Publications of the International Cultic Studies Association have disputed the appropriateness of the term "Anti-cult movement"; (see for example Kropveld ) with one writer preferring the label "cult critics" rather than "anti-cult" activists.
The anti-cult movement is conceptualized as a collection of individuals and groups, whether formally organized or not, who oppose new religious movements (or "cults"). This countermovement has reportedly recruited from family members of "cultists"; former cult members, (or apostates); church groups (including Jewish groups); and associations of health professionals. Although there is a trend towards globalization, the social and organizational bases vary significantly from country to country according to the social and political opportunity structures in each place.
As are many aspects of the social sciences, the movement is variously defined. A significant minority opinion suggests that analysis should treat the secular anti-cult movement separately from the religiously motivated (mainly Christian) groups.
The anti-cult movement might be divided into four classes:
As is typical in social and religious movements, no unified ideology exists, but most, if not all, the groups involved express the view that there are potentially deleterious effects associated with New Religious Movements.
The modern era of opposition to cults and new religious movements, referred to as the secular anti-cult movement, started in the United States. In the 1960s and early 1970s, middle-class youths and adults started to follow new religious movements and other groups (then — as now — usually lumped together as "cults"), such as the Children of God, the Unification Church, the Hare Krishnas, the Divine Light Mission, Scientology, Synanon, the Charles Manson family and the Love Family. These movements often stood at odds with traditional middle-class values and ideas. The families of these young people became worried about the behavior of their children, and about what they (the families) considered bizarre belief-systems. They started to organize themselves into grassroot movements, some of which merged and became regional or national organizations. One of the first such organized groups in the USA, FREECOG, originated in 1971 with parents whose children had become involved in the Children of God group.
The opposition to cults soon consisted not only of concerned parents but of a range of people. Protagonists of the 1970s and 1980s included psychiatrists John Gordon Clark and Louis Jolyon West, psychologists Margaret Singer and Michael Langone, congressman Leo J. Ryan, deprogrammer Ted Patrick, and lawyers Kay Barney and Herbert Rosedale, as well as former members like Steven Hassan.
The cult controversies in the 1960s and 1970s also resulted in growing interest in scholarly research on alternative religions, and in the setting-up of academic organizations for their study.
The controversy divided scholars into two opposing camps:
Each camp has in the last twenty years produced not only scientific works but also polemics, and some proponents still regard the "other" camp as unscientific. In recent years, though, some scholars in each camp have sought some understanding with the opposing position.
Commentators differentiate two main types of opposition to cults:
According to sociologist Eileen Barker, cult-watching groups (CWGs) disseminate information about "cults" with the intent of changing public and government perception as well as of changing public policy regarding NRMs.
Barker is an active participant on the subject of cult watching groups.
Jeffrey K. Hadden sees four distinct classes in the organizational opposition to cults:
Some critics of cults differentiate between "cults" and "legitimate religious groups" — distinguished not by belief but by the actions of a group. Such observers define cults as groups which exploit and abuse their members, often centering around an unreliable charismatic leader and which may use deceitful ways of recruiting and retaining members.
Most critics of cults share the belief that the public merit warning about the actions of such groups and that current members should become as well fully informed on the negative sides of their group so that they can make an informed choice about staying or leaving.
Some opposition to cults (and to new religious movements) started with family-members of cult-adherents who had problems with the sudden changes in character, lifestyle and future plans of their young adult children who had joined NRMs. Ted Patrick, widely known as "the Father of deprogramming", exemplifies members of this group. The former Cult Awareness Network (old CAN) grew out of a grassroots-movement by parents of cult-members. The American Family Foundation ( today the International Cultic Studies Association) originated from a father whose daughter had joined a high-control group.
From the 1970s onwards some psychiatrists and psychologists accused cults of harming some of their members. These accusations were sometimes based on observations made during therapy, and sometimes were related to research regarding brainwashing or mind-control. Examples include John Gordon Clark, Louis Jolyon West, Robert Cialdini, Louise Samways and Margaret Singer.
