How the “Cult” Stigma Destroys Freedom of Belief — A Fundamental Human Right

religious freedom human rightsEveryone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

— From Article 18 of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights1

Religious freedom is a universal human right,2 one of the foundations of modern democracy.3 The freedom to have, adopt, manifest, practice, observe, and teach the spiritual doctrine one chooses is extolled in international treaties and protected in the constitutions and laws of many modern democracies. Religious freedom was one of the first human rights to be codified, spurring the evolution and recognition of broader human rights.

religion-decliningYet religious freedom can be taken for granted in modern democracies because it’s been around for generations. This, coupled with a general declining importance of religion4 for many segments of western societies, can result in apathy, making it easy to miss how this right is being eroded and to ignore the consequences.

This is a serious concern, because the importance of religious freedom to the relative liberty we enjoy in modern democracies cannot be overstated. Religious persecution has been rife throughout human history: a look at the past reveals just how valuable religious freedom is, and how tyrannical society can be without it. It also shows it should not be taken for granted, as even when established it’s been brutally disregarded at times.

Today, religious liberty continues to exist on paper in the west, but remains threatened by those who perpetuate moral panics, putting minority beliefs at the mercy of mob mentality – a recurring historical trend.5 The designated slur, and rallying cry, by which alternative groups and teachers are targeted has shifted from “heretic” to “cult”, but the mentality driving the stigmatization is the same. Attacks are rarely physical anymore, but instead employ character assassination through the mass media and internet,6 the effects of which can be far-reaching in our hyper-connected globalized world, meaning those with heretical or “cultic” beliefs can have their reputations figuratively burnt at the stake in a way not possible before.

Heretic burnt at the stake -- religious intolerance

An illustration of a “heretic” burnt at the stake during the Inquisition.

This is a modern incarnation of very archaic pattern of discrimination and intolerance, a throwback to persecution of the past. As in the past, this persecution is deemed acceptable when the majority does not share the beliefs of the minorities targeted. Unlike the past, those persecuting don’t always act from a religious standpoint, but through the ideological framing of the secular anti-cult movement. Alternative spiritual groups are most at risk from this modern-day heresy hunting — easily misunderstood, targeted, misrepresented, vilified, and labelled with the “cult” stigma by those with a personal or vested interest in opposing them. Victims of this hostility and intolerance can be turned into virtual pariahs shunned by society, rendering their “religious freedom” essentially meaningless.

It is worthwhile to understand the evolution and importance of freedom of conscience as a fundamental right in our society — a right that encompasses the freedom to choose and practice a belief — and to look seriously at the ways this principle is being violated today. Modern manifestations of intolerance not only suppress the rights of those targeted, but tear at the fabric of this fundamental western value underpinning modern democracy and human rights.

Religious Freedom and the rise of Liberty and Human Rights

The transformation of religion from a justification for war or for a state’s existence into an object of political liberty and individual conscience is one of the most important stories of modern history—and a story that is still unfolding

— Democracy Web7

Early Christians were persecuted in the Roman Empire. Image: Martyr in the Circus Arena by Fyodor Bronnikov, 1869

Before religious freedom was an established human right, the world was a very different place. The acceptance of this right came after centuries, indeed millennia, of conflict and sectarian strife where persecution and intolerance toward spiritual minorities was widespread.8 Although there are historical exceptions, for thousands of years in many major civilizations, there was often one official state religion, and those who practiced spirituality outside of it were usually not granted the same rights as those who followed the official religion. Those in the minority faced varying levels of social discrimination and could even be seen as a threat warranting persecution on “moral” grounds, as happened to early Christians in Imperial Rome,9 or “heretics” in the inquisition.10

But with the emergence of democracy came the principles of religious tolerance and pluralism; religious freedom eventually became an established right in some countries — it was no longer for any state or religious authority to interfere with an individual’s personal spiritual pursuits, making religious freedom one of the first recognized human rights. In fact, religious tolerance has underpinned the formation of western democracies, where it is enshrined in some constitutions. In the United States it is sometimes known as the first freedom;11 it was advocated and written into law by Founding Father Thomas Jefferson12 and later included in the First Amendment.13

While religious freedom arose with democracy, it is also fundamental to democracy itself. As the advocacy site Democracy Web explains, “[w]ithout the ability to think, believe, and worship freely, and without the principle of toleration of others’ beliefs, there can be no democracy.”14

Religious Freedom and International Law

Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Declaration

Eleanor Roosevelt holding up the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Spanish, 1949.

