24. Your CI website refers to the issue of cults and suspect organisations. Can you enlarge further?

Quite easily. The definition in terms of a cult is not always agreed upon, though suspicion can attach to organisations quite independently of that label. There are complexities such as the “theological versus sociological” issue of interpretation. The theological viewpoint tends to discriminate upon the basis of doctrine, while the sociological approach is committed to the analysis of behaviour. Yet attitudes differ even within sociological ranks. What follows is a non-theological engagement of “citizen sociology” with diverse aspects of the phenomenon at issue. I do not employ the word “cult” as a blanket description of anomalies, and yet the evocative term surely does have a relevance in some or many cases.

Some religious sects do no harm whatever, while others can become predatory or dangerous. The proliferation of alternative organisations since the 1960s has added to the problem denoted. These may or may not be malfunctioning. Over the years, suspicious patterns of outlook and behaviour have emerged in diverse groupings. Evasion of complaints is a feature which can sound the alert. Factors such as charity status or substantial economic backing can create a sense of false achievement. A basic issue is whether public education is best served by the emphases or doctrines promoted. Some organisations exhibit both positive and negative features, and attempt to gloss the contradictory elements. Symptoms of aberration can be mild, of increasing strength, or chronic. Tendencies to manipulation of belief, behaviour, and funding are all here implied, plus other factors less easy to elucidate in a few words.

Some suspect organisations accumulate vast fundings, literally in the millions and even billions of pounds or dollars. Naturally, people then become suspicious of what is occurring, especially if reports leak out of discrepancies in leadership decisions or behaviour. Converts and subscribers are too often confused or even psychologically damaged by the problems which can ensue, and victim support groups have confirmed the high risk of participation in such organisations.



The Rajneesh Commune


Aum Shinrikyo and the Japanese Sects


Grof Ideology and the Findhorn Foundation


Order of the Solar Temple and Aleister Crowley


Evangelists and Scientology




The INFORM Debate


The Family Survival Trust and Social Psychology


From CAN to Alexander Dvorkin


Eileen Barker, Margaret Singer, and Janja Lalich


From Jonestown to ICSA


New Religious Movements and Dick Anthony


Paul Brunton, Meher Baba, and Wikipedia Trolls

24.1  The Rajneesh Commune

A rather extreme example of things going wrong was the Rajneesh commune which transplanted from India to Oregon in 1981. Very briefly, Indian critics of this sect gave strong warnings, based upon the extreme patterns of behaviour that had developed amongst the membership in Poona (Pune). Some participants were physically hurt in sessions of extremist therapy favoured by the guru at his Poona ashram. Yet converts did not believe the cautions and criticisms, and some Western onlookers assumed that the critics were just being assertive and biased. This meant that Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (1931-1990) and his “therapeutic” community were elevated in new age literature as a perfectly legitimate source of spiritual benefits. They were perhaps slightly sensationalist, that was all. The glowing adverts continued, thus encouraging further recruits.

When Rajneesh acquired an extensive ranch in Oregon, his followers endeavoured to create a city called Rajneeshpuram. Signs of antisocial behaviour quickly developed in a friction with local residents. Foul and aggressive speech was cultivated by the leading female spokesperson for the sect, who was known as Ma Anand Sheela (Sheela Silverman). Another formerly harmless woman was persuaded by Sheela to murder a doctor within the commune, and nearly succeeded. In 1985, Ma Shanti Bhadra (Jane Stork), jabbed a syringe loaded with adrenalin into the doctor’s buttock, just after smiling at him. The doctor (Swami Devaraj) survived after two weeks in hospital.

Persons outside the commune were also targeted, though fortunately most of the plots did not reach fruition. However, a Rajneeshi bioterrorism episode in 1984 created much public shock. A campaign of food poisoning was undertaken in local restaurants at The Dalles (a town in Oregon), causing more than 700 people to become ill. Salmonella bacteria were employed in this escapade; the commune had created their own dangerous laboratory. Sheela and her colleagues gained the disrepute of conducting the first bio-terrorist attack on American soil; they preserved salmonella bacteria acquired from a legitimate medical laboratory.

Sheela's nurse Diane Onang (Ma Anand Puja) experimented with viruses and bacteria in the secret laboratory. It is well known how the Rajneeshi terrorists contaminated salad bars, but new data reveals that "they just as easily spread dangerous bacteria at a grocery store, a public building and a political rally." Furthermore, "to strike at government authority, Rajneeshi leaders considered flying a bomb-laden [aero]plane into the county courthouse in The Dalles - 16 years before al-Qaida used [aero]planes as weapons" (quotes from L. Zaitz, Rajneeshis in Oregon: The Untold Story).

An FBI investigation of the commune in late 1985 started to uncover the diverse problems. Rajneesh claimed innocence, maintaining that some of his prominent female devotees were to blame for criminal actions. Rajneesh was convicted of immigration fraud and deported that same year. See Lewis F. Carter, Charisma and Control in Rajneeshpuram, 1990; R. Guilliatt, “It was a Time of Madness,” The Weekend Australian Magazine, June 17-18, 2006, pp. 22-28; Jane Stork, Breaking the Spell, 2009; Joseph T. McCann, Terrorism on American Soil (2006).


Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in 1985

The indoctrinated Australian convert Jane Stork consented in 1985 to be the killer of US attorney Charles Turner, who had been appointed to investigate the commune at Rajneeshpuram. The militant Sheela also enlisted five other colleagues in this conspiracy on behalf of the new model city. The plan was to shoot Turner, but other events intervened. The murder did not occur, but the consequences of this episode lived on in law courts for two decades.

