worth promoting (37).

The dialogue could certainly include the movements against the “cults”, and the new religious movements themselves, provided that – even if they strongly disagree between themselves and with scholars on theological truth and on its importance – they are at least prepared to look for a common and fair standard of factual truth about both deeds and creeds.

This is the only way to end in the 1990s the “cult wars”, whose benefits have been dubious at best for all the sides involved.


The text of this article was originally delivered as a paper at the international seminar “New Religions and the New Europe”, organized by CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions), INFORM (Information Network Focus on New Religious Movements), and ISAR (Institute for the Study of American Religion) at the London School of Economics, London, 25–28 March 1993).




(1) See M. Introvigne, Le nuove Religioni, Milan: SugarCo, 1989 with a bibliography of J. Gordon Melton’s works. I have benefited from a number of discussions with J. Gordon Melton on this point.


(2) See for instance William M. Alnor   Ronald Enroth, “Ethical Problems in Exit Counseling”, Christian Research Journal, 14:3, Winter 1992, pp. 14 19.


(3) See e.g. “Scientologists Sue Critics”, Christianity Today 37:2, February 8, 1993, p. 52 and p. 65.


(4) Mons. Giuseppe Casale, Nuova religiosità e nuova evangelizzazione, pastoral letter of March 6, 1993, Casale Monferrato, 1993, pp. 35 38.


(5) This is still true today: see Emanuel Feldman   Joel B. Wolowelsky (eds.), The Conversion Crisis: Essays from the Pages of “Tradition”, New York: KTAV/The Rabbinical Council of America, 1990.


(6) Cfr. Natalie Isser   Lita Linzer Schwartz, The History of Conversion and Contemporary Cults, New York: Peter Lang, 1988; see also Lita Linzer Schwartz, “The Historical Dimension of Cultic Techniques of Persuasion and Control”, The Cultic Studies Journal, 8:1 (1991), pp. 37 45.


(7) Barbara Hargrove, “Social Sources and Consequences of the Brainwashing Controversy”, in David G. Bromley   James T. Richardson (eds.), The Brainwashing/Deprogramming Controversy: Sociological, Psychological, Legal and Historical Perspectives, New York: Edwin Mellen, 1983, pp. 299 308 (p. 303).


(8) Frank Peretti, This Present Darkness, Ventura (CA): Regal, 1986.


(9) Robert A. Guelich, “Spiritual Warfare: Jesus, Paul and Peretti”, Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, 13:1, Spring 1991, pp. 33 64. A sequel has suggested that large law firms and organizations like ACLU are heavily involved in the demonic cult conspiracy: F. Peretti, Piercing the Darkness, Wheaton (Illinois): Crossway Books, 1991.


(10) On CSICOP see J. Gordon Melton   Jerome Clark . Aidan A. Kelly, New Age Almanac, Detroit: Visible Ink Press 1991, pp. 105 114.


(11) Ibid., p. 114.


(12) ARIS, Nuovi culti, Flyer, 1992, p. 4.


(13) Ibid., p. 1.


(14) Ibid., p. 3.


(15) Cfr. R.A. Guelich, op. cit.; Thomas D. Pratt, “The Need to Dialogue: A Review of the Debate on Signs, Wonders, Miracles and Spiritual Warfare in the Literature of the Third Wave Movement”, Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, 13:1, Spring 1991, pp. 7 32.


(16) See Tarcisio Mezzetti, “... ‘Bel è coperto di confusione’ ... (Ger 50,2)”, I quad­erni di “Venite e Vedrete”, n.d., 1 16.


(17) Armando Pavese, Sai Baba. Anatomia del “Nuovo Cristo” e dei suoi miracoli attraverso la psicologia del profondo, la parapsicologia e la fede cristiana, Casale Monferrato (Alessandria): Piemme, 1992, p. 205. The main source for the identification of Sathya Sai Baba with the Antichrist is Tal Brooke, Lord of the Air: Tales of a Modern Antichrist, Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1990.


