Cultic Studies Review, 2(2) 2003, 130-150
An Example for Controversy: Creating a Model for Reconciliation
Scholarly research, dialogue, and education are goals that we who are involved in the study of cults and new religious movements (NRMs) pursue. However, a polarization of “them versus us” has emerged which has unfortunately created what is now known as the “cult wars.” The consequent animosity can only work to be self-defeating for our efforts to achieve those goals that will move us forward. Further, this polarization paints an inaccurate picture that does not reflect the diversity of views offered by the numerous individuals and organizations that contribute their vast array of knowledge to the discussion.
In this paper I will first offer some suggestions for enhancing dialogue and mutual respect. Then I will present some background on Info-Cult. Lastly, I will present some examples, using Info-Cult, which I serve as Executive Director, as the object of the kinds of inaccuracies and distortions that tend to magnify rather than decrease suspicion and stereotyping on both sides of the “cult wars.”
Suggestions for Enhancing Dialogue and Respect
1. Avoid simplistic terms that promote the dichotomy of good versus evil.
The use of terminology such as “Anti-Cult Movement” (ACM) and “Pro-Cult Movement” (PCM), “anti-cultist” and “pro-cultist” or “cult apologist” are examples of divisive labels that are hardly conducive to encouraging dialogue or discernment. Such labels often function, to use Dr. Robert Lifton’s terminology, as “thought-terminating clichés.” We tag the label on somebody who disagrees with us and delude ourselves into thinking that by so doing we have demonstrated an understanding of an issue. My criticism of these kinds of labels does not mean that I oppose all use of labels. Labels are categories, and categories are essential to thought. What is important is how we use the labels.
University of London Sociology Professor Eileen Barker has put forth an interesting and useful model for classifying those who are interested in cults/NRMs (Barker, 2002).
Barker identifies five ideal types into which Cult Watching Groups can be divided:
Dr. Barker’s classification invited much spirited discussion at a special AFF (American Family Foundation) meeting after the 2002 annual conference. Moreover, it was a productive exchange because her terminology, though disputable, invites, rather than closes off, thought and discussion.
Even disregarding interesting proposals such as Dr. Barker’s, we could all, at the very least, contribute to more discerning dialogue by avoiding simplistic terminology that over generalizes, such as “pro-cult” and “anti-cult.” We could, for example, be more specific in our statements, e.g., “Info-Cult has observed that” or “INFORM’s position is” or “AFF has found that.”
It is also important that we clearly define the terms that we use. In this regard, AFF’s definitional essays bring to light the inherent ambiguity and potential for misuse in terms such as “cult”: http://www.cultinfobooks.com/infoserv _aff/aff_termdefambiguity.htm; http://www.cultinfobooks. com/infoserv_aff/aff_termcultp2.htm
2. Do your homework.
Too often, people associated with both “camps” make statements of “fact” that, upon even a cursory examination, are obviously wrong. It is especially troubling when these errors are made by scholars, from whom more is expected. Sometimes these errors result from hurried or sloppy research. Sometimes they result from a reliance on secondary sources. I have noticed, for example, that much of the sociological literature about the so-called “anti-cult movement” consists of essays citing other sociological essays that make the same unsubstantiated claims.
A colleague and I searched various sources and databases for studies on individual “ACM” groups, and were unable to find even one sociological study that was systematically researched. 
3. Don’t lump individuals or groups together.
The sociological literature on the “anti-cult movement” repeatedly makes the mistake of presuming that all organizations and individuals, who express concerns about cults, have uniform objectives, a common agenda, and close, interlinking relationships. In fact, there are numerous differences, and most “ACM” groups know very little about other groups and individuals. Here is a partial list of organizations that Dr. Barker might categorize as “cult awareness groups” (all are from North America unless otherwise indicated):
I have not listed the dozens of organizations that fall under Dr. Barker’s “Countercult Groups.” Nor have I listed European organizations that are members of FECRIS (Fédération Européene des Centres de Recherche et d’Information sur le Sectarisme – European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Sectarianism) and other European organizations. Moreover, I could have listed hundreds of individuals who have written about cultic groups and/or who offer services to people believing such groups have harmed them. Hence, scholars who generalize about “the” “anti-cult movement,” when they have had at best superficial contact with only a few organizations and individuals, make the same error as laymen and helping professionals who generalize from their limited experience to the wide world of cults/NRMs, in which there are thousands of groups.
