The Cult of Cult-Snuffing

Originally published in ‘The Laughing Man‘ Magazine

Vol 3, NO 3, 1982


he date was November 18, 1978, shortly after 5:00 P.M. The location was a utopian settlement in the jungle near Port Kaituma in South America. More specifically, it was “Jonestown,” Guyana.

The tragic occasion that would cause waves of consternation, horror, outrage, and righteous reaction in many parts of the Western hemisphere was the mass suicide of 912 members of the ill-fated People’s Temple. The term “suicide” is only loosely applicable, since babies and young children and dissidents were simply killed. All were the victims of the messianic delusions of their “Father” Rev. Jim Jones, and of their own naivete, psychological immaturity, and ideological fixation.

The horror of the “White Night,” exploited to the full by the news media for their sensation-hungry public, has led to a widespread feeling of ambivalence and suspicion towards the new religious cults. Indeed, that macabre event opened up a Pandora’s Box of anticultist hostilities, accusations, counter-accusations, lawful or not-so-lawful investigations, and prosecutions. The resulting controversy temporarily stunted the growth of what are commonly referred to as the cults, and most of the cultic groups now make efforts to avoid the limelight. Still, some of the less publicized cults now appear to be gaining rather than losing members.

Although no precise figures are available, sociologists reckon the total population of such cults to lie between 300.000 and 750,000 adherents in the United States alone. Higher figures of between one to three million cult followers are also mentioned, but these, if not wholly exaggerated, would undoubtedly include the more secular cults such as UFOism, etc. Compared to the 136 million members of Christianity and Judaism in the United States, this figure seems insignificant. And yet, there is a strong, vociferous, and active anticultist lobby that is determined to crack down on the “epidemic” of the new religious cults.
Master Da Free John has coined the term “Cult-snuffihg” for this hostile, repressive orientation of the anticultist movement. This coinage is singularly pertinent, since the implicit or explicit goal of the anticult lobby is indeed not merely to repress but to actually deliver the death blow to its avowed antagonists to snuff out the life of the marginal religious cults.

The anticult “crusade,” which is becoming progressively more organized and centralized, is almost exclusively composed of white middle-class citizens. Its origins lie in the strong establishment reactions to the “youth quake” of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and in the worry of those parents who had “lost” their promising sons and daughters to one or the other sect or marginal religious group.

In the United States, the first action-group of concerned parents was formed in San Diego in 1972. Since the main target of the newly founded organization was the Children of God sect, it was dramatically styled Free the Children of God (FREE-COG). Two years later, the Citizens Freedom Foundation (CFF) was called into existence, which was followed by a good many other-similar action-groups such as the Spiritual Counterfeits Project, Citizens Engaged in Reuniting Families, Inc., Love Our Children, Ihc.. Return to Personal Choice. Inc., and Citizens Engaged in Freeing Minds.

All these independent local anticult groups were then united, in 1977, under the parent organization called The International Foundation for Individual Freedom (IFIF). The Foundation not only orchestrated the efforts of individual groups or organizations; it also furnished them with a rudimentary philosophy of anticultism when it defined in its statement of purpose the marginal religious cults as “closed systems,” contrasting them with the “open system” of the mainstream religions. The terminology is misleading, and the comparison is cockeyed. Social systems, of which cults are a particular variation, are only relatively closed or open. All systems have necessarily a coercive element, simply because most human beings are not mature enough to live by the dicta of wisdom rather than by man-made laws, rules, or custom. To place marginal religions in stark opposition to conventional religions, by virtue of their “closed” or “open” nature, is too sweeping a judgment to be valid. It betrays the underlying paranoid stance shared by members of the anticult movement.

Their fear springs, it is claimed, from the alleged coercion exercised by the cults to recruit, hold, and exploit members. The coercion is expressed not so much in terms of physical constraint but through the force of deception and devious psychological manipulation. It is maintained that the cults craftily manipulate the recruit’s perceptions and thought patterns to the point of refashioning his total world view and his personality. This process is pejoratively dubbed “mind control” or “brainwashing.”

