Interacting with "Cults"

By Szubin, Adam; Jensen, Iii, Carl J. et al. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Interacting with "Cults"

Szubin, Adam, Jensen, Iii, Carl J., Gregg, Rod, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

There is a common tendency to view "cults" with a combination of mistrust and fear. Much of this hostility derives from widespread misconceptions about the nature of "cults," founded upon popular stereotypes and simple ignorance. While such misconceptions are unfortunate in the general populace, they may be dangerous when harbored by law enforcement officers charged with dealing with these groups and ensuring the safety of both "cult" members and the general public. The intent of this article is to shed light on what "cults" are and are not, to give law enforcement officers some general guidance on how to approach such movements, and to provide an illustration of how one police department successfully handled the arrival of a doomsday "cult" in its jurisdiction. [1]

A Policinq Model

In sociological terms, a "cult" may be defined as a movement that is foreign to the culture in which it lives. [2] Thus, Americans would define a "cult" as a group, generally with a religious foundation, whose beliefs and practices are unfamiliar to the majority of U.S. citizens. Many groups that Americans once thought of as "cults"--such as the early Quakers, Seventh-Day Adventists, or Mormons--have received increased recognition and acceptance and become accredited churches. [3] Other groups, such as Zen Buddhists, which many Americans may view as "cults," represent mainstream movements in other parts of the world. Thus, defining a group as a "cult" generally has much more to do with the way society perceives the group than it does with the characteristics indigenous to the group itself.

Most scholars of religion avoid the word "cult" altogether because it carries with it a set of negative connotations: "cult" leaders are con artists; "cult" followers are brainwashed sheep; "cult" beliefs are bizarre or ludicrous; and "cult" movements are dangerous, tending toward suicide or violence. [4] These scholars instead refer to cults as "new religious movements or "NRMs" because the majority of "cults" are young religious movements still in their first generation. [5] To avoid the negative stereotypes often associated with the word "cult," the authors will refer to these groups as new religious movements or NRMs thioughout this article.

Scholars of religion have identified various characteristics that are common to NRMs. In practice, however, it proves difficult to provide a specific description of NRMs because they vary so widely, from New Age associations to Buddhist meditation groups to Christian premillennialist movements. NRMs may range in size from groups with just a handful of followers to groups with thousands of members. And, they embrace radically different doctrines, ascetic to hedonistic, from apocalyptic to utopian, and from reactionary to New Age--each with a very different attitude toward society at large.

It is critical to note at the outset that the majority of NRMs stay within the boundaries of the law. [6] Generally, the public only learns about the exceptions--NRM members' committing suicide, violently confronting law enforcement, or engaging in fraudulent financial transactions. Most NRMs, however, practice their religions peacefully, never attracting the attention of the public, the media, or law enforcement. Regardless of this, NRMs still conjure up negative thoughts in most people's minds primarily because of some long-standing myths, or misconceptions, about such groups and their activities.


NRMs engender enormous amounts of fear and mistrust. And, because they ardently advocate beliefs that are unorthodox or countercultural, NRMs usually have few defenders. [7] Moreover, inaccurate or sensational media reports and misinformation spread by organizations that may have an anticult bias often provide the public with its only source of information. Finally, new religious movements themselves do not have the numbers, influence, or, perhaps, interest to change society's impressions of them. …

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