New Religious Movements

Ali, Tim, Magda, Andrea and Suong come across a poster advertising a lecture on a somewhat exotic method of alternative health treatment, which may also have an unusual spiritual subtext. They are discussing what kind of view they should take of something that is so strange to them. The main subject of the discussion is the ability to formulate an independent opinion on the basis of critical thinking. It is also important that the participants in the discussion are able to look with detachment not just at this particular unusual-sounding offer - the strangeness of which arouses their natural curiosity - but that they also critically examine how we come to view standard parts of our lives as being perfectly natural. In the text below, we present the main types of religious manipulation and how to distinguish dangerous religious movements from safe ones. This list is of course in no way exhaustive, it is just an effort to provide an orientation in what can sometimes be a complicated situation.

  • What is…?

Religious manipulation - Conduct is usually described as manipulative when it endeavours to control the behaviour of another person or group of people in such a way that it does not respect the victim of manipulation as a free human being. Extreme forms of manipulation are sometimes referred to as “brainwashing”. However, this term is not unconditionally accepted by all experts, because it tends at times to be employed tendentiously (brainwashing is something that is always committed by others) and it is also conceptually very vague (it can refer to almost anything). Manipulators often make use of an entire range of mechanisms and related techniques of exercising influence. These include:

Emotional blackmail: Deliberately evoking negative emotions in a person, usually accompanied by assurances that there is only one way to escape those feelings. It often involves a combination of emotions that generate a kind of tension, cannot be easily dispelled, and goad a given person into behaving in a certain way. Use is made of feelings like remorse, guilt, shame, disgrace, and fear.
You have no idea you much you hurt us all, brother, when you doubt our intentions.

Concealed threats: A threat expressed indirectly, so that it is impossible to formally reproach the source for making it.
Example 1:
I hope that you reconsider your position. Then everything will be all right between us again. That’s important, given that we’re the ones paying for your schooling.

(The direct form of the threat would be: Either you change your attitude or we will no longer pay for your schooling.)
Example 2:
Only the Lord’s faithful will survive the end of the world.

(The direct form of the threat would be: If you don’t join us, you won’t survive the end of the world.)

Double bind: Feedback is a form of communication (verbal or non-verbal) through which we make others aware of our momentary relationship to them or to some particular aspect of them (e.g. what kind of impression they make on us, what we think of them, what we would like from them, etc.). This kind of message can take the form of verbal communication, facial expressions, gestures, etc. In the case of the double bind, the other person is receiving two mutually contradictory messages, e.g. two contradictory demands. If they meet one demand, they cannot meet the other, and vice versa. One of the messages may moreover only be non-verbally communicated, leaving the victim of a double bind unable to defend themselves by noting the impossibility of meeting both demands. Double binds often occur in family environments. We may also encounter them in religious communities, especially authoritarian types of such communities. The double bind can never be fully accommodated, which adds to the disorientation of the manipulated person and their dependence on the person of the manipulator.
“What I would like is for you to acknowledge your mistake. But I don’t want you to do it because I’m telling you to. I want you to recognise it one your own.”

(If the addressee admits that they made a mistake, they are responding to the speaker’s appeal, so they cannot meet the second part of the demand, that they reach that conclusion on their own.)

Group pressure: Numerous experiments have shown that individuals are considerably influenced by groups when they are formulating their views and expressing their opinions. It is relatively difficult to express a view that is at odds with the vast majority of others within a given group. On the other hand, a non-conformist voice, if it can be heard, can shatter an existing group consensus. Some authoritarian religious groups use the influence of the group, for example, to recruit new members.

Isolation of members of a community: Usually this involves forbidding contact between a member of a certain community and people outside that community.
As atheists your parents do not have a good influence on you. In the interest of your faith you should refrain from seeing them.

