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Deprogramming and cult control

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Western society has never gladly suffered those who deviate from its norms. So when groups such as the Unification Church (“Moonies”), the Church of Scientology, and the Hare Krishnas spring up, it is no surprise that concern is voiced by the public. And when an event such as the Jonestown tragedy occurs, that concern becomes very audible indeed. Thus we find with increasing frequency organizations which view mind development groups and new religions with suspicion.

Some of these organizations only advocate that the groups in question be investigated. Others are more hostile, and their suggestions range from advocating that the groups be regulated to that they be prohibited. Still other organizations such as COMA (Council On Mind Abuse) and PEAC (Positive Education Against Cults) are concerned to alert the public to, and educate them about, what they regard as a growing menace to freedom of thought.

Adherents of the offending groups often reply, suggesting that it is not they but their critics who should he investigated, posing as they do a threat to freedom of religion and belief. And they frequently go on to suggest that, far from it being appropriate to regulate or even monitor their activities in any way, it would be desirable to have legislation protecting them. There should be explicit recognition of the right to believe, practice and preach what one wishes without fear of discrimination or any other sort of social control, and there should be specific legislation prohibiting the practice of deprogramming.

In the light of these proposals and counterproposals, what, if anything, should society do?

The proposals for extra protection can be quickly dismissed. Given that the Canadian Bill of Rightsguarantees freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in clear and unequivocal language, there is no need for any further protection. Whatever specific rights the groups in question want, they already have guaranteed them by more general rights. A similar thing can be said for proposed legislation prohibiting deprogramming. Since laws should not be multiplied beyond necessity. an advocate of such legislation must be able to show that existing legislation, fully enforced, is insufficient to control the evils which attend deprogramming. But it is hard to see what that legislation could justifiably exclude that laws against kidnapping, assault and child abuse do not already exclude.

There is more life in the debate over whether the groups in question should be controlled in any way. In any free society worthy of the name, individuals or groups of individuals have the right to make experiments in living and to urge others to do so too. But this right, we must remember, is a conditional one. If the experiments advocated, or the methods of advocating them, cause harm to others, the matter takes on a different complexion and society may take a legitimate interest in those activities. It is thus impossible to say whether social control should be exercised on the groups in question without knowing whether any harm is done others, and if so, the nature and extent of it. But it is possible to lay down some principles which should guide us in the handling of the facts, whatever they may turn out to be.

The principles in question are those of liberalism, and they have been codified in the Report of the Canadian Committee on Corrections. The first principle is:

No act should be criminally proscribed unless its incidence, actual or potential, is substantially damaging to society.

It is best to construe this as including damage to individuals as well as to society at large. And it is to be insisted that the kind of injury that is done others must satisfy three conditions:

  1. It must be substantial. It is, no doubt difficult to distinguish between substantial and trivial harms. But, equally, there can be no doubt that there is such a distinction. and that social control should not be exercised on the latter.
  2. It must be fairly frequent. No one wants to say that exercise programs or cosmetic plastic surgery should be prohibited because disastrous results occasionally ensue. Similarly, the occasional case of injury to others—even substantial injury—from practices of the groups in question does not warrant social control.
  3. It must be clearly causally attributable to the practices in question. One cannot rightly use the fact—if it is one—that psychological problems are statistically frequent in group members as proof that they ware caused by practices of the group.

There remains the possibility that those who are attracted to the groups are already troubled—not an unreasonable hypothesis, given the aims of the groups; mind development and spiritual peace—and that the problems would have emerged in any case. To say that the practices caused the problems, one has to have reasonable grounds for saying that if it were not for the practices, the problems would not have occurred.

Demonstrating that this sort of harm is done, however, does not immediately entitle society to criminalize any activities. There is a second principle to be taken into account:

No act should be criminally prohibited where its incidence may be adequately controlled by social forces other than the criminal processes. Public opinion may be enough to curtail certain kinds of behaviour. other kinds may be more appropriately dealt with by non-criminal legal processes, e.g., by legislation relating to mental health or social and economic condition.

If we can control the harm by informal measures, that is always preferable, for we do not thereby deprive those who benefit from the practices from continuing to do so in order to protect others who could be protected in some other way. So before cranking up the machinery of the law, the efficacy of education, suitable warnings, etc. ought to be examined. Perhaps, too, if the attraction of the groups is traceable to some special needs in individuals, society could undertake to consider whether it is at fault for creating, or not satisfying those needs; and if it is, to try to correct the problem at that level. It may turn out that these methods of controlling injury to others, as well as being more humane, may also be at least as efficacious, and cost no more, than more formal measures, the efficacy of which we cannot simply take for granted. Even when financial and other social costs in the form of erosion of civil liberties have not stoned In the way, legal prohibitions have not always proven effective. The cases of Christianity, alcohol, and drugs come to mind.

But even if it can be shown that there are activities which it would be desirable to control, and that informal methods cannot control them, it still will not follow that formal methods of prohibition ought to be resorted to. For the control may bring about greater evils than it prevents, and, as the third principle of the Canadian Committee on Corrections puts it:

No law should give rise to social or personal damage greater than that it was designed to prevent.

We must ask if the formal control will be worth it in terms of financial resources and manpower; if it can be exercised without widening rights of search and other police powers to unwarranted limits; if by exercising it there will not be a general detrimental effect on the way in which individuals and society view religious freedom of association, and freedom of speech. We must also ask if, by enacting such measures, we are not inviting persecution or discrimination. A law which is not, in itself, discrirninatory may be selectively applied. This is one of the complaints the U.S. Supreme Court made to capital punishment: crimes committed being equal, more blacks were executed than whites, more poor than rich. There is a similar opportunity for selective oppression here: groups with lifestyles which deviate from the customary may find obstacles in their path while others, having lifestyles no less injurious. but much less deviant, may be unopposed. Because this is more than a bare possibility, the provisions which make it possible should be enacted only as a last resort.

It is the view of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association that an impartial inquiry will not turn up facts which will justify legislation on the above principles and this view receives some confirmation from the Study of Mind Development Groups, Sects and Cults in Ontario. But it is the principles alone that are to be insisted on here, and they show that a fairly heavy burden of proof lies on the advocates of control. Certainly the question cannot rightly be settled by public clamour, however loud and persistent, that “something must be done”.