While religious freedom is written into the constitutions of countries in favour of liberty, it is also firmly part of international law through various agreements. After the terrible atrocities of World War II, there was an unprecedented momentum for the international recognition of human rights. The majority of nations in the UN General Assembly formally adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, a historic landmark.15 It included many rights such as equality before the law, the right to be held innocent until proven guilty of an offence, the right not to be subjected to arbitrary interference with privacy or to attacks upon one’s honour and reputation, and importantly, the right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” which includes the right to manifest one’s “religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.

However, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not legally binding, but is rather more of a guide. However, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, passed in 1966, put a legal obligation on countries who signed it to implement it within their jurisdictions; it has since been ratified by most countries.16 It provides for freedom from religious discrimination and builds on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, going further to call for protection against religious discrimination and hate. Article 18 states that, “No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice” and article 20 prohibits the advocacy of “religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”.

Religious freedom was further clarified in the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, passed in 1981.17 It outlines in more detail the rights afforded to religious organizations and officials, such as the right to “solicit and receive voluntary financial and other contributions” and the right to designate “appropriate leaders called for by the requirements and standards of any religion or belief” among others.

These rights may seem self-evident today, but it took centuries of repression and the most devastating war in recorded history for countries to collectively recognize these principles. Yet religious persecution has been part of human behaviour for a long time, and the underlying mentality and forces driving it have, unfortunately, not simply disappeared with the advent of modern laws and principles.

Religious Persecution — A Historical Recurrence

Painting. Expulsion of the Cathars

Christian Cathars stripped and expelled from Carcassonne in the Albigensian Crusade in August 1209. Thousands more were massacred at Béziers the previous month.

People can fear the unknown and what they don’t understand. A pattern of persecution has repeated through history that derives from this fear: a dominant segment of society turns against a group with minority beliefs because of their difference, and feels justified in doing so.

There have always been people seeking to impose their morality on others and deny freedom of conscience to those with different beliefs, couching their hostility in supposedly moral terms. In the past and in the modern day, extremists of this kind have used “moral panics” as a propaganda tool to justify attacks on religious freedom, preying on fear of the unknown to foment hostility toward those they oppose, thereby creating the support for repression or encouraging mobs to take matters into their own hands.18 This effort often involved spreading “atrocity stories” — rumours, exaggerated tales and downright fantasies about the supposed dangers posed by so-called “heretics”.19

In pre-modern times, this mechanism was more brutal and obvious: there were religious wars, inquisitions, pogroms, and witch hunts. Over time, roles could shift between persecuted and persecutor depending on who held power. The early Christians were heavily persecuted in Imperial Rome, but later, as the church grew in power and sought to consolidate and control the Christian faith, it persecuted other Christians deemed “heretical” and banned Gospels and scripture that did not fit its doctrine. The persecution of “heretics” became official State policy once the Church became an arm of Imperial Rome.

Knights Templar members were forced into false confessions under torture and were burned at the stake in 1314.

Persecution of heretics intensified in the middle ages with a military crusade launched by Pope Innocent III to eradicate the Cathars20 in southern France. This was followed by the institutionalized suppression of spiritual dissent – labelled heresy – through the inquisition.21 Heretics were hunted down, tortured and put to trial not for committing “crimes” in any objective sense but for allegedly holding, practicing or advocating beliefs that contravened the status quo. Having different spiritual views or beliefs was considered justification enough for the most horrendous violence. Witch trials were another repeating phenomenon by which orthodoxy was enforced, and these materialized after the reformation, in the old and new worlds. In what became a self-fulfilling prophecy,22 the fact that “witches” were being accused and condemned throughout society was proof enough for many that they really existed and were a threat.

Some pursued a fanatical religious agenda against dissent with medieval moral panics, while others simply ruthlessly took advantage of them to falsely accuse enemies for personal gain or to settle scores.

Moral Panics in the Modern Era

Repression has been less overt in Western democratic countries in modern history. But today, moral panics can still be fomented, playing upon the same underlying fear-based mechanism that drove persecution in the past. While more modern examples of persecution are less extreme, the basis — targeting people based on difference — is the same.

