The Return of the “Curious Cult”

One of my (many) interests when it comes to the study of contemporary religion is how these new groups are perceived by wider society.  I’ve just recently taught my first class on changes in attitudes to what are now generally called ‘New Religious Movements’ (NRMs) in Academia, or Cults in the wider popular vernacular. The transition from the sociological term cult to the  academic neutrality expressed by NRM is quite an interesting case of a community (religious studies scholars) being reflexive about their assumptions and presumptions. My teaching paper is here if you are interested.

charles-barsotti-we-re-a-pack-not-a-cult-new-yorker-cartoon                                                                                  “We’re a pack, not a cult”

However in the conference paper I presented at BASR in September I also argued that there is still an underlying rhetoric of narcissism when it comes to discussions about NRMs, both within and outside of academia. The case I drew on primarily is that of the Jedi and the UK Census, and in particular I noted how responses in the media where often of the “and finally” kind – humorous final comments about the decline of the Jedi between the two censuses (2001 and 2011) and jokes about Yoda giving the Thought for the Day on Radio 4 (these examples are also in my teaching paper above). The transition from moral panics to moral parodies is fascinating… and gives me the chance to riff off on The Simpsons, South Park and Memes.

So I was very interested to hear an interview on Radio 4 on Tuesday morning in which the ‘curious cults’ were mentioned again, resurrecting the moral panic view of NRMs.  This was with reference to the horrifying story of the three women kept as slaves in a house in Lambeth, London by a older couple. Now, in discussing the terminology used in this interview and other newspapers reports I don’t want to lessen or detract from their terrible experiences, and I hope that justice will be swift for them and that they can form new lives away from their captors.

But what interested me was the interview that John Humphries did with Professor Steve Rayner and how it expresses some current views of NRMs and that the line between moral panics and moral parodies is not a one way street.

Professor Rayner is better known now for his work on climate change as the James Martin Professor of Science and Civilization at Oxford. But when he did his PhD thesis in the late 1970s he focused on political anthropology and wrote on extreme left wing or Marxist groups, including one in Brixton that the couple belonged to. I can link to the interview, but it is only available for the next 5 days, so I will summarise the points that interested me.

John Humphries starts his introduction to the interview by referring to the left wing groups as a “curious cult” based at the Mao Zedong Memorial Centre in Brixton in the 1970s.  This group, the ‘Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought’, is then described by Professor Rayner as a sect in which the members were under the spell of their leader, insulated from outside influences, hostile to the state, and mostly made up of foreign students who had had a difficult time adjusting to their new roles in the UK.  He also notes that they were one of 90 far left organizations at the time. And that he identified the groups as a millennarian sect in his thesis, millenarianism being a “traditional religous phenomena”, in his words in the interview.  Their brand of millennarianism involved the belief that very soon (in the late 1970s) the Chinese People’s Liberation Army would invade, effecting a revolution leading to a new world order. When this did not ‘apparently’ occur, they revised their beliefs, saying that the Chinese HAD achieved their goals and that society was now being controlled by eight Chinese computer satellites. Professor Rayner then states that this gives some sense of the far-outness of the kind of belief system they were maintaining.

In terms of the risk that this group presented in the 1970s (and rightly John Humphries points out that Prof. Rayner cant say anything about the couple now and the crime currently under investigation) Prof. Rayner characterises them as mostly harmless producers of bellicose propoganda or,”all talk and no trousers”. When John Humphries asks if this (the enslavement of the women) might be something he would expect to happen in this group, Professor Rayner talks again about Sects and Cults (lumping them together), defining them as having a flat internal organisation with a single powerful leader, who has an extreme grip on the membership.  He also explains that people join to gain social acceptance and then live under the threat of expulsion.  This then, he argues, creates a situation where the membership is beholden to the leader who they cannot criticise.

Finally, John Humphries asks whether such groups will always exist, and whether people will always be driven to join them. Prof. Rayner doesnt directly answer the question but re-iterates that such groups are often mostly harmless and that there is a minority of cases in which these kinds of things occur.

There’s quite a bit to unpick in this interview, and from the press coverage generally.

I’ve put in bold some of the terms being used in the interview, and we can see how easily the two men are moving between them. Starting with cult, a term with a strongly negative connotation now, the parallel is drawn between this far left group and a religion. Certainly, many have commented on the cult of personality surrounding some Communist leaders and political thinkers. But this was a Far Left group, not a religious group. Prof. Rayner also uses the term Sect, which in the sociological typologies more often describes a schism from a more mainstream religion.  Though, in France, the term Sect is more often used than Cult and refers to abusive religious groups, such as in the Guyard Commission’s Les sectes en France. Rapport fait au nom de la commission d’enquête sur les sectes, a blacklist of NRMs written in the late 1990s.