What is clearly needed is systematic and reliable research on individual cult awareness groups. As Dr. Barker has noted, even though it may be difficult, “to have direct access to certain groups or members of the ACM does not excuse us for characterizing them by the very methods that we accuse them of using in their characterization of us and the NRMs” (Barker, 1995, p. 307). In addition, any such study should take into account the socio-cultural-linguistic milieu of each group. For example, someone who does not understand French can miss important information when undertaking an in-depth study of a group that operates in the province of Quebec, Canada.
4. Know thyself!
In making a fair and informed evaluation about an individual or group, we should first ask ourselves the following questions:
Do we readily accept allegations against those with an opposing point of view because we believe they are capable of what they are accused of?
Do we assume that those involved in the “ACM” or “PCM” are the same today as they were in the past?
Cult critics should ask these questions when evaluating cultic groups.
It is apparent that individuals and organizations with opposing positions would be able to, and do, make the argument that their research and work has been unfairly stereotyped or has been the victim of poor or non-existent research.
5. Create more opportunities to dialogue.
We need to create more opportunities to dialogue, such as occurs at the AFF conferences, which bring people of different perspectives and disciplines together for the exchange of ideas, the examination of views, and the breaking down of stereotypes. Over the past few years there have been several productive small gatherings of individuals from the “two camps”. We need more of these. We also need more cross-fertilization of ideas by having members of the two camps speak at each others’ conferences. Again, some of this has occurred, but more dialogue is needed.
Seeing the Same Thing with Different Eyes. It is ironic that much of what I advocate in this paper has also been urged by ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness). Nobody likes to be stigmatized unfairly, whether they be academicians accused of being cult apologists, cult critics accused of being religious bigots, or cults/NRMs accused of being crass exploiters of their members. Of course, there undoubtedly are cult apologists, religious bigots, and crass exploiters among our numbers. Nevertheless, we ought not to hurl generalized accusations at those with whom we may disagree without due diligence. Hence, I find myself endorsing the following words of advice excerpted from Subhananda dasa (1979, p. 16):
Info-Cult as a Case Study. Info-Cult, an organization of which I am the founder and Executive Director, has been subjected to many of the distorting errors about which I write. An examination of these distortions can illuminate this discussion. First, however, I need to give some background on Info-Cult.
History of Info-Cult
Info-Cult, a resource centre on cultic thinking, was founded in 1980 in Montreal, Canada following my personal experience with the Unification Church (UC) in 1977 and specifically that involving my close friend, Benjie Carroll. After the story about Benjie’s kidnapping and deprogramming from the UC was featured in a series of six newspaper articles written by Josh Freed in the Montreal Star (Freed, 1977 December, 1978 January), his close associates and I received numerous requests for further information. In response, several friends organized a part-time volunteer public information service.
After obtaining funding from the Montreal Jewish Community in April 1980 a full-time center called the Cult Project was started. Its objectives were:
The center’s contention was that not all cults were problematic; hence, a distinction between “cults” and “destructive cults” was made.
The center’s activities included providing information programs to high schools, colleges, universities, community centers, and professional organizations principally in and around the Montreal region. These programs were geared towards sensitizing and educating the community to the issue of destructive cults and the techniques of mind control.
A documentation center was made available to the public containing books, newspaper and journal articles, and audio-visual materials. In the beginning, information focused on the experiences of families and ex-members. However, it soon became apparent that the collection must be diversified to include other perspectives.
During the first ten years, the majority of our clients were parents of cult members, ex-members, students, and teachers. Contact with groups perceived as “cults”, “destructive cults”, or those with opposing points of view was minimal.
During this period, funding for operating costs and specific projects was obtained from the Montreal Jewish Community, different grants from the provincial and federal governments, and individual donations.
In 1990 the Cult Project changed its name to Info-Cult (“Info-Secte” in French), moved out of the structure of the Montreal Jewish Community, and became an independent non-denominational, bilingual center run by a board of directors.