America is a case in point. As it developed, and waves of settlers came in pursuit of religious freedom, there were periods where adherents of minority Christian sects — such as Quakers, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Catholics — were persecuted and even murdered by hostile sectarian mobs that disapproved of their beliefs and violently disregarded their rights to liberty, even when freedom of conscience was protected by law.23 As recently as the 1930s and 1940s for example, some US States banned Jehovah’s Witnesses from distributing literature — a violation of the First Amendment — and practitioners were beaten by violent mobs in the streets.24

Salem witch trials

Alleged witches being tried in Salem, Massachusetts, USA during the famous Salem witch hunts of the 17th century.

In the persecution of some Christian sects in the US, it was as if the principle of religious freedom was cognitively suspended. Similarly, it can be argued that the inquisition and witch hunts in earlier periods went against the basic religious tenets of those who carried them out.

People seem to violate their own moral or legal principles when persecuting others on the basis of their beliefs during times of mass hysteria. Democracy and human rights sought to end this irrational intolerance. But this same pattern of behaviour has found a way to re-emerge and operate behind a mask of legitimacy using the fear and paranoia evoked by the “cult” stigma.

The Cult Stigma and Modern Intolerance

The attention paid to minority religious groups is significantly disproportionate to the size and potential impact of the groups, suggesting… a “moral panic”… When this occurs, questions can be raised about who is promoting such a response, and who or what groups gain from development of a moral panic?

— James T. Richardson, Professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies, University of Nevada, Reno25

“Cult” is today’s label of choice to stigmatize alternative spirituality, and serves much the same meaning and function as the “heretic” label of the past. A “cultist”, like a “heretic”, is feared and loathed for their unconventional beliefs or practices, and the label comes with a lot of extra baggage attached.

The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance explain that the cult label is used for hateful purposes and that, “the only ‘crime’ of most ‘cults’ is that they hold different beliefs from whomever is doing the attacking”:

The term “cult” is generally used as a hateful snarl word that is intended to intentionally devalue people and the new faith groups that they have chosen to follow. It tends to associate thousands of benign religious groups with the handful of destructive religious groups that have caused loss of life. The term often creates fear and loathing among the public, and contributes greatly to religious intolerance in North America. The word “cult,” particularly as used by the media, carries a heavy emotional content. The term suggests that this is a group that you should detest, avoid, and fear.26

Atrocities of religious persecution in the past, and the one-word labels used to condemn victims, show just how powerful and prejudiced pejorative labels can be. Today, an influential group with vested interests is responsible for propagating the “cult” stigma – the so-called anti-cult movement (ACM). Its discredited ideas have gained traction largely due to uncritical media support instilling its ideology through society.2728

The ACM promotes paranoia, suspicion and intolerance towards spiritual minorities by promoting the view that almost all alternative spiritual groups are potentially dangerous and subversive and a threat to the social order; in other words, it foments moral panics.29 It has helped to cultivate the perception of a threat by conflating alternative spiritual groups in general (of which there are thousands) with a tiny minority of dangerous criminal groups, applying the pejorative “cult” label to all of them. This is a deceptive propaganda technique known as “association fallacy” or “guilt by association”.30 This means being labelled a “cultist” can mean a person is perceived as not just strange, but potentially dangerous or in danger themselves. This is not dissimilar to the way those accused of being “witches” were perceived as threatening upon being arbitrarily labelled. Similar too is the use of broad, sweeping, arbitrary criteria to identify the “guilt” of groups accused of being “cults’ — a strategy reminiscent of witch trials. And when the “cult menace” is reported on in the media, it creates the same feedback loop as witch trials did, convincing people that the threat must be real because it is being publicly described.31

Because the cult label is a loaded pejorative term associated with abuse and criminality, yet widely and dismissively applied to almost any non-mainstream spiritual group, it essentially turns pursuing alternative spirituality into a taboo. The label alienates and dehumanizes practitioners, generating hostility toward them while simultaneously validating intolerance and prejudice by making it seem morally justified. Scholars who take a reasoned stance against this kind of loaded language and bigotry are similarly labelled with the emotive “them and us” pejorative “cult apologist” by the anti-cult movement.32

Undermining Freedom of Conscience and Other Human Rights

As we have seen, the freedom of conscience, encompassing the right to choose and practice a belief, is a fundamental human right, but the anti-cult movement directly opposes this freedom by promoting hysterical views that alternative spiritual groups pose a widespread danger.