Stork was sent to jail for nearly three years for the attempted murder of Devaraj. Afterwards she was indicted for conspiracy in the plot to murder attorney Charles Turner. By then she had moved to Germany. The German government refused to extradite Stork. When she voluntarily returned to Oregon in 2005, hoping to resolve the legal problem, she was placed under arrest. Other conspirators against Turner had earlier been jailed, but Stork now escaped this fate by her lengthy apology. Jane Stork was given a lenient term of five years probation.

Jane Stork (alias Catherine Jane Paul) stated in retrospect that Rajneesh was far from being guiltless. She reports that he himself “orchestrated many events in his detailed daily briefings” (Guilliat, article cited, p. 27 col. 1). Stork stated that this guru played upon a psychological complex in his deputy Ma Anand Sheela, thereby making her procure women for him (ibid., p. 26 col. 2). Rajneesh justified his insatiable demand for luxury cars with the excuse that this was a device to satirise consumerism. He also demanded a million dollar diamond-studded watch. He threatened to leave Rajneeshpuram if his demand for luxury items was not satisfied (ibid., p. 27 col. 1). He also regularly ingested the tranquillizer known as valium.

Stork only learnt these things by overhearing conversations between Rajneesh and the favoured confidante Ma Anand Sheela, who subsequently bore the major brunt of his disapproval.

In 1985, the guru blamed Sheela and other female commune members for extremist problems, thus clearing himself. Rajneesh had meanwhile bankrupted the commune via the acquisition of ninety-three Rolls Royce automobiles.

24.2  Aum Shinrikyo and the Japanese Sects

During the 1990s, extremist sects created more shocks. The Order of the Solar Temple claimed multiple victims in 1994-97, and the Aum Shinrikyo cult launched a lethal sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. There were thousands of casualties in the Tokyo tragedy. Police investigations at the cult headquarters in Japan discovered dangerous stockpiles, including biological warfare agents such as anthrax, and chemicals sufficient to produce sarin in a quantity estimated to kill four million people. A different kind of event occurred in California, where the Heaven’s Gate cult achieved a collective suicide amongst the membership in 1997. Over forty suicides occurred in what has been defined as a syncretistic new age Christian and UFO belief sect.

Some governments woke up to the dangers involved in the field of cults and reckless sects. New official reports appeared about the perils of mind manipulation in suspect organisations. Germany, France, Belgium, and Spain created new legislation in response to parliamentary investigations. Britain lagged far behind. When terrorists destroyed the World Trade Centre at New York in 2001, there was a concerted outcry in America and Britain. Yet the issue of cult victims in less visible walks of life has so often been ignored by officialdom. The British government failed to deal adequately with crime and cannabis regulation, and their response to other forms of public hazard has generally been feeble.

Activities of the Aum Shinrikyo sect stunned even some hardcore analysts. This “new religious movement” was founded in 1984. Their arsenal and two laboratories of chemical weapons did not stop at the nerve gas sarin, but included advanced nerve agents such as VX, and killer diseases such as anthrax and Q-fever. The Guardian reported that “followers were starved, doped with LSD and forced to undergo bizarre initiations; the cult’s enemies were murdered and incinerated in purpose-built microwave ovens.” The manic assault on the Tokyo subway in rush-hour was an attempt to fend off a police investigation (some say that the aim was to kill many policemen).

An earlier sarin attack by Aum Shinrikyo had occurred the year before in the city of Matsumoto, injuring a smaller total of about 200 victims. While some traumatised ex-devotees were reported to be recovering via a support group from years of physical and mental abuse, many young Japanese continued to become enthusiastic recruits to the dogma of this sect, which promised supernatural or “mystical” powers and salvation. See Andrew Marshall, “It gassed the Tokyo subway...,” The Guardian, July 15th 1999, available at guardian.co.uk. See also David E. Kaplan and Andrew Marshall, The Cult at the End of the World (1996).

The inverted outlook of the Aum sect “became convinced that no one outside the cult had the right to exist because all others, unrelated as they were to the guru, remained hopelessly defiled.” Slogans adapted from Buddhism were used, along with so-called mystical experiences. “There was considerable violence even in the training procedures to which disciples could be subjected: protracted immersion in extremely hot or cold water, hanging by one’s feet for hours at a time, or solitary confinement for days in a tiny cell-like room that had no facilities and could become unbearably hot.” (Quotations from Robert Jay Lifton, Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism, 1999, pp. 26-7).

Yogic exercises using rapid breathing were favoured for the purportedly mystical experiences that were offered by the Aum sect as a lure. Those exercises produced oxygen deprivation to the brain, a factor providing visions of colours and lights, images, and a sense of mind leaving the body. However, it became easier for the recruits to be administered LSD to ensure dramatic experiences. All of these experiences were attributed to the unique spiritual power of the guru, Shoko Asahara, who led the sect. The LSD mock-spirituality was also very effective in making the recruits immune to the violence hallmarking their environment.


Shoko Asahara

The Aum sect is said to have been worth about 1.5 billion dollars, but was made bankrupt after the gas attack. They had been involved in the manufacture of illegal drugs, and were in league with the Japanese mafia for the marketing of those substances. Extortion, theft, and murder are amongst the activities listed for Aum Shinrikyo. The leader Shoko Asahara was arrested, and the sect came under government surveillance in 2000. That year the now defensive sect changed name to Aleph. They deleted controversial Vajrayana Buddhist texts from their canon; those bizarre texts had been accused by officialdom of justifying murder. Aum doctrine has been differently defined. Some analysts have described it as an amalgam of Buddhist, Hindu Yogic, Taoist, and Western new age beliefs. Yet Buddhism was the primary doctrinal support. Several sectarians have been awarded death sentences for Aum crimes, including the cult founder Shoko Asahara.

