Extremist Authoritarian Sects: what are they?

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:

  1. Extremism, the tendency to reduce all situations to simple black-and-white value judgements that reinforce the “rightness” of the group’s leader and the “wrongness” of dissent. As a part of this process, the sect often presents its teaching in a context which suggests that uncertainty = unbelief, and unbelief = sin. This has the effect of stifling questions and analytical thought, driving members towards unconditional and unreasoning commitment. It also can produce intolerance of others, especially outsiders. Even innocent observations or questions by family and friends are made to seem adversarial and insidious.
  2. Authoritarianism, the tendency by members to depend solely upon the leader(s) for the data by which decisions are made, convictions are arrived at. Initially this attitude may be encouraged subtly by holding up as examples those who never question the leader(s), but in a number of groups authoritarianism is enforced openly by specific condemnations of ‘independent thinking’, ‘Individualism’, and similar expressions. Hand in hand with this is the frequent practice of certain groups to withhold information which new recruits need in order to decide intelligently about the nature and extent of their involvement in the group. It is not unusual to find the leaders of abusive groups attempt to restrict members’ access to outside information, sometimes even by practising censorship.
  3. Sectarianism, the tendency of the leadership to exercise its considerable authority to isolate members from a wide variety of people whom that leadership may stigmatize with dismissive terms meant to provoke strong emotions of unthinking hostility, anger and rejection. Often, this negative language about critics will include immediate family and friends unless they are sympathetic to the sect. At the same time, the leadership of an abusive sect will use exalted language about the group, in order to create strong emotions of unthinking warmth, belonging, aspiration and acceptance. Being regarded by the leaders as worthy of these positive terms becomes for the members both a goal to achieve and a reward for their compliance.

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.