To most of us, cult conjures
up an evil religious group, often with a charismatic leader, engaged in
brainwashing and other mind control techniques. No doubt it believes that
the end of the world is imminent. And just for good measure it probably
collects large amounts of weaponry in preparation for an apocalyptic war.
In which case, of course, you would suppose that such groups were made
for the Internet, with its global reach and propensity for the weird and
wonderful. A quick search on the web reveals dozens of sites discussing
the term; however, most are anti organisations or individuals,
as by definition a cult probably does not call itself such.
Of course, one mans cult can also be anothers religion, so
it comes as no surprise that few of these sources actually agree what
a cult is despite the fact the subject is debated in
great length and often with strong emotions.
What seems to be an acceptable compromise among the sites and newsgroups
I visited is the term new religious movement (NRM). According
to the Ontario-based group Religious
Tolerance there are at least eight different definitions of the
word cult, generally with negative connotations and often
promoted by those in the anti-cult movement (itself often comprised of
ex-cult members), or the media.
Whether or not the Net really is the main medium by which NRMs approach
the world is also debatable. On his web
page Professor Jeffrey Hadden, who was one of the first to coin
the term tele-evangelist, says:
The Internet does provide an opportunity to immerse oneself
however deeply one may choose in the subcultural world of new religious
movements. One can delve into the products being created for the goal
of proselytising. Or one can log onto news groups that are mostly used
by believers to discuss the fine points of their faith. Or, one can participate
in heated debate about any number of groups. There are no small number
of web sites and news groups that are run by people whose primary objective
in life seems to be the destruction of some religious group.
But according to Professor Hadden, however exciting the experience
of virtual reality, the Internet will never be able to capture
the feeling of being in the midst of Holiness people handling poisonous
snakes, or the ecstasy of being slain in the spirit at a Pentecostal
meeting, or the awe and wonderment of watching the Reverend Sun Myung
Moon joining in marriage two thousand couples in a mass ceremony.
What you can find online, though, runs the whole possible gamut of extremes
and even humour. You can join Circlemakers,
an online community of funnily enough crop circle makers.
At the same time, I can point my browser at www.messiahcam.org
and take a look at the sealed East Gate of Jerusalem, waiting for the
Messiah to appear. Similarly Beastwatch
tells me of the Coming of the Beast. Should I want to stray from
the path I can look up Satanism at any number of sites (e.g. www.satanism.net)
or, on the other hand, join online prayers with the Jesus
Army. And just recently the Mormons announced the launch of a
new web site, called the FamilySearch
Internet Genealogy Service, holding links to 400 million names
of dead people; it is a religious duty of members to identify ancestors
some of whom can be baptised and in an eight
week test the site received over 200 million hits.
All this is set against an obsession with things millennial. According
to Daniel Wojcik, author of The End of the World As We Know It:
The approach of the new millennium has increased the number of people
who believe in a coming apocalypse. Various US opinion polls show
that between 20 and 40 percent of Americans believe Armageddon is imminent.
There is nothing in the Bible about the world ending in the year
2000, but these ideas have grown up as a sort of folk belief, says
Wojcik. But he adds that there is an interesting dichotomy here, in that
many millennialists blame technology and industrial progress, but push
their ideas through the Internet.
At the same time, other survey research has shown that 70 to 75 percent
of the US believes in extra-terrestrials and UFOs and numerous NRMs have
grown up surrounding this area (perhaps the best known being L. Ron Hubbards
Church of Scientology). There are now even anti-UFO cults,
according to Professor Irving Hexham, who runs an NRM discussion group
and web site (email@example.com; www.ucalgary.ca/~nurelweb),
based on cosmic theories that threaten their version of Christianity.
Brenda Brasher, of Mount Union College in the States, has studied the
growth of the Internet and its relation to NRMs, and in particular millennial
groups. She draws an analogy between the spread of such groups and the
growth of Christianity through ancient Rome. The roads that made
co-ordinating a far-flung empire possible facilitated the spread of millennial
enthusiasm. Today, thanks to the Internet, millennial groups disseminate
their teachings internationally on the world wide web.
Announcing ones end times belief on the web has become
a standard practice, she says, such that it is rare that a millennial
group does not use the Net to publish its beliefs. When members of the
group Concerned Christians were arrested in Israel last autumn
suspected of plotting violent acts to hasten the coming of
the Messiah one Israeli millennial specialist expressed shock
to discover the group did not have a web site. How can any self-respecting
millennialist group not be on the web?! he exclaimed.
Law enforcement agencies are also concerned about the use of the Net by
NRMs. When FBI agents met with millennial scholars at the 1998 AGM of
the American Academy of Religion, they repeatedly probed them on how millennialists
use the Internet. The academics confirmed the agents worst fears,
in that nearly every millennial group had an active web site and used
the Internet as a primary mode of communication. Cross-group fertilisation
via the web was a regular feature of cyberspace millennialism, says
One of the most shocking and well-documented examples of web use by an
NRM was the case of Heavens Gate. The Heavens Gate community
consisted of 39 well-educated individuals who committed suicide two years
ago, believing they were transporting themselves to a space craft tailing
the Hale-Bopp comet.
Dwelling communally in a small mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California,
the group supported itself designing web sites, through a company called
Higher Source. Formed by Marshall H. Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Trusdale
Nettles, the leaders travelled throughout the USA for years, gathering
followers, arguing that they had arrived on Earth via a space ship in
the 1970s and had incarnated into human bodies.
They taught students a bizarre mix of beliefs, founded on a diet of Bible-meets-Star
Trek philosophy. When Hale-Bopp appeared, the Heavens Gate community
interpreted it as a sign that their class was ready to graduate.
