The "Cult" Myth versus the Actual Statistics
of New Religious Movements

number of new religious movements (NRMs) worldwide:
somewhere in the lower tens of thousands [Barker, 1999]

number of new religious movements that are used as the basis of the pervasive "doomsday cult" myth:
around 10

In other words,as distinct from the general public perception (forged mainly by the mass media, anti-cult movements, and apostates), dreadful tragedies are by far the exception rather than the rule.

Actual "doomsday" groups. Here are the handful of groups that actually fit the myth:

  • Aum Shinrikyo Founded by Shoko Asahara in 1986. The movement draws on a number of eastern traditions. In 1995, 12 people died and thousands were injured in a sarin gas attack perpetrated by members of Aum Shinrikyo in the Tokyo subway system.

  • Branch Davidians The Branch Davidian movement is an offshoot of Seventh-day Adventism. In 1993, a U.S. government raid on the Branch Davidians' compound at Mount Carmel near Waco, Texas led to a standoff and fire in which about 75 people including the group's leader, David Koresh, died. It is still unclear whether or to what extent the deaths in the fire were suicides.

  • The Family (Charles Manson) Group members believed that Manson was a reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Group members were responsible for murdering at least 8 people (including the actress, Sharon Tate), based on Manson's belief that these murders would trigger the Apocalypse.

  • Heaven's Gate A group organized around beliefs about UFOs. In 1997, 39 members committed suicide in San Diego, California. It is thought that members of the movement believed that a spacecraft positioned behind the Comet Hale-Bopp would take them to the next level of existence.

  • Jeffrey Lundgren Leader of a small Christian group of about 2 dozen members that broke away from the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS). Members prepared for an expected war in which they would attack the RLDS Temple in Kirtland. One family, the Averys, opposed some of Lundgren's rulings, and were executed and buried on the group's ranch. Lundgren was sentenced to death for his crimes; his wife and son received long prison sentences.

  • People's Temple Founded by Jim Jones in the United States in 1955. A movement combining elements of Pentecostalism, socialism and communism. In 1978, 914 members of The People's Temple died in Jonestown, Guyana.

  • Solar Temple A movement based around a variety of teachings, including Templarism and Rosicrucianism. Between 1994 and 1997, 74 members of the Order died in separate incidents of suicide and/or murder in Canada, France, and Switzerland.

  • Ugandan Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments Founded as a breakaway from the Roman Catholic Church in the late 1980's. In 2000, around 300 followers died in a fire in what was either a mass suicide or a murder carried out by the group's leaders. Mass graves were discovered after the fire, raising the death toll to more than 1,000.

Here are some statistics concerning mainstream religions that are not often placed side by side with the above statistics regarding new religious movements. The numbers associated with the new "doomsday" religious movements pale in comparison. We point out these numbers not to justify the actions of those movements which are inexcusable and criminal but to give the fuller picture of inexcusable and criminal actions performed in the name of religion, which necessarily includes mainstream religion.
  • Number of its own members killed by the Catholic Church during the Inquisition: The best historical estimates place the figure somewhere between 30,000 and 300,000.

  • Number of non-Catholics murdered by Catholics on the basis of their belief system: millions

    Just consider that the number of Muslims killed during the Crusades was approximately 4 million [
    Robertson]. The killing isn't just restricted to ancient history, by the way. The number continues to rise with the killing of Protestants by Catholics in Northern Ireland (the killing of Catholics by Protestants is taking place as well, of course).

    Since much of this killing occurred prior to the Protestant Reformation, it is a record that is part of the history of all contemporary Christian sects, and not just Roman Catholicism.

Apart from this most extreme "doomsday" form of the "cult" myth, many lesser concerns and fears of "cults" tend to be thrown into the "cult myth", which are equally unwarranted by the actual facts. Here are five major ones. (The statistics for the first three are courtesy of INFORM, the Information Network Focus on Religious Movements.)

FEAR #1: Once someone gets involved with a new religious movement, they'll never be able to leave.