Meanwhile, since the 1995 gas attack, the internet and other media have encouraged the situation in Japan where cults are flourishing. According to the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs, there are more than 182,000 religious corporations registered nationwide. It has even been asserted that one in five of the Japanese people are affiliates of these organisations, often small and tending to secrecy. Many misdemeanours are recorded on the files of the Japan Society for Cult Prevention and Recovery (JSCPR), founded in 1995, and based in Tokyo.

One of the JSCPR directors is a Professor of Sociology at Hokkaido University. Sakurai Yoshihide is one of the opposite numbers to Shoko Asahara. He views the situation in terms of a social malaise that existed for many years, but which was aggravated by the collapse of the Japanese economic advance in the early 1990s. It emerges that Japan has suffered a bigger cult problem than any other country. Not merely the younger generation, but also older people, have been responding to the message of small religious movements which promise enlightenment and freedom from suffering. That is currently a very popular message. Analysis of the operative causes can vary, though social change is the basic denominator. Professor Yoshihide says that the competitive capitalist society of new Japan has given rise to a sense of meaningless existence, in comparison to which the cult panaceas seem attractive to many subscribers.

Many of the Japanese sects are said to be harmless, though others have the reputation of being sexually exploitative. A looming problem is the rather unpredictable nature of the cult temperament, as in the recent instance where members of the female-dominated Kigenkai sect “allegedly kicked and punched another member until she died from shock.” This Shinto-related sect has accordingly gained bad publicity. The Kigenkai sect was founded in 1970 and is registered as an official religious organisation. See Explosion of cults in Japan. The elderly victim of the brutal assault in 2007 was Motoku Okuno, aged 63, whose case is memorable. There are various supplements, including Killing for the cult. The victim had “her face caked in chalk by way of ritualistic humiliation.” Numerous female sectarians were arrested, and some were officially charged with injury leading to death.

24.3  Grof Ideology and the Findhorn Foundation

A parallel to some Aum Shinrikyo activities are the Grof doctrines of LSD therapy and Holotropic Breathwork (see article 12 on this website). Stanislav Grof has theorised LSD experience as a shamanistic spiritual path, and has overlooked the factor of hyperventilation being a cause of oxygen deprivation to the brain. Fantastic glosses have been applied in both ideologies (Aum and Grofian) to the drawbacks of LSD and rapid breathing.

In Britain, the Scientific and Medical Network (SMN) openly promoted Grofian LSD ideology on their website for several years, with unmeasured consequences, leading to the conclusion of critical observers that the SMN should be regarded as a dangerous influence. See further the home page at citizeninitiative.com. The article by Christopher Bache glorifying “shamanistic” LSD was publicly visible on the SMN website from 2004 until 2010, despite complaints. One may regard new age "science and medicine" as a serious confusion and public hazard. The drug issue was a feature of my Letter of Complaint to David Lorimer (2005). See also David Lorimer, SMN and Contesting New World Values.


Stanislav Grof

The evasive tendency of some alternative organisations engenders suspicion. The Findhorn Foundation (in Scotland) commenced in 1962 and is associated with the SMN. The major figurehead is Eileen Caddy (1917-2006), believed by partisans to be an agency for the God within. The Findhorn Foundation has benefited from charity status and UN endorsement as a CIFAL centre promoting ecology. Yet the Findhorn ecovillage project has been attended by flaws. Some of the Foundation personnel became closely associated with the suppression of dissident views and literature, and even with the continuing promotion of Grof’s Holotropic Breathwork after medical warnings caused this activity to be dropped by the management. See Stephen J. Castro, Hypocrisy and Dissent within the Findhorn Foundation, 1996.

These drawbacks accompanied the Findhorn Foundation “workshop” commerce in alternative therapy and pop-mysticism. Critics view these extensive activities as a contradiction to any viable ecological programme. This matter has been documented in articles like Myth and Reality. Critics do not here press identity as a cult, though in relation to dissidents, the policy of this organisation has exhibited markedly cult-like attitudes. The Findhorn Foundation can be described in terms of an erring community with very evasive tendencies, and a commercial programme causing confusion and miseducation. See articles 10 and 13 on this website. See also Findhorn Foundation: Problems (2009) and Kate Thomas and the Findhorn Foundation (2009), the latter article featuring solicitor correspondence. See also my Letter to Robert Walter MP (2008) and Richard Tarnas and Philosophy (2010).

24.4  Order of the Solar Temple and Aleister Crowley

Of a different nature were problems in the secret society known as Order of the Solar Temple, which commenced at Geneva in 1984. Over seventy people died in the suicide mania attested in Switzerland, France, and Canada in the mid-1990s. There was evidence that a number of the victims were drugged before being shot in the head. The curious beliefs that inspired these deaths are a cause for wonder. This sect subscribed to a new age myth about the medieval Knights Templar, who have long been a subject of fantasy. They reportedly drew upon sources like Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) and the Order of the Golden Dawn (a late nineteenth century occultist clique). The tragically influential Crowley was obsessed with initiatory and magical rituals that fed his pretensions. Yet even he did not believe in a flight to Sirius but was evidently anxious to stay alive, despite his setback addiction to heroin (see Shepherd, Pointed Observations, pp. 30-36, 133-138).


Aleister Crowley

The example set by Crowley has been lamented. This British occultist saturated himself over the years with an intake of many drugs that extended to heroin. His drug visions are totally unreliable. He believed himself to be a great “initiate,” and an adept in subjects like Yoga and Kabbalah (though Jewish academic experts in Kabbalah have dismissed his version). In reality, his lifestyle demonstrated an insatiable lust. Crowley’s speciality was sexual magic, a peculiar pursuit in which he indulged to an extreme extent with many partners. Women were better off avoiding this bisexual, as he had a habit of reducing his mistresses to a psychological mess. He boasted that he had tortured his wife, which is not difficult to believe, particularly in view of the fact that she went mad. Yet this “neopagan” became a popular icon of the new age debacle starting in the late 1960s. He is sometimes associated with G. I. Gurdjieff, but there are some differences in evidence.