A more overt way it seeks to strip people of their freedom of conscience is by proposing that members of alternative spiritual groups lack the capacity to make personal choices due to “mind control,” supposedly making their spiritual choices illegitimate.

Brainwashing

Brainwashing theories are vastly discredited by the scientific community.

But these brainwashing theories as popularized by the anti-cult movement have been roundly rejected by scientific and legal consensus.33 Claiming that a person’s choice to join and remain in a group is the result of “mind control” has no more basis than claiming a heretic’s beliefs were induced by Satan. It is a way of pathologizing non-conformity. But this has not stopped the media from continuing to propagate mind control mythology.

These discredited theories have also propelled direct, forcible intervention in the private spiritual affairs of individuals through illegal methods such as kidnapping and private imprisonment of “cult-members” for so-called “deprogramming”.34 In some cases those kidnapped have been violently abused35 and even raped.36 This is in direct violation of not just the freedom of conscience, but other basic human rights to personal liberty, privacy, and safety.

It’s a tragic irony that this disturbing behaviour, while not endorsed by all anti-cult movement advocates, occurred at all given the proponents’ chief claims that new religious movements use techniques to coerce people that are unethical. Pathological cognitive dissonance of this kind is not without historical precedent: the forbears of deprogrammers in the inquisition also thought they were acting in the best interests of “heretics” when they tortured and imprisoned them to force them to recant.

Given the obvious legal problems with “deprogramming” it has largely fallen out of favour. But the fact it has happened at all in modern democracies demonstrates how the “cult” label can dehumanize a person to the point that direct violations of their personal rights become seemingly justified. The phenomenon of deprogramming is a stark reminder of how those who stigmatize others with the “cult” label serve an agenda diametrically opposed to religious freedom, personal liberty, and human rights — one that draws from a dark historical precedent better left in the dark ages.

Doing the Dirty Work on the Internet

A more common method to attack “new religious movements” these days is to use the internet to label them as “cults” and to spread damaging rumours anonymously.37 There exist “bash board” forums specifically for this purpose, to enable people to anonymously attack and discredit spiritual groups. Such forums are often utilized by a small minority of disgruntled ex-members of religious movements with a personal vendetta or score to settle, who wish to harm or damage the reputation of the group or individuals within it for their own reasons.38 Sometimes this is done with coaching from anti-cultists, and in some cases specific websites are formed to target a single group.

But ex-members who do this — also known as apostates — usually have their own not-so-benevolent agendas for vilifying their former group.39 They typically play the victim and justify themselves with a denunciation using “atrocity stories” that follow a predictable pattern; these same kinds of stories were used in moral panics of the past against spiritual minorities.40 Ex-member atrocity stories also tend to be publicized uncritically by the media, which greatly amplifies their impact. Over many decades this one-sided media coverage has served to legitimize atrocity stories about new religious movements, and to construct and instill familiar stereotypes. These are reinforced and perpetuated by the dissemination of more atrocity stories fitting the established narrative.

But these “atrocity stories” are considered problematic by many scholars, due to well-studied and recurrent ulterior motives at play that cast doubt upon the reliability and objectivity of apostate testimony, and the fact that that the majority of ex-members of religious movement report having a positive experience, as was reported by the Swedish Government in 1998.41 Given the above, the testimonies of apostates need to be taken with caution by those seeking an objective understanding of a spiritual group that is not tainted with vindictiveness, distortions, and self-centred agendas. Although those giving such testimonials tend to paint themselves as innocent, noble, and truthful, scholarly research has shown that there are many potentially self-interested factors that can motivate such testimony (as can be expected when an individual or group’s sole desire is to discredit or destroy the reputation of a group and those within it) and that such testimony can be significantly influenced by contact with the anti-cult movement.424344 One must be wary of those who make a hobby of hatred.

