The Dark Side Of Cults

Source: Gazette
Date: November 13, 1988

The cult phenomena that started in the early 70s is still going on, but it's now broader, more shrouded and more complex.

Cult, n. (Fr. & Latin). 1. formal religious veneration: Worship. 2. a system of religious beliefs and rituals. 3. a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious. 4. A system for the cure of disease based on dogma. 5. (a) A great devotion to a person, idea or thing. (b) a small circle of persons united by devotion or allegiance to an artistic or intellectual movement.

It's not easy to define a cult; even Webster has trouble sorting out the religious, psuedo-religious, psychotherapeutic, and the downright loopy.

But no matter how you characterize them, the increasing number of different ritual practices in Quebec has been a mounting source of anxiety.

Starting tomorrow, McGill and Concordia Universities in co-operation with the Cult Project at the Hillel Foundation and other groups are sponsoring seminars in English and French to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre.

On Nov. 18, 1978, 913 people, members of a group known as People's Temple, committed mass suicide and murder in the jungle of Guyana at the request of the cult's leader, Jim Jones.

Most died after drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide and tranquillizers.

Senator Jacques Hebert, honorary president of the seminars, insists Quebec has had its share of "unscrupulous manipulation of the minds and the souls of our young people," and believes "we must sensitize the public to the danger and the problems posed by certain sects. "Some of these sects such as l'Opus Die are related to legitimate religions, like the Roman Catholic Church. But they represent an attack on liberty, which as a civil libertarian I cannot accept."

Mike Kropveld, director of the Hillel Cult Project, a nondenominational research centre that keeps tabs on various movements, believes Montreal is "the second largest centre after Toronto for the financement and recruitment of new cult members in Canada."

"The cult phenomena that started in the early '70s is still going on, but it's now broader, more shrouded and more complex," says Kropveld, who has been compiling data for the past eight years.

"It's not just young people who are joining. You are now getting middle-aged and older people getting involved as well as whole families. There's a group for everything these days."

So it seems.

The Centre D'Information sur les Nouvelles Religions has files on more than 600 different groups that have sprung up in the province over the past two decades. Reasearch by Professor Rolland Chagnon, a sociologist in the department of religious studies at the Universite du Quebec in Montreal, indicates that at least 360,000 people in the province belong to the various cults. Chagnon also reports that at one time or another 16 per cent of all Quebecers have read material published by cults.

"Since the Quiet Revolution in the '60s when the Roman Catholic Church lost its monopoly over sacred affairs in Quebec, we have seen a number of micro-sociological movements offer their own vision of the world," explains Chagnon.

"Many of these groups offer people not only philosophy but techniques of survival in a stress-filled world. People are more anxious than ever and searching for something to find their way through the pressures of the modern world. The rise of cults is a direct result of the pluralism and modernity of our society," he told The Gazette.

According to Kropveld, his office dealt with 700 new complaints against cults last year, a 30-per-cent increase over the previous year.

The most numerous, he says, concern the The Church of Scientology, The Forum, (formerly known as EST), founded in San Francisco in 1971 by Werner Erhard, and the Unification Church.

"It's not our job to identify which groups are harmful," Kropveld explains. "It's not the group itself that concerns us, but the pitch used to get you to buy into them. You have to be aware of the deception, the dubious recruiting practice. Every group has a right to believe in what it wants. But the bottom line is - you have to ask yourself, does that belief withstand the scrutiny of the criminal or the civil law?"

There are apparently a number that cannot.

In February, The Church of Scientology, charged with fraud and false representation, agreed to pay 10 of its disgruntled members $250,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

The 10 had given the church between $5,000 and $45,000 over periods of up to five years. As part of the settlement, the former members cannot talk to the press about their time with the Scientologists.

In June of this year, a $467-million class action suit launched by the Church of Scientology against L'Association Co-operative D'Economie Familiale (ACEF) was, on appeal, thrown out of court.

The suit claimed the church had been libelled by the consumer group.

The Church of Scientology was founded in the '60s by U.S. Science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986. It claims 22,250 members in Quebec.

In Ontario, The Church of Scientology and 15 of its members have been charged with the theft of photocopied documents from several Ontario government ministries. Earlier this year, the church offered to spend "millions" on community social agencies if the criminal charges against it were dropped.

So far, they haven't been.

The leader of the Unification Church, The Rev. Sun Myung Moon, was jailed in 1984 by a court in New York for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury.

Last month the California Supreme Court agreed that the church purports to teach a doctrine of "heavenly deception," which encourages its supporters - known as "Moonies" - to lie to achieve Moon's aims. The court ruled the church may be sued for fraud for allegedly brainwashing its recruits into joining the movement.

There are hundreds of smaller sects that don't attract the same kind of media attention. They range from the Universal Life Church of Enlightened Reason, a sect based in Montreal, to The Breatharians, who preach that a person needs only air, orange juice and exercise to survive.

(Three years ago the leader of the Universal Life Church of Enlightened Reason in Quebec, Raymond Steele, was sentenced to life in prison for the torture and the murder of a pregnant woman.)

Concern about three recent suicides in the Eastern Townships links the deaths to Satanic practice.

The Vatican has recognized the challenge posed by the new religious cults. Its concern is expressed in a 27-page document, Sects or New Religious Movements: A Pastoral Challenge. The document acknowledges that cults provide "human warmth, care and support in a small close-knit community" as well as "a style of prayer and preaching closer to the cultural traits and aspirations of the people."

Cults, the study says, respond "to a vacuum crying to be filled." It recommends "more fraternal church structures" more adapted to people's life situations."

Linda James, a psychologist at the Montreal General Hospital, says that "when totalitarian groups dictate the function of people's lives, adherents can be psychologically and profoundly damaged by their cult experience."

Thinking of Joining A Cult?

Thinking of joining a cult? Before you do, be aware from the beginning of the difference between the philosophy it preaches and its actual practice.

Here's what authorities on cults advise:

  • Ask yourself: Does the group have special or exalted status for its leader?
  • Does it put itself in opposition to mainline society and the family?
  • Is there pressure to sign up and give a deposit right away?
  • Does it exploit members financially, physically or psychologically?
  • Does it dictate in great detail how you should think, feel or act?

If the answer to most of the questions is "yes" you have reason for concern.