Suggestion: As used, for example, in hypnotherapy, a suggestion is a proposition that tends to lead to its own fulfilment. A suggestion is not only intended to provide information about something or provide arguments for consideration; on the contrary, it is also intended to see the proposition fulfilled. A certain string of suggestions can lead to deep dissociation (a trance, one form of an altered state of consciousness). There are limits to the scope of influence of suggestion. It can be consciously rejected and ignored. It is not possible to hypnotise a person who is consciously opposed to it from the start. Suggestion can, however, be used outside hypnotherapy as a method of persuasion. In this case the manipulator inserts the suggestion into an ordinary conversation with the hope that the other person is influenced by it (Example 2).
Example 1:
“Your eyes are closing.” (This is not an instruction - “Please close your eyes” would admit space for the subject’s agreement or disagreement with the proposition, i.e. their conscious acceptance or rejection of it. Here, no such option is acknowledged.)
Example 2:
“In reality, in the depth of your heart you want to say I’m right. I can see it in your eyes.”

There is also subliminal suggestion. This can take the form of the inclusion of suggestive formulae uttered emphatically or slowly. While the waking conscious registers the sentence as a whole, the extra-conscious level of a person’s mental faculties may be influenced by the emphatic articulation of one part of the sentence.
Example 3:
“I’m not saying that y o u f i n a l l y s a y I ’ m r i g h t. You can decide for yourself whether y o u a g r e e w i t h m e.”

Relationship dependency: The relationship is structured in such a way that one of its members depends on the favour of the other. In some religious groups a newly admitted member is initially surrounded by fellowship, sympathy, warmth and understanding from others, or may be isolated from their former friends and relatives. In either case the individual cannot imagine life without their new friends. Later, if a person is disobedient, they may be threatened with being deprived of the favour and affection they received when they first joined the group.

Cognitive dissonance: Tension that emerges out of two opposing views or out of views and behaviour that are at odds with each other. This is a disagreeable kind of tension and it can be eliminated if a person harmonises their opinions, views, and behavioural patterns with those they were previously at odds with. The principle of cognitive dissonance is an important factor in the process of altering a person’s views, and it was used to indoctrinate prisoners of war. Religious propagandists often have a very good grasp of this mechanism. They look for discrepancies in the individual views of a person and draw attention to them, using logic in their argumentation. On the other hand, they ignore the fact that life is sometimes complex, ambivalent, and tragic, and it can give rise to illogical situations or seemingly illogical decisions.
A: Do you agree that there are too many wars in the world?
B: Yes.
A: So you agree that the world is not in good shape?
B: I didn’t say that…
A: But you just agreed that there are too many wars in the world. Would it not then be logical to admit that the world is dominated by evil forces?

Defence mechanisms: Mental processes of dealing with unpleasant or subjectively unacceptable signals, for example, by pushing them into the unconscious. Some well-known defence mechanisms are suppression, sublimation, psychological displacement, projection. Some of these mechanisms are invoked by the authority of ethically rigid (excessively strict, moralistic) religious groups. For example, they forbid their co-religionists profane, doubtful, or immoral thoughts and ideas (by cautioning, for example, against “sinful thoughts”). Given that this is an impossible task - it is impossible to forbid yourself from having certain thoughts or ideas - regular members have no other option than to lie or to use some sort of defence mechanism and, for example, suppress undesirable thoughts. In the long term this approach can lead to psychological disorders and a tendency to in a similar way dispel every doubt that they may then have about the group, its worldview, and its leaders.

  • Topic

Freedom and manipulation in the world of religion
Many newly-emerging religious movements, because of their distinctness, evoke doubts in others about how sincere or even how sound of mind the members of such movements are. Unusual forms of religious life arouse fears about hidden intentions, the manipulation of members, or extremism. However, a measure of the justification of these fears should not be how much a given religious movement differs from quantitative lifestyle norms (i.e. the lifestyle of the majority) or the distinctness of their world view. Conversely, the effort to prescribe a uniform lifestyle and uniform opinions is in itself totalitarian and unfree in character.
There are two factors in the Czech Republic that serve to reinforce fears about the possible dangers posed by religious groups. One of them is the boom in the number of new religious movements during the 1990s, when some groups took advantage of how insufficiently informed and prepared the population was for such a large number of spiritual options. In the period after 1989 the average Czech citizen was not very familiar with the names of different groups or their history in Western Europe. They did not know how to react to the different options before them, by comparing them with the opinions of other traditions and groups. They were also unaware of some key warning signals. The second factor is the strongly secular nature of Czech society and its traditional distrust of churches. This remoteness from everything religious was strengthened under communism, but its roots are older than that (which is why it is not witnessed, for example, in neighbouring Poland).
It is necessary to proceed cautiously when assessing individual groups and avoid jumping to conclusions. No clear list of dangerous groups can be drawn up. Religious manipulation can be observed even in large traditional churches that are recognised by the state and society. On the other hand, there are groups that immediately arouse attention in their surroundings and in the media, even if they do not abuse the trust of their members and supporters. All that can be done is to describe some warning signals, which must be judged in context. Important factor is the degree of individual freedom that a person is able to maintain in a given group, and the degree of openness the group shows towards people who think differently.