Ideological Common Grounds with Authoritarian Regimes Opposing Human Rights

“Cult” hunting occurs beyond the medieval tactics re-emerging in the west. The word “cult” is used to terrible effect today in countries where western “anti-cult” terminology has been adopted to violate human rights and attack religious freedom.45

According to the 2015 Annual Report46 of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) (which reports to the US Congress each year in accordance with the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act) the cult label continues to be used to justify the systematic persecution of religious minorities in China.

religious persecution - chinaChina only officially recognizes five religious organizations, which must submit to control and interference from the communist authorities, and cracks down on other groups, including mainline Christian churches, dubbing them “evil cults”.47 Associating with an unauthorized religious group is a criminal offence in China, punishable with jail time. While this repression has been happening for many years now, the creation of an official black list of so-called “cults” in 2014 spawned a renewed clampdown on unsanctioned groups. According to the U.S. Commission report:

In September 2014, more than 100 Christians were arrested during a raid on a house church in Foshan City, Guangdong Province, with eyewitnesses claiming that more than 200 officials took part in the raid. As part of the “anti-cult” effort, China’s government issued a directive to “eradicate” unregistered churches over the course of the next decade, resulting in unregistered church members facing an increased number of arrests, fines, and church closures in 2014.48

But the oppressive measures can be much more brutal. Falun Gong was banned in China 16 years ago, and now tops the expanded blacklist. Since being banned, members of this “evil cult” have faced extreme persecution. USCIRF reports that “…practitioners have been imprisoned and subjected to torture, such as psychiatric experiments and organ harvesting from executed prisoners”. The deplorable practice of live organ harvesting from Falun Gong practitioners in China has been widely documented in international reports.49

Sadly, the Chinese Government has deliberately adopted terminology used by the western anti-cult movement, and quoted some its advocates, in attempts to bolster international legitimacy for its draconian human rights violations. The fact that anti-cult propaganda serves this purpose highlights the inherent danger of its paranoid stance of framing unconventional spiritual groups as subversive and dangerous. However, some western anti-cult advocates have openly embraced China’s anti-cult crusade, going so far as to appear at anti-cult symposiums in China and supporting its stance against Falun Gong, even as the regime’s brutal persecution of the movement is condemned internationally.50

Ominously, some anti-cult advocates have been pushing for similar anti-cult laws in western countries where religious freedom is protected. France has been leading the charge in this regard,51 creating a virtual black list of groups and arbitrarily raiding the premises of targeted sects, with officials making inflammatory statements referring to them as mutating viruses”.52 Its stance has direct support from Chinese authorities, who refer to the French laws to justify its own.53 Anti-cult polemicists in turn cite the French laws as a model to be introduced in other western countries.54

A December 2009 report by Pew Forum, Global Restrictions on Religion, found that a few western European countries put more restrictions on religious freedom than sub-saharan African nations due to laws against “cults or sects”.55 12% of the governments surveyed in that report denounced “one or more religious groups by characterizing them as dangerous ‘cults’ or ‘sects’”.56 This is despite the fact that, as noted by Professor Willy Fautré, Director of Human Rights without Frontiers International: “Eleven of the fifteen member states of the European Union estimated, after examining the situation within their borders, that so-called cults do not threaten the individual, the family, society and its democratic institutions”.57

Despite being a fundamental human right inherent to democracy, religious freedom is not always upheld when the “cult” tag is involved, because it causes alternative spiritual groups to be despised and dehumanized. But human rights are not a popularity contest, and freedom of conscience should not be conditional upon the popularity of one’s beliefs. Yet those with beliefs which are not widely accepted do not receive equal treatment. As has been pointed out in the report Freedom of Religion by Forum 18, “it is more difficult today to be seen and heard as a victim of the violation of the right to religious freedom, and more difficult the more unpopular the belief of the victim is. However, it is in the cases of un-popular beliefs that the real position of the right is tested”.58

Conclusion

With religious freedom so integral to the foundation of democracy and human rights, those who harbour and vent hostility, intolerance, and prejudice toward spiritual groups and individuals not only violate the rights of the individuals or groups they target, but — in a throwback to the dark ages of religious intolerance — undermine the fundamental principles of human rights, democracy, liberty, and freedom which underpin society.

religious freedomWhen one considers humanity’s history of religious intolerance, with terrible crimes of hatred committed due to this intolerance, it brings to light just how valuable religious freedom is, and how fortunate we are to live in an era where it’s an established human right. However, if this article started out by saying this right can be taken for granted, it has also shown why we should not be complacent about it, as it is threatened today by those who cloak religious intolerance with seemingly moral pretexts.

