5 Mar 2011

The main difference between a religion and a cult is secrecy and total control of members lives

Wall Street Journal - February 25, 2011

When Does a Religion Become a Cult?

America has long been a safe harbor for experimental faiths. But the unorthodox can descend into something darker


America has probably supplied the world with more new religions than any other nation. Since the first half of the 19th century, the country's atmosphere of religious experimentation has produced dozens of movements, from Mormonism to a wide range of nature-based practices grouped under the name Wicca.

By 1970 the religious scholar Jacob Needleman popularized the term "New Religious Movements" (NRM) to classify the new faiths, or variants of old ones, that were being embraced by the Woodstock generation. But how do we tell when a religious movement ceases to be novel or unusual and becomes a cult?

It's a question with a long history in this country. The controversy involving Hollywood writer-director Paul Haggis is only its most recent occurrence. Mr. Haggis left the Church of Scientology and has accused it of abusive practices, including demands that members disconnect from their families, which the church vigorously denies.

To use the term cult too casually risks tarring the merely unconventional, for which America has long been a safe harbor. In the early 19th century, the "Burned-over District" of central New York state—so named for the religious passions of those who settled there following the Revolutionary War—gave rise to a wave of new movements, including Mormonism, Seventh-Day Adventism and Spiritualism (or talking to the dead). It was an era, as historian Sydney E. Ahlstrom wrote, when "Farmers became theologians, offbeat village youths became bishops, odd girls became prophets."

When the California Gold Rush of 1849 enticed settlers westward, the nation's passion for religious novelty moved with them. By the early 20th century, sunny California had replaced New York as America's laboratory for avant-garde spirituality. Without the weight of tradition and the ecclesiastical structures that bring some predictability to congregational life, some movements were characterized by a make-it-up-as-you-go approach that ultimately came to redefine people, money and propriety as movable parts intended to benefit the organization.

Many academics and observers of cult phenomena, such as psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo of Stanford, agree on four criteria to define a cult. The first is behavior control, i.e., monitoring of where you go and what you do. The second is information control, such as discouraging members from reading criticism of the group. The third is thought control, placing sharp limits on doctrinal questioning. The fourth is emotional control—using humiliation or guilt. Yet at times these traits can also be detected within mainstream faiths. So I would add two more categories: financial control and extreme leadership.

Financial control translates into levying ruinous dues or fees, or effectively hiring members and placing them on stipends or sales quotas. Consider the once-familiar image of Hare Krishna devotees selling books in airports. Or a friend of mine—today a respected officer with a nonprofit organization—who recalls how his departure from the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church was complicated by the problem of a massive hole in his résumé, reflecting the years he had financially committed himself to the church.

Problems with extremist leadership can be more difficult to spot. The most tragic cult of the last century was the Rev. Jim Jones's Peoples Temple, which ended with mass murder and suicide in the jungles of Guyana in 1978. Only a few early observers understood Jones as dangerously erratic. Known for his racially diverse San Francisco congregation, Jones was widely feted on the local political scene in the 1970s. He was not some West Coast New Ager gone bad. He emerged instead from the mainstream Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pulpit, which sometimes lent a reassuringly Middle-American tone to his sermons.

Yet every coercive religious group harbors one telltale trait: untoward secrecy. As opposed to a cult, a religious culture ought to be as simple to enter or exit, for members or observers, as any free nation. Members should experience no impediment to relationships, ideas or travel, and the group's finances should be reasonably transparent. Its doctrine need not be conventional—but it should be knowable to outsiders. Absent those qualities, an unorthodox religion can descend into something darker.

Mr. Horowitz, the editor in chief of Tarcher/Penguin in New York and the author of "Occult America" (Bantam), is writing a history of the positive-thinking movement.

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Huffington Post  -  March 1, 2011

From Rwanda to Libya: Who's Calling Whom a Cockroach Now?

by Steven Hassan  |  Cult expert, Counselor, Author, media spokesperson

Recently in the news is political cult leader Muammar Gaddafi calling the Libyan people "cockroaches" -- the very term used by radio hosts to dehumanize Tutsi in Rwanda on the cusp of the hundred-day slaughter in 1994. How could people turn on their friends and neighbors, and murder them?

I recently saw a brilliant new documentary film by Adam Mazo called Coexist, which tells the story of victims, perpetrators, and survivors of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and what they face as they try to rebuild shattered trust in their country. A key theme in the film is the government-mandated process of reconciliation, and the need to break the cycle of violence so today's victims don't become tomorrow's perpetrators.

The film shows viewers two faces of forgiveness: its healing power and agonizing limitations. It also lays bare the challenges of coexistence between victims and perpetrators, the ongoing risk of revenge, and the lengthy process of rehumanizing the killers, many of whom have been released from prison and are returning to the villages where they raped, destroyed, and murdered.

I can't get out of my head the testimony of one of the perpetrators featured in the film, a man named Gregoire. He is serving a life sentence for ordering the killing of thousands of Tutsi in his district and from his prison compound says, "Maybe some people blame it on the government, but the government is not inside our hearts. I brainwashed people to kill Tutsi. I never killed Tutsi but... if I'd wanted to stop it, nothing would have happened."

There is a powerful connection between Gregroire's statement about brainwashing of killers in Rwanda and my own work with cult members and other victims of mind control. In both cases people are dealing with issues of obedience to authority and conformity to peer pressure. They were operating in a "closed system" where reality was being dictated by those in authority to everyone else living in abject fear.

I have developed the BITE model of mind control, based on the work of former military intelligence researchers like eminent psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton and psychologist Margaret Singer. The BITE model (control of Behavior, Information, Thoughts and Emotions) explains that if you have an authoritarian person or regime that using these components to create a new "identity" which is dependent and obedient, you have the essential components of mind control.

The film left me wondering whether Rwandans who participate in reconciliation processes would be less likely to get swept up ever again in the madness of mass killing.

Victims of cults and those impacted by genocide (whether perpetrators or victims) need to learn about conformity and obedience to deepen their understanding of how susceptible human beings are to authority and persuasion. The groundbreaking experiments of social psychologists Solomon Asch in the 1950s, Stanley Milgram in the 1960s, and Philip Zimbardo in the 1970s reveal the depths of human subservience to authority and the sway of groups over individuals. Interestingly, across all three experiments, roughly sixty-percent of subjects abandon their own beliefs and cave into group pressure, even if it means doing something they know is wrong, or worse: something they realize is harmful to others.

As I watched Coexist, I found myself thinking about the work of Asch, Milgram, and Zimbardo, and my work on cult mind control and brainwashing. In this age of social networking via the Internet, the world audience should take the time to understand more about social influence. And how we, as adults must always remain vigilant to the social influence pressures we are under and always use our critical thinking to periodically "reality-test" our decisions and actions. Information control is what all dictators and cult leaders need to use to establish and maintain power. Deception, spying, keeping dissidents (ex-members, critics) silenced, intensive propaganda are just some of the sub-components of Information control. The Internet has proven to be the most powerful vehicle for social change, because in my opinion, people do want to know the "truth" and will seek out other facts and opinions, so they can think for themselves.

Given Rwanda's commitment to unity and reconciliation -- the crux of official government policy -- there is a crying need for these lessons to be learned by both victims and perpetrators. And this is one of the main points of Coexist and the insightful Viewer's Guide written by the film's learning director, Dr. Mishy Lesser: the cycle of violence could be reignited if Rwandans in the future fail to stand firm in their beliefs and, if necessary, disobey authority to protect one another. In a country with so much human suffering, ongoing fear, and lingering trauma, I would suggest that the best way to ensure a brighter future is to incorporate into the country's educational system -- at all levels -- the study of conformity, obedience, and subservience, as well as strategies to combat harmful and illegitimate applications of those human tendencies. That way, Rwandans can show the world how passive bystanders can become active upstanders committed to the protection of all vulnerable people.

The Coexist documentary and its Viewer's Guide should become part of a mandated international educational curriculum that shows a vivid example of "how good people do evil things," to quote my mentor Dr. Zimbardo. His Heroic Imagination Project is an ambitious effort to seed heroism throughout the world and which encourages people to do the right thing, not because there is something in it for them, but because it is the right thing to do. I am working with my co-director Alan Scheflin to create an academic think tank at Santa Clara Law School to study all aspects of social influence.

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Video interview by Steve Hassan of top ex-Scientologist at international cult conference in New York

Video of former 30 year Scientologist discussing Jett Travolta based on her personal experiences of medical abuse

Cult exit counsellor gives speech, "Psychology of Mind Control Over Abducted Children", at Amber Alert symposium

Cult Recovery

Cult researcher reveals emotional cost of separation

Interview with psychologist Jill Mytton about religious abuse [VIDEO]

Cult Survivors: Was Membership Your Choice? [video]

How Cults Rewire The Brain [video]

Conquering coercion: Wellspring Retreat helps former cult members recover

Recovery workshop for people born or raised in cults

Apocalypticism is a simplistic but dangerous world view spreading rapidly like a toxic virus

Sects and sex abuse: battle of the apocalyptic sex cults

Their targets used to be university students, but today fringe religious groups are believed to be recruiting school-aged children.

Cults on campus: how to spot recruiting techniques of predator conmen

Survivors in New Zealand documentary, How To Spot A Cult, reveal similar tactics used by cults with different belief systems

Intentional ignorance and willful blindness keep members trapped in cults like Scientology


  1. Alberta woman on cult warpath

    by Stephanie Findlay, Toronto Star Staff Reporter July 06, 2012

    MONTREAL—Carla Brown is planning on staging an intervention, hoping to rescue people from what she believes is a cult.

    She has been told there is a self-described prophet living near Okotoks, Alta., a quiet town in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, who claims to speak with Adam and Eve.

    Brown, the director of the Edmonton Society Against Mind Abuse (ESAMA), said the prophet controls the lives of some 20 people.

    “One ex-member leaked audio tapes of her to me,” said Brown. “It was this sing-song prayer, everything in rhyme. It gave me goosebumps.”

    Brown is part of a tight-knit group of cult experts in Edmonton who field calls from distressed Albertans — and, increasingly, Canadians from other provinces — who have lost a family member or friend to a group like that of the Okotoks prophet.

    She is one of more than 30 experts who have come to Montreal to speak at the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) annual conference. Held in the Chinatown Holiday Inn, the event is known for its diverse group of participants, one of the few in the field where academics, mental health practitioners and former cult members sit side by side to take in the presentations.

    “This conference is one of the biggest in years,” said organizer Michael Kropveld.

    Stephen Kent, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta studying anti-government cults in the province, serves as a kind of academic adviser to Brown, who, in return, tips him off to new groups.

    Matt Trodden, a 23-year-old graduate student also at the University of Alberta researching how music is used as a control mechanism in cults, is reluctant to name the active ones. “The advice always given is ‘Don’t name the group’,” he said. “Then you won’t get sued.”

    When local resources fail her, Brown calls her international friends, including Americans Steve Hassan, a counsellor and author of “Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults and Beliefs,” and David Clark, a “thought reform consultant.”

    But families often cannot afford to pay for Hassan’s services, she said. That’s where she comes in.

    During her weekly meetings in Edmonton, Brown sees approximately eight people, the majority parents, who are concerned about their family members being involved with a cult.

    Some parents speak with Tyler Newton, a Virginia native who runs a website about the World Mission Society Church of God, an organization based in Korea.

    What he hears from the parents is “heart wrenching,” he said, adding he receives an email a week from someone concerned about the church.

    Brown has direct experience with cults.

    As a teenager, she said she knew Michael O’Byrne, son of Justice Michael O’Byrne of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, and believed to be a high-ranking official of the Osho Commune International, a group described by its since-deceased leader as: “Not a cult. Christianity is a cult, Mohammedism is a cult, Hinduism is a cult. You have to understand my idea about a cult. When the master is alive it is a religion.”

    Then Brown spent 15 years in a conservative Christian cult known as the Plymouth Brethren, located outside Fort McMurray, Alta. She had seven children.

    After leaving the cult eight years ago, she eventually became a counsellor herself, assuming the director position at ESAMA last year.

    Brown hopes to start a show in the vein of “Intervention,” the television series that sees people confront a loved one struggling with alcoholism or drug abuse. Instead of an addiction, however, the separation will be caused by a cult.

    She has plenty of material — “My phone is ringing constantly.”


  2. Call of cults lures the needy in hard economic times

    Katie Holmes’ recent separation from Tom Cruise has put renewed and unwelcome attention on the Church of Scientology, and was discussed during the annual International Cultic Studies Association conference Thursday in Montreal.

    Stephanie Findlay, Toronto Star Staff Reporter July 05, 2012

    MONTREAL—After the cult, who am I? It’s a question Katie Holmes may be asking, but in Montreal international cult experts are talking seriously about it.

    Academics, ex-cult members and current cult members have come to the annual International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) conference to discuss everything to do with manipulation and victimization.

    Topics include: “The wisdom and folly of intervention with cult members;” “The theft of the spirit,” and “Recovering your sexual self after the cult.”

    Conference organizers say increasing public awareness of cultic activity is more important now than ever, a result of the hard economic times. With the Canadian unemployment rate at 7.3 per cent, and the U.S. numbers higher still, the siren call of the cult life is strong, they say.

    “We’re in a recession and people are in rough financial situations,” ICSA president Lorna Goldberg said. “It adds a different factor, people are looking for a special answer, special tools.”

    Goldberg, who works in New Jersey as a therapist, said she has seen a definite increase in patients who have turned to cults since the financial crash.

    It is difficult to get an accurate estimate of the number of Canadians living in cults, said Marie-Andrée Pelland, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Moncton who has studied Mormon polygamists in British Columbia.

    The closest estimate could be around 64,000, the approximate number of Canadians who identified under “other religions” in the 2001 census, she said.

    “We don’t have a registry, some groups are so small we don’t know they exist,” Pelland said.

    “Cultic relationships can occur everywhere.”
    The conference is being held at the Holiday Inn, in Chinatown. Between the reception and restaurant, Chez Chine, is a koi pond and a pagoda decorated with red lanterns. The event is a highly anticipated one, renowned in the field for its eclectic mix of participants.

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    The Hibiscus room is host to a session for former cult members called “Coping with triggers.” Media was not permitted to attend.
    “No, they really feel vulnerable at this point,” said Joseph Kelly, a “thought-reform” consultant who was once a member of two cults, Transcendental Meditation and the International Society of Divine Love.

    “Having been in two groups myself, I know what it’s like,” Kelly said.

    Triggers, powerful memories that recall cult life, “means God is trying to tell you to go back,” Kelly said. “When you get cognitive control over the source, it helps you overcome it.”

    Later in the afternoon, Steve Eichel, a psychologist dressed in a Hawaiian print shirt, is introducing a seminar about sexual recovery in the ballroom. “I have to say I feel a little strange here, being a male introducing three women on a panel related to sexuality,” he said.
    Carla Brown, director of the Edmonton Society Against Mind Abuse, was the panel’s first speaker. Brown, a statuesque blond who resembles Ivana Trump, left a Christian cult eight years ago.

    “After my miscarriages I felt I wasn’t useful to God any more, I started to realize I was traumatized,” she said. “Apart from being a breeder in this religious group, who was I? That thought began my recovery journey.”

    Patricia Miller, another former cult member, said sex was important in the cult, and when she failed to perform, she said she was abused.

    Following the last session of the day, conference-goers mingled by the koi pond, discussing Tom Cruise, the apocalypse and narcissism.

    Goldberg, the ICSA president, shared a story about a young man who recently came to her support group. He was involved in a cult that promised financial success selling $1,000 encyclopedias.

    The cult had identified an ideal recruit, Goldberg said.

    “He was a graduate looking for a job,” she said. He was “perfect.”


  4. Cults tell us so much about ourselves

    By Mathew N. Schmalz, Washington Post July 12, 2012

    Cults are back in the news.

    There’s the TomKat divorce and renewed popular portrayals of Scientology as a “cult.” Established religions also have their “cult-like” qualities. For example, the Catholic congregation called the Legion of Christ is in the news yet again for allegedly psychologically abusing youth at a high school.

    While media reporting about cults is drawn to the sensational, cults are remarkably good to think with—precisely because cults tell us so much about ourselves.

    When you ask someone to define a “cult,” you’ll usually get a standard list of characteristics: Cults have strange beliefs; they demand absolute obedience; they isolate their members. As the notoriety of a particular cult grows, inevitably there will be concern about various forms of illegal behavior and abuse.

    But things get really interesting when you ask someone to distinguish a “cult” from a “real religion.” What makes Scientology’s claims about engrams and thetans different from those of other religions that believe in reincarnation and the spiritual essence of human beings? What makes the Legion of Christ’s emphasis on obedience qualitatively different from other forms of obedience routinely demanded by religious orders or, for that matter, by a government or a private business? Is the isolation required by Scientology’s SeaOrg or the Legion of Christ’s formation program more harmful than what Marine recruits experience on Parris Island? Given that the Legion of Christ’s founder was a rapist, does that mean that the entire organization is criminal to the core? Or was a manipulative leadership duping the unsuspecting rank-and-file? In any case, don’t all organizations—both religious and secular—have their share of rogues and reprobates? What makes a cult all that different?

    These questions—both how they are asked and how they are answered—are important. But they sometimes reveal more about the earnest questioners than about the groups being interrogated.

    In scholarly research and writing the term “cult” is used with caution and qualification. In an academic article, the term might be used as a sociological descriptor referring to a religious group that holds values and practices deliberately at variance from prevailing social mores. But the kind of value judgments that come with the word will often be set aside or questioned. From this perspective, calling an organization a “cult” is understood as reflecting implicit—and often unexamined—social standards about what constitutes “unhealthy” behavior. Conventional lists of “cult-like” characteristics usually assume that individualism, autonomy, and devotion to family are signs of psychological health. It’s not a coincidence that these are values emphasized by American society as a whole.

    Of course, accepted social standards and practices often change, as do the standards and practices of new religions as they develop: today’s cult sometimes becomes tomorrow’s established religion. Being called a “religion” is social seal of approval; being called a “cult” is a social scarlet letter.

    I have numerous “cult experiences” that I like to share with students to get them thinking about these issues. One of my favorites comes from my years in living in India.

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    One afternoon, I was standing with friends at a railway station, waiting for another friend to arrive. Next to us on the platform was a young man wearing a pant-shirt combination made entirely out of rough woven burlap. The weirdness of this was undeniable, especially because it was over 100 degrees outside. A couple of my friends asked the young man why he was wearing such a strange get-up. The young man politely explained that his religious teacher—his guru—had ordered him to wear it as a spiritual exercise.

    This gave my friends what they wanted. They delighted in the taunts they rained down: Do you believe every stupid thing your guru says? Do you know how silly you look? Get a life!

    I stood back from all of this not knowing what to think at first. But as I reflected on things, it didn’t seem to me that burlap clothes were that far away from hairshirts worn by Christian mystics as a sign of asceticism. I also knew that both Catholicism and Hinduism placed a high value on obedience to religious teachers as a way of self-transcendence, of overcoming one’s own ego. Deliberately appearing foolish might be part of that, too. While I thought about Hindu traditions of devotion, I also recalled that there’s a strong Christian belief in being “a fool for Christ” and Western literature has the character of the “holy fool” who has more wisdom than those who count themselves wise.

    Maybe this weirdness had a legitimate religious purpose after all. Then again, maybe the young man’s guru was taking perverse pleasure in exercising power and authority for their own sake. I just didn’t know.

    This is why “cults” are good to think with.

    When we call something a “cult,” we have the opportunity to consider our own standards regarding what kind of group we take seriously and what kind we dismiss.

    If we think about things more deeply, we might even realize that our focus on individualism and autonomy is something culturally quite specific and has its own tensions and inconsistencies. Of course, we can still make judgments about what is unhealthy and what constitutes abusive behavior— for example, I think that the Legion of Christ should have been disbanded long ago. But in making such determinations, starting off or ending with the word “cult” doesn’t help us very much, unless we’re willing to step outside of ourselves for a moment to think through our own assumptions about what it can and should mean to be a religious person.

    Mathew N. Schmalz teaches religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.


  6. Ken Barlow's son and the humiliation sect: The extraordinary saga of how the Coronation Street star's actor son is helping run a very troubling 'cult'

    By Paul Bracchi and Tom Leonard, Daily Mail (UK), December 15, 2012

    The British headquarters of the ‘Enlightenment’ organisation are based in a modern five-storey building behind wrought iron gates in Islington, North London.

    The reception, on the ground floor, is manned by a middle-aged man with an American accent. Visitors seeking more information about the group, which draws on Tibetan Buddhism and Hindu mysticism for inspiration, are handed a leaflet entitled ‘Meditation and Evolution’.

    These are the buzz words of the Enlightenment movement — or EnlightenNext, as it is officially known — which claims to have thousands of followers and a ‘membership base spanning 20 countries’, including actor Linus Roache, son of veteran Coronation Street actor, Bill.

    It emerged this week that 48-year-old Roache has made the extraordinary decision to move to the U.S. to become managing director of the group’s New York office. His wife, Rosalind Bennett, is PR for EnlightenNext.

    ‘I realised success as an actor alone wouldn’t make me happy,’ explained Roache in a recent interview. ‘I needed to explore my spiritual side in more depth.’

    So far, Roache, who made his name in the U.S. police series Law & Order and appeared in Julian Fellowes’s ITV drama Titanic in March, has donated at least $75,000 (£46,000) to EnlightenNext in 2010 and 2011. His name is listed in the ‘Donor Honor Roll’ in the biennial report of the spiritual network.

    It transpires that Roache joined EnlightenNext back in 1994, along with Jerome Flynn, who starred in the popular Nineties TV series Soldier Soldier. The late Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop empire, was also a convert.

    The endorsement of such celebrities as Roache, a much-admired actor, who also appeared in the acclaimed 1997 film The Wings Of The Dove with Helena Bonham Carter, has undoubtedly added credibility to the organisation and increased its appeal here in Britain.

    But critics have accused EnlightenNext of being little more than a cult. Certainly, its methods have attracted controversy and criticism.

    So what does its leader Andrew Cohen encourage his followers to believe? It is almost impossible to say because his philosophy, such that it is, is couched in near impenetrable gobbledegook. But ‘enlightenment through meditation’ is probably the simplest way of putting it.

    Even former followers find it hard to describe it more clearly, but some believe it has damaged lives. Take the British woman we spoke to this week, who claims her 16-year marriage ended after her husband became a follower of Cohen, who describes himself as a spiritual teacher and ‘cultural visionary’.

    ‘It was like losing my husband Mike to another woman,’ said Helen McLellan from Stoke-on-Trent.

    Others have handed over huge sums of money to 57-year-old Cohen’s movement. They did so willingly, it should be stressed, but some have nevertheless come to bitterly regret their decision.

    In the past, at least, Cohen’s most committed ‘students’, as they call themselves, have ended up living at the group’s American base, even if they’re British. Former members have made allegations about the psychological abuse and bullying they suffered at the centre, set in more than 200 acres in Massachusetts.

    This includes bizarre and humiliating punishments, such as having buckets of red paint poured over you or having your face slapped for failing to measure up, in one way or another, to the group’s expectations. It’s alleged that those under Cohen’s tutelage have had to prostrate themselves before pictures of him.

    But perhaps his harshest critic has been his own mother. She was once one of his students and that experience formed the basis of a book she wrote in 2009 which she called, with heavy irony, Mother Of God.

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  7. In it, she revealed how she used to address her son as ‘Master’ and accused him in the book of becoming egomaniacal and manipulative. The two have since been reconciled.

    The book was among a number of alleged ‘exposes’ of Cohen in America over the past few years, but there has been almost no critical things written about him in this country, where it is a registered charity.

    According to documents filed at the Charity Commission, one of the organisation’s objectives is to ‘advance moral or spiritual welfare or improvement for the benefit of the public … by promoting education concerning spiritual enlightenment’.

    It is the group’s ‘advancement of spiritual welfare’ that makes EnlightenNext eligible for charitable status. Charities, of course, enjoy beneficial tax arrangements.

    The UK arm of EnlightenNext, which also covers its activities in Europe, had an income of nearly £600,000 and assets of £3.2 million, according to the accounts for the year to December 2011.

    In the U.S., it had a turnover of $3.1 million (£1.9 million) in 2010, the most recent financial information available reveals. Around one third of that money comes from ‘donor investors’ and the rest from ‘revenue-generating’ operations, such as the sale of books and videos. A ten-day retreat in Tuscany, Italy, being advertised at the Islington HQ, costs more than £1,000.

    EnlightenNext is a non-profit organisation — a phrase which is mentioned repeatedly in its publicity material — meaning that any financial surplus is used to further its aims.

    Anyone who visits the group’s website is encouraged to give at every opportunity: ‘Donate now’ (‘support a revolution in consciousness and culture’) … ‘Donate Now’ (‘Help change the world from the inside out’) … ‘Please click here to make a donation’ …

    Home for Mr Cohen, 57, when he is not travelling the major cities of the world (he will be in London to give a talk in February), is the group’s sprawling HQ in Lenox, Massachusetts, although his people have described where he lives as simply a two-bedroom flat in the grounds.

    People who have met Cohen, born into a middle-class Jewish family in New York, say he possesses an ‘alluring intensity’ and that watching him speak is ‘like a tunnel vision experience where you feel he’s only talking to you’.

    Cohen says he gave up early aspirations to be a musician and embarked on his chosen path after experiencing a moment of ‘cosmic consciousness’ when he was just 16.

    In 1986, he began teaching his own blend of mysticism, which he called ‘evolutionary enlightenment’ — the story of which is told in his tome of the same name, price $16.47 (£10.20) — and two years later set up a global network of followers, which eventually became EnlightenNext.

    In the early Nineties, it was known as FACE (Friends of Andrew Cohen Everywhere). Mostly comprising professional people under 40, it included teachers, lawyers and computer experts as well as actors like Linus Roache and Jerome Flynn, who lived together with other British followers in eight rented flats in a converted dairy in Belsize Park, North London.

    Each morning and evening, students would meet for an hour of silent meditation. All self-centred thoughts had to be renounced. It was rumoured in the neighbourhood that some shaved their heads as a sign they had taken a vow of celibacy. A number of them are said to have pledged at least £40 a month to the cause, and in some cases, it is thought to have been more.

    It was reported at the time that worried families had contacted the Cult Information Centre, a body dedicated to exposing abuse and brainwashing in pseudo-religious groups.

    The CIC’s spokesman was quoted as saying the families had described their loved ones as ‘going through the changes in personality that you would expect from those involved in any of the groups we’re concerned about’, including an alleged loss of critical ability.

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  8. Yesterday, when contacted by the Mail, the CIC confirmed that it had received a number of complaints over the years about Cohen’s Belsize Park community. But, it seems, there were said to be far more bizarre things taking place inside Cohen’s communes around the world, not least in Massachusetts, which became the global headquarters of the enlightenment network in 1998.