(18) Don Mario Mazzoleni, Un sacerdote incontra Sai Baba, Milano: Armenia Editore, 1991.


(19) Rodney Stark   William Sims Bainbridge, The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1986.


(20) Brock K. Kilbourne   James T. Richardson, “Cultphobia”, Thought 61 (1986), pp. 258 261.


(21) See for example Anson D. Shupe, Jr.   David G. Bromley, The New Vigilantes: Deprogrammers, Anti Cultists and the New Religions, Beverly Hills London: Sage, 1980; see also James A. Beckford, Cult Controversies: The Societal Response to the New Religious Movements, London New York: Tavistock, 1985.


(22) John Paul II, Omelia nella Messa di Beatificazione, May 17, 1992 (in Italian), in 17 maggio 1992. La beatificazione di José Maria Escrivá, fondatore dell’Opus Dei, Milan: Ares, 1992. Alberto Moncada, the main spokesman for the “cultic” nature of Opus Dei within the anti cult movement, replied to this objection in personal correspondence with the undersigned arguing that the Roman Catholic Church under John Paul II is becoming itself “increasingly cultic”. The anti cult movements are not willing to exclude mainline Churches from their definition of “cult” but reserve the right to enquire on a case by case basis. In 1986 the French anti cult movement ADFI stated that the Roman Catholic Church (but in fact also its “Protestant and Eastern Orthodox” counterparts) exhibited a number of “cultic” features before Vatican II, including the claim “to be the only true Church”, a universal “Catechism” with questions “to be memorized”, severe “fasting”, etc. (Alain Woodrow, “Les Eglises sont elles des sectes?”, B.U.L.L.E.S., 2nd Quarter of 1986, pp. 6 8). By reintroducing some of the features regarded as “cultic” by ADFI is the Roman Catholic Church becoming “cultic” again?


(23) Johannes Aagaard, “A Christian Encounter with New Religious Movements & New Age”, Update & Dialog, 1:1, July 1991, pp. 19 23 (p. 21).


(24) Ibid., p. 23.


(25) W.M. Alnor and R. Enroth, op.cit. The Christian Research Journal (vol. 15, n.3, Winter 1993, pp. 46–47) has allowed two supporters of exit counseling to reply in its column Viewpoint: Michael D. Langone and Paul R. Martin, “Deprogramming, Exit Counseling, and Ethics: Clarifying the confusion”. In fact this reply does not achieve very much in terms of “clarifying the confusion” between exit counseling and deprogramming, since the authors are still reluctant to accept the position that   to borrow the term from Mons. Casale’s pastoral letter (cit., p. 82)   deprogramming is “always contrary to Christian ethics and never acceptable”.


(26) See, for the whole story and bibliography, my “Quand le diable se fait Mormon. Le Mormonisme comme complot diabolique: l’affaire Schnoebelen”, Politica Hermetica 6 (1992), pp. 36 54.


(27) CSER (Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion), Satanism in America, Buffalo: CSER, 1989. See the bitter reply by CAN related anti cultists Kevin Garney and Linda Blood, Interesting Times, privately published, n.d. (Blood, now associated with the Cult Awareness Network, is the former wife of Michael Aquino, the leader of the Satanist movement Temple of Set).


(28) Cfr. Michelle Smith – Lawrence Pazder, Michelle Remembers, New York: Congdon & Lattés, 1980; Lauren Stratford, Satan’s Underground, Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1988.


(29) James T. Richardson   Joel Best   David G. Bromley (eds.), The Satanism Scare, New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1991.


(30) Bob Passantino   Gretchen Pasantino, “The Hard Facts about Satanic Ritual Abuse”, Christian Research Journal, 14:3, Winter 1992, pp. 20 23 and 32 34.


(31) J. Aagaard, op.cit., pp. 21 22.


(32) See for a history of all the question David John Buerger, “The Adam God Doctrine”, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 15:1, pp. 14 58.


