Wuhan Journal of Cultic Studies
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Volume 1, Issue 1: 2021
Cult Critics & Cult Apologists: Can there be middle ground?
George D. Chryssides
York St John University
The phenomenon of new religious movements (NRMs) or “cults” has given rise to two polarised camps – scholars who seek a value-neutral approach, and vociferous critics, often referred to as the “anticult movement”. The discussion draws on a number of old controversies surrounding NRMs, in an attempt to consider whether there might be scope for resolving differences. Terminological issues are an initial problem, and concepts such as “cult”, “anticult”, and “cult apologist” are examined. It is argued that the “cult critics” have now come to use the term “cult” in such a broad sense, spanning an unwieldy range of phenomena, encompassing political groups, business organisations, therapy and self- help groups as well as religious ones, that it has come to lack any predictable content. This is particularly problematic since the critics tend to essentialise the concept, contending that there are identifiable “marks of a cult”, stemming from R. J. Lifton’s model. This model has given rise to the well-trodden debate about brainwashing; although the debate is old, some new modifications of the theory are considered here. These are Steven Hassan’s “B.I.T.E.” (Behaviour, Information, Thoughts, Emotions), involving a distinction between brainwashing and mind control; Janja Lalich’s “bounded choice” theory; and, most recently, the concept of spiritual abuse, which has gained momentum within some Christian organisations. Further division between critics and NRM scholars relates to the locus of expertise, and the methods used by each group to study NRMs. In particular, there is lack of agreement between the roles of participant-observation and ex- member testimony. It is concluded that, despite irreconcilable differences, some limited common ground between critics and NRM can be found. Although some scholars have dismissed the testimony of ex-members, the author argues that ex-members have an important role in NRM research. Both parties agree that NRMs can exert psychological pressure (although not best described as brainwashing or mind control) and that leavers can encounter personal problems that require appropriate counselling. Both parties might agree on providing accounts of NRMs which are recognisable, although not necessarily endorsable, by their supporters.
Brainwashing, cults, mind control, new religious movements, research methods, spiritual abuse.