    One man who knows Cohen well is William Yenner, who was Cohen’s business manager for 25 years. He become disillusioned with Cohen’s methods, but had already handed over a cheque to EnlightenNext for $80,000 (£49,000).

    ‘It was at my lowest point,’ said Mr Yenner, speaking from his home in Greenfield, Massachusetts. He was given his money back, he says, when he left in 2003, but only on condition he signed a confidentiality agreement that prevented him from disclosing details about EnlightenNext for five years. The agreement expired in 2008 and, shortly afterwards, Yenner’s book about Cohen was published, entitled American Guru: A story Of Love, Betrayal And Healing — former students of Andrew Cohen speak out.

    One chapter is named ‘The Dark Side of Enlightenment’ and includes a section on ‘disciplinary face slapping’.

    ‘In some cases, Andrew [Cohen] would direct one student to slap another,’ wrote Mr Yenner. ‘In others, he administered the slaps himself. I myself was slapped on two occasions, once by a woman and once by another man. I also remember having to do 1,000 protestations (bowing in reverence) in front of a picture of Andrew, which would take me two or three hours.’

    A female student who displeased Cohen, he says, was summoned to a basement room where ‘she was met by four fellow female students who, having guided her on to a plastic sheet on the floor, each poured a bucket of paint over her head as a “message of gratitude” from Andrew.’

    There were strict rules around relationships. ‘If Andrew didn’t like how a relationship was going, he would encourage it to end,’ said Mr Yenner. ‘No one would consider a relationship with someone outside the “community”. Even couples who joined together were sometimes encouraged to separate. This happened even if they had children.’

    Yenner claims it was also common for students to curry favour for perceived transgressions by buying Cohen gifts or making donations — dubbed ‘the currency of forgiveness’.

    Those who decided to leave the fold, he says, tended to flee in the night and Cohen would sometimes send other followers to find the ‘escapees’ and persuade them to return.

    One student, it is alleged, who had a ‘beautiful’ Saab car, was persuaded to get rid of it because it was deemed to be a reminder of his materialistic lifestyle. He is said to have taken the vehicle to a scrapyard where it was placed in a crusher. To ‘maximise the effect’, the student himself was invited to press the button on the crushing machine.

    Another bizarre custom was a ‘push-up marathon’ every Sunday. ‘We’d do a series of 30, then rest our arms, then do another series of 30,’ said a former member in a book he also wrote about his time with Cohen. ‘You just had to keep going for as long as you could.’

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  9. Others quoted in Mr Yenner’s book told of having to stand in a lake in the grounds of the Massachusetts HQ. Then there is the story of Helen McLellan from Staffordshire. She says her experience is testament to the way outside relationships are disapproved of by the group.

    Mike and Helen McLellan were married for 16 years. They had a young son and Mr McLellan was head of music at a private school in Staffordshire. Then, one day in 1993, someone bought him some tapes of Andrew Cohen.

    He soon became an ardent follower, culminating in him going on a 12-day retreat in Switzerland. He returned a changed man, says his wife.

    ‘He was always taking our son to the park, and we used to talk for hours on end,’ said the now 69-year-old Mrs McLellan, who lives in a semi-detached house in Stoke-on-Trent. ‘Afterwards, he was unhappy and not interested in talking about things. He became completely absorbed in himself.’

    Within a few years of her husband listening to Cohen’s tapes, Helen and Mike separated. Her story later appeared in the local paper in 2000 under the headline: ‘Ex-wife claims marriage ruined by religious cult.’

    ‘Our son is still in contact with him,’ says Mrs McLellan. ‘He always makes sure to pass on his love to me, but I know nothing of what he is doing, although I believe he is in London.’

    We also spoke to a family in the U.S. who tell a similar story to Mrs McLellan.

    This week, after the Mail put these allegations to EnlightenNext, it issued the following statement: ‘It is common for organisations such as ours to face criticism from time to time. In this case, the critics are a small minority who have not been involved with EnlightenNext for over a decade or more.

    ‘As we’re sure you can appreciate, EnlightenNext cannot comment directly on any one individual’s experience, as it would violate both their and other individuals’ rights to privacy. Andrew Cohen continues to have a positive impact on many hundreds of people around the world.’

    Meanwhile, Linus Roache has spoken to Spirit And Destiny magazine about what his father — Coronation Street’s Ken Barlow — thought about his involvement with Cohen. Roache Snr has often spoken about his belief in spiritualism and reincarnation. He briefly became a druid in the Sixties and celebrated the summer solstice at Stonehenge.

    His son said: ‘Dad has always been —and still is — a great influence on me. He has always stood up for spirit, staying true to his beliefs… and I like to do the same with regard to my own true beliefs, regardless of potential criticism or mockery.’

    You can be sure, though, that the path to enlightenment for the much-admired actor is unlikely to involve face-slapping, being covered in red paint, or standing in a freezing lake.


  10. Shower baptisms, Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ: the Korean church recruiting Manchester students

    Andrew Williams investigates the World Mission Society Church of God, a mysterious Korean church hoping to convert you on your doorstep

    By Andrew Williams, THE MANCUNION MARCH 28, 2013

    “Imagine this is earth,” says Samuel, using the lid of a Pringles tube to illustrate his point, “and here’s heaven. The most valuable thing you can imagine on earth is less valuable than the least valuable thing in heaven. God sees this planet as a speck of dust.”

    At the age of 24, Samuel has left his home in London to live with members of a little-known church in Manchester. Pleasant, inquisitive and well-educated, he is far from the type of person you might imagine to join such an organisation, and yet he is utterly consumed by his new-found faith.

    The somewhat cumbersomely-named World Mission Society Church of God has accumulated 1.7 million members worldwide in its fifty year history. Whilst some of the basic tenets of the church’s teachings are in common with the more established branches of Christianity, it only takes a fleeting discussion with one of their members to realise that there is plenty that sets it apart; a leader revered as the Second Coming of Christ, a rejection of worship on Sundays, and a fervent belief that we are living in the ‘end times.’

    Founded in South Korea in 1964, its leader, Ahn Sahng-Hong, proclaimed himself to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ during his lifetime, joining a less than illustrious list of Messianic claimants including Charles Manson and the former BBC Sport presenter David Icke. Upon his death in 1985, Ahn’s ‘spiritual wife’, Zahng Gil-Jah, assumed leadership of the church. To believers, they are God the Mother and God the Father; the female aspect of God being a vital component of their faith.

    WMSCOG has gained quite a following in Manchester and the group has become increasingly prominent in recent times. After members of the group visited his house in Fallowfield, Religion and Political Life postgraduate student James Jackson brought the group to The Mancunion’s attention, telling us of reports that the church have been going door to door in student areas in an attempt to recruit new members.

    “When they came to my house they said they were theology students giving a presentation. Having studied theology for three years, I said I wasn’t interested in what they had to say, but they were extremely insistent,” James explained. “Once inside they opened straight up on the book of Revelation and started talking about Satan. It became clear that they were trying to convince me that the Roman Catholic Church was Satanic. At one point when I protested, I was accused of being in league with the Catholics and therefore, implicitly, Satan.”

    He continued: “I was alarmed to find out that one of the members had only joined a month ago and was already living communally with them and acting as an evangelist.”

    As suspected, James is not alone in having been visited by the group. Indeed, it appears that WMSCOG members are actively targeting student areas in their attempt to recruit new members. Reverend Dr Terry Biddington, the University of Manchester’s Chaplain to Higher Education, expressed concerns about the group’s tactics. “We are aware that this group goes ‘cold calling’ door to door and tries to pressurise students to attend meetings. Apparently one student dropped out of university having joined,” he told us.

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  11. Though we have been unable to confirm whether this is the case, we have spoken to several students who have encountered members of the church. Jonnie Breen, a second year History student, was perhaps more polite than most when the church’s followers pitched up on his doorstep in early September.

    Having lived in South Korea for much of his childhood, Jonnie was amenable to the Korean trio who came to his house. “There were three of them, and they basically asked if they could come in and show me a presentation,” he recalls. “I got talking to them about Korea so we struck up a bit of a rapport, but before long they were pressing – fairly hard – for me to be, in their words, baptised by them. They weren’t intimidating, and I didn’t want to tell them to fuck off, but they kept coming back to this baptism.”

    Jonnie was told in no uncertain terms that his prospects were bleak unless he accepted the church’s teachings. “They said, ‘unless everyone recognises what we recognise, and formally accept it, you’re going to go to hell; but we can save you by baptising you, we can do it in your shower.’ That’s the point when I remember starting to get freaked out. They kept repeating themselves; ‘we can do it really easily in your shower, right here.’ They repeated it maybe three or four times and I said, look, I really don’t want to do that, but I’d be happy to come and see you at your church.”

    A month later, Jonnie made good on his promise. “They picked me up from my house, and this time there were some local Mancunians who had joined the church. As we drove in I realised that I wasn’t just there to have some food with a bunch of Korean guys. They showed me a half hour long film they had made about their church all around the world.”

    Though he didn’t feel physically threatened, the rhetorical bombardment made Jonnie feel “uncomfortable.” It was the last time he spoke to anyone from the church, but not for the want of trying on their part. “Perhaps stupidly, I gave them my phone number. They kept calling me – probably about four times a week for a month after I had visited the church. They’ve stopped calling now but it shows how incredibly persistent they are.”

    Gemma Reed, who has just completed a Masters degree in History of Science, Technology and Medicine, is another student who was recently visited by members of the World Mission Society Church of God. No mentions of shower baptisms here, but much of her experience tallies with those of James and Jonnie.

    “They’ve actually been round a couple of times,” Gemma tells me. “A young Korean girl came to my door the first time around. She said that she was doing a theology presentation and she wanted to practice it on us. I was shown a video about all of the work that the church does in the community, and whilst we were watching it she told us the Bible predicted nuclear Armageddon, and that we could save ourselves by joining the church. It didn’t really make any sense.”

    “I was just really aware of how vulnerable she was,” Gemma continues. “What she was saying to me was obviously a script. It was basically a load of small shreds of evidence which were picked from here, there and everywhere and put together to form this kind of mosaic which fits their narrative. But they really believe it, and I respect them for that.”

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  12. Having not been visited by any members of the church myself, James and I arranged to meet with two members of the church to discuss their faith. The aforementioned former student, Samuel, is here with his friend Lot, a South Korean student who has moved to Manchester to spread the word of the church. Whilst Lot was born into the church, I am intrigued as to why Samuel elected to join of his own volition.

    “I was interested in learning about the truth, because there are a lot of lies out there,” he tells us. On the evening that we meet, white smoke emerges from the chimney of the Vatican to signal the election of a new Pope. How do Samuel and Lot feel about Catholicism?

    “Unknowingly, the Catholics worship a Sun God, because God never instituted Sunday as a day or worship,” Samuel explains. It’s a claim which would doubtless offend many Christians, and possibly some of the students whom the church are attempting to recruit. With that in mind, I ask how students tend to react them. “People are mostly quite nice, but sometimes they just say ‘go away’. It depends,” Lot tells me.

    Over the course of the next hour, the pair going into great detail in an attempt to explain to me why they are convinced that their leader, Ahn Sahng-Hong, was the Second Coming of Christ. Lot retrieves a heavily highlighted Bible from his bag, along with a huge tome embossed with the words ‘EVIDENCE BOOK’. I am shown numerous passages from the Bible which mention Christ’s Second Coming emerging ‘in the east’ or ‘from the farthest corner of the earth.’ With the help of a map, a hastily drawn timeline and a host of nonsensical charts, he is attempting to convince me that the Bible prophesised that the reincarnated Christ would come from South Korea.

    I am keen to delve deeper into their belief that we are living in the ‘end times’. The World Mission Society Church of God is adamant that Armageddon will be visited upon the Earth in our lifetime – does the thought not consume them with fear? “No, it makes me happy,” Samuel tells me cheerily. “We don’t have to be scared, because if we receive salvation we can go to heaven.”

    Frankly, I am quite terrified at the thought of the imminent destruction of the earth, and no less concerned by the fact that Samuel and Lot believe it to be the case. However, my overwhelming feeling is one of sympathy towards two young men who, to my mind, harbour such a bleak outlook. James Jackson echoes my thoughts shortly after we leave the pair.

    “I don’t think that the church is sinister,” he says, thinking aloud. “They seem to have a degree of freedom lacking in some other new religious movements. In a pluralistic society like ours everyone has a right to their beliefs, however intolerant or strange.”

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  13. James is, however, concerned by the church’s determined pursuit of new student members. “I worry about the reports of a student dropping out of university, and their posing as theology students to enter student houses. Students are at a vulnerable time in their life and evangelistic groups can take advantage of that.”

    Ian Haworth succumbed to such an organisation in the late ‘70s. Having been “brainwashed” by a woman who stopped him in the street to tell him about her organisation, he resigned from his job and gave the church $1,500 – all the money he had. Though he quickly left, it took him many years to recover from the experience. He now runs Cult Information Centre, an organisation which monitors the activity of mysterious religious and political movements.

    Haworth is reluctant to use the ‘c word’ – cult, that is – but suggests that there are legitimate grounds for concern about the group. “We have had a couple of calls from people who are concerned about the World Mission Society Church of God. We have taken these calls seriously and it is a group about which we are concerned,” he told The Mancunion.
    “People who become involved in groups such as this one tend to be people who have changed and, according to family and friends, changed for the worse. Personality changes are a very common phenomenon in the field, and certainly in the two cases we’ve dealt with that is the claim of the families.”

    Haworth believes he has an explanation for the church’s focus on recruiting University of Manchester students as new members. “The easiest people to recruit are usually described as people with average to above average intelligence, well-educated people, people who come from an economically advantaged family background, and they’re usually people who are described as caring.”

    “Whilst they can be of any age, the average person who is recruited has probably been in higher education in the past if they are not already in it. Students are easy targets, and because students are smart, they assume that it is people who are lacking in some way who get involved; and that it could never happen to them, because they think that strength of mind and intelligence are things that would perhaps safeguard them. But that’s a complete and utter myth.”


  14. Scientology case has judges debating the meaning of religion

    Case is brought by Louisa Hodkin, who wishes to marry her fiance in the Church of Scientology's building in London

    by Owen Bowcott, legal affairs correspondent The Guardian July 18, 2013

    Five supreme court justices have spent a day wrestling with notions of God, nirvana and what constitutes worship in an attempt to decide whether Scientologists may conduct weddings.

    In one of the more curious appeals to come before the UK's highest court, senior lawyers – wearing puzzled expressions, and bemused smiles but no wigs – ranged across centuries of legislation and a number of faiths to try to establish what religion is.

    The case has been brought by Louisa Hodkin, who wishes to marry her fiance, Alessandro Calcioli, in the Church of Scientology's building on Queen Victoria Street in the City of London.

    The registrar-general of births, deaths and marriages has declined to license the Scientologists' "chapel" as a place of meeting for religious worship under section two of the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855. Hodkin and her partner, who are volunteers at the Church of Scientology, claim the refusal is discriminatory. At a previous hearing, the court of appeal rejected their application.

    Wigs and gowns are rarely worn in the supreme court in Westminster these days. On Thursday, the air of intellectual informality was enhanced by the eccentricity of the issues. On one hand was James Strachan QC, for the registrar-general. Scientology, he told the court, was initially founded by the American writer L Ron Hubbard as "dianetics" – a process of self-discovery. Scientology did not describe itself as a religion until 1951. Its eighth level of perfection, Strachan said, was a state of "infinity". "The process of Scientology is not about worshipping God, infinity or a supreme being," he said. "It's about auditing, training and developing self-awareness. The judge [in the courts below] had difficulty in understanding whether it might be a theistic religion."

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  15. Strachan, however, insisted Scientology did not qualify as religion: "It does not involve worship of a divine being. The central processes of Scientology are not about reverence or veneration. It's about constructing the self."

    Scientologists do refer to a "creed" and "sermons", he conceded, "but it's not religious worship. If the registrar-general has wrongly registered Buddhists or Jains [other faiths that do not worship gods] then they should be de-registered. The argument that it's discrimination [against Scientology] goes nowhere."

    Against him was Lord Lester, the veteran Liberal Democrat peer, who pointed out that the Church of Scientology already enjoys "charitable rates relief" on its London headquarters worth £300,000 a year.

    Scientology was akin to Buddhism, he implied. "[The Buddhist principle of] nirvana is not venerated as a being or power that is supernatural or divine. In Scientology, L Rob Hubbard is not venerated."

    In other jurisdictions, such as Australia, Scientology has been accepted as a religious denomination. The refusal to register the chapel was religious discrimination, Lord Lester insisted.

    The five supreme court justices – Lord Neuberger, Lord Clarke, Lord Wilson, Lord Reed and Lord Toulson – brought in Islam, Unitarianism, Quakerism and other faiths to develop comparisons.

    "A Quaker service often consists only of silent meditation," one justice observed.

    The appeal is of wider significance since Scientologists have applied for certification at other premises in England that they claim are used for religious worship.

    Speaking after an earlier judgment, Hodkin said: "I hope the court allows me to marry in my own church, surrounded by my family and friends, which means everything to me."

    The court has reserved judgment. At the end of the hearing, Lord Lester tried a note of religious reconciliation: "Nirvana," he explained, "is a state which an individual attains, the state your lordships attain quite often at the end of a case."


  16. I Used to Be in a Cult and Here's What It Did to My Brain

    by Diane Benscoter, Huffington Post September 27, 2013

    How Cults Rewire The Brain [video] http://religiouschildabuse.blogspot.ca/2010/10/how-cults-rewire-brain-video.html

    Extremism has become a sensationalized catchall phrase, often used by politicians and mass media to polarize and to label groups of people as "the bad guys."

    But, what is extremism? And how do we get to the root of its destructiveness?

    When I was 17, I learned about extremism first-hand. Young, vulnerable and searching for what I call 'easy answers to hard questions,' I left my loving, middle-class, midwestern -- very normal and average, by all accounts -- family and fell prey to the teachings of a religious cult.

    I became a devout follower of Sun Myung Moon and was the victim of highly manipulative tactics. Being a "Moonie" completely dictated my decision-making processes. It tore me away from family, friends, my planned future, and everything else I had previously known and loved.

    In my TEDTalk I define what happened to me as having been infected by a "memetic virus." Once infected, I would have done anything for my "messiah." My mind was closed, fixed, intolerant and impervious to change. I was an extremist.

    If we hope to prevent extremist terrorism we have to begin with understanding the mental condition of extremist leaders. We also need to understand the mental condition of those most vulnerable to extremist tactics. Finally, we need to understand manipulation, the vehicle that connects the extremist leader and it's victims.

    Extremist Leaders

    What causes someone to become a cult leader like Sun Myung Moon or Jim Jones, or a terrorist leader like Osama Bin Laden?

    I agree with Neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor's assessment that religious fundamentalism could be treated as a form of mental illness.

    Extremist leaders are addicts. Addiction is a powerful force. The addiction to power and/or money can affect the brain much like other types of addiction. The overwhelming desire to feed any form of addiction can eventually lead to a type of psychopathy. In the most dangerous circumstances charismatic leaders, under the influence of their addiction, can make a powerful and potentially deadly discovery. They can discover, and put into action, a set of manipulative tactics that prey on vulnerable segments of society.

    It's hard to think of a terrorist as a victim, but we have to ask what's going on in the brain of someone who straps a bomb to his or her body and detonates? As I express in my talk, with great repulsion, I understand how it could happen. I was a victim of extremist mental manipulation. So are they.

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  17. In these cases the victims are often young adults who feel lost in their world and desire the comradery and easy answers to complex questions offered by extremism. When I read the background of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing, I see a bit of 17-year-old me.

    In my memoir, Shoes of a Servant -- My Unconditional Devotion to a Lie, you can see how vulnerable I was to the specific type of manipulative tactics used by Sun Myung Moon and his followers and how I became an extremist. While Moonies are certainly not terrorists, it is the mental condition we need to understand.

    What can we do?

    There are many examples of how educational campaigns have greatly slowed down the spread of infectious diseases and brought awareness to important social topics. I propose that we create similar campaigns to combat extremism.

    The complexity of preventing extremism should not be underestimated, especially in war-torn parts of the world where the use of religious fundamentalism is woven into the culture and vulnerability is high.

    Fortunately there are organizations like SAVE (Sisters Against Violent Extremism) and Quilliam a London based Anti-Extremism think tank that's working diligently toward solutions to extremism.

    I'm also working on a new book and other projects that will help expose prevailing social tactics most commonly used by extremist leaders to manipulate. I look forward to the results of ongoing research by neuroscientists and psychologists working toward a greater understanding of cognitive processes associated with addiction and mental manipulation. When information about mental manipulation becomes common knowledge power-addicted extremists will have less success, because vulnerability will be lowered.

    The War for Peace

    We need a dual approach in ongoing discussions and to solve this problem. We need high-level strategic research of the brain to better understand addiction and vulnerability to manipulation. On the ground level, we need social understanding and education. Once we arm individuals with knowledge about vulnerability to manipulation they can better protect themselves and others. We can help the most vulnerable diminish their feelings of isolation, so that they can make informed, powerful decisions based on critical thinking vs. circular logic. Working together, we can ensure a less destructive world.


  18. When Organized Religion Becomes a Cult

    by Eliyahu Federman, Huffington Post September 27, 2013

    The distinction between cult and religion lies squarely in how those leaving or those wanting to leave are treated

    Diane Benscoter tells her harrowing story of leaving the "Moonie" cult. In highlighting the dangers of cults, Benscoter uses clear examples like David Koresh, Jonestown, suicide bombers, the Westboro Baptist Church, but often the line between conventional religion and cult is not so clearly defined.

    Cults claim exclusivity, are highly secretive, and authoritarian. To many of my atheist friends, religion fits the bill. What distinguishes religion from cults is the ability to question without being shunned and ability to reject dogmatic tenets without being shunned.

    Many religions make exclusive claims to truth. There is nothing wrong with that. Many systems of philosophy do the same. Kantianism's categorical truths are, for example, incompatible with utilitarianisms balancing of harm and good.

    The harm stems from a system that shuns and ostracizes adherents that don't accept their exclusive claims to truth. That is where conventional religion becomes a potentially harmful cult. Forcing people to conform by using the subtle threat of social alienation is a form of coercion.

    People leave religion because of the seemingly restrictive lifestyle, conflicts between science and literal biblical interpretation, ethnocentrism, sexism, dogma, intolerance or boredom. Those may all be legitimate reasons or just misapplication of religious principles but the bottom line is those are personal choices people make about whether to follow a particular religion.

    Any religious community can become a cult. It's not about how faith is expressed in a community but more importantly how people are treated if they want to leave and disbelieve.

    While camping in northern Wisconsin I found an opportunity to talk with several teens of the Old Order Amish. The Old Order Amish are distinguished from more modern Amish because they strictly forbid automobile ownership, modern books and require strict traditional dress.

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  19. I asked the older teens why they returned to their community after the Rumschpringe (which is a period where youth temporarily leave the community to experience the outside world). The answer surprised me.

    I was expecting to hear that they returned for the longing of a simpler life, free from the rat race and materialistic pursuits of the modern world.

    They almost unanimously expressed that they returned to Amish life because they had no other choice. It was either the modern unknown world, or their family. If they chose not to return, their family would disown them. Leaving their loved ones behind was not seen as an option. Sadly, that, in my opinion, is the definition of a cult.

    The Amish lifestyle is beautiful, environmentally-friendly and family-focused. But shunning those who want to leave is a sinister form of coercing adherence.

    The historical roots of three monotheistic religions, namely Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, are founded on the story of Abraham, a man who was willing to question authority and refute the superstitions of worshiping material objects. This story is the foundation of monotheism and should serve as an example of how nonconformists should be embraced.

    According to Biblical lore, through a process of logical deductions and observation of the universe around him Abraham began to question the validity of idolatry and recognize that because the universe is so complex it must have a designer. Abraham was unafraid to challenge the mores of his time and to question authority. This is the historical underpinning of monotheistic religions.

    Religious communities and society as a whole should allow wider expression and diversity, allowing all to feel welcome and comfortable.

    In order to prevent crossing the line from religion to cult, communities need to purge themselves of dogma, intolerance and ostracizing those with different beliefs, so their adherents have true choice on how to live their lives.


  20. How Cults Rewire the Brain

    by Michael Langone, Huffington Post September 29, 2013

    A neuroscientist told me that she is pleased by the recent surge of interest in the brain but concerned because sometimes speculative theorizing is passed off as knowledge. This is especially so in the area of cults, where even the traditional psychological research base is limited.

    An assumption of modern science is that every mental event is connected to a brain (and/or other biological) process. If so, why bother with neurological speculations, especially in such an under-researched area as cults? Why not restrict our focus to more accessible mental events and stick with familiar psychological models?

    The answer is that sometimes psychological models cannot account for what we observe. There was a time, for example, when psychological models tried to explain schizophrenia. Although life events and internal psychological experiences may influence the behavior of schizophrenics, we now know that biologically autonomous processes underlie the disorder. Schizophrenia is not caused by a "schizophrenogenic mother."

    Are there phenomena within the cultic studies field that we might better understand if we considered brain research and theorizing? Two come to mind: (1) susceptibility to influence, (2) trauma.

    We are influenced by a cacophony of external and internal events every moment of our lives. Some forms of influence, however, are systematic and directed by human beings pursuing strategies designed to induce us to behave, think, or feel as they wish, e.g., advertising, propaganda, hypnosis, and some forms of "engineered" cult conversion. Different people will respond differently to the same influence strategy. Even in tightly choreographed influence scenarios, such as the Moonie recruitments of the 1970s, most people do not respond as the influencers would like. Why, for example, do some recruits wind up fund-raising for Reverend Moon after a few weeks of indoctrination, while others don't? Perhaps an unknown percentage of the "converts" have brains that are wired in a way that makes them less able to resist the indoctrination strategies of the group. There is, for example, a body of research that suggests that hypnotic susceptibility may, to a degree, be an in-born trait. Perhaps that susceptibility has a biological component that must be considered in order to understand fully why A becomes a convert and not B. Perhaps other forms of susceptibility to influence may have biological components, e.g., the capacity to think critically in environments that purposely overstimulate the brain. Some tantalizing research exists. But much more investigation is needed before we will be able to speak with scientific authority.

    Another promising area for neurological research is trauma. Trauma, of course, is by no means limited to cult situations. However, those who have worked clinically with former members report significant levels of trauma among former cult members and especially among those born or raised in cultic groups.

    Increasing evidence suggests that experiencing trauma affects brain structure and function. These changes may better account for maladaptive behavior, such as persevering in actions that continue to produce painful outcomes, than psychological models, e.g., the person unconsciously "wants" pain and suffering. A forthcoming issue of our organization's magazine,ICSA Today, will include an interesting essay, "Why Cults Are Harmful: Neurobiological Speculations on Interpersonal Trauma," by Dr. Doni Whitsett of the University of Southern California School of Social Work.