For details, see Apostasy in alleged cults and new religions movements
Some former members have taken an active stance in opposition to their former religion/group. Some of those opponents have "affiliated" with the ACM. Some have have founded cult-watching groups (often with an active presence on the Internet), made their experiences public in books and on the Internet, or work as expert witnesses or as exit counselors. Most of them have associations with cult-awareness groups, for example:
Cult-watching groups often use testimonies of former members of cults. The validity and reliability of such testimonies can occasion intense controversy amongst scholars:
Anson Shupe, David G. Bromley and Joseph Ventimiglia coined the term atrocity tales in 1979, which Bryan R. Wilson later took up in relation to former members' narratives. Bromley and Shupe defined an "atrocity tale" as the symbolic presentation of action or events (real or imaginary) in such a context that they come flagrantly to violate the (presumably) shared premises upon which a given set of social relationships should take place. The recounting of such tales has the intention of reaffirming normative boundaries. By sharing the reporter's disapproval or horror, an audience reasserts normative prescription and clearly locates the violator beyond the limits of public morality. Massimo Introvigne argues that the majority of former members hold no strong feelings concerning their past experiences, while former members who dramatically reverse their loyalties and become "professional enemies" of their former group form a vociferous minority. The term "atrocity story" has itself become controversial as it relates to the opposing views amongst scholars about the credibility of the accounts of former cult-members.
Phillip Charles Lucas came to the conclusion that former members have as much credibility as those who remain in the fold. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, a professor of psychology at the University of Haifa, argues that in the cases of cult-catastrophes such as People's Temple, or Heaven's Gate, allegations by hostile outsiders and detractors matched reality more closely than other accounts, and that in that context statements by ex-members turned out more accurate than those offered by apologists and NRM-researchers.
A somewhat similar movement, generally not considered part of the ACM, exists within a recognized religion: the Christian countercult movement (CCM). The CCM offers two basic arguments for opposition to cults and new religious movement: one based mainly on theological differences; the other based on defending human self-determinism and targeting mainly groups (religious and non-religious) with alleged cultic behavior (according to the definition of the secular opposition to cults).
The trend focusing on theological differences has a very long tradition in Christian apologetics. Since the 1970s, "countercult apologetics" has developed, out of which the Christian countercult movement grew. The "CCM" label does not actually designate a movement but a conglomerate of individuals and groups of very different backgrounds and levels of scholarship. Other designations include countercult ministries, discernment ministries (mainly used by such groups themselves) or "heresy hunters" (mainly used by their critics).
Countercult ministries mainly consist of conservative Christians — the majority of them Protestant, but also including Catholics and Orthodox. They express concerns about religious groups which they feel hold dangerous, non-traditional beliefs, especially regarding the central Christian doctrines (which they define according to conservative views in their respective denomination). These ministries appear motivated by a concern for the spiritual welfare of people in the groups that they attack. They believe that any group which rejects one or more of the historical Christian beliefs poses a danger to the welfare of its members. Such ministries include:
The secular opposition to cults and to new religious movements operates internationally, though a number of sizable and sometimes expanding groups originated in the United States. Some European countries, such as France, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland, as well as China, have introduced legislation or taken other measures against cults or "cultic deviations."
Cult-watchers include Rick Ross, Andreas Heldal-Lund, Hank Hanegraff, and Tilman Hausherr, as well as anti-cult organizations such as Infosekta in Switzerland, UNADFI (National Association for the Defense of Families and Individuals Victims of Cults) in France, and the AGPF (Action for Mental and Psychological Freedom) in Germany.
Specific cult-watching government agencies exist (for example) in France (MIVILUDES) and in Belgium (CIAOSN: Centre d'information et d'avis sur les organisations sectaires nuisibles).
Social scientists, sociologists, religious scholars, psychologists and psychiatrists have studied the modern field of cults and new religious movements since the early 1980s. Cult debates about certain purported cults and about cults in general often become polarized with widely divergent opinions, not only among current followers and disaffected former members, but sometimes even among scholars as well.
All academics agree that some groups have become problematic and sometimes very problematic; but they disagree over the extent to which new religious movements in general cause harm.
Scholars appear among all five groups of cult watchers: most of them sociologists, psychologists, or researchers in the field of science of religion. Some like John Gordon Clark, Margaret Singer, Stephen A. Kent and David C. Lane operate in the cult-awareness field, others like J. P. Moreland or Edmond C. Gruss in the counter-cult field, Eileen Barker, Benjamin Beith-Hallahmi, Benjamin Zablocki, Michael Langone and Philip Zimbardo have a research-orientation. Jeffrey Hadden and Douglas E. Cowan focus on the human rights of members of religious groups, while J. Gordon Melton researches movements like Scientology and the Unification Church and publishes encyclopedias on new religious movements. Other scholars studying and researching NRMs (and often defending religious movements) include Irving Hexham, James R. Lewis, Anson Shupe, David G. Bromley and James T. Richardson.
