Cults on rise, researchers agree

Officials from around the world meet in Federal Way to discuss how, why they recruit so many

Seattle News Tribune, April 30, 2000
By Steve Maynard, Staff writer Bill Hutchens contributed to this report

Researchers attending a conference on cults in Federal Way Saturday disagreed on how many cults are scattered around the world, but they agreed on another key point: The number is growing.

From Falun Gong in China and Aum Shinrikyo, the group that released nerve gas in Tokyo's subways in 1995, to the proliferation of small, abusive groups in the United States, cults are on the rise, these leaders say.

The reasons for the growth range from the spread of religious freedom to the appeal of these groups' recruiters, researchers say.

Researchers and government officials from a dozen countries including China, Japan and France descended on Federal Way this weekend to attend a conference on "Cults and the Millennium."

An overflow crowd of more than 225 psychologists, sociologists and current and former members of groups often described as cults took part in the annual three-day conference of the American Family Foundation, a 20-year-old organization concerned about cults and psychological manipulation.

Meeting at the Dumas Bay Centre, a former Catholic monastery and retreat center, the crowd sampled from a kind of spiritual smorgasbord. Seminar topics ranged from Hare Krishna to Heaven's Gate.

Margaret Singer, a retired psychology professor from the University of California, Berkeley, said the number of cults in the United States has more than doubled since 1978 when some 900 followers of the Rev. Jim Jones, leader of an American religious cult in Jonestown, Guyana, committed mass suicide.

Now, there are an estimated 5,000 cults in the United States, based on various surveys, said Singer, 78, who has researched cults since 1942. "There are lots of little small groups," she said. In California, they include a health group that espouses breathing as a substitute for eating and flying saucer cults that believe they will fend off Armageddon by befriending invading aliens.

Wild? Yes, says Singer, who claims to have interviewed more than 4,000 current and ex-cult members over the years.

While the public thinks "people are stupid or crazy to get into a cult," Singer cautioned that almost anyone has periods of personal loss and mild depression during which they are vulnerable to the influence of a cult. "It may not be an attraction (to the group)," she said. "It may be how good the recruiter is."

Herb Rosedale, president of the American Family Foundation, described a cult as a group - not necessarily religious - with a single charismatic leader who exercises control over members so that no dissent or disagreement is tolerated. Cult leaders have "no respect for individual rights or differences," said Rosedale, a New York lawyer.

Another researcher from California agreed that new religious groups are proliferating. But he objected to the use of the term "cult."

J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, said he prefers to call such groups "innovative religions" and asserted their numbers are exaggerated. He said there are 10,000 to 20,000 of these groups in the world but only about 1,000 in the United States. And while some are destructive, fewer than 25 groups worldwide have caused mass deaths since the 1960s, Melton said.

Two of the most talked-about conference programs took place Friday - one on Falun Gong and another on Ramtha's School of Enlightenment in Yelm. For the first, Xiaozhong Yang, China's consul of cultural affairs in San Francisco, and Yanhai Wan, an independent researcher from China, discussed the Chinese movement known as Falun Gong. This group combines Eastern philosophies and slow-motion traditional Chinese exercises. The Chinese government has banned Falun Gong and declared it an "evil cult."

Both speakers agreed the group is a cult, but they openly disagreed about how the government should treat the group.

In another seminar, Carey Bowen of Olympia told how she followed J.Z. Knight's teachings in the mid-1980s before Knight formed Ramtha's School of Enlightenment in Yelm.

Knight claims to "channel" - or take on the spirit - of the 35,000-year-old Ramtha and teaches 3,000 students a year at the school.

In front of about 70 people, including former "Dynasty" star Linda Evans and several other supporters of Ramtha's school, Bowen explained how she "got out" of the Ramtha movement, which she described as a "cult."

Bowen said she thought a lot of the school's allure was the result of misleading showmanship by Knight.

"It is my opinion that there is no Ramtha. JZ's an entertainer. She's an actress," Bowen said.

Bowen, a member of the American Family Foundation, said she advises families and ex-group members on how thought and mind control works.

Pavel Mikoloski, a spokesman for Ramtha's School of Enlightenment, vehemently denied the school is a cult.

"We know that we're not a cult. We know that there's nothing destructive here," Mikoloski said. "Just the opposite is true. We know that what is here is very uplifting and ennobling of the human spirit."

In addition, Melton and several other professors who were paid modest stipends in 1997 to study Knight's channeling concluded they don't believe Knight is faking or acting when she claims to channel Ramtha. Beyond that, they said they weren't sure what happens when Knight channels.

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