It is true that psychological coercion, or forceful persuasion, and aggressive indoctrination are practiced in some cults. It is equally undeniable that in some instances, as in Jonestown, members are actively prevented from leaving at will. Yet, to throw all the marginal cults into the same pot is a sign of either a lack of clarity and discrimination or deliberate distortion. Since there is adequate sociological information available to demonstrate that the majority of marginal cults do not match the dark anticult model, the latter explanation is obviously the correct one.1 The cults are being used as convenient scapegoats.

It has been suggested by sociologists that, like homosexual militancy or feminism, the cults are perceived as threatening the already shaky family life and aS worsening the general rootlessness of the modern West, especially the American society. There is also the freewheeling fear of changing the status quo, of rocking the boat of our complacent, bureaucratized civilization. What is interesting here is the fact that, glancing back in history, today’s deviant, controversial sects or cults may be tomorrow’s established religions. Quakers, Methodists. Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are apt illustrations for this. But the lessons of history’ are notoriously unheeded.

“New religious movements have always been considered to be subversive, as Sydney Ahlstrom has said, and yet they have continued to emerge. Why? In the American scene, uniformity of opinion or practice has not been insisted upon; but conformity to some kind of ethos has always been central. This factor has bedeviled most of our history. Differences of opinion are acceptable, as are certain differences of practice. If a person does not conform to the major ethos, however, he or she is in trouble.”2

It is easy enough to sympathize with those who, because. of their own weakness or neurosis, have allowed themselves to be violated and victimized by unset populous cult leaders and the misguided communities around them. Yet, the anticultists’ claim that this is the mechanism by which each and every cult perpetuates itself is blatantly absurd.

Naturally, every social group operates on the basis of certain principles of exclusion and inclusion. Cohesiveness is largely’ achieved by means of a shared commitment to common goals, ideas, and ideals. Why should marginal religious cults be an exception to this universal rule of human association?
Why is it more acceptable that our children are obliged to move through the whole education process—from nursery school to University—in an extensive “indoctrination” program, stretching over ten to perhaps twenty years? Nor can one argue that they do so voluntarily, for the most part. What is the difference between conventional education which, when regarded dispassionately, is a form of programming, ! and the “indoctrination” that is associated; with the cults?

In both cases, the individual is exposed to a set of values and beliefs with the intention that these should make a significant difference in his subsequent behavior and thinking. In other words, he is expected to become a convert to the “system.” In the one case, the system is the culture of the majority, inculcated through the process known as “socialization” and in the other it is the culture of a minority group which, according to its critics, recruits members ; through “brainwashing.”

It is also hot possible to claim that, authoritarianism and coercion are entirely absent from conventional education. Corporal punishment, at school and at home, is by no means extinct. In our achievement -oriented society, the pressure of possible failure and consequent shame, guilt, and loss of face are at least as strong a lever of coercion as any rapid-fire exposure to a cult’s particular ideology. Moreover, the adolescents and young adults who join this or that cultic group are, by dint of their age, far less impressionable than the infants who are exposed to the conventional ideology of their nursery school, and the young children who are moved through an intense program of mass education.

Richard Delgado. Professor of Law at the University of California (Los Angeles), makes this summary observation:

“Conventional religious orders often impose a high degree of isolation by cloistering. Some military recruiters. Madison Avenue copywriters, and campaigning politicians use exaggeration, concealment, and ‘puffing’ to make their product appear more attractive. Revivalists may at times use guilt manipulation. Officer training schools, Outward Bound, and executive training institutes sometimes cause psychological and physical casualties. Thus, the thought control processes engaged in by religious cults, it could be argued, are indistinguishable from those of these other groups.”3

The author qualifies the above remarks by saying that few, if any, of the conventional social institutions “approach either the intensity, sophistication, or completeness of the conditioning process found in some cults.”4 But this is misleading. The overwhelming “success” of conventional education is a demonstrable sign of the intensity, sophistication, and completeness of the “programming” method of the social majority.