Several scholars have questioned Hadden's attitude towards NRMs and cult critics as one-sided. This also applies to Barker, whom many of her critics regard as a "cult apologist." (The Scientology-run "new Cult Awareness Network" has listed her as a professional referral. )
Scholars in the field of new religious movements confront many controversial subjects:
Janet Jacobs expresses the range of views on the membership of the perceived ACM itself, ranging from those who comment on "the value of the Cult Awareness Network, the value of exit therapy for former members of new religious movements, and alternative modes of support for family members of individuals who have joined new religions" and extending to "a more critical perspective on [a perceived] wide range of ACM activities that threaten religious freedom and individual rights. Compare conspiracy-theory.
Both sympathizers and critics of new religious movements have found the topic(s) of brainwashing or mind-control extremely controversial. The controversy between sympathizers and critics of new religious movements starts with discrepancies regarding the definition and concept of "brainwashing" and of "mind-control," extends to the possibility or probability of their application by cultic groups and to the state of acceptance by various scholarly communities.
Some members of the secular opposition to cults and to new religious movements have argued that if brainwashing has deprived a person of their free will, treatment to restore their free will should take place — even if the "victim" initially opposes this.
Precedents for this exist in the treatment of certain mental illnesses: in such cases medical and legal authorities recognize the condition(s) as depriving sufferers of their ability to make appropriate decisions for themselves. But the practice of forcing treatment on a presumed victim of "brainwashing" (one definition of "deprogramming") has constantly proven controversial, and courts have frequently adjudged it illegal. Human-rights organizations (including the ACLU and Human Rights Watch) have also criticized deprogramming. While only a small fraction of the anti-cult movement has had involvement in deprogramming, several deprogrammers (including a deprogramming-pioneer, Ted Patrick) have served prison-terms for the practice, while courts have acquitted others.
The anti-cult movement in the USA has apparently abandoned deprogramming in favor of the voluntary practice of exit counseling. However, this remains a subject of controversy between sympathizers and critics of new religious movements, who continue to debate deprogramming's basic assumptions and its relation to rights of freedom of religion.
The indiscriminate use of this expression for any and all opposition to cults makes a very varied collective of independent individuals and groups look like an organized group or like organized groups.
On the other hand, the people criticizing the opposition against cults or sympathizing with cults get called cult apologists in a similarly indiscriminate manner.
Scholarly cooperation between the two groups seems virtually non-existent.
The allegations the two groups fling against each other have many parallels. Sometimes the other side disputes the allegations; in other cases they defend their practices as the only "right" way to address the matter. For example:
The Foundation against Intolerance of Religious Minorities, associated with the [[Adidam] NRM, sees the use of terms "cult" and "cult leader" as detestable and as something to avoid at all costs. The Foundation regards such usage as the exercise of prejudice and discrimination against them in the same manner as the words "nigger" and "commie" served in the past to denigrate blacks and Communists.
CESNUR’s president Massimo Introvigne, writes in his article "So many evil things: Anti-cult terrorism via the Internet", that fringe and extreme anti-cult activists resort to tactics that may create a background favorable to extreme manifestations of discrimination and hate against individuals that belong to new religious movements. Critics of CESNUR, however, call Introvigne a cult-apologist who defends harmful religious groups and cults. Professor Eileen Barker points out in an interview that the controversy surrounding certain new religious movements can turn violent by a process called deviancy amplification spiral.
In a paper presented at the 2000 meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Anson Shupe and Susan Darnell argued that although the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA, formerly known as AFF or American Family Foundation) has presented "slanted, stereotypical images and language that has inflamed persons to perform extreme actions," the extent to which one can classify the ICSA and other anti-cult organizations as "hate-groups" (as defined by law in some jurisdictions or by racial/ethnic criteria in sociology) remains open for debate. See also Verbal violence in hate groups.
An article on the categorization of new religious movements in US media published by The Association for the Sociology of Religion (formerly the American Catholic Sociological Society, criticizes the print media for failing to recognize social-scientific efforts in the area of new religious movements, and its tendency to use anti-cultist definitions rather than social-scientific insight, and asserts that The failure of the print media to recognize social-scientific efforts in the area of religious movement organizations (as our previous research [van Driel and Richardson, 1985] also shows) impels us to add yet another failing mark to the media report card Weiss (1985) has constructed to assess the media's reporting of the social sciences.