The Criteria for Condemnation
Commonly disgruntled apostates publicly condemn their former religion, particularly the group’s leader, whether openly or implicitly, by following a formula of assessing the group against a set of criteria provided by anti-cult groups. However such criteria are not widely accepted or supported by academics in the field.
“CESNUR notices that, when scholars are ignored or regarded as less reliable than anti-cult activists, serious mistakes are made. The French and/or the Belgian parliamentary reports on ‘cults’ listed among ‘cults’—to name just a few—the Quakers, the Baha’i, the Seventh-day Adventists, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Assemblies of God and other Pentecostal bodies, Evangelical missions, the Lectorium Rosicrucianum, Anthroposophy, the Church of Christ, Zen, Theravada, Tibetan and Nichiren Buddhist organizations, the YWCA, Hasidic Jews, and Catholic groups and religious orders including the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, Opus Dei, and the Work. Some of these groups have defended themselves by arguing that they accept the general category of ‘cult’ as outlined by the reports, but claim that it is wrongly applied to them. This seems to be a very weak defense. The effective defense should be to show that the category of ‘cults’ used by these documents is unscholarly and not acceptable. Methodologically, it is clear that these reports rely primarily on sources supplied by the international anti-cult movement, and accept uncritically the brainwashing or mind control model of conversion, a model unanimously rejected by mainline sociological and psychological science. It is this methodology that should be exposed as faulty.”—CESNUR (from their ‘about’ page)
Following such formula, disgruntled apostates tend to assert that they were the victim of authoritarian leadership, psychological control, and make accusations of financial abuse. According to British religious author David V. Barrett, the most common claim made by apostates against groups accused of being cult-like is sexual abuse, an accusation frequently associated with the word “cult”, which most likely came from the widely publicized workings of The Children of God. Today with the internet used as a means of publishing instantaneously to a worldwide audience, former members have the ability to voice their atrocity stories without being required to submit evidence or be heard along with the defense of those whom they accuse, and many claims even lack a scientific basis.
“In the United States, theories of brainwashing and mind control as applied to religious minorities have been debunked for at least ten years. The American Psychological Association (APA) in 1984 allowed Margaret Singer, the main proponent of anti-cult mind control theories, to create a working group called Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control (DIMPAC). In 1987 the final report of the DIMPAC Committee was submitted to the Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology of the APA. On May 11, 1987 the Board rejected another report and concluded that the mind control theories, used in order to distinguish ‘cults’ from religions, are not part of accepted psychological science. The results of this document were devastating for mind control theories.”—Foundation Against Intolerance of Religious Minorities
Perhaps it’s interesting to reflect at this point upon the all consuming hunt for heretics and witches of the past 2 millennia, and ask, where is the basis which motivated such violence against so many innocent people now? Only a few hundred years ago, masses of people were compelled by the fear of witches coming down their chimney.
Seeking an Objective View Against Hatred
In a paper by Anson Shupe and Susan Darnell presented at the 2000 meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion—one of the most important scholarly meetings in the world in the field of sociology of religion—they write that the extent to which some anti-cult movements “have been ‘hate groups’ as defined either by Washington state law or by the racial/ethnic criteria in sociology is open to debate.” Going on to say that they “have presented slanted, stereotypical images and language that has inflamed persons to perform extreme actions.” And that they “have at least promoted a professional veneer which, at the popular level, appears more scientific than hateful. This apparent ‘normalization’ of their ire against NRMs is a modern trend for hate groups, according to one author: …the hate movement in the United States has taken on a new, modern face. The strength of the contemporary hate movement is grounded in its ability to repackage its message in ways that make it more palatable, and in its ability to exploit the points of intersection between itself and prevailing ideological canons. In short, the hate movement is attempting to move itself into the mainstream of United States culture and politics.”
Clearly with the current application of the word “cult” and its use to justify harassment, discrimination, bigotry, and even illegal behavior, scholars are calling for a balanced point of view in the interests of human and religious rights where some anti-cult groups have taken on roles not dissimilar to the inquisitors of old (see cases of forceful “deprogramming”). And whilst tales of disgruntled apostates are often compelling, studies show that such tales are not only highly questionable, but also very much in the minority.
Melton, quoting studies by Lewis Carter and David G. Bromley, argues that the concern around the pathology experienced by former members of new religious movements shifted from these groups to the coercive activities of the anti-cult movement. As a result of this study, the treatment (coerced or voluntary) of former members as people in need of psychological assistance largely ceased. These studies also claim that a lack of any widespread need for psychological help by former members of new religions has in itself become the strongest evidence refuting early sweeping condemnations of new religions as causes of psychological trauma. 
In 1998 the Swedish Government produced a report on New Religious Movements, which states “The great majority of members of the new religious movements derive positive experience from their membership. They have subscribed to an idea or doctrine which corresponds to their personal needs. Membership is of limited duration in most cases. After two years the majority have left the movement. This withdrawal is usually quite undramatic, and the persons withdrawing feel enriched by a predominantly positive experience.[...]The Commission does not recommend that special resources be established for the rehabilitation of withdraws. The cases are too few in number…”
According to Jeffery Hadden and David Bromley (both American professors of sociology), proponents of the brainwashing model, such as Margaret Singer and others, lack empirical evidence to support their theory of brainwashing. They also affirm that there is lack of empirical support for alleged consequences of having been a member of a cult or sect, and that their accounts of what happens to ex-members is contradicted by substantial empirical evidence, such as the fact that the overwhelming proportion of people who get involved in NRMs do leave, most short of two years, and the overwhelming proportion of people leave of their own volition. They refer to a survey conducted by Stuart A. Wright in 1987 about people who voluntarily left new religions, which showed that the majority of all defectors or ex-members (67%) look back on their experience as something that made them wiser, rather than feeling angry, duped or showing other ill effects.
Lonnie D. Kliever, a professor of Religious Studies at the Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, writes in his article The Reliability of Apostate Testimony About New Religious Movements that “The clear majority of those who leave of their own free will speak positively of certain aspects of their past experience. While readily acknowledging the ways a given religious movement failed to meet their personal expectations and spiritual needs, many voluntary defectors have found ways of salvaging some redeeming values from their previous religious associations and activities. But there are some voluntary apostates from new religious movements who leave deeply embittered and harshly critical of their former religious associations and activities. Their dynamics of separation from a once-loved religious group is analogous to an embittered marital separation and divorce. Both marriage and religion require a significant degree of commitment. The greater the involvement, the more traumatic the break-up. The longer the commitment, the more urgent the need to blame the other for the failed relationship. Long-term and heavily involved members of new religious movements who over time become disenchanted with their religion often throw all of the blame on their former religious associations and activities. They magnify small flaws into huge evils. They turn personal disappointments into malicious betrayals. They even will tell incredible falsehoods to harm their former religion.”
1. Shupe, Anson and Darnell, Susan E. (2000). CAN, We Hardly Knew Ye: Sex, Drugs, Deprogrammers’ Kickbacks, and Corporate Crime in the (old) Cult Awareness Network. Houston, Texas: http://www.cesnur.org/2001/CAN.htm
2. Wikipedia’s page on post-cult trauma: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-cult_trauma
3. Report of the Swedish Government’s Commission on New Religious Movements (1998), 1.6 The need for support (Swedish), English translation
4. Kliever, Dr. Lonnie The Reliability of Apostate Testimony About New Religious Movements