24.5  Evangelists and Scientology

Several types of organisation in the West are currently in doubt. A number of extremist Christian sects are accompanied by more amorphous trends of evangelism, plus groupings less easy to describe in parcel terms.

The leader of an American fundamentalist sect, favouring polygamy, became one of the ten most wanted fugitives of the FBI. His father is said to have had at least seventy-five wives, and at the death of the parent, the junior added many of his father’s wives to his own harem, reputed to comprise at least seventy wives. Warren Jeffs was arrested near Las Vegas in 2006, despite his belief that he speaks for God. His sect is known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This is sometimes described as a Mormon sect, though an alternative description is that of an offshoot from the Mormon Church. Jeffs gained about ten thousand followers, and taught that a man must have at least three wives to qualify for heaven. There were strong allegations of coerced marriages between under-age girls and older men. Jeffs was sentenced to a lengthy imprisonment, being convicted as an accomplice to rape (FAIR news, Dec. 2006, pp. 10-11; Dec. 2007, p. 12).

Another controversial preacher gained a following in more than thirty countries. Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, associated with Miami, is reported to have banked millions of dollars in America. He called himself both Christ Reincarnate and the Antichrist, according to The Times. He preached that there is no such thing as sin. Suspiciously, his second wife divulged his serial philanderings, his heavy gambling, and his misuse of church donations. He came under federal investigation in 2007 (FAIR news, Issue 2, 2007, p.1).

The well known televangelist Jerry Falwell, who founded the Moral Majority, netted an income of about 45 million dollars per annum. A staff of 800 was said to keep track of the tax-free contributions from four million Americans on the Moral Majority mailing list. The Majority subsequently got into difficulties through “rivalry and misdeeds,” and was disbanded at the close of the 1980s (ibid., p. 10).

The increasing wealth and conversion drive of Scientology became notorious. This movement gained tax-free status as a religion in America. A Scientology leader is reported to have stated: “Our next step is eradicating psychiatry from this planet” (FAIR news, Issue 1, 2007, p. 4). The acute aversion to psychiatry originated with the American founder L. Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986. Psychiatrists are understandably in grievance at these insistences. Yet there are more widespread factors currently resisting Scientology. In February 2008, thousands of protesters demonstrated peacefully in front of Scientology centres throughout the world, and were in obvious disagreement at what they consider to be questionable policies of suppression and misinformation. The counter-movement calls itself Anonymous. There are said to have been reprisals involving accusations of “hate crimes” (FAIR news, April 2008, p. 13).

24.6  FECRIS

FECRIS is an organisation based in France, and decoding to the European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Sectarianism. The annual FECRIS conference of April 2008 was held at Pisa. The theme was “State Responsibility to Protect Citizens Against Destructive Cults.” Reports were contributed from convergent organisations in France and Italy. There was also news from the Belgian government about their Board of Enquiry into destructive sects, which decided to take action against Scientology. There was also a report from Austria on the federal office established in 1998 to monitor the disturbing activities of cults. A member of the Swedish Parliament reported an initiative to establish a related centre in Sweden. A Polish representative described research into pathological behaviour in groups. There were yet other reports from different parts of the world. This FECRIS conference was arranged in association with the Italian organisation ARIS (Association for Information and Research on Sects). The event was considered significant by partisans for coordinating insights into a variety of actions being undertaken across Europe (Rod Marshall, “FECRIS Conference Report,” FAIR news, April 2008, p. 18).

However, a problem looms. FECRIS has gained critics who urge that human rights violations are in process via discrimination against religious minorities.

24.7  The INFORM Debate

FAIR published an unhappy letter received from the mother of “a disconnected daughter in Scientology.” The mother attended an INFORM seminar in Nov. 2006. The visitor wished to find out what was involved in the organisation known as INFORM, an information network in the UK consulted by the British government on all matters relating to religious movements. The leader of this network was Emeritus Professor Eileen Barker, who introduced the well attended seminar. The unhappy mother now found her suspicions confirmed that INFORM exercised a benign attitude that “believed just about all religions.” The meaning here is one of an uncritical viewpoint extending latitude to the many organisations and sects which have been dubbed “new religions.”

However, the visitor at the INFORM seminar listened appreciatively to a lawyer from Belgium, namely Henri de Cordes, the President of the Centre for Information and Advice on Harmful Sectarian Organisations, located in Belgium. This speaker warned about sectarian activities, and also referred approvingly to a Belgian government enquiry into the illegal activities of cults. That enquiry had resulted in a new criminal law coming into process in 1998, a law including the power to confiscate illegal profit of dubious sects, and the mandate to clamp down on the exploitation of ignorance or weakness affecting mental states of converts. The lawyer was heckled during and after his speech. One resisting member of the audience stood up and said that the Belgian law was terrible, and he hoped it would never happen in the UK. The unhappy mother reports that almost the whole audience applauded this strong objection, including committee members of INFORM. The correspondent ends by complaining that “the attitude of INFORM and many of those attending the seminar was disgraceful” (FAIR news, Issue 2, 2007, p. 18).



Eileen Barker, Tom Sackville

There have been other complaints about the policy of INFORM, which critics depict as glossing the activities of dubious sects and organisations. Other observers say that there are generalisations made on both sides of this debate, but nevertheless, the standpoint of INFORM is frequently considered weak in critical drive. INFORM has partially addressed a basic issue:

"Although 'cult' and 'sect' are used as technical terms by sociologists of religion, these terms have come to be used as pejorative labels in popular parlance, often telling us more about the attitude of the speaker than about the movement in question" (When is a Religion a Cult).