(33) Margaret Singer, testimony in George v. ISKCON, 27 75 65 Orange County California Supreme Court, 5. 452 53; Ead., “Interview”, Spiritual Counterfeits Newsletter, 2, March April 1984, p. 6 and p. 12.


(34) Michael D. Langone, “What is ‘New Age’?”, The Cult Observer, 10:1 (1993), pp. 8 10.


(35) Huston Smith, “Introduction to the Revised Edition”, in Frithjof Schuon, The Transcendent Unity of Religions, 2nd American Edition, Wheaton, Illinois: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1984, pp. IX XXVII.


(36) See M. Introvigne, Introduzione, in Huston Smith, Le grandi religioni orientali, It. ed., Milan: SugarCo, 1993.


(37) Mons. G. Casale, op. cit., p. 96. One notices that while the document emphasizes a possible consensus between believers and non believers on factual truths about both deeds and creeds, it does not mention a consensus on ethical truths (in the form of propositions like “all should agree that telling lies for the sake of proselytization is wrong”). In fact, while Catholic moral theology normally argues that “natural” moral truths may be recognized by the human reason apart from their theological foundation, theologians also realize that for practical purposes it is much more difficult to find a real agreement – apart from some very broad general principles – on the “truth” of specific moral propositions.

Massimo Introvigne

was born in Rome, Italy in 1955. He holds degrees in Philosophy from the Ponitificial Gregorian University in Rome and in Law, with a major in Philosophy and Sociology of Law, from the University of Turin. He was Assistant Lecturer at the Institute of Law, University of Turin, 1979-1988. An attorney, he is a partner in one of the largest Italian law firms, and teaches Sociology of Religion as a part-time teacher at the Theological University of Southern Italy. From 1988 he is chairman of CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions (Via Bertola 86, I-10122 Torino), an international organization of academic scholars of different backgrounds and religious persuasions professionally interested in the New Religious Movements, well-known for its yearly seminars and research projects. Dr. Introvigne is the author of ten books (including the encyclopedic Le nuove Religioni, 1989, and Il cappello del mago, 1990) and the editor of five in the field of the new religious movements and contemporary magic. A Roman Catholic, he has worked on many research projects on behalf of Vatican departments and Bishop’s conferences. He lives in Turin with his wife and his 7-years old son Carlo.

A commentary to Introvigne’s article

by Lesslie Newbegin


Dear Johannes. Many thanks for your letter of 2nd of June, enclosing the paper of Massimos, as well as your former article which I had read previously.

You suggested that I might ‘co-think’ with you about Massimo’s article. I fear that I am not very competent to do so. I am not familiar with the field as he and you are. Most of his paper is devoted to a taxonomy of the various movements against New Religious Movements. At the end it is made very clear that he accepts a dicnotomy between a ‘theological’ approach and a ‘non-theological’ or ‘factual’ approach. By this latter he means, for example, ‘whether a particular movement really believes in a particular doctrine, historical truth, methodological truth’. He seems to accept the (very common) belief that there is available a kind of ‘secular’ knowledge which is theologically neutral. He supports the ‘ideal of professionalism in religious science’.

I believe that this concept of a ‘science of religion’ which is theologically neutral is an illusion. If the word theos denotes ‘that which is dependent on nothing and on which everything else depends’, then it can be shown that all science has a ‘theological’ stance, in the sense that it takes as basic for its work something which functions as theos in this sense. It is not that there is a ‘non-creedal’ standpoint from which one can study various creeds. One can only study anything from what is a (perhaps provisional) creed. No neutral standpoint is available.

This undercuts his whole taxonomy, even though it certainly provides a useful framework for surveying the scene. The ‘anti-cult’ movements, as such as the ‘counter-cult’ movements have a creedal basis. It is important, is it not, that we use the word ‘rational’ to refer to honest, clear and rigorous thinking, not to the endorsement of the Enlightenment world-view.   Yours sincerely Lesslie Newbegin, the 15th of June 1993.