Comparatively few youngsters are left with the feeling, or suspicion, that they could have made different choices and so entered the world of adults with a different outlook on life. Even those who belong to the disaffected youth, searching for new values and meanings, are in the long run seldom free enough to cultivate alternative life-styles, but tend to be sucked back into the conservative mold of their parents.
To resist the gravity pull of mainstream society, a person must be acutely alienated from the concerns, norms, and modes of his social environment and at the same time be strongly motivated to secure a meaningful existence for himself. Cults, it has been suggested, fill the vacuum created by the erosion of traditional religiosity, the meaning system that has sustained societies prior to the rise and tyranny of scientific materialism and secularism.

Since the U.S. Constitution guarantees the individual full religious freedom, the Establishment deals with the “specter” of the new cults by resorting to an age-old form of exorcism: The “outgroup” is stereotyped and thus redefined to a point where subjugation and extermination of the “enemy” appear to be increasingly lawful and desirable.

Anticultists operate with a simplistic but apparently efficacious stereotype. Their mythology about the new cults runs as follows: The cults are monstrous organizations, run by paranoid, deluded and power-hungry messiahs, that seek to enslave unsuspecting youths and exploit their labor potential. Through deception and highly sophisticated techniques of mind control, especially vulnerable young recruits are entrapped and stripped of their individuality. By way of unceasing and intense sensory bombardment, overwork, withholding of food and sleep, disallowing of privacy or true intimacy, exploitation of the recruit’s weaknesses (such as guilt feelings), and through extreme peer pressure, the innocent victim is gradually turned into a zombie-like creature without personal motivation or the capacity to survive in an ordinary human environment.

This sinister vision of the bloodthirsty Moloch of the new cults is undoubtedly partly derived from reality. As Master Da Free John remarks in his essay “Sheep, Goats, Wolves, and the Manly Few Who Are a Sacrifice in God”:

“There has been so much popular communication and ‘hype’ about ‘true’ religion, ‘secret’ esoteric spiritual practices, and ‘Great Masters’ that such things have become part of the conventional self-imagery and ‘personal’ mind of countless ordinary people. Very few people demonstrate the kind of responsibility, real intelligence, and creative power necessary even to begin practice of a truly religious and spiritual kind. But great numbers of childish and adolescent individuals embrace forms of exclusive cultism and self-glorifying belief. Just so, many people of that kind, unable to live as a true and consistent sacrifice, imagine themselves to be great, or worthy to dominate others. Many even imagine themselves to be Spiritual Masters. Since ancient times, schools and cults and techniques of all kinds have developed around individuals of all levels of experience and degrees of authenticity. And weak people tend to congregate around wolves, while wolves are always on the lookout for those who are weak enough to be exploited.”5

Certain cult leaders have indeed used nefarious means of luring young men and women into their fangs. Nor can it be denied that many cult members have allowed themselves to drift into an unhealthy state of trancelike apathy that has made them vulnerable to exploitations of all kinds. But to apply this stereotype indiscriminately to all the new religious or secular cults amounts to a completely unwarranted disparagement that smacks of sheer emotional reactivity towards those who entertain different beliefs and values.

The stereotype of the zombie-like, enslaved cult adherent has an insidious aspect to it, because it is usable, and has been so used, to circumnavigate the inviolable First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.6 A person’s freedom of belief is completely protected by the Constitution. He is perfectly immune from interference by the State. One may choose to believe in the most bizarre doctrines without running the risk of persecution. However, a person’s freedom of action is only relatively guaranteed. When religious beliefs are translated into practice, they become susceptible to legal scrutiny in regard to their possible harmfulness to society.

So, the anticult lobby is bent on demonstrating the actual harmfulness of the new religious cults. As it would be difficult to prove their baneful influence on society at large, the anticultists focus on individual cases of so-called mind control. And they are receiving an increasingly positive response from American legislators and the courts.

The authors of the widely read book Snapping have even invented a neologism for the cult-induced mental breakdown of cult members- “information disease.” They speculate that the information-processing pathways in the brain, which are created and maintained by the steady information flow through the nervous system, are impaired or altered by a sudden bombardment of new information.