Warning signals – what to watch out for when contacted by an unknown religious group

Rapid and clear-cut answers to complicated questions in the fields of philosophy, politics, psychology, education, or religion, or even general questions in life (Where does evil in the world come from? What is the meaning of life? Why do war, illness, and criminality exist? Why do living things grow old and die?). Simple explanations for tragic, ambivalent, or paradoxical moments in life are a sign of schematic thinking and prior indoctrination.

Expressions of implacability, unusual harshness, emotional coolness, or cruelty (e.g. the claim that the majority of people are destined for damnation, that sexual fantasies are an unforgivable sin, that divine punishment awaits all those who oppose the correct teachings, etc.). Caution is justified if the movement shows an inability to express an understanding for a person’s weakness or for being different. Sympathy tends at times to be expressly suppressed by a system of dogma (e.g. in the claim that only members of the given religious group and a limited group of their supporters will survive the impending end of the world.).

Any kind of black-and-white vision of the world (i.e. a division of people, things, events into the categories of wholly good and wholly evil).

Uniform attitudes and opinions and even a uniform manner of expression. If the leadership of a particular religious community is strict and has authoritarian tendencies, the ordinary members of the group tend to express themselves in a uniform manner and as a rule never question official teachings or individual steps of the group as a whole. Sometimes they adapt their own manner of spoken expression to conform to an unwritten standard.

An interview conducted like an interrogation. Serious philosophical and personal questions are posed in quick succession, answers to them are pre-prepared, and there is an unwillingness to listen to or contemplate any counter-questions: these are part of the repertoire of tactics of the propagandists (“recruiters”) of some doctrinarian sects. If we are speaking with someone who never hesitates about anything, has an answer to everything, and asks questions faster than the average person can think about things, then something may not be in order.

Expressions of racism and other forms of xenophobia, especially if such intolerance finds support in the official teachings of the given group. Expressions of intolerance towards various minorities (not just ethnic!) and towards everything foreign can be considered xenophobic, especially if they are generalised (“all heathens”, “all atheists”, “all Arabs”). In a religious setting, xenophobia relatively often targets gays and lesbians, or people of other faiths.

An unwillingness or inability to acknowledge doubts about their own faith. Doubts are a natural part of any faith, relationship, or world view. Even great figures in religious history have been troubled by doubts about their own faith (well known are the doubts of Mother Theresa, St. Frances of Assisi, and Arjuna, the hero of the Bhagavad Gita). An unquestioning faith does not mean a strong faith, but a fanatical one.

Expressions of repressive thought (a tendency to solve different problems mainly by means of rules, bans, and norms, with penalties for deviating from these). In a religious setting repressive thought may manifest itself in the form of frequent talk about divine punishment, damnation or guilt. Another sign of this tendency is the presence of noticeably frequent statements about what “one must”, “one should”, or “one must not” do.

An inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the existence of different possible paths (e.g. multiple possible solutions to the same problem, a plurality of lifestyles, or multiple possible value rankings). Some religious communities see themselves as having “a patent on truth”. It could be said that they live in the only acceptable reality and recognise the only acceptable truth (about the world, life, or faith).

Invoking feelings of guilt and other forms of emotional blackmail. This is a popular tactic of religious manipulators, in both smaller religions and large traditional churches. The human conscience is an autonomous personal faculty and should remain so. It is of course possible to appeal to a person’s conscience. Any attempts to fundamentally induce feelings of responsibility, guilt, disgrace, or remorse should be viewed with considerable caution.