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  21. Dr. Whitsett suggests that those born or raised in severe cultic environments may develop maladaptive mental templates, or what attachment researcher John Bowlby called, "internal working models of attachment" (IWMs). These templates, which are thought to be based at least partly in brain structures developed early in life, may affect some cult children throughout their adult lives.

    Let me close with a note of caution. Neuroscience is and ought to be a science. Scientists propose theories with empirically testable hypotheses. Theories with hypotheses that stand up under empirical testing gain credibility, but the theories are always provisional and never "proved." This is especially so with theories of human behavior because so many interacting factors affect everything that we do. "Brain" factors may help account for certain phenomena that psychological theories cannot explain. However, brain-behavior research is still in its infancy. If we are to speculate about neurological factors in cult situations, let us acknowledge from the start that we need to know much more than we know now if we are to help cult victims in practical ways.

    Michael D. Langone, PhD, a counseling psychologist, received a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1979. Since 1981 he has been Executive Director of International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), a tax-exempt research and educational organization concerned about psychological manipulation and cultic groups. Dr. Langone has been consulted by several hundred former cult members and/or their families. He was the founding editor of Cultic Studies Journal (CSJ), the editor of CSJ’s successor, Cultic Studies Review, and editor of Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse (an alternate of the Behavioral Science Book Service). He is co-author of Cults: What Parents Should Know and Satanism and Occult-Related Violence: What You Should Know. Currently, Dr. Langone is ICSA Today’s Editor-in-Chief. He has been the chief designer and coordinator of ICSA’s international conferences, which in recent years have taken place in Barcelona, New York, Rome, Philadelphia, Geneva, Denver, Brussels, Atlanta, and Madrid. In 1995, he was honored as the Albert V. Danielsen visiting Scholar at Boston University. He has authored numerous articles in professional journals and books, including Psychiatric Annals, Business and Society Review, Sette e Religioni (an Italian periodical), Grupos Totalitarios y Sectarismo: Ponencias del II Congreso Internacional (the proceedings of an international congress on cults in Barcelona, Spain), Innovations in Clinical Practice: A Sourcebook,Handbook of Psychiatric Consultation with Children and Youth, Psychiatric News, and all of ICSA’s periodicals. Dr. Langone has spoken widely to dozens of lay and professional groups, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Pacific Division, American Group Psychotherapy Association, American Psychological Association, the Carrier Foundation, various university audiences, and numerous radio and television stations, including the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour and ABC 20/20.


  22. Royal Thunders Mlny Parsonz on Escaping a Cult and Touring With Wilco

    By Kory Grow, Rolling Stone April 23, 2015

    The members of Royal Thunder jam amid kaleidoscopic colors, as a woman embarks on an abstract spiritual quest, in the group's mysterious "Time Machine" video. Frontwoman Mlny Parsonz – whose impassioned yowls set the group's dramatic and occasionally Zeppelin-esque riffs apart from other upstart psychedelic headbangers – underwent her own often-harrowing journey over recent years, one that informs Royal Thunder's latest album, Crooked Doors.

    Compared to the band's breakthrough – the stunning, doomier 2012 record CVI – the new LP sounds freer and more like the product of acid rockers on a bad trip: guitars seethe between bluesy riffs and dark grooves, cymbals shimmy around jangly organ and, through it all, Parsonz hollers like a prisoner set free. The desperation in her tone fits the themes she's singing about, from her experience in a Christian cult ("Floor") to her breakup from husband (and Royal Thunder guitarist) Josh Weaver.

    "I made some bad choices with someone, and having this person in my life was really toxic for me," she says somewhat guardedly about "Time Machine." "The song is me realizing, 'Oh, my God, I just wasted all this time.' You just have to take something from an experience like that and learn from it."

    Crooked Doors is a gut-wrenching listen at times, but Royal Thunder remain one of the most dynamic new underground heavy-rock bands, something they're demonstrating by playing Crooked Doors' tales of heartache and breakdowns on the road with an unlikely headliner, Wilco.

    Parsonz recently spoke with Rolling Stone about escaping the cult and living through some of Crooked Doors' most tumultuous moments.

    What did you want to do differently on Crooked Doors from CVI?

    I just didn't want to be all mysterious, at all, with lyrics. I'm more grown-up now, and I'm like fuck all of this. Let's just talk, you know what I mean?

    A lot of the lyrics seem to detail your breakup with Josh.

    I certainly didn't sit down with Josh and say, "Hey, let's write a breakup album." Josh didn't know what the lyrics were until our label, Relapse, asked for them. There were other things in my life that I've been going through, for two to three years, and they just started bubbling to the surface. I was breaking up with a lot of things in my life, and a lot of people.

    How did Josh react when he finally read the lyrics?

    There was a lot of confusion like, "What are you talking about? Are you saying what I think you're saying?" It was hard for him to hear some of the stuff, but we sat down and talked. I was like, "Hey man, I can't mask who I am and I can't mask my creativity for the sake of everyone feeling good about what I'm saying. If you hate it bad enough, then kick me out of the band." But he respects me as an artist, and he's fine with the freedom that I need. We've always had painful songs. But you fucking play 'em. You lived through it. You've got to face it.

    The song "Floor" is about a Christian cult that you and Josh once belonged to. What made it a cult?

    continued below

  23. When we joined this church – I won't say its name, but it's an organization based out of Seattle – it seemed like it was on point and following pretty standard Christian doctrine. But they have these classes where they trained people to blame everything on everyone else in your family. Like, "This happened to you when you were a kid, and this person probably did this." They would constantly drill this sort of thing in to the point that you almost become alienated from you family, and the church became our family over time.

    They were brainwashing people and introducing this new doctrine that was totally not the Bible at all, and it just got out of control. It fucked so many people up. There were people in that church that were forced to have sex with their spouses, although they were not OK with it, because it was the "right thing to do." The church leaders would schedule times for people – and I'm not speaking for myself – like, "OK, you guys should be having sex on this day, and then you need to come to counseling and report to us what your experiences were while you were having sex." They were constantly counseling people and asking people about their sex lives. And they would record it. They would pry into your finances and what was in your bank account. But there was something about them that you almost started to worship them. This need for approval from them was intense. Everyone was trying to be approved by this group of, so to speak, elders. But it got completely out of control.

    How did your membership in the church affect your music?

    I was a worship leader at that church, and that's where I learned to sing and play guitar at the same time. The head worship leader trained me – this is fucked up, I can't even believe I'm remembering this part – but he had trained me to never sing really well. He was like, "You should never do your best and sound really good because you'll distract people from the Lord and being able to worship God." Now I have a hard time putting a cap on myself. When I sing soft, gentle stuff, it's hard for me to pull back.

    At what point did you realize the church was, as you said, "out of control"?

    They had small groups that would come to your house, and they'd have guys in one room downstairs and all the girls upstairs. And you would just go into full detail about traumatic things that you had supposedly been through in life – some of it true, a lot of it not. But there was a sense of the leaders getting off on it, like, sexually. It almost had a voyeuristic vibe to it. At the time, I was like, "There's no way they're thinking [sexually] like this; they're Christians." But in retrospect, I can see it now. It was strange.

    And there was a lot of swinging going on at that church and sharing of partners and things that people didn't know until years later. It was between a lot of the leaders and people that had been going there for a long time. I don't know that it was necessarily a cult when we started out, but it definitely went off the rails and it started to become that. By the time we left, it certainly was.

    "Floor" is about your last days in the church. What happened?

    They had a women's conference, and I was just so physically and spiritually overwhelmed that my body was just shaking. Like close to panic attacks. It was this trembling and this fear and this overwhelming sense of, "What the fuck is happening?" I passed out a lot during the three days they had this conference.

    continued below

  24. When I would come to, people just thought I was possessed. They chased me around the church. I would crawl up on walls, climbing up on these huge welded crosses. I'd kick holes in the walls to put my feet in the holes, and then I'd kick the next hole so I could climb up the wall to get the hell away from the people that were cornering me and casting demons out of me.

    How did you break out of the cult?

    I was just sick. In my mind, in my body, I was exhausted. They'd made me visualize myself being on an elevator of life, and I had to get out on every floor and share visions. The doors would open: "What do you see? You're 2, 3, 4, 5, you're 20 years old." It was the most draining thing. And then they took me to this other room and I had to dig into my past, because they thought they had figured everything out, like, "Now we have to deal with every one of those floors." And I just lost my mind. I was babbling. I don't even know the shit that was coming out of my mouth.

    When I got done doing that, Josh came and picked me up. And then the next day, I spoke to the pastor and was like, "I need to take a break." He was like, "All right, you can have next Sunday off." I was like, "No, I need a little more time." He was like, "All right, two Sundays, but I want to see you back after that. You need to be there." In my head, I was like, "Fuck this, fuck you." And out of my mouth came, "OK, I'll see you in two Sundays." I told Josh, "I'm not fucking going back, dude." At the time, he was really hurt by what I was going through and didn't understand it and was trying to process it himself. It took him a few hours and he was like, "If you're gone, I'm gone. I'm not doing this without you." And we just never went back.

    Is this church still operating?

    Oh, yeah.

    Are you afraid, now that you're talking about it, that the church will confront you?

    Oh no, I really don't give a shit. People have reached out and extended apologies through cards and trying to show up at shows. And it's like, "Dude, fuck off. Leave us alone." Eventually it just stopped. It's just weird. They don't even realize how fucking crazy they are.

    What do you think of that time in your life now?

    I was fucking ashamed of it for the longest time. I was ashamed that I fell for anything like that and what people would think of me. Then I just got to the point where, going back to what I was talking about being honest, that's my experience. I'm not ashamed of the good and bad that I lived.

    What do you believe in now spiritually?

    I do believe that there is a higher power, and I meditate. My only concern is to be spiritually centered and find a positive place in my mind where I can function. I just want to be a good person. I want to treat people well. It works for me.

    You're touring with Wilco. Is a member of that band a Royal Thunder fan?

    I don't know. But a funny thing is when we started out, we were on MySpace and our drummer at the time – he loved and still loves Wilco – he put up a picture of one of their album covers, I guess one with birds on it [Sky Blue Sky], as a photo for the song. And somebody from Wilco contacted us like, "You need to take that down. If you don't, there will be legal action." We can't wait to tell them that story. Like, holy shit, remember when they threatened to sue us? Small world. I wanted to make a Royal Thunder shirt and just have their album cover on it and give it to them as a "Thanks for letting us tour with you" shirt.


  25. Youth protection in insular religious communities: A study on 5 groups in Quebec by Dr. Lorraine Derocher

    Research Seminar

    13 May 2015 12:00 - 13:00

    Wilson Hall Room 326, 3506 rue University, Montreal, QC, H3A 2A7, CA

    Lorraine Derocher, post doctoral fellow at the Centre for Research on Children and Families, presents Youth protection in insular religious communities: A study on 5 groups in Quebec.

    This presentation summarizes doctoral research on the challenges faced during youth protection interventions in closed sectarian environments. One of the objectives of this research was to identify both the obstacles and the factors contributing to the success of interventions within five groups in Quebec (Canada).

    This field research was primarily based on interviews with judges, lawyers, social workers and health professionals who directly intervened in one of the five cases studied. We also met with children (now adults), leaders and parents who were present at the time of the interventions.

    Our analysis shows that the degree of social isolation in which the children were kept had a direct impact on the ability to intervene and increased the risks of maltreatment. It also demonstrates that there is a need for a better understanding of the group leaders.

    The research concludes with the proposal of a model for a more efficient way to intervene in cultic environments where children are in need of state protection.

    Contact Information
    Pamela Weightman


  26. Shiamak Davar Bollywood star sued for alleged sexual abuse of B.C. dancers in sect

    Indian choreographer denies allegations, calls accusations 'nonsense'

    By Natalie Clancy, CBC News May 07, 2015

    Two former dance students allege one of India's biggest celebrities, Shiamak Davar, is a sexually abusive and controlling leader of a sect called VRRP Spiritual Learning group, according to two lawsuits filed in B.C. Supreme Court.

    Shiamak, 53, teaches dance in six countries and has sold millions of albums. His choreography has gone from Bollywood to Hollywood blockbusters such as Mission Impossible 4. He's rubbed shoulders with everyone from Bollywood stars like Shilpa Shetty to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and B.C. Premier Christy Clark.

    Percy Shroff, 40, and Jimmy Mistry, 33, both of North Vancouver, say they endured years of unwanted sexual touching at the hands of Shiamak, who they say abused his authority as their spiritual leader to control all aspects of their lives.

    "I used to believe that his word was god.… I just wanted to please him," said Shroff in an exclusive interview with CBC News.

    Shroff claims the star, known simply as Shiamak, began grooming him for sexual exploitation when he was 16, and he is suing now to protect his young son.

    Denies all allegations

    In a written response to the lawsuits, Shiamak claims the allegations are not true and that the two former dancers are trying to ruin "his character, reputation and affiliated organizations."​

    Shiamak, who splits his time between Mumbai and North Vancouver, says he is the "custodian" of VRRP, not its leader, and that if the two men believed he was their spiritual guru, that was their personal view.

    But in the claim, Mistry says Shiamak was their spiritual guru.

    "In India, your guru, your teacher, goes way up there in respect, almost, if not more than your parents, so you don't think he can do anything wrong," he says of the man he once believed received messages directly from God.

    ​VRRP follows the teachings of Khorsheed Bhavnagari, who wrote The Laws of the Spirit World, in which she claimed her two dead sons communicated with her.

    Shiamak says he also does what's called "auto writing" to receive messages from spirits.

    Alleged rules of spiritual group

    The lawsuit claims VRRP members in Canada must reside between 17th and 22nd Street near Lonsdale Avenue in North Vancouver, because the group believes the area was safe from an imminent apocalypse.

    continued below

  27. Shroff says he was told when to marry and have a child, and that Shiamak then ordered him to tell his wife he was gay, claiming he was conveying a message from one of Bhavnagari's dead sons.

    Shroff says he complied and they separated, though he claims Shiamak ordered them to stay married.

    The claim says Shiamak warned Shroff that choosing to be gay would "destroy his son's spiritual mission on earth," but Shiamak denies that, and says members are free to live their lives as they choose.

    Worried about son still in group

    "It was a very scary situation for me, because you think it's the spirit souls in the world talking through him," says Shroff, who is now openly gay and requesting a court order to prohibit Shiamak from having contact with his son.

    He shares custody with his ex-wife, who is still in the group.

    "I am extremely worried that … my son will be touched the same way I was as he grows older.…. that he will be influenced by the radical philosophies [of VRRP]," he says.

    Mistry says he was 18 when Shiamak invited a few male dancers to watch TV in his bedroom, wearing only his underwear, according to the claim.

    "It got to the point of him grabbing my hand, putting it on his genitalia … while another dancer would kiss him or touch him," says Mistry, who soon joined Shiamak's spiritual group.

    "I really got sucked in to that at that point in time, and also it started to get more physical," he says, adding that Shiamak often kissed him on the mouth, once gave him a hickey and made unwanted sexual advances.

    Shiamak says there was never any sexual or physical interaction between him and Mistry.

    Sex with students alleged

    Shroff claims he confronted Shiamak about having sex with young dance and spiritual students.

    "I said Shiamak, you need to stop because ... these are your dance and spiritual students who come to you for advice."

    He claims Shiamak said the students "had more to lose by speaking out about it," but Shiamak says that conversation never happened.

    Shroff and Mistry are claiming damages for psychological injuries.

    "Going up against him is like going up against a prophet," says Shroff about his decision to sue.

    "I am not doing this out of revenge, I am doing this to help my son" he says.

    None of the plaintiffs allegations have been proven and Shiamak has asked the court to dismiss both lawsuits, with costs.

    Read Jimmy Mistry's Notice of Civil Claim at:


  28. Shiamak Davar Bollywood star defends spiritual group after assault allegations

    VRRP Spiritual Learning members believe UFOs will save them from doomsday

    By Natalie Clancy, CBC News Posted: May 08, 2015

    Bollywood choreographer Shiamak Davar says he does not control the lives of members of his VRRP Spiritual Learning group, and he denies the sect has strict rules as alleged in two lawsuits filed in B.C. by former dancers who claim he sexually assaulted them.

    Shiamak said he is "shocked by the allegations" against him and his VRRP Spiritual Learning group, and will not be silent, despite the advice of his lawyer in Vancouver, according to a statement issued to media in India.

    Percy Shroff, 40, and Jimmy Mistry, 33, both of North Vancouver, allege in lawsuits filed Wednesday in B.C. Supreme Court that Shiamak controlled all aspects of their lives, including who they dated or married and where they lived.

    "We can only live between 17th and Lonsdale ... up to about 22nd and Lonsdale on the west side, because that was the safest area in Vancouver," Shroff told CBC News.

    The Laws of the Spirit World

    The VRRP Spiritual Learning group follows the teachings of Khorshed Bhavnagri and her book The Laws of the Spirit World, written, she claimed, through messages she received from her dead sons, who were killed in a car accident in India in 1980.

    VRRP stands for Vispi, Ratoo, Rumi and Popsie — the names of Bhavnagri's two deceased sons, their father and their grandfather, respectively.

    "She had always wanted me to continue her work and help individuals reach their highest potential as spiritual beings," said Shiamak, who owns the copyright to the book and says he's the "custodian" of the group.

    Bhavnagri advised members to move to Vancouver in 1998 because Canada "had good energy," says Shiamak's response to the lawsuits.

    Book says UFOs will save members

    Bhavnagri's book predicts a catastrophic shift in the Earth's axis that will wipe out "all negative energies" and kill 75 per cent of the world's population.

    "Cataclysmic earthquakes will cause this major imbalance which will be followed by floods, tidal waves, fires, more earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and so on," wrote Bhavnagri.

    But her book assures members of her group that people "at higher realms will be saved."

    "UFOs will send down levitation beams to evacuate good souls who are trapped in dangerous places," wrote Bhavnagri.

    Fear of eclipses alleged

    continued below

  29. Shroff and Mistry claim in their lawsuits that members are taught to fear lunar eclipses and the moon, and are forbidden to wear red and black clothing or drive white or black cars.

    "No one is compelled to live in a particular area," said Shiamak, claiming some VRRP members reside in nearby Surrey and Coquitlam and "can drive any colour car they choose and wear whatever colour clothes they choose."

    In court documents, Shiamak claims to share Bhavnagri's ability to communicate with the dead and receive messages for members of the group.

    "The spirit souls all loved him and thought he was a really good person, so in my mind, I trusted him completely," said Shroff of the man he says he used to think spoke the word of God.

    I am not a guru, says Shiamak

    "I have never positioned myself as a spiritual guru or leader; the knowledge itself is the guru," said Shiamak.

    "He was someone who could do no wrong. He was someone who was told to be spiritually higher than us," said Shroff, who claims Shiamak was the leader and highest ranked member of the hierarchical group.

    Is VRRP a cult?

    Shroff and Mistry told CBC they believe VRRP is a cult.

    "Because of the authority he held over me for so long .… I was in this cult for so long. That was all I knew," said Shroff.

    Dr. Michael Elterman, a forensic and clinical psychologist who has studied cults, said the difference between a spiritual group and a cult is whether other aspects of members' lives are controlled by the group.

    "What really particularizes it as a cult is the sense of control that is over the individual" said Elterman, who has not studied VRRP.

    "If you look at the history of cults, there is generally what is called a charismatic leader, who will control every aspect of the individuals' life, from how they dress to what they eat, to their daily routine," said Elterman.

    Shiamak has denied all allegations in the lawsuits and says he did not dictate how or where VRRP members live their lives.

    "Each individual in the group has free will and there is no question of me controlling their lives," said Shiamak's statement, which also assured VRRP members he "will continue to serve the book and its teachings."

    None of the allegations has been proven in court and Shiamak says he will defend himself vigorously.

    Read Shiamak's media statement at:


  30. Criteria for Recognizing a Religious Sect as a Cult

    by Roger E. Olson, Patheos May 21, 2015

    Note: If you are pressed for time and cannot read the whole essay below, feel free to skip to the end where I list 10 criteria. The essay describes my own history of interest in and research about “cults” and new/alternative religious groups.

    Developing Criteria for Recognizing a Religious Sect as a “Cult”

    Many religious scholars eschew the word “cult” or, if they use it at all, relegate it to extreme cases of religious groups that practice or threaten to practice violence. “Extreme tension with the surrounding culture” is one way sociologists of religion identify a religious group as a cult. By that definition there are few cults in America. No doubt they still exist, but when one narrows the category “cult” so severely it tends to empty the category.

    In the past, “cult” was used by theologians (professional or otherwise) to describe groups that considered themselves either Christian or compatible with Christianity but held as central tenets beliefs radically contrary to Christian orthodoxy as defined by the early Christian creeds (and for some the Reformation statements of faith). Given the diversity of Protestantism, of course, that was problematic because it opened the Pandora’s Box of deciding what is “orthodoxy.”

    A Supreme Court justice once said that he couldn’t define “pornography” but he knew it when he saw it. Many evangelical Christian writers of the 1950s and 1960s, for example, couldn’t quite define a “cult” but clearly thought they knew one when they saw (or read about) one. One evangelical radio preacher published a book on the “marks of a cult.” He was not the only one, however, to attempt to help people, in his case evangelical Christians, identify groups that deserve the label “cult.” Many have made the attempt. In the 1950s and 1960s (and no doubt for a long time afterwards) “cult” tended to mean any heretical sect—judged so by some standard of orthodoxy. That standard often seemed to be little more than a perceived “evangelical tradition.” Some anti-cult writers called the Roman Catholic Church a “cult.” Many labeled the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints a cult. One controversy erupted among fundamentalists and evangelicals when a noted evangelical anti-cult writer published an article arguing that Seventh Day Adventists are not a cult. Most Protestants had long considered Adventism a cult—theologically. (Just to be clear: I do not.)

    Still today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, a difference exists about the word “cult.” It is used in many different ways. Following the trend among sociologists of religion most journalists tend to use the label only of groups they consider potentially dangerous to the peace of community. Theology rarely enters that discussion. Still today, many fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals use the label “cult” to warn fellow believers away from religious (and some non-religious) groups that espouse doctrines they consider heretical—even if the groups pose no danger to the peace of the communities in which they exist.

    Psychologists often regard any group as a cult insofar as it uses so-called “mind control techniques” to recruit and keep members. Sociologists of religion quickly point out that most religious groups could be accused of that depending on how thin one wishes to stretch the category of “mind control.” Would any religious group that claims members who leave are automatically destined for hell using “mind control?” Some psychologists have said yes to that question. Sociologists of religion point out that would make many peace-loving groups cults.

    continued below

  31. The debate over the meaning of “cult” has gone on in scholarly societies for a long time. Now it has settled into an uneasy acknowledgement that there is no universally applicable, standard definition. But there is a general agreement among scholars, anyway, that “cult” is a problematic word to be used with great caution. Calling a religious group a “cult” can mean putting a target on it and inviting discrimination if not violence against it. For that reason many religious scholars prefer the label “alternative religion” for all non-mainstream religious groups. My own opinion is that has its merits, especially where there is no agreed upon prescriptive standards or criteria for determining religious validity, where no idea of normal or orthodox is workable—as in a diverse context such as a scholarly society. Even that label, however, assumes a kind of norm—“mainstream.” If postmodernity means anything it means there is no “mainstream” anymore. But religion scholars cannot seem to abandon that concept.

    I have more than a scholarly interest in the concept “cult.” For me it is personal as well as professional. It’s professional because, over the thirty-plus years of my career as a theologian and religion scholar I have taught numerous classes on “cults and new religions” in universities and churches. I’ve spoken on the subject to radio interviewers—especially back when “cults” were all the rage in the media (after the “Jonestown” and “Branch Davidian” and similar events happened). I’ve published articles about certain “alternative religious movements” in scholarly magazines and books. While rejecting so-called “deprogramming” practices, I have engaged in sustained discussions with members of groups about their participation, even membership, in groups their families and friends considered cults—to help them discern whether their participation was helpful to them as Christians and as persons.

    It’s personal because I grew up in a religious form of life many others considered a cult. And I had close relatives who belonged to religious groups my own family considered cults.

    The professional and the personal came together recently—again. I became acquainted with a man who grew up in (but has left) a religious group to which one of my uncle’s belonged. My uncle’s religious affiliation was always a bit of a sore spot in my large and mostly evangelical family. (I say large because when they were all alive I had sixty-five first cousins. That’s a large family by most standards. I remember family reunions where over a hundred people attended and they were all fairly closely related. And that was only one side of my family!) Among my close relatives (aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins) were members and ministers of many relatively non-mainstream religious groups. But my uncle stood out as especially curious to me and to my parents (and, no doubt, many of his siblings). At family reunions, when prayer was said over the meal, he would get up and walk away and turn his back on us. My father explained that his brother believed praying with unbelievers was wrong. So I set out to discover more about my uncle’s and cousins’ religion. My uncle would not talk about his religious affiliation with anyone in our family, so he was not a source of information about it. (My father knew some about it because he was “there” when his brother converted to the group.) Over a period of years I discovered some fairly reliable information about the group even though it is somewhat secretive. The group exists “off the radar” of most people including many religion scholars, but researchers have labeled it the largest house church movement in America and possibly the world.

    continued below

  32. Some have called it the church without a name because its adherents and leaders give it no name but only call themselves “Christians,” “the Truth,” and “the Brethren.” (It has some similarities and possible historical connections with the Plymouth Brethren but is not part of that movement.) They have no buildings, no schools, no publisher, no headquarters. They believe they are the only true Christians, but they live peacefully among us and pose no physical threat to anyone. They do not believe in the deity of Jesus Christ or the Trinity, but they use the King James Version of the Bible only.

    My acquaintance who grew up in the group asked me if he grew up in a cult. (His parents still belong to it.) I found that difficult to answer because of the many definitions of “cult.” Which definition should I pull out of my religion scholar’s/theologian’s grab bag of labels? I couldn’t give him a clear answer. “It depends on how one defines ‘cult’” is pretty much all I could say. I don’t think that satisfied him. It doesn’t satisfy me.

    Certainly my family thought my uncle belonged to a cult, but that started me thinking, even as a teenager, what “cult” meant. At school I had been told by friends who were fundamentalist Baptists that my church was a cult. I began to conduct what research I could into the concept of “cult” and found two radically different but contemporary treatments of the concept. One was Marcus Bach, a well-known and highly respected scholar of religion who taught religious studies for many years at the University of Iowa. (I think he founded the university’s School of Religion.) I read every book by him I could get my hands on and they were many. Eventually I had the privilege of meeting him in person and having a brief conversation with him. Bach grew up Reformed, became Pentecostal, and eventually ended up in the Unity movement. His book The Inner Ecstasy tells about his religious pilgrimage in vivid detail. He wrote many books especially about what scholars now call “alternative religions” in America and it was from him that I first learned about most of them—everything from New Mexico “Penitentes” to The Church of Christ, Scientist. I was especially fascinated by his descriptions of Spiritualism—the religion focused on séances as the central sacrament. He claimed that at one séance he did actually have a conversation with his deceased sister and asked the medium questions that only his sister would be able to answer—from their childhood. The apparition answered his questions correctly. He drew no metaphysical conclusions about that, which was typical of Bach. He was interested in, fascinated by, alternative religious movements and groups but held back from prescriptive judgments of any kind.

