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Special Report

Small 'cottage cults' drawing more converts in United States

Often-vulnerable disciples in spiritual groups can be subject to abuse by charismatic leaders

Monday, July 16, 2001

By Richard Read of The Oregonian staff

Small "cottage cults" are quietly proliferating in the United States, experts say, despite the general impression that cult activity is declining. Today, thousands of relatively small spiritual groups flourish in the United States, researchers say.

In the grip of the guru

Swami Chetanananda has attracted educated people as followers, but dozens of ex-disciples accuse the guru of financial, sexual and spiritual abuse

More than 200 cultic groups existed in Oregon and Southwest Washington as recently as four years ago, according to the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon's Cult Resource Center. Kent Burtner, who directed the center, which has disbanded due to lack of funding, says he has encountered new small groups since then.

Tighter, more focused organizations attract people who are vulnerable due to trauma such as divorce, depression or loss of a parent, the researchers say. Such people are subject to more tailored recruiting, and make dedicated converts who are easier to control, they say.

"We have good data to suggest that several million Americans have had involvement with cultic groups," says Michael Langone, executive director of the American Family Foundation.

Langone describes his Florida-based foundation as an organization that studies such groups and helps victims. Swami Chetanananda, a Portland guru, calls the foundation an anti-religious, radical-fringe organization.

Sociologists, therapists, deprogrammers and professors of religion debate the meaning of the word cult. The topic remains so contentious that some authorities won't publicly discuss specific groups for fear of getting sued.

At one end of the academic spectrum, Rutgers University sociologist Ben Zablocki considers the word "cult" to be a neutral term meaning any group that follows the religion of a living, charismatic leader.

But at the other extreme, academics including Margaret Singer, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, view cults as nothing more than extended con games.

"There are more and more small cults popping up," Singer says, "run by venal people who would otherwise be street hustlers running 'pigeon drops' and bilking the elderly."

Langone, who also edits Cultic Studies Journal, defines a cult as a highly manipulative, exploitative group. Arnold Markowitz, who directs the Cult Hotline and Clinic of the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services in New York, says that a group constitutes a destructive cult when it also has a self-appointed, charismatic leader who controls the daily lives of members.

"These characteristics are geared toward taking advantage of, or abusing, people sexually or financially or for emotional or personal aggrandizement of the leader or leadership," Markowitz says.

Without speaking of any specific group, a broad cross-section of experts agrees with Rutgers University's Zablocki, who condemns sexual abuse by cults' spiritual leaders, whose power over disciples often far exceeds that of employers, doctors or teachers.

"A guru seducing one of his followers doesn't seem to be any different than a professor seducing one of his students," says Zablocki, who has studied religious movements for 36 years, and who describes sexual abuse as "rampant."

But, he adds: "While in universities you would lose your job for doing something like that, in cults there's no regulation except whatever the guru decides."

Experts say smaller cottage cults appear to be superseding the large coercive groups that reached a zenith, in the popular mind at least, during the 1960s and 70s. In 1978, Jim Jones led a mass suicide of more than 900 adults and children at Jonestown, Guyana, where his Christian-oriented disciples drank cyanide-laced fruit-flavored juice.

More recently, smaller apocalyptic groups have made headlines, including the Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh. He died with 75 followers in a 1993 standoff with the FBI near Waco, Texas. In 1997, 38 members of Heaven's Gate killed themselves with their leader, Marshall Applewhite, because they believed a spaceship traveling behind comet Hale-Bopp would deliver them to their next life.

The vast majority of smaller cults display no such doomsday tendencies, experts say. The organizations' philosophies range widely and include Eastern-oriented groups that adopt the trappings of religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, using chants, meditation, rituals and ceremonies harking back to Asia.

Yet researchers say the practices of such groups in the United States may stray far from their original monastic traditions.

Eastern spiritual leaders in the United States possess a mystique that can appeal to people who feel unfulfilled, says Martin E. Marty, emeritus professor of American religious history at the University of Chicago. Robert Thurman, a Columbia University professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies, says Eastern religions themselves aren't more likely than others to give rise to abuses.

"It's very unfair to blame Hinduism in particular," says Thurman, noting abuses reported as well in Christian groups. American swamis who have sex with disciples are abusing cultural norms of India, where such conduct would lead to disgrace, he says.

Thurman says that a person who undergoes a sannyas vow to become a swami is understood to have renounced all worldly desires including wealth, status and sex. The word "swami" originally meant "master," and is now a Hindu title meaning guru, or teacher.

Thurman says that in kundalini yoga, sexual energy is supposed to be aroused and travel up to the brain instead of being expressed in normal sexuality. "So someone who indulges in normal sexuality would be unable to practice that type of yoga effectively."

One interpretation of another Eastern tradition allows gurus to marry, have families and celebrate life instead of withdrawing from it. This tradition -- Kaulism, which is a branch of the Shaivite faith -- is considered heretical by some Shaivists and not by others, says Alexis Sanderson, a professor of Eastern religions and ethics at Oxford University in England.

Sanderson says that while some Kaulas in India enjoy imagining that sex can activate divine energy, those caught actually taking what some call the left-hand path often get reprimanded.

The Dalai Lama, the high lama of Tibetan Buddhism, advises potential converts to check a guru's qualifications carefully and to view a teacher as a spiritual brother or sister.

"The best thing is," the Dalai Lama said in an interview last February, "whenever exploitation, sexual abuse or money abuse happen, make them public."

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