Today, as in the past, there are those seek to assert their own form of morality while denying practitioners the right to live by the alternative beliefs they choose. As has been shown, often punitive, hostile, hateful, and discriminatory actions are taken against people with alternative beliefs, on the internet or even physically, in violation of human rights principles.

There is a clear correlation between anti-cult rhetoric and efforts to quash or wind back protection of freedom of conscience; these efforts constitute a direct attack on democratic values.59 Ironically, anti-cult propagandists accuse “cults” of violating democratic principles, yet tear at the heart of something so integral to democracy. The fact that anti-cult propaganda has been used to justify and mobilize blatant violations of human rights, both in western countries and authoritarian regimes, shows the tyrannical tendency driving the use of this word and why anyone who respects human dignity and religious freedom should be very wary of those who use it.

It’s as if those who label and attack others with the “cult” tag are seeking to wipe away the progress humanity has made with religious tolerance and return to a past riddled with persecution, when religious minorities could be targeted without redress. Those who take such actions have on their side a dark legacy of religious hatred, modern totalitarian regimes that are prepared to use anti-cult language to justify oppression, and a network of individuals not averse to using “hate speak” to advance their agenda of religious intolerance. On the other hand, those opposing such intolerance have on their side the principles of liberty, tolerance, religious freedom, democracy, and human rights, representing some of the most just and pivotal achievements of modern history.

Religious persecution is nothing new, and its dark patterns have the tendency to recur. For freedom of conscience to be preserved, it must be upheld and protected from those who would subvert it, so the past does not repeat. As the famous saying goes, “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”



  1. “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. December 16, 1966. Accessed December 19, 2015. http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx. 

  2. Davis, Derek. “The Evolution of Religious Freedom as a Universal Human Right: Examining the Role of the 1981 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.” BYU Law Review 2002, no. 2 (2002): 217. 

  3. CASE OF KOKKINAKIS v. GREECE. 1993 14307/88. European Court of Human Rights. 

  4. Bailey, Sarah Pulliam. 2015. “Christianity Faces Sharp Decline As Americans Are Becoming Even Less Affiliated With Religion”. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/05/12/christianity-faces-sharp-decline-as-americans-are-becoming-even-less-affiliated-with-religion/. 

  5. Introvigne, Massimo. “Moral Panics and Anti‐cult Terrorism in Western Europe.” Terrorism and Political Violence 12, no. 1 (2000): 47-59. 

  6. Mccloud, Sean. “From Exotics to Brainwashers: Portraying New Religions in Mass Media.” Religion Compass 1, no. 1 (2007): 214-28. 

  7. “Freedom of Religion: Essential Principles.” Democracy Web. Accessed December 24, 2015. http://www.democracyweb.org/node/91. 

  8. “Freedom of Religion: History.” Democracy Web. Accessed December 24, 2015. http://www.democracyweb.org/node/92. 

  9. “Anti-Christian Policies in the Roman Empire.” Wikipedia. Accessed December 24, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Christian_policies_in_the_Roman_Empire. 

  10. “Inquisition.” Wikipedia. Accessed December 27, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inquisition. 

  11. First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty. Directed by Lee Groberg. PBS, 2012. Film. The film can be watched online here: http://www.pbs.org/first-freedom/home/ 

  12. “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.” Wikipedia. Accessed December 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_Statute_for_Religious_Freedom 

  13. “First Amendment to the United States Constitution.” Wikipedia. Accessed December 24, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution. 

  14. “Freedom of Religion: Essential Principles.” Democracy Web. Accessed December 24, 2015. http://www.democracyweb.org/node/91. 

  15. “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations. Accessed December 24, 2015. http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html. 


  16. “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. December 16, 1966. Accessed December 19, 2015. http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx. 

  17. “Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.” United Nations. 1981. Accessed December 24, 2015. http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/36/a36r055.htm. 