    The opposite book was by a Lutheran pastor named Casper Nervig and the title tells much about his approach to this subject: Christian Truth and Religious Delusions. In it I discovered that the Evangelical Lutheran Church was the “church of truth” and that both my uncle’s religion and my family’s were “religious delusions”—tantamount to “cults.”

    continued below

  33. This launched me on a lifelong search to understand so-called “cults” and “alternative religious movements.” Had I grown up in a cult? Was the faith of my childhood and youth an alternative to some mainstream religion of America? We considered ourselves evangelical Protestants, but I discovered many religion scholars (including Bach) considered us “alternative” and even some evangelicals (to say nothing of mainline Protestants and Catholics) considered us a cult.
    As a passionate Pentecostal Christian in junior high school and high school I was relentless teased, even sometimes bullied, by schoolmates who belonged to many different religious traditions. I was called a “holy roller” and “fanatic.”

    So my acquaintance’s question has often been my own: Did I grow up in a cult? Apparently it depends on what “cult” means.

    When I taught courses on cults and new religions in universities and churches I often began by telling my students and listeners that “nobody thinks they belong to a cult.” I also pointed out that if the concept “cult” (in our modern sense) had existed in the second century Roman Empire Christians would have been called “cultists.” (Of course the word “cultus” did exist but simply meant “worship.”) We should be very careful not to label a group a “cult” just because it’s different from what we consider “normal.”

    My preference has become to not speak of “cults” but of “cultic characteristics.” In other words, religious groups are, in my taxonomy, “more or less cultic.” I reserve the word “cult” as a label (especially in public) for those few groups that are clearly a threat to their adherents’ and/or public physical safety. In other words, given the evolution of the term “cult” in public discourse, I only label a religious group a cult publicly insofar as I am convinced it poses a danger to people—beyond their spiritual well-being from my own religious-spiritual-theological perspective. To label a religious group (or any group) a “cult” is to put a target on its back; many anti-cult apologists still do not get that.

    On the other hand, at least privately and in classroom settings (whether in the university or the church) I still use the label “cult” for religious groups that display a critical mass of “cultic characteristics.” Of many non-traditional groups, however, I prefer simply to say they have certain “cultic characteristics” rather than label them cults. And, in any case, I make abundantly clear to my listeners that if I call a group a cult, I am not advocating discrimination, let alone violence, against them. In the case of those groups I label cults publicly I am advocating vigilance toward them.

    So what are my “cultic characteristics”—beyond the obvious ones almost everyone would agree about (viz., stockpiling weapons with intent to use them against members or outsiders in some kind of eschatological conflict, physically preventing members from leaving, harassing or threatening critics or members who leave the group, etc.)? Based on my own long-term study of “alternative religious groups,” here are some of the key characteristics which, when known, point toward the “cultic character” (more or less) of some of them:

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  34. 1 Belief that only members of the group are true Christians to the exclusion of all others, or (in the case of non-Christian religious groups) that their spiritual technology (whatever that may be) is the singular path to spiritual fulfillment to the exclusion of all others.

    2. Aggressive proselytizing of people from other religious traditions and groups implying that those other traditions and groups are totally false if not evil.

    3. Teaching as core “truths” necessary for salvation (however defined) doctrines radically contrary to their host religion’s (e.g., Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.) orthodoxy broadly defined.

    4. Use of conscious, intentional deception toward adherents and/or outsiders about the group’s history, doctrines, leadership, etc.

    5. Authoritarian, controlling leadership above question or challenge to the degree that adherents who question or challenge are subjected to harsh discipline if not expulsion.

    6. Esoteric beliefs known only to core members; levels of initiation and membership with new members required to go through initiations in order to know the higher-order beliefs.

    7. Extreme boundaries between the group and the “outside world” to the extent that adherents are required to sever ties with non-adherent family members and stay within the group most of the time.

    8. Teaching that adherents who leave the group automatically thereby become outcasts with all fraternal ties with members of the group severed and enter a state of spiritual destruction.

    9. High demand on adherents’ time and resources such that they have little or no “free time” for self-enrichment (to say nothing of entertainment), relaxation or amusement.

    10. Details of life controlled by the group’s leaders in order to demonstrate the leaders’ authority.

    By these criteria I suspect that I have been involved in religious organizations with cultic characteristics in the past. The college I attended displayed some of them some of the time (depending on who was president which changed often). The first university where I taught displayed some of the characteristics. I remember a faculty meeting where the founder-president (after whom the school was named) called on individual faculty members by name to come forward to the microphone and confess “disloyalty” to him. I would not say, however, that the religious form of life of my childhood and youth was or is a cult or overall has cultic characteristics. There are specific organizations within it that do. My recommendation to people caught in such abusive religious environments is to leave as quickly as possible.


  35. 15 Narcissistic Religious Abuse Tactics

    By Christine Hammond, Psychcentral.com, May 15, 2015

    If you suspect religious abuse, ask your clients this: is spiritual perfectionism demanded? Are you terrified of not being accepted? Does the narcissist in your life have crazily ridiculous implausible spiritual expectations?

    There was a time when your religious beliefs brought you companionship and peace, but now you struggle with intimacy, insecurity, and comparison. You used to find security in your faith, but now there is only sanctuary in ceremonies and rituals. How did you get here?

    A narcissist uses their religious belief to manipulate, control and dominate you through fear. They systematically take the life out of your faith and replace themselves in the center.

    It doesn’t matter the religion. Major organizations such as Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish or even minor sects such as Mormon, Taoism, Confucianism, New Age, or Rastafari can be used. Even those who do not profess a belief in God such as Atheistic, Agnostic, or Satanism can be included.

    It is not the type of belief but rather how the faith is used that makes it abusive.

    It begins with dichotomous thinking, diving people into two parts. Those who agree with the narcissist’s beliefs and those who don’t. Interestingly, only the narcissist is the judge and jury of who belongs on which side. Your opinion is insignificant.

    Then the narcissist makes fun of, belittles, and shows prejudice towards other beliefs. This tactic is done to remind you that if you change your views, you will be treated likewise.

    Suddenly the narcissist becomes elitist and refuses to associate with people or groups they consider impure or unholy. They prefer isolation and insist you do the same while condemning others who don’t.

    Next, the narcissist requires that you completely adopt their point of view. There is no room for differing opinions or questioning their authority. Any voicing of opinions to the contrary are met with threats of abandonment or divorce. There is no free will for you.

    Demands of total submission without question follow. You are not free to question their authority and any attempt to do so is met with spiritual, physical, and/or verbal discipline. Name calling, chastising, and the silent treatment are common maneuvers into compliance.

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  36. The narcissist is no longer satisfied with private dominion but instead needs the appearance of power in public. They expect strict adherence to whatever image they have created regardless of the accuracy of that image. Even the slightest hint of challenging their façade is met with quick and cruel reprimands.

    To further intimidate, the narcissist labels people who don’t comply with their beliefs as disobedient, rebellious, lacking faith, demons, or enemies of the faith. This is done in front of others to reinforce their opinions and instill fear inside and outside the family.

    There is huge emphasis on public performance. They demand perfection and happiness at all times. Religious activities such as attending church have extreme demands, excessive expectations, and rigidity. No allowances are given even for grieving over the loss of a friend or relative.

    Strict adherence to their rules and regulations are commanded with absolute statements about insignificant issues such as hair color or style. Non-compliance is met with severe discipline and even excommunication.

    To further segregate, the narcissist uses secrecy or withholds information to a few select worthy individuals. Sometimes they require proof of advanced spirituality or some deeper level of commitment before they will share.
    Questioning the narcissist is worse than questioning the religion. Blind obedience to the narcissist is expected as their opinion is more important than the religion. In essence, they have replaced your religion with themselves and you are expected to worship them.

    The narcissist frequently uses their religious position of authority to connive for their own personal benefit which is often financial. They will justify this behavior by saying they deserve it because they are better than others. You, however, will not be included because even your best is not good enough.

    For the narcissist, the end justifies the means. They may engage in criminal misconduct or cover up the transgressions of others in the name of their religion. This includes covering up sexual abuse, physical abuse, financial felonies, and misdemeanors. They believe they are above the law and therefore can subvert it.

    To complete the isolation, estrangement from extended family members and friends outside of the religion is mandatory. This includes shunning, alienation, or persecution. You are completely alone now with only them as the voice in your life.

    At the end of this, you find your own beliefs have lost their vitality and your religious growth is stagnant due to the constant abuse by the narcissist. It is not unusual for you to question you faith and even abandon it due to the sadistic behavior.

    You don’t have to be subject to religious abuse. Study these steps and refuse to be part of any organization that encourages this behavior. Your faith is far too precious to be destroyed by a narcissist. Don’t let them steal your joy.


  37. Cults Hiding as Charities

    Author: Xavier Smerdon, Pro Bono Australia, June 30, 2015

    Organisations that could be identified as cults are registered as charities in Australia and receiving tax exempt status, a group of experts has claimed. Journalist Xavier Smerdon investigated the issue of when a charity becomes a cult.

    In the early 1990s Ros Hodgkins’ daughter was a bright and affectionate young woman that had moved from the NSW countryside to Sydney with dreams of becoming a beauty therapist.

    Living away from her family and friends in what felt like a foreign city made Ros’ daughter vulnerable.

    When she met members of the Boston Movement, later known as the International Churches of Christ, she felt that she had finally made some new friends.

    It was more than two years before Ros saw her daughter again, with the cult ordering her to cut off contact from her family and devote herself to their cause.

    “She quit her job to work full time for the church with very little sleep, very little pay, moving from flat to flat and she was totally told to cut herself off from us, her family,” Ros told Pro Bono Australia News.

    “It was absolutely horrific because the whole time you’re thinking how could this happen in this country?

    “For a family member to be so changed, to be so taken away from the person that you knew, and sadly that’s the kind of stories that we’re hearing every week.”

    Ros was finally able to get her daughter in contact with an expert on cults who helped her think critically about the choices she had made.

    She eventually left the group she had devoted so much time and energy to and returned to her family.

    Ros soon discovered that she was not alone and that many other parents around Australia had lost their children to dangerous groups masquerading as religions.

    Along with a group of other parents she helped found the Not for Profit group, Cult Information & Family Support (CIFS).

    Ros said she was constantly being contacted by people from around Australia and the world who felt their children may be in trouble.

    With the growing threat of groups like ISIS recruiting vulnerable and idealistic young people, Ros said she was seeing a rise in the number of cults operating in Australia.

    “It’s been for some time recognised that there could be possible 3000 groups, some of those might be replicated in different states, within this country, that would be using dynamics that we understand are coercive, that have undue pressure, that are using destructive and abusive types of control techniques to keep their members compliant to how they see they should live,” she said.

    “They’re taking away personal freedoms very much in an area that could go from not so abusive to extremely abusive.”

    Possibly the most disturbing of Ros’ claims is that groups that she would identify as cults are receiving charity status, and dodging paying tax in Australia.

    She points her allegations specifically at two of the most notorious churches.

    “There are many, many churches that have become something sinister. Scientology is recognised as a church, the Exclusive Brethren is recognised as a church and yet it has its own school, it has people that leave that are totally told that they, in the eyes of the family, in the eyes of those still in the church, that they are dead,” she said.

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  38. “There are groups that aren’t even seen as a church but they claim charity status.

    “Some churches these days are still stopping young people from having tertiary education, they are still saying if they leave, they are to be treated as though they are dead because that’s how God would treat them if they left the true cause. How can that be still obtaining tax deductibility?

    “They’re going against human rights that we all take very seriously. Freedom to choose and to believe.”

    Ros’ accusations are backed up in part by Independent Senator Nick Xenophon who in April wrote to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) asking it to investigate the Church of Scientology.

    Following the airing of Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, a documentary containing fresh allegations of abuse of members, mismanagement and spying within the Church of Scientology, Xenophon said that the ACNC should review the charitable status of the church.

    Xenophon told Pro Bono Australia News last week that he was not convinced that the Church of Scientology could be ruled out as a cult.

    “It’s an issue of cult-like behaviour,” Xenophon said.

    “An organisation that is receiving tax-exempt status ought to be subject to some scrutiny.”

    He said Australia should look to the example of the United Kingdom, which has refused to give charity status to Scientology since 1999 because it has no “public benefit arising out of the practice of Scientology”.

    An ACNC spokesperson said secrecy provisions limited what it could say about its investigation into Scientology.

    “The ACNC has received the letter from Senator Xenophon. We take all concerns about registered charities seriously. Where there is evidence of serious mismanagement or misappropriation, a serious, persistent or deliberate breach of the ACNC Act, or where vulnerable people or significant charitable assets are at risk, the ACNC will act firmly and quickly,” the spokesperson said.

    “Cults are not mentioned in the Charities Act or the ACNC Act. All charities must meet the definition set out in the Charities Act. This includes being not-for-profit, being for the public benefit and having no disqualifying purposes.”

    A letter sent to Senator Xenophon from Director of Compliance and Reporting at the ACNC, Stuart Donaldson, last week and seen by Pro Bono Australia News confirmed that the charity regulator was responsible for investigating allegations of abuse within Scientology.

    “The ACNC has completed an initial evaluation of these concerns and viewed the Going Clear documentary,” Donaldson said in the letter.

    “We have concluded that the concerns you raised are within the ACNC’s jurisdiction to the extent that they are occurring after the commencement of the ACNC in December 2012 and relate to ACNC governance standards, reporting and record keeping obligations and entitlement to registration under the ACNC Act 2012 and the Charities ACT 2013.”

    Donaldson said the ACNC could take a range of actions against the Church of Scientology, including encouraging it to conduct a self-evaluation, launching its own investigation or review, or reviewing the church’s entitlement to registration as a charity.

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  39. He said the ACNC may also decide to take no action “until further evidence is available”.

    The President of the Church of Scientology Australia, Vicki Dunstan, told Pro Bono Australia News that free speech was not a free pass to broadcast or publish false information about her religion.

    “These claims are baseless and have no bearing on the real activities of the Church at any level,” Dunstan said.

    “Not only does the Church know it is a charity but others who are qualified to pass judgment also affirm this.

    “The Church of Scientology is a charitable organization recognized by a unanimous decision of five Judges of the High Court of Australia in 1983 and we remain so today. Nothing has changed.”

    Dunstan pointed to humanitarian work undertaken by Scientology as proof that it should remain a registered charity in Australia.

    “The Church sponsors the largest non-governmental anti-drug campaign on earth – reaching tens of millions of people each year, promoting education about drug abuse,” she said.

    “The Church sponsors an international foundation called The Way to Happiness – a non-religious moral code based on common sense that aims to restore values. In the two decades since it was authored, some 80 million copies of the book have passed from hand to hand.

    “The Scientology Volunteer Ministers program has initiated volunteer disaster relief efforts and other assistance on a global scale. There are 203,000 active members who are on call at any time and any place in the world for any situation.”

    The ACNC is not thought to be currently investigating the Exclusive Brethren, or Plymouth Brethren Christian Church as it is officially known, which also strongly defended its charity status and said it was not a cult, calling the allegations a “terrible slur”.

    “Our charitable status has never been questioned. And yes we will defend it,” a church spokesperson said.

    “The Plymouth Brethren has none of the features of a cult. We are much more comfortable with the term ‘sect’.

    “Our Church members live and work within the wider Australian community in suburbs and in country towns. Our homes are situated amongst the homes of other Australians. We do not live in compounds or gated communities. Our children attend normal public schools in their early years and then schools that are fully accredited by relevant State and Federal education authorities and are staffed by non-Brethren teachers who follow the requisite state-based curricula.”

    The spokesperson said the church’s Rapid Relief Team, made up of volunteers, worked to assist at charity events, help the homeless and feed emergency personnel during natural disasters.

    So while support groups, a Senator, and religious organisations argue about what defines a charity, Ros Hodgkins is sure about one thing, charity status cannot be used to protect cults.

    “Governments haven’t taken seriously a problem that’s existed here for a long time and are too afraid to be looking at a religious belief that simply becomes a way for people to hid behind that belief,” she said.

    “No organisation should be not able to be scrutinised simply because it says I’m a charity or I’m a religious group.”


  40. Church Of Wells: Church Or Cult? Controversial Church’s Members To Blame For Heckling Joel Osteen

    The Inquisitr June 30, 2015

    One of the founders, along with five other members of the controversial Church of Wells were found to be the six hecklers arrested on Sunday, for causing a ruckus during Pastor Joel Osteen’s sermon at Houston’s Lakewood church.

    The five members — Kevin Fessler, 27; Mark DeRouville, 25; Matthew Martinez, 27; Randall Valdez, 28; and Richard Trudeau, 32 — and co-founder Jacob Gardner, 26, were arrested on Sunday, after they began shouting as Osteen started his 11 a.m. sermon. They were forcefully removed from the church, and arrested by police officers waiting outside. The Church of Wells members have been charged with criminal trespass, a Class B misdemeanor, police say.

    This isn’t the first time Church of Wells members have had a run-in with the Lakewood Church — which boasts the largest Protestant congregation in the country — claims Donald Iloff, Lakewood Church’s spokesman. About a month ago, Iloff alleges, church members showed up at Lakewood and “caused a disturbance” while Osteen was shaking hands with congregation members.

    “They were asked to leave and not come back.”

    The Church of Wells, which some call a cult, has been the center of controversy since it moved to the small town of Wells, Texas from Arlington. This controversy is due, in part, to the fact that the church encourages members to shun their family and friends, much like many cults do. In one of his teachings, founding member Sean Morris writes about the necessity of leaving one’s family.

    “Your household formerly could have been friendly, but at your conversion there must be immediate spiritual enmity. Jesus says, at the gain of Him and His family, your carnal family becomes your “foes” (Matt. 10:36). You must be divided from your family for your own salvation, because your family is united in the worldwide divide against God.”

    In May 2012, a three-day-old infant born to church members died when her parents refused to call 911, and instead chose to pray for Christ to heal the child, as she turned blue, and struggled to breathe. For more than 15 hours after the child’s death, Church of Wells elders carried her lifeless body from house to house, asking church members to pray for the infant to be resurrected, before finally decided to call emergency services.

    In July 2013, 26-year-old Catherine Grove disappeared from her home in Arkansas, abandoned her car and all her belongings, and left no word with panicked family members. Grove reappeared weeks later at the Church of Wells, under heavy guard. She insisted that she was not being held against her will, only that she sought out the Church of Wells because she was “seeking the lord.”
    Church members have also been physically injured for preaching during a Wells homecoming parade, where they shouted at children and parents that they were going to hell.

    With this much controversy surrounding them, is the Church of Wells and its 70 members just a small-town, misunderstood congregation, or are they an emerging, dangerous cult?


  41. Teens should learn the art of thoughtful argument

    by Robert Silverman, Opinion - The News-Gazette, Illinois July 5, 2015

    Remember when cult behavior upset us? Now cults saw off heads and we sip cappuccino.

    In the 1980s, I directed many retreats for a program called Champaign County Operation Snowball. A new adult volunteer, at her first retreat, told me she felt guilty and had to tell the truth. My anxiety spiked.

    The retreat had ended successfully, as always. Teens looked forward to retreats: a camp-type weekend for those who rarely, if ever, attended camp. Operation Snowball was a peer group for teens who mostly lived on the outside of the in-crowd. This new volunteer said she had a great time and, for that reason, had to tell the truth.

    I didn't want to hear bad news alone and brought in Teddy Dawson, CCOS's founder and administrator. The volunteer said she belonged to the Unification Church. She explained how emotionally powerful the retreat had been for the teens and hadn't expected it to be emotionally powerful for her, as well. She wanted us to know her secret.

    Hallelujah for the confessional power of emotion. Her admirable honesty allowed us to do the right thing.

    We listened, later acknowledging our synchronous goal: jettisoning her quickly. We knew we couldn't do it then. The retreat had just ended. Teens and parents were packing. This was no time for a crisis. We arranged to speak again soon.

    At the follow-up, she described being a Moonie, the organization's slang name after Sun Myung Moon, founder of the South Korean church in 1954. The Unification Church had long been criticized for brainwashing its adherents and for being a cult.

    She told us she met her husband the day they married with 2,000 couples in a mass ceremony performed by Moon. She said the church leadership advised them to apply to the University of Illinois with her major being political science. She said she didn't think the Unification Church was a cult. When asked, she said the local leadership knew she attended Operation Snowball but had made no requests.

    She said she thought that, at some point, they might ask her to talk to teens. Teddy and I told her she could no longer attend. We said we could not allow a cult member to volunteer. She repeated the Unification Church was not a cult. We advised her to leave the Moonies.

    Then things got interesting.

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  42. Some teens rallied to her side accusing Teddy and me of hating, of persecuting her for religious beliefs. A few teens called us hypocrites for teaching decision-making skills, yet not allowing them to decide who could be an adult volunteer. We encouraged them to express their emotion by arguing the issues.

    Some Operation Snowball teens clearly liked her. She expressed warm caring. Teens felt good, wanting her around. They also had no understanding of the Unification Church or of cults. Most important, they were not interested in that part of the conversation. They wanted her around because she helped them feel good.

    The angry teens were somewhat right. While we did allow them to make some decisions within the organization, we didn't allow them to pick adult volunteers. The anger of a few teens burned for months. One or two stopped attending.

    Teddy and I believed our Moonie volunteer knew what she was doing with her innocence and warmth. Luckily, Teddy and I also knew what we were doing in our directing roles. We took the heat for our decision, happy to do so. Operation Snowball had no room for cult thinking.

    This cult dilemma still plays out daily as the global community struggles with the specificity of 21st-century identity confusion. "I" versus "you" versus "we" versus "them."

    Is anything a cult these days? Is there no longer an "us"?

    Cults offer feeling good, and feeling good is a drug of choice for many. Feel-good cults come in odd flavors, from the saccharine-styled Moonies to its opposite: the Manson family killers, directed by Charles. I wonder if Anthony Burgess, who coined the term ultra-violence in his 1962 dystopian novel, "A Clockwork Orange," imagined public beheadings by the volunteers of modern-day ISIS.

    At-risk teens still have difficult lives. Providing them a place within which they can feel good about what they are doing and learning is a good thing. But what if the source of this "feel-good warmth" comes from a group which doesn't appreciate individual thinking?

    What if a teen wants to participate in community building, be it ethnic, racial, religious, personal or political? That could be a good thing. But what if the source of this community building comes from a group accepting violence and asks the same from the at-risk teen?

    All I know is that complexity is a cult's enemy. Complexity requires thought. Operation Snowball taught thinking skills. Many Operation Snowball teens argued back. Hooray for teens who thoughtfully argue back. Thoughtfully arguing back is a skill set which is desperately needing development.

    Robert Silverman has a behavioral health counseling practice in Champaign.


  43. Cults and (Sub)cultures

    Our week of talking about community, belief, enthusiasm, zeal, terror, and also basset hounds.

    by TED SCHEINMAN, Pacific Standard SEPTEMBER 8, 2015

    “Cult” is a dangerous word. It is volatile and subjective and does not admit easy distinctions. Given its connotative breadth, it may be the most ambivalent monosyllable in the language, compassing the followers of such eschatological icons as Charles Manson, David Koresh, and Jim Jones—but also Beliebers, devotees of the Tower of Power, and most people who do CrossFit.

    “But”—you're asking—“do I belong to a cult?” To which American media says, probably, yes.

    Man's capacity for credence is exceeded only by his disdain for the creeds of others.

    Did you enjoy Elizabeth Moss' character in Mad Men? Then you were involved, however briefly, in the Cult of Peggy. In March, Slate critiqued the “cult of Steve Jobs.” In April, the Washington Post investigated the “cult of the Ph.D.” In June, Richard Brody urged readers of the New Yorker to “free yoursel[ves] from the cult of Marlon Brando,” while Business Insider was busy rending its garments over the demise of the “cult of Lululemon.” In July, Pacific Standard contributor Alana Massey wrote in Hazlitt against the “cult of work”—a lament not unlike Dina Kaplan's “The Cult of Busy” in Medium. Recently, the Columbia Journalism Review published a report by Chris Ip on the “cult” of Vice magazine, while Politico has identified the “Cult of Neil deGrasse Tyson” and the “Cult of Calhoun.” Most terrifying, National Review has written in quaking tones about the dark and sordid “Cult of Beyoncé,” where (we are told) white adherents come to be blessed and exculpated by their prancing, pantsless priestess.

    For a country grounded in the principles of the Enlightenment, America seems to have an awful lot of cults.

    We could play this game forever, of course. Worried about the aesthetic hegemony of the Cult of Audrey Hepburn? The Guardian commiserates! And what of the contemporary American “cult of healthy eating”? (Quartz says it has “more to do with religion than [with] science.”) The word's fungibility has come to say a lot about how Americans maintain or establish their social identities. Some of us, like our Puritan founders, identify first within a family of God. The rest of us are characterized most easily by our taste in entertainment. In each case, “cult” indicates the labeling process, a way to simplify a collective experience of zeal, bunching all adherents together for ease of caricature. In religious cults, personal identity is often considered a hazard for group welfare; in cultural criticism, the language of “cults” can become a way of disclaiming the personal identity and experience of someone else.

    Everyone partakes in some manner of formalized enthusiasm and is equally zealous in deriding whatever collective enthusiasms he does not share. Or: Man's capacity for credence is exceeded only by his disdain for the creeds of others. Hugh Rawson captures this irony in his 1995 Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk: Being a Compilation of Linguistic Fig Leaves and Verbal Flourishes for Artful Users of the English Language: “Cult. An organized group of people, religious or not, with whom you disagree.”

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  44. Cult does not appear in Samuel Johnson's 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, but French lexicographers a century before had established culte within something approaching its modern connotations of blind enthusiasm and collective pseudo-mystical delusion. In the Roman republic and empire, cults (cultūs) had several overlapping connotations: Cults could be decadent, culturally corrosive imports, like the cult of Cybele, a mother-goddess from Asia Minor—though the nobility could achieve a certain trendy cachet by occasionally participating. (Angst over growing class divisions at Burning Man represents a farcical new entry in this pattern of aristocratic appropriation of the counterculture.) Cultūs, moreover, did not necessarily connote fanaticism or xenophilia, though the ecstatic and the exotic were indeed central to most Roman cults (and some of Cybele's male disciples were asked to geld themselves with a sharp rock); cultūs carried broader connotations of heightened religious experience, an initiation into mystery-rites, and subscription within a secret and selective group of worshipers. Horace, the Augustan period's iconic lyric poet, spends some of his Odes playing priest (sacerdos), warning the uninitiated to steer clear. In the ancient world, a cult could be a den of foreign sedition, but it could also be a particularly select social club.