  • FACT: A study of 104 participants in Unification Church ("Moonie") workshops showed that 71 dropped out within two days, another 29 dropped out between two and nine days and an additional 17 dropped out after nine days. Only nine workshop participants actually stayed over 21 days to join the Unification Church.
    Galanter, 1989]

  • FACT: Out of a sample of over 1000 participants who agreed to go to a Unification Church workshop, 90% did not join and the majority of those who did join had left within two years.
    Barker, 1984]

FEAR #2: Even if they are able to leave, they'll never be normal again.

  • FACT: A survey of 45 people who voluntarily left new religions showed that by far the majority felt wiser for the experience rather than feeling angry or duped.
    Wright, 1987]

  • FACT: A study of former members of the Shiloh Community, a fundamentalist Jesus community, indicated that the former members experienced no ill effects of past membership, had integrated well on return to the larger community, and did not differ from the general population on a symptom checklist.
    Taslimi, 1991]

FEAR #3: They must be crazy to stay in a group like that.

  • FACT: Systematic studies of members of new and/or alternative and spiritual religious groups find that most are psychologically healthy.

  • FACT: Researcher Marc Galanter used the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) to conduct the first systematic psychological studies on members of a new religion (the Unification Church). Galanter found no evidence for a greater incidence of pathological profiles among members than among the general population.
    Galanter, 1989b]

  • FACT: Residents of Rajneeshpuram (a township, now defunct, built by followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, latterly known as Osho) were found to have a high level of mental health. Research indicated that Rajneesh's followers had very positive self-concepts, and, compared with the wider society, lower feelings of personal distress and anxiety and greater feelings of personal autonomy and independence of thought.
    Latkin, 1990]

FEAR #4: The group might brainwash me or use "mind control".

  • FACT: At this point, the "brainwashing" theory (which, from its beginning, was very flimsily based on one study of American prisoners of war being subjected to various procedures by the Chinese Communists during the Korean War) has been thoroughly debunked. The only "brainwashing" or "mind control" used by new religious movements is the same one being used on you all the time via everything from a dishwashing liquid ad to a "Be all that you can be!" ad for the U.S. Army.

    Actually, it's all quite simple. Like many dramatic terms, "brainwashing" is a metaphor. A person can no more wash another's brain with coercion or conversation than he can make him bleed with a cutting remark. If there is no such thing as brainwashing, what does this metaphor stand for? It stands for one of the most universal human experiences and events, namely for one person influencing another.

    Thomas Szasz, quoted in Trudy Solomon, "Programming and Deprogramming the Moonies: Social Psychology Applied,"
    in David G. Bromley and James T. Richardson (eds.),
    Brainwashing Deprogramming Controversy, p. 167

    For more details, read:

FEAR #5: Any group that places unusual or difficult requirements on me money, restrictions on my use of time, who I relate to, etc. can't possibly be good.


Galanter, M. (1989) Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 140-43.

Barker, E. (1984) The Making of a Moonie, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, p. 147.

Wright, S.A. (1987) Leaving cults: The Dynamics of Defection (Monograph No. 7) Washington DC: Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, p. 87.

Taslimi, C.R., R.W. Hood and P.J. Watson (1991) 'Assessment of Former Members of Shiloh: The Adjective Check List 17 Years Later', Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 30, pp. 306-11.

Galanter, M. (1989) Cults and New Religious Movements: A Report of the Committee on Psychiatry and Religion of the American Psychiatric Association, Washington, DC: The American Psychiatric Association.

Latkin, C.A., R. Hagan, R. Littman and N. Sundberg (1990) 'Who Lives in Utopia?' A Brief Research Report on the Rajneeshee Project', Sociological Analysis, 48, 1987 73-81 and C.A. Latkin 'The Self-Concept of Rajneeshpuram Members', Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 29, pp. 91-98.

Robertson, History of Christianity, p. 168.

Barker, E. (1999), "NRMs: Their Incidence and Significance" in Bryan Wilson and Jamie Cresswell (editors), New Religious Movements: Challenge and Response, Routledge Press, p. 16.




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