A memorable conference was held in London in Oct. 2006 under the auspices of FAIR, known as a cult-monitoring and victim support organisation. At this function a prominent Russian anti-cult exponent expressed a pronounced criticism of INFORM, alleging that the latter body pursued a distorted methodology in the analysis of cults, an approach furthermore exercising a seriously misleading effect upon academic attitudes and government policy. Indeed, Dr. Alexander Dvorkin directly accused the director of INFORM, namely Professor Eileen Barker, who was present in the audience, and who defended her position.

Dvorkin here attacked the attendant academic attitude that only the sociologists of religion know the truth about “New Religious Movements,” other parties being associated with vested interests and superficial alarmism. This pointed accusation meant that INFORM was supporting the partisan views of sectarians, and relegating the views of victims and critics to the status of mere secondary details, atrocity tales, and negative information (FAIR news, Dec. 2006, pp. 1-2, 17).

See further Issue of New Religious Movements.

24.8  The Family Survival Trust and Social Psychology

The general arguments about “cults” and “new religious movements” are attended by rather static classifications. The scenario is one of contrasting interpretations and different parties in collision.

The Family Survival Trust is strongly associated with The Hon. Tom Sackville, a former Conservative MP and Home Office Minister who has urged that a more exacting attitude towards cult trends should be encouraged in official circles. In the 1990s Sackville worked to abolish government funding for INFORM, the basic reason being that Professor Barker was resistant to any classification of new religions as cults. The Sackville pleading was subsequently reversed, and INFORM was again sanctioned by officialdom. The protester was attacked by Scientology and related groupings who interpreted his approach as insular and distorting.

Sackville became the new Chairman of FAIR in 2000. FAIR denoted Family Action Information and Resource, although the name subsequently changed in 2007 to The Family Survival Trust (TFST). This British organisation “challenges practices, not beliefs,” and “supports relatives and friends affected by cults.” The FAIR news bulletin was careful to state “that groups mentioned in this newsletter do not necessarily fulfil the criteria of ‘cult’.” Academic arguments about what comprises a cult are notorious for differences. According to TFST:

"A cult is not necessarily a religious group.... Cults can also take the form of therapeutic, commercial, educational, self-help, pseudo-scientific and various spiritual groups" (What Cults Are).

The same organisation has made a very useful point against the negligence of government departments. “A criticism that is often heard in FAIR circles is that the British government listens only to a restricted number of sources and individuals in seeking to create policy in this area; any narrow process of consultation, i.e., one that depends on the resources of a single discipline, is bound to be flawed” (Stephen Parsons, “Cults and religious extremism: Some reflections,” FAIR news, Issue 2, 2007, pp. 4-5). The contributor here favours social psychology as a complement to sociology, especially that branch known as social identity theory, which is traced back to the 1970s and the pioneering work of Henri Tajfel (1919-1982) and others.

Parsons approvingly cites Peter Herriot, Religious Fundamentalism and Social Identity (2007). A basic theme favoured is that “each of us possesses, in addition to our individual personal identity, a variety of social identities which we acquire through membership of the groups to which we belong” (ibid.). A strong component of such identities is here stressed in terms of “our need to boost our self-esteem and individual significance.” Social identification with, e.g., kin groups, football teams, and churches, are given basic denominators.

Fundamentalist movements are known to emphasise the contrast between their own elite group and society at large, fearing liberal ideas or opposing doctrines identified with unbelievers. The fundamentalist/cultic group provides meaning and predictability facilitating a sense of control, eliminating uncertainties by strong convictions. Surrender to the group identity provides an emotional outlet and social need. The suggestion is made that the member of a cult can be viewed “as an individual whose life experience has not provided him/her with the self-esteem that is needed,” deriving from a deficit in emotional and social life. Yet this situation involves “the flimsy, often dishonest, answers provided by the group leaders who seek to exploit these needs” (ibid.).

24.9  From CAN to Alexander Dvorkin

Such explanations are certainly more measured than the extremist tendencies afflicting some of the anti-cult exponents. The activity known as “deprogramming,” signifying the elimination of unwelcome beliefs, is associated with acts of coercion and the profits gained from “exit counselling.” These tactics became widespread in America, and were attended by anecdotes such as the "cult expert" who tried to force a Roman Catholic convert back to her native Protestantism.

The vogue for deprogramming was supported by the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), founded in reaction to such disconcerting events as the Jonestown mass suicides in 1978. By the 1990s, CAN was monitoring about two hundred “mind control cults.” There were many convincing points made about those trends. Ominously, CAN was driven into bankruptcy by opposing organisations, and was controversially bought out in a bankruptcy court by Scientology in 1996.

Elsewhere, the arguments about cults continue. Whom do you believe? Who exactly are the ultimate authorities in this field? What is really happening? The citizen is confronted by divisions and theories, but also facts. Obviously, it is the facts that count in assessing the nature of a "cult" deviation.

Since CAN went into bankruptcy, there have been increasing numbers of ex-devotees, and other discontented categories, complaining at new religious movements. The late 1990s internet expansion assisted the exposure of some dubious and shocking tendencies. The exodus from the Sathya Sai Baba sect alone is sufficient evidence of a disturbing situation, but there are many other instances (usually on a smaller scale). These disillusioned parties have sometimes complained that academics take no effective interest in events of secession and distress. The academic arguments frequently fall short of such data, or else give fragmented references, instead tending to opt for routine emphases that are tidily tucked away in status journals far removed from the scenes of real life.

Academic interest in such matters frequently occurs in isolation from public concerns, and is effectively non-existent from a public participant point of view. Do prestigious conferences achieve anything very tangible for the public victims when the general level of recital and debate is still one of very basic formulation and argument? The realistic answer is no.