    By the 1800s, “cult” had attained its pejorative connotations, especially in American English, as the second Great Awakening spawned sexually inventive religious movements, the majority of which fizzled but one of which continues to thrive in Utah and beyond. Twentieth-century terminology about “cult” or “sleeper” hits return us to those ancient Italian notions of being initiated—in the know. (“Oh, you haven't seen Troll 2? Who even are you?”) Meanwhile, those ancient cults still have their votaries. A friend of mine grew up in Ohio with a curious shrine in her backyard, centered on the sculpture of an apparent demigod slaughtering a bull. When she grew older and studied Classics, she realized the demigod was none other than the Persian god Mithra (Mithras, in Greek), a figure who had given rise to one of Rome's longest-standing cults. “Turns out my dad is utterly obsessed with the Mithraic thing,” she told me. “No big deal, just a Mithraic shrine in the 21st-century Rust Belt.”

    For those who don't care for arcane Persian rites, there remain important reasons why “cult” is such a pervasive metaphor for experience. Just take our essays this week: What other analogy so neatly encompasses novelist Steph Cha's slow and floppy indoctrination into the world of basset hound worship? Or the intoxicating and deadly solidarity that prevented a fraternity from saving one of its own? Or fishy doings in the lucrative yogic saunas of Bikram Choudhury? In the most serious sense of the word, cults can beget rape, slavery, and mass murder. In the most frivolous sense, cults are everywhere, and we all belong to one. This series of essays investigates cultish notions, from the terrifying to the trivial—the possibilities of collaborative worship, and the perils of blind enthusiasm.

    Cults and (Sub)cultures is Pacific Standard's series of reported essays on all things cult, from religion to pop culture.


  45. Former Members Allege New Jersey Church, South Korea-Based World Mission Society Church of God, is Actually a 'Cult'

    BY CHRIS HARRIS, PEOPLE December 12, 2015

    For two years, Michele Colón believed with complete conviction that the end of the world was imminent and that an elderly lady from South Korea was God. For those same two years, Colon, a nurse, attended services at the World Mission Society Church of God in the New Jersey suburb of Ridgewood.

    Colón tells PEOPLE she defected from the World Mission Society Church of God more than four years ago. She says she did so because she believes she had been brainwashed into what she alleges is a doomsday cult.

    Colón further claims in a civil suit she filed against the 50-year-old World Mission Society Church of God, a copy of which was obtained by PEOPLE, that the group is a "profit-making" cult that "uses a number of psychological control tactics...to prevent its members from exposing its criminal and tortious behavior."

    In its motion to dismiss Colón's complaint, the church called her allegations "entirely fabricated." The motion states that Colon's claim is part of a larger effort by her to "position herself as a veteran of the 'cult war' and build a career as 'cult expert' to the detriment" of the World Mission Society Church of God's reputation.

    But interviews conducted with six other former World Mission Society Church of God members, including a former member of 12 years, echo Colón's claims. All seven former members tell PEOPLE the religious faction isolates its acolytes from their families and friends by controlling information and using brainwashing techniques.

    "Fear and guilt – that is what fuels this cult," Colón tells PEOPLE. "They fill you with this fear that the world is going to end at any moment and you feel guilty for not doing enough good before the end comes."

    In a prepared statement, the World Mission Society Church of God dismissed all cult characterizations as "religious intolerance" and urged any examination of it include "how the Church serves the community and how it adheres to the standard of Christianity, which is the Bible."

    Colon: Communal Living Encouraged, Members Deprived of Sleep
    The World Mission Society Church of God, which does not recognize Christmas or Easter, claims membership in more than 175 countries, with over 150,000 worshippers in the U.S. alone.

    The church's prepared statement says the characterization of it as a cult in Colón's suit stems from reaction to its non-mainstream beliefs: "If someone belongs to a group we disapprove, we call it a 'cult' or worse," the statement reads.

    "When we disagree and have difficulty understanding the reasoning an organization maintains certain views that are contrary to the norm or to what we expect, we label them as a 'cult.'"

    But Colón and the other apostates that PEOPLE spoke with insist the World Mission Society Church of God, whose leaders allegedly predicted that the world would end in 2012, bears all the hallmarks of a cult.

    "Before I left, they expected me to spend all of my free time there," Colón says. She adds that communal living was encouraged among members and that followers were prohibited from stepping foot inside another church.

    "We would be there until 1 or 2 a.m. some nights. It became totally consuming and I was always sleep deprived. Suddenly, the hobbies and people that were important to me before were no longer important."

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  46. Colon alleges church leaders tried "micromanaging" her life, demanding she spend hours in services or studying the Bible. The church, she claims, controlled the music she listened to and forbade her from using the Internet.

    "They can't control you if you're not there," Colón explains. "Everyone is sleep deprived, and this group is constantly repeating things, and regurgitating things, and it becomes engrained in your head. They're opportunistic. They look to recruit people who're going through a transition period in their lives or have some void to fill – and they will fill it."

    'They Don't Tell You What They ARE All About Upfront, Because If They Did, No One Would Join Them'
    The World Mission Society Church of God is led by "Mother God," a gentle-looking doyenne in her mid-70s who's also known as Jang Gil-ja, Zhang Gil-jah, Chang Gil-jah, Heavenly Mother, God the Mother, New Jerusalem Mother, and Mother Jerusalem.

    Colón says it isn't until you're already committed to the faith that you're told of Mother God's existence.

    "They don't tell you what they are all about upfront, because if they did, no one would join them," Colón tells PEOPLE. "It'd be fine if they said, 'There's this lady we believe is God and we'll convince you to give up your family and your money and your hobbies.' If you still want to join after that, good for you. At least you're making an informed decision."

    Instead, she says, "you're spoon fed information when they feel you're ready to hear it. If you ask questions, they just tell you to 'Study more' and that all of your questions will be answered if you keep studying. They dangle a carrot in front of you."

    The church's prepared response claims "the biggest difference between our Church and other churches" is that "we believe in God the Mother as well as God the Father. ... According to the prophecies of the Bible, God the Mother is to appear in the last age of redemption."

    Gil-ja also serves as chairwoman for the We Love U Foundation and the New Life Welfare Foundation, both non-profits based in Seongnam, South Korea, the country's second largest city. Seongnam is also home to the World Mission Society Church of God's headquarters.

    Founded in 1964 as the Witnesses of Jesus Church of God, the World Mission Society Church of God was the brainchild of a man named Ahnsahnghong, who is believed to be Mother God's late husband. Former members say they were told Ahnsahnghong – who died in 1985 – was the second coming of Christ, and together, Ahnsahnghong and Jang Gil-ja are jointly known as "Elohim God."

    Upon "accomplishing his mission" to restore "the gospel of the new covenant," Ahnsahnghong "ascended to heaven," according to the church's website. Ever since, "our New Jerusalem Mother has been leading the gospel work of the Church of God to deliver the word of God from Zion to the world, just as was prophesied in the Bible."

    Allegations Leaders Directed Members to Get Abortions
    Colón and the other former members allege that church leaders would direct congregants to get abortions, telling women it was "pointless and selfish" to bring a child into a world so close to the brink of annihilation.

    The former members all claim that tithes of 10 to 15 percent of their salaries were mandatory, and that the church even encouraged members to donate possessions that were later sold at church fundraising events.

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  47. They also allege that recruitment efforts targeted young Caucasians who appeared wealthy, and that members were dispatched multiple times a week to malls and colleges for recruiting drives. According to the former members, the church also emphasized recruiting recently-returned army veterans who might be more psychologically vulnerable.

    Some of the ex members say they were encouraged to drop out of college, quit their jobs, and ignore their families so they'd have more time to recruit. They claim church congregants – even children and infants – were also expected to fast for days.

    The former congregants that PEOPLE spoke with allege the World Mission Society Church of God also worked to deliberately dissolve marriages between devoted members and their unconvinced partners in order to arrange weddings between American and South Korean church members. It even happened to Colón, she says; her ex-husband remains a member of the church.

    The church's statement to PEOPLE denied members have ever been encouraged to seek abortions or that recruitment efforts were geared towards specific races or vulnerable veterans. It also denied exerting control over members' lives or their sleeping habits. Additionally, the church claims it has never offered a timeline for the world's demise.

    Cult Scholar: Church 'Thrives on Financial the Exploitation of Its Members'
    Rick Ross, who has been cited internationally for his work on destructive cults, says he has met several former members of the World Mission Society Church of God who claim church leaders urged pregnant women to abort their babies, but isn't sure he can believe such claims.

    "If that is, in fact, true, the reason is they want total devotion," Ross explains. "They want no distractions. That's why everything must be permitted by the group, including who you marry, who you date, if you have children. They want the group to be maximally productive and a child is ultimately counterproductive."

    While not "physically dangerous" to outsiders, Ross is certain the church meets the cult criteria.

    "They're not talking about mass suicide or stockpiling weapons, but this group doesn't accept the idea that any other church might be valid, because they're the only valid church," Ross said.

    "It doesn't matter if you're the Pope – you're doomed and you're in need of Mother God if you're even remotely interested in salvation ... there is no alternative."

    Ross says the World Mission Society Church of God "thrives on the financial exploitation" of its members. He said that the church's communal living is designed, in part, to enable leaders to get free labor out of its followers.

    "The people in this church will ignore their own bills in order to give more to the church, which expects this of them," said Ross.

    He added, "This cult dominates a person's life so that they have no other life."


  48. I Am Called a Cult Leader. I Really Don’t Care.

    How one of the world’s most beloved worship songs reportedly helped to fuel spiritual abuse at Wayne Jolley’s The Gathering International.

    by Bob Smietana, CHRISTIANITY TODAY DECEMBER 14, 2015

    For the past decade, “How Great Is Our God” has been one of the most popular worship songs in the United States.
    The song’s success helped to make Chris Tomlin the world’s top worship leader, and turned his co-writer Ed Cash into one of the most sought-after Christian music producers in Nashville.

    It also helped launch what former members are calling a cult.

    Cash is a leading member of The Gathering International, a small group of followers devoted to Wayne “Pops” Jolley, a prosperity gospel preacher with a history of alleged spiritual and sexual abuse.

    Jolley’s followers, including Cash, call him a prophet and their spiritual father. They answer his sermons with “Yes, sir” and shower him with gifts and tithes in exchange for his blessing. They also submit the details of their lives—where to work, where to live, and who to associate with—for his approval.

    According to former followers, no one is allowed to question Jolley’s decisions.

    “Correction upward is always rebellion,” he often tells his followers.

    His critics, he says, are controlled by demons. And congregations that are run by a church board—rather than a pastor—are controlled by demons, too.

    “That’s why we don’t have boards,” he told his followers in a sermon posted to the Gathering’s website. “We just don’t. … I am criticized for that. I am looked down upon for that. And I am called a cult leader. I really don’t care.”
    A growing number of Jolley’s former followers do care. They turned to Jolley for pastoral care in a time of need, believing he was a man of God with a worldwide ministry. In return, they claim, he took their money and tried to ruin their families. They also claim that Jolley’s ministry has covered up serious accusations of past physical and sexual abuse.

    Jolley—who has had serious health problems in recent months—and Cash, along with other current members of the Gathering, declined to be interviewed for this story. But interviews with former members, former employees, and families of current members—along with reviews of Jolley’s sermons and the tax returns of Wayne Jolley Ministries Inc.—paint a disturbing picture.

    Here are a few of their stories.

    Splitting Up Couples
    For Mike Pugh and his wife, Debbie, joining the Gathering was a godsend.

    They’d first met Jolley back in the 1980s, when he was a traveling evangelist in the Cleveland, Tennessee-based Church of God, but had lost touch. Then in 2005, Jolley called. He was looking to buy a new set of pots and pans from Pugh, a self-employed salesman for Townecraft cookware. The two met, and afterwards, Jolley invited Pugh to the Gathering.

    The group had just started meeting on Saturday evenings for prayer, worship, and Bible study. It was a small group, with a few couples meeting in Franklin, Tennessee, just south of Nashville.

    At the time, things weren’t going well for the Pughs. Debbie had suffered two heart attacks and was struggling to recover. Pugh’s business had hit a rough patch and money was tight. Jolley offered to help, first with a listening ear and later with some acts of kindness, such as a Walmart gift card for groceries.

    Then came what Jolley called “couch time”—pastoral counseling sessions with Jolley that lasted for hours. The Pughs say Jolley wanted to know about their marital struggles. He was also keenly interested in their finances.

    Debbie Pugh said she never felt comfortable visiting with Jolley. But her husband insisted they go. He felt obligated—after all, Jolley had helped them.

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  49. “The first thing I said to Debbie was, ‘We at least owe it to go over and visit,’” said Mike Pugh. “That’s how he gets you in.”

    Before long, the Pughs were regulars at the Gathering’s Saturday meetings at Jolley’s home, where the preacher dispenses a mix of prosperity gospel teachings and high-pressure spiritual counsel from an oversized recliner.

    Many of his sermons are drawn from the life of the prophet Elijah in the book of 1 Kings. In that Old Testament book, the queen Jezebel and her husband, Ahab, have taken over Israel and led the people into idol worship. Only Elijah stands in her way.

    America, says Jolley in a sermon entitled “The Spirit of Jezebel Part I,” is in the same boat. The country and most of its churches are under the sway of an evil demon named Jezebel. That demon has led America astray and keeps Christians from experiencing God’s blessing.
    Among the demon’s most effective strategies: church boards that question the power of their pastors. Any church with a board is under the sway of Jezebel, says Jolley, and has lost God’s blessings and power.

    “They are being controlled by a demon and all the while, singing, ‘O how I love Jesus,’” said Jolley in the sermon.

    The only way to fight Jezebel is with the help of a man of God or prophet, who follows in Elijah’s footsteps, said Jolley. Such a person acts as a spiritual father to other Christians, discerning God’s will for their lives and telling them to be free of Jezebel.

    Jolley’s followers are asked to make a lifelong covenant with him and God, where they pledge their obedience and financial support to him as their spiritual father. In exchange, he pledges to pass on God’s messages and blessings.

    This brand of spiritual fathering is based in part on the shepherding movement popular in charismatic circles in the 1970s and 1980s. That movement taught that every Christian needs a personal pastor or mentor, said S. David Moore of The King’s University in Modesto, California.

    Moore, author of The Shepherding Movement, said those mentors were often called spiritual fathers. Members in the movement voluntarily submitted to their mentor.
    Unfortunately, he said, some of the mentors became authoritarian and demanded obedience from their followers, which led to the movement’s demise.

    “If you treat someone like a king for too long, they’ll start to act like one,” he said.

    Jolley’s followers, who call him “Pop” (his wife, Linda, is “Mom”), are taught that only the prophet can really discern the will of God. Without a prophet’s help, they will be lost. The best way to get close to God, he tells them, is to get close to Mom and Pop.

    In one of his sermons, Jolley mocks his followers for their lack of faith, especially if they say to him, “Pop, you just don’t understand,” after he’s been up all night talking to God about them.

    “It’s at that point where I’d like to grab someone and wring their jaws like a dinner bell,” he said. “It frustrates me to no end.”

    While Jolley is willing to put up with devoted, if wayward, followers, he won’t tolerate any challenge to his authority. Anyone who questions the prophet is under the control of a demon. Anyone who breaks their covenant with Jolley and leaves the Gathering is cursed.

    “It is only a matter of time until judgment comes,” he told his followers in the sermon on Jezebel. “And that judgment will fall and fall hard up on that person.”

    The second part of Jolley’s teaching is what he calls the “order of fathers and sons,” which combines spiritual fathering with a form of prosperity gospel teaching. Any gift that’s given to a spiritual father—in this case Jolley—will be repaid by God in the form of a double blessing.

    So Jolley’s followers tithe their 10 percent to his ministry and then give additional offerings in order to get God’s blessings.

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  50. Pugh said the idea of Jolley being his spiritual father was very powerful. “I’ve always had a bad relationship with my dad. So to have somebody who says, ‘Hey, I’m your daddy, and I’m going to take care of you,’ is a very engaging thing,” he said.

    Pugh, like Cash, was eventually named one of Jolley’s “Men of Iron,” or chief lieutenants. Their job was to be at Jolley’s beck and call, to help lead the Saturday services, or fill in if Jolley couldn’t be there.

    Then there was the money. First Pugh gave a 10-percent tithe. Then 20 percent, along with special offerings for Jolley’s ministry.

    Jolley also asked for more and more control of the Pughs’ lives. The Pughs said he told them and other followers to cut ties with friends and family members who were outside of the group. He also asked for the passwords on their personal computers so he could keep an eye on them to make sure they were acting holy.

    If they were going to miss a Saturday evening meeting, the Pughs had to call in and report to Linda Chapman, Jolley’s live-in assistant.

    Debbie Pugh said the breaking point for her came during a meeting in 2012 with Jolley and some of the Men of Iron and their wives. At the time, she had become increasingly critical of Jolley. Jolley told her husband that she was possessed.

    Then Jolley laid down the law. “There are women in this room that think your husband will leave me for you, but they won’t,” she says Jolley announced. “They’ll leave you for me.”

    In the car after the meeting, Debbie Pugh was furious. “Mike, he just spoke against our marital vows,” she told her husband. “I don’t understand that.”

    Soon she’d vowed never to go back to the Gathering. And just as Jolley predicted, Mike left her and moved into a condo owned by Jolley. At the time, the Pughs had been married for more than 30 years.

    Jolley told Mike the couple’s marital woes weren’t his fault—even though he’d been a bad husband at times and been unfaithful to his wife early in their marriage. That didn’t matter. Debbie Pugh was still to blame, according to Jolley.

    “And that was easy for me to hear because it let me off the hook,” Mike Pugh said. “You can’t say nothing about it. Pop said you can’t say nothing about any man of God.”

    The Pughs reunited after a year with the help of Shelly Sullivan, a former pastor and longtime friend. A breakthrough came when Sullivan challenged Mike Pugh’s unwavering faith in Jolley. He told Pugh that Jolley's actions were unbiblical and just wrong.

    “I don’t know of any pastor who’d ask a man to abandon his family for the sake of that pastor or their ministry,” Sullivan told CT.

    Sullivan, it turns out, had run into Jolley a numbers of times over the years. In the 1970s, Sullivan was pastor of the Church of God of Prophecy in Wilmington, Illinois, a Pentecostal congregation. His predecessor was Jolley, who was a divisive figure.

    “People either loved him or hated him,” said Sullivan. “There was no in-between.”

    Back in the 1970s, there was no sign of any serious trouble with Jolley, said Sullivan, adding that Jolley soon left the pastorate to become a traveling evangelist.

    Cut Off from Daughters
    Other former members of the Gathering who contacted CT tell similar stories. Their stories follow a pattern. They met Jolley at a time of weakness, or when they were seeking God. Soon they found themselves increasingly isolated from friends and family and under Jolley’s sway.

    Some of the early teachings seemed biblical, but the appeals for money seemed off, said Patricia Gill, who has 19 family members in the Gathering, including 3 adult daughters. Many pastors have altar calls when they invite people to accept Christ as their Savior, she said. Jolley’s meetings end with an altar call for more donations.

    “He would tell them to give an offering over and above the tithe, according to how much they loved God,” she said. “That was the first red flag.”

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  51. Gill and her husband, Frank, a former preacher, attended the Gathering for a time. But they say that when they asked too many questions at a late night gathering at the Jolleys’ home, they were labeled as having a Jezebel spirit and were cut off from their family. Their daughters were ordered to have no contact with their parents.

    Jolley uses the story of Patricia and Frank as a warning to his followers. Even a preacher can be possessed by Jezebel, he said in a sermon on Jezebel.

    “That individual is leading his own children into hell,” he told followers. “You need to hear me—leading them into hell. It’s that simple. Leading his children into hell. It’s that simple. Leading his own children to hell and felt totally justified. That’s how Jezebel operates.”

    Patricia thought things would blow over in a few weeks. Eight years later, they are still cut off from their daughters.

    The Gills, who have been married for 61 years and have 9 grown children, say their daughters were lured into the group by Jolley’s promises that they’d become wealthy. Frank believes that they stay in the group out of fear.

    One of the first questions that Jolley asks newcomers, Frank said, is “What is the worst thing you’ve ever done in your life?” He then uses their secrets as a kind of spiritual blackmail.

    “He’s got that to hold over their heads,” he said. “If you walk out, he’ll expose you.”

    Glenn and Rebecca Chambers of Charlotte, North Carolina, also lost contact with their daughter, Madeleine, because of her ties to the Gathering.

    The Chambers had been worried when Madeleine decided to attend Belmont University in Nashville. She’d had some struggles in the past, and they were concerned about her being far from home. So they asked Scott Cash, Ed’s brother and a family friend, to keep an eye out for Madeleine.

    Rebecca Chambers’ father is a good friend of Ed and Scott’s father, Steady Cash, a longtime Charlotte businessman and a member of Young Life’s national board of directors. (Steady Cash declined to be interviewed for this story.)

    While at Belmont, Madeleine began to babysit for Scott Cash’s family and to attend the Gathering. When they’d come to town, her parents visited the Gathering and felt uncomfortable with what they heard.

    After graduation, Madeleine began to distance herself from her parents. That’s normal for new graduates, but she seemed increasingly under Jolley’s sway. Then came the news in 2012 that she had met someone from the group and wanted to get married.

    As the wedding approached however, things began to go wrong. First, Madeleine and her fiancé postponed the wedding. They cut off contact with her parents, communicating only through Jolley and the Cashes. This lead to more tension between Madeleine’s parents and Jolley, which worsened over the months that followed.

    Then in May 2014, the Chambers got an email from their daughter’s fiancé with news that the couple had gotten married. That led to more angry emails.

    Finally, Madeleine’s new husband laid out the terms for any reconciliation between his new wife and her parents: “We want restoration and relationship but only under one mandatory condition,” he wrote. “The two of you repent of the damage, manipulation, and guilt you have inflicted on your daughter.”

    As proof of the Chambers’ wrongdoing, he attached recordings of their voice mail messages and copies of emails criticizing Jolley. (Madeleine and her husband declined to be interviewed for this story.)

    Rebecca Chambers believes her daughter wants to follow God. But she also may be trapped in the Gathering and fearful to leave, she said, because of Jolley’s warning that she’d be cursed if she breaks from the group.

    “She was in a very precarious situation. It was either get rid of them or get rid of us,” she said. “And she got rid of us.”

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  52. A Worldwide Ministry No One Has Heard Of

    Heather Asbell, a former employee of Wayne Jolley Ministries and ex-member of the Gathering, came to work for Jolley in 2007 after getting downsized from her job. She started attending the Gathering with a friend.

    At that time, the group had moved to a 6,000-square foot, million-dollar home on the outskirts of Franklin that Jolley purchased in 2005. The property was later deeded over to the ministry, which paid off the mortgage and performed extensive renovations.

    Saturday meetings are invitation-only. The house is surrounded by a fence and the entrance to the driveway is gated. Jolley often preaches from his recliner in a basement space that was renovated for meetings. About 30 to 40 people attend.

    Asbell felt welcome at first. When Jolley offered her a job, it felt like an answer to prayer. But that feeling didn’t last long. Soon she found herself working late nights and weekends, with Jolley not allowing her to leave until he found her work satisfactory, said Asbell.

    “Once I started working for him, it was hard to get out,” she said.

    Asbell also found Jolley increasingly trying to take control of her life. She was required to donate to the ministry, and told to quit her other church and only attend the Gathering. Jolley would berate her for the smallest mistake, often in front of other Gathering members.

    Things came to a head when Asbell wanted to skip a Gathering meeting to go out of town for a family funeral. Jolley disapproved, she said, and fired her when she got home.

    Getting fired was a relief. Asbell said she felt terrified of Jolley most of the time she worked for him. Jolley, she and other ex-employees say, has an explosive temper. He’s also got an extensive gun collection and is almost always armed.

    “He told me once, ‘You have no idea what I am capable of,’” Asbell said.

    While working in Jolley’s office, Asbell began to ask questions about where the ministry’s money was going. At the time, Jolley claimed to have a worldwide radio ministry called “Power for Living.”

    “We now reach a total of 107 countries and 4.5 billion people day in and day out with the Gospel of Jesus Christ” the Jolleys wrote in a 2008 fundraising letter. “We are watching God make the impossible possible every hour as Muslims are being born again, lives are being changed, and, in Africa, entire villages are being brought to their knees before Jesus Christ.”

    Yet Asbell saw no signs of a major radio show being produced, aside from Jolley’s sermons being recorded. No indications of any money being sent overseas for ministry. No signs of all the miraculous events that Jolley was claiming had occurred.

    “You are reaching 4.5 billion people around the world and yet nobody knows who you are,” she said. “How can that be?”

    A review of Jolley’s tax returns show that the ministry took in $442,052 in 2008 and spent $20,724 on radio broadcast time. By comparison, David Jeremiah’s Turning Point for Godministry, which claims to reach 480 million people, spent $9.7 million on its radio broadcasts.
    Over a 9-year period, Jolley’s ministry took in $9.08 million in revenue, and spent $114,709 on broadcasts—or less than 2 percent of its income.

    Few of Jolley’s followers ever get a look at his ministry’s finances, at least while they remain part of the Gathering. When they leave, they are shocked at what they find from looking at the ministry’s tax returns.

    Unlike a church, which exists as an organization apart from the pastor, the congregation at the Gathering has no legal standing. It doesn’t exist, except as part of Wayne Jolley Ministries. Jolley, in his sermons, warns his followers that asking questions about money is a sin.

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  53. Yet every year, Jolley files a tax return with the IRS, which lists Wayne and Linda Jolley as the sole board members. Having a board that small is a violation of Tennessee law, which requires every nonprofit to have at least three board members.

    Much of the nonprofit’s money is used for Jolley’s benefit. Those tax returns show that, for the Jolleys, meeting the members of the Gathering was like winning the lottery. In 2004, the ministry was floundering with $6,064 in the bank, about $33,000 in assets (including a house in Ringgold, Georgia), and a $15,000 budget deficit.

    That year, the Jolleys began visiting with members of the Gathering in Franklin. The group had been started by a few couples—including Cash and his wife—who met on Saturdays to pray and study the Bible. They’d been looking for someone to teach the class, and one of the couples, who had been visiting Jolley for counseling, brought his name up. He was invited to teach the group one Saturday, and soon was making regular trips to Franklin on the weekends.

    Jolley would teach the class on Saturday night and spend the rest of the time doing counseling with group members at the Hampton Inn in Franklin.

    Soon Jolley was installed as the group’s leader and money began to roll in. Within a year, Wayne Jolley Ministries had collected $1.56 million in donations and other revenue and had $742,862 in the bank.

    From 2005 to 2013, Wayne Jolley Ministries took in $9.08 million in donations from the Gathering and other donors. By the end of 2013, the last year for which tax returns are available, the ministry had $2.5 million in assets. Among those assets: Jolley’s million-dollar home.