The objectives of Info-Cult are:
(Original in French: Règlement No. 1990-C 1) Promouvoir l’étude des phénomènes sectaires; 2) Sensibiliser, informer et éduquer la population à ces phénomènes; 3) Assister les personnes vivant des difficultés reliées à ces phénomènes.)
Info-Cult’s funding comes in the form of an annual grant from the Quebec Ministry of Health and Social Services, discretionary funds from different Provincial Ministers, foundations, private groups, and individual donations, as well as fees for certain services.
Info-Cult’s clientele has greatly expanded through the years. Besides parents, ex-members, students and teachers, clientele now includes members of different new religions, academics, mental health professionals, attorneys, law enforcement, media and others.
From 1990 to 2003 Info-Cult has had numerous contacts and meetings with members and representatives of “cult” groups, spiritual organizations, and new religious movements. Increasing interest and communication from academics with varying viewpoints has helped to broaden Info-Cult’s analysis and perspective on the issue.
Info-Cult is the only full-time organization of its kind in Canada. It houses a documentation center that is one of the largest in the world with over 2,500 books, 9,000 files, academic reports, journals, newsletters, government and legal documents and more than 1,200 programs on audio and video cassettes. The material is collected from sources around the world and includes group-generated and critical literature.
From 1991 to 1996 the documentation center was open by appointment to all interested parties. Unfortunately, due to budget constraints, it is open on a restricted basis until such time as a process of reopening to the public is considered feasible.
Info-Cult is widely regarded as a major source of information and assistance for dealing with cults, new religions, Satanism, the Occult and other non-traditional and secretive groups.
With this reputation comes enormous responsibility to respond to individual and family concerns in a nuanced and balanced way. Info-Cult avoids simplistic “yes” or “no” responses to complex questions such as “Is Group X a cult?” or “Is the group my loved-one joined dangerous?”
Although Info-Cult has evolved over the years, certain positions on accessibility, kidnapping, and legislation have remained constant:
Examples for Controversy
Labeled as an “anti-cult group,” Info-Cult has been the target of inaccuracies that hinder our mandate, which is to serve the public and promote balanced discussion of the issues. Selected examples are presented to illustrate this point:
Members of the OTS created a world-wide sensation with the death of fifty-three members in Switzerland in October 1994, sixteen members in France in December 1995, and five people in Quebec in March 1997 (see Mayer, 1999, for a scholarly analysis of the Solar Temple deaths).
Preceding the tragedies, their apocalyptic doctrine predicted cataclysmic upheavals that threatened the planet with destruction. The earth was believed to be a living entity that could no longer endure the ecological inflictions of humankind. Solar Temple members believed themselves to be of “’the pivotal elite’ which ‘has been removed from the collective by superhuman effort’” (Mayer, 1999: 188). Their goals included “the release of the ‘inner man’ from the bonds of the world and his return to his native realm of light” (Mayer, 1999: 181). Messages from other dimensions told the group that Jupiter was their “Next Home,” and exhorted them to “put [their] last things in order to leave Earth free and clear” (Mayer, 1999: 183).
Internal dissent from members and former members as well as external opposition to the group fueled the paranoia of one of the leaders, Joseph Di Mambro, and strengthened the group’s resolve to depart for a higher plain of existence (Mayer, 1999: 188).
After the first deaths were discovered, forensics clearly established that some were murdered, while others submitted to execution voluntarily. Most had absorbed a strong soporific before being shot. The core group had been injected with a poisonous substance (Mayer, 1999: 191).
Before the tragedies of the Order of the Solar Temple, a newspaper article by Jean-Marc Provost appeared under the sub-heading: “Info-Secte: Refuse d’Intervenir” and “À Quoi Ça Sert Info-Secte? (“Info-Cult: Refuses to Get Involved” and “Of What Use is Info-Cult?”) Provost wrote that former member, Rose-Marie Klaus, came to Info-Cult for help only to be turned away because, ”On m’a répondu qu’on n’avait pas d’argent pour s’occuper de cette affaire. Que je devais m’arranger seule” (“They said they didn’t have the money to handle this affair. I should handle it myself.”) (Provost, 1993: 6). Later in the same article under the heading, “Puisque Info-Secte ne Fait pas Son Job” (“Because Info-Cult isn’t Doing Its Job”) (p. 7) readers were encouraged to contact the paper with their problems related to cults because Info-Cult, according to Provost, was not doing its job.