They subject their own children to an unusually strict upbringing. Religiously-motivated restrictions whose strictness exceeds the boundaries of child-raising practices, and which involve disproportionately harsh punishment for a failure to observe these restrictions, are very strong warning signals. Raising children by these methods can be very damaging to mental health and psychological development. It is especially hard for children in puberty and adolescence if they do not have as much freedom as their peers. How strict parents are (if it is a religiously-motivated strictness) can also say something about their religious life. Behind this may be, for example, the notion of a very cruel and intransigent God – a judge who pitilessly punishes even the smallest offences, even though in prayer that same God is praised for his mercy.

How to defend oneself – some rules for talking with indoctrinated followers of a religion

If possible, do not argue back. A person who looks at the world through an ideological formula gives little consideration to counter-arguments. They will listen to them, but they will offer an answer without thinking about them. Arguing with them is a sure way of being drawn into an unwanted debate. It is also good to bear in mind that the other person has a right to their beliefs, even if they seem completely absurd to us.

Betray as few emotions as possible – being privy to the emotions of another person opens up the possibility of manipulation. It is hard to manipulate someone who reveals little about how they feel at a particular moment and reacts with indifference. If you do not feel comfortable in the company of a certain person, do not open up to them more than is necessary.

Do not quarrel. It is pointless to try to persuade an indoctrinated person. A skilful manipulator will quickly recognise vehemence in a discussion and will take advantage of it for their own aims. A person engaged in a passionate argument does not pay as much attention to non-verbal signals, and has less time to consider the other person’s intentions. Their attention is preoccupied with the search for persuasive arguments, so it cannot focus on assessing the given situation.

Do not underestimate the other side. There is no shortage of cases where an educated and intelligent person has become the supporter of a movement they would once have ridiculed. Intelligence, education, and even principles offer no immunity to the influence of ideology.

Compare. The great success of some sects and new religious movements in the first half of the 1990s tends to be linked to the prior absence of spiritual topics (the absence of any religious literature, a general lack of information among the public, no knowledge of religious traditions, and a longing to learn something about an area long prohibited). Many people had nothing with which to compare the sudden influx of various religious communities after 1989. When confronted with a religious movement you know nothing about it is worth trying to find out how representatives of other traditions and world views give (e.g. Buddhism, Taoism, atheism, existentialism, philosophical pragmatism) respond to the same questions.

Conduct yourself appropriately. Formally appropriate conduct is difficult to attack. Any kind of aggressive or otherwise inappropriate behaviour can be used by an experienced manipulator to their advantage.

Do not explain yourself. However much the situation (or one’s upbringing) may tempt a person, there is no need to apologise for having a different opinion. It is also acceptable to refuse an invitation to another meeting or the offer of religious literature without any explanation. The “art of saying no” (which means, without unnecessary explanations) is one of the basic skills of assertive communication.

Do not limit your attention to just the formal content of the discussion. If the more active participant in the conversation poses emotional or difficult questions that arouse curiosity (What would it be like to live forever? What would the world be like without wars and illness? What is it like to get rid of all your bad habits and worries? What happens to loved ones after their death? Is there a God?) then the other person in the conversation is being led in a certain direction, by being drawn into experiencing these specific questions and through the development of an overall mood. What emotions, thoughts and ideas the other person has at a particular moment are being determined by someone else. However, even if the questions are interesting, a person does not have to allow themselves to be carried away by them. During the conversation it is possible to ask oneself questions, for example: Why is this person asking me about these things? How do I feel right now? Do I really want to talk about this, or am I just answering to be polite? What is this person getting at with their questions? What would my friends or acquaintances answer now? Why do I so (dis)like this person?

Use basic communication skills. Assertive communication methods and so-called counter-manipulation techniques were not developed for use in religion, but they are instructive in these situations. A number of serious publications have been published in Czech on this topic.

Note: Counter-manipulation involves using short, vague, relatively emotionless sentences that express neither conciliation nor aggression. The responses should be brief, in an appropriate tone (no aggressive or ironic comments), and general if possible. They can also take the form of counter-questions.


A: You’re refusing my invitation? Oh just come along! Are you afraid or something? B: You can think that if you want.

A: Every rational person has to admit that that’s the way it is. Only a fool would doubt it. B: Well that is your opinion.

A: You know, people today simply relish their atheism. But God sees even into the heart of the atheist and judges righteously. B: Aha, and why are you telling me this?