  18. Stanton, Jamie. “Witch Hunts and the Weaponisation of Moral Panic.” Medium. February 26, 2015. Accessed December 24, 2015. https://medium.com/@djamiestanton/witch-hunts-and-the-weaponisation-of-moral-panic-892e6be0c82d#.4fcl8ic82. 

  19. Lewis, James R. “Atrocity Tales as a Delegitimation Strategy.” In Legitimating New Religions. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2003: 155-174. 

  20. “Albigensian Crusade.” Wikipedia. Accessed December 24, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albigensian_Crusade. 

  21. “Inquisition.” Wikipedia. Accessed December 24, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inquisition. 

  22. “Self-fulfilling Prophecy.” Wikipedia. Accessed December 24, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-fulfilling_prophecy. 

  23. Davis, Kenneth. “America’s True History of Religious Tolerance.” Smithsonian Magazine, October 1, 2010. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/americas-true-history-of-religious-tolerance-61312684/?all&no-ist. 

  24. “The Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” 1941. Accessed December 24, 2015. http://debs.indstate.edu/a505p4_1941.pdf. 

  25. Richardson, James T. “Governmental Reports on Minority Religions: An Assessment and Guidelines.” In The New Religious Question: State Regulation or State Interference, edited by Pauline Côté and T. Jeremy Gunn, 273-284. Brussels: Presses Interuniversitaires Européennes, 2006. 273 

  26. Robinson, B. A. “Cults (a.k.a. New Religious Movements): Introduction.” Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. December 1, 2011. Accessed December 24, 2015. http://www.religioustolerance.org/cultintro.htm. 

  27. For example, Professor James Lewis notes, “as soon as the label “cult” has been successfully applied (that is, accepted as appropriate by outsiders not directly involved in the conflict), the information that the mass media gather is selectively appropriated so that almost every item of data conforms to the stereotype about cults, thus effectively marshalling moral support for the person or group locked in conflict with a minority religion.”
    Lewis, James R. Legitimating New Religions. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2003: 200. 

  28. Sean McCloud notes, “One scholar credits the ACM with creating the category ‘cult’ and suggests that ‘print and broadcast media for the most part uncritically accepted the ACM’s analysis’ of new religions (Greil 1996, 56–57; see also Richardson 1993).” Mccloud, Sean. “From Exotics to Brainwashers: Portraying New Religions in Mass Media.” Religion Compass 1, no. 1 (2007): 216. 

  29. Lewis states, “it was, in fact, the two-decade long interaction between the anti-cult movement and the media that has been responsible for the widespread view that all cults are dangerous organizations—this despite the fact that comparatively few groups constitute a genuine threat, either to themselves or to society.”
    Lewis, James R. Legitimating New Religions. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2003: 201. 

  30. “Association Fallacy.” Wikipedia. Accessed December 24, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Association_fallacy. 

  31. “…minority religions lose their chance for a fair hearing as soon as the label ‘cult’ is successfully applied to them, After that, the news media selectively seek out and present information that fits the stereotype. It is then only a matter of time before the group in question is completely ‘demonized.'”
    Lewis, James R. Legitimating New Religions. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2003: 206. 

  32. For discussion, see Introvigne, Massimo. “The American Psychological Association, Brainwashing Controversies and the Great Cult Apologist Conspiracy.” In Challenging Religion, edited by James A. Beckford and James T. Richardson, 74-82. London: Routledge, 2003. 

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  35. Shupe, Anson. “Deprogramming Violence: The Logic, Perpetration, and Outcomes of Coercive Interventions.” In Violence and New Religious Movements, 397-412. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 

  36. Fefferman, Dan. “Forced Conversions of Unificationists in Japan: A Continuing Human Rights Violation.” Journal of Unification Studies 13 (2012): 21-32. Accessed December 24, 2015. http://www.journals.uts.edu/volume-xiii-2012/178-forced-conversions-of-unificationists-in-japan-a-continuing-human-rights-violation. 

  37. Introvigne, Massimo. “”So Many Evil Things”: Anti-Cult Terrorism via the Internet.” CESNUR. 1999. Accessed December 24, 2015. http://www.cesnur.org/testi/anticult_terror.htm. 

  38. Introvigne, Massimo. “Religious Liberty in Western Europe.” CESNUR. 1997. Accessed December 24, 2015. http://www.cesnur.org/testi/Washington.htm. 