After the tragedies, Hall and Schuyler (1997) wrote this about Klaus: “One friend suggested that Rose-Marie contact Info-Secte (or Info-Cult, as they call themselves in English)….Whatever Casgrain [author’s note: Yves Casgrain was Info-Cult’s Research Director at the time] made of Klaus’s account, he took no public action” (p. 298).
Two years later, Jean-Francois Mayer offered this analysis of the circumstances in his article, “Our Terrestrial Journey is Coming to an End”: The Last Voyage of the Solar Temple (Mayer, 1999):
Mayer, considered to be the foremost expert on the Solar Temple, continues:
Up to this point, the reporting on Info-Cult’s involvement was accurate. However, in a more recent book (Wessinger, 2000), blame is heaped on Info-Cult. Whereas in previous assessments we play a minor role in the Solar Temple deaths, Wessinger writes in a section titled, “The Persecution”:
In 1991, a disgruntled defector, Rose-Marie Klaus contacted a Montreal anti cult organization, Info-Secte, which then put out a letter warning of the dangers of the Solar Temple to other Quebec organizations. (p. 224)
As mentioned above it was Lucien Zecler of ADFI Martinique, not Info-Cult, who sent out the letter. Yet according to Wessinger’s inaccurate version of events, Info-Cult becomes, if not a major contributor, at least partly responsible for pushing the OTS into making their fatal decision. This is most unfortunate, for Wessinger’s book is a major resource in this area. Her error, which could have been avoided if the proper sources had been consulted, contributes to the perpetuation of stereotypes about the “anti-cult movement.”
Médecins du Ciel
The “médecins du ciel” refers to a number of healers/channelers who attracted attention in the province of Quebec in the early 1990’s. They counseled followers who had physical ailments to believe their channeled “medical” advice. Four followers eventually died and a coroner’s investigation into three of the deaths recommended that police investigate the healers for criminal negligence. However, no charges were filed. They were subsequently pursued by the College of Physicians and pleaded guilty to the illegal practice of medicine and fined (Desjardins, 1994, March).
The channelers also predicted that certain areas of the province of Quebec were to be hit by natural disasters and so they moved with a number of followers to a “safe area” in the Laurentians, a region north of the city of Montreal.
In his book, Massimo Introvigne (1996), using the “médecins du ciel” as an example, presents Info-Cult as a “classic anti-cult” group. He writes,
As indicated in his footnotes, Introvigne’s analysis is based on one article, written in English (Baker, 1995, September 24). However, as a result of obvious errors, he presents a completely different version of the article, and consequently of Info-Cult’s role. Aside from the fact that Introvigne has the date wrong (the actual date of the article was September 24, 1995, not September 30th as he cites), he has made much more serious errors that distort and misrepresent Info-Cult’s role. The pertinent sections of the article actually read as follows:
Casgrain and Rochette’s position vis-a-vis the “médecins du ciel” was reported in several newspaper articles (Baker, G., 1995, 29 September; Deslauriers, D., 1995, 9 septembre; Lamarche, C., 1995, 7 septembre). Casgrain, however, was speaking as an individual, not as a representative of Info-Cult, which is the impression that Introvigne gives. This might seem minor, but would Introvigne want the opinions of his former employees to be attributed to CESNUR, an organization that he directs?
Another example involving Info-Cult can be found in Irving Hexham’s article, “New Religions and the Anticult Movement in Canada” (2001). Hexham’s article refers to anticult groups formed after 1977, saying, “…today only the Montreal group, which is supported by the local Jewish community, continues to exist” (p. 284-285). As mentioned earlier, Info-Cult became an independent organization in 1990—11 years before Hexham’s article—and has not received funding from the Jewish Community since that time. Moreover, information about Info-Cult’s funding sources is available on Info-Cult’s website: http://www.math.mcgill.ca/triples/infocult/ic-e2.html or by calling Info-Cult’s office.
Hexham’s article further reinforces an inaccurate view of the so-called anti-cult movement, particularly as it applies to Info-Cult. In the section entitled “The Canadian Anticult Craze 1979-1982,” he writes:
Info-Cult was not formed to promote the forcible removal of individuals from any group and has not encouraged legislators to pass restrictive laws.
