Anti-Cult Laws: Protection, or Threat?

February 21, 2013
The word 'cult' often brings forth extremely negative images inside a person's head. Really, such negative reactions are not necessary in viewing them. There are many new religious movements not centered on violence; it is simply the fact that it is only tragedies, such as that of the Heaven's Gate and People's Temple, that are flaunted to the public. Though, this is not to say that the issue of cults should be completely ignored. There should be some laws put into place, such as in the position of minors in cults and the topic of brainwashing. Just because not all cults are dangerous does not mean that no cults are.

One part of what the public consider to be a cult is the crime and violence they seem to include. Violence from cults has been occurring since as early as the 1300’s. An example of this near-ancient cultic violence is from the Indian cult, Thuggee. While they were eradicated completely, or almost completely, by 1840, they represent a part of cult violence. The Thuggee killed by gaining the trust of travelers, before surprising them, strangling them with scarves, and leaving with their valuables. This cult was a following of Kali, the Hindu Goddess of violence and sexuality, and followed specific rituals devoted to her. Thuggee had an estimated one million kills between 1740 and 1840 alone. That’s one million people that they murdered within 100 years, people who trusted them, were friends with them. Even though this example is not exactly modern, it certainly doesn’t give a point in favor of cults. In addition to ancient cult violence, there is also plenty of recent activity within cults, such as the People’s temple mass suicide of ’78. When Congressman Leo Ryan went to the People’s Temple to investigate claims of abuse, some members expressed a desire to leave the temple. Once the Congressman and these people reached the airstrip, they were opened fire upon by Temple guards, killing Ryan, three journalists, and one Temple defector. On November 18, following this incident, the leader of People’s Temple Jim Jones ordered his congregation to drink cyanide-laced Flavor Aid, and to inject it into those too young to drink it. This resulted in a total of 918 deaths, including 276 children, and the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural non-accidental event prior to 9/11. In this incident, dozens of children died, lost their only chance at life, because of this cult. The tragedy of People’s Temple is an excellent reason why minors should be protected under the law from these cults, so they may actually have a chance to understand what they are getting into. Minors are unable to have sex, drink, or vote, so why should they be able to make such a life-changing decision, one that affects so many emotionally, physically, and intellectually? On another note, not all cults are violent in any way. An example of a non-violent cult is Jehovah's Witnesses. They are non-violent on a large scale, to the point where over 3,000 of them are in jail for refusal of compulsory military service. Also, it is not fair to make a judgment of a cult off of their violence alone. After all, many mainstream religions have used violence as a means to their end throughout history, not to mention the various wars started by discord in religious beliefs (The Northern Crusades, the French Wars of Religion, and the Thirty Years War to name a few). What can be noticed in these cases, though, is that most of these wars were fought before the current century, as well as the fact that the people almost always chose to be there and understood the possibility of losing their lives, which is sometimes not the case in cults. Morals have changed, death has become a public weight. That is to say, death by cultic activity is less accepted by citizens of a country than the losses of war. Therefore, laws should be created to cut down on the violence and loss of life associated with some cults, in order to protect citizens.

Another thing that is often present in cults and almost never in mainstream religions, is the process of brainwashing. Now, brainwashing in this sense is not the kind where a machine is pulled over an unsuspecting victim’s head, before rendering them as mentally capable as a zombie. No, this brainwashing, of the real variety, can also be called psychological behavior modification. This behavioral modification is put into practice through a kind of reward and punishment system, as well as repetition. The punishment aspect, when used inappropriately (as is often the case in cults) can in some cases cause an emotional disorder in the victim, as well as complete compliance in the form of fear. Brainwashing will often cause additional complications, such as the often-arising Stockholm syndrome. Stockholm syndrome is when a captive begins to have feelings of gratitude to their captors, to the point that they will defend them if someone else 'attacks' them verbally. The victim will often mistake a lack of abuse as an act of kindness, or worthy of gratitude, and is often found in the tortured and child abuse victims. France has enacted laws, as of 2001, to protect citizens from 'brainwashing', or behavioral modification. Even though this has gotten criticism for endangering the freedom of religion, the U.S should follow suit. At the very least, laws to protect minors from this modification process. These problems come to a point where the cult members would often be 'deprogrammed'. The process was invented in the early 1970's by a man named Ted Patrick, a man with plenty of street smarts but, at the time, no formal training in counseling. He believed that members of his family were being brainwashed by David Berg, the leader of a group called the Family International, now known as "The Family." Patrick wanted to take action against this. He thought that since cults use methods that "program" beliefs through hypnosis, repetition, and behavior modification techniques, he would reverse the process. He called the new procedure "deprogramming." There was much controversy about these methods, to the point where some call it extremely effective, others, harmful to the individual it is acted upon, until about the 2000's, where the methods behind deprogramming were discovered by the general public.. The methods involved in "deprogramming" are like those used in Communist concentration camps. Using parents and relatives to entrap members, "deprogrammers" commit grown adults to mental hospitals with the supposed "illness" of holding of a minority religious belief. Other typical deprogramming techniques include kidnapping, illegal detention, violence, psychological harassment, sleep deprivation, inducement to use alcohol and drugs, sexual seduction and rape. By such threats, harassment and manipulation professional deprogrammers force members to renounce their faith. Many people were injured physically and psychologically because of this activity. Had laws been in place against the use of techniques used in cults, none of these people would have been hurt. Some believe that these techniques do not exist, that it is simply a plan by the government or individual companies to rid America of minority religions. However, even if this were the truth, laws are not enacted to get rid of cults, simply to prevent acts of behavior modification and dangerous acts. For example, in the French Law, it states that it would punish "the fraudulent abuse of ... a person in a state of psychological or physical subjection resulting from serious pressures exercised or repeated or from techniques likely to alter his judgment, leading ... this person to an act or an abstention which are seriously harmful to him" (French Anti-Cult Law). As can be seen, this does not state that minority religions should be gotten rid of, rather, it is a law to protect the people, not harm them. Therefore, the United States should enact a law to protect people from behavioral modification, especially minors.

As one can see, even though not all cults are dangerous, laws need to be enacted to protect people from those that are. The French, as well as some other countries, have enacted laws in order to protect citizens from the dangers of violent and doomsday cults. It's high time the United States followed suit.

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