  39. “Media Sensationalism and Apostasy: A Destructive Synergy.” FIRM: Foundation against Intolerance of Religious Minorities. Accessed December 24, 2015. http://www.firmstand.org/articles/apostasy.html. 

  40. Lewis, James R. “Apostates and the Legitimation of Repression: Some Historical and Empirical Perspectives on the Cult Controversy.” Sociological Analysis 49, no. 4 (1989): 386-96. 

  41. “Report of the Swedish Government’s Commission on New Religious Movements (1998).” CESNUR. 1998. Accessed December 25, 2015. http://www.cesnur.org/testi/swedish.htm. 

  42. Kliever, Lonnie. The Reliability of Apostate Testimony about New Religious Movements. Freedom Publishing, 1995. 

  43. Bromley, David G., ed. The Politics of Religious Apostasy the Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998. 

  44. Lewis, James R. “Apostates and the Legitimation of Repression: Some Historical and Empirical Perspectives on the Cult Controversy.” Sociological Analysis 49, no. 4 (1989): 386-96. 

  45. Robinson, B. A. “Religious Oppression and Intolerance in China.” Religious Tolerance. 2005. Accessed December 25, 2015. http://www.religioustolerance.org/rt_china.htm. 

  46. “Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.” U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. 2015. Accessed December 25, 2015. http://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/USCIRF%20Annual%20Report%202015%20%282%29.pdf. 

  47. Lin, Luna, and Tom Phillips. “China’s Christians Protest ‘evil’ Communist Campaign to Tear down Crosses.” The Guardian, July 27, 2015, World sec. Accessed December 25, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/27/chinas-christians-protest-evil-communist-campaign-to-tear-down-crosses. 

  48. “Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.” U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. 2015. Accessed December 25, 2015. http://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/USCIRF%20Annual%20Report%202015%20%282%29.pdf. 

  49. “Organ Harvesting from Falun Gong Practitioners in China.” Wikipedia. Accessed December 25, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organ_harvesting_from_Falun_Gong_practitioners_in_China. 

  50. Fefferman, Dan. “Religious Freedom and the Anti-Cult Movement.” International Coalition for Religious Freedom. Accessed December 25, 2015. http://www.religiousfreedom.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=404&Itemid=399. 

  51. Roux, Eric. “Mistreatments of Religious Minorities: The French Model.” European Interreligious Forum for Religious Freedom. 2013. Accessed December 25, 2015. http://www.eifrf-articles.org/Mistreatments-of-religious-minorities-the-French-Model_a67.html. 

  52. Thierry, Bécourt. “France: Religious Minorities Stigmatized as ‘mutating Viruses’ and ‘pathology of Belief’.” Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe. 2010. Accessed December 25, 2015. http://www.osce.org/home/71540?download=true. 

  53. Bosco, Joseph A. “China’s French Connection.” Washington Post, July 10, 2011. 

  54. Bouma, Gary. “Cults Are the Cost of Open Society.” ABC, November 11, 2011, Religion and Ethics sec. Accessed December 25, 2015. http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2011/11/15/3366349.htm. 

  55. “Global Restrictions on Religion.” Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. 2009. http://www.pewforum.org/files/2009/12/restrictions-fullreport1.pdf: 15. 

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  57. Fautre, Willy. “Cults: Do Democracies Need Laws of Exception? The Belgian Experience.” In The New Religious Question: State Regulation or State Interference, edited by Pauline Côté and T. Jeremy Gunn, 93-112. Brussels: Presses Interuniversitaires Européennes, 2006. 93 

  58. Freedom of Religion: A Report with Special Emphasis on the Right to Choose Religion and Registration Systems. Forum 18. 2001. Accessed December 25, 2015. https://web.archive.org/web/20130325053700/http://forum18.org/PDF/freedomofreligion.pdf. 

  59. Introvigne, Massimo. “Moral Panics and Anti‐cult Terrorism in Western Europe.” Terrorism and Political Violence 12, no. 1 (2000): 47-59. 

Matthew Butler is a freelance writer with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism, an open mind and a keen interest in defending personal freedom and uncovering the truth. He contributes to a number of websites where he writes about issues that affect and suppress human potential, human rights, consciousness and the right to free expression of alternative beliefs.

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