Cult Controversies

James A. Beckford. Cult Controversies: The Societal Response to the New Religious Movements. Tavistock, 1985.

David G. Bromley and J. T. Richardson. (eds.) The Brainwashing/Deprograming Controversy: Sociological, Psychological and Legal Perspectives. Edwin Mellin Press.

John Putnam Demos. Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of New England. Oxford University Press, 1982.

These three books all illuminate, in various ways, current concerns about cults and new religious movements. Beckford’s book is an extremely interesting study of the new movements and society's response to them. Particular emphasis is placed on the processes of disengagement from the new religions (especially from the Unification Church), and how those who disengage are forced to adopt the role of 'incompetent' by their families and community. The public response to the cults in the UK, Germany and France is discussed. .

Beckford concludes that conflicts between the liberal capitalist state, and groups with often anti-liberal collectivist ideologies, are unavoidable, and it is in the nature of our secular society that such conflicts are couched in psychological, medical and sociological, rather than theological, terms.

A point which emerges from the book, but which I think is not commented on, is that cults and parents both share a belief that the young recruits are immature and need to be protected from external evils by fairly coercive methods. The hostility between the two groups may be a result of their rivalry as agencies of coercive protectionism.

Magonia readers will find the discussion of the 'psychic' experiences of ex-Moonies [pp.164-7] of great interest, and relate them to the generl discussions of writers like Hufford, and others.

Bromley and Richardson present twenty-one essays on various aspects of the deprogramming controversy; all but one of the essays are American oriented, but have a growing relevance in the U.K. Behind many of the fears generated by the new religions in the west is perhaps the fear that they may do to us what we (or our missionaries) did to them. Contemporary fears about brainwashing echo age-old fears of 'bewitchment', 'enchantment', etc., which have been mentioned in Magonia in vastly different contexts.

The third title presents a historical context. It is a very detailed psychological, sociological and historical analysis of witchcraft in colonial New England. Demos draws his material from cases outside the Salem witch scare. The origins of witchcraft accusations are seen in the context of individual and collective crises. One feature of the witchcraft experience was that of 'violation' witches were pushy, intrusive people, whose intrusions reached the point of violating the psychic and psychological integrity of the 'victim'. Some of the accounts include classic poltergeist effects, such as "rattlings, shakings, breakage, sudden disappearances", and as in modern cases, 'naughty' children are seen as a potential explanation. The section on psychology leans heavily on Freudian orthodoxy, which negates the effect for non-believers. -- Peter Rogerson, Magonia 22, May, 1986.


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