On their home page the words Red Alert flashed. The page
explained that Hale-Bopp was the marker for which they had been waiting.
Applewhite calling himself Do decided that a
laying down of their bodies was necessary. So it was that
the 39 members committed mass suicide on 25 March 1997, killing themselves
in a three-day ritual. They had no more than 100 members at their peak,
but the suicide ensured that the whole world soon knew of their existence.
There was even an online epitaph coined by one of their members, making
a poignant plea to the world to understand what they had done:
Now, all this talk of the Second Coming? Guess what? Its really
here! We are at the End of the Age, where it is our understanding that
all minds/souls are back for another chance to choose what path they wish
to pursue. And what I know from my Teachers is that the time has come
for this Next Level classroom to close, and for us to make the transition
from this world to Our Fathers World.
Not all NRMs using the Net attract such great controversy. A great many
of the Christian evangelical/charismatic movements use the web to attract
newcomers, or allow casual visitors to view inside the group. John Campbell,
webmaster for the Manchester-based Jesus
Army explains simply: Our aim on the Internet is to communicate
the unchanging Christian message in a modern manner. Im sure if
Jesus was around today hed use the Internet! The pages are aimed
at people who wouldnt normally think of going to church.
The site runs a message board that Campbell maintains attracts a lot of
good natured discussion, as well as a prayer request service called Can
We Help? According to Campbell: We started the site in May 1995,
originally to make sure there was a Christian presence on a medium where
it seemed likely to go by default. Ive tried to keep the pages reasonably
up to date with web technology like MP3 files, Real video, e-commerce,
java and so on and he insists that the group doesnt send out
Echoing claims made time and again about the Net, he says: The amazing
power of the web for communication means that I can develop genuine friendships
with people I have never met, and barriers of space and time can be overcome
in an unbelievable way.
Another NRM which has made extensive use of the Internet is the Church
of Scientology. On the Churchs
official site you can take a personality test online, for example
although you have to meet someone in person to receive and explain
the results and chat with over 13,000 Scientologists.
However, it is the battles between the Church and its detractors which
have become legendary on the Net. As one British opponent of Scientology
explained to me: The battle between Scientology and its opponents
has been absolutely transformed by the Net. Since 1995, the whole nature
of our activism has changed because individuals are much less isolated.
At one point the newsgroup alt.religion.scientology was more popular than
alt.supermodels, he jokes, and became the key battleground between the
two sides. As writer William Shaw, author of Spying In Guru Land
and Westsiders explains, the main reason that the Church of Scientology
has a large Internet presence is predominantly due to the high Net profile
of its opponents.
The Scientology presence on the Internet was largely a response
to the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup, and the posting of sacred
texts on the Net through ex-members. The CoS are very proficient at the
Internet now, but I believe that was only responding to certain well-known
individuals who created very successful anti-Scientology sites on the
web in the early 90s.
For example, one of the Churchs US lawyers tried to send a cancel
message to get news servers to drop the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup,
which not only failed, but also created an outcry among netizens. The
newsgroup was and is flooded with thousands of excerpts from a Scientology
text, in what became known as vertical spamming. Other critics
were sued if they tried to post any of the Churchs secret teachings
onto the web, and homes were raided in several prominent cases. The Church
also bought up the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) after it went bankrupt
in 1996; CANs website is now controlled by the Scientologists.
The British anti-Scientologist mentioned earlier talks of his understanding
of a cult being one that is very controlling of its members
access to information. When this mentality confronts the Internet frontier
mentality, which is one of extreme liberalism, then there will naturally
be a clash. We see this in Scientologys attempt to shut down or
flood the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup and in the massive reaction
of netizens against this (including) an international picketing campaign,
the springing up of hundreds of critical pages including a massive
anti-Scientology rebellion in Amsterdam which involved 119 individuals
creating web pages to host formerly secret Scientology teachings.
Much of the background to the war between Scientologists and their detractors
can be seen at Operation Clambake
run by Andreas Heldal-Lund in Norway. His site includes many examples,
too numerous to mention here. One of the latest incidents he highlights
was when Amazon.com dropped the book A Piece of Blue Sky, by Jon
Atack, which was critical of the group. There was a massive outcry from
netizens and free speech advocates, and Amazon promptly reversed its decision.
In fact, some of the most visible web presences are the anti
cultists. Sites such as the Cult
Information Centre, include definitions of a cult and descriptions
of mind control techniques. The American Family Foundation
is one of the main anti-cult groups in the US, and houses a huge and comprehensive
Over London Cults specifically targets the International Churches
of Christ in great detail, including testimonies of former members, audio
recordings of leaders and links to dozens of other groups. Another
site discusses the experience of survivors of Siddha
William Shaw underlines this point: Are new religious movements
using the Internet to disseminate their message? Im very dubious
about this. I think theyre remarkably quiet on the Internet, as
it goes. I dont think people who are seriously interested in winning
souls are that into it.
To Shaw, it is these anti-cult groups which need and utilise the Net most
effectively: People in cults dont need virtual
communities. Theyve got their own virtual communities in the cults
theyve joined. But people whove left cults are often desperate
to recreate the experience theyve left...however hostile they are
to the religion they were in. They joined cults because they wanted to
save the world from evil. They join anti-cult groups to do the same thing,
to recreate evangelising communities. The web provides the perfect opportunity
to do so.
Professor Hadden sums it up: The World Wide Web cant really
take one into the innersanctum of religious groups, or the hearts and
minds of those who believe. But without question, anyone who chooses can
get much closer to scores of religious movements than has ever before
been possible without actually encountering groups in the flesh. Its
a great show and a great learning laboratory.
This story first appeared in Internet Magazine© 1999. A separate story about holy wars in cyberspace appeared in The Guardian.
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