Alexander Dvorkin

The academic sector of commentary has become divided into three basic camps, respectively depicted as “cult apologists,” the “anti-cultists,” and the “reconciling” party. This scenario has even been called the academic “cult wars.”

One of the anti-cultists is Dr. Alexander Dvorkin, who is described as a supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1997 he was the target of a lawsuit filed by Scientology and other new religious movements, who objected to criticisms he had made against them. That lawsuit in Moscow failed, and was also the focus for a difference of opinion between Dvorkin and Eileen Barker, who testified on behalf of the opposition against Dvorkin. In this fraught situation, Dvorkin subsequently alleged that Professor Barker had been paid by the Moonies to give evidence, but Barker has denied receiving money from the Moonies or any other sect (this disagreement relates to a FAIR conference at London in 2006).

Dvorkin has criticised Barker for a reductionist version of the cult issue. Amongst other drawbacks in her approach is the exclusion of reports from ex-members of suspect movements. Dvorkin sceptically relays the Barker doctrine that "the scholar must not use former cult members as a source of information about cults because their information is clearly not objective" (quote from Dvorkin, "Are There Objective and Scientific Studies of NRM?", 2006). The idea may be contradicted that sociologists like Eileen Barker are the only reliable sources of information. When history goes missing, misrepresentation and fantasy are frequently the substitutes.

24.10  Eileen Barker, Margaret Singer, and Janja Lalich

Eileen Barker is an Emeritus Professor of Sociology associated with the London School of Economics. She founded INFORM in the late 1980s with the support of the British government and mainstream churches. INFORM stands for Information Network Focus on Religious Movements. In the case of Professor Barker, that basically means the “new religious movements” which are currently the subject of so much dispute. She has authored the well known book entitled New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction (1990).

Barker also contributed the influential book The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing? (1984). In this controversial work, she rejected the brainwashing theory as an explanation for conversion to the Unification Church, commenced in Korea during the 1940s by Sun Myung Moon (1920-2012), believed to be a messiah. The intensive recruitment methods of that organisation became notorious in America during the 1970s. The Reverend Moon became a billionaire with a strong influence in America.

Psychologist Margaret Thaler Singer (1921-2003) and sociologist Janja Lalich disputed Barker’s rejection of the brainwashing theory in their famous book Cults in Our Midst (1995). They accused her of being a “procult apologist.” The two American academics also strongly criticised Barker for accepting funding (relating to her book and conferences) from the Unification Church. Professor Barker defended her position by stating that the funding had been approved by her university and a government grants council, and furthermore saved taxpayer money. In a paper written that same year, Eileen Barker complained that “deprogrammers” charged tens of thousands of dollars for their services, and that witnesses such as Singer “have charged enormous fees for giving testimony about brainwashing in court cases.” This quote comes from Wikipedia Eileen Barker (accessed 24/01/2013).



l to r: Margaret Singer, Janja Lalich

Margaret Singer had been a Professor of Psychology in California for many years, and was a major proponent of the brainwashing theory. She is reported to have been harassed by cultists. Janja Lalich is a Professor of Sociology at California State University. See also Lalich, Captive Hearts, Captive Minds (1994; second edn, 2006, entitled Take Back Your life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships). See also Lalich, Crazy Therapies (1996). A more recent work of Professor Lalich is Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults (2004), which includes a focus on the Heaven’s Gate suicide sect.

Lalich has described brainwashing as a misunderstood concept, and herself prefers the term “bounded choice.” She coined that phrase to describe the way in which a “true believer” is constrained by the choices available within the cult, choices which may seem extreme to outsiders but are understandable options within the cult environment. Lalich herself was formerly a member of a “radical political cult” known as the Democratic Workers Party. She has contested the view of some sociologists that freedom of religion is at stake in the issues under discussion. According to Professor Lalich, religion is the wrong description for the problems denoted.

It is possible to conclude that many sectarians and cultists choose their role as subscribers to group identity; however, the element of “brainwashing” cannot be dismissed. For instance, Jane Stork (24:1 above) opted to believe that Rajneesh was spiritually advanced, being influenced by the bizarre atmosphere of his environment. Certain aspects of her subsequent career entailed a strong form of indoctrination and hyper-suggestion in her close contact with both Rajneesh and Sheela Silverman. Stork does not appear to have been the most obvious candidate for murder attempts, formerly being a devout Roman Catholic schoolteacher. She said in retrospect that she transferred her piety to guru devotion, which degenerated into fanaticism. The Rajneesh sect was very wealthy during the 1980s. Rajneeshpuram was estranged from normal life, which was seen as an enemy. Sheela carried a gun, and Jane Stork participated in combat drill. In some respects at least, such ladies became more dangerous than a commando regiment.

24.11  From Jonestown to ICSA

Critics say that Professor Barker’s views are too generalising to provide any adequate guard against unruly and molesting exceptions. Objections have been lodged against some of her commentaries, including one referring to the tragedies of Peoples Temple, Waco, Solar Temple, Heaven’s Gate, and Aum Shinrikyo (formerly available at fathom.com/feature/121938). According to Barker, “what can be observed in most of these tragedies is a process which sociologists sometimes call ‘deviance amplification’ building up; the antagonists on each side behave rather badly, and that gives permission for the other side to behave more badly.”

In 1978, at Jonestown, the leader of the Peoples Temple made his congregation drink fatal poison after gunmen amongst them had killed a Congressman and other visitors; objectors within the congregation who resisted suicide were shot, strangled, or injected with cyanide. The Barker rationale does not seem to fit these details. Nor would it justify the delays in the lenient Japanese legal system lamented by the victims of Aum. Nor would that bland rationale explain anything much about the children sentenced to death by Sirius fantasies in the Solar Temple. Nobody molested the aggressors and fantasists. Sociological deviance amplification can merely amount to obscurantism.