Thus, they argue, the cults employ a battery of techniques for stilling the mind, silencing the critical faculties and flooding the psyche with a welter of new experiences that forces the individual to make unexamined instant adjustments. The pressurized person flees into a world of semiconsciousness filled with a spurious bliss or happiness that barely conceals his severe personality collapse.

“Almost every major cult and group teaches some form of not thinking, mind control, or, as it is often called, self-hypnosis as part of its regular program of activity. This process may take the form of prayer, chanting, speaking in tongues, or simple meditation. Initially, this quiescent state may provide physical and emotional benefits, feelings of inner peace and relaxation, or a calming of nervous tension. After a while, continued practice of the technique may even bring on various forms of euphoria: an emotional high, a feeling of bliss, or lightness of mind or body. In this state, an individual may have sensations of being in intangible realms or alternate realities. He may see divine visions, receive spiritual communications, or experience breakthrough moments of revelation or enlightenment.

“With the extended cessation of thought, however, the cumulative effects of inactivity may wear upon the brain until a point is reached when it readjusts to its new condition suddenly and sharply. When that happens, as we have discovered, its information-processing capacities may enter a state of disruption or complete suspension, producing individual states of mind that incorporate all the other forms of information disease: disorientation, detachment, withdrawal, delusion, and the trancelike, altered state visible in the cults.”7

The relabelling of the cult “victims” as psychologically crippled and mentally incapacitated immediately turns this whole issue into a problem of legal guardianship or conservatorship on the one hand and mental health on the other. Dean M. Kelley, Director for Civil and Religious Liberty of the National Council of Churches, writes critically in Hie Civil Liberties Review that originally state actioh in “rescuing” cult victims was passive or covert: police refused to intervene or quietly cooperated with the families of the “victims;” prosecutors declined to prosecute in clear cases of kidnapping or abduction; grand juries refused to indict and petit juries refused to convict. But nowadays, he argues vigorously, state involvement is active and overt.

“We can expect the use of court orders of guardianship, conservatorship, and writs of habeas corpus to deliver converts from the ‘clutches of the cults’ to increase in the near future. Legislatures in several states are being asked to enact or to expand laws permitting conservatorships or guardianships to be granted by court order in cases of persons—of whatever age—who are not able to manage their own affairs or to protect them from ‘artful and designing persons,’ as a bill recommended by a special committee of the Vermont Legislature puts it. . . .

“So who is safe? If someone doesn’t like the way you talk or act or the people with whom you associate, they can hire a deprogrammer to go after you, grab you by force, take you off to a secluded place, and work you over until you consent to act in a manner acceptable to them.”8

To reclaim the minds and sanity of those who have fallen prey to the “diabolical” influence of the cults’ ideological totalism. and to reintegrate them into mainstream society, anticultists have enlisted the assistance of the witch doctors of our secular civilization—psychiatrists and psychologists. This involvement of psychiatry is not accidental, and it has far-reaching consequences.

Thus, when John Clark, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard University Medical School, concludes from his studies that about fifty-eight percent of cult members are suffering from schizophrenia, he effective!} plays into the hands of those who deem the new religious cults as a phenomenon not of religion but of psychopathology. His interpretation indirectly validates the anticult proposition that the only remedy for “brainwashing” is “deprogramming.” What this practice entails is spelled out by Edward M. Levine, Professor of Sociology at Loyola University (Chicago), who writes:

“Quite frequently this means abducting the children against their will or in some Other way enticing them to leave the cults. It also entails the efforts of hired agents or friends and family to persuade the cult member to renounce his association with the cult and break with its religious views. The parents’ ultimate objective is to regain the affection, loyalty, and’ physical presence of their children-—and to help them reassume their independence.”9

But deprogramming or de-indoctrina-tion is not merely about restoring “lost” sons and daughters to their families. It is. in effect, a means of encouraging, assisting, or coercing a dissident to reassume a “normal” life-style, to resubscribe to the world view, values, and norms of the social majority. What is so insidious is that once a person has been classified (or stigmatized) as psy-chopathological and hence incapable of rational judgment, his only salvation lies in recanting his beliefs after going through the involuntary process of deprogramming. That is to say. only when he reaffirms the world view of the majority will he be considered of sound mind.