How to talk to friends, colleagues, relatives, or students who are members of a suspiciously acting religious organisation

Do no try to “save” the person, that is, persuade (or even force) them to abandon their faith. Such efforts tend to be counter-productive. Some radical religious societies see themselves as persecuted and detested by the world. Their members believe that the persecution and discrimination they suffer at the hands of their fellow citizens and public authorities is part of their lot as the chosen ones or the lot of all God’s faithful followers. They expect this ill feeling and understand it as “persecution for the sake of truth” or even as evidence of their commitment to God. It is also necessary to realise that the given person has the right to make their own mistakes in life and bear responsibility for them. They even have the right to follow an entirely absurd or fallacious faith. Our good intentions will do nothing to change that.

Listen. Let the person talk about what they want to talk about. It is good to show an interest in any topic. More trust can often be gained from sincerely listening to a person than from all kinds of psychological advice.

Do not place conditions on your friendship, such as the person’s quitting the group. If it is feared that the given person is a member of a true sect, then they will genuinely need our friendship (or, as the case may be, a strong and open relationship with a teacher or fellow student). Forcing them first to remove themselves from the reach of religious manipulation is not an effective form of help. It pays to show that you are prepared to talk about anything, to listen to any question, or eventually to offer advice or provide assistance. That willingness to talk should exist independently of any other external circumstances (e.g. membership in some group). It is an offer that can be expressed roughly in the following words: I’m here, I have an interest in you, if something’s bothering you, and if you ever want then just come to me and we’ll talk about it. I don’t share your views, but I respect your decision. Even if you decide to adhere to this decision for ever, I will still have an interest in you and I will be happy to give you advice if you ever want it. It is absolutely essential that the parents of a sect member have this attitude. A teacher can also be a great asset.

Express an understanding for the activities of the religious group if your own values allow you at all to do so. For example, there is no reason to condemn the practice of contributing to charitable causes or praying for people who are suffering just because the one performing these actions is a member of a more dubious group.

Acknowledge the relativity and faults of your own positions (lifestyle, views, organisations you belong to). When judging a less common religious movement or one that is hard to understand, it is good to bear in mind that even an average person takes part in futile activities, votes for political parties that later prove a disappointment, has unhealthy habits, has a consumerist outlook, and may be – even if they are not a member of any sect – unhappy in their lives. This critical self-detachment is the foundation for acquiring a sober understanding of the problem of all movements that are detached from ordinary life.

  • Stories and examples

Story 1
Like her parents, Petra belongs to the religious group of Jehovah’s Witnesses. She differs from her peers at school not just in terms of her different view of the world but in that she does not consider it proper to stand during the national anthem, to salute the flag, or to take part in elections. She even has some doubts about whether she should stand up when the teacher comes into the room. She believes that this kind of emphatic display of respect (standing and kneeling) should only be directed at God. However, she is shy and does not know how to assert herself. Her moral ideal is a quiet, modest, and loving person. She has already experienced numerous misunderstandings and conflicts as a result of her views. Her fellow students mockingly ask her when that “Armageddon” (end of the world) is finally coming. Her parents say that she must endure – the first Christians were also persecuted. Teachers do not usually understand her explanations. The worst thing is when she has to try to argue her position during class. That means she has to explain her views in front of her fellow students. However, her homeroom teacher is nice. Sometimes she gives her advice on how to avoid situations that are unpleasant and difficult to reconcile with her conscience (e.g. she can stand by her desk before the teacher enters the class), even though she does not share her faith.

Story 2
Nikol comes from a strict Christian background. Unlike her fellow students, there are many things she is not permitted to do. Her parents have high moral expectations of her. For example, she is not allowed to wear make-up, play video games, go to the cinema, wear very modern clothing, and sometimes even take part in school trips. Nikol sometimes becomes depressed. She believes that God is just, but strict – like her parents. When at home she hears about all the things that are evil and immoral (e.g. “sinful thoughts”, doubts about God, listening to alternative music, watching adventure or romantic films, etc.), she has the feeling that there must be something wrong or that she is a bad person. She then finds herself thinking bad thoughts. She suffers a great deal from a fear of eternal damnation. She feels that to doubt her parents is a terrible sin so she prefers not to confide in them. She only slightly hinted at something to her guidance counsellor. She asked her above all not to say anything to her parents, even though she suspects that ultimately she will not be able to avoid a conflict with them.

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