The sociological theory at issue here might be partly applicable to the Rajneesh sect, whom Christian fundamentalists did see as an enemy; however, the manipulative Rajneesh is known to have deliberately baited the opposition for devious purposes. Professor Barker has relied heavily upon her interpretation of the Waco siege at Texas in 1993; she referred to the friction between Adventists and the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (along with the FBI). The official intervention was interpreted by David Koresh as a confirmation of the Book of Revelation. Barker does not mention that the Adventists had over 150 guns and 8,000 rounds of ammunition. Why did the Adventists need so many guns? There would have been no casualties if firearms had not been reported.

A commemorative volume is James A. Beckford and James T. Richardson, eds., Challenging Religion: Essays in Honour of Eileen Barker (2003). Yet some critics have described Barker as the mother of cult apologists. They have complained of how in media interviews, she has stated that the anti-cult movement is the problem. It is relevant to mention a statement of Tom Sackville made in an address dating to 2005: “I do not myself subscribe unconditionally to the belief, common among families of British cult victims, that Professor Barker is an apologist for cults and ‘on their side,’ though I do believe that through her consistent and somewhat puzzling refusal to express any usefully critical view of cults and other actions, she has always sailed a little close to those shores.”

That comment comes from the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) Conference held in Madrid that year. ICSA is a major player in cult analysis, being the American equivalent to British INFORM and TFST, and European FECRIS. The daunting editorial board of the ICSA periodical is over fifty strong, and has included Eileen Barker.

24.12  New Religious Movements and Dick Anthony

Eileen Barker has concentrated upon “new religious movements” in Europe, a coverage which includes the “Moonies,” the majority of whom live in Korea and Japan. The Moonies or Unification Church are associated with a tangent from Christianity. The other Eastern sects and Indian guru cults are a very large and complex subject.

Very often a gullible disposition will fasten upon doctrines and personalities in a manner that will render the psychology prone to manipulation. This factor is so obvious that many writers have appropriated it in a wave of “anti-cult” books. There are varying degrees of ideological persuasion expressed in such works, varying from Christian to materialist. A favoured target is Indian gurus and related subjects; strangely enough, materialists and Christians tend to converge in the basic trend of denunciation. The crux is whether they are achieving accuracy. The present writer recently investigated one of the better works in this category. Many of the chapters were quite informative, and the author really had made an effort to muster sources. Yet a few of the chapters were marred by simplistic reporting and facile interpretations, with little or no regard for more detailed sources available in academic libraries.

Critics of “cult apologists” have defined this group as including Eileen Barker, David Bromley, James Richardson, J. Gordon Melton, and Dick Anthony. These “apologists” have not all said the same things, however. Dick Anthony has been described by one critic as a putative expert hired by cults to defend their interests. In 2003, cult analyst Rick Ross stated that Dick Anthony (who has a Ph.D.) had not worked within a university for more than twenty years, and had an unconvincing track record in legal cases. According to Dr. Anthony’s own statement (reported by Ross), his fee for reviewing materials in his office was 350 dollars an hour, while his fee for work conducted outside his office was 3,500 dollars a day plus expenses. See the very critical article  “Is Dick Anthony a full-time professional ‘cult apologist’?”

Such activities and fees have caused wonderment in Britain. Dr. Anthony is known for declaring his allegiance to the “Meher Baba Lovers” of California, and has deferred to the Meher Baba Centre at Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. Some persons have mentioned him to me in view of the fact that I wrote a book on Meher Baba (1894-1969). I should here state that I have no connection with Dick Anthony, and have never been in contact with him. My non-sectarian and radically independent book Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (1988) was suppressed by the Myrtle Beach Centre, who took strong exception to my criticisms of prominent devotees in this movement of “Lovers.” No response could be elicited from the associated grouping known as Sufism Reoriented. There was an initial brief response from the California Meher Baba Centre, followed by total non-response after they learnt of the (unofficial) ban imposed by the Myrtle Beach elite. Some diligent readers have noticed that my sequel treatment of the subject carried some lengthy critical annotations (Investigating the Sai Baba Movement, 2005, Part 3, including note 463 relevant to Dr. Anthony).

Anthony was co-editor with Ken Wilber of Spiritual Choices (1987), a book which met with rather mixed responses. On the credit side, this work did give a timely warning of cult drawbacks such as the Adi Da Samraj problem. Yet on the debit side, critics fastened upon the rather uneven format, which included Dr. Anthony’s enthusiastic justification for the Meher Baba movement in America, and the more erratic commentary of Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) on his purportedly spiritual adventures (despite the latter’s commendable admission of having been a “phony holy”). The Anthony Typology did not gain universal assent, despite the rather elaborate vocabulary devised for the presentation (Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, 1995, pp. 114, 162, 197 note 270).

Dick Anthony also contributed to a “pro-cult versus anticult” volume that became another focus for debate. See Benjamin Zablocki and Thomas Robbins, eds., Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field (2001). Brainwashing is here a major issue. This work does also specify the need for scholarly objectivity when researching cults, and emphasises the danger of partisan research. Cf. the review by James T. Richardson in Sociology of Religion (Winter 2003), who says that Dr. Anthony has “the longest and most substantial chapter in the volume,” and that the same contributor is “primarily responsible for having ‘brainwashing’ based testimony tossed out of many courts in the US and Europe.”

24.13  Paul Brunton, Meher Baba, and Wikipedia Trolls



l to r: Paul Brunton, Meher Baba

In defining the characteristics of religious and sectarian movements, plus related trends, there is the relevant proviso that close analysis of specifics is called for, rather than generalising criteria which can mislead. I do agree with that caution expressed by some sociologists, and will here briefly illustrate an instance of disparity. In Western countries, the "journalist" and “esoteric writer” Paul Brunton is often viewed as a superior source to an Asiatic he derided. Close inspection of this matter reveals some factors that are not in Brunton’s favour.

