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Society and New Religious Movements

By Michael Nielsen, Ph.D.

I was prompted to write this by the BBC, as part of their Have Words. This was a weekly series which promoted discussion of current issues. The issue for the week of July 12, 1999, was the London International Church of Christ, a new religious movement that frequently finds itself at the heart of controversy.

Free and democratic societies cherish religious liberties. We espouse the view that people should be able to worship according to the dictates of their conscience. And yet, we are troubled when people worship in ways that are different than our own. When a family member or friend takes a different path, we are concerned that their religious involvement is healthy and beneficial, and that they have chosen to do so of their own free will. The recruitment efforts of some groups cause us to question just how healthy their organization is. Stories surrounding the London Church of Christ and its affiliates (Boston Church of Christ, etc.) illustrate the issues that society must consider in balancing the virtues of individual choice with the desire to assure the safety of society and its constituents.

People who study religious groups commonly list several warning signals, which suggest that a group may not be healthy for its members or for society. These warning signs typically include various characteristics of the group's leader, its position regarding social accountability, and an ultimate violent overthrow of the status quo. Here is one such list of characteristics that warrant caution.

Regarding the group's leadership:

  1. Leaders have unusually strong power over the individuals in the group, even to the extent that the group members' personal lives should conform to the leader's wishes. The member's occupational choice and other preferences are dictated by the leader, and failure to conform is considered a serious offense in the eyes of the group.
  2. Although group members are to be scrupulous in obeying the group's rules, the leader may be exempt from those same rules because he or she follows a "higher" law.
Regarding the group's accountability to society:
  1. The group sees itself as being "above" social law and norms. It engages in activities that are clearly outside of the typical standards of behavior for society, and the group does not see itself as being accountable for those violations of norms or standards. In fact, the group may even see itself as an adversary with society, which violates God's laws.
  2. The group, through its leadership, makes claims that are not true. When faced with contrary evidence, the group ignores the facts, and continues making the false claims.

Finally, the group typically expects a literal fight for God against the forces of evil that grip society. The fight is expected to come soon, and the group is preparing for it. Preparations may even include stockpiling weapons or other items for the impending battle.

The challenge for society is to find a balance between protecting individuals from groups that threaten people's health and safety, while maintaining the liberty of allowing individuals to choose their religious affiliations. This is made all the more difficult because there is no clear demarcation between groups that are "safe" and those that are "harmful". For example, stories of people who have experienced such groups may describe the group as dictating what foods should and should not be eaten, when they should be eaten, when the person should sleep and wake, and so forth. Commands from the leader may be expected to be carried out quickly, without delay. These appear consistent with the warning signs I mentioned earlier... but so, too, do stories of people who have experienced military life in the service of their country. The presence of a few, or even several, of these characteristics is not by itself enough to merit action against the group. The characteristics themselves do not establish the group's harmfulness; we also must consider the value society places on the group and our willingness to support the group. Ultimately, it is a societal decision.

For reasons such as these, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion has issued a statement on the use of brainwashing in new religious groups. The statement indicates that there is not yet any reliable scientific evidence establishing that such groups use 'mind control' or 'brainwashing' in their activities. This does not mean that the groups are healthy, nor does it indicate that such brainwashing techniques never occur. It does suggest, however, that dispassionate scientific research has not yet found them to occur. The techniques that are used appear to be similar to those used by other social groups. In some cases, they may be more intensively applied, but the nature of the techniques appears to be no different than those found in other segments of society.

These are difficult and important questions that society must address. The difficulty is exacerbated when we find our loved ones becoming involved with groups or people that appear not to share our own values. I hope that we can find peaceful ways of reconciling our desire to have religious freedom with our desire to maintain a safe society. Too much of one, with too little of the other, attacks the core values of our free societies.

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