Events in the last few decades have clearly indicated just
how dangerous some religious and secular groups (usually called "cults"
by those opposed to them) can be to their own members as well as to anyone
else whom they can influence. "Brainwashing," beatings, child abuse, rapes,
murders, mass suicides, military drilling and gunrunning, meddling in civil
governments, international terrorism, and other crimes have been charged
against leaders and members of many groups, and in far too many cases those
accusations have been correct. None of this has been very surprising to
historians of religion or to other scholars of what are usually labled
"new" religions (no matter how old they may be in their cultures of origin).
Minority groups, especially religious ones, are often accused of crimes
by members of the current majority. In many ways, for example, the "Mormons"
were the "Moonies" of the 19th century -- at least in terms of being an
unusual minority belief system that many found "shocking" at the time --
and the members of the Unification Church could be just as "respectable"
a hundred years from now as the Latter Day Saints are today.
Nonetheless, despite all the historical and philosophical
caveats that could be issued, ordinary people faced with friends or loved
ones joining an "unusual" group, or perhaps contemplating joining it themselves,
need a relatively simple way to evaluate just how dangerous or harmless
a given group is liable to be, without either subjecting themselves to
its power or judging it solely on theological or ideological grounds (the
usual method used by anti-cult groups).
In 1979 I constructed an evaluation tool which I now call
the "Advanced Bonewits' Cult Danger Evaluation Frame," or the "ABCDEF,"
a copy of which was included in that year's revised edition of my book,
Magic (Samuel Weiser Pub., 1989). I realize its shortcomings, but feel
that it can be effectively used to separate harmless groups from the merely
unusual-to-the-observer ones. Feedback from those attempting to use the
system has always been appreciated. Indirect feedback, in terms of the
number of places on and off the Net this ABCDEF has shown up, has been
mostly favorable. For example, it was chosen by and is now displayed on
the website of the Institute for Social Inventions, who paraphrased it
for their "Best Ideas --
A compendium of social innovations" listing.
The purpose of this evaluation tool is to help both amateur
and professional observers, including current or would-be members, of various
organizations (including religious, occult, psychological or political
groups) to determine just how dangerous a given group is liable to be,
in comparison with other groups, to the physical and mental health of its
members and of other people subject to its influence. It cannot speak to
the spiritual "dangers," if any, that might be involved, for the simple
reason that one person's path to enlightenment or "salvation" is often
viewed by another as a path to ignorance or "damnation."
As a general rule, the higher the numerical total scored
by a given group (the further to the right of the scale), the more dangerous
it is likely to be. Though it is obvious that many of the scales in the
frame are subjective, it is still possible to make practical judgments
using it, at least of the "is this group more dangerous than that one?"
sort. This is if all numerical assignments are based on accurate
and unbiased observation of actual behavior by the groups and their
top levels of leadership (as distinct from official pronouncements). This
means that you need to pay attention to what the secondary and tertiary
leaders are saying and doing, as much (or more so) than the central leadership
-- after all, "plausible deniability" is not a recent historical invention.
This tool can be used by parents, reporters, law enforcement
agents, social scientists and others interested in evaluating the actual
dangers presented by a given group or movement. Obviously, different observers
will achieve differing degrees of precision, depending upon the sophistication
of their numerical assignments on each scale. However, if the same observers
use the same methods of scoring and weighting each scale, their comparisons
of relative danger or harmlessness between groups will be reasonably valid,
at least for their own purposes. People who cannot, on the other hand,
view competing belief systems as ever having possible spiritual value to
anyone, will find the ABCDEF annoyingly useless for promoting their theocratic
agendas. Worse, these members of the Religious Reich will find that their
own organizations (and quite a few large mainstream churches) are far more
"cult-like" than the minority belief systems they so bitterly oppose.
It should be pointed out that the ABCDEF is founded upon
both modern psychological theories about mental health and personal growth,
and my many years of participant observation and historical research into
minority belief systems. Those who believe that relativism and anarchy
are as dangerous to mental health as absolutism and authoritarianism, could
(I suppose) count groups with total scores nearing either extreme (high
or low) as being equally hazardous. As far as dangers to physical well-being
are concerned, however, both historical records and current events clearly
indicate the direction in which the greatest threats lie. This is especially
so since the low-scoring groups usually seem to have survival and growth
rates so small that they seldom develop the abilities to commit large scale
atrocities even had they the philosophical or political inclinations to