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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

Moon "has said he wants an automatic theocracy to rule the world," explained Hassan, who, on Moon's orders, engaged in a public fast for Nixon during Watergate and another fast at the U.N. to protest the withdrawal of troops from Korea. "He visualizes a world where everyone speaks Korean only, where all religion but his is abolished, where his organization chooses who will mate, and he and family and descendants rule in a heroic monarchy."

Moon "is very much in support of the democratic system," counters John Biermans , director of public affairs for the church. "His desire is for people to become God-centered people. Then democracy can fulfill its potential"

Besides, he said, "this is a pluralistic society, people of all faiths inject their beliefs into the system on every level . . . Using terms like 'front groups' and 'insinuating,' is just a way to attack something. It's not even honest."

Some observers dismiss concern about alleged Unificationist infiltration as self-serving hysteria whipped up by the anti-cultists.

"How much actual influence (the Unification Church) has seems questionable," said David Bromley, a professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and the author of the 1981 book "Strange Gods, the Great American Cult Scare."

Bromley estimates, for instance, that the church brings $200 million a year into the U.S. from abroad. But he sees no evidence that the money, much of it spent on all-expense-paid fact-finding tours and conferences for journalists, politicians and clergypeople, is money well-invested as far as political impact goes.

The church, he estimates, is losing about $50 million a year on its Washington Times newspaper and the ranks of Unificationists, and most other new religions, in America are thinning as well.

Veterans of the anti-cult front, however, say that the appearance that cults are fading is an illusion. "Like viruses, many of them mutate into new forms," when under attack, West of UCLA said. And new types of cults are arising to fill the void, they say.

Cult critics point, for instance, to the rise of such groups as the est offshoot called Forum, and to Lifespring and Insight--all of which CAN characterizes as "human potential cults" and all of which are utilized in mainstream American business to promote productivity and motivation.

Observers such as Gordon Melton of the Institute for the Study of Religious Institutions in Santa Barbara explain that many of these New Age-type trainings have their roots in the old fashioned motivational pep talks and sales technique seminars that have been the staples of American business for decades.

But critics see the so-called "psychotechnologies" utilized by some of these groups as insidious. For one thing, they say, the meditation, confessional sharing, and guided imagery methods some of them use are more likely to make employees muzzy-headed than competitive.

Other critics say the trainings violate employee's rights. Richard Watring, a personnel director for Budget Rent-a-Car, who has been charting the incorporation of "New Age" philosophies into business trainings, is concerned that employees are often compelled to take the courses and then required to adapt a new belief system which may be incompatible with their own religious convictions. As a Christian he finds such mental meddling inappropriate for corporations.

He and other cult critics are heartened by recent cases, still pending, in which employees, or former employees, have sued their employer for compelling them to take trainings they felt conflicted with their own religious beliefs.

Most observers scoring the action on the broader legal battlefield, however, call it a toss-up, and perceived victories for either side have often proved Pyrrhic.

Threats of Litigation

Richard Ofshe, a sociologist at UC Berkeley, fought three separate legal battles with the drug and alcohol rehabilitation organization Synanon over research he published on the group. Although he ultimately won the suits, he said the battle wound up costing the university $600,000. And evidence obtained in other lawsuits showed that Synanon had skillfully wielded threats of litigation to keep several other critical stories from being published or broadcast, he said.

Similarly, a recently released book "Cults and Consequences," went unpublished for several years because insurers were wary of the litigious nature of some of the groups mentioned, said Rachel Andres, director of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles' Commission on Cults and Missionaries and the book's co-editor.

But the most interesting litigation of late involves either a former member who is suing the organization to which he or she belonged, or a current member of a new religious group who is suing a deprogrammer who attempted unsuccessfully to persuade the person to leave the group.

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