“The brainwashee’s thought processes are viewed as involuntary symptoms; i.e., he can no more control his thoughts than someone with measles can control his skin rash. He must therefore be restrained and controlled for his own good so that he may be cured.

“The medical model appeals to a society in moral crisis because it has an aura of scientific objectivity, and the implicit moral judgments involved in the exercise of social control are downplayed. In a period of shifting values, authorities are disinclined to acknowledge punitive or repressive intent. Thus the state increases its reliance upon psychiatrists who can provide it with benevolent therapeutic rationales to control dissidents.”10

The state’s resort to psychiatry in coping with the “cult problem” is misguided and tragic. For, it is psychiatry more than any other discipline that has been responsible for promoting antireligious scientific materialism in this century. That is to say, psychiatry may be held co-responsible for precisely the crisis of meaninglessness in our society which has led to the rise of the new religious cults in the first place.
At the bottom of the “cult problem” is, manifestly, the formidable clash between the majority cult of scientific materialism and the numerous cults that offer a religious spiritual alternative to those who seek after existential meaning in our depersonalized, disorienting civilization. That most of the cults fail to go beyond one or the other version of religious provincialism—and in this sense fall short of offering a real alternative to establishment religiosity—is a fact to be noted and regretted. But that the anticultists, in their righteous crusade against the new religious cults, infringe civil liberties is a circumstance which is both intolerable and dangerous. Judging from their methods, which appear to be founded on the arbitrary belief that the end justifies the means, their psychological and sociological profile turns out to be as cultic as the profile of their declared antagonists.

What makes the anticult cult especially perilous, however, is the fact that its objectives are not what they appear to be. For, the fight is not simply over one or two or even a hundred individuals who happened to be caught in the grinding wheels of a particular cult, but over the preservation of a secular, anti-religious, or anti-spiritual model of Man—the philosophy of scientific materialism.

“The exclusion of true or esoteric religion has been the business of the State since ancient times. At first this was done via the establishment of the popular idealism of exoteric religious institutions in league with the State. But in modern times the same process is done by the strategic exclusion of conventional religious cultism, mystical idealism, and higher evolutionary Wisdom from the mechanisms of popular culture.

“In the realm of popular culture, scientific and political materialism is in power. And the essence of official popular propaganda is fundamentally anti-religious and devoted to an exclusively materialistic interpretation of Man and Nature. The ‘allowable’ or semi-official cults of the yet remaining religious establishment continue to serve as exoteric religious extensions of the secular State. But all non-establishment cults of free religious, mystical, and spiritual experimentation and practice are constantly the subjects of negative propaganda in the popular communications media. And ‘intellectual leaders’ are constantly agitating against esoteric and non-establishment religious cultism—and especially against the possibility that any religious or spiritual leader achieve a position of widespread influence and power in the midst of the secular order.”11

he modern cult of cult-snuffing, a historical continuation of the sustained assault on the spiritual life of mankind, has emerged together with religious provincialism, and has been greatly reinforced by the rise of scientific materialism since the nineteenth century. The cult of cult-snuffing is yet another form of civilized Man’s propensity to espouse the familiar, the convenient, the seemingly easy, and thus to choose surrogates in place of the Real. By deliberately focusing on the shortcomings of particular cults, the anticultists remain oblivious to the positive elements present in other cultic groups. Regarding all the cults through the same stereotype lenses, they only perceive them as uniformly bad or diabolical. In this way. they throw out the baby with the bathwater: The genuinely spiritual is discarded together with the spuriously religious and obviously objectionable.
But this is not fortuitous. For. it is exactly authentic spiritual life that poses the greatest threat to the conventional mind, estranged as it is from genuine religious sentiments and experiences.