Hexham’s errors would be more excusable were Info-Cult, the leading cult educational organization in Canada, incidental to the subject of his article. Since, however, his subject was “the anti-cult movement in Canada,” he should at least have these basic facts straight.
In the article Hexham writes:
The following comments by Freed challenge the “scholarship” of this article:
I find Hexham’s choice of words, “it is tempting to speculate,” surprising for an article that is published in a scholarly journal (i.e., Nova Religio). A simple call to the people about whom he writes might have eliminated his need to “speculate.”
The last example is by Richard Bergeron, founder of the Centre d’Information sur les Nouvelles Religions (CINR) in Montreal, now known as the Centre Spiritualités et Religions de Montréal (Montreal Centre on Spirituality and Religions). In his book, Le Cortege des Fous de Dieu (1982), Bergeron describes deprogramming as ’’une méthode psychiquement violente qui utilise des moyens coercitifs, comme le kidnappage” (p. 458). (English translation: “a psychically violent method that uses coercive means, like kidnapping.”) He also says: “Il ne devrait pas favoriser l’utilisation des techniques de ‘deprogramming,’ comme Info-culte incline à le faire” (p. 456). (English translation: “One should not favor the use of ‘deprogramming’ techniques, as Info-cult is inclined to do.”)
Once again, such statements are not based on a verification of the primary sources, in this case, Info-Cult.
Fifteen years later Richard Bergeron (1997) pursues his analysis of Info-Cult:
The last time Info-Cult had contact with Richard Bergeron was in the mid 1980s, more than 10 years before the above-cited comment.
More recently, during a visit to the offices of Info-Cult, Jacques Cherblanc, a doctoral student from France had this to say about Bergeron’s “analysis” of Info-Cult:
The above examples have been selected to expose certain problems regarding the nature of discussion and research about cults/new religious movements. My premise is that the labeling of Info-Cult, when it first started as a so-called “anti-cult” group is one that is still used unthinkingly. Moreover, this labeling has led to the portrayal of the organization in a simplistic, static, and one dimensional manner.
The kinds of inaccuracies I’ve described above have occurred time and time again. I use these as examples of how the stereotypes that have fueled the “cult wars” endure because of a lack of scholarly rigor.
I am not the first to raise the issue of the harmful aspects of the “cult wars”. Others have done so very eloquently (Barker, 2002; Langone, 2000; Robbins, 2000; Zablocki & Robbins, 2001). I hope that the examples and suggestions offered here reaffirm the need to dialogue and to bring together individuals and organizations on all sides of this complex and controversial issue.
Baker, G. (1995, 24 September). Val-David Couple Hailed as Healers, Scorned as Cultists. Montreal Gazette, A1 & A4.
Baker, G. (1995, 29 September). Spiritualists leaving Val-David Harassment over beliefs prompts couple to say they’re packing. Montreal Gazette, A5.
Barker, E. (2002). Watching for violence: A comparative analysis of the roles of five types of cult-watching groups. In D. G. Bromley & J. G. Melton (Eds.), Cults, Religion and Violence, pp. 123-148. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Http://www.cesnur.org/2001/london2001/barker.htm
Barker, E. (1995). The scientific study of religion? You must be joking! Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 34(3), 287-310.
Bergeron, R. (1982). Le cortège des fous de Dieu. Montreal: Editions Paulines.
Bergeron, R. (1997). Vivre au risque des nouvelles religions. Montreal: Médiaspaul.
Boyer, H. (1997, 24 octobre). Recours collectif possible contre Médicins du ciel. Journal de Montréal, 8
Cherblanc, J. (2001, February). La perception du Mouvement Raelien au Quebec. Mouvements Religieux, Sarreguemines, No. 262, 2-10.
Desjardins, B. (1994, 16 mars [March]). Pratique illégale de la médecine Les “médecins du ciel” et leurs esprits coupables. Journal de Montréal, 3.
Deslauriers, D. (1995, 9 septembre). Confèrence d’Yves Casgrain à Val-David, Il ne s’agit pas d’une offensive contre les médecins du Ciel. L’information du Nord/Ste-Agathe, 9.