    The circumstances around the house’s purchase remain murky. Jolley and his wife, Linda, originally bought the house in November 2005 for $1.07 million. The house was in their name, but within a few months, the house—and its debt—was transferred to Wayne Jolley Ministries.

    Those details are hidden from followers. Instead, Jolley boasts that God gave him the house. “The Lord showed us this house and said, ‘It’s yours,’” Jolley told his followers in a recording of a sermon from December 2014. Jolley claims he bought the house without having money for the down payment, which later appeared courtesy of a last-minute donation. Since acquiring the house, Jolley has spent more than $400,000 on improvements, which is used as his primary residence.
    During the past nine years, the ministry, which claims to be changing lives all over the world, has sent no money overseas. (Federal law requires nonprofits to disclose funds sent overseas). During that same period, the ministry spend $5,875 on missions and more than $25,000 on landscaping. The only sign of ministry outside of Nashville is a second, small Gathering in North Carolina.

    Since arriving in Franklin, the Jolleys have also voted themselves substantial raises. In 2003, they earned a total of $17,620 in salary at the ministry, along with an $8,200 expense account. In 2004, that jumped to $41,200, with a $32,500 expense account. By 2013, the latest year available, the Jolleys earned $161,540. The ministry’s tax returns also list a $20,250 housing allowance.

    The couple also has $17,000 in outstanding loans due to the ministry. Those loans violate Tennessee law, which bans loans to nonprofit board members.

    Chief Backer and Worship Leader
    The ministry’s fortunes began to rise at the same time that Ed Cash’s did. In 2004, he had a major breakthrough as co-writer and producer on “How Great Is Our God,” which won him a Dove Award as producer of the year in 2004 from the Gospel Music Association. (Cash has since won that producer award six additional times).

    That song remains immensely popular. As of November 2015, it was No. 8 on the top 25 list compiled by Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI).

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  54. Cash went on to co-write other hit songs with Chris Tomlin, including “God of Angel Armies” (No. 20) and “Jesus Messiah” (No. 25). All told, Cash has more than 350 crdits on the CCLI list.
    More recently, Cash has begun sharing songwriting credits with Jolley and Tomlin. The three are listed as co-writers on “The Table” and “The Roar,” both of which appear on Tomlin’s Love Ran Red collection.
    In a statement, Tomlin said that he has no direct ties to Jolley and has never collaborated directly with him.

    “I’ve never met Wayne Jolley, and I am not affiliated in any way with Wayne Jolley or The Gathering International,” he told CT in a statement. “The only songwriting that I’ve shared with Wayne Jolley has been with Ed Cash and his desire to give a portion of his songwriting to Wayne. Obviously I have no way of knowing if any of the allegations here are true, but my highest priority is truth and justice—not just in Wayne’s case but for all of us.”

    Cash has gone on to work with some of the biggest names in Christian music: Steven Curtis Chapman, Keith and Kristyn Getty, Nicole C. Mullen, David Crowder, and others.

    Most Saturday nights, he leads worship during the Gathering’s meetings.

    Cash and his brother Scott both agreed to be interviewed by CT, then canceled their interview. Cash later wrote and recorded a song to CT explaining why he backed out.

    According to ex-members of the group, both Ed and Scott Cash serve as part of Jolley’s Men of Iron. Ex-members also say that Ed Cash has boasted of his financial support for Jolley, claiming that he gives the ministry 10 percent of his personal income, and then 10 percent of his business income.

    According to tax returns, Cash’s family have been substantial backers of Jolley. In 2010, the now shuttered Cash Family Foundation, based in North Carolina, gave $219,720 to Wayne Jolley Ministries. The foundation also gave Jolley additional, smaller donations in 2011 and 2012.

    The Cash brothers’ ties to Jolley have caused them problems. The two had often been featured musicians at Young Life conferences. That ended after Young Life became aware of their involvement with Jolley, according to emails obtained by CT.

    Young Life would not comment on whether it has severed ties with Ed and Scott Cash. But any involvement with Young Life was not an endorsement of their church, Young Life said in a statement.

    “Members of the Cash family are among many independent musicians who faithfully serve Young Life by performing at or producing music for Young Life events,” Young Life’s national office said. “In all cases, the content of their performances is determined by Young Life and is consistent with our beliefs and values. We are grateful for the talent of each of these artists, but do not otherwise evaluate or endorse their chosen church affiliation.”

    Stories of Sexual Abuse
    The recent success of Jolley’s ministry baffles Debbie Morrison, director of Serenity Pointe, a nonprofit based in Dunlap, Tennessee. She thought that his ministry had been shut down after a scandal more than a dozen years ago.

    Morrison, who was then a prominent real estate agent in Chattanooga, heard him preach at a church revival in the early 2000s and was impressed. At the time, Jolley was a traveling evangelist based in nearby Ringgold, Georgia.

    “Our nephew, who had been out of church for years and years, got saved during that revival,” she said.

    Soon Morrison decided to start giving to Jolley’s ministry. First she wrote a $5,000 check and then a second for about $25,000. She thought she was doing God’s will by donating to the ministry.

    During that time, Morrison also got to know Jolley’s then teenaged stepdaughter, Marjorie Tellez. Marjorie’s mom is Linda Jolley, Wayne’s third wife.

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  55. One afternoon, Morrison met the Jolleys for lunch and learned that Tellez had left home. Something about that bothered her. When pressed for detail, Morrison felt the Jolleys were hiding something.

    “Something was not right,” she told CT. She decided to track down Tellez and find out what happened. Morrison called her pastor and eventually tracked down Tellez through her grandmother.

    What she learned horrified her. Tellez told her about years of sexual abuse, starting when she was eight. Wayne Jolley would come into the bathroom and watch her shower, and then make her sit on his lap naked or just wrapped in a towel. Later he would go to her bedroom at night and lay down on her.

    Tellez, who now lives in South Carolina, confirmed Debbie Morrisson’s account. “He told me that’s the way that a father and daughter should be,” she said.

    Along with the sexual abuse, Tellez said she was repeatedly beaten by Jolley while growing up. The slightest offense would often lead to violence.

    Things got a bit better when several other young women joined the ministry in Ringgold, she said.

    Jolley called them “his girls” and would often walk into their rooms when they were dressing. But the other girls tried to shield Tellez from the worst of the physical abuse, so she wasn’t alone.

    Sheralee Schneider lived with the Jolleys for years in Ringgold. Her mother and stepfather were longtime followers of Jolley and had moved from their home in Pennsylvania to be with him. Schneider and her sister came along with them.

    Eventually she worked for the ministry, where she said Jolley began to harass her sexually as well. She was older, just out of high school, and he asked her to sit on his lap while he caressed her.

    Schneider said she felt trapped. She had little money, as Jolley only paid her a small monthly stipend. When money was tight, she didn’t get paid at all. Her parents were devoted followers of Jolley, who would never question him or disobey his directions.

    “There was no one there to protect me,” she said.

    Besides, Schneider said, she had no friends outside the ministry. She was either on the road with Jolley or working in his office. Eventually, Jolley arranged for her to marry a young man from the ministry.

    She said she lived in constant fear while in Jolley’s presence. “When he’s mad, you just pray that he hits something and not you,” she said.

    While working for Jolley, Schneider said she also began to see that much of his ministry was a hoax. Jolley, for example, claimed to have a doctorate and other advanced degrees. The doctorate, however, was granted to Jolley by his brother, Donald, who ran an non-accredited, online only school. (Jolley now runs a similar unaccredited online institution known as Logos Theological Seminary.)
    Jolley also ran an unaccredited Christian homeschool program from which Schneider and some of the other girls graduated.

    “My diploma is worthless,” she said.

    She and her husband eventually left Jolley while the ministry was still in Ringgold. Schneider said she hasn’t spoken to her mother since 2009.

    These days, Schneider, who is going through a divorce, is trying to rebuild her life, far away from Jolley.

    “No one has watched out for me,” she said. “I’m the only one who can watch out for me.”

    Ashley Wheeler, who lived with the Jolleys from 2000 to 2002, said she knew something was wrong with the way that Jolley treated Tellez.

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  56. Her bedroom was next to Tellez’s, and she recalls hearing Jolley slip into Tellez’s room at night. She didn’t know the details at first, until Tellez confided in her.

    “I would hear him walk down the hall,” she told CT. “He’d go in her room. It would be 10 or 30 minutes and then he’d walk out.”

    Wheeler said she saw other forms of abuse firsthand.

    If she or one of the other girls made a mistake, Jolley would scream at them or hit them with a switch. Sometimes he made them strip down to their underwear before hitting them, she said.

    Before she left, two of the other girls—Tellez and Sheralee Schneider—had taken in a stray kitten as a pet. The kitten annoyed Jolley, so he took it outside and shot it with his shotgun, said Wheeler.

    Wheeler had joined the ministry after hearing Jolley preach at her church. Jolley told the congregation that they should give something that would prove how much they loved God.

    She was only 16 at the time, and during the collection after that first sermon, she gave Jolley the keys to her car.

    “That car was the biggest thing I owned,” she said.

    After that revival, Wheeler said she felt called to go to work with Jolley. So her parents drove her to Ringgold and let her join the ministry.

    Working for Jolley became a nightmare. As soon as she learned the details of the abuse, she and Tellez plotted to leave. They snuck into the office belonging to Jolley’s longtime assistant and called Wheeler’s parents.

    Her dad agreed to come pick her up, telling Jolley that Wheeler was only going home for the weekend. She never returned. Tellez escaped a few nights later.

    Praying for a Family Reunion
    For the past eight years, the Gills have prayed that their children would leave Jolley. Every Christmas, Patricia decorates the house, in hopes that her daughters will come home.

    “Maybe they’ll be home this year,” she said.

    The refrigerator and cabinets in the Gills’ kitchen are covered with photos of their family. Among Frank Gill’s most prized possessions: a journal his children gave him in 2001 for his 70th birthday.

    He read from it during a recent interview with CT at their home. On the table beside the journal was a coffee cup with a verse from 1 Corinthians 13: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

    Frank’s eyes filled with tears as he read a note from his now-estranged daughter, Joy.

    “Thank you for being faithful to Mom and giving us the legacy of a loving marriage, instead of a heartache of a broken family,” she wrote.

    The Gills say they aren’t angry with their daughters. They believe their daughters want to honor God but have been deceived by Jolley. They hope that soon he will be exposed as a fraud.

    Among the photos on the Gills’ fridge is one of Ed Cash and his family. Frank Gill, who still runs an active prison ministry at 84, says he has no bitterness towards Cash and often prays for him too.

    “We love them,” he said. “They’ve been deceived like everyone else.”

    After eight years, the Gills say they haven’t given up hope. They believe their daughters will be free soon.

    “It’s going to be a lot better when this is over,” he said. “We’re going to be closer to them. They are going to be closer to us. We are going to be closer to each other than ever before. God is going to do a miracle.”

    Bob Smietana is senior news editor of Christianity Today.


  57. Controversy engulfs Ridgewood church

    Officials praise deeds; ex-members call it a cult


    Two years ago, 1,200 young people wearing bright yellow shirts from churches connected to the World Mission Society Church of God in Ridgewood filled an auditorium to receive emergency response training, prompting Bergen County officials to praise their unbridled enthusiasm, which included a rendition of the wave.

    “We love you,” they chanted in return.

    Former church members say they, too, were overflowing with love when they joined the church, but at some point saw another side to a rapidly growing religion rooted in a belief that a South Korean woman in her 70s is the physical manifestation of God. These ex-members — from New Jersey as well as other parts of the country — offered similar, independent accounts of being lured into the church, slowly at first, without being told all of its beliefs, then frightened into devotion and donating large portions of their savings by talk of the impending end of the world — in 2012.

    Some of them, as well as several experts, have gone so far as to call the church a cult.

    Leaders of the Ridgewood church, an offshoot of the South Korean World Mission Society Church of God, which boasts more than 2 million followers worldwide, responded to its critics by saying in statements to The Record that the label “cult” is a form of “religious intolerance” used to denigrate groups with “certain views that are contrary to the norm.” They denied preaching that the world would end four years ago.

    And in a court filing, they said their “unfamiliar beliefs,” which include devotion to Zahng Gil-Jah, or the Heavenly Mother, left them “vulnerable to persecution as any new religion throughout history.” They called accusations made against them “fabrications.”

    Over the past seven years, the church has quietly blended into the North Jersey landscape as its local membership grew tenfold and it opened what it called numerous affiliated churches along the East Coast. It received accolades from political leaders, including Governor Christie, for public service that included cleanup efforts after Superstorm Sandy. Indeed, its website features a letter from Christie praising the group’s “spiritual outreach in the community.”

    But former members say the church has a largely hidden dangerous side, recruiting young people at malls and on college campuses and showering them with affection before eventually encouraging them to cut ties to family members who are critical of their new beliefs.

    Two former members have alleged in lawsuits — one was dismissed and one is pending — that they gave substantial amounts of their money to the church after it drew them in without initially revealing its true theology. They alleged that they were pressured to spend most of their free time at the church and were kept so busy they did not get enough sleep, which made them more susceptible to the teachings.

    The Record examined court documents from three lawsuits, including one filed by the church against a former member. It also interviewed eight former members, including three from the Ridgewood church who requested anonymity and one who agreed to use her name. Four others, who also spoke for publication, belonged to West Coast branches that are not legally connected to the Ridgewood church but are offshoots of the South Korean church and practice similar beliefs, the members said.

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  58. Among the findings:

    ---One former member, Michelle Ramirez, who attended the Ridgewood church and now lives in Brooklyn, said in a pending federal lawsuit that she became pregnant in 2010 and that the church coerced her into getting an abortion. Other former members said the church discouraged followers from having children because they believed the world would end in 2012. Ramirez alleged that she was so emotionally distraught that she attempted suicide and had nightmares about the apocalypse long after leaving the church in 2012. She and her attorney declined to comment for this article.

    ---Ex-members said they agreed to donate 10 percent or more of their incomes in tithes and other offerings as a show of devotion to the Heavenly Mother. Several said it was widely understood that money was sent to her in South Korea, though the church said on a federal tax-exemption form that it did not send money to foreign organizations.

    ---Former members said it was common for people to give up dreams of careers and families because church leaders asked congregants to devote themselves to the gospel as the apocalypse neared. Brian Taylor, a former member of a Seattle-area branch of the church, said he dropped out of college after leaders there told him “our time was precious” and preparing for the “kingdom of heaven” was more important than school or saving money.

    The Ridgewood church and its pastor, Dong Il Lee, declined interview requests but prepared answers to some questions and delivered them through an attorney, Steven Procaccini. The church denied encouraging abortions, saying that such decisions were a “private matter” and that many members had children. Many of its members, the church said, remain close to relatives who are not part of the church.

    It also dismissed allegations of doomsday predictions, saying “you will find no church material proclaiming the apocalypse in 2012.” Instead, the church said, it comforted people confused by reports that an ancient Mayan calendar had predicted the end of the world, assuring them they could be saved “whether 2012 were true or not.”

    The church said that it didn’t send money overseas and that “there is no evidence that any distributions have been made to a South Korean entity.”

    Passaic woman sues

    Michele Colon, a nurse from Passaic, said in a lawsuit filed in state court that church leaders had ostracized her and had contributed to the end of her marriage when she quit the church in 2011 while her husband remained a member. Her lawsuit was filed after the World Mission Society sued her, contending that she had damaged its reputation by calling it a cult on an Internet blog. A Superior Court judge in Hackensack dismissed both lawsuits last year, citing First Amendment protections. Colon is appealing the decision.

    Colon said in interviews that she “trusted” the church when she attended her first meeting in Ridgewood in 2009 because people she knew told her it was “a non-denominational Christian church.” On the first night, she said, she was ushered into a shower stall to be baptized with a cup of water poured over her head. After six months, Colon said, she was told a South Korean woman is a physical manifestation of God, as was the woman’s late husband.

    “No one joins a cult,” Colon said. “People are systematically influenced to join cults by members who are trained to manipulate and use fear and guilt as weapons.” She said she left the church in 2011 after she read more about it on the Internet: “I snapped out of it,” she said.

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  59. The New Jersey World Mission Society, which was recognized as a tax-exempt church by the Internal Revenue Service in 2009, told the federal government that it had 100 members in 2008. It told The Record it operates “numerous” other churches — mostly on the East Coast — from its Ridgewood headquarters, with a total of more than 4,000 members. It purchased its building in Ridgewood in 2006 from First Church of Christ, Scientist, for $5.8 million, according to tax records.

    The church said in court records that in 2014 more than 1,000 people attended services at its three North Jersey sites — in Ridgewood, Bogota and Passaic. Those records listed an additional 18 churches on the East Coast. It is not clear whether all of them are operated from Ridgewood. The records also showed that the church more than doubled the money it received in tithes and other offerings over a two-year period ending in 2012, when it took in more than $7.5 million and had almost $21 million in total assets.

    As the church has grown, it has gained a reputation for public service, including holding large blood drives that draw members from its East Coast branches and showing up at Bergen County picnics for the elderly. Church members, wearing their distinctive yellow shirts, took on difficult tasks, such as removing downed tree limbs after Superstorm Sandy.

    “They were very helpful after Sandy,” said Kathleen Donovan, the former Bergen County executive, adding that she did not know details about the church’s beliefs. “They were wonderful.”

    A World Mission Society video posted on YouTube shows a large contingent of members taking part in a day of Community Emergency Response Team training in 2013 as government officials, including Donovan, marveled at their boundless energy. County officials said the training typically was given to groups that requested it, and focused on preparing civilians to help first responders.

    The church website displays a 2014 letter from Christie offering congratulations on the 50th anniversary of its founding in South Korea. In the letter, the governor praised the church as “an example of the positive impact of spiritual outreach in the community.” The governor’s office declined to comment when told that former members have alleged the church is a cult.

    Colon and the seven other former members interviewed offered similar accounts of experiences with the church. They said some ex-members kept quiet because they had signed non-disclosure agreements. The church said in court papers that Colon had signed such an agreement, but a judge ruled it was invalid and noted that it was a one-paragraph clause tacked onto a larger contract about an unrelated issue. Colon said she had not read the clause.

    None of those interviewed recalled witnessing a member being told to have an abortion, but one former California church leader, Ron Ramos, said that at his church, “It was insinuated. It was more like, ‘Why are they still having kids?’”

    Colon said a church leader in Ridgewood had told her it was “pointless to bring a child into the world because the end is near.”

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  60. The former members said it was widely understood that some donations were sent to South Korea. “They were collecting money for Mother,” Ramos said, adding that members were told that “it was an expression of where your heart is.” Taylor, the ex-member from the Seattle area, said members were told donations helped “start new churches overseas.” Colon said Ridgewood leaders told her and others in a group that money was “sent to South Korea to be redistributed,” in some cases to other affiliated churches.

    Ramos said he had been instructed to bring new church members along slowly because you “don’t feed a baby solid food.” They would be taught early on that the church observes Passover and the day of rest is Saturday, he said, but it might take months to mention the Heavenly Mother. “When everything else made sense, that made sense, too,” said Ramos, who lives in Texas.

    Members were told not to tell their families details about the church’s teachings because “they wouldn’t understand,” Ramos said. And church leaders advised them to be wary of family members objecting to their new religion because it might be “Satan masquerading as a relative,” Ramos said. Monitors were assigned to watch over new members and report back to church leaders, he said. Those who asked too many questions, he said, were asked to leave.

    Colon said she was ordered to sit apart from other members after returning to the church following a hiatus because talking to them would “infect them with my doubts. I was told I would kill them spiritually.”

    Several parents interviewed said they were heartbroken over their children’s transformation after joining the church. They asked that their identities not be revealed for fear of further alienating their children.

    “It’s like something out of that old movie ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’” said one mother who lives in another part of the country. “He and his church people are the only ones who have ‘the truth.’ … It’s like you have lost a family member. They aren’t dead, but they’re not there anymore, either. I miss him.”

    A familiar look

    Steven Hassan, a counselor who makes his living helping people recover after leaving cults, said the World Mission Society in general had a striking resemblance to a group he belonged to years ago — the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. Hassan said his old group believed that Moon, who died in 2012, and his wife were messiahs and the parents of mankind.

    “It seemed they had stolen some of the ideology of the cult I was in,” Hassan said of the World Mission Society, adding it fits his description of a cult partly because of secretiveness and isolation of members from family. “The group does not tell people upfront what they believe. They indoctrinate them with fear. They are alienated from their friends and families very fast. … The key is a lack of informed consent.”

    Hassan, who has been outspoken about the World Mission Society, has been criticized by church members in Internet postings, with at least two pro-church sites attempting to debunk him by pointing to a negative review of a book he wrote about cults. The reviewer, another cult expert named Cathleen Mann, said the use of her review by followers of the church was “disingenuous.”

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  61. I agree they are a cult she said, adding that the World Mission Society has traits that she said are common to cults, like “deceptive recruiting” and isolation from family.

    Some other groups that have been labeled cults by former members, like Scientology and the Unification Church, also have been granted tax-exempt status as churches by the federal government. Religion experts say such recognition gives them a legitimacy that is difficult to challenge in court and underscores the potential danger of trampling on their religious freedoms.

    In dismissing Colon’s lawsuit, Judge Rachelle L. Harz of Superior Court in Hackensack wrote that the First Amendment prohibited her from “determining underlying questions of religious doctrine and practice” and that “the court may not give an opinion on the validity of a religion.” The church made similar arguments in its motion seeking the dismissal of the federal lawsuit against it. Last month, the church withdrew that motion and said in court documents that it planned to answer the complaint instead.

    The Ridgewood church told the IRS in its tax-exemption application that it didn’t send money to foreign organizations, made no distributions, had no close ties to other groups and was not “part of a group of churches with similar beliefs and structures.”

    Yet it told The Record that it operates other churches, and on its website does not hide its spiritual connections to the international World Mission Society. In its IRS application, it listed one of the founders of the international church, Joo Cheol Kim, who lives in South Korea, as a trustee with an address at the Ridgewood church. Asked whether those connections make it part of a “group of churches with similar beliefs,” church leaders said through their attorney, “We are looking into this.”

    A California church member for 12 years before quitting in 2011, Ramos said he had nagging doubts about his faith after meeting ­Zahng Gil-Jah in South Korea about 15 years ago. He wondered why she needed a translator to talk to him and noticed she seemed startled by a fire alarm. “I was thinking, ‘Why would God be surprised?’” Ramos said.

    Diane and Jeff Sims, ex-members from California, said they had a similar impression when they met the Heavenly Mother, wondering why she wore makeup, fixed her hair in a mirror and needed to be carried when her back hurt. “I put it out of my head,” Diane Sims said. “I wanted to go to heaven.”

    Taylor said he began questioning the church after he said it abruptly altered its teachings when the world did not end in 2012. In November 2011, he said, he went home “terrified” one night after a church leader said “we only have two more months.” Later, he said, leaders backtracked, at first saying “the Heavenly Mother has blessed us with more time” and then denying ever predicting the apocalypse.

    “People should have been jumping out of their seats,” Taylor said. “That made me think: ‘I’m in a cult.’”


  62. Meet the Cult Leader Stumping for Donald Trump

    by Ben Collins, Daily Beast, January 5, 2016

    It starts with podcasts and YouTube videos starring Stefan Molyneux, the blogger currently debunking ‘untruths’ about Trump. Then there’s a note on the door—and Molyneux’s acolytes are never heard from again.

    Two weeks ago on Reddit's largest community for Donald Trump supporters, a user named WolfOfAnarchy dropped by with a request that was becoming almost tediously common for regulars on the site.

    “Sanders supporter here,” he began. “Can you convince me (just not with idiotic oneliners) that Trump is not who the media makes him out to be? Thanks.”

    “If you have any time, you should watch this,” another user jumped in.

    That comment, which had the highest score, linked to a website: UntruthAboutDonaldTrump.com.

    Other Trump supporters piled on, saying they were sick of having to post this same video over and over again. “I really wish our mods would sticky this (or affix it to the top of the website permanently) so we don’t have to link this all the time,” one user wrote.

    “That one video would clear up so much all the time,” said another.

    Why? Because this video, for some reason, tends to work. And now, again, Trump's online supporters got to watch it in action: someone being told the real truth about Donald Trump for the very first time.

    “I’m 5 minutes in, very very interesting so far,” WolfOfAnarchy reported back. “Trump is not stupid, that’s clear, damn.”

    When you click through to UntruthAboutDonaldTrump.com, you simply see this: a balding man smiling through a salt-and-pepper goatee, clad in an ironed button-down shirt, and standing well-lit in front of a static white background. He greets you warmly in a trusting, even-toned Irish accent. His name is Stefan Molyneux.

    “Hope you’re doing well,” he says. “We’re going to go through a list of untruths about Donald Trump, just so you can get a fair assessment of the man’s character and avoid the sensationalistic nonsense and get to the man’s actual positions and policies—which are well worth an examination, and certainly not above criticism.”

    Basically, as subreddit users put it, Molyneux sets out to make a reasoned, calm, intellectual argument for the candidacy of Donald Trump.

    And for the first few minutes, it’s hard to disagree with him. Molyneux, slowly reading along from a PowerPoint-like text of talking points, breaks down passages from Trump’s Art of the Deal. He contends that Trump can’t possibly be as dimwitted as the media makes him out to be and convincingly argues that it all must be part of Trump’s plan. Molyneux, 49, is charismatic, open, immediately transfixing—almost enough for you to forget the video’s 73-minute run time.

    “15 minutes in,” WolfOfAnarchy wrote. “Jesus, the misinformation of the media is insane. I have never listened to a Trump speech, only the media. I now read his quotes and holy fuck have the media been turning my mind into a certain direction.”

    Later on comes the questionable stuff from Molyneux—sentences like, “It’s crazy you have to go to the former KGB leader to get the truth about the American presidential race”—but by the time he gets there, Molyneux has you hooked.

    It’s a pattern all too familiar for some families who’ve had a child watch Molyneux’s videos and listen to his podcasts. At first, it’s just their kid watching videos about something controversial but familiar—The Matrix, The Martian, or Donald Trump.

    Then, a few months and a few more podcasts later, there’s a note on the door. After that moment, they never see their child again.

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  63. Barbara Weed said she never understood the appeal of Molyneux’s videos. She always found him “loathsome.”

    But Weed said she knows the feeling this first-time Molyneux watcher is experiencing all too well.

    She said it’s the feeling her son, Tom Bell, had a little over eight years ago, the last time she saw him. It’s the feeling he had before he ran away from home to join what she and experts like those at the British Cult Information Center call “Molyneux’s cult.”

    “My son is still gone. He’s alive, in a foreign country. He cut off not just me, but all of the family and all of his friends. I haven’t had direct contact with him since 2008,” said Weed, a Labour councilor from South Leamington in the U.K. “It sounds a bit strange when I say that to people.”

    One day eight years ago, Weed came home to see a note on her doormat from her son. It said he was moving in with a friend and it instructed her not to contact him.