In my book Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (1988), I did observe certain courtesies incumbent upon describing a Zoroastrian subject who had been misrepresented via the popular media associated with the British writer Paul Brunton (1898-1981). The latter gained the repute of being a spiritual authority. Brunton produced a string of bestselling books, and was patronised by the publishing house of Rider. In 1945, he began to describe himself as Doctor.

Rider have since emblazoned Brunton’s doctoral status on commercial paperbacks such as A Search in Secret India, which first appeared in 1934. Secrets were a market lure in the 1930s, but evidently needed an academic imprimatur to sustain credibility. Paul Brunton’s Ph.D. credential is now strongly implied as a spurious invention, having no ascertainable link with the university to which he once ascribed it under duress. The suggestion has been made that the commercial credential was related to Brunton’s fantasy about astral travels, and his purported study of philosophy at the nebulous Astral University. See Jeffrey Masson, My Father’s Guru: A Journey through Spirituality and Disillusion (1993), pp. 86, 160ff., which exposes the Brunton myth. The disputed credential was obtained from a correspondence school.

Paul Brunton’s Secret India is an unreliable source for Meher Baba, and could not even provide an accurate description of the latter’s appearance, which is substantially misrepresented by an aspersion of deficient cranial capacity. Brunton met Meher Baba in 1930. Despite the close proximity, Brunton describes Meher Baba’s forehead in terms of: “It is so low as to appear less than average height, and it is so receding as to make me wonder” (Secret India, second edition 1970, p. 48). On the same page, Brunton asks pointedly: “Does a man’s forehead indicate his powers of thought?” In which case Meher Baba was just as thoughtful as Paul Brunton, if not more so. The abundant photographic and cinefilm testimony to cranial dimensions graphically disproves the powers of observation exercised by Paul Brunton.

Meher Baba did make some strong statements, claiming to be a God-man; in this respect it is easy to make criticisms. Yet in certain other respects, restraint is advisable. Meher Baba bathed lepers, personally tended and donated to the poor, and supported the cause of untouchables in the face of caste biases. In fact, caste taboos were outlawed at his Meherabad ashram during the 1920s. His affinity with untouchables extended to a private meeting with Dr. Bhimrao R. Ambedkar (the untouchable leader) in 1932. The lifestyle of Meher Baba was strictly disciplined, and he remained a silent celibate ascetic until his death. His relevant Irani Zoroastrian background receives no mention in the popular and cursory treatments favouring Brunton’s deceptive report. He was described by Brunton as a “Parsee messiah,” which is ethnically inaccurate.

The early years of Meher Baba reflect his ethnic mid-way stance between Islam and Hinduism, a feature commonly neglected. An Irani Zoroastrian by birth, he is closely associated with Hazrat Babajan, a Pathan mystic at Poona. His later years were marked by a more devotional ambience associated with the Hindu temperament. To his credit, this Irani was the only “Indian guru” figure in the 1960s to make a pointed case against the use of LSD, a message that was resented by some sectors of the emerging new age trend in America. See further Meher Baba and Paul Brunton (2012); Meher Baba (2009) and short entry (2010); and the critique of Meher Baba Oceanic (2013). See also Critics of Meher Baba.

The necessity to penetrate cult literature, cult apologetics, occultist commerce, and anticult extremisms is incumbent upon serious researchers. For instance, Indology (and Iranology) should not be sacrificed to the conspectus of mediocre journalism, astral travels, devotional sentiment, or extremist anticult reductionism of extensive data.

A major drawback in web sources is Wikipedia. Articles on religion in that well known compendium are frequently inadequate. University academics have been very sceptical of the preferred pseudonymity. Critics include citizens. In my own instance, Wikipedia trolls were active in deleting an article, and also in further questionable hostilities directed against my books. The background details to these campaigns are revealing. The instigating pseudonymous opponents were affiliates of well known sects, namely those of Sathya Sai Baba, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Adi Da Samraj, and Meher Baba. Such trolls attach themselves to Wikipedia articles on their favoured guru, sometimes achieving a questionable monopoly. See Wikipedia Anomalies and the Sequel. A short compass overview of anomalies is available at Wikipedia Misinformation.

An affiliate of the Sathya Sai Baba sect (SSS108, alias Equalizer) engineered in 2006 a Wikipedia User page designed to proscribe my books, simply because one of these books contained appendices featuring material from ex-devotees of Sathya Sai Baba. The transparent nature of this ruse was evident to close analysts, but general readers were easily fooled, including sectarian trolls who were influenced by attack blogs emanating from the same champion of Sathya Sai Baba. Meher Baba affiliates were especially retrogressive, favouring SSS108 at my expense. One of the Wikipedia trolls lobbied a baseless accusation deriving from Meher Baba devotees in America; this mythology was accompanied by a refrain that "no sect actually exists." The "no sect" credo emanates from Dick Anthony (24.12 above), whose apologist theory has furnished support for zealous Meher Baba devotees believing themselves to be innocent "lovers" beyond all criticism.

I replied to the misleading accusation in The Meher Baba Movement (see also Update). This made no difference to troll hostilities on Wikipedia. However, the Wikipedia manager Jimmy Wales personally deleted the deficient SSS108 User page in February 2012, after several years of trouble caused by that document. The significance of this action was lost upon trolls, but not the observer audience. The current state of Wikipedia, in respect of articles on religion and gurus, is dismal. Some academics say that it is best not to cite Wikipedia articles in this category. I am here following suit.

See further Pseudomysticism and Cults.

Copyright © 2017 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved. Page uploaded September 2008, last modified March 2017.