Prof Rayner’s account in the interview of the group he encountered in the 1970s reads like a stereotypical account of what a cult was thought to be then: a charismatic leader with enthralled followers who cannot criticize the leadership for fear of expulsion. The press has also described the Mao Zedong Memorial Ccentre in Brixton as a ‘library-come commune’ (The Guardian, 26.11.2013).  In his PhD thesis Prof. Rayner explains that: “the challenge I seek to take up is to devise a single typology for the study of sectarian behaviour in both secular and religious contexts.”

My problem with typologies is that they tend to have an essentialist approach, they attempt to fit the variety of human organization and experience into neat boxes –  a point that Prof. Rayner made in his PhD thesis with regards to sociological categories for religious groups.  And this is of course one argument against the use of the term NRM as we have different meanings for ‘New’ ‘ Religious’ and ‘Movement’.  But in this case I wonder whether the comparison with a religious group is that helpful for the consideration of the current crime. Until we have testimony from the women we wont know whether the methods used were couched in religious terms, or whether the political narratives were treated religiously or not.

Prof. Rayner’s reference to his characterization of the group as a millenarian sect is also interesting.  He calls millenarianism a traditional religious phenomena, and to a certain extent he is correct.  Eschatological claims based on a particular understanding of the shape of time and its finitude is indeed a recurring trope within religious traditions.  But it is more commonly attributed to fringe groups whose ecstatic behaviour and hurried completion of their mundane tasks and lives prior to the ‘End of Days’ is more readily apparent. In  the case of the Workers Institute, it sounds as if they made a much more ordinary prediction, not actually that disimiliar to those made by many political parties – the good times they are coming… rather than the end times.  Admitedly their good times were reliant on an outside force invading, and their belief in a more hidden revolution in the form of Chinese Super Computer Satellites parallels the shift in Harold Camping’s more religious pronouncements about Jesus’ return from a physical event, to a spiritual Rapture.  Prof Rayner in his thesis says: “I prefer to reserve the term millenarian to describe movements which organise their activity around the belief that the world will be turned upside down by the imminent intervention of an external agency which will exalt the weak and humble the powerful”. I would be very interested to read accounts of the Workers’ Institute prepping for their good times.

This almost deification of the Chinese is particularly interesting for my own research into the Indigo Children, as accounts of supporting scientific discoveries often come from the other side of a long gone but still effective ‘Iron Curtain’: Russia and China are described as delving into psychical research with children.  They are made the exotic forerunners of the blinkered West.

Returning to this story and its reporting.  Some of the Press accounts have described what they see as the  group’s ‘cult-like’ attributes, including the charismatic leadership  mentioned by Prof. Rayner, but also ‘brainwashing’. In particular the Daily Mail had a large front page headline with the word brainwashing in it:


As I mention in my teaching paper above, amongst religious studies scholars the technique of brainwashing as a means of ensuring conversion has been widely debunked.  Eileen Barker’s influential book, The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing? (1984), started with the question, ‘Why does someone become a Moonie’ (member of the Unification Church led by Rev. Sun Myung Moon) which as she investigated the claims of brainwashing became ‘How could someone NOT become a Moonie’.  If brainwashing was occurring, or even existed, then surely anyone who came into contact with the group would join, but recruitment was not actually all that successful: fewer than 25% of people who had visited Moonie groups joined. Brainwashing is a part of anri-Communist rhetoric emerging out the Korean War: After the Korean War ended in 1953 a few American servicemen recounted the techniques of Chinese ‘thought reform’ that they had been subjected to.  “Brainwashing”, a mis-translation of the Chinese term meaning “to cleanse thoughts” (ie to correct incorrect political philosophy) appeared in Edward Hunter’s 1953 book, “Brainwashing in Red China: The Calculated Destruction of Men’s Minds” and Joost Meerloo’s “The Rape of the Mind” (1956).  In fact, back in 1978 Scheflin and Opton had examined the origins of brainwashing in The Mind Manipulators, and found that out of 3,500 servicemen captured during the Korean War only about 50 made pro-Communist or anti-American statements and only 25 prisoners of war refused repatriation.

It is particularly interesting that the Daily Mail uses the term, as in 1978 The Daily Mail published a story about the Unification Church’s use of “brainwashing” methods titled “They took away my son and raped his mind”. When the church sued for libel, the paper relied upon testimony from clinical psychologist Dr Margaret Singer, author of “Cults In Our Midst”, who explained that brainwashing was an established term and technique.  The Church lost, but I wonder if the term brainwashing would be used so freely if they were again describing a large movement and not the evil machinations of two individuals whose motivations and current allegiances are unknown.

I’m going to continue to follow this story and see whether the language used about the crime changes at all if/when the facts really emerge and the broad summaries of a far left group drawn from research done in the 1970s are replaced by details of the motivations of the couple.