    About six months before that, she had heard him listening to podcasts in his room. It all started with a school assignment for his Critical Thinking & Philosophy class. That led him to a YouTube video called “Introduction to Philosophy.” It shows Molyneux pacing around a room in 2006, talking about perceptions of what is really “true.”

    Tom initially tried to introduce his mother to it, but she said she simply wasn’t interested.

    “My politics were just very different from [Molyneux’s],” she said.

    Still, that Introduction to Philosophy podcast had Tom hooked. His mother thought he was listening to the same one over and over again in his bedroom, as Molyneux droned on about the same ideas: identity, an extreme version of libertarianism, and the inherent abuse embedded in the concept of family.

    It turns out, however, they were all different episodes, and sometimes there were group Skype chats with Molyneux and his fellow diehards.

    “He told me he was getting advice from people on the Internet,” she said. “I didn’t know what he was planning to do. I didn’t know how deeply he was involved.”

    What she also didn’t know was that Molyneux’s uniform advice to his dedicated listenership was a simple, cruel plan: Move away from your parents, because it is almost impossible for any mother or father not to have abused you in some way over the course of your lifetime.

    “I’ve interviewed former insiders, and I’ve learned a fair bit about [Molyneux] and about the cult,” said Steve Hassan, a licensed mental health counselor and leading American cult expert. “He thinks that anyone who has circumcised a child is a child abuser and convinces his followers to cut off all contact from family and friends—even if it was a sibling who has nothing to do with it.”

    Last year, Hassan was hired by a family to help them reunite with a child who had run away under the influence of Molyneux’s ideology. Hassan said he believes this kind of “YouTube cult” can often be more dangerous than a sect with a built-in church or community, as it can convince vulnerable young men and women with nowhere to go to leave on a moment’s notice—and without any support system to help them get by.

    All of it is part of a process Molyneux calls “deFOOing,” or extracting oneself from their “family of origin.”

    Molyneux’s wife, Christina Papadopoulos, a licensed therapist in Canada, was sanctioned by the College of Psychologists of Ontario in Mississauga in 2012 for appearing on her husband’s podcast and advocating for precisely that. The panel found her guilty of professional misconduct for giving improper advice and telling people to leave their families.

    Molyneux’s group, which organizes in forums online and sometimes in person, was called a “therapy cult” by family members in Canada’s Globe & Mail.

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  64. In response to allegations that his group is a cult in a 2008 Globe & Mail interview, Molyneux called it “the c-word” and said, “I’m sure a few marriages broke up because of feminism. It doesn’t make feminism a cult.”

    On Molyneux-affiliated defoo.org, however, the group now self-identifies as a “highly profitable self-knowledge cult.”

    Molyneux did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Daily Beast.

    “Partly what’s going on with the people on the Internet who are indoctrinated, they spend lots of hours on the computer. Videos can have them up all night for several nights in a row,” said Hassan. “Molyneux knows how to talk like he knows what he’s talking about—despite very, very little academic research. He cites this and cites that, and presents it as the whole truth. It dismantles people’s sense of self and replaces it with his sense of confidence about how to fix the world.”

    Molyneux’s plan to fix the world may start with disassociation from family, but it also relies on devotees sending him cash—although recently he has insisted it’s not necessary—in a tiered donation system not unlike the one Scientology uses. Weed said her son had been giving money to Molyneux in order to reach the highest level of membership and, in turn, become part of Molyneux’s inner circle.

    “That level is called Philosopher King,” said Weed. “Tom was giving all of his money to him to become one of his special little friends, despite being a starving student.”

    “He’s making a living off of people donating money,” said Hassan.

    Worse yet, Molyneux’s staff and followers publicly shame and post personal information about those who leave the group. Molyneux’s group calls the process of reuniting and making amends with family “reFOOing.”

    Former inner-circle members often speak out in videos posted to YouTube and in the support group for spurned family members and ex-Molyneux acolytes, FDRLiberated.com. (FDR is short for FreeDomainRadio, Molyneux’s YouTube and podcast channel.)

    Once members leave the group, bios are posted on defoo.org that outrank any other mention of that member’s name on Google. Those bios include every previous address, phone number, family member, and traffic violation, plus texts with a clear aim to shame the individual in question. A typical example reads:

    “[A former member] gave up on FDR because the community didn’t support the wearing of makeup. After breaking up with [redacted], she needed to attract a new male and was having trouble without her precious face paint. She has struggled with acne and feels insecure if people can see it. [That former member] now applies a thick layer of makeup to her face every day. It’s almost as thick as her False Self.”

    That sort of shaming—and the thousands of dollars Tom Bell has poured into Molyneux’s coffers—is why Barbara Weed doesn’t think she’ll see her son again any time soon.

    “I don’t know where Tom is. I don’t have the money to get a cult expert, either. I don’t think Tom would listen to anybody else, even if I did,” said Weed. “All I can do is wait and try and get the message out to people that Molyneux is doing horrible things, and that it’s a cult.”

    Hassan said it’s standard brainwashing, but there is good news: Molyneux isn’t all that good at it.

    “I guess, on the scale of things, I would say he’s not that successful. He doesn’t have that many people in his core,” he said. “You talk to former members and critics, and they talk about what’s really going on at the core, that he’s acting like a total megalomaniac, that he says his gift to his mother was that he didn’t kill her.”

    continued below

  65. Hassan said he worries more about what Molyneux represents: charismatic people with a platform taking advantage of disaffected people who are “upset with how the relationships in their lives are going anyway” and are in desperate search for meaning.

    “My life’s work is explaining it to everybody—to not get taken over by black-and-white, us-vs.-them thinkers,” he said. “In terms of politics, right now, does that sound familiar?”


    Hassan believes there’s a clear reason Donald Trump attracts people like Molyneux and his supporters, or fans of conspiracy websites like InfoWars, which sells end-of-the-world food rations and which Trump called “amazing” in December.

    Basically, both cater to the same idea: Get rid of one major thing from your life, and everything will work out.

    “It’s no surprise he’s so into Trump,” Hassan said. “When Trump first talked about banning the Internet and Muslims, it was like that: They wanted to impose a one-sided view of what reality really is.”

    Both Trump and Molyneux, Hassan said, make an appeal for your respect by offering a “truth” that the media simply won’t tell you. Only Molyneux and Trump can show you that it’s all one big “untruth,” anyway.

    “Trump is the quintessential, stereotypical cult leader in that the crux of his argument is that ‘they’ lie all the time,” said Hassan. “‘Don’t you wanna follow someone who is trustworthy? If they lie to the public, how do you know they’re not lying to you? Why would you consciously want to follow someone who’s a liar?’ It’s an appeal for respect for people who want a black-and-white answer.”

    Weed said she has a hard time watching Trump’s speeches on TV because she sees the same in Molyneux as she does in the presidential candidate.

    “If you try and write down what Molyneux has said, it’s incomplete sentences. It’s not a logical flow of thought. There’s nothing like a conclusion. He just rambles. He’ll just jump midsentence to somewhere else, just like Trump does,” she said. “He uses very extreme language, except Molyneux is a bit more extreme, with a direct plan.”

    Still, Weed doesn’t think Molyneux is all that much of a Trump supporter, after all. She believes he’s using Trump’s name as a new way to drag people away from their families and into his group.

    Molyneux has done the same with videos about anything slightly countercultural but accessible, above all. He’s made videos about The Matrix. He’s made podcasts attacking President Obama. He’s created episodes about police shootings that were initially anti-police, but eventually started making videos that defended police and criticized the families of victims like Michael Brown.

    “He’s gotten better and better at getting attention by just being controversial,” said Weed. “It’s just clickbait. At the end of the day, it’s whatever will bring more people to his site.”

    After all, Tom got there because he felt he was finally being told the truth about the world from a YouTube video with a search engine-friendly title: an Introduction to Philosophy.

    Now, almost a decade later, Weed is still holding out hope that her son will catch wind of the dozens of ex-members who post their horror stories on YouTube, or that Molyneux’s group will fold as, she said, “these cults tend to do.” Or maybe he’ll just drift away, as she said lot of Tom’s friends already have.

    “It’s possible Tom will leave some day. Or, one day, Molyneux might just drop dead,” she said. “That would be lovely. He might get hit by a truck. A meteorite might fall on his head. I could have my son back.”


  66. I Grew Up in a Culty Christian Community and Lost My Faith Because of It

    By Joseph Coward, as told to Cherry Casey VICE February 2, 2016

    The Newfrontiers is a socially-conservative Christian group created in the 1970s that today has more than 1,000 churches across 70 countries. While its neo-charismatic style—exorcisms, preaching in tongues, etc.—give it an American edge, it's actually rooted in the working-class Pentecostal tradition of England and Wales.

    Twenty-three-year-old singer Joseph Coward was brought up as part of the church, in Essex, when it was known as the New Frontiers International. While he feels the NFI might be a different organization today, his experience was one of homophobia, control tactics, and a system that bore "all the calling cards of a cult." After suffering a psychiatric breakdown five years ago, he cut himself away from the group.

    My earliest memory is being told about the existence of hell, and that it was something that could only be escaped by being part of this "thing" and believing in Jesus. That was by my mom, who had converted to New Frontiers International at 17 and brought me and my sisters up as part of it.

    The NFI interpreted the Bible as literally true, with a particular emphasis on the real presence of heaven and hell. The community was very tight-knit, and as I only really socialized with people from the church, the whole thing was just part of my reality. I certainly didn't pay lip service to it—to me, what they taught was as real as gravity. And anyway, when you're seeing people falling over on the floor during services or praying in tongues, it looks pretty fucking real.

    There were all kinds of things like that going on. At one particular Bible camp when I was about 12, a girl was "possessed" and a well-known charismatic preacher was called in to exorcise her. She started roaring and convulsing as the "demon" was cast out.

    We'd also pray in tongues—a language that is unique to you and your communication with God. Actually, it's just a noise you make that doesn't mean anything, but you're convinced it does because it feels like it's coming from "somewhere else."

    In hindsight, I think it was a case of mass hysteria and mass hypnosis—everybody sort of buys into the same thing, so it just starts happening. During the worship sessions, for instance, the congregation would get whipped up into a frenzy with this fast-paced music, before everything slowed down, creating a sort of trance-like, euphoric state. Everyone's basically hypnotized.

    If you don't know about those techniques, which I didn't at the time, you're incredibly suggestible and will do what's expected of you unconsciously—especially when you've got 1,000 other people doing the same thing. So that thing you see on TV where the pastor touches a congregation member and he or she falls to the floor? I've done that and it was real. I wasn't making it up.

    I think the people leading the congregation and using these techniques aren't necessarily aware of what they're doing. What's probably happened is they've seen it done, and then do it themselves without really understanding it, calling it the Holy Spirit.

    When I look back at it now, there was so much that was just bizarre.

    When I was about ten or 11, I was at my friend's house and we saw smoke coming up from his patio. It was summer, so we thought they were having a BBQ, but it turned out they were burning Harry Potter books. I didn't even think much of it at the time.

    We also used to go to NFI youth camps, where we were strongly encouraged to attend these seminars on how to live a Godly existence. There was a heavy emphasis on your sex life, and I remember having to sit through quite a long talk on why you shouldn't masturbate. It's funny now, but I took it seriously at the time. I thought, OK, this is real shit and we shouldn't be making fun of it.

    continued below

  67. There were really harmful aspects of it and it had all the calling cards of a cult: the tight-knit community where everything's in-house, the psychological trappings, intended or otherwise, and the fact that people donated a lot of their personal assets to the group. People made a living off the church.

    There was a small group that would make life decisions for people, and the whole setup was far more invasive than it first seemed. One of my friends in particular had a really hard time. When she was 16 she had a boyfriend, and that was just not OK. She felt very restricted and ended up developing an eating disorder. She wasn't allowed to seek treatment because it was firmly believed that this was something that could be solved by church and by prayer.

    One thing I'll always remember is a guy who was gay, and who obviously felt conflicted about it because it was against the Scripture. He must have approached a pastor about it, because it was then decided that he should "out" himself in front of the congregation and renounce his homosexuality.

    Some leaders were there for the power, but I think a lot of people involved were genuine and didn't necessarily realize that what they were doing was manipulative or unhealthy. If you have a core set of beliefs, why wouldn't you use these techniques to convince people they're true?

    But when something's based on fairly shaky foundations, one crack appears and the whole thing falls apart—and in my late teens I started to have questions.

    I'd been told a certain type of person wouldn't get into heaven, but when I started getting into the music scene I had a wider group of friends, and I could see they were good people. I also had questions about my budding sexuality.

    I prayed a lot and wanted answers, and my aim, when I was around 18, was to find out as much as I could so I was able to defend my position intellectually. I didn't want to just believe something out of a sense of faith; I wanted to actually study it and figure it out and make sure that what I believed was legit. I'd hoped that this way, my faith would get even stronger. The opposite happened—the more I studied, the more I realized how much of what we were led to believe was based on logical fallacies and blind faith.

    I stopped believing altogether and a huge part of my reality fell apart. Where there had been a lot of promise and hope there was just a sudden blankness. I had a breakdown, tried to kill myself, and was committed to a psychiatric institute.

    There was no real support for me, and after I was let out of the hospital I went home (I already lived by myself at this point) and just got on with it. I've been "getting on with it" ever since, and haven't spoken to my mother in years.

    I do run into people from NFI—it's interesting how quickly you're shut out once you leave. There's a lot of fear involved. Probably on some level people understand they've been sold a dud and really don't want to confront it. Their whole life is centered around this belief, and doubts are too much to consider when you're that far in.

    I do carry a lot of resentment about it; it's hard not to. I just fervently wish it hadn't happened. Believe what you want to believe, but don't push it onto other people. I would consider that a form of abuse because we weren't given a choice, and it really fucked us up.

    The church Joseph attended has since disbanded. VICE contacted Newfrontiers prior to the publication of this piece and it declined to comment.


  68. Internet Cults February 18th on Showtimes DarkNet Docuseries


    The February 18th episode of Showtime’s Dark Net docuseries will discuss online cults. It will feature a segment about Stefan Molyneux and the Freedomain Radio community. [see comments section above for more info on Stefan Molyneux.]

    This 8 part series starts on January 21st at 11 ET/PT.


  69. The Impulse to Cultism

    Huffington Post February 12, 2016

    by Mette Ivie Harrison, Mormon in progress, mother of 5, author of 'The Bishop's Wife' and 'His Right Hand,' Princeton PhD, All-American triathlete

    I have heard a lot of ex-Mormons talk about their experience as children inside the "cult" of Mormonism. They talk about the way that authority figures were seen as godlike, infallible. They talk about youth trips taken where food was withheld or there was serious social pressure to voice testimony.

    There are those who complain about the dress code of Mormonism, the modesty "contest" that makes women and young women in particular strive to always make sure there could never be a hint of skin showing.

    And then I hear about missionaries, who spend weeks in the Missionary Training Center (MTC) being allowed outside only for a few minutes a day, "brainwashed" into preaching a gospel to others, remaining with companions 24/7 and having only twice a year contact with their parents and families.

    Questions about living in a cult are among the first that I often get when I am asked to speak to book clubs or at conferences. How can I, a highly educated woman who has spent many years living outside of Utah, who has worked most of her children's growing up years as nationally published author, defend such a cult? Why do I remain an active member of such an organization? How can I encourage my own children to serve missions for the Mormon church or to pay tithing or serve in leadership positions, let alone attend meetings?

    Well, because I don't believe Mormonism is a cult. Or rather, I believe it is no more of a cult than its members make it, and no more of a cult than many, many other organizations I see around me. I think that many humans have an impulse to cultism because it is this same tribalism that has for many thousands of years kept humans safe as a species.

    A couple of years ago, I joined a group fitness club for about six months. The other people there were very loyal. All over the walls, there were painted various inspirational quotes about athleticism and the group's code of eating, which focused on a kind of paleo diet which I personally do not adhere to, as a vegetarian.

    We were encouraged to share our private struggles with other group members and to come to the same time each week, so we could further cement our bonds. Sometimes, we were set challenges to make us compete with each other. We talked about how we were better than other fitness groups because we did things the "right way" and how when we had tried to do other fitness routines, they hadn't worked for us. And then there were the national competitions that we often heard about, incredible feats of strength and endurance from those who seemed too far above us to be real. Does any of this sound familiar?

    I eventually stopped going because I once went to a workout and brought some sports drink with me and got yelled at for it, because we weren't supposed to be consuming any sugar. It made me uncomfortable and I stopped going because I didn't ultimately believe that this group was the only true way to get in shape and it seemed impossible to keep going without believing that. I've moved on to other challenges and have had my own individual successes as an All-American triathlete.

    But--here's the truth--I miss it sometimes. I miss the other people I got to know, miss the sense of camaraderie in the workouts. I miss the sense of purpose and focus that I got there. I miss talking about people who did amazing things that I was trying to work at myself, and I miss the group sense of certainty.

    continued below

  70. As I have talked to others about the experience, I've realized how similar my complaints about this organization are to complaints about Mormonism as a cult. And it led me to wonder--is it the organization itself that is set up to be this way or do people naturally make many things into cults because we crave certain aspects of cultism?

    1. A sense of "us" and "them" that divides the world into black and white
    2. An assurance that we are superior
    3. The satisfaction of demonstrating an extreme level of loyalty
    4. Hero worship that means we see people as more than human and create a storybook history for them with challenges but no real weaknesses.
    5. A clear way into the future without having to make complex moral decisions constantly.

    I remember many years ago, when talking about an atheist friend of mine, I said aloud to my husband that I couldn't understand how anyone could make moral decisions without some kind of guiding principles of right and wrong, without a religious framework, in fact. Now, I look back on that question with some irony, since I feel I have stopped letting others tell me what is right and wrong and have committed to the difficulty of choosing right and wrong in complex situations, though I am not an atheist.

    Without trying to condemn anyone else's religious practice, I look back on myself and think I was doing a lot of painting by numbers. That is, I was allowing other people to tell me what was right and wrong without investigating it myself.

    In a very real sense, I was creating a cult out of Mormonism by giving up my own power and by seeing my religious leaders as more than human. I now refuse to see the world in black and white, and try to understand those who are different from me, in religion and in other areas. I have shed much of the sense of superiority and certainty that my cultish religious fanaticism once gave me.

    And yes, I sometimes still miss the old way I had of practicing my religion. I miss being better than everyone else, being "special" or "anointed" in some way. I miss feeling a sense of security that I and my loved ones would be protected because of our strict adherence to a set of rules that I think we mostly made up. My parents, for instance, wanted us to wear Sunday clothes all day, not just to church, to show our extreme devotion. Instead of paying the standard ten percent of tithing, I've heard Mormons say they pay "extra" for more blessings.

    I hear Mormons who refuse to drink any caffeinated drinks because it's against their own personal interpretation of the Word of Wisdom. We are asked to go to the temple once a month, but some Mormons try to go every week, or twice a week, because it will bring more blessings. And so on, with prayers constantly, fasting food for longer than a single day or for more often than once a month, or other more strict rules. Is this the fault of Mormonism? I don't think it is.

    Without blaming victims who have truly suffered heinous abuse in religious cults, let me say to all those who live within a religion, it is your own responsibility how you practice and the way you define your religiosity compared to others. I issue a challenge that we all strive to limit the impulse to cultism.


  71. MKs war on cults – will others be caught in the crossfire?

    Anti-cult bill would grant courts expansive powers.

    By David Rosenberg, Arutz Sheva February 16, 2016

    What constitutes a cult and what is a legitimate social group or organization? It’s a question that has long plagued liberal democracies who have tried to balance the rights of religious freedom and free association on the one hand with the need to protect citizens from abusive cults on the other.

    MK Orly Levy-Abekasis is looking to give the answer. The Yisrael Beytenu MK has drafted a bill in conjunction with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin of the Likud that would define dangerous cults and empower the state to take drastic actions to break them up.

    This is not the first time such legislation has been proposed. Isaac Herzog, now leader of the Israeli Labor Party, proposed such a measure while serving as Welfare Minister, with previous legislative attempts to clamp down on cults going back to the 1980s.

    Nothing came of these earlier proposals, but Levy-Abekasis is confident her bill will be adopted. It was approved yesterday by a ministerial committee and has won support of haredi MKs.

    The earlier bills failed, she argues, because they were too broad and could have been used to target religious groups or political movements. “There was a need to sharpen the definition of what is a dangerous cult,” explained Levy-Abekasis.

    Yet it is unclear how effective this new legislation will be in distinguishing cults from other groups and organizations. Levy-Abekasis laid out the basis of the legal distinction, defining dangerous cults as any group of people organizing around a person and idea where members are dependent on the central figure, or where the central figure’s authority includes control over members’ behavior or thought control.

    The bill would give judges the discretion to apply this definition to any group or organization, seize their assets, and refer
    members to psychological counseling.

    When asked whether the law could be applied to Hasidic movements centered around a Rebbe or revered spiritual leader, Levy-Abekasis responded that any movement exhibiting the traits laid out by the bill could be brought to court.


  72. Duma launches work on bill to target & curb divisive sects

    Russia Today February 19, 2016

    MPs from all four Russian parliamentary parties have started preparing a bill that, once passed, would protect citizens from destructive sects. According to the initiators of the motion, the most dangerous groups are based in the United States.

    The head coordinator of the “parliamentary group for protection of Christian values”, MP Sergey Gavrilov (Communist Party), told the Rossiiskaya Gazeta daily that according to expert estimation there are currently between 300 and 500 dangerous sects in the country, with up to 800,000 members in total.

    “The most active sects have headquarters in the United States and are financed from that country. The total amount of sponsorship amounts to about a billion US dollars. Most religious groups have become full-fledged and profitable businesses; they get sponsorship through couriers with cash, wire transfers and internet payments,” the lawmaker said.

    “We have proposed that the Security Council, power structures and the Justice Ministry jointly develop new methods, technologies and criteria for licensing religious activities. Among the most decisive criteria are whether the groups use psychological techniques to affect the minds of the people and whether they attempt to force their members to hand over property to sects,” the lawmaker said. “We also want to control or fully rule out foreign sponsorship. I mean every cross-border money transfer must be re-checked,” he added.

    The lawmaker emphasized that officials must check those wishing to register a religious group for extremist tendencies.

    According to Gavrilov, dangerous sects often disguise themselves as book clubs, personal growth courses or as communities preaching traditional religions.

    “Some are targeting lonely people. Others work with intellectuals. Under the guise of various courses, they apply psychological pressure on people. Many groups work undercover and it takes some work to even track them. Today, even special services sometimes only learn about some horrible occult sects years after they start their activities,” the MP said.

    Russian law currently allows religious groups to form, including both those that require no official registration and legal formation and ones that should be officially registered. The sects are allowed to stage any activities if they don’t violate existing laws.

    Scandals involving various destructive sects are infrequent in Russia, but they take place periodically. In 2011, a reclusive Muslim sect was discovered in Tatarstan. Over 70 people, including 27 children, spent a decade in an eight-level catacomb without access to education, healthcare and daylight. In 2007, a similar story was uncovered in Russia’s Penza region, which shocked the entire nation: nearly 30 cult followers dug a shelter, stocked it with food and spent several months waiting for the apocalypse, which they had expected to happen in May 2008.

    In 2012, President Vladimir Putin urged the government to toughen laws governing the activities of religious groups, in order to reign in any totalitarian cults cropping up across the country. The president said such groups pose a threat to society and people, adding that fanatical sects were hunting “not only for souls, but also people’s property.”


  73. Sonja Larsens memoir travels from flower child upbringing to isolated underground militia

    By Charlotte Gill, Quill & Quire January/February 2016

    Sonja Larsen doesn’t like the word “cult.” For her, people who join cultic groups don’t simply become brainwashed zombies overnight. Larsen speaks from experience. For three years she lived in an isolated, ultra-leftist political cell, an experience she recounts in her memoir, Red Star Tattoo: My Life as a Girl Revolutionary.

    These days, Larsen resides in Vancouver where she’s employed as a youth worker on the city’s Downtown Eastside. Although she has been writing and publishing since the 1990s, Red Star Tattoo – coming out in January with Random House Canada – is her first book. “I was very afraid of being so public,” Larsen says. “Not necessarily of telling my secrets but of being seen.”

    Larsen was born in Milwaukee in 1965. She spent her early years in the company of draft dodgers and flower children, roaming between communes with her family. Her mother embraced an extreme form of free-range parenting, even by the relaxed standards of the day. Larsen once hitchhiked from Quebec to California with a male acquaintance when she was eight years old, unaccompanied by either of her parents. “Baby hits” of LSD for kids seemed like a harmless idea. If children came upon adults in flagrante delicto, they were casually asked if they wished to observe. Innocence was an early casualty.

    Larsen’s parents separated just as commune life devolved into a failed experiment. She then moved with her mother to northern California. There, her mother joined the Provisional Communist Party U.S.A., a connection that would eventually provide Larsen with her entrée to the organization’s secretive militia wing in Brooklyn.

    If such a childhood was not confusing enough, the violent death of a cousin sent Larsen into a tailspin. By the time she set out for New York City at age 16, Larsen says, “I felt scared for myself. I thought, ‘Who is going to keep me in line? Who is going to protect me from this sadness and hopelessness?’”

    She had her answer soon enough. In New York, Larsen walked through the door of a Crown Heights brownstone into the headquarters of the National Labor Federation. Once inside, Larsen joined the cadres counting down the days to the second American Revolution. She threw herself into the gruelling volunteer work the NATLFED demanded of all its recruits, typing out endless directives and reports by day, followed by nights on watch duty. She attended rambling, late-night oratories delivered by the group’s charismatic leader, Gino Perente, under whose capricious, iron-fisted rule she would live for the next three years.

    continued below

  74. Larsen eventually became Perente’s lover. From this intimate vantage, she began to sense that he was a man of troubling contradictions. Perente – “the Old Man” as he was called – had a weakness for Hollandaise sauce, illicit pharmaceuticals, and the many young women of the revolution, whom he liked to doll up in lipstick and eye shadow to augment their scrubbed faces and genderless coveralls. But to receive the Old Man’s attentions meant submitting to his scrutiny and occasionally his wrath. He issued late-night beatings to misbehaved followers and failed escapees in the basement.

    “Some days,” says Larsen, “he loved us for our dedication. Other days he despised us because he thought that we were stupid, that we were fools.” The NATLFED was a closed system. No one got in or out without permission. Larsen saw her opportunity for escape one winter’s night when a comrade on watch slipped away from her post. Larsen fled. She was barely 19.

    As it turns out, Gino Perente was a con man whose real name was Gerald William Doeden, a one-time DJ and ad salesman who rechristened himself as a Sandinista-styled union leader, Eugenio Mario Perente-Ramos. He ran the NATLFED from the ’70s until his death, in 1995, of congestive heart failure. Perente’s obituary inThe New York Times had to be corrected to accommodate the dodgy past lives and multiple aliases that failed to surface on the first pass.

