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Ten Years After Jonestown, the Battle Intensifies Over the Influence of 'Alternative' Religions

November 17, 1988|BOB SIPCHEN | Times Staff Writer

Cult critics often point to classic surveys on brainwashing, which catalogue methods which they say are routinely used by cults of every color, religious and secular, to manipulate unsuspecting people into adopting new beliefs, and often, in effect, new personalities.

Among the techniques are constant repetition of doctrine; application of intense peer pressure; manipulation of diet so that critical faculties are adversely affected; deprivation of sleep; lack of privacy and time for reflection; cutting ties with the recruits' past life; reduction of outside stimulation and influences; skillful use of ritual to heighten mystical experience; and invention of a new vocabulary which narrows the range of experience and constructs a new reality for cult members.

Margaret Singer, a former professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, describes psychological problems that have been attributed to cultic experiences, ranging from the despair that comes from having suddenly abandoned ones previous values, norms and ideals to types of "induced psychopathy." Other psychologists and lay observers list similar mental and emotional problems linked to the indoctrination and rituals of cults.

Sociologist Dick Anthony, author of the book "Spiritual Choices," and former director of the UC Berkeley-affiliated Center for the Study of New Religions, argues the exact opposite position.

"There's a large research literature published in mainstream journals on the mental health effects of new religions," he said. "For the most part the effects seem to be positive in any way that's measurable."

He and other defenders of new religions discount so-called mind control techniques, or believe the term has been misappropriated by anti-cult activists.

"Coercive Persuasion is a bombastic redescription of familiar forms of influence which occur everyday and everywhere," said Streiker. "Someone being converted to a demanding religious movement is no more or less brainwashed than children being exposed to commercials during kiddy programs which encourage them to eat empty calories or buy expensive toys."

"An attempt to persuade someone of something is a process protected by our country's First Amendment right of free speech and communication," said attorney Jeremiah Gutman head of the New York City branch of the American Civil Liberties Union and an outspoken critic of the anti-cult groups. "What one person believes to be an irrefutable and obvious truth is someone else's errant nonsense."

'Fraud and Manipulation'

But anti-cult spokespeople say they have no interest in a group's beliefs. Their concern is when destructive cults use "fraud and manipulation," to get people to arrive at those beliefs, whatever they may be. Because people are unaware of the issues, though, cults have insinuated themselves into areas of American life where they are influencing people who may not even know where the influence is coming from, they contend.

The political arena is the obvious example, anti-cult activists say.

Followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh had a major impact on the small town government of Antelope, Ore., and Jim Jones had managed to thrust himself and his church into the most respectable Democratic party circles in San Francisco before the exodus to Guyana, for instance.

But recently the process has expanded, with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church the leading example of a cult that is quietly gaining political clout, they say.

"What Jim Jones did to Democrats in San Francisco, Sun Myung Moon is doing to Republicans all across country now," Kisser said.

Moon's most obvious stab at mainstream legitimacy, critics say, was his purchase in 1982 of the Washington Times, a D.C. daily newspaper, and his financial nurturing of the paper's magazine Insight--both of which have an official policy of complete editorial independence from the church.

In September, 1987, the conservative American Spectator magazine published an article titled "Can Buy Me Love: The Mooning of Conservative America," in which managing editor Andrew Ferguson questioned the way the political right is lapping up Moon money, citing, among many examples, the $500,000 or more the late Terry Dolan's National Conservative Alliance accepted in 1984. When the church got wind of the article, the Spectator received a call from the executive director of the Unification Church's World Media Assn. warning that if it ran, the Times "would strike back and strike back severely," Ferguson wrote in an addendum to the piece.

'Everyone Speaks Korean'

Therapist Steven Hassan, a former "Moonie" and the author of the just-released book "Combatting Cult Mind Control," estimates that the church now sponsors 200 businesses and "front organizations."

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