Not all personal and group expressions of religion or spirituality are harmful. A primary aim of the DialogCentre UK is to offer help to people harmed by what we call "extremist authoritarian sects" (hereafter EAS).
We prefer a term like this one for several reasons.
First, not all groups with a religious basis have the same tendency to be harmful.
Second, not all groups that prove to be harmful are religious in nature. Abusive groups may present themselves as oriented around political, therapeutic, self-help, business management, sales, educational, or scientific ideas, practices, and goals.
Third, the term "extremist authoritarian sects" focuses upon characteristics we find to be most common and most significant in groups which create relationships, structures, mechanisms or procedures that tend to harm their members and others.
Fourth, we wish to distinguish between groups which serve their members' search for spiritual or personal fulfilment, which we respect, and groups which exploit this spiritual or personal quest whether to gain control of members' assets or to gain sexual favours or to enslave members or in some other way exercise undue influence over members, which we oppose.
Terms like "cult" and "new religious movement" do not serve these four purposes adequately. The word "cult" often says as much about the attitude of the person using it says about the group to which it is applied. To members and some ex-members it can be emotive and offensive. For our purposes, "cult" makes little positive contribution to understanding and it can hinder communication.
On the other hand, "new religious movement" is a term better applied to a group prior to making any observations or forming any conclusions about the nature of the group being discussed. Even used this way it's only of limited value. The term lumps all groups together using words which are not universally accurate: "new" and "religious". Taken at face value, the term "new religious movement" confuses and conceals some important issues in modern spirituality.
The DialogCentre UK uses the term “extremist authoritarian sects” (EAS) to describe those groups which have been observed to have a detrimental effect on those they recruit or on those closest to them. This phrase focuses on the characteristics most significant in determining the likelihood of problems. These characteristics are three:
Although an extremist authoritarian sect derives its activities from its doctrines, the term "extremist authoritarian sects" focuses on how they treat their members as the key to recognizing abusive groups, and not on the beliefs themselves.
For some, the end result of these three characteristics, and of the techniques for producing them, can be a combination of harmful effects touching every area of the lives of members and ex-members, as well as their families and friends. It has been observed frequently that sometimes the harm done by these groups may last for months, even years, after someone emerges from an extremist authoritarian sect.