    Larsen might have written critically or accusingly of Perente. She might have covered Doeden’s previous arrests, or ranted about
    the days of her youth wasted in the NATLFED’s solipsistic and paranoid bureaucracy. She might have devoted chapters to the claim of physical and psychological abuse from former members, or the police raids, or the stockpiles of guns that were never fired, but served only as stage props for a coup that never came to pass.

    Instead, Red Star Tattoo, which took eight years to complete, is written with simple honesty, without judgment, from a girl’s point of view. For Larsen, this was a deliberate creative choice. She says, “I grew up with nobody explaining to me why things happened. That’s really the story I want to tell.” – Charlotte Gill


  75. Former Members Of McKeesport Church Say It Is Cult Like

    By Andy Sheehan CBS Pittsburg March 2, 2016

    McKEESPORT (KDKA) — Former members of a McKeesport Church are speaking out about the church and its pastor, claiming the congregation is more like a cult than a church, and that the pastor’s teachings and insistence on total control of his parishioners’ lives has affected their families in ways they never could have imagined when they began worshipping there.

    The congregation is the Church of Life in Christ in McKeesport and the pastor is a man named Guy Miller.

    Seven former members of the church spoke to KDKA investigator Andy Sheehan. Some were unwilling to go on camera for his story; others talked but only in silhouette. Bethany Lovett and her mother Stephanie were willing to tell their stories on camera.

    “One time he worded it like this: God is at the top, but Guy Miller is right under Him. So, if you please Guy Miller, you please God,” said Bethany Lovett.

    “Everything had to do with obedience” to him, said her mother Stephanie.

    The Lovetts and the others Sheehan interviewed say that Miller is a charismatic leader who claims to speak with and for God and demands the strict obedience to his particular teachings, which they say includes his belief that faithful people don’t need to die.

    “Literally, he believes you should live forever,” said Stephanie Lovett.

    All said Miller tried to exert control over all aspects of their lives, down to what they should eat, who they should associate with, even how they should discipline their children if they act out in church.

    “They do have spanking rooms, and they provide the paddle,” Stephanie Lovett said.

    But perhaps worst of all, the former members say, is that at Miller’s direction, current church members have to shun those who leave.

    Bethany says her father, her grandparents and her brother haven’t spoken with her in years. Stephanie, who is divorced from her former husband, says she’s no longer able to speak with her son.

    “I miss my son. I’m sorry, but it’s very hard for me,” she said wiping tears from her eyes. “The last time I tried to speak with him he hung up on me.”

    Miller declined our invitation to be interviewed. Outside of the church, he is considered a reclusive figure. He graduated from McKeesport High School and played on the football team, returning after college to coach and teach English. Then, in the early 1980s, he established his church, which has been operating since 1993.

    Sheehan saw him briefly speaking with one of his sons in the doorway of a home, but when Sheehan approached, Miller wouldn’t come out to be interviewed.

    He did issue this statement:

    “I have been a minister for 37 years. I have been called to preach God’s word and I have always been faithful to that calling. There have been misunderstandings, but I will never compromise or apologize for the word of God.”

    Miller’s sons told Sheehan privately that he’s been blindsided by these accusations and that the ex-members have misconstrued their father’s message to the point of falsifying it. But, former members say there is no misunderstanding about shunning.

    “He believes that if you leave, his followers should have no communication with you, even if you’re family,” said a woman who spoke on camera but in silhouette.

    continued below

  76. The woman says her mother and her sister no longer speak with her because she is in what Miller calls “rebellion” against God. In what is perhaps the strangest part of his teaching, former followers say Miller claims people in rebellion die, but believers live on as long as they like.

    She and others quote Miller as telling the congregation that he will live to 110 when God will give him the choice of staying alive or going to heaven. Miller tells his congregation they can have the same choice. “If you rebel and you are in sin you will be sick and you will die, (and) if you stay there and do what he says you won’t die.”

    Those who stay are asked to tithe 10 percent of their income, but the ex-members say they were also asked to dig deep on special “bless the pastor days,” which they say keep Miller in luxury late model cars and regular family and staff trips to Myrtle Beach and Disney World. The ex-members say in giving, they were told they too would be blessed with riches.

    “Riches or success or health. Anything human beings crave,” Stephanie Lovett said.

    Some of these former members and others whom Sheehan did not interview contacted an organization called Families Against Cult Teachings — or FACT.

    On the basis of their interviews and using an accepted evaluation method, FACT, “defines this church group as a destructive cult,” saying Miller uses three out of four recognized cult techniques to control congregation members. FACT says Miller’s church qualifies as a cult on three counts: emotional control, thought control and behavior control.

    Each of the former members say the time came when they had to get out. For Stephanie that was when the wife of one of the church elders died of cancer and, she says, Miller said it was because of the woman’s lack of faith.

    “He got up before the whole congregation and went on a little dissertation about how she didn’t get it and that’s why she died. I had a hard time with the Amens and hallelujahs after that one,” Stephanie said.

    For another ex-member who spoke on camera in silhouette, it was when he says he told Miller he was gay and then Miller preached to the entire congregation.

    “He said all homosexuals should kill themselves.”

    Now that they’re out of the church, the former members like him have a message for people still in:

    “There’s life outside of those walls, there’s people who will care for you and support you. God is everywhere. He’s not just there.”

    Late today, Ryan James, an attorney representing Miller sent the following statement on his behalf, but has not yet offered the pastor for an on-air interview:

    “For 37 years, Guy Miller has carried on a ministry in the McKeesport community. These recent, uncorroborated claims concern events alleged to have occurred years ago, by persons long unaffiliated with Mr. Miller and his church. Simply put, these allegations are specious and unfortunate, and Mr. Miller categorically denies them.”


  77. Is your church behaving like a cult

    by Martin Saunders, CHRISTIAN TODAY CONTRIBUTING EDITOR May 13, 2016

    Do you ever worry that your church is exhibiting strange behaviour? Asking for more commitment than seems sensible; encouraging an unusual amount of devotion to the leader? Requiring your life and all be given to them, rather than directly to God?

    Mike Bickle, author of Passion for Jesus and founder of IHOP in Kansas, came up with a list of seven key 'tells' that suggest a church is behaving like a cult. Most churches could probably do better in one or two of these areas but for some, this checklist provides a dangerously accurate description of how things work. There are various 'cult watch' organisations which provide similar lists, but Bickle's is especially pertinent because it comes from within the church, and recognises some of the nuances and grey areas involved.

    So here is the list, with some thoughts on how it might apply in practice, and what to watch out for. Because cult membership is dangerous, and can destroy your life; arguably the same could be true of a church which behaves just like one.

    Sign #1: Opposing critical thinking

    I remember a friend telling me that he'd finally become more comfortable at his charismatic church because he'd realised that he just needed to disengage his brain during the services and 'go with it.' To him this made sense because his intellectualism was making him overthink everything, but there's a fine line between resisting your cynicism and disabling your critical functions entirely. The Bible and God both stand up to intellectual scrutiny; so any church which tells you to switch off your brain is probably trying to lead you into dangerous new territory.

    Sign #2: Isolating members and penalising them for leaving

    Some of the more mainstream cults are well-known for this sort of behaviour, even turning family members against those who try to leave. While there aren't many churches which will go that far, there are examples of those which deliberately exclude those who appear to oppose or challenge the leaders from the rest of the community. This accusation was aimed at Mars Hill in Seattle by individuals who questioned the behaviour of the leaders and elders. If a church begins to close ranks against anyone, especially those who have previously been members of the community, they're behaving just like a cult.

    Sign #3: Emphasising special doctrines outside scripture

    This is especially prevalent among churches which preach a 'prosperity gospel'. Cults use extra-biblical ideas and wrap them up in biblical sounding language, in order to compel followers to practice certain behaviours which are usually nothing to do with the actual gospel. Infamously this often involves sexual or financial conduct, and while there hopefully aren't many churches which encourage the former, there are entire church movements which appear to have created special new doctrines around the latter. From the seed-of-faith evangelists to the megachurches which take several offerings in order to finance a 'professional quality' worship performance, this is one of the easiest and most transgressed pitfalls on the list.

    Another key area here is around End Times prophecies, which Scripture does talk about, but in no way to the levels emphasised by some churches and individuals. This line of thinking is exactly what leads cults into tragic suicide pacts; an obsession with the coming apocalypse runs counter to Jesus' warning in Matthew 24:36 that only God knows the day and the hour of Judgment Day.

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  78. Sign 4 - Seeking inappropriate loyalty to their leaders

    I wrote recently about the prevalent problem and of leader idolatry, and in particular the disgraced church leader who on returning from his prison sentence made every member of the church kneel at his feet and pledge devotion to him above the justice system. This might be an extreme case, but there are plenty of other churches which hold their leader in inappropriately high esteem, showering him with gifts (like the British church which bought its pastor an £80,000 Mercedes as a birthday present) and viewing him essentially as being above scrutiny. Unaccountable leaders, with devotees who love them perhaps even more than they love God, are a key feature of any cult... and some churches.

    Sign #5: Dishonouring the family unit

    God loves family: he's crazy about children, and he's not at all keen on family breakdown. So any church which encourages its members to put the church first, even ahead of their commitments at home, is behaving unbiblically. This is exactly how cults convince people to turn against their own non-believing parents, siblings or spouses; many churches also subtly request the same order of priorities, whether subconsciously or deliberately.

    Sign #6: Crossing biblical boundaries of behaviour

    Thankfully, this is an area where few churches will recognise themselves. But if your church starts encouraging lifestyle choices which don't tally up with scripture, then start to worry, and fast. Scary examples might involve Westboro Baptist-style affirmation of prejudice or even the use of violence to accomplish supposed 'kingdom' goals. More subtly though, this could be seen in a deliberately permissive attitude to sex or other behaviours. If your church is actually preaching against holiness, it's acting like a cult.

    Sign #7: Separation from the rest of the church

    Finally, and perhaps of most concern to the modern church, Bickle identifies that cults always promote the idea among their members that they're the only part of the 'church' that has truly understood God's plan for the world. For cults this often means not only cutting their community off from the rest of the church, but also wider society. Churches rarely speak with quite this level of arrogance, but they do often exhibit a related behaviour; claiming that God has given their particular church a specific mission and calling which means that it's unhelpful for them to work in unity with others. And forget what they say, if your church stream behaves as if it's the only true way, guess what: that's exactly what cults do.

    Take another look down that list. Hopefully you only vaguely recognise your own church, and others that you know. Try not to use Bickle's helpful signposts as a means by which you can judge other churches though; but rather to note where yours needs to take care not to stray into cult-like territory. And if there's a real red flag among the seven, then pray about how you might be able to help your church get back on to a straight path. After all, it was for freedom that Christ has set us free; cults offer the very opposite. It should be of the utmost concern to us when our churches begin to resemble them in any way.


  79. NOTE FROM PERRY BULWER - WARNING the following article has a very biased point of view and uses loaded language, for example using the term 'apostates' to denigrate survivors of spiritual abuse. This article is essentially a cult apologetic that deflects the blame away from spiritual abusers and places it on survivors who were masterfully manipulated and exploited. In placing the blame squarely on cult members for the harm caused them, neither the writer of this article nor the academics cited or quoted take into account the fact that many cult members, including myself (I was 16), were recruited and indoctrinated while adolescents still in development. In fact, the human brain is not fully developed until the early 20s. Nor do they take into account the countless children who were born into cults and later escaped. They had religion forced on them, so leaving that does not make them apostates.


    How to Escape From a Cult in the 21st Century

    The new documentary Holy Hell offers an unprecedented view of 20 years inside the Buddhafield religious group. We talked with apostates from Buddhafield to find out why they’re still grateful for a “cult” experience.

    By Michael Agresta, Pacific Standard June 3, 2016

    Toward the end of Will Allen’s new autobiographical documentary Holy Hell, Danielle Lefemine, his friend and longtime associate in the controversial Buddhafield religious group, reflects on the 20-odd years of history related by the film and characterizes her experience in stark terms. “I was brainwashed,” Lefemine tells the camera. “I was in a cult.”

    Over the course of its first hour, Holy Hell — released last Friday in New York and Los Angeles — has pointedly avoided these charged words. Rather than an exercise in casting judgment, Allen has built his film around unprecedented access to the inner workings of a secretive religious community: As the Buddhafield’s unofficial videographer for more than two decades, Allen documented the group’s evolution from an idyllic experiment in communal living and meditation practice in 1980s Santa Monica to a paranoid gang of guru-worshipping disciples in 1990s Austin. When the group’s charismatic leader, then known as Andreas, was caught in a sexual abuse scandal in the mid-2000s, many longtime members, including Allen and Lefemine, exited the group. Only in the film’s final chapter, describing their decision to leave the Buddhafield, do they use words like “cult” and “brainwash.”

    It’s common for apostates to toss around such terms when discussing their past affiliations, but most sociologists now agree that “cult” represents a potentially dangerous designation. Contemporary debate over the term dates at least to the 1970s, with the rise of Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. On one side were self-appointed experts from the so-called anti-cult movement, who warned parents and young people about the dangers of spiritual leaders who bewitched impressionable followers into brainwashed servitude. On the other side were more careful academics who viewed the cult panic as dangerous both to the lives of adherents and to the constitutional tradition of free exercise of religion.

    These tensions reached their zenith after the Federal Bureau of Investigation siege and massacre at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993. Many scholarly observers blamed the tragedy on anti-cult activists, who had propagated the widespread vilification and dehumanization of Branch Davidians, and some of whom were advising the FBI. “After the Branch Davidian fiasco, people realized that the ‘cult’ label objectified groups in a way that made violence more possible,” says Diane Winston, the Knight Center Chair in Media & Religion at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, who studies the way religions are discussed in the public sphere.

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  80. To a large extent the religious freedom-oriented academics won the late-20th-century battle of ideas over the “cult” label. Today, the preferred term is NRM, or new religious movement. Anti-NRM vigilante groups like Cult Awareness Network no longer threaten to kidnap adherents and forcibly “deprogram” them in hotel rooms and other extrajudicial locales, as they did from the late ’70s to the mid-’90s. For a while, even some journalists got the memo. “Groups that are controversial still get referred to as cults, but good journalists shy away from it now,” says David Bromley, a professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and perhaps the country’s foremost expert on how people exit NRMs.

    Journalists haven’t exactly been shying away from the term in their coverage of Holy Hell, however. The film has been called an “exposé of a Californian cult” and “a textbook case of how a cult operates.” Perhaps the first widely disseminated apostate documentary to include extensive, behind-closed-doors footage from within a secretive religious group, Allen’s film is reviving a long-dormant public conversation about NRMs and manipulative psychological techniques. Along with that conversation comes a new interrogation of words like “cult” and “brainwash,” words ready to be re-discovered and re-litigated by a new generation.

    Allen and the other Buddhafield apostates who appear in Holy Helltake a varied approach, appropriating “cult” while eschewing the demonization and objectification of NRM members that typically go along with it.
    “I like the term ‘cult’ simply because it’s so irreverent,” Allen said by phone from Los Angeles. “We never would have used it. It makes us laugh at ourselves. But I think the word has to be re-defined.” He and his friends have little charitable to say about the anti-cult movement, which threatened their lives and liberty in the early ’90s, but they’re serious about wanting to broaden popular understanding and empathy for what goes on inside an NRM, even a fringy, dishonestly led, abusive one like the Buddhafield. As a result, Holy Hell is a document of fascinating contradictions. It’s an old-school anti-cult exposé crossed with an open-minded, 21st-century effort to destigmatize individual NRM members; it’s also a thoughtful re-invention of the cult-apostate narrative in the exhibitionist tradition of reality television. In the end, Holy Hell is perhaps the fullest, most human view we’ve ever had of life inside an NRM — and the ever-complicated business of getting out of one.

    According to sociological consensus, people who leave NRMs typically join a group that opposes their former group — called an “oppositional coalition” — and develop a narrative that suits both their new ties and individual needs. In the first essay of a 1998 collection of sociological studies about NRMs called The Politics of Religious Apostasy, Bromley calls this storytelling the “captivity narrative.” In Bromley’s foundational account, NRM leave-takers emphasize that they “were innocently or naively operating in what they had every reason to believe was a normal, secure social site.” Apostates will often claim they were “subjected to overpowering subversive techniques,” e.g. brainwashing, and endured subjugation and humiliation until they ultimately escaped or were rescued. Leave-takers will vigorously resist any “ambivalence” or “residual attraction” toward their NRM once they’ve departed the group — those expressions could be seen as evidence of untrustworthiness, according to Bromley — and conclude by issuing a public warning about the dangers of membership. It’s a straightforward script.

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  81. This after-school-special version of NRM membership will be familiar to anyone who came of age before the turn of the millennium. The 1981 fiction film Ticket to Heaven, about a young schoolteacher who attends a training camp for an NRM and becomes brainwashed, is a classic of this genre: The happy ending comes only when he is kidnapped by anti-cult types and deprogrammed. But research doesn’t support the Pied Piper-like captivity narrative popularized in the 1980s and ’90s. “At that point in time, many people believed that, if someone entered into a cult-like group, if they were deprived of sleep and the food they received was monotonous and bland, if they were sexually tempted and argued and bullied into obedience, that their minds would snap and they’d become brainwashed cult members, glassy-eyed, easily led,” Winston says. “Since then, people who study human behavior have come to the conclusion that brainwashing is not that simple.”

    Holy Hell doesn’t begin like a typical captivity narrative. In Allen’s rendering, Buddhafield members join the group without coercion, of their own free will. Later in the film, each apostate interviewed offers extenuating reasons for why they stayed in the group too long, several laying the blame on Andreas’ psychological manipulation or groupthink inertia; nevertheless, all agree that they entered the group of because they found it socially and spiritually fulfilling.

    “The hardest part of the film to make was the first part, to acknowledge that we were in this and we loved this, and to make him look good,” Allen says. From the beginning, Holy Hell presents the Buddhafield as spiritually ambitious, tolerant, and sexually open; one apostate refers to it wistfully as “the booty field.” Everyone in the group, it’s also worth noting, is extremely attractive — a recruitment philosophy that Allen attributes to Andreas’ genius for cultivating “social proof” — the notion that appearing happy, popular, and sexy confers legitimacy to an otherwise-controversial leader or group. “If he has a lot of beautiful people around him who support him, that keeps him safe,” Allen says. Another way Andreas protected himself was by frequently changing his name. In the group’s early days in Los Angeles, he went by Michel; recently, re-settled in Honolulu, he has adopted the name Reyji, or “god-king.”

    Allen doesn’t like the term “brainwash,” in part because he believes it delegitimizes the hard work of daily meditation and ego suppression that he and other Buddhafield apostates still look back on with pride. “We thought of it as a cleansing of our brain,” Allen says. “We thought we were seeing things in a different way, that it was healthy. And it is healthy — for a semester, in a controlled environment, with a qualified teacher, with checks and balances. We weren’t doing that.”

    The group followed an ad hoc program of spiritual exercises designed by Andreas to help adherents experience direct communion with the divine. Initially, much of it was borrowed from the teachings of Maharaji, an Indian guru who developed a large American following, known as “premies,” in the 1970s, while other Buddhafield ego-shedding exercises came from theater training. Holy Hell holds onto a sense of group spiritual achievement even through the film’s darker passages. Ex-Buddhafield members seem more likely to look back on their spiritual work as an impressive achievement that nonetheless left them vulnerable to Andreas’ predations than to recall it as a scam and a fraud.

    “We were like the Navy SEALs of spiritual discipline,” Radhia Gleis, a Buddhafield member who was with the group for over two decades, says over green curry when we meet one evening in May in a suburban Austin shopping mall.

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  82. In its second half the film conforms better with Bromley’s archetypal captivity narrative. For instance, Holy Hell directly confronts the various ways in which members were humiliated. Apostates recall sexual dimensions to “karma cleansing” sessions, weekly one-on-one meetings between Andreas and his adherents, during which they were encouraged to drop all defenses and confess their deepest secrets. Recorded audio from these sessions suggests Andreas groomed straight men for sexual encounters, and multiple apostates testify on camera that Andreas manipulated them into unwanted sex. Those and other accusations recall Bromley’s description of “overpowering subversive techniques.” “The dude was a hypnotherapist,” Gleis says. “He had his talons in our psyche every week.”

    But Holy Hell doesn’t dwell on members’ powerlessness, and when I speak with ex-Buddhafield members about the film’s more ominous moments, they tell me their aim wasn’t to disown their actions, but rather to call out Andreas’ bad-faith mentoring. Gleis feels deeply betrayed by Andreas, even though he never asked her for sexual favors. “The real abuse is in the cleansing. That’s the real intimacy,” she says. “That’s where you shared every dark deep secret. He didn’t use it against me much, but sometimes he would.” Though Gleis admits that Andreas’ spiritual counseling helped her through difficult periods in her life, she has come to the conclusion that he was delving into his adherents’ inner lives more to enrich, titillate, and protect himself than to serve others.

    For her part, Gleis flatly refuses to say she was “brainwashed.” “I made decisions based on lies,” she says. “But everyone was different. People came in at different levels of maturity.”

    The subjects of Holy Hell bring nuance to their “cult” stories. It’s worth noting, though, that some held official roles so high up in the organization that their “captivity” narratives deserve special scrutiny.
    Both Gleis and Allen occupied exalted positions in the Buddhafield hierarchy. Gleis describes herself as the group’s “consiglieri” — she was the one who managed the early-’90s legal threat from CAN that chased the Buddhafield out of California, and she purchased Andreas’ Austin home, which became the group’s headquarters for a decade. Allen was a key member of Andreas’ “entourage,” a mostly male coterie of self-described “beautiful ones” who were financially supported by the group and spent their days massaging the leader and accompanying him on Speedo-clad excursions to Austin-area beaches and swimming holes. Both Gleis and Allen admit to lying constantly — to their family members, to lower-ranking Buddhafield members, and to each other.

    Gleis says that at least one other longtime Buddhafield member thinks Holy Hell goes too easy on the entourage, insulating high-ranking apostates from the sorts of criticisms levied at Andreas. Bromley’s scholarship would critique this as the tension between “apostate” and “traitor” roles: Leave-takers, of course, don’t want to be seen as turncoats or losers of power struggles; they want to be seen as victims.
    “You can’t have a leader without followers,” Gleis says. “I think we are all guilty of a lot of lies.”

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  83. Toward the end of the film Allen tracks down his former guru in Hawaii, where elements of the Buddhafield community have re-settled post-scandal. When he asks Andreas, on hidden camera, whether he’s “being a good boy” to current members of the group, it becomes clear that the chance to expose the group, and to break it up, is a central reason why so many ex-Buddhafield members have risked public humiliation to put their faces and stories onscreen. Nevertheless, Allen says his primary artistic aim was not to raise alarm about Buddhafield.

    “I would like to see a dismantling of the group and everyone waking up and being in their own power,” he says. “But I did not make this movie for 100 people. I spent 20 years living for 100 people. I couldn’t spend four more years for 100 people. I made this movie for everyone else.”

    This is where Holy Hell departs definitively from the ’90s-era captivity narrative formula and creates a new model for the genre, one that can reach the mainstream. By “everyone else,” Allen means the widest possible film-viewing audience: people of all ages, races, sexualities, religions, etc., most of whom will likely encounter Holy Hell not as a polemic of anti-cult advocacy but as a character-driven story of hope and disillusionment, tragedy and triumph — and a bit of an amusing freak show.

    While Allen did belong to an explicitly anti-Buddhafield coalition when he first took leave of the group several years ago — Gleis refers to a period of “innies” and “outies” arguing against each other — by the time he began editing footage, that alliance had faded as apostates began to move on with their lives. By then, Allen’s key organizational ties were to film-business players like the Sundance Institute, where he worked on Holy Hell as a fellow, and later Jared Leto, who became executive producer on the film.

    It’s no dig at Allen to note that the resulting story includes a narrative arc that follows confessional conventions established by Oprah and reality television, and that the cathartic result is a people-pleaser. (Indeed, two ex-members mentioned rumors that Leto is pursuing plans to serialize the Buddhafield story.)
    Over the course of the film, apostates cast their stories as journeys of seeking and overcoming, stories that unfailingly culminate in personal growth. There are moments when viewers might envy the experience described by these apostates — by the end, membership in a controversial NRM begins to sound like a vital opportunity. The so-called “cult” experience, however abusive, comes off as a liberating net benefit.

    I met former Buddhafield member David Christopher on a plane from Austin to Salt Lake City in January. He wore a Holy Hell baseball cap and passed out business cards to fellow passengers traveling to the Sundance Film Festival. Later, watching the Holy Hell premiere, I’d learn that he had given up a fledgling acting career to join the Buddhafield in the mid-’90s and was now hustling to break back into the business. (All the Buddhafield apostates I spoke to were to some extent involved in the entertainment industry.)

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  84. Months later in a quiet South Austin cafe I asked Christopher whether he would call the Buddhafield a cult. “I had to re-define what that word means for me,” he said. “I re-defined it in terms of: Any group or organization that tries to control your process of thinking, through any kind of guilt, coercion, or shame, may be a cult. If you think in those terms, the Catholic Church may be our biggest. But what about the NFL? What about your own family?”

    “Your own family has a way of being, and you grow up in that programming, and there’s a language that you use, and a lot of times your parents have an idea of what you should be, and if you want to have an independent thought that goes against that, you might be guilted or shamed because you’re trying to go against the grain,” Christopher continued. “That is a cult. What I often tell people is, I joined a cult to escape a cult. The cult I left was my family. I left my not-so-good programming for a programming I thought was better. And it was better, much higher. But then I had to leave that programming only to find my own authenticity and my own voice, without anybody else’s conditioning. For me, that’s empowerment.”

    Allen, on the verge of his first big film release, and Gleis, who is trying to launch a naturopathic television network, echo similar sentiments. “The first five years, I learned love and selflessness and humility,” Allen says. “The next 15 years, I learned a lot of other things — the hard way. They were hard lessons to come by, but very valuable to me.”

    Sociologists and veterans of the Waco tragedy may wince to see Holy Hell rehabilitating the word “cult” and returning it to the headlines. But, in Allen’s rendering, the term assumes a different and less dehumanizing meaning. When Lefemine says, at the end of Holy Hell, that she was in a “cult,” the emphasis is not on belittling the group or re-opening the possibility of ’90s-style anti-cult violence. Instead, she’s spinning a tale of self-discovery, relatable to anyone who’s had to make a break with an abusive family, a bad marriage, or a soul-crushing job. “I was in a cult,” in her phrasing, is not substantively different from, for example, “I married a jerk.” The moral of the story is a warning, but a broad one, about just how bad any group can get if you stay too long and ignore the warning signs: The Buddhafield apostates went there so you don’t have to.

    Gleis suggests that even Andreas/Reyji may be excited to see Holy Hell, even though the film treats him as a villain. His narcissism reflects one reason whyHoly Hell’s version of the cult apostate narrative feels so much a product of our media-saturated age. “Andreas always wanted to be a star in a movie,” Gleis says. “Well, you got your wish, dude. He’s up there on that cross where he always wanted to be.”