As Master Da Free John writes:

“The usual Man is mysteriously committed to self-possessed emotional dissociation from the Universal Life-Energy, and, therefore, from all experience—since all experiences, events, relations, and beings are arising as spontaneous manifestations or modifications of the Universal Life-Energy, the Radiance or Light that is the Matrix and Destiny of all forms of appearance and ‘matter. ’ ”11 12
In other words, conventional life is thus structured on the avoidance of the Transcendental Reality, which is the true Condition of body, mind, self, and world. Authentic spiritual life is the constant reversal of this chronic avoidance of relationship to the Divine Being. It is the transcendence of the self-possession or self-contraction of the “usual man.” And this is tantamount to the sacred act of self-sacrifice.
“The religious, spiritual, and meditative Way of Truth or Eternal Life is a process of personal, moral, and higher psycho-physical sacrifice. It is not a superficial and private remedial technique, but a form of culture, a profound and total way of life. The leaders of popular cults tell their fanatic followers: ‘Meditate on yourself, in yourself, for yourself, and by yourself. Come and get it. What you get—and it will be easy -will make you happy, fearless, superior, right, invulnerable, lovable, and immortal. ’ But, truly, what is thus acquired only reinforces the loveless moods of those who are already constantly acquiring and buying for the sake of ultimate results and satisfactions.
“The Way of Truth cannot be understood by children or fools. It is of no interest to the vulgar daily personality refined and developed by TV and the mob of peers. It requires the most profound intelligence, commitment, responsibility, and moral force of persistence in practice. It requires the most creative and easeful force of love. It requires great freedom from the destructive force of irrational reactivity, fear, and self-protectiveness. ”13

I. E.g.. A. Schedin and E. Opton. The Mind Manipulators (New York: Paddington Press. 1978).

2. J. Diilenberger, ‘‘Roots of the American Ethos,” Understanding the New Religions. J. Needleman and G. Baker (eds.)(New York: Seabury Press. 1978). p. 23.

3. R. Delgado, “Limits to Proselytizing,” published by permission of Transaction, Inc., from Society, vol. 17, no.
3, p. 32. Copyright © 1980 by Transaction, Inc.

4, Ibid., p. 33.

5. Bubba [Da] Free John, The Enlightenment of the Whole Body (Middletown, Calif.: The Dawn Horse Press, 1978)’, pp. 147 -148.

6. In Europe, the situation is somewhat different. As the British sociologist James Beckford has shown, for instance, in West Germany and France where anticult sentiments are very strong, the Government and Church play a more obviously “intrusive role.” The social control exerted by State and Roman Catholic agencies (in France) obviates the action of private citizens. Hence deprogramming, which is so popular and remunerative in the United States, is rare in Europe.
See J. Beckford, “Cults, Controversy and Control: A Comparative Analysis of the Problems Posed by New Religious Movements in the Federal Republic of Germany and France,” Sociological Analysis, vol. 42, no. 3 (1981\ pp. 249-64.

7. From Snapping, by F. Conway and J. Siegelman.
Copyright ® 1978 by F. Conway and J. Siegelman.
Reprinted with permission of Harper and Row. Pub-

8. D. M. Kelley. “Deprogramming and Religious Liberty,” The Civil Liberties Review, July/August 1977. p. 27. Reprinted with permission from the author.

9. E. M. Levine. “Deprogramming without Tears.” published by permission of Transaction. Inc., from Society. vol. 17. no. 3. p. 34. Copyright © 1980 by Transaction. Inc.

10. D. Anthony. T. Robbins, and J. McCarthy. “Legitimating Repression.” published b\ permission of Transaction. Inc., from Society, vol. 17. no. 3. p. 41. Copyright © 1980 by Transaction. Inc.

11. Da Free John. Scientific Proof of the Existence of
God Will Soon Be Announced by the White House!
(Middletown, Calif.: The Dawn Horse Press, 1980), pp. 80 81.

12. Ibid., p. 307.

13. Ibid., pp* 32-33