Freed, J. (1977, 31 December). A Booneville recruit sparks Moonie rescue. The Montreal Star, A1.
Freed, J. (1978, 3 January). Caution marks Moon Ranch visit. The Montreal Star, A1.
Freed, J. (1978, 4 January). Kidnappers a step ahead of cops. The Montreal Star, A1.
Freed, J. (1978, 5 January). Cops, Moonies team up. The Montreal Star, A1.
Freed, J. (1978, 6 January). “Satan’s servant” cures Moonie. The Montreal Star, A1.
Freed, J. (1978, 7 January). Benji now: “Quite excited about life.” The Montreal Star, A1.
Freed, J. (2002, June 11). Personal Communication.
Hall, J., & Schuyler, P. (1997). The mystical apocalypse of the Solar Temple. In T. Robbins & S. Palmer (Eds.), Millennium, messiahs and mayhem, pp. 285-311. New York: Routledge.
Hexham, I. (2001). New religions and the Anticult Movement in Canada. Nova Religio, 4(2), 281-288.
Introvigne, M. (1996). Les veilleurs de l’apocalypse millénarisme et nouvelles religions au seuil de l’an 2000. Paris: Clair Vigne.
Langone, M. (2000). The two “camps” of cultic studies: Time for a dialogue. Cultic Studies Journal, 17, 79-100.
Lamarche, C. (1995, 7 septembre). Le chansonnier Pierrot (sic) Rochette en guerre contre les “médecins du ciel.” Echo du Nord, 5.
Mayer, Jean-Francois. (1999).”Our terrestrial journey is coming to an end”: The last voyage of the Solar Temple. Nova Religio, 2(2), 172-196.
Provost, Jean-Marc. (1993, 26 March). L’horreur de l’Ordre du Temple Solaire (The Horror of The Solar Temple). Photo Police, 4-7.
Robbins, T. (2000). “Quo Vadis” the Scientific Study of New Religious Movements? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 39(4), 515-523.
Subhananda dasa. (1979). A Request to the Media: PLEASE DON’T LUMP US IN. ISKCON, 16.
Wessinger, C. (2000). How the millennium comes violently. New York: Seven Bridges Press.
Zablocki, B. & Robbins, T. (2001), Introduction: Finding a middle ground in a polarized scholarly arena. In B. Zablocki & T. Robbins (Eds.), Misunderstanding cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field, pp. 3-31. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
This article is based on a presentation given by Michael Kropveld at the AFF (American Family Foundation) Annual Conference, June 2002 in Orlando, Florida. The translations of the French texts are the author’s. My appreciation and thanks to Debbie Carroll and Andrea Moore Emmett for their editorial comments. My gratitude, as well, to Marie-Andrée Pelland for her research into the sociological studies of the ACM and to Michael Langone for his “surgical” insights.
Michael Kropveld is the Executive Director and founder of Info-Cult, the largest resource center of its kind in Canada on cultic thinking. Since 1980 Mr. Kropveld has worked with more than 2,000 former members and families. He has spoken, in Canada and internationally, to hundreds of professional and community groups on the cult issue. He is also involved in counseling and consulting, and as an expert witness on cult issues. He has been featured on hundreds of radio and television programs locally, nationally, and internationally. In 1992 he was awarded the 125 Commemorative Medal “in recognition of significant contribution to compatriots, community and to Canada” by the Government of Canada. www.infocult.org; www.infosecte.org (Kropveld@operamail.com)
Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2003, Page
 The search words used were: Secte, anti-secte, Counter-cult, Cult, Anti-Cult, pro-secte, Pro-Cult, Info-Cult, Info-Secte, Projet Culte, Cult Project, AFF (American Family Foundation), CAN (Cult Awareness Network), Brainwashing, manipulation mentale, programming, deprogramming.
The following information and databases were searched:
FRANCIS, Repère sur le Web, Biblio branchée, Eureka, WebSPIRS, OVID, Web of Science, Psyinfo, Sociological Abstracts, JSTOR, Project Muse, Emerald Library, Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Ingenta, Wiley InterScience, Érudit, World history, ATLAS Full Text, Kluwer, ScienceDirect, Proquest Psychology Journals. http://www.bib.